Bird Photography with Tamron’s 150-500 Ultra-Telephoto Zoom Lens

Two birds perched on a branch. On the right, a male bluebird has food in its beak, ready to feed a juvenile bluebird, left, with its mouth open.
A male bluebird is bringing food to a juvenile bluebird. © Ken Hubbard

By Ken Hubbard

I recently took a road trip to Goshen’s Falconry Excursions in upstate New York. It’s an amazing place with all kinds of birds of prey—owls, eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures, among others. The owner has set up one of the largest privately owned and operated raptor breeding programs in the country. On my camera for this birding adventure was the new Tamron 150-500mm F/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD (Model A057), an ultra-telephoto zoom that’s Tamron’s first model for Sony E-mount full-frame mirrorless cameras equipped with Vibration Compensation (VC) technology. It can also be used with APS-C cameras for that extra crop factor.

Editors Note: Membership organizations like NANPA are able to keep the costs of membership and conference registration low and to develop new resources thanks to the support of companies like Tamron, a key sponsor of NANPA’s 2021 Nature Photography Virtual Summit and long-time NANPA supporter. In addition to its full lineup of lenses and accessories, Tamron also regularly publishes informative articles (like this one), “how to” tips and other useful information on its website and e-newsletters, and supports a number of photo contests.

The 150-500mm allowed me to shoot these magnificent birds at rest and in flight, in a controlled situation. That focal-length range is where you want to be for wildlife in general and birding in particular, especially with that reach at 500mm. The lens also has a Minimum Object Distance (MOD) of 0.6m (23.6 inches) at the 150mm end, so you can achieve telephoto macro shooting of your subjects when you’re at close-up distances. The focusing at 150mm—or even at 500mm, which features a MOD of 1.8m (70.9 inches)—allowed me to get very close to my subjects, especially for some of the static shots of the owls. I could walk right up and take nice, tight headshots without cropping.

The VXD linear motor focus mechanism of the 150-500mm offers extreme high-speed and high-precision movement, which translates to remarkably responsive performance when photographing birds in flight. The focusing speed of the lens, in combination with the speed of my Sony mirrorless camera, made it incredibly easy to capture these images.

I’ve also used the 150-500mm lens to photograph backyard birds. Unless certain birds become used to your presence day in and day out, they can be skittish when you’re trying to take pictures, which is another benefit of using this lens. With the 150-500’s reach, I can stay far back or even shoot through a yard-facing window and still achieve sharp photos of the birds in action, all without spooking or otherwise disturbing them.

Photo of a nuthatch, a small gray bird, on the side of a tree, looking like it's about to take flight. Nuthatch © Ken Hubbard
Nuthatch © Ken Hubbard

Tips for Capturing Bird Photos Using the Tamron 150-500mm Lens

  • When you’re using a long telephoto lens, you’re going to reduce your depth-of-field when shooting at the 500mm end. You also want to be aware of the distance between your bird perch and the background. If they’re too close together, the background will be too in focus and will distract from your main subject. You want a little space so you can create that beautiful blur in the background and keep your focus on the bird.
  • I recommend a tripod, or at the very least a monopod, which allows you to move around more quickly and set up your next shot. When you’re photographing birds, you’re likely going to be sitting there for a while, waiting for just the right light and the right moment with the bird you’ve got your eye on. You don’t want to wear your arms out holding the camera for too long during that waiting game.
  • Birds tend to repeatedly gravitate to the same spots in your yard, especially if they’re frequent visitors. Once you know some of the favorite spots of your “regulars,” set up your camera to be focused on one of the perches and use a shutter release cable. That way you don’t have to keep recomposing the photo and refocusing.
A tufted titmouse, a small gray and white bird, perches on a tree limb. Birds tend to return to the same perches. © Ken Hubbard
Tufted Titmouse. Birds tend to return to the same perches. © Ken Hubbard
  • Shoot at higher shutter speeds. Birds can be quick, even when they’re simply landing on perches.
  • I like to take bird pictures at eye level, but I’ll also shoot up at them from below, which happens often when they’re up in the trees, which I’ll use as a framing element. If the sky is your background, however, you’ll want to be careful that it’s not too bright—otherwise, the bird will appear as a silhouette against a white background. That’s not to say a silhouetted bird can’t make for an interesting subject. Larger birds, for instance, tend to look better as silhouettes, especially at sunset.
  • Place your light source behind you, or coming in from the side. Shooting in this way not only prevents silhouettes, but it also gives you the chance to capture a catchlight in the bird’s eyes.
Photo of a red-breasted woodpecker perched on a dead tree limb. Soft light illuminates this woodpecker and puts a catchlight in its eye. © Ken Hubbard
Soft light illuminates this woodpecker and puts a catchlight in its eye. © Ken Hubbard
  • Head out in the early morning and later afternoon. Not only are the birds usually more active at those times, but the light is softer and warmer.
  • In terms of composition, it depends on what the bird is doing. In general, you can follow many of the same rules you’d use with other animals or even people. If the bird is facing a certain direction, give the image a little more space on the side of the frame it’s facing. You can also almost never go wrong by following the rule of thirds. I like to give myself a little breathing room in my images in terms of space, so I can crop a bit during post-processing if I need to.

Ken Hubbard is the Field Services Manager and instructor for Tamron who has had nationwide gallery showings of his portrait and landscape photography. Ken turned his lens toward the American landscape, traveling extensively throughout the United States. Though he had never confined his photography to one genre, it was during this time that he realized the expressive potential and beauty of landscape photography. The results were a consistent output of breathtaking photographs that continually challenged the boundaries of the genre; a snow-covered buffalo staring ominously out of the frame, surreal rock forms in Joshua National Park that appear as if out of a sci-fi film, innumerable variations in light spilling through the depths of Antelope Canyon…Ken had found his calling.
Website: http://www.kenhubbardphotography.com/