My wife has a Canon 450D and a 70-300 lens for long distance shots.

I am considering a present or two and good advice from jrista suggests possible upgrade of camera to a Canon 7D and of lens to a Canon EF100-400 or Canon EF400 (I do like Canon). This will result in quite a large investment in my wife’s photographic future and I would like to get it right.

I would, therefore, welcome any further advice from jrista and any other users who may be able to assist me in my quest.

If I were only able to get one of the presents, which should I choose?

  • 1
    I have now bought my wife the 7D, she tried it out for the first time on birds to the south of the Humber (Far Ings). Results so far very encouraging.
    – Dennis
    Jun 12 '11 at 13:42
  • Still musing over the lens!!
    – Dennis
    Jun 12 '11 at 13:49
  • Good Photo SE blog post by jrista here - Birding: Boosting your kit...
    – MikeW
    Mar 30 '13 at 23:31

I'm not a bird photographer but whenever I travel with amateur birders, they almost always use the Sigma 50-500mm. As Jrista said, you lose in terms of quality but versatility-wise it is hard to beat.

The question is where the images go, if it's for small prints or web-use, you may not notice the difference. If it's for a gallery, you'll have to get something better and probably heavier.

When I take a group to Ecuador, we spend two shoots (sunset & sunrise) at a bird-lodge sanctuary. The species are quite small, particularly the hummingbirds everyone goes to see there. Those who max-out before 400mm (like me) didn't get many closeups, except near the bird-feeders where you can get really really close. At least, I'm not there for the birds ;) Those who don't want to shoot birds, get to have fun photographing Orchids instead.

  • Good point about where the images go. Small format for publication on the web, or small format print, the Bigma is a great lens with great reach.
    – jrista
    Oct 28 '10 at 16:15

The 100-400 is an awesome lens for bird photography. it's my go-to lens, and I do about 90% of my nature work with it. Works well carrying it around and is pretty fast and flexible. I work with a crop sensor, primarily a 7d, and I recommend a crop sensor for bird photography for the magnification it brings. the 7D is a killer body for this use.

When I'm working off of a tripod, I tend to use a 300/F4 and a 1.4x Teleconverter. It's a little sharper and a small bit more powerful than the 100-400 @400mm.

You will find that 400mm is not powerful enough at times; I do wish a lot for 400mm or 500mm lens, especially one I can slap a 1.4x tele on. The cost difference going from 300m to 400mm is prohibitive for me right now, so I make do. You can do quite well with the 100-400.

(just back from a trip shooting at a refuge; this was primarily shot with the 300/1.4x combo on the 7d: http://www.chuqui.com/2010/10/dawn-patrol/; here's a shot taken with the 100-400 from earlier this year: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chuqui/4980414951/ )

So I highly recommend the 100-400 as a good lens for this. The 300/F4 and 1.4x is another option to consider and probably a bit less expensive. You can buy BOTH for less than a 400mm or 50mm would cost, so they're good lenses for getting going here without committing to a mortgage. But trust me, if you catch the bug for bird photography, at some point, you'll be budgeting for ever bigger and more powerful lenses...

  • 1
    Keep in mind that the 300/4+1.4x converter will loose about 1 stop worth of aperture, which effectively makes it an f/5.6 lens. The Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens costs about the same as the 300mm ($1200), but you don't need the additional teleconverter, which costs an additional $500. For a cheaper setup, I would recommend the 400/5.6 over a 300/4+1.4x converter. Sadly, I totally agree about budgeting for bigger and ever more powerful lenses...bird photography is terribly expensive! :P
    – jrista
    Oct 27 '10 at 23:47
  • for what it's worth, I've changed around my camera bag, and I'm reitring the 100-400 in favor of the 70-200 F2.8 with an added 2x teleconverter. I've been using the 300F4+1.4x combo a lot more over time, and the more I do, the more I like it, but I'm going to do some head to head competitions between the 70-200/2X and 300/1.4x to see how the sharpness and focus speed compare. (some notes on why I'm doing this here: bit.ly/taujvl and some early sharpness looks here: bit.ly/rP1vJX). I still love the 100-400, but it was time to do some upgrading.
    – chuqui
    Dec 31 '11 at 2:18

When photographing birds, the ultimate goal is to get that "frame filling" shot, where the bird (or birds) cover the bulk of the image. To capture such shots, you need a lot of reach, however even with reach, you still need to get pretty close. As a general rule, 400mm is the minimum necessary to get good bird shots without having to get so close that you scare your subject off.

Canon offers several lenses that fit the bill. One of the most popular bird and wildlife lenses is the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM lens. The nice thing about this lens is it comes with image stabilization, which helps offset its tighter aperture a bit, allowing better hand-held performance at lower shutter speeds. I use this lens myself, and it is a great lens overall. It truly shines when used with a camera body that offers good high-ISO performance (i.e. 5D, 7D, 550D). This lens goes for about $1500-$1600 street, $1800 list. It is probably the best bang for the buck as far as 400mm telephoto goes, and my top recommendation. I would avoid using this lens with a teleconverter, as it reduces the long-end aperture below the AF limit for many camera bodies, and greatly darkens the viewfinder. Your maximum aperture at 400mm shrinks as well to f/6.3 or so, which is much too slow to be effective as a birding lens.

Canon also offers the EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM Lens, which is one of their cheapest telephoto primes. It lists for around $1200, and can sometimes be found for around $1000. It is a great lens, but a tad slow. Optically, this lens is excellent, and provides better, sharper images than the 100-400mm. It is a favorite of a lot of Colorado bird photographers, and I have seen it paired with the 7D quite frequently lately. It is best paired with a high-ISO body. I wouldn't really recommend it for the Canon 450D, although it would probably be fine on a 550D, 7D, or 5D. An f/4 aperture would be more ideal, however for telephoto primes, the price quickly rises past $4000 for wider apertures than f/5.6.

As an alternative to the 100-400mm zoom, you could also get the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L II IS USM lens, and combine it with a teleconverter. Canon offers 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters, which can extend the focal length of your lenses. The 70-200mm becomes a 140-400mm lens, but looses some aperture (it would drop to about f/4, maybe f/4.5 f/5.6 [note: this aperture makes this option not much better than the 100-400mm, and a lot more expensive]). Such a combination would make for a very ideal zoom lens setup, with a great telephoto range and a good, wide, constant aperture at f/4. This setup would cost more, some $2500 or so, but between the lens and the teleconverter(s), would cover a focal range from 70mm through 400mm, greatly expanding the usefulness of the setup beyond just bird photography.

There are some great third-party vendors who make good telephoto lenses with a Canon mount. One of the more popular is the Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 lens, often called the "Sigma Bigma" for its huge telephoto range and 500mm long end. Optically, it does not perform as well as, say, the Canon 100-400mm, and certainly not as good as a 400mm or 500mm prime lens. At the 500mm end, an aperture of f/6.3 is not ideal, so higher ISO performance would be best. For the price of $2400, it is a pretty good deal, and it can make a good bird lens, as well as a general purpose lens that covers pretty much all useful focal lengths outside of wide-angle. I would bump the camera's sharpness setting up, or add some sharpness in post processing if you use RAW.

Any 500mm or longer lens with an f/5.6 or wider aperture will offer better results for bird photography. Sadly, once you hit this range, prices rise dramatically, for both on- and off-brand lenses. Usually, such lenses can be found starting for around $4000, and moving on up to $10,000 or more.

  • A 2X teleconverter will indeed produce a 140-400 mm focal length range, but it doubles all f-stops, giving a minimum of f/5.6, not f/4.
    – whuber
    Oct 28 '10 at 1:03
  • @whuber: Sorry, you are correct. I was thinking 1.4x in my head at the time. There are also other inherent problems with the 2x converter, as it seems (according to many reviews and tons of forums) that it makes images rather soft, particularly in the corners.
    – jrista
    Oct 28 '10 at 1:30
  • agreed on not trying the teleconverters on the 100-400. Canon doesn't qualify them iwth that lens, and my experience is the results are rarely good.
    – chuqui
    Oct 28 '10 at 6:53
  • @jrista: No harm done; I just didn't want anyone to get their hopes up prematurely ;-). I used teleconverters decades ago (to double a 100-200 zoom to 200-400) but after the initial thrill of getting that long reach, the gadgets just sat in a drawer: the darkness of an f/5.6 aperture, the corner softness, and the overall loss of contrast were just too dissatisfying. Now, I find that the digital "zooming" (i.e., cropping) allowed by these 21 Mp sensors (EOS 550 and D7) can be good enough for decent songbird pictures with a 200 mm lens if you keep the ISO down.
    – whuber
    Oct 28 '10 at 13:23
  • One other thing to keep in mind in all of this -- a modern camera body like the 7D gives you the ability to shoot at a higher ISO with acceptable noise, and also has a high pixel density, which means you can crop the image while maintaining good resolution. That means that spending money on a slower lens and a 7D is a good tradeoff to trying to guy huge, fast glass. There are many ways to get the shot these days
    – chuqui
    Oct 28 '10 at 17:17

A friend of mine bought his wife the 400mm as a birthday present since she's an avid bird photographer and she loves it. If it helps you to decide a little on what to get, here's her Flickr photostream to see some samples of what you can get out of it. She pretty much uses the 400mm and 7D combo exclusively now.

As a side note, while you mentioned an affinity for Canon lenses, you might want to consider the Sigma "Bigma" 50-500mm lens as an option. A really good comparison write-up of the Sigma and Canon options can be found on Juza's nature photography website. You can see some samples of his work there too, he's quite a good photographer in Italy.

  • I'd strongly recommend renting the sigma first; I've heard too many photogs say it gets too soft at 500mm to be really useable for them.
    – chuqui
    Oct 27 '10 at 23:34
  • @chuqui - I've heard that from some, so I posted the comparative link to provide some guidance on decisions for that reason. However, renting is always a good way to try it for yourself, so good advice.
    – Joanne C
    Oct 28 '10 at 0:07
  • Had a look at the Sigma Bigma John, whilst in Australia, I was very tempted as the price was very competative. I am still thinking about the Cannon 400mm, its only money thats stopping me. I think I will probably buy the Canon 7 D first then move on to a better lens later.
    – Dennis
    Mar 5 '11 at 0:22
  • I have now got the 7D for my wife and am considering which lens. 4 Choices I am considering. Canon 400, Canon 100-400, Sigma 500-500 and Sigma 150-500. Being a total amateur, this choice is not easy.
    – Dennis
    Jun 11 '11 at 7:13
  • I chose the 100-400 after good advice from this site, thanks jrista et al. Di's photos are even better, have a look at dilouise on Redbubble, however, only the last few photos will be with the new lens and the new camera. Her 7D is at the doctors at present, but should be out of hospital in a few weeks.
    – Dennis
    Jan 2 '12 at 14:24

Just want to throw out there that you will see very noticeable differences in focusing speed and sharpness between the Canon 400L f5.6 and the Canon 100-400L (or 75-300). The 400L f4.6 will focus much faster and is much sharper, I have a couple samples from back when I was looking at the pair

400mm f5.6
alt text

alt text

  • Is this focussed right? It's hard to compare sharpness with incorrect focus. Oct 28 '10 at 23:15
  • This is focused right, focusing was done on a 1D series body with all AF points enabled and shots were taken only after most of the 45 points lit up. We took 5 photographs of each and picked the sharpest one. One expects a prime lens to always be sharper than a zoom wide open but this was considerably sharper.
    – Shizam
    Oct 29 '10 at 1:59
  • Owning the 100-400mm lens myself, I have NOT encountered this much of a difference in sharpness at 400mm. Perhaps in the corners, however when it comes to bird photography you are usually cropping to some degree, which eliminates the softer corners. Center sharpness is still pretty stellar. It does indeed look like it is slightly out of focus. I've never been able to auto-focus this lens perfectly at the extremes, and it usually takes a touch of manual tweaking to get it into full sharpness...I usually test against my computer screen, which makes it EASY to tell when its in focus.
    – jrista
    Jun 15 '11 at 16:32

I have owned three lenses that go to 400mm:

  • Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
  • Canon EF 100-400mm mk1 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
  • Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3

In my opinion, I'd go for the Canon EF 400mm. The reasoning is as follows. It's reasonably priced when bought new and cheap when bought used. It's very sharp which is extremely useful for bird photography. For bird photography, you won't find constant 400mm too long even with a crop sensor camera. If you want the ability to photograph flying birds, you'll need anyway shutter speed 1/1000 or ideally 1/2000. At those shutter speeds, image stabilization will not help much to stabilize the photo, so the effect of image stabilizer would be to stabilize the viewfinder, allowing easier tracking of flying birds.

With a crop sensor camera (I currently have EOS 70D for bird photography), a 400mm lens in my opinion is not too shaky. So I don't miss the viewfinder stabilization effect.

The EF 100-400mm mk1 lens I used to have was in my opinion overrated. I bought a used lens for a price I thought was reasonable, used it once or twice and looking at the photos, yes, they were sharp without cropping but once you started to crop you could clearly see the limitations of the lens. I ended up selling it for more than I bought it. I don't know if it was a bad copy of the lens -- I explained to the camera shop which bought it that this mk1 lens is not remarkably sharp, they tested it, were happy and paid me. I certainly was not happy with this lens. So perhaps different people have different ideas of what is sharp enough. I don't consider the mk1 worthy of the "L" badge. Or perhaps I had a bad copy of the lens.

The EF 100-400mm mk2 is even heavier than the mk1 zoom. I find the 400mm f/5.6L barely acceptable in terms of weight, and mk2 zoom would be significantly heavier. I have not owned the 100-400mm mk2, but given its weight and price I would not buy it.

About the only benefit of 100-400mm on a crop sensor camera would be the ability to zoom out, look for flying birds and zoom in to the bird. Every photo you'll take will be at 400mm and the 100mm end would be used only to find flying birds. Aiming a 400mm on a crop sensor camera requires some skill and minor amounts of luck. With a full frame camera, aiming is not a problem and you can use 400mm continuously with no difficulties.

I haven't used the Tamron 100-400mm for bird photography yet, but I could test it someday. Few tests I have done indicate it should be sharper than at least my copy of the 100-400mm mk1 lens.

The EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is sharp and certainly worthy of the "L" badge.

Perhaps with a monopod to support the weight of 100-400mm mk2 and partially stabilize it (you need to be physically very strong to use it without a monopod!), you could find the image stabilizer helpful to stabilize it fully in low light, when photographing stationary birds. However, carrying a lens with monopod attached could be cumbersome and setting up the monopod misses a lot of spontaneous moments, so in practice this could be useful only in a bird tower where you wait for birds to arrive close. Besides, the Tamron 100-400 does nearly everything nearly as well as the Canon 100-400mm mk2. I would not pay the Canon mk2 price.

The other properties of the lens (minimum focus distance, maximum magnification) are not relevant for bird photography. You'll use all of the lenses most of the time with focus limiter anyway. All have ultrasonic motor or similar autofocus, good enough for flying bird use.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.