This past month, I was lucky enough to visit two amazing birding hotspots with the Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6.
Now, after shooting with this compact, long-reach tele zoom, I’ve got to say that is has quickly become one of my favorite lenses in the Sigma lineup for its fantastic combination of reach, range and amazing sharpness in a very compact package–under four pounds and just eight inches long.
In the span of two weeks, I took this lens to two amazing birding hotspots at the southernmost and northernmost points of the New Jersey Coastline: Cape May Point and the Nature Conservancy Meadows, and Sandy Hook, Gateway National Recreation Area. The number and variety of birds I saw on these two expeditions is amazing, and I also managed to capture a few through the lens in the process!
Growing up along the shore, shore birds have always been a favorite subject of mine, and after visiting these two amazing spots with this versatile lens, I’m anxiously awaiting the next time I can escape my desk and spend a couple of quality hours stalking feathered ones along the shore and in the sky.
There are over forty lenses in the Sigma lineup to choose from, and I can give you the reason I chose this lens for this birding adventure very succinctly: the photos of Sigma fan Lisa Franceski. You may recall Lisa as the winner of the Our Pros | Your Photos critique with Robert O’Toole last year. Almost all her photos in this video were captured through the Sigma 120-400mm. And then I was looking through the Photoshare Gallery on the lens’s page while working on a different project and saw some of Lisa’s amazing bird work alongside other fantastic fan photos and decided that I really needed to do a hands-on adventure with this lens.
And I am so glad I did. This lens is tack-sharp with fast autofocus, and is light with a lot of long reach to make it easy to hike and walk with, especially over sandy and marshy ground. And for even more reach, I sometimes paired it with the Sigma 1.4X Teleconverter on the APS-C sensored Canon EOS Rebel XTi with a 1.6 factor. This combination yields an effective 270-900mm range with manual focus. That’s a lot of reach in a camera and lens combo that can be slung over your shoulder!
When the bird isn’t huge in the frame, it’s always a good idea to be as mindful as you can of the composition–pick what’s going to accompany the birds, whether it’s the shoreline, more sky, or a bit of the foliage. And if there’s probably going to be a bit of cropping out sky or dead space to tighten up the composition in post-processing, I’ll stick with keeping the subject firmly centered in the viewfinder, and trim it down in post-processing.
These two spots on the shore are very notable for their geography, both on the macro, and the micro scales. There’s a large variety of habitats that are all within easy reach without a serious hike at either location. So, if one particular spot is quiet, it’s not a long drive or walk to another location. The Meadows is one square loop trail from the main parking area that heads over the dunes and to the beach before returning up the other side, while Sandy Hook has many different parking areas for both beach and bay side spots, meaning it will never be more than about a half mile or so from a parking area. And with such a variety of ecosystems, from ponds to marshes to shorebreak, there’s going to be birds of many feathers around pretty much round the clock and through the year. The players may rotate as the seasons change and migration schedules are followed, and that’s part of the excitement.
Whenever I am out in the wild making bird photos, time seems to slow down. Despite the drizzle and threats of serious rain in Cape May, and despite the heavy sky that never really rained nor cleared at Sandy Hook, the hours I spent peering through the viewfinder went by so quick. I couldn’t believe how fast an hour turned into two, and to be able to wander and recompose with this lightweight lens was amazing.
All in all, I had a great time getting back out into the field at these two amazing birding spots with this lens. It is, quite honestly, a really amazing member of the Sigma line of lenses. Its reach, range, and sharpness in a seriously portable and lightweight package is a winning combination for birds and wildlife.
For your next birding adventures, you should seriously consider the Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6. I am very glad I did, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my photos and stories from these two amazing expeditions. And if you’ve got some amazing bird shots and bird spots to share, we’d love to hear about them on our Facebook page!
About the Author
Jack Howard is Sigma Corporation of America’s New Media Specialist, where he blogs, builds community, and shares his passion for photography with loyal and future Sigma customers every day.
Jack Howard is a lifelong photographer and author of two editions of the how-to book, Practical HDRI. Based in Central Jersey, Jack's go-to photography spots are backroads and beaches of his home state. He loves to travel far and wide with his wife and daughter, visiting national parks, museums, tropical islands and more along the way.
Just FYI: Your “Least Tern Fledgling” is an adult Least Tern. Least Terns in their first year would have black bills and less worn plumage than evident in your photo.
When are you going to release lens for micro four third cameras?
Magnificent sharpness and colour-rendition.