Here at pictureline, we consider ourselves grateful to live in a place where there is an abundance of opportunities for wildlife photography and bird photography. There are dozens of opportunities to photograph some of the most incredible birds in North America within a short 30 minute drive from our store. We have even hosted photowalks with our amazing local community to photograph these beautiful birds in their natural habitat.

blue heron bird in low light

While our team was out on our bird photography photowalk, we encountered quite a few questions and concerns that our fellow bird photographers encounter. One of the most frequent questions we encountered with people entering the world of wildlife photography or bird photography is what is the best focal length lens for bird photography?

We put our heads together as a community to take a look into the ideal focal length and telephoto lenses that will elevate anyones bird photography to the next level.

Telephoto Lens Magic

At pictureline, we always try to guide our customers towards excellent glass over the camera body, because a camera will only be as good as the lens it is focusing through.

This is even more true with bird photography and wildlife photography. Having a good telephoto lens, either a zoom lens or a prime lens, will help you capture birds in flight much more consistently.

capturing bird in flight skimming water

With that said, you do not need a $12,000 lens to photograph birds. There's no debating that lenses like the 400mm f/2.8 lens or the 600mm f/4 lens in canon rf, canon ef, or sony fe mount lenses are the best in their respective focal lengths, but they are not the only lenses that can get you the telephoto magnification & focal length you need to photograph birds sharply and consistently.

The reasons a 400mm lens or a 600mm lens is great for bird photography are two-fold:

  • They have excellent magnification and get you closer to your subject without disrupting the birds in their natural environment
  • They create beautiful bokeh & separation from the subject and the background.

This focal length can easily be achieved without spending $12,000. There are dozens of lenses made by all manufactures that can get you in the 200-800mm focal range for under $3,000. We will dive more into the specific lenses from each manufacturer in a different blog post, but just know that for bird photography you'll ideally want a telephoto lens with a focal length range between 200-800mm.

Zoom Lens vs Prime Lens

Now let's discuss the unique benefits & difficulties that both zoom lens and prime lens offer for bird photography.

The Zoom Lens

A Zoom lens can be an excellent camera lens for a number of reasons—it is more versatile, has a greater focal length range, has excellent offerings in Canon EF, canon RF, Tamron, Sigma, Sony FE, Nikon F and Nikon Z mount lenses, just to name a few. Some photographic situations require a telephoto zoom because you'll be at a different distances from your subject and telephoto magnification may be essential.

A zoom lens like the Sony 200-600mm lens can cover you for some of the best focal distances for bird photography. There is a trade off, however. Having a variable focal length also gives you a higher maximum aperture. A higher aperture means you'll have to shoot at a slower shutter speed.

eagle in flight taken with higher shutter speed

You'll want to have a minimum of a 1/1000 shutter speed for birds in flight, especially if your lens or camera do not have image stabilization. In some lighting situations, this may not be possible. Especially if your camera lens has a maximum aperture of f/6.1 or higher.

The best way to ensure you have a lower aperture to let more light in? Go with a prime lens!

The Prime Lens

A prime lens gives you a greater maximum aperture, especially with lenses like the 400mm lens at f/2.8 or 600mm lens at f/4.0. Canon has excellent f/11 prime lenses at the 600mm lens and 800mm lens focal length in their Canon RF mount. Although the f/11 does limit the amount of light the lens is letting in, Canon's mirrorless camera lineup offers excellent high ISO performance to make up the difference.

woman using nikon z 800mm lens

Prime lenses tend to work better with 2x teleconverter as they do not take your aperture too high to slow your shutter speed down significantly. If you're going to use a teleconverter with your telephoto lens to get a greater focal length, we'd recommend using a prime lens. Although your focal length is fixed, you'll have more flexibility to shoot at a faster shutter speed with a lower aperture.

The Relationship Between the 2x Teleconverter and Maximum Aperture

the 2x teleconverter is a great way to get you much closer to your subjects, but can be difficult to use in low light situations. The teleconverter will cause you to loose two stops of light, so an f/2.8 lens drops down to a f/5.6 lens. Because of this, we recommend using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or lower when using the teleconverter. This will allow you to still have a fast enough shutter speed to capture birds in flight much more sharply and consistently.

Vibration Reduction and Autofocus

Most high-end telephoto lenses will offer vibration reduction or image stabilization. They will also focus quickly throughout the entire focal length range to offer quick & accurate autofocus. Having vibration reduction or image stabilization can allow you to shoot handheld at longer focal lengths & is essential for shooting higher aperture lenses at a slightly slower shutter speed.

Autofocus will give you a leg up when tracking birds, especially birds in flight. Because birds can move so quickly, it is extremely helpful to have autofocus cameras and lenses. A mirrorless camera will offer improved autofocus features, especially with a Z mount Nikon lens, Sony lens, or Canon lens.

In Summary

Finding the best bird photography lens or focal length for bird photography will hopefully now be easier as you embark on your journey to mastering the arts of bird photography and wildlife photography! Just remember, there is no magic focal length—just make sure you have a trusted telephoto lens with image stabilization and you will be well on you way to succeeding at bird photography.

Bird photography