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Cheap Bird & Nature Photography Lens Recommendation – Canon (And Other Equipment) for Wildlife Photos

Wildlife photography has huge demands on your equipment

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.

Lens

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.

Recommendations:

  • 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

Tripod

Criteria to look for are stability, quick release.

Recommendations: Manfrotto 3021 + ballhead

Camera Body

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 Canon Rebel T1i DSLR body. It is not the newest, so it has dropped in price. It also has the newer Digic 4 processor, which noticeably improves image quality on high ISO (noisy/grainy) photos. Any old Canon Rebel models do not have this.

  • Recommended: Canon Rebel T1i DSLR Body
  • Cropped sensor means cheaper, lighter lenses with more zoom
  • First DSLR body in the Rebel series to offer Digic 4 processor
  • By choosing the Rebel T1i over the T2i or more expensive body, you save a few hundred dollars. Spend the money instead on a step-up in your telephoto lens! This will yield much more noticeably improved results.
  • You can choose to get the 18-55mm kit lens together with the T1i for about $100 more. It is a decent lens and is a good budget choice for regular usage (portraits, family, landscape etc) but will NOT be useful for wildlife photography.

Conclusion

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.

I hope this article has helped you. If you have any questions, comments, or would like to add your own opinions, please leave a comment. I will definitely read it and get back to you. If you decide to purchase one of the products listed here from Amazon (which generally offers the cheapest prices), please click on the link in this article that will take you to Amazon. If you then purchase without closing your browser it will help support this site and more articles like this. Thanks!

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1 Comment

  1. While I agree 100% with your choice of the Canon 300mm f4 L lens as a great ‘bargan’ birding lens, I would have say, the 7d is not a full frame camera. I have both “Full frame DSLR bodies (such as the Canon 7D)” is not true, although it does have some advantages in its focusing system over the other APS-C sensor bodies.
    Lots of pictures with the combination at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rushhourphoto/collections/72157606069259533/ and I leave EXIF data up so that anyone can see the details.
    Paul

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