Best cameras and lenses for bird photography

Wildlife and nature photographer Radomir Jakubowski reveals the Canon RF telephoto lenses and mirrorless cameras that he relies on to produce his artistic avian images.
A striking white and yellow bird hovers in flight. Both its body and the background are artistically blurred. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski on a Canon EOS R5.

The Canon EOS R5 is one of the best cameras for bird photography, and nature photographer Radomir Jakubowski says that he can realise his ideas much faster than he could with a DSLR body. "I probably have twice the output of when I was shooting with non-mirrorless cameras," he says. "Previously I would have to move the AF point onto a bird's head to keep it in focus, but today I can rely on subject detection and just focus on the composition." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/13 sec, f/16 and ISO 100. © Radomir Jakubowski

Fieldcraft and subject knowledge are essential requirements for wild bird photography. But choosing the best camera and lenses can make the difference between capturing fleeting moments of behaviour and missing them altogether.

The growing number of lightweight RF primes and zooms, coupled with Canon EOS R System mirrorless cameras that can automatically identify and track birds, give wildlife photographers an opportunity to spread their creative wings. So what lenses and cameras are best for bird photography?

Bird photography generally requires big lenses, of which there are a vast number of options in the Canon telephoto lens range. German wildlife and nature photographer and Canon Ambassador Radomir Jakubowski relies on the Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM for his stunning bird photography, for example, but also regularly uses the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM and even the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM.

Here, Radomir offers some recommendations while Canon Europe Senior Product Marketing Specialist Mike Burnhill provides technical insight.

A small bird with its body puffed out, positioned to the right of the frame, sits in a field of grass. The foreground is artistically blurred. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

"The Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM is the best lens for bird photography when I want to show the habitat, but the Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM is a better choice when I'm working with smaller birds," says Radomir. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 100. © Radomir Jakubowski

Best fast lens for bird photography: Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM

With its large f/2.8 maximum aperture, fast autofocus and 5.5-stops of image stabilisation (IS), the Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM is the benchmark lens for bird photography. From environmental portraits to high-speed birds in flight, this super-telephoto lens can do it all.

"For me, this is a magic lens," says Radomir. "Not only do you have f/2.8, which is very cool when you're working in low light, but the focal length is useful when you want to show a bird in its habitat. I like to do this as I think viewers can learn more about the animal that way."

The Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM

A high-performance super-telephoto lens with class-leading portability, performance and image quality.

The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM and RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM were designed simultaneously so they have many features in common, but the RF version benefits from the advanced performance delivered by the RF mount. "The speed at which the animal tracking picks up the bird is so fast with the RF version," says Radomir. "It's a real game changer."

The improved AF speed is a result of the lens' dual power focus drive, which offers faster AF with compatible cameras. "We can transfer twice as much power to the focusing motor than on EF lenses, which means the focusing speed has been improved by about 40%," explains Mike. "We are talking milliseconds of difference, but that can be important for locking onto birds in flight."

Wildlife and nature photographer Radomir Jakubowski pictured in a forest setting with a Canon mirrorless camera and a Canon RF telephoto lens.

Radomir's best advice for bird photography beginners? "Never shoot near to a nest as there's a risk that the adult will stop feeding the young birds," he says. "A lot of photographers start to realise what they are doing to nature much too late."

Two small birds sit perched on the bare upwards-facing branches of a conifer tree. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski on a Canon EOS R5.

Radomir reaches for the Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens when he's photographing songbirds, shorebirds and other smaller species. "If a bird is only 10cm long, you need all the focal length you can get," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/7.1 and ISO 400. © Radomir Jakubowski

Best lens for bird photography: Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM

Given its long focal length and large maximum aperture, the Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM is a surprisingly nimble super-telephoto lens, weighing around 3kg and equipped with 5.5-stops of IS. Its robust weather-resistant construction provides peace of mind in punishing environments. Radomir says it's particularly important when he's photographing birds at the coast. "You tend to have more stormy conditions, so you're often getting wet and there's dust in the air," he explains. "If you're working in a colony of birds, you are also getting pooed on a lot!"

 A man holding a Canon camera smiles and talks to another man.

Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM

A high performance super telephoto lens with class-leading portability and performance.

The RF 600mm F4L IS USM produces refined images as its dual powered ring-type USM focusing drive keeps pace with the action. Its optical design includes fluorite and Super-UD glass to boost sharpness, along with ASC and Super Spectra coatings to suppress flare and ghosting.

Mike confirms that the image quality is outstanding. "Modulation Transfer Function (MTF) charts give you an indication of the performance of a lens, and the RF 600mm F4L IS USM's chart basically looks like a blank piece of paper because the lines are all at the top," he says. "There's no fall-off as it's sharp from edge to edge."

A man holding a Canon camera smiles and talks to another man.

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Best lens for small bird photography: Canon RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM

The Canon RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM is a groundbreaking lens for photographing shy or distant birds. Shorter and lighter than the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM – and able to focus twice as close – it's a highly mobile, high-magnification solution. The lens produces exquisitely detailed images, while 4.5-stops of IS and L-series build quality offer reassuring handling when working in wild environments.

The Canon RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM

Lock onto distant subjects with ease and put them right in the centre of your frame with this stunning super telephoto lens.

"Despite its lightweight build, it's not an everyday 'carry around and hope' lens," Mike points out. "It's a specialist wildlife photography lens that allows you to keep your distance from birds. It can be used with the RF extenders as well, so you get to 1120mm or 1600mm and still benefit from the advanced autofocus."

The RF 800mm F5.6L IS USM shares much of its technology with the Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM, including heat-resistant paint. Heat haze can be an issue when photographing birds over greater distances with super-telephoto lenses, but Canon's white heat shield coating is designed to combat this. "The paint contains particles that reflect ultraviolet light," explains Mike. "This means the metal of the lens doesn't heat up as much in the sun, and the temperature inside the lens is reduced by up to 5 degrees."

An inquisitive owl with piercing yellow eyes peers directly at the camera from the safety of a small hole in a tree. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens and a Canon Extender RF 2x.

Little owls are only around 20cm tall, so every millimetre of focal length counts when you can't physically get close to them. Radomir used a Canon Extender RF 2x attached to his prime lens to give him the reach that he was looking for. The Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM – another lens that Radomir uses to photograph birds – is also compatible with Canon RF extenders, making it an even more versatile option for bird photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens and a Canon Extender RF 2x at 1/10 sec, f/8 and ISO 6400. © Radomir Jakubowski

Best lens accessory for bird photography: Canon RF 2x

The Canon Extender RF 2x doubles the focal length of a compatible lens, making it the perfect accessory for photographing birds that you can't approach closely. It's built for the rigours of professional wildlife photography, with a dust and water resistant design, and heat shield coating. It offers exceptional optical quality too, with high-refraction, low-dispersion glass and advanced lens coatings.

The Canon Extender RF 1.4x offers the same performance in situations where you don't need so much reach. "In the past, 1.4x extenders were often preferred because they resulted in less drop off in light than with 2x extenders," explains Mike. "So with certain lenses, maybe a 2x extender wouldn't allow AF but the 1.4x extender would. That's not an issue with the EOS R System though."

Canon Extender RF 2x

Canon Extender RF 2x

The Extender RF 2x is the perfect choice for enthusiast and professional photographers seeking more magnification from their RF lenses.
A close-up of an oystercatcher with a long orange beak wading through shallow water on a grey day. Taken by Radomir Jakubowski on a Canon EOS R5.

"I was shooting oystercatchers with the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM on my EOS R5 and the eye detection was working so well with the 20fps shooting speed that I really could track the bird perfectly," says Radomir. "I think I took 2,000 images in one hour!" Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 363mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 800. © Radomir Jakubowski

Best bird photography camera: Canon EOS R5

Bird photography with the Canon EOS R5 is a breeze. While you handle the fieldcraft and the framing, the camera can take care of pretty much everything else.

Thanks to its sophisticated subject detection AF, the EOS R5 can automatically identify and track a bird, keeping it sharply in focus at up to 20 frames per second. The camera's 45MP resolution enables intricate plumage to be recorded in fine detail as well as allowing substantial crops to be made.

This is why Radomir no longer carries a 1.4x extender. "Since I have 45MP with the EOS R5, I can simply crop the image, or use the 2x extender for more reach," he says. Radomir has also customised the rear controls, assigning Spot Autofocus to the AF-ON button and Animal subject detection to the AE Lock button. "It means that I can quickly switch to Spot AF if the camera can't pick up the bird, or pre-focus on an area with the normal AF before switching to subject detection," he says.

The camera has so much functionality for bird photography, Mike adds. "The deep-learning artificial intelligence makes it so much easier to capture great birds in flight shots, and the silent electronic shutter is useful when you're photographing birds that you don't want to disturb."

The Canon EOS R5 camera.

Canon EOS R5

The EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your photography and filmmaking.

Best camera for high-speed bird photography: Canon EOS R3

As the flagship sports and wildlife mirrorless camera, the Canon EOS R3 delivers a level of performance to satisfy the most demanding bird photography assignments.

Blistering 30fps continuous shooting and a customisable burst rate of up to 195fps mean you won't miss a beat of bird behaviour, while Eye Control AF enables you to tell the camera which bird to focus on by simply looking at it.

"Eye Control AF allows you to identify the subject rather than a specific AF point, and then the smart Animal tracking kicks in," explains Mike. "The camera will automatically work out where the bird's head and the eye are as well, so you don't need to be looking directly at those features."

At 24.1MP, the EOS R3 doesn't offer the expansive resolution of the EOS R5 but it has a bigger battery that provides the ability to shoot for longer – an important consideration when working in remote locations.

"Not all bird photography is done in glorious sunshine, and the bigger battery capacity means that even on cold days, the EOS R3 will carry on shooting," says Mike. "It also has superior weatherproofing and the vertical grip can be beneficial for balancing the body with a longer lens and shooting at different angles."

If you need help choosing a lens, Canon's handy lens finder tool tailors recommendations based on your camera, the genre you want to shoot, and which features you value most.

Although the mirrorless cameras and lenses featured here make bird photography faster and easier – and deliver images that professional wildlife photographers rely on – any Canon camera and telephoto lens is capable of capturing beautiful shots of birds as long as you're prepared to spend time getting familiar with the subject.

The Canon EOS R3 camera.

Canon EOS R3

Fleeting moments in time, captured on camera in ways that you never thought were possible. Welcome to the future of action photography.
Marcus Hawkins

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