Cheap Bird & Nature Photography Lens Recommendation – Canon (And Other Equipment) for Wildlife Photos
For most bird and other (wilderness) animal photography, such as squirrels, foxes, rabbits, badgers…heck, even wolves, lions, tigers, and any other skittish creature you won’t be able to get close to, there are a few must-haves for equipment. This article assumes you plan to go with Canon compatible equipment and are on a budget. At this point in time, the only real competitors are Nikon and Canon for quality, variety, and value.
For bird photography, it is generally recommended to use a 500mm focal length or more to get shots “close enough” to birds. However, on a budget, you may be able to get by with a 300mm or 400mm lens.
Another option is to use a teleconverter, on a 300mm lens, however keep in mind teleconverters are not compatible with all lenses and they reduce the light allowed to the sensor–meaning your shutter speed will suffer. The lens must already have a large max aperture, such as f/4 or f/2.8 and these lenses are usually very spendy at $1500+ (pretty much out of the “budget” range).
Side note: I would definitely recommend a prime lens. The reason for this is zoom lenses will cost considerably more for the same quality. For bird and critter photography with, say a 75-300mm zoom lens, you would almost always be 100% zoomed anyway. You may as well get some extra performance from your telephoto lens.
And finally, rather than hiking and hunting down birds, you can bring them to you! Set up a birdfeeder and a birdbath — even a squirrel feeder (but stay away from any tiger feeders), and photograph them from physically much closer and near your home. This reduces the demand on your lens.
- Entry Level – $165
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM
This is a great value for starting out to see what exactly you want to see in your telephoto lens
You may be able to get some still shots of birds in trees on calm days, but movement will give you trouble with focusing and slow shutter speeds
You will want to make sure to get this USM version (faster and quieter focusing) since it is only $20 more
- Mid Level – $500
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
On crop sensor bodies, you will have that nice extra range
- Mid Budget – $500
Sigma 300mm f/4 APO Tele Macro HSM
No longer available new, but you may be able to find it used. Also note that on some camera bodies autofocus or other features may not work properly.
Not quite up to the below Canon 300mm f/4L, but reasonably close and half the price
Teleconverter is an option for even more range, though its recommended to stick with a 1.4x as images lose sharpness with a 2x teleconverter
- Upper end – $1100 + $200 = $1300
Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
Will actually perform as over 400mm on a crop sensor body
Can accept a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter for more range
Probably your best choice without spending 2x as much or more
You will probably want to spend the $200 extra for a teleconverter
- Upper end – $1000
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3
Not as recommended as the Canon EF 300mm f/4L above, unless you need the zoom range
You won’t be able to use a teleconverter, BUT you do get the extra range without it
Save a few hundred from the Canon EF 300mm f/4L above by going with this
Criteria to look for are stability, quick release.
Recommendations: Manfrotto 3021 + ballhead
Honestly, this is the least of your concerns. There are advantages and differences in camera bodies, but in this case your lens is your primary concern. Obviously there are benefits to more modern and more expensive DSLR bodies. A higher Mega-pixel resolution will allow you to do larger prints and more cropping, which is important. Full frame DSLR bodies (such as the Canon 5D) are more expensive and generally provide noticeably more detail, even given the same Megapixel count. Cropped bodies have smaller sensors which means slightly less detail captured.
However, cropped bodies provide a HUGE advantage for telephoto lenses, which is what we need for bird photography. Cropped sensor bodies effectively increase the focal length (more zoom) on lenses because of differences in placement of the sensor and the lens in their design. For telephoto photography on a budget, I can only recommend cropped DSLR bodies for this reason. Currently, for a budget, I would recommend the latest Canon Rebel DSLR body. It also has the newer sensor / image processor, which noticeably improves image quality on high ISO (noisy/grainy) photos.
- Recommended: Canon Rebel T6i DSLR Body
- Cropped sensor means cheaper, lighter lenses with more zoom
- You can choose to get the 18-55mm kit lens, or skip it to save about $100. It is a decent starting all around usage lens and is a good budget choice for regular usage (portraits, family, landscape etc) but will NOT be useful for wildlife photography.
You should be able to use the information given here to match your budget to what you want. If at all possible, I would certainly recommend choosing one of the $1000 range lenses recommended here. If you decide to go cheaper, I guarantee you will be frustrated and fighting with many blurry shots that are not quite zoomed in as much as you would like. It may very well ruin the fun of nature photography, but that is a personal choice. You may want to start with the cheap lens just to see if you enjoy spending time doing this and are willing to make the full investment.
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