Bird photography, Bird Photography Tips, Camera Lenses

Is 400mm Enough For Bird Photography?

400mm bird photography

Many species of birds are small and difficult to get close too, so is 400mm enough for bird photography?

A lot of folks recommend 400mm as a minimum focal length for quality bird photography. But even at this range, you’ll still need the bird to be quite close to you for your subject to fill the entire image frame.

However, we consider a 400mm lens to be the ideal focal length in terms of overall capability. It is compact and lightweight enough to use handheld but has enough “reach” to capture a variety of wild birds in detail.

Ashley and her 400mm F/5.6L lens

A 400mm lens is about as long as you can get without the need for a tripod or monopod. A lens like the Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L is light enough for Ashley to carry handheld for a full day of birding.

Many of the images in our photo gallery were captured using a 400mm lens.

Previously, we talked about the practicality of a 200mm lens for birding, and how it has its place in your lens line-up but falls short in many crucial nature photography situations.

The 400mm, on the other hand, might be the last camera lens you ever purchase to photograph birds. Seriously.

The Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L

An example of a camera lens at this focal length is the popular Canon EF 400mm F/5.6. With a crop-sensor camera like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II we use, we have found it to be a very versatile and capable field of view for most types of bird photography.

Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L

Small songbirds such as warblers are a challenging bird photography subject because they move very fast, and usually don’t sit in one place for very long. To make things even more difficult, they constantly hop between branches and foliage with changing light conditions and limited visibility.

We have found a 400mm camera lens to be the ideal focal length in these scenarios as it is the perfect mix between mobility and reach. Yes, those big 600mm telephoto lenses can pull the animal in closer, but I would imagine that they get fewer shots overall.

Another option to consider in this category is the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. This is a zoom lens, which may be beneficial for birding as it can double as a “walkaround” lens. Traditionally, prime lenses generally produce a sharper image, but we’ve heard a lot of praise for the new version of the Canon 100-400 in this regard.

Some of the best bird photography images we’ve ever taken were with a 400mm lens. One of our favorites is this shot of a Canada warbler shown below.

Canada warbler
Canada warbler

Benefits of a 400mm Lens

You just can’t maneuver a heavy lens on a tripod and gimbal the way you can with a handheld 400mm lens. You are free to move, crouch, and change positions as the event unfolds. With patience, you will get that frame-filling shot we all crave with a 400mm lens.

Don’t forget, you can always crop your image in post-processing as well. The more you crop, the more resolution you will lose in terms of the overall detail in the bird (sharpness, feather details, etc.). So aim to fill at least 1/3 to 1/2 of the image sensor frame with your subject.

One major advantage a 400mm lens has over a larger camera lens with more focal length is the ability to capture birds in flight. Taking a sharp photo of a bird in flight is a challenging task for any camera and lens combination, but again, a 400mm lens seems to be the perfect balance between mobility and performance.

bird photography tips
A Caspian Tern in flight captured using a 400mm lens.

Naturally, a lens with a fast aperture of F/4 or lower will have the advantage here. The Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L is slightly lacking in the aperture department, which is one of the reasons this lens is more affordable than some of the faster options.

In practice, all this means is that you’ll need to be a little more selective in the lighting conditions you shoot in. For example, an early morning shoot at dawn might make in-flight photography with enough shutter speed to freeze the action impossible.

Grey-crowned yellowthroat
Grey-crowned Yellowthroat using a 400mm lens.

400mm vs. 300mm

I am sure there are many aspiring bird photographers that are facing the decision of whether to invest in a 300mm lens or a 400mm lens. We’ve used both lenses (Our 300mm lens is a Canon EF 300mm F/4) for birding, and we have some valuable insight to share here. In general, we find 400mm to offer a better magnification for most birding situations overall.

When using a crop-sensor camera such as the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 300mm is surprisingly sufficient. To get a little more focal length, a 1.4X teleconverter can be used with the 300mm lens to bring the total reach to 420mm. Naturally, this has some drawbacks such as a slower f-stop and the potential introduction of chromatic aberration.

teleconverter for bird photography
We often use a 1.4X teleconverter with the 300mm lens

Overall, we’d recommend a 400mm lens for bird photography over a 300mm, as the added focal length has more advantages than disadvantages. The main reason we employ the 300mm lens without the teleconverter is to take advantage of the light-gathering power of the F/4 system over the F/5.6 aperture of our 400mm lens.

Our Canon lenses include a 400mm F/5.6 and 300mm F/4.

The Bottom Line

Yes, 400mm is enough for bird photography. Don’t just take our word for it either, have a quick look at the Canon 400mm lens group on Flickr to see an impressive assortment of bird photography images shot at this focal length.

If you are using a full-frame camera, you may notice that 400mm does not provide the amount of magnification you need for specific species of birds. Birds that are difficult to approach and flee easily may never get close enough for a detailed shot.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of a 400mm lens for bird photography:

Pros:

  • Light enough to be used handheld
  • Great mobility for in-flight bird photography
  • Enough reach to capture birds at a moderate distance (15′ or less)
  • Affordable camera lenses available

Cons:

  • Not enough reach for distant birds
  • You may need to crop your images to fill the image frame
  • Lack of magnification is pronounced with a full-frame camera

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