What is the Best Focal Length for Bird and Wildlife Photography?

 
The question seems easy enough – bigger is better! That said, the Canon 1200mm f/5.6 has got to be the best, right? Well, it is if you can afford $110,000 and have a gun bearer to carry all 36 pounds of this behemoth.  The question, “what is the best focal length for bird photography” is actually very subjective.

Years’ ago when I became a serious photographer, the fastest-longest lens I could afford was a used Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L (speed & length are both important). That purchase was closely followed by both the 1.4X and 2.0X teleconverters making the 300mm a 420mm, f/4 or a 600mm f/5.6, respectively. The teaming of teleconverters with the 300mm worked very well, and I was able to get some really nice shots, including the elusive Elegant Trogon. The system was lightweight and easy to handle. That said, the 300mm with teleconverters is not my choice for bird photography, but it was what I could afford at the time. 

I don’t want anyone who reads this to believe my opinion is the only correct opinion. Everyone has different requirements and needs, making the correct answer very subjective indeed. I have a client who is confined to a wheel chair and has limited mobility in his arms. To tell him he has to use a 600mm f/4L Lens weighing 12lbs would be ridiculous. With all that said, what I recommend for bird photography is the fastest-longest lens you can afford and handle and that will maximize the features of your camera. My camera will allow me to use a 600mm f/4L lens and still autofocus with both the 1.4X teleconverter at f/5.6 and the 2.0X teleconverter at f/8. Remember some cameras can’t auto focus a lens at f/8. The photos below were taken with different cameras, different lenses, and different settings. So as you see, there isn’t only one way, lens or settings.

Here are some suggestions you can consider in picking lenses for bird photography:

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L

very fast lens

lightweight easy to handle, 5.6lbs

gives you 420mm at f/4 with a 1.4x teleconverter minimum length

gives you 600mm at f/5.6 with a 2x teleconverter, tack sharp

medium cost, about $7,200

requires you to be fairly close

Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO Lensthe minimum recommended length and speed

fast lens

lightweight easy to handle, 4.3lbs

gives you 560mm at f/5.6 with a 1.4x teleconverter

gives you 800mm at f/8 with a 2x teleconverter

Medium cost, about $6,400

requires you to be fairly close

your camera may not auto focus with a 2x teleconverter at f/8.

Canon EF 500mm f/4L Lensthe next up

fast lens

medium weight fairly easy to handle, 8.5lbs

gives you 700mm at f/5.6 with a 1.4x teleconverter

gives you 1000mm at f/8 with a 2x teleconverter

high cost, about $11,200

your camera may not auto focus with a 2x teleconverter at f/8.

 

Canon EF 600mm f/4L Lensthe workhorse lens of most professional bird photographers

fast lens

gives you 840mm at f/5.6 with a 1.4x teleconverter

gives you 1200mm at f/8 with a 2x tele converter

heavy, difficult to handle, 11.8lbs

high cost, about $12,999

your camera may not auto focus with a 2x teleconverter at f/8.

Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L Lensnewest from Canon

slow lens

moderate weight may be difficult to handle, 9.9lbs

extremely high cost, about $13,999

your camera may not auto focus with a 1.4x teleconverter at f/8.

your camera will not auto focus with a 2x teleconverter at f/11.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you and myself, I do most of my bird photography with my Canon EF 600mm f/4L lens with the 1.4X II teleconverter, giving me an 840mm at f/5.6. I generally don’t use the 2.0X teleconverter with the 600mm.

Thanks for visiting.

PS Before you run out and buy a fast-long lens I suggest you borrow or rent one, and see if you can handle it in actual shooting conditions. You may have to walk some distance so weight should be considered. Be sure to try the 1.4X and 2.0X teleconverters with your camera.

Information Harris' Hawk

 

Information Yellow-crowned Night Heron