Can You Use a 200mm Lens for Bird Photography?

Does a 200mm lens for bird photography exist? Many people getting started in wildlife photography begin with an entry-level camera lens with less reach (focal length) than an experienced amateur photographer will have.

Back when we started bird photography, the longest lens we had was a 18-200mm zoom lens. It worked well for photographing certain species of birds, but there are some important things we learned about what to expect with this 200mm lens along the way. This post will help you better understand what you can expect to achieve with a similar camera lens.

If you are a beginner, a 200mm lens will work just fine for bird photography, especially if you’re using a 1.6X crop-sensor DSLR. A camera lens with a 200mm focal length can provide an impressive photo of your subject, but they will have to be pretty close.

Unfortunately, birds are quite wary of humans, so getting close enough for a sharp shot with a 200mm lens be difficult for most species.

If you have your heart set on a 200mm lens for bird photography, consider a fixed “prime” telephoto lens such as the the Canon EF 200mm F/2.8L II USM. This lens is not zoom-able, but is capable of capturing incredible crisp images of birds, which is extremely important. For a Canon L-Series lens, this one is astonishingly affordable.

Canon EF 200mm F/2.8L Lens

Canon EF 200mm F/2.8L Lens

Whether you shoot with a Canon, Nikon, Sony, or any other brand of digital camera, a 200mm lens can be a useful piece of kit for bird photography. A crop-sensor DSLR camera (APS-C) will go deeper than a full-frame body, but both camera types have their advantages and disadvantages. In this post, we’ll cover some general best practices for using a 200mm lens to photograph birds, and what you can expect to acheive with similar gear.

Bird photography with a 200mm lens

A Great egret photographed using a Canon 18-200mm Zoom Lens

Can You Use a 200mm Lens for Bird Photography?

If you’re wondering if your crop-sensor DSLR camera and a 200mm lens is enough reach for bird photography, you’re not alone. When you start to get serious about photographing birds, amateurs are often faced with the decision whether to upgrade their photography gear or not. We started out with a Canon EOS Rebel Xs (1000D) and soon purchased an 18-200mm zoom lens for the purpose of getting close-up images of birds.

It was a Canon EF-S 18-200mm 3.5-5.6 IS lens, and it was enough to get us absolutely hooked on the hobby. A zoom like this is considered to be a “Walk Around” camera lens because of its versatility. You can capture wide angle (18mm) landscape images and close-ups of birds, flowers, or anything else you desire without ever changing the lens. Think of it as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The truth is, we were mostly interested in photographing birds, so the lens sat in the 200mm position 90% of the time.

A prime lens (non-zoom) is recommended over a zoom lens if you’re interested in capturing the sharpest images possible. However, new zoom lenses such as the Canon EF 70-200 F/2.8L USM IS have the benefit of image stabilization, which can really help capture a crisp image when fully zoomed all the way to 200mm. Expect to pay more for lenses with a fast aperture and image stabilization. The more light your lens can let in at once, the faster your exposures can be.

Most of our photos of birds are 1/250 of a second or faster, to capture a sharp image.

Sharpness and Detail

As you progress your skills in bird photography, you will inevitably begin to critique the aesthetics of your images more and more over time. After all, to get better, you need to improve your image quality. One of the most important elements of a great bird photo is sharpness, and this is where you may first find that a 200mm lens is holding you back. If the bird lands nice and close to you, the sharpness and clarity of your photo can be amazing. However, the farther away your subject is, the more difficult this will be to achieve.

This is why most amateur bird photographers tend to rely on camera lenses with a 400mm focal length or more. A camera lens with a 200mm focal length is certainly capable of a capturing amazing images of birds, but species that refuse to get too close or move very fast (such as warblers) will be tough.

For some inspiration, go check out the Canon EF 70-200mm Flickr group, and have a look at some of the brilliant wildlife photography images taken with this lens. If you’re looking for some ways to sharpen up your existing images using photoshop, have a look at our video tutorial.

What is the minimum focal length to use for bird photography?

Many amateur bird photographers will advise you that 300mm is the absolute minimum focal length lens for birds, with good reason. That extra 100mm can make a big difference. One of the primary lenses we use is the Canon EF 300mm F/4L USM (Non IS), and it is indeed well capable of capturing incredible wildlife photos. However, that doesn’t mean that great photos aren’t possible with a 200mm lens.

No matter what lens you use for bird photography, one thing will remain the same. You will always want more focal length (Unless you’re already using a 600mm lens)!

One way to add more magnification to your existing camera lens is to use a teleconverter. These come is various magnifcations such as 1.4X and 2.0X, and sit between your DSLR camera body and lens. You’ll need to make sure that it is compatible with your current camera body and lenses, and they are not cheap. Also, be aware that you will likely lose a one stop of aperture when you use a teleconverter. We use a Canon 1.4X teleconverter with our 300mm F/4L lens, which resuts in a maximum aperture of F/5.6L when it’s in use.

Getting close to certain birds with a 200mm lens will be tough (Snowy Owl)

What to expect when shooting at this focal length

As we mentioned earlier, image sharpness is likely going to be your biggest challenge. It’s not that a 200mm lens is incapable of a crisp photo, it’s a matter of image resolution. Chances are, your subject will be quite small in relation to the overall image size when using a 200mm lens. This means that you may end up cropping the photo in post-processing to better isolate your subject.

When you crop the photo by 50%, you are not only cutting the size of the image in half, but you are losing resolution (and image quality) of your subject. You’ll notice that the details of the bird you photographed are not a sharp as they are in photos where your subject is nice and close. In comparison, a camera lens with a longer focal length will bring your subject in closer. This means less cropping, and more resolution and details in your bird photographing images.

No amount of cropping or image sharpening can restore the image details that are lost when your subject is too far away. This doesn’t mean that you can’t capture beautiful photos of birds with a 200mm camera lens. Here are some practical tips you can use the next time you are out shooting:

5 Ways to take better bird photos with a 200mm lens

1. Use a monopod or tripod

It might feel overkill to use a tripod with a small 200mm camera lens, but this is bird photography! Anything that can help you take a steady shot is worth the time and effort. A monopod is also a great idea, and is much more portable and lightweight than a tripod. When you plant the monopod into the ground, you’ll still be able to move your lens around and track your subject. A small upgrade to your kit like this can have a huge impact on your images.

2. Wear camouflage and be patient

The biggest challenge of taking photos of birds with a limited focal length is getting close to your subject, so you’re going to have to be sneaky. Stay hidden whenever possible, and try to blend in with your surroundings. Ideally, the bird will have no idea that you are there, and land right next to you. This can be very difficult to accomplish, so you’ll have to be patient. The good news is, when the bird finally lands nearby, the shot you take will be that much more satisfying when you get it. Sometimes, you have to earn your amazing photo.

3. Adjust your expectations – Calculate your field of view

Use a field of view calculator to see exactly how close you need to be to fill the frame with your bird using a 200mm lens. You simply enter in the focal length of your lens (200mm), your sensor size, and the distance. This will give you a helpful point of reference. It may surprise you to know that larger species of birds such as a Great blue heron are well within your reach with a 200mm lens, especially if they are used to humans nearby.

This won’t make it any easier to get closer to your subject, but at least your expectations will be set appropriately.

4. Photograph larger birds that have adapted to human presence

Certain birds such as Swans, Great blue herons and many waterfowl are perfect subjects for a 200mm camera lens. They are slower and have more predictable movements than a tiny warbler hopping from branch to branch. Rather than setting yourself up for disappointment, double down on the types of birds that you can realistically capture a great photo of. Below, you’ll see one of our favorite images captured using our Canon 18-200mm camera lens at 200mm.

Large birds are the perfect subject for a 200mm lens

5. Capture images that showcase the birds natural habitat

Since the bird usually won’t fill the entire frame at a focal length of 200mm, you’ll have plenty of room left to show the animals natural surroundings. This could be a creek, woodland area, or a wide open field. No matter where the setting is, use some landscape photography basics when framing up your image. This includes elements like the rule-of-thirds, and appropriate lighting to capture the mood of the moment.

The Bottom Line

Photographing larger species of birds on the ground such as waterfowl and herons are much more obtainable with a 200mm lens than small birds in a tree. Trying to snap a crisp photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the early spring with a 200mm lens is enough to make even the most patient photographer go crazy. Save those projects for your next lens, when you have enough reach to pull them in close.

If you’ve successfully used a 200mm lens for bird photography in the past, please let us know in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your online photo gallery, and we would be happy to include it in this post as an example.

Key points to remember:

  • A fast apertue (F/4 or better) will allow for quick exposures (important for bird photography)
  • Image stabilization is helpful but not necessary is lighting conditions are good
  • Smaller, fast moving birds will be tough, stick to larger species on the ground
  • Have patience and hide to increase your chances of a close up at this focal length
  • Use a monopod or tripod to help get a sharper photo

Related Posts:

Which Cameras are Best for Bird Photography? (Our Complete List of Gear)

Bird Photography Tips for Beginners

Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

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