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Best Nikon Lenses for Bird Photography

It is easy to get carried away by the camera body. The camera makes the images. But it is only half part of the story. Lenses are the second half, and in some cases, the better half. Bird photography is unimaginable without the use of a quality telephoto lens. Birds are often tiny, very fast, and since it happens in the wild, there’s no control over the light. There are plenty of options available for everyone who has a good Nikon camera body in bird photography lenses. It all depends on the budget, the shooting style, prime or telephoto choice, and brand preference.

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Prime or Zoom Lens: Pros and Cons

Photo by Peter Dam

There’s no clear winner between the prime or telephoto debate. Zoom lenses carry the advantage of flexibility. They, however, are prone to more lens aberrations and vignettes. There’s also considerably lower quality owing to the higher number of lens elements. With advancement, the quality has come quite close to prime. Yet, professional bird photographers prefer prime. The main problem with prime is that it requires a photographer to observe the bird’s behavior and spots. You can’t move much during wildlife photography, as you may disturb the surroundings. A prime lens may force you to, though, unless you know the exact bird locations and schedule. For hobbyists, a zoom lens might be a better shot.

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Features to Look for in Nikon Lenses for Bird Photoraphy: ED and VR

ED glasses are Extra-Low Dispersion Glass, an optical glass developed by Nikon to reduce or remove chromatic aberration. VR is Vibration Reduction that minimizes blur due to camera shake.

Top Candidates for Nikon Users’ Best Bird Photography Lenses

Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S for Z system Mirrorless cameras

As of January 2022, Nikon just released their latest addition to the Z mirrorless system lens line-up. It’s a superfast (f/2.8) 400mm lens with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter (that’s what the TC, stands for in the lens name). This means that with the teleconverter switched on you have a 560mm lens.

It has a vibration reduction of up to 5.5 stops. Coupled with the Nikon Z9 you can use the newly developed Silky Swift VCM (SSVCM), which enables fast, highly accurate, and quiet AF control.

This lens of course belongs to the S-line, which means superior performance. The price is quite hefty though, at close to $14,000.

Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR

Nikon 200-500mm f5.6E redraws creative boundaries with a constant-aperture telephoto zoom. It offers the quality and construction of Nikon, a top-notch auto-focus, and unparalleled versatility. It was originally introduced as an answer to third-party large focal length telephoto zoom lenses. Nikon’s 200-500mm f5.6E has carved a space of its own among hobbyist and semi-professional wildlife photographers.

The construction involves 3 ED glass elements, minimizing chromatic aberration and achieving super sharpness. Diaphragm control via electric signals from the camera body provides reliable AE control. It is possible due to the diaphragm blade unit with a drive mechanism. Continuous high-speed photography is achievable through this type of AE control. Add 4.5 stops of vibration reduction, and this lens qualifies as a mini beast for bird photography. Two screw-on types of 95mm lens filters are available that are handy during bird photography. Neutral Color NC Filter and Circular Polarizing Filter II have been specially crafted for this lens.

The only possible con for the lens is the electromagnetically controlled aperture. It renders the lens incompatible with older Nikon DSLRs. You can only shoot at the widest aperture possible on older Nikon bodies.

AF-S Nikkor 300mm F2.8G ED VR II

Nikon’s 300mm F2.8 is fondly called a super-telephoto lens. It is an upgraded version of the earlier lens. The upgraded VR II provides three stops of image stabilization. At F2.8, it is the fastest lens for bird photography. It provides an edge-to-edge sharpness and compatibility with all Nikon teleconverters for greater reach. The lens has 11 elements (3ED) in 8 groups. The Nano Crystal Coat eliminates internal reflections and removes all chromatic aberration to provide the finest picture quality.

Among other notable features are a lag-free switch from automatic to manual focus. You can switch focus mode by simply turning the focus ring. The silent wave matter is added for an extra-fast and noise-free bird photography experience.

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR

Nikkor 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR is the next-gen model of the 2007 Nikkor 400mm f2.6G ED VR. The older model was bulky and heavy and needed a tripod for support at all times. The modern model is almost 2 lbs. lighter. It is also dust and moisture resistant, and built for rough conditions, like the home of the birds. Hand-held shooting is possible with the newer model. This fast lens features snappy autofocus, a 400mm telephoto, and top-quality lens construction by Nikon. It also features 2 FL (fluorite lens elements) to minimize weight and improve optics. Additionally, 2 ED glass elements work towards eliminating chromatic aberration. Nanocrystal provides for even better construction. If you are still shooting with a DSLR, then this might be a good option, since you cannot use the new Z-mount version.

Nikkor 500mm F4G ED R

Image by Markus Christ from Pixabay

There will barely be anything you can’t catch that you can’t see with the iconic Nikkor 500mm F4G ED R. It is rugged, having a magnesium die-cast barrel which makes it highly resistant to dust and moisture. It also helps reduce weight and is ideal for outdoor shooting. The VR II provides up to 3 stops of insurance, resulting in sharper images overall. It has a tripod detection mode that helps minimize shutter release vibration, making it an intelligent VR workhorse. The Silent Wave Motor further boosts this ability, helping create stable and dramatic images in the wild. Corner-to-corner sharpness and vivid colors are essential for bird photography. These features make this lens an even more excellent piece of treasure. One can also double their effective focal length using teleconverters. It offers bird photographers an opportunity to capture almost anything in the wild.

AF-S Nikkor 600mm f4E FL ED VR

Nikkor 600mm is the no-compromise lens for bird photography. The camera is built to be used with a tripod. Its tripod-compatible VR offers up to 4 stops of Vibration Reduction. A unique Sport-VR helps take sharper images even while panning and using continuous shooting mode. The speed of continuous shooting is not compromised with modern cameras like D4S. The lens is meant to be used with fast Nikon DSLRs from the high-end range. It is optimized to deliver results quickly and perfectly. A tack-sharp AF precision allows panning shots to be perfectly sharp. However, the price tag is hefty at just above $12,000.

AF-S Nikkor 600mm f4E FL ED VR

The electro-mechanics diaphragm mechanism works in conjunction with the camera’s shutter. It results in faster and more precise exposure control and exposure consistency. The construction is uncompromised with the new magnesium alloy barrel and fluorite elements. The lighter weight helps in more rapid framing and composition, giving the extra few milliseconds to create the masterpiece. A Nano-crystal coat and fluorine coat cut down on all reflections. They improve the all-weather shield for shooting in the most severe conditions.

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Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G VR

The Nikkor 70-300 f4.5-5.6G VR must be on the list of bird photography lenses purely to provide an entry. Many hobbyists are foraying into this field who start with a crop frame body. A 70-300mm lens, providing them an effective focal length of 450mm. There’s also lens lightness that helps them enjoy the process and learn the art of bird photography. The auto-focus works a charm in broad daylight. Scouting for birds in national parks and bird sanctuaries is accessible with this range. The lens is under $600 and is among the cheapest lenses to achieve any bird photography.

There are two versions of this lens: VR and non-VR. The cost difference between the two is significant. A VR lens helps create sharper pictures and provides three stops insurance. There’s no other difference between the two versions. For absolute beginners with a lesser budget, a non-VR version may suffice.

Third -Party Lens Options for Nikon Bird Photographers

Tamron SP 150-600mm G2 F5-6.3 Di VC

Shot using Tamron 150-600 G2 F5-6.3 Di VC – Photo by Peter Dam

Tamron’s 150-600mm was a gamechanger. It brought everyone into action with this insane zoom range of 150-600mm. It comes at half the price of a decent 300mm prime. The sheer range provided by Tamron’s 150-600, especially when clubbed with a crop frame, is enough to enchant the buyers. There’s more, however, with the construction boasting an upgraded lens construction. It comprises 21 elements in 13 groups, having three LD (low dispersion) lens elements. It literally eliminates axial and transverse chromatic aberrations. Further anti-reflection technologies help create even sharper pictures with great picture quality. Extended Bandwidth & Angular-Dependency (eBAND) coating and Broad-Band Anti-Reflection (BBAR) coating make the optics even more refined. They help cut down on any reflection, including the reflection of the camera sensor. An eliminated ghosting and flare while shooting backlit or semi-back-lit subjects results from this improved optics capability.

An accurate, high-quality focus powered by an upgraded Ultra Silent Drive (USD) motor results from fine engineering. This lens keeps pushing the boundaries. The Vibration Compensation (VC, equivalent of VR in Nikon manufactured lenses) consists of three modes. The VC Mode II is specifically for panning, aiding the birds-in-flight photography.

African eagle taken with Tamron 150-600mm
Photo by Peter Dam

Sigma also has two similar versions of the same focal range, Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and Sigma 150-600mm Sports. The Sports model is a superior lens for photographing birds.

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Concluding words

Bird photography is a tough job. Usually, hobbyist photographers are happy with a good bird in natural surroundings. It is the professional photographers who strive to go that extra mile and look for perfect pictures. Some of the features that one needs to keep track of for bird photography lenses are:

  1. VR: Vibration Reduction is essential in unforgiving conditions. Unique VR modes like the Sports VR take the VR game a notch higher.
  2. Aperture: A faster lens like f/2.8 or f/4 allows you to use faster shutter speed, which is essential for bird photography.
  3. Weather Resistance: Bird photography is out there in the wild. The lens needs to be ready for the same.
  4. Lens Weight: Heavier lenses are challenging to use without tripods. If one plans to use the camera hand-held, it is better to look for lighter lenses while compromising slightly on the range.

The above lenses cover a variety of focal length ranges and lens features, covering both hobbyists, semi-professionals, and professionals along the way. Let us know which is your favorite lens for bird photography.

1 thought on “Best Nikon Lenses for Bird Photography”

  1. And what about probably the most popular Nikon lens the 500 f5.6 PF, why would you not include this as it is actually sharper than the 200-500, 1/3 of the price and so much lighter than the f4 500mm which you would need a mono all the time.

    Reply

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