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Recommendations on a cheap telephoto lens for birds?

This is a discussion on Recommendations on a cheap telephoto lens for birds? within the Camera equipment & accessories forums, part of the Education & Technical category; I've been doing a lot of lens research lately to help decide which camera I want to buy, and it ...

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    masp is offline Senior Member
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    Question Recommendations on a cheap telephoto lens for birds?

    I've been doing a lot of lens research lately to help decide which camera I want to buy, and it seems like Nikon produces some fairly decent kit lenses for the money. For instance, the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G VR lens gets fairly good ratings (particularly sharpness) from slrgear, bythom (thanks for the link Marko) and other sites. Canon also makes a 55-250mm lens that gets good reviews for sharpness when stopped down.

    The Nikon 18-55mm VR also gets a decent review for sharpness when stopped down. On the other hand, this guide from photo.net recommends that you go with a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 $430 as a starter lens. He suggests you should go mainly with prime lens for a better price performance ratio. However all the long telephoto lenses he recommends are massive, heavy and expensive. So are kit lenses and cheaper zoom lenses generally inferior choices or can you find exceptions?

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    With birds you want a very sharp lens for all the detail, feathers are soft but shouldn't look soft. I would recommend saving for and buying the higher grade lenses. Lenses are an investment if you take care of them they will last you a long time.
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    What are the lighter lenses that I can still expect to get decent detail with? I'm also considering using a slightly shorter but faster lens with a teleconverter if that might save me some weight and cost.

    How do the shots from slrgear.com's review of the Olympus 70-300mm f/4-5.6 look? Potentially it has a 600mm reach, or more with a teleconverter, and is not much more than two pounds with a four thirds or micro four thirds camera. They're just small jpgs though, so maybe not the best samples.

    http://myolympus.org/document.php?id=16050
    http://myolympus.org/document.php?id=16025
    http://retrent63.com/TP172568a.jpg
    http://retrent63.com/TP172604.jpg
    http://retrent63.com/TP292881.jpg
    http://retrent63.com/TP292884.jpg
    http://retrent63.com/TP292906.jpg
    http://retrent63.com/TP222690.jpg

    Edit: Sort of answered my own question when I stumbled upon the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM Lens at http://www.the-digital-picture.com/R...ns-Review.aspx. It seems to get good reviews at slrgear.com too. Aside from it's 25.2 oz weight (though relatively light) and the fact that the white L series design screams STEAL ME, it seems like a nice bargain.

    Further research had me looking into at Nikon's 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S ED VR II. Seems to sell for almost $2000 and weight 3.4 lbs. Sigma's 70-200mm f/2.8 II and Tamron's 70-200mm f/2.8 clock in at about the same weight, with the Tamron about a half pound lighter, and both seem to cost around $700. More reasonable, though the fact that the Canon 70-200 weighs about half as much makes it more appealing, despite the smaller aperture. Also, I would guess that the Canon L series lens would hold it's value a bit better.
    Last edited by masp; 03-16-2010 at 01:49 AM.

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    Well if a big reason for buying a lens is for bird photography it almost always forces you into bigger and more expensive lenses. You need long reach (I'm thinking at least 300mm), good speed (to catch sharp wings instead of blurred), and fast autofocus usually helps a lot too (meaning built-in focus motor).

    Keep in mind that many teleconverters aren't really compatible with slow lenses. For example, some Nikon TCs won't allow AF for lenses with less than f4 max aperture.

    So I don't think a 55-200/4-5.6VR with a TC is a good option.

    If a person really wanted to do a lot of birding on a budget I'd say something like the Sigma Bigma EX 50-500 or the newer 150-500mm with OS might be options worth considering, or maybe a Nikon AF-S 300/4 with a Kenko pro series teleconverter. Any of those will still be in the $1000 - 1500 range though.

    I'm using Nikon as examples because I'm more familiar with it. Your posts have mentioned both Nikon and Canon though so I was confused if you have a body yet or not.

    If birding is just an occasional thing, and you want to travel light/compact, and the budget is limited, well maybe the Nikon 70-300. I've read good things considering it's price. It's not "fast", but I think 200mm or less is just not enough reach for birds or most wildlife even with the crop sensor.

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    I can vouch for the canon 70-200 F4 L lens...it's awesome in terms of sharpness with normal stationary objects. I shot some birds with that lens on a few occasions with my Canon 30D....and it was VERY difficult to get sharpness using AF tracking. Not sure if it would have been much faster on a 5dmark2...

    But in general I'm with F8 here, you'll likely want more reach (300mm Plus plus) though for birds.
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    I can vouch for the quality of the Zuiko 70-300mm as I shot with it for a couple of years using an E-510 and E-3. I have never owned a sharper lens. If you go to my Photoblog in my sig and go to the archives July 2009 and earlier are some examples of work done with this lens. Pretty much all the bird and animal shots are using this lens.

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    Thanks for the tips guys. I checked out the Canon 70-200mm f4 and it has glowing reviews. I guess the $650 price is about as good as it gets, though I wonder which teleconverter would work well on it. 2x would get me more reach, but less light and the lens isn't very fast to begin with. 25.2 oz seems pretty big and heavy already, though I hear it is light for it's class. Canon's 55-250mm might be the lightest it gets at 13 oz. It's basically a $250 kit lens, though it gets a good review from SLR Gear for sharpness and CA. A TC is probably not possible on it of course.

    Is the Nikon 70-300 basically the Canon 70-200's equivalent? The Nikon is slower, weighs about the same at 26.3 oz, is more compact at 5.6" to 7" and costs $515 at Amazon today. If it's true that you generally get what you pay for, the Canon's IQ is probably slightly better with less CA and distortion, according to SLR Gear. Even so, they say that the Nikon's IQ is acceptable at 300mm. VR is a plus compared to the Canon 70-200. Unlike Nikon, Canon's consumer level 70-300 has a rotating front element so it is probably a worse choice, though it is marginally lighter at 22oz.

    Non Canikon lenses:
    The Sigmas offer very nice reach, but they weigh in about 4 pounds according to slrgear. Pentax offers the very big and heavy 60-250 DA* (43 oz) in this area. Sony's 16 oz. 75-300 is in the kit lens price range and it's soft at 300mm according to slrgear. The m4/3 and 4/3 options are a bit cheaper and maybe a pound lighter at most (counting the body) than these options, but sharpness deteriorates past 150mm (300mm 35mm equivalent). Slightly slower shutter release with m4/3 may be an issue too. They have higher quality lenses, but these are mostly just as heavy as their bigger competitors. I guess there is no free lunch.

    I looked at some of the third party Tamron and Sigma lenses, it seems to be the same pattern, but I didn't notice any standout competitors. The sharp lenses are heavy and the less sharp ones are lighter. Does this cover most of the market, or have I missed anything? I think I've mostly exhausted the market options at this point. One other thing I hadn't looked into is possibly getting a telephoto m42 or Leica M mount lens for a micro four thirds camera. Having to manually pre-focus would be more work, but perhaps I'd get an edge in terms of optics and weight?

    F8: Nope, I'm still shopping for a DSLR at this point and comparing various systems for what I want. They all look quite similiar so far. One thing I found is that Nikon can use it's pop-up flash as a master flash, so maybe you save a few bucks on lighting compared to Canon, but otherwise it's looking pretty close.

    Michaelaw: Thanks for the input! Are you talking about this lens? What aperture and shutter speeds do you usually use with that lens? slrgear says that it's sharper when stopped down considerably, but of course that requires a lower shutter speed. I suppose it works well on bright sunny days.
    Last edited by masp; 03-18-2010 at 04:48 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    Thanks for the tips guys. I checked out the Canon 70-200mm f4 and it has glowing reviews. I guess the $650 price is about as good as it gets, though ...
    Well if you can get a 70-200 constant aperture f4 zoom, Canon L series lens, for $650, I'd say that's yet another example of how Canon's lens lineup is more attractive than Nikon's (to me at least). Nikon just now finally started to see the light and come to market with some lighter, less expensive f4 zooms, but you couldn't even get a used one for that price 3 years from now.

    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    Is the Nikon 70-300 basically the Canon 70-200's equivalent?
    Not if the Canon 70 - 200 is an L lens, constant f4. Nikon's is variable aperture 4 - 5.6 and more like a kit lens in construction quality. L lenses are Canons premium grade. I don't know, but I doubt even optically they are in same league.

    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    I guess there is no free lunch.
    You got that right.

    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    ...One other thing I hadn't looked into is possibly getting a telephoto m42 or Leica M mount lens for a micro four thirds camera. Having to manually pre-focus would be more work, but perhaps I'd get an edge in terms of optics and weight?
    The physical/optical limitations of lens design always means there is a tradeoff somewhere. If you don't mind giving up small birds/distant birds and just want one long-ish zoom with great optics to do a bit of everything, something like a 70-200/f4 zoom would be sound consideration. And because it's f4 you could probably add a teleconverter and maintain decent AF performance.

    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    One thing I found is that Nikon can use it's pop-up flash as a master flash, so maybe you save a few bucks on lighting compared to Canon, but otherwise it's looking pretty close.
    This is cool, but Pentax also offers this on some models, and Canon has on the 7D and probably will on most future models as well. Probably other brands offer it too (Sony, Olympus) but I am less familiar with those.

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    Not if the Canon 70 - 200 is an L lens, constant f4. Nikon's is variable aperture 4 - 5.6 and more like a kit lens in construction quality. L lenses are Canons premium grade. I don't know, but I doubt even optically they are in same league.
    I see what you mean here. I guess it's still true that Canon still has a slight edge in telephotos.

    What sort of monitor or printing setup do you use with a Canon 70-200/f4? My stuff is only mediocre in that respect, so I wonder how much detail I will actually be able to see. Do you use your own printer or a professional service?

    Anyway, I"m comparing birds 70-200mm canon l - Flickr: Search and birds 70-300 olympus - Flickr: Search right now, I don't see a massive difference, but I'll see if I can track down better example shots. Then again, maybe it's my monitor too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by masp View Post
    I see what you mean here. I guess it's still true that Canon still has a slight edge in telephotos.
    Well all I was thinking is that even though I'm a Nikon shooter I think Canon has a good selection of lenses and the prices of their higher end lenses are quite attractive in comparison. Nikon has some great glass too, but to be fair it's hard to compare a consumer grade lens from one brand to a premium lens of another. I think all the major brands have some great lenses.

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