Chapter 3


It could well be argued that for bird photography, the choice of lens may be far more important than the choice of camera.  This is especially true for those who are willing to spend time at the computer postprocessing their images.  Whereas a cheaper camera may introduce some noise into the image, which can be reduced or perhaps even removed entirely via semi-automated software filters, a lens producing too little magnification or too little light transmission may result in images that are simply unusable for most practical purposes.  For small birds at a distance, a lens with insufficient magnification will result in images in which the bird appears as little more than a tiny, colored spot in the image.  On the other hand, a lens with high magnification that lets in too little light, or that introduces optical aberrations, is likely to produce images in which the bird appears large in the image but is also fuzzy and indistinct, or has an unpleasant purple
halo or shadow around it. 
    In this chapter we’ll cover many topics concerning lens design that will help you to choose an appropriate lens (or set of lenses) for your particular birding goals.  We will also introduce some basic concepts that will be essential when you read later chapters of this book, such as f-numbers and the notion of stopping down a lens; these latter concepts are extremely important even if you
ve already purchased a lens, since theyll enable to you better operate your equipment in the field.

3.1 Focal Length and Aperture

The two most important concepts regarding birding lenses are the focal length and the aperture.  You can think of the focal length as being a measure of the amount of magnification that the lens provides (i.e., to what degree it makes a small bird appear larger), whereas the aperture influences (among other things) how bright the resulting image will be.  (We’ll be refining and augmenting these basic definitions as we progress through this chapter, but for now these will serve as a good starting point for our discussion of these most fundamental concepts about telephoto lenses).
    Unlike with binoculars and spotting scopes, where the magnification is specified explicitly as, e.g., 8× or 10
× (in the case of binoculars) or perhaps 30× to 60× (in the case of spotting scopes), in photography the issue of magnification is confounded by several factors, including the focal length of the lens, the degree of cropping performed either by the camera’s imaging sensor or by software in postprocess, and any enlargement done by the photo lab when making prints.  For this reason, magnification ratings for lenses are rarely given (and are typically wrong when they are givenso beware!). 
    One thing you can firmly rely on is that longer focal lengths enlarge the bird more than smaller focal lengths.  Thus, for birds that are either small, or distant, or both, you’ll want to use a lens with a longer focal length (i.e., a
longer lens) than one better suited for large birds close-up.  For warblers and other tiny birds in the wild, a good focal length in practice is around 800mm (give or take a hundred mm), whereas for herons and egrets at a distance of perhaps 15 feet or so, a much smaller focal length in the 50-200mm range may be more useful.

Fig. 3.1.1: Focal length and aperture.
(A) The length of a camera lens is often a crude indication of the
relative focal length, as compared to other lenses of the same
type.  The width of the wide end of the lens is the objective lens
diameter.  (B) The f-number is the focal length divided by the
objective lens diameter.

    As suggested by part A of Figure 3.1.1 (above), the overall length of a telephoto lens is typically indicative of the relative focal length of the lens: longer lenses most often have longer focal lengths and therefore higher magnification factors than shorter lenses.  This is only a very general rule of thumb, however, since there are a number of special optical designs that can result in large focal lengths in a relatively small package (such as catadioptrics or diffractive optics), and also because the issue of zoom lenses complicates the issue as well.  We’ll address these latter exceptions in due course.
    The important point to be conveyed by part A of the above figure is that it is both the length and the width of the lens that (very broadly speaking) largely determine the brightness of the image.  A long lens that is very narrow will thus tend to produce high magnification but dark images.  Conversely, a short lens with a very wide objective diameter (i.e., the wide end of the lens) will tend to produce only modest magnification, but should be very bright.  Later we’ll consider a number of caveats to this general rule.
    First, let’s dispense with a common (though rather mundane) source of confusion regarding terminology.  To an optician or physicist, a
lens is a single piece of thin glass with (typically) two convex surfaces.  To a photographer, a lens is a complete package consisting of a plastic or metal outer casing enclosing perhaps 10 or 20 glass elements (each of which a physicist would call a lens).  Unfortunately, we’ll have to use both of these definitions of lens at various points in this discussion, though we’ll try to use the term lens only for the complete package, with the individual (physicist’s) lenses inside that package being referred to as glass elements or optical elements
    One exception to this rule is the term
objective lens or objective lens element, which refers to the big piece of glass at the widest end of the lens package.  It’s the diameter of the objective lens element that largely determines the light-gathering capacity of a camera lens.  However, this effect (of large-diameter objective lenses to let in more light) is highly dependent on the focal length of the complete lens package.  In fact, it’s the ratio of the focal length to the objective lens diameter which effectively dictates the overall brightness of the image that is projected onto the camera’s imaging sensor.  It’s for this reason that photographers define a special term for this ratioa term which you’ll see again and again throughout this book: the aperture.  As we’ll soon see, this term is an unfortunate carryover of ancient photographic tradition which has resulted in no small amount of confusion by newcomers.  Hopefully, we can mitigate the amount of confusion with a simple mnemonic, which we’ll come to very shortly.
    But first, just to keep things concrete, let’s consider a quick example.  One of the most popular lenses among professional bird photographers is the 600mm f/4 lens.  This lens has a focal length of 600mm and an objective lens diameter of about 6 inches.  Since one inch is equal to approximately 25 millimeters, the diameter is roughly 150mm.  Applying the formula from part B of the figure above, we get:

Thus, for a lens with a 600mm focal length and a 150mm objective lens diameter, we say that the aperture of this lens is f/4.  One way to think of this f-notation is to think of the f in f/4 as standing for focal length.  In that case, f/4 would mean focal length divided by 4, which in the example above would give us 600/4 = 150, or the objective lens diameter.  Thus, the aperture is what we would intuitively expect it to be: the size of the opening through which light is collected.
    Notationally, the aperture of the lens in the preceding example is emphatically not 4
rather, it’s f/4.  That is, the f-number is 4 but the aperture is f/4.  That’s important, because while you’d expect a larger aperture (hole that lets in light) to result in brighter images, larger f-numbers (such as 8 instead of 4) actually let in less light than smaller f-numbers.  That’s because the f-number occurs in the denominator of the f-notation.  Given two apertures, f/a and f/b, if a>b, then f/a will be smaller than f/b, since a and b are in the denominator, and thus f/a will be a darker aperture than f/b, since it denotes a smaller objective lens diameter, which would let in less light. 
    Let’s consider a few more concrete examples.  In Figure 3.1.2, below, we show four super-telephoto lenses: two 400mm lenses (f/4 and f/5.6), a 600mm lens (f/4) and an 800mm lens (f/5.6).  These are all common birding lenses.  Considering first the two 400mm lenses (both at left), we can see from the figure that the f/4 lens is wider than the f/5.6 lens.  The f/4 lens will thus let in more light, allowing faster shutter speeds that will be better able to freeze the action of the bird and thereby produce sharper images of non-static subjects.  The f/4 lens will also be more desirable in early morning or late evening, or in cloudy conditions, when the faster shutter speeds allowed by f/4 will help to overcome any hand-shake that you experience when taking the shot (if you’re not using a tripod).  Of course, the wider lens will also be heavier and may therefore cause more hand-shake, but as we’ll discuss in section 3.5, image stabilization can to some degree compensate for these issues.

Fig. 3.1.2: Typical focal lengths and apertures of
birding lenses.  Because aperture is a function of
both the focal length and the objective lens diameter,
a wider lens doesn’t always have a larger aperture.

Compared to the 400mm lenses depicted in the figure, the 600mm and 800mm lenses are obviously longer.  To compare widths, let’s first consider lenses of the same aperture (f-number).  Comparing the 400mm f/4 lens to the 600mm f/4 lens, we can see that the 600mm lens is definitely wider than the 400mm lens.  But because 600mm is longer than 400mm, the increased width of the 600mm lens still only results in an aperture of f/4, so that both lenses will produce roughly the same brightness in the resulting images, despite the 600’s wider opening.  Similarly, while the 800mm lens shown above is much wider than the 400mm f/5.6 lens, the fact that they both result in a length/width ratio of 5.6 means that they have the same f-number, and should therefore produce images of roughly the same brightness (all other things being equal). 
    Keep in mind that the issue of brightness typically translates to shutter speed or other camera settings. 
In the figure above, you can see that the 800mm and 600mm lenses have the same objective lens diameter (6 inches), but since they have different focal lengths, the apertures end up being different (f/4 versus f/5.6), so the brightness will be different: the 800mm lens will require slower shutter speeds or higher ISO settings than the 600mm, because it lets in less light per unit time than the 600mm, despite having the same objective lens diameter.  In other words, your photos will be darker when taken through the f/5.6 lens than when taken through the f/4 lens, unless you compensate via camera settings (such as shutter speed or ISO).  But the act of compensating via camera settings can sometimes have unfortunate consequences: for poorly lit scenes, you may be forced to use a shutter speed that is so slow that the bird looks indistinct, due to motion blur (motion blur is discussed in Chapter 6), or if you instead just increase the ISO you may end up with an image that is very noisy.  In this way, the aperture of a lens can seriously affect the quality of your images, and this is why professionals generally prefer lenses with the largest apertures.
    Up to this point, we’ve been talking about the aperture of a lens
as if lenses have only a single, fixed f-number.  In truth, what we’ve really been talking about is the maximum aperture of a lens.  Most camera lenses have a built-in iris, or diaphram, which can open or close to various sizes to restrict the amount of light entering the lens, as illustrated in Figure 3.1.3 below.  In this way, the aperture of a lens can be reduced, when needed.

Fig. 3.1.3: Reducing the effective aperture via an adjustable iris.
Left: wide open at f/2.8.  Middle: stopped down to f/11.
Right: stopped down to f/32.

In the figure above, we’re looking through an f/2.8 lens with the iris set to different settings.  In the leftmost image, the iris is wide open, giving us an effect aperture (f/2.8) that is the same as the maximum aperture of the lens.  In the middle image, we’ve closed the iris (or stopped down) quite a bit, resulting in an effective aperture of f/11.  In this middle image you can see that the iris is not perfectly circular: in this case it’s a heptagon (i.e., like a hexagon or octagon, but with 7 sides); we’ll comment on this later, in section 3.7.  In the rightmost image, we’ve stopped down even further, to f/32, and now you can see that the opening is very small indeed.  For practical bird photography, apertures smaller than f/11 are rarely used.  A common range of apertures used in the field would be f/5.6 to f/8.
    In addition to letting in more light, a lens with a large maximum aperture (i.e., a smaller f-number) also permits the use of shallower depth-of-field (DOF), which can be useful in isolating your subject from the background and/or foreground.  This can make a big difference in the aesthetics of your photos, since the bird will stand out more, and the background will be less likely to distract the viewer from the beauty of the bird.  The photo below shows five female Boat-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus major) perched on a wooden railing at a park; because I was using an f/4 lens at close range and was shooting wide open (i.e., at maximum aperture), I was able to isolate one bird from the group, despite the other birds being mere inches away from the subject in focus.

Fig. 3.1.4: Isolating a subject via wide aperture.
At a close distance (~12 feet) and wide aperture
(f/4), I was able to isolate this grackle from its
flock-mates who were only inches away from it.

In practice, effects like that shown above can be achieved in software if you don’t have a wide-aperture lens.  If I had instead shot this image at f/11, the other birds would probably have been at least partially in focus, distracting the viewer’s attention away from my intended subject (the single bird I was focusing on).  To get the effect illustrated above, but at f/11, I could have opened the image in Photoshop, traced the outline of the second bird from the right, and then applied a lens-blur filter to the rest of the image.  This isnt always easy though, so it’s preferable to achieve this kind of effect with a wide-aperture lens (if you have one).
    To briefly summarize, the maximum aperture of a lens can affect the depth of field of your images, as well as the maximum brightness, which in turn affects the shutter speeds and/or ISO settings you’ll end up using with that lens, and these latter settings can affect the image quality due to motion blur or pixel noise.  For these reasons, lenses with wider maximum apertures (smaller f-numbers) such as f/4 or f/5.6 are preferable over those with smaller maximum apertures.
    For real-life birding situations, however, the focal length typically trumps lens aperture in overall importance, simply because focal length translates into magnification.  When chasing wild birds in the field
especially small, wary birds that won’t let you get closeyou’ll more often find that you need more magnification rather than lessFigure 3.1.5, below, should give you some intuition for how focal lengths translate to magnification and reach.  On the left you can see a tripod-mounted camera (a Sigma 800mm f/5.6 lens with a 1.4× teleconverter attached) and a bird (an osprey) perched high above in a tree.  The image on the right was taken after the bird had moved to a more open branch at more or less the same distance from the camera.  This image was taken at an effective focal length of 1120mm. 

Fig. 3.1.5: Osprey at 1120mm.
Left: prior to photographing this bird, it was perched
as shown in the tallest tree.  Right: after moving to a
nearby branch with fewer leaves, I photographed this
bird at a focal length of 1120mm (800mm + 1.4
× TC).

This is an enormous focal length, but given the distance and size of the bird, it was just right for getting the amount of detail I wanted in my subject.  Keep in mind that magnification is important for achieving two things: making the bird big enough to fill an appreciable portion of the frame, and magnifying details such as feathers so that they’re large enough to be individually resolved in the final image.  Thus, while you can always digitally zoom in on the bird later in Photoshop to make it fill more of the frame, doing so won’t recreate details that were lost during image capture (due to either lack of magnification or poor optical quality).  For my 10 megapixel professional camera body (a 2007 model with a 1.3× crop factor), which produces exceptional image quality, I find that I can sometimes apply an extra 50% digital zoom, but most of the time I’m not satisfied with the resulting image quality and will revert to full frame (no zoom).  Thus, if you want very high image quality, I recommend getting all of your magnification from a combination of prime focal length (possibly with a high-quality 1.4× teleconverter) and the so-called foot zoom (using your feet to get you closer to the bird).
    It should be obvious that the ideal magnification for any shooting situation depends on the size of the bird and how close you can get to it.  It’s worthwhile to go through a few examples with birds of different sizes to get a feel for how much focal length you’ll want to have for shooting those birds at typical distances in the field.  The image below shows the sizes of the models we’ll be using in the ensuing examples.
  The owl is about the same size as a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), the blue bird is about the size of an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis, a typical American passerine), and the small purple bird is about the size of a typical New World wood warbler (Parulidae).

Fig. 3.1.6: Models used in the ensuing examples.  The owl is about the
size of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), the blue bird is about the
size of an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), and the purple bird is about
the size of a New World warbler (Parulidae).  The size of the bird and its
distance from the camera determine the ideal focal length for shooting it.

The first example is for the warbler.  You can see in the figure below that anything less than 840mm (600mm with a 1.4× teleconverter) leaves the bird noticeably small in the frame, and even at 840mm you’d want to crop the image so that the bird fills a larger proportion of the frame.  These photos were taken at a distance of 35 feet, using a 1.3× crop camera (section 2.3).  That’s two and a half car lengths, which is not a terribly large distance when you’re out in the fieldand keep in mind that while the model was at eye level, warblers are often found higher in the trees, which increases the effective shooting distance.  In order to get really great warbler photos with my 840mm rig, I find that I need to be closer than this. 

Fig. 3.1.7: A model warbler shot at different focal lengths.
The bird was 35 feet away, or about two and a half car lengths. 
A 1.3
× crop camera was used.  Note that even 840mm does not
result in a frame-filling shot, though it
s probably large enough for
an acceptable crop.

Thus, for warbler photography in a place like the North Carolina piedmont you really need either a 600mm lens with a 1.4× teleconverter or an 800mm lens, or you need to find a way to get closer to the bird.  (One way to get closer is to travel to a migration hotspot where you can get within 15 feet of the birds and shoot them with a 400mm lenssee sections 8.4 and 8.7.1).
The next example is for the bluebird, which was shot at 40 feet (direct line-of-sight distance) with the same 1.3× crop camera.  The size of this bird is very typical for passerines, so for general-purpose birding this example may be more relevant than the others. 

Fig. 3.1.8: Model bluebird at 40 feet, or about two and a half car lengths,
which isn
t very far.  The 840mm shot renders the bird nice and large, though
the 600mm shot may support a reasonable crop.  Passerines do require large
focal lengths, unless you have some way of getting extremely close to them.

In this case 840mm enlarges the bird enough to fill a nice portion of the frame.  I could also have taken the 600mm shot and digitally cropped it to make the bird appear 40% largerthat would have resulted in a framing identical to the 840mm shot.  As long as the 600mm shot is a sharp capture this might produce an acceptable full-screen image for posting on the internet.  But as mentioned earlier, for my 2007-model pro camera body I typically don’t like to apply any digital zooming, because doing so often sacrifices detail (I resize most of my images to 33%, which roughly fills my laptop’s 15-inch screen).  Of course, your images dont need to fill the full screen.  Many people post images online that fill only a quarter of the screen.  For the example above, even the 500mm shot would probably suffice to produce a high-quality image of that size.
    The final example is of a much larger bird
a great horned owl at 35 feet.  As you can see below, you need a lot less magnification when shooting a large bird like this.  Acceptable framing can be accomplished (for this bird, at this distance) at 300mm or 400mm, and above 400mm we’re losing part of the bird.  Nevertheless, 840mm is still useful for this subject because it can be used to get incredibly detailed head shots.

Fig. 3.1.9: Great horned owl at 35 feet.  For large birds like raptors,
waterfowl, pelicans, and others, 400mm is a very good focal length
at close distances, though 700-800mm is still useful for getting
ridiculously detailed head shots.  Note that a bird in flight at this
distance would fill more of the frame, due to its wing span.

Note that for birds in flight the subject can appear substantially larger, due to the wing span.  For that reason, 400mm lenses are very popular for shooting birds in flight (BIFsection 8.10) at short distances.  For wary passerines such as warblers and thrushes in the wild, when it’s difficult to get closer than a couple car lengths, the need for much larger focal lengths is unavoidable, unless you can find some way to get closer to the bird than would normally be possiblesuch as via the use of a blind (see section 8.4).  My personal preference is to use a 500mm lens with a 1.4× teleconverter, resulting in an effective focal length of 700mm.  I can carry this rig on a sling strap (section 4.1) and shoot hand-held, so I get the benefit of a relatively large focal length while still retaining mobility and flexibility by not having to mess around with a tripod.  That mobility in turn allows me to get closer to the bird in many cases.
    Unfortunately, large-focal-length lenses tend to be very, very expensive.  Canon’s and Nikon
s 500mm and 600mm f/4 lenses run between US $6000 and $9000 new.  Even Sigma’s third party 800mm f/5.6 lens runs about $7000 (new).  There are, however, several options available to the budget-minded birder.  First, there’s the possibility of using a 400mm f/5.6 lens with a teleconverter to achieve 560mm (with 1.4× TC) or 800mm (with 2.0× TC) fairly cheaply: a new 400mm f/5.6 lens runs around $1000 to $1500 for brand-name, or less for third-party, and name-brand teleconverters range from $200 to $500 US.  The quality of such a setup will, of course, be no match for a $6000+ name-brand lens, especially when using a 2× TC.  Furthermore, this setup will typically require you to focus manually, which can be very difficult if you have less-than-perfect eyesight, or if you’re trying to capture birds in flight.  (Note that with a pro body you’d typically be able to use autofocus with an f/5.6 lens attached to a 1.4× TC, but not with an f/5.6 lens attached to a 2× TC; also, pro bodies run $4000+ new).
    Two other options, both of which require manual focusing, make use of cheap optics, but can sometimes produce fairly good images with some effort.  The first we’ve already discussed: attaching your camera to an astronomical telescope such as the 1800mm focal-length Maksutov telescope described in section 2.2.  Large-focal-length mirror telescopes such as Maksutovs and Schmidt-Cassegrains can be had, new, for US $600 or so, and can be extremely sharp.  Unfortunately, they require manual focusing, provide no image stabilization (which becomes more essential at the high focal lengths these lenses provide), and typically have a maximum aperture of around f/12 (and that aperture is often fixed, so you can’t modify it in order to adjust your exposure).  They can also produce distracting background patterns, such as doughnuts (see section 3.7).  Smaller versions of these mirror telescopes have been developed and marketed specifically as camera lenses, though these have a reputation for producing low-quality images.  Such a mirror lens is shown below; these lenses often cost as little as $200 and provide 500mm to 800mm of focal length.  Just keep in mind that with photographic equipment you generally get what you pay for.

Fig. 3.1.10: A cheap mirror lens. 
(Public Domain image by Rama; reproduced from Wikipedia).

One final alternative for budget-constrained birders requiring large focal lengths is the use of lenses from such manufacturers as Opteka, who offer long lenses with very small apertures at very low prices.  One such model is a zoom lens that can go from 650mm to 1300mm, with apertures also zooming from f/8 down to f/16.  This model is available for under $300. 
    If you’re tempted to follow one of these cheaper routes, just be sure to find out about any and all shortcomings of the lens/telescope before buying (or keep your receipt so you can return it for a refund).  In addition to the smaller apertures, many of these lenses have fairly large minimum focus distances (or MFD
see section 3.13.6); which means that if the bird is closer than this distance you won’t be able to focus on it (even manually).  Reasonable MFDs for bird photography are in the range of 10 to 20 feet.