Lens Guides

Chasing Birds with the Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6

This past month, I was lucky enough to visit two amazing birding hotspots with the Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6.

120-400mm F4-5.6 DG OS HSM

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.

A Snowy Egret takes flight at the pond at Horseshoe Cove, Sandy Hook. I was able to quickly and easily track this shy subject as it moved about the pond due to the hand-holdable nature of the Sigma 120-400mm paired with a Canon EOS Rebel XTi. 1/1000 F5.6 ISO 400 at 400mm. And be sure to click on each photo to make it fly out to full-screen viewing mode!

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!

The Meadows is an amazing patch open space managed by the Nature Conservancy, just east of the Cape May Lighthouse. This spot on the Atlantic Flyway is a funnel point for migratory birds. In a two hour monday morning walk in early July with guide Peter Dunne, we saw more than 60 different types of birds in the meadow, on the beach, and on wing, including the three least sandpipers in the blue water in the foreground here. Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 120-400mm 1/400 F5.6 ISO 200 at 400mm

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.

A common tern in flight about the meadow in Cape May. The Autofocus quickly locked onto this swift flyer. I cropped in a bit to tighten up the composition. Canon EOS 5D 1/500 F5.6 ISO 500. It was pretty foggy and hazy following an early morning thundershower when I visited this spot which meant slower shutter speeds and a bit of ISO cranking.

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!

Redwing blackbird at Sandy Hook. Here the 120-400mm is paired with the Sigma 1.4x Teleconverter on my APS-C sensored Canon EOS Rebel XTi for even more reach at maximum zoom. 1/800 F/8, ISO 400.

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.

The best line of sight with the closest reach for this osprey nest had me standing on the side of the road at Sandy Hook, with the 1.4X teleconverter paired with the 120-400mm on the 1.6X sensored Reb XTi to shoot between a couple of trees that blocked many angles of view. But I was able to make some frames with good birds, and the tree gives a feeling of spying into their world. 1/1250 F8 ISO 400 at full zoom.

These four mute swans fly above the misty, rainy meadow of Cape May. I was as zoomed as could be on the Canon 5D and knew at the moment of capture I’d be trimming this to a much more panoramic composition. 1/640 F5.6 ISO 500

This shot was made from the top-floor balcony of a house looking over Cape May Beach while I was working on a different project involving time lapse. But when I saw the Laughing Gull sitting so perfectly atop the telephone pole, I knew that it was going to make a dramatic geometric composition when cropped to a very panoramic format. Canon 5D and 120-400mm. 1/640 at F5.6 ISO 100.

This Yellow Warbler is really small in the frame, but framed as it is on the barren branches and against the muted blue sky, it still stands strong in the frame in profile. At the Cape May Meadow. Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 120-400mm 1/400 at F5.6 ISO 200. I cropped some blue sky out of the top of frame to tighten up the composition.

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.

In both locations, there were so many different kinds of birds to see whichever way you turned! Here we’ve got a flock of sandpipers flying past both Canada Geese and Mallards in the Cape May Meadow. Canon EOS 5D and 120-400mm at 1/500 F5.6 ISO 500 at 400mm.

And here at Horseshoe Cove at Sandy Hook, we’ve got an Oystercatcher joining a group of Common Terns on some weathered pilings. I love the tern that’s flipped its head upside-down in this frame! Canon EOS Rebel Xti and 120-400mm. 1/1000 F5.6 ISO 400.

Here’s the same oystercatcher on the waterline with three of the common terns in the foreground. Notice how shallow the depth of field is at maximum aperture when zoomed all the way to 400mm. And look at how that yellow eye pops in this frame! Canon EOS Rebel XTi and 120-400mm at 1/1600 F5.6 ISO 400.

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.

Here’s a Least Tern Fledgling on the beach in Cape May in a protected nesting area. It eyes my camera warily as I captured this frame while lying on the sand to get a nice low angle. Canon EOS 5D 1/640 at F5.6 ISO 200 at 400mm.
And here’s a younger Least Tern chick at Sandy Hook being fed a fish by one of its parents right at water’s edge. Using the Rebel here gave me a bit more effective reach. 1/1600 at F5.6 ISO 400 at full zoom.

The very misty, low-contrast conditions at the Cape May Meadow lends a painterly feel to this Mute Swan and its cygnet, showing all the nuances and details in the white feathers of the adult. I used my lightweight tripod for this shot at 1/160 at F5.6 ISO 200 at 400mm on the Canon EOS 5D.

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.

And here’s that same Oystercatcher flying low across Sandy Hook Bay captured mid-flap with my new favorite birding lens, the Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6. Canon EOS Rebel 1/1600 at F5.6 ISO 400 zoomed all the way.

I caught this second-year herring gull in mid-hop between these pilings thanks to the extra reach of the Sigma 1.4 Teleconverter paired with the 120-400mm on a Canon EOS Rebel XTi. I can’t wait ‘til the next time I can book a whole day in the field to visit the shorebirds! 1/1250 at F8 ISO 400. 1.4x and 120-400mm zoomed all the way out.

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.

Comments (4)
  1. SETKacir says:

    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.

  2. Wm.Orchard says:


  3. Daniel Walker says:

    When are you going to release lens for micro four third cameras?

  4. Tony says:

    Magnificent sharpness and colour-rendition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *