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How to choose camera lenses for bird photography

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How to choose camera lenses for bird photography
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds at a firecracker plant. William Jobes took the photo in his yard with the Sony Alpha-1 camera and the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 lens, which hit the market in July 2020.

The joys of bird photography aren’t defined simply by capturing photos for social media and producing prints or online galleries. They also embrace travel to appealing destinations, as well as the pursuit of the cameras and lenses to achieve one’s artistic vision. 

Whether you’re a beginner wide-eyed with excitement or a seasoned hobbyist or pro, it’s a challenge to quell the notion that the lens you have at hand may not be the perfect tool for the image task lists of your imagination. Something as simple as seeing an exciting image in a magazine or on an online forum, or a new product review in print or on YouTube, can spark that nagging urge to replace your gear with that special lens you’re convinced will propel your work to the next level.

The reasons driving our decisions to buy certain lenses are complex, and they’re often motivated as much by heated emotion as calm and rational fact-based reality. The allure of a brand, a design style, technical features, and habit (sticking with our familiar gear) can all come into play. That said, the bottom-line question should ultimately be: Will this lens I’m considering improve my final product, be it a memorable travel photograph or a print to sell at art festivals?

With the economics of photo-gear acquisition factored into our internal algorithm — budgets do matter — the savvy glass shopper will always keep that boring-yet-essential cost-benefit ratio close at hand.

So why do photographers choose one lens over another? Here are a few relevant considerations.

What is your target “mission?” If it’s the smallest warbler, a super telephoto of 500mm or longer is essential. A key element controlling image quality is how much of the bird is filling your sensor. The more subject in the viewfinder, the better the results.

The pursuit of raptors opens new options for consideration, including lenses of around 300mm or so and longer. If your subject is close, even a 70-200mm zoom will produce satisfactory results.

Do you enjoy framing the beauty of flowers that birds rely on for food? Or perhaps you want to shoot close-ups of hummingbirds or other diminutive birds? Then a macro-capable lens is necessary. And it doesn’t have to be a lens dedicated to and target-marketed at the macro crowd. Though it’s counterintuitive, I’ve taken some of my best floral and insect close-ups using super telephoto glass with extension tubes to tighten the close focus. 

House Sparrow. Photo by William Jobes
Water droplets hang in the air around a wet House Sparrow. William Jobes used the Sony Alpha-1 and the Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 lens, which was released in June 2021.

Then there’s brand loyalty. Many devotees of Canon, Nikon, Olympus, or Sony, to name a few, stick with lenses of the camera manufacturer. But should lenses from third-party brands such as Sigma, Tamron, and others come into play? Based on my experience, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Quite often, when all is said and done, the image quality is comparable and often achieved with cost savings even the most affluent shoppers will find hard to resist.

Two recent examples — the new Sigma 100-400mm and the Tamron 150-500mm, both entries into the emerging Sony E Mount system — are excellent examples. The lenses are trend leaders in the movement toward offering high-quality glass with everyday portability, ready to go on an instant whim-mission to a favorite local haunt. We’ve all had that “I wonder what’s happening at the local pond” moment, and these grab-and-go lenses are adeptly suited to fulfilling that urge — with no compromises.

The Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS lens ($949), which is the one I evaluated with the new Sony Alpha-1 full frame mirrorless body, is aimed at the L-Mount and E-Mount markets. The lens is ultra-compact and light for the focal range, and it produces pro-compatible images that were, to be sure, a pleasant surprise given the facile form factor. The 100-400 boasts a handy focus-hold button and a barrel lock that keeps the unit in place when underway. The autofocus is crisp and responsive, especially on close subjects in the 3.67- to 5.25-foot variable close focus ranges. While it does not include a tripod collar, odds are good that a tripod would rarely be missed by an active, mobile photographer, as the lens is easily handheld.

Also aimed at the same general market segment is the new E Mount Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD ($1,399). As is to be expected with its longer zoom focal length, this one is larger and heavier than the Sigma. It tips the scales at 3.8 pounds (1,726 grams) when compared to the Sigma 100-400mm’s 2.51 pounds (1,140 grams). While it lacks a focus-hold button, it does have a desirable locking system that can be engaged to hold the barrel firmly in place at any focal length. 

As we can see from these two examples, deciding which lens to add to your inventory, be it an offering from your brand of camera or a lens from a third-party maker, may well be reduced to one or two specific features. Or, tossing fate to the breezes, it may be simply an emotional transaction. Brand loyalty inserts a lot of influence into the transaction, and weighed against our Sigma and Tamron examples here, Sony’s FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens ($1,998), though heavier and longer in fact as well as in focal length, could well be the winner. All three lenses would work great for any photographer heading to the field with a hand-holdable super telephoto lens equipped to produce professional-grade results. All three are, image-quality-wise, more than up to the task. Above all, isn’t that the goal for bird photographers?

I’ll wrap up with a word of caution. If you’re well-off enough to be able to afford multiple lenses, you should confront a core question: Do I really need another lens? Sometimes, it’s best to take a breather from the gear chase. I’m as guilty as the next person in succumbing to lens lust and investing in glass I was positive was essential to my style of shooting, only to use it just a few times before re-assigning it to dust-shield duty on the bookshelf. 

So, the next time a GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) attack hits, just remind yourself that maybe it’s time to suspend the lens chase and simply go photograph birds. The online stores and photo magazines will be waiting for you to return. 

Want to try a lens before buying it? Check it out at Lensrentals!

This article was first publishing in the November/December 2021 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

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William Jobes

William Jobes

William Jobes is a print and broadcast journalist from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, whose experience includes news and sports photojournalism, as well as reporting and editing on staff at several major daily newspapers. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today, among others.  He is the recipient of numerous journalism and photography awards and honors, including several Emmys. He has written several articles for BirdWatching, including Hotspots Near You in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

William Jobes on social media