Is a Zoom or Prime Lens Better for Low-light Bird Photography?

Bird photography is a challenging genre that often requires extremes of gear, particularly when it comes to lenses, where you often need very long focal lengths and wide apertures in order to reach the birds and keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze them. So, is the versatility of a zoom lens better, or should you opt for the wider aperture of a prime? This great video features an experienced bird photographer discussing the pros and cons of each.

Coming to you from Jan Wegener, this excellent video essay discusses the pros and cons of zoom and prime lenses for bird work (though the insights certainly apply to other genres like animal and sports work). Of course, the advantage of a zoom lens is in its versatility and your ability to reframe without moving, but you will often have to push to the extremes of ISO to keep your shutter speed fast enough. Furthermore, with those narrower apertures (often about two stops), autofocus performance might be noticeably slower. However, with modern bodies, those issues are somewhat mitigated. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for the aperture advantage of something like a 400mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Wegener. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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The answer to this question is certainly not a photographic one. It’s totally financial. While a good 200-600 will cost around £ 1500-1800 an f4 equivalent will cost around £12,000. After that there is not much to say as obviously f4 is more advantageous than f6.3… but paying an extra 10k for a stop and a third and is well beyond most folk.

Carrying a long, fast lens is also a consideration, though much depends on the setting. Prosumer zoom lenses are lighter and smaller. Personally, I can't imagine lugging a 600mm f/4 lens through a rainforest.

Remember the difference between f4 and f6.3 which many 600 zooms are is not 2 stops it’s a stop and 1/3.

The correct answer is, obviously, Sigzilla. Referring of course to the 200-500 f/2.8.