$20,000 Versus $2,000 Bird Photography Setup

Wildlife photographers have long faced the problem of requiring extremely expensive camera equipment to follow their passion. Then came the budget 150-600mm and similar lenses that lowered the cost of entry while still getting similar looking results.

In this video, master bird photographer Jan Wegener compares his complete $20,000 setup to a simple $2,000 camera and lens combo. Typically Wegener is shooting off a Gitzo tripod and Wimberley gimbal head with his Canon 5D Mark IVand EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and uses flash. For this side-by-side comparison on the cheaper end, he is handholding a Canon 5D Mark III and the highly popular Tamron 150-600mm lens.

In very practical terms, the answer is yes that photographers will achieve similar looking images with either setup. For Wegener’s particular photographic style, where the difference matters is in the versatility with the $20,000 kit and the creamy quality in the out of focus backgrounds. For others, it may be the light gathering ability of the 600mm f/4 lens that is the main difference maker. Check out the full video above to see his final shots compared.

Do you see a difference between the two setups? Is it worth 10 times the price tag? Leave your comments below.

Ryan Mense's picture

Ryan Mense is a wildlife cameraperson specializing in birds. Alongside gear reviews and news, Ryan heads selection for the Fstoppers Photo of the Day.

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Wait, why does he get closer with the 150-600? He just kind of acts like it's an inherent fact that prime lenses have smoother background - despite the fact that both are shot at f/8...

I would assume the difference here has to do with more focus breathing on the 150-600 and/or the that lens is not actually 600mm.

EDIT: my dumbass should've finished the video before commenting.

Well the Nikin 180 to 400mm F4 with built in Tele costs 17k to 19k in Australia. That's more than the 600mm F4 at 16k. Is it sharper ? Probably not. You pay for a 400mm zoom that can go to 560mm when you flick the switch. Sometimes flexibility can cost more.
Getting back to the article , you pay for the better sharpness and color. Zooms can get soft at the long end when focusing to infinity doesn't matter what brand. That will always be the case versus a 400mm or 600mm prime.

It would be interesting if Sigma or Tamron make a "low cost" prime 600 mm

A "low cost" 600mm prime lens would, by necessity, have a max aperture between f/5.6 - f/8, seriously limiting it's appeal to anyone looking for a 600mm lens. Pros wouldn't buy it because it wouldn't offer what they wanted and amateurs wouldn't buy it because it would still be too expensive and a lens like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 would offer a faster max aperture for less money.

If a 150-600 f/5.6 or 200-500 f/5.6 is enough good for many people who use it 95% of the time at the longer focal length, why not buy a 600m f/5.6 prime of the same quality, and probably slightly better quality, for a fraction of the price?
What are the sources of your analysis (marketing) to say that "amateurs would not buy it"?
(Just curious)

bottom line. @ 8:40 mark
you dont need the 20k setup for good images

personally I think my tamron g2 is a bit weak at the 600 mark but really shines at 500 or less.

nah. shut up.

wow thats a hell of a comeback.

patty youre truly awesome.

This is for the Birds ..

I have the Sigma version of the 150-600mm. The great thing about these lenses is that it they open up wildlife photography to hobbyists like me. The image quality is not the same as a high-end prime, but it's pretty damn good. As someone who isn't making a living with my photography, there is no way I could ever justify his $20,000 rig. But I can justify the ~$1000 my Sigma set me back. And while the background blur may not be as smooth as it would be with a prime, it at least allows me to get the subject large enough in the frame for a decent shot. No way I could ever do that with a nifty fifty!

This video confused me a bit. Why is the background blur different when both lenses are shot at 600 mm at f8 from the same distance with two full frame cameras? Of course the prime will have more of a background separation when shot wide open, but stopped down they should look quite similar? I could see the difference in the video so I'm not saying the guy is wrong, I just struggle to understand why it is happening.

Also, why test these lenses at f8 and f11? Surely most people buying a 600mm f4 prime shoot it wide open most of the time?

People pay $20K for such a setup because it's a professional investment. They have decided that the IQ it allows them to capture is worth the extra cost because they can charge more for their product and obtain it, allowing them to recoup their investment. There's also durability improvements, weather sealing, AF speed/accuracy, and user interface improvements when you buy top-end gear like this. For professional work, shots taken with the $20K setup also likely require less post-processing to fix imperfections and achieve the desired look, saving countless hours of precious time over the course of tens of thousands of images. A photographer may not want or need to get another lens/tripod/gimbal setup for a good 10-15 years of professional use.

Oops, nevermind. I somehow thought this was a reply to my comment. Technology is hard. D'oh.