Photography is a great tool to improve bird ID accuracy as explored in my previous post Photography and Birding. Now I am ready to share with you what lens I consider ideal regarding cost, weight, portability, and quality.
My experience is only with Canon equipment which I have used for five years, of course there is also Nikon and others but these will not be considered here. First I have to set the ideal specifications that will help us select the equipment best suited for this purpose.
Ideally we need the highest magnification possible combined with best photo quality and good portability of the equipment. This requirement is first determined by a great extent by the lens that you select and second by the camera. In selecting a lens with strong magnification, there is one factor that becomes very important in the selection process; it is Image Stabilization. This technology allows you take better pictures specially under hand-held situations. As a demonstration of this technology I took 4 photos without IS (Image Stabilization) and 4 photo with IS, here are the results here:
The test was performed at a shutter speed of 1/20 sec to accentuate the effectiveness of the technology. Of course the benefits if this technology are much lower when there is a lot of light and you can take photos at shutter speeds above 1/500 sec. Now here in the tropics, the low light conditions are very persistent, especially in primary forest, so the IS technology allows you to take better pictures at low shutter speeds which are a must under low light conditions.
Here is the list of possibilities of lenses with IS:
Lens Weight Cost
300 f/4 IS USM xxx 2.6 lbs xxx $1,376
300 mm f/2.8L IS USM II xxx 5.6 lbs xxx $7,299
100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS USM xxx 3 lbs xxx $1,439
400 mm f/2.8L IS USM II xxx 11.7 lbs xxx $10,500
500 mm f/4L IS USM xxx 8.5 lbs xxx $10,500
Due to budget limitations and (my) body strength, and (my) age, I have limited myself to trying the 300 f/4 IS USM and the 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS USM. The other lens are two expensive and too heavy to carry around my neck for many hours. Keep in mind that as a birder one will probably carry binoculars, water, and a scope!
I have owned both lenses for more than two years and here is the results I have obtained. First of all is image quality, for this I have taken a series of pictures with each lens and cropped the image for the subject area I am using to compare. Here is the result:
I expected the 300 f/4 (prime) lens to have better results but I could not really notice any difference between the two. From my experiences I have come to prefer the 100-400 because it gives me more flexibility so I can frame some close-up subjects better. Also the 100-400 lens is shorter and fits better in my bag. The only drawback is that it is more prone to water problems since the water can easily enter the lens through its slip area.
Another great benefit of the 100-400 mm is that I can converted into a very effective macro by adding a 77 mm +4 filter (Hoya 77mm Close-up Kit – Multi Coated) in the front. This work great when the lens is contracted to 100 mm. Here is a macro photo taken by the 100-400 when compared to a true 180mm f/3.5 macro.
This cannot be done with the 300 f/4 lens since its magnification is too great to properly work with the +4 filter. The filter kit cost $126 versus the cost of the macro 180 f/3.5 macro of $1474. This is a great addition for a quick macro photo of insects, flowers, or even bird feathers if the opportunity comes. The weight of the kit is 0.3 lbs or if you just carry the one filter for an extra 3 oz.
Speaking of filters I ran a quick test of a UV that I added to my lens. Here is a photo comparing with UV filter and without.
The result is amazing, the photo without UV filter is sharper. I had purchased a $30 UV filter for my $1500 lens and the results were terrible. Since then I have stopped using UV filters for protection. Maybe a high quality filter will not affect the picture, but then maybe it will, so I don’t use them. Instead I carry a Pearstone Lenspen LP-1 for properly cleaning my lens without scratching. For very difficult smudges you should carry a Moistened Wipe that comes with a Zeiss Lens Cleaning Cloth (2 Microfiber Cloths and 30 Moistened Wipes).