Wildlife and Nature Photography

Is Upgrading Your Telephoto Kit Lens Really Necessary For Bird Photography?

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This Black-capped Chickadee was photographed using a Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens, my go to lens for bird photography. Is a lens of this cost necessary to achieve acceptable results?

I recently published a blog post titled Photographing Birds: Tips and Tricks, where I shared information about getting the most out of your camera and lens by finding its “sweet spot” and shooting within its limitations. The images I used in that post were all shot with my Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens, a lens that retails in Canada for $1499.00. Like almost everyone else, I started out with a much less expensive kit lens. Realizing that many people are shooting with kit lenses I wanted to demonstrate that acceptable images are achievable with equipment that costs much less. For this post, I decided to dig out my old kit lens, a Canon EFS55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II. I have not shot with this lens since December of 2012, but wanted to illustrate the kind of results that can be achieved with a lens that retails for $229.00, and is included with many Canon DSLRs at the time of purchase.

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Taking the time to understand your camera’s functions and perfecting your skill is more advantageous than spending thousands of dollars on a new lens. This Black-capped Chickadee was photographed using a Canon EFS 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II Kit lens.

Although equipment plays an important role in photography, technique and knowing how to use that equipment are even more important. Image quality has a lot more to do with the person behind the camera and lens than many people may realize. The main things you can do to improve your image quality are: take the time to learn and fully understand your camera functions, be able to quickly adjust your settings to changing conditions, and utilize techniques to steady your lens. Even if your budget allows for a $10,000 lens (for example, a 500mm f4), don’t expect to achieve instant results. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t hold the lens steady or properly expose your images, expensive equipment isn’t going to do you much good.

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The added reach and increased auto focus speed are what I deem the two biggest advantages in a lens upgrade. This Black-capped Chickadee was photographed using the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens. Retail price $1499.00

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Getting close to your subject will make up for lost reach. This Photo was taken using the Canon EFS 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II lens. Retail price $299.00

So if I can achieve results I am happy with using my kit lens, what do I get from a lens that costs five times as much? First of all, added reach. The extra 150mm comes in very handy because we all know how hard it is to get close to birds and wildlife without scaring them off. The build quality, including optics are better. Yes, better optics will give better results, but again, only if used properly. Most kit lenses are constructed mainly of plastic, where the Canon L series are mostly metal. For me this is not a huge issue as I am pretty careful with my equipment. For someone who travels a lot, the added durability of metal will help protect against light bumps. Drop either lens and I’m sure the fact that the kit lens is plastic will be the least of my worries. The Canon 100-400 is also partially weather sealed, providing increased protection against dust and moisture. This added build quality translates to added weight. My Canon 100-400mm weighs just over three pounds. A lens hood and case were also included with the Canon 100-400mm. The thing I like most about my Canon 100-400mm is the auto focus. Canon’s USM (ultrasonic motor) is incredibly fast and accurate. This to me, is worth every penny. Some bird species move incredibly fast and almost constantly, making focusing on them extremely difficult. Photographing birds in flight is also much easier with a lens that features a USM.

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Black-capped Chickadee. Canon EFS 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II.

Achieving results with a kit lens is possible if you keep a few things in mind. As is the case with any lens in wildlife photography, get as close as possible. For some bird species, especially waterfowl, this can be difficult. Many birds in your backyard or at the local park are accustomed to human activity and can be approached closely. For other species this requires increased patience or hiding in a certain spot waiting for the bird to come into view. I find auto focus speed to be the biggest set back of a kit lens. In an area where there are leaves, branches and other obstructions, locking onto the target can sometimes take the lens longer then the subject is willing to wait. If this is the case, switch over to manual focus. By rotating the focus ring manually you will be able to track and lock onto flitting birds much faster. Be sure to hold your camera and lens as steady as possible. Even with image stabilization and fast shutter speeds, camera shake will quickly ruin an otherwise acceptable shot. If camera shake is a problem, than the use of a monopod will be beneficial.

I have been photographing birds and wildlife for three years now, and have seen improvements to my images in that time. I have read and watched countless tutorials, and spent hours practicing what I have learned. There has been much trial and error along the way, and there is always room for improvement. My photographs are by no means perfect, but I am happy with the results that I achieve. My first camera and lens combination was a Canon T3i with the EFS 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II that suited me quite well. After understanding the functions of the camera and honing my skills and technique, I realized an equipment upgrade could improve my photography. My current set up, the Canon 7D and EF100-400mm f/4.6-5.6L IS USM gives me more reach, faster auto focus and more frames per second, three things that help with bird photography. When I sit back and scrutinize my images, I look to see what I could have done to improve the image quality. Perhaps I should have selected a faster shutter speed or different aperture. Maybe instead of focusing on the bird’s eye, I focused on the branch beside it. Camera shake is often to blame for my blurry images, even with the use of image stabilization. In all of these cases human error was to blame for the missed shot, not my equipment.

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Refining your technique will reward you with better results than investing in an expensive lens. Canon EFS 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II

If you are a serious hobbyist like me, than upgrading your kit lens can help you achieve better results. Expensive lenses help reduce the limitations put on photographers by their equipment, but is not however a substitute for skill and technique. If you are currently shooting with a kit lens, practice achieving the best possible results with your set up. Work on being able to adjust ISO, shutter speed, and aperture quickly while shooting. Become familiar with your camera’s various metering modes, and the use of exposure compensation. These are elements of photography that are incredibly helpful in many shooting situations. When you consistently get results you are happy with, yet find range and focus speed are holding your photography back, then consider upgrading your lens. If you are not getting the results you hoped for from your camera and lens set-up, consider signing up for a one on one workshop.

*Click on the images in this post to view larger*

Good birding,




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5 Responses to “Is Upgrading Your Telephoto Kit Lens Really Necessary For Bird Photography?”

  1. ashok k r

    i was just thinking of upgrading my canon 75-300mm lens (without IS!) to either canon 100-400 or tamron 150-600mm. Your post has reconfirmed my belief that person behind the camera is most important 🙂 Now i am not in a hurry to upgrade my lens 🙂 Happy birding…

    • Paul Roedding

      Thank you. Although both of those lenses will give you some added reach, your technique and skill is what creates quality images. I’m glad you found this post helpful.

  2. Hong YC

    Greatly appreciated for your points. I recently got my Canon 55-250 is ii and have been playing with it. Now I’m still far behind the master in techniques and getting familiar with all functions…I’ll be better, and until I feel the urge to upgrade I will stick with this lens. 🙂

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