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Lens Reviews

Birds? OK, but what lens to buy?

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)


Keywords: telephoto, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, lens, birds, bif, wildlife, jrp

In this article I am comparing different Nikkor lenses for birding, including the latest ones available, with and without teleconverters, based upon budget and image results. I am looking into the discussions held in the forums to make certain conclusions, which might be helpful when you are considering buying yourself a new, or a used Nikkor lens for bird photography.

We have all been marveled by the images of fellow Nikonians in the Wildlife forum, especially those participating in the monthly contests. In the case of birds, such images show exquisite feather detail and sharpness, no blur, and with the required depth of field, whether stationary or in flight.

01

Loon - Wing tips Cutting water by Mark Morrison (Lunastar)
Nikon D500, Nikkor AF-S 400mm/2.8 @ f/8, 1/4000s, ISO-800

 

So, for me, birds are an exciting even if tough subject. Birding requires the acquisition of both a very specific technique, which could be a lot of fun, and the right gear, which is not always easy to choose, given the many options available and the limitations our personal budget may impose upon most of us amateurs, without mercy.

The not so exciting news is that for photographing birds, anything under 400mm focal length is seldom appropriate, judging from the many different lenses used by Nikonians, both by forum posters and contest winners. But, we may not need to sell a kidney to get set.

I will concentrate here on choosing the right lens for the purpose and your budget.

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33 comments

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on January 18, 2019

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Marsha. I am glad you found the article useful. I am thrilled about my 200-500 and will be used extensively in the upcoming ANPAT 19th in the Spring. Thank you.

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on January 18, 2019

Donor Ribbon awarded for her support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Fellow Ribbon awarded for her continuous encouragement and meaningful comments in the spirit of Nikonians. Donor Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for her generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for her in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.

I rally enjoyed the article and reviewing your data. It is so interesting to see the comparisons. The 200-500 with its manageable weight has made it possible for me to take out on hikes and even just small walks in the woods and capture images I have been excited about.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on December 3, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Andy, thank you. Yes, there is always the possibility to find good offers on used equipment, even when some compromises need to be made and risks have to be accepted. Congratulations on your good luck finding such gem.

Andy Chen (acnomad) on December 3, 2018

@jrp I really like your analytical approach to helping Nikonians make a lens purchase decision. Just adding some thoughts regarding the “less tangible” pieces of the puzzle: Early this year I stumbled across the chance to buy a 300mm f/2.8D II (non-VR) priced so well that I spent what I had been saving for a 200-500 on it. The 2.8 is quite a lot to drag around in search of worthy animals to photograph. By the time the tripod is set up, many a perfect shot can be missed. Needless to say I’m very pleased with the images that I do manage to get from the faster glass - and a bit addicted to the beautiful bokeh. And the additional stop of speed even with a TC-14 (2 stops with the bare lens) has come into play often enough to justify the weight. If nothing else, it is a big help to have the additional light for AF near dawn and dusk.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on December 3, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Rick, glad to hear you found it useful. Thank you.

Rick Silva (rcksil) on December 3, 2018

Great article with good information! You put a lot of effort in this. Thanks for it!

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on June 6, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Hi, Paul. The article is centered on how to get to 400mm, that is is why the 500 and 600 are not mentioned.

Paul Turbitt (larrycurrlymoe) on June 6, 2018

Great article! I find one aspect a little confusing you exclude the 500 and 600mm F4 due to price yet you include the 180-400mm F4 which falls in the same price range? Not wanting to start a wide open debate here, but a lens that I think should be included (while not a Nikon) is the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 both OS and Sport versions. According to to DX0Mark they both score very well at reasonable price range. The both work very well with the their matching 1.4 TC's and the Sport version works very well with the 2.0 TC (sport version) as well. I have shot all those versions and have never been disappointed. Just thought I would throw another $0.02 in there to be considered! Turbo

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on May 6, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you for your comment, kip

John David Hutchison (Kipmm) on May 6, 2018

Awarded for his high level expertise, specially in Wildlife Photography 
Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his kind contribution to the 2018 fundraising campaign Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Ramon you have presented a well informative article here and I am sure it will help folks that are in the market and even the newer members coming on board. Everybody wants longer reach in the world of Wildlife but it can come as a huge cost as stated ,amongst the lenses in the article the 2x5 is definitely the winner for the amateur and even semi pro. kip

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on May 2, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, Harish, for your kind comment and for being one more material witness for the defense ;-)

Harish Subramanian (Harish1957) on May 2, 2018

Thanks JR for the very comprehensive and well researched article. Images chosen are also superb. I own a 200 - 500 Lens and am extremely happy with it. Regards Harish.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on May 1, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Tuesday, 01 May 2018 ) (Edited by jrp Tuesday, 01 May 2018 ) Ern, the question this article wanted to answer was how to get to 400mm addressing the concerns of price, weight and date of release. The title was edited so it is now not obvious. Of course the 500mm f/4 and the 600mm f/4 primes are great for birds, however, as much as we dream of owning them, at $10,300 and $13,000 respectively, they will hardly qualify as coming at the top of the tables if we include them.

User on May 1, 2018

The Nikkor 500mm and 600mm don't qualify?

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 28, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Andrew, glad to see we agree ;-)

Andrew Lee (Udall) on April 28, 2018

Ramon, Nicely presented. Well thought through and all the bases were covered. In terms of ergonomics, I find the 200-500mm 5.6 useful in thick forested terrain and easily handled for hours at a time. Typically I have mine slung on a Black Rapid strap and can move quite quietly - useful in stalking wildlife. I have used the 300mm pf and find it a joy but lacking a bit in reach. The 200-500mm is so versatile and the IQ so good and the price point so reasonable that it is a clear winner. Great article! Thanks, Ramon.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 28, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Saturday, 28 April 2018 ) Brian, most kind of you. Thank you.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 28, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thanks for stopping by and making that nice comment, Gary.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 28, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, Ernesto. So glad you liked this short piece. I am sure you´ll have a great time with your lens at the Houston Astros.

Brian Sullivan (BrianS) on April 27, 2018

Great article! Thank you. Brian

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on April 27, 2018

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Excellent article Ramon. In my case I bought the 200-500mm two years ago. I really love this lens and do not regret my purchase one iota. Although I still dream of owning a 500mm f/4 the 200-500mm has gotten me into the game of bird photography and other wildlife. At less than $1,500 it was literally a no-brainer and all I had to do is look at the output of this lens in our forums and galleries here at Nikonians for confirmation. I'm off to see the Houston Astros in May and I can't wait to get some shots of the action with my 200-500mm with my 1.7x teleconverter and my D500. That's 1,275mm of combined focal length with a rig that is still hand holdable!

Gary Worrall (glxman) on April 27, 2018

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Great informative post, and great effort JRP Have been thinking about the Kidney/600 f4 option but nobody wants a 73 year old veteran,s kidney apparently :) IMHO, even 600 is a minimum on small birds (and then some) The inclusion of EXIF data on the wildlife forum should steer most people in the right direction re SS/focal length and indicates which body produces the cleanest high ISO as the exif also points to the time of day.......very early/late in the day I have to say though, we are blessed with the non OEM super zooms like the Tammy and Sigma offerings ............Gary

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 27, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, Ray. Very important comment coming from a fellow Nikonian who owns the 300mm f/4PF, the 300mm f/2.8, the 500mm f/4, and 1.7 and 1.4 TCs

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 27, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Thank you, David. Glad to hear you agree, you being a BIF specialist ;-)

Ray Heslewood (Hessy) on April 27, 2018

Thanks for doing this article Ramon, I see it as a being very useful to anyone moving up to a longer reach lens. I already own a VR200-500mm f5.6 lens (and several others) , but if I was trying to buy just one lens to cover wildlife, it would be that lens. Ray

David Summers (dm1dave) on April 27, 2018

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Very good article. Choosing along lens is not easy, there are so many variables. I think the 200-500/f5.6 is a game changer for affordable reach.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 27, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

(Edited by jrp Friday, 27 April 2018 ) Bonnie, thank you. One thing or characteristic I did not mention in the article is flexibility on focal length range.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 27, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Frederic, thank you. I am no authority on lens calibration. I´ve never done a single lens focus calibration on any of my lenses. Sorry.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on April 27, 2018

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Sanjay, thank you for your kind comment. Better luck next time ;-)

Bonnie Christensen (BChrisRad) on April 26, 2018

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Thank you for writing this article, JRP. The layout and charts make the information easy to absorb. I have been thinking about the 200-500 (want something beyond 300mm), but still need to do some research. Your article has helped simplify my research, immensely. Thank you again for taking the time to put this article together. Bonnie

Frederic Landes (FreddyNoel) on April 26, 2018

Brilliant presentation, thank you J. Ramon for sharing. I am also very pleased with the 200-500mm zoom lens, though I have not yet mastered it to get the quality of the pictures shown in your article. Any advice if one should do a focus calibration to optimise the quality of one's lenses? Cheers

Sanjay Gupta (Gupta) on April 26, 2018

Very nice article. Logically presented, well done. I love my 200-500. Have yet to take a picture of a BIF with it, birds in branches, check, large stationary buildings at a distance, check, deer, check ....... When I went out last year trying to take a BIF photo, tough gig :-), I came back with a picture of a turtle. Thank you.

Sanjay Gupta (Gupta) on April 26, 2018

Very nice article. Logically presented, well done. I love my 200-500. Have yet to take a picture of a BIF with it, birds in branches, check, large stationary buildings at a distance, check, deer, check ....... When I went out last year trying to take a BIF photo, tough gig :-), I came back with a picture of a turtle. Thank you.

G