Is 400mm Enough For 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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
- 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
4 Replies to “Is 400mm Enough For Bird Photography?”
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E (versatility) or Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF (light weight)
And best of all, they work on the best cameras in the world! 😉
Really enjoy your video’s and all of the Common Sense explanations that you give. I noticed that you have not uploaded any video’s within the last 11 months, are you anticipating uploading any in the near future.
I hope you are both keeping safe and I look forwards to reading more about your birding experiences.
Best Regards Lee…………….UK
Hello. First of all, I love your site. As Canon pushes its new mirrorless system and lenses, the chance to pick up at a used discount price a 400mm 5.6 L is tempting. My current walk about set up is the Canon 70-200mm f4 IS USM L plus the 1.4x extender. That gives me 280mm at 5.6 and my copy is amazingly sharp. I would suggest this for beginners who already have the 70-200mm and are on a budget. However, every review I read tells me that the new 100-400 mm f4.5-5.6 IS L ver ii equally matches the 400mm 5.6.
Question: Doesn’t the extremely deep minimum focusing distance of the 400mm 5.6 cause you to miss a lot of potential great images?
Hi, I have the canon 80D and various lenses, however I use my 100-400 Mk11 most of the time, especially as I am interested in photographing birds. It is just a fantastic lens and I manage to capture a great deal of birds, in flight to. I also have the 1.4 Mk11 converter, and this I often use on this lens handheld, having read many articuals I did not expect to be able to do so, but I can if I am extra careful, and again I have managed some very pleasing shots.
Hope this help,
A great site, thank you for this.