Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I was using a Panasonic Lumix, now I finally got a Canon EOS 60D, but I was used to that 18x zoom that my old camera has, because you can't get too close from the birds to take pictures, since they fly away, then I want to know which is the best lens that I can zoom in from a good distance to shoot nice pictures of those adorable creatures :)

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Hi Nathan, can you give us a sense of what your budget is? We can recommend some lenses at $5,000 and up which are very nice for bird photos, but that's a bit much for most people... –  Reid Jan 31 '11 at 2:46
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Money isn't a problem, but for sure $5000 is too much for a hobby investment... –  Nathan Campos Jan 31 '11 at 2:50
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Just a quick note from my own experience...a basic camo suit...coat, pants, hat...can go a LONG way towards getting you close to your subjects...even birds. Even with a supertelephoto lens of 500mm...for a frame-filling bird shot you still need to get pretty darn close. –  jrista Jan 31 '11 at 4:08
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possible duplicate of What size lens is recommended for flying bird photography? –  Itai Jan 31 '11 at 4:25
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You can also try 70-200mm f/2.8 (non IS) with 2X TC (140-400mm f/5.6). This setup gives you enough sharpness and also you can use the 70-200mm without TC for great portraits =) –  fahad.hasan Feb 1 '11 at 5:43

11 Answers 11

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'll tackle this from the assumption you're looking for the best lens, money no object (as you indicate).

The best lens will be the Canon 500L f4 IS, 600L f4 IS or 800L f5.6 IS mounted on a gimbal mount on a very solid tripod rated in the 20+lbs area. Which of these is the one for you comes down to a couple things.

Focusing speed: The 800mm will have slightly lower focusing performance than the other two since its maximum aperture is f5.6 and less light will be hitting the sensor, especially an issue with a 60D (as opposed to a 1D series body).

Field of View: The 800mm will be incredibly tight as far as FoV is concerned especially at 1.6x crop factor, it'll be great for capturing small birds far & really far. The 500 and 600 will be a better bet to capture wildlife near & far.

Weight: The lenses weigh a fair amount 600mm (11.5lbs), 800mm (9.5lbs) and 500mm (8.5lbs). If you plan on hiking at all with this lens consider that in the equation.

Overall: I've found that most people shooting wildlife in general wind up getting the 500mm because it gets you awfully close, covers small & larger subjects, and is above all the lightest so you can hike into position with it. Its more versatile. However, I've found that people who are interested solely in birds favor the 600mm as it gets you that much closer to (much smaller) birds and deal with the added weight by just not moving around as much.

Having used and owned the 500 and 600 myself I found the 600 to just be way to effing huge, and the 500mm was the sweetspot but at the time I was shooting wildlife in general, not birds in particular. I haven't shot w/the 800mm personally but looking at the specs and FoV I think I'd still pick the 500mm. Though it should be noted I was shooting at 1x and 1.3x crop factors.

Side note: Avoid zooms if you want the best, zooms are not as sharp and focus much slower, the 100-400 in particular. If you want something less expensive consider the 400L f5.6 or 300L f4 IS (the 400L 5.6 being sharper and focusing faster).

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Great answer, covers everything quite nicely. I would say that the 100-400 L IS lens is an option if you don't want to spend thousands of dollars. I will concur that it is certainly not ideal, however if you have a decent camera, like the 7D or perhaps even a 60D, where higher ISO is an option, it can serve you well for around $1500. Thats certainly nothing to shake a stick at. Still, a 500mm f/4 L IS is going to be ideal. –  jrista Jan 31 '11 at 3:56
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Note that you can achieve the image size of 500mm at 1x by means of a 300mm lens at 1.6x on the 60D (5 pounds, f/2.8, about 2/3 the price). The 100-400 mm zoom recommended by @jrista covers that ground well, at a much lower price yet. –  whuber Jan 31 '11 at 15:49
    
Aye, Whuber is correct. On a 1.6x crop body, the 100-400 lens is effectively 162-648mm from a FoV perspective. VERY handy focal range. –  jrista Jan 31 '11 at 17:24
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Personally, if it's just birds, I'd get a 400/5.6 rather than the 100-400. The shorter focal lengths on the 100-400 are less useful for birds and you save some money. You do lose IS though. –  Chinmay Kanchi Mar 30 '13 at 14:29
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It's a solid answer assuming that money isn't an object, but a guy who just upgraded from a $300 camera to a $1000 camera probably isn't in the market for a $13,000 lens. –  Caleb Mar 30 '13 at 22:00

I'm guessing you had the Panasonic DMC FZ35? It appears to be a 27-486mm (35mm equivalent). So to get the same reach you had, you'll want a lens that will give you 486mm. On a 60D, which has a 1.6x crop sensor, you want 486/1.6=303.75, or about 300mm. @ysap already listed some zooms that reach to 300mm, and any of those should work pretty well for you; the more you spend on a lens, the better quality you'll get, but even the cheap 300mm zoom lenses should still give you a better picture than your Lumix did (because of the larger sensor in your 60D). So, read some reviews (I have found the-digital-picture.com to be a good source for lens reviews and sample photos), and pick whichever one you want.

As far as choosing which 300m lens: having IS (Image Stabilization) will help you by allowing you to hand-hold your camera more often, instead of requiring a tripod to get blur-free lenses.

On a side note: you can get better performance/price from a prime lens than a zoom lens, but if you're used to zooming you might find it difficult to find locate your target without being able to zoom in (try zooming all the way in with your Lumix, then trying to frame your picture).

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I was a DMC-FZ18 :) –  Nathan Campos Jan 31 '11 at 3:21
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Okay, that appears to have a 28-504mm (35mm equivalent) lens; 504/1.6=315, so a 300mm lens would have just slightly less reach than you're used to. –  drewbenn Jan 31 '11 at 3:41

How much money do you have??? The answer to this question is highly dependent on the amount of money you can invest. For the low end, the EF75-300mm/f4-5.6 will get you a nice tele range in a relatively low price, but limited quality and low-light performance. Next step can be the EF70-300mm. Then, you enter the L lens domain, where the sky is the limit. Many pros use 400mm, 500mm and 600mm lenses which cost thousands of dollars.

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Photographing is a hobby for me, but I can invest a lot on this, money isn't a problem –  Nathan Campos Jan 31 '11 at 2:47

If cost really were no object, I'd steer you towards the Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 APO DG (with dedicated 2x teleconverter, making it a 400-1000mm f/5.6 as well), but at $30K you'd probably want to be making sure your bird pics were the source of a very tidy income before you went there. It's definitely not for hand-held use, and if you were to bring it into an area of political unrest, it would probably be mistaken for a large and nasty bit of ordnance, but for shooting from a blind you can't get better.

At the other end of the scale, if you were a Sony man I'd tell you to get the 500mm f/8 reflector and have done with it. I really miss reflectors (catadioptric lenses). I even liked the donuts.

I used to use a 400mm f/5.6 with a 15mm extension tube for most of my bird pictures. Most songbirds, at least, are really rather small, and even at 400mm you need to be close enough that you're often within the close focusing limit of a long prime lens. The extension tube (on my camera/lens combo) would let me focus between about three and thirty feet (infinity, of course, was out of the question with the tube in place, and thirty feet would have been as well except that really long lenses usually focus beyond infinity to compensate for thermal expansion). In Canon terms, that would be just a hair over $1500 at street level, which isn't all that bad, but autofocus may be a problem in low light, and you may find a prime lens restrictive.

An alternative might be the 200mm f/2.8 (or if you're really itching to get rid of excess money, the 200mm f/2.0) with 1.4x and 2x converters. That gives you a good close focusing ditance and three focal lengths to work with: a 200 mm f/2.8; a 280mm f/4; and a 400mm f/5.6. It takes time to change focal lengths, though, so it's not something you can do on the fly -- you'd pick a location and length and wait it out like we used to do in the Olde Tymes.

The best bang for the buck for you would probably be the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom. It focuses in to just under six feet, it's not egregiously slow, and there's a large enough zoom range to give you some real compositional (and situational) flexibility. It's not cheap by any means, but at around $1500-1800, it's as close as you're going to come to a $300 dollar camera without all of the other compromises that a $300 camera forces on you.

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It would definitely be this lens: Canon 800mm 5.6 Or maybe this one: Sigma 300-800mm 5.6. Each of these is $10,000+ lenses. But seriously, it depends on how much money you have. Take a look at the EF lens lineup, and buy the longest lens you can afford. Take a look at EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, it's probably the best bet for your money.

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Compared to my old camera, the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM would be about which zoom rate? Something like 19x? –  Nathan Campos Jan 31 '11 at 3:38
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@Nathan that's a 4x zoom (400/100=4). "Zoom" on a lens is the difference between the longest and shortest focal lengths. When comparing lenses, you generally want to compare focal lengths, not zoom values. When choosing a lens to mount on your 60D, multiply its focal length(s) by 1.6 and see where that value slots in to the 28-504 of your DMC-FZ18. So a 100-400 would be "like" (there are a lot of other factors, too, it's not just a simple multiplication) a 160-640. It would reach longer than your DMC-FZ18, but zoomed all the way out would be like zooming in 5.7x on your DMC-FZ18. –  drewbenn Jan 31 '11 at 3:48
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A 100-400mm lens is precisely a 4x zoom (400 divided by 100). As would a 25-100mm be, if anybody made such a beast, which they don't. To put it in other terms - "zoom rate" is an utterly meaningless term; it tells you virtually nothing about actual lens reach. –  Staale S Jan 31 '11 at 3:52

That far end of your 18x zoom on your old camera probably translated to just under 500mm focal length in 35mm AOV equivalent.

On an APS-C sized sensor like the 60D you'd want a 300mm focal length to get roughly the same reach. It will be heavier and perhaps more expensive than your little one was, but you pay for the larger sensor as everything has to be scaled up.

To get the equivalent, you just need a tele zoom that goes up to at least 300mm.

If you're serious about bird photography and have quite a lot money to spend and don't mind a whole lot of weight, a fast telephoto zoom (f/4, f/2.8 etc) or prime will help a little bit in freezing fast motion or shooting in poorer light conditions compared to a cheaper/lighter f/5.6 or f/6.3. In sunlight or bright overcast light don't worry about it though.

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I'll throw one more into the equation, a 300mm F2.8 = 480mm (300 X 1.6) but it is incredibly sharp and one of the fastest auto focusing lens especially for birds in flight. You could than get a 1.4 extender and this makes it a 420mm = 672 F4.0 (300 X1.4 X 1.6). I have both the 300mm F2.8 and the 500mm F4.0, they are fantastic lens equaly sharp but the 300mm is lighter and easier for tracking BIF. I have found a good monopod helps keep the weight off of me while waiting for something to happen and makes it pretty easy to throw it over your shoulder while walking.

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These are all great answers. I'd just add three things. 1) You can crop pretty aggressively on a modern DSLR so you don't necessarily need to fill the frame. 2) Prime lenses will in general be cheaper and lighter for the equivalent speed and image quality. Of course, the downside is convenience. With this in mind, the 200/2.8L and 300/4LIS are options. 3) Most of the sharpness benefits will be lost without good support - preferably a good tripod and head but at the very least a beanbag or monopod. Trying to handhold a big lens is usually a recipe for disappointment. Sometimes you have no choice, so by all menas improve your handholding technique, but if you're actually planning to go shoot wildlife, think hard about support.

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I didnt even bother to read all other anwers you have, but: It all comes to that fact, that there is no need for 500/4 or such to get good photos from birds.

  • you have to learn your spieces,
  • you have to have time for your project
  • you have to have luck

In the end, i have seen wonderful and awesome photos taken with 50mm, 200mm and between. I dont find closeup photos as "best practise" with 500/4 or even heavier lens used. It's in viewers eyes, whats the best way.

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My favourite lens for this kind of pictures is the EF 70-210 f/4. With a crop factor of 1.6, that becomes 112-336mm, and should be good to start with. It's an old zoom lens, you can find it probably only on eBay (I got mine for 67€).

It's actually much better than the cheap 75-300 f/4.0-5.6, it's very sharp and fast, and relatively light-weight, but auto-focus is really slow, and noisy. If you use manual/assisted focus, this shouldn't be a problem.

If you have no problems with price or weight, go for an L lens, 300mm or more (if weight is a problem, the 400mm DO IS USM is a good solution).

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I own a 300mm f/4 nikon. With the crop factor it comes a 450mm with my reflex. On your Canon 60D the crop factor is 1.6 then it will be a 480mm equivalent.

I really like:

  • its weight
  • the sharpness
  • the AF-s (equivalent to USM at Canon)

I dislike:

  • no VR (IS for Canon); Seems that Canon have the IS, it is a very good point
  • only f/4.0, the bokeh is less blurred than a f/2.8
  • f/4 is ok but you can save 1 IL shutter speed with f/2.8

For birds 300mm it is still short but for a bit less than 2'000$ it really worth it. I am thinking to buy an extender 1.4 soon specifically for birds.

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