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10 Best Telephoto Lenses for Wildlife Photographers

Choosing the perfect telephoto lens for wildlife photography can be a struggle. There are so many options–and so many factors to consider.

In this article, you’ll discover the 10 best telephoto lenses for wildlife photography. And you’ll come away knowing which telephoto lens is perfect for your needs.

Ready?
Let’s dive right in.

1. Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II Lens

Yes, it’s ridiculously expensive.
Yes, it’s huge and difficult to handhold.
But in every other area? The Canon 500mm f/4L excels.
Let’s start with the focal length: 500mm.
Perfect for birds and small critters, especially on a crop-sensor camera.
And with a 1.4X teleconverter, you can grab some extra reach (700mm, to be exact).
Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II Lens - best telephoto lenses for wildlife photography
To my mind, this is the ultimate bird photography lens. It doesn’t have the same bulk as a 600mm f/4 lens. But it can get you equivalent reach (with teleconverters).

The Canon 500mm also offers unbelievable image quality. Detail is clear and crisp. Background bokeh is wonderfully creamy.

The autofocus system is fast, not to mention accurate. And the lens offers four stops of image stabilization–perfect for use in low-light environments.

Oh, and did I mention the fantastic build quality? The lens is made to be dust and moisture resistant. It’s built like a tank.

Pros:

  • Lightning fast autofocus
  • Superb image quality
  • Strong IS performance
  • Long focal length

Cons:

  • Price
  • 500mm can be a bit long for larger animals
  • Size and weight

2. Nikon 500mm f/4E FL VR

The Nikon 500mm f/4E is every bird photographer’s dream.
Why?
First, it’s light.
Nikon 500mm f/4E FL VR - best telephoto lenses for wildlife for photography
This lens comes in at 109 ounces (about 3 kg), which is not at all bad for a monster telephoto like this one.

This makes it easy to handhold (much easier than the older and heavier Nikon 500mm f/4G). It also makes it far more portable.

Autofocus is fast and accurate. You won’t have any problems dealing with energetic wildlife.
Nikon 500mm f/4E FL VR - best telephoto lenses for wildlife for photography
And the image quality?
In a word, incredible. This lens is tack sharp at any aperture. And the f/4 aperture will get you some nice, creamy bokeh.

Of course, this lens comes with a huge downside: The price.

But if you’re truly serious about your wildlife photography, then this might be the lens for you.

Pros:

  • Amazing image quality
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • Fairly light

Cons:

  • Price

3. Canon 100-400mm IS II

Are you looking for a lens for larger wildlife–one that’s easy to handhold and relatively portable?

Then check out the Canon 100-400mm IS II.

This lens is one of Canon’s most popular telephotos, and for good reason.

The 400mm maximum focal length is perfect for bigger wildlife. Bears, elk, deer, and bigger birds will all be within your reach.
Canon 100-400mm IS II - best telephoto lens for wildlife for photography
And you’ll have a fair shot at smaller wildlife, too–especially if they’re tame.
Plus, the 100 to 400mm focal length offers a tonne of flexibility.

You can shoot some close-ups of an animal, and then zoom out for an environmental portrait.

This lens is decently light. But I’m still a big fan of the IS, which makes handholding this lens, even at lower shutter speeds, relatively easy.

When it comes to zoom lenses, one thing to worry about is the image quality.
Canon 100-400mm IS II - best telephoto lenses
Fortunately, the Canon 100-400mm is impressive.
It’s very sharp, even at 400mm. Which is something that you can’t say about most 400mm zooms.

And the autofocus? Lightning fast.

One unique thing about this lens is its close-focusing distance. This lens focuses up to 3.3 ft (1 m) in front of the camera. So you can use it for all sorts of close-up shots, even of tiny critters.

Now, this is a relatively inexpensive lens. Which means that there will be a tradeoff or two. In this case, it’s the maximum aperture–f/4 at 100mm, and f/5.6 at 400mm. So you’ll be somewhat limited in low light.

Is this a dealbreaker? Not at all.

This lens is amazing overall–and a great choice for more flexible wildlife photography.

Pros:

  • Very flexible focal length
  • Light and easy to handhold
  • Strong image quality
  • Low price

Cons:

  • Small maximum aperture
  • Focal length doesn’t allow for shots of smaller birds

4. Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Canon’s ultimate wildlife photography lens. The Canon 200-400mm f/4.

What makes this lens so special?

It offers incredible image quality–and it’s sharp across the board, from f/4 on up.
It is impressively fast, with a maximum aperture of f/4–even at 400mm.

And the autofocus is very strong–working extremely well with fast-moving subjects.
Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x - best telephoto lenses for wildlife photography
But that’s not the main feature of this lens. The real selling point of the Canon 200-400mm f/4 is its focal length range.

This lens is a powerhouse, going from 200 to 400mm (and offering incredible image quality along the entire range).

And even more exciting is the built-in 1.4x teleconverter.
With the flick of a switch, you can go from 400mm to 560mm. Yes, your maximum aperture is pushed back to f/5.6. But that’s a minor drawback, compared to the overall value of this lens.
Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x - best telephoto lenses for wildlife photography
Consider the flexibility that this brings to your photography. You can start by shooting some wider shots, then a few tighter portraits, then some intense close-ups–the opportunities are endless.

Pros:

  • Incredible focal length range
  • Superb image quality
  • Fast autofocus

Cons:

  • Price
  • Long and heavy

5. Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II

The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is a monster of a lens–in more ways than one.
Let’s start with the biggest drawback: this lens is heavy. At 7.4 pounds (3.3 kgs), this lens is not easy to handhold. Nor is it easy to lug around.

So if you’re a wildlife photographer who values portability, go with a different option.

But if you don’t mind the weight…
Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II
…then there’s a lot to be excited about.

First, the focal length: 200 to 400mm is perfect for larger wildlife. And the zoom range allows for some serious flexibility in the field.

Not to mention the amazing image quality. This lens is sharp throughout its entire focal length range. It’s also sharp at f/4–which means that you can easily appreciate the wider maximum aperture.

Finally, the VR is impressive, allowing you to handhold at shutter speeds four stops slower than normal.

All in all, this is a great lens.
But the weight may be prohibitive–especially for those with a more flexible, travel-oriented photography style.

Pros:

  • Fantastic focal length range
  • Amazing image quality
  • Vibration reduction

Cons:

  • Extremely heavy

6. Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II

The Nikon 300mm f/2.8 is one of the shortest lenses on this list.

But does that make it a bad option?
Not in the slightest.

Let’s start with the pros:
This lens offers one of the fastest autofocus systems out there. It focuses in milliseconds–fast enough to track running animals or birds in flight.

Image quality is simply amazing. The lens is ultra-sharp across the board–at f/2.8 and on.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VR II
And speaking of f/2.8, the wide maximum aperture is fantastic for low-light wildlife photography. You can take photos of wildlife at dusk. And you don’t have to worry about camera shake.

Another positive: This lens is light–light enough to comfortably handhold.
And the vibration reduction is just icing on the cake. With the VR plus the f/2.8 aperture, you’ll be able to capture sharp shots in surprisingly dark conditions.

Now, before you buy this lens, you need to ask yourself:
Is 300mm long enough for my needs?

A 300mm focal length can get you some gorgeous wildlife shots. But only if you’re in the right location.

300mm is too short for most wildlife, especially if it’s skittish.
And 300mm is definitely too short for most birds. The exception is in places like Florida, where birds are tame enough to get within a few feet.

Even with a 1.4x teleconverter, you’re only getting to 420mm.

For some people, 300mm is just too short.
But for a select few, 300mm is perfect.

Pros:

  • Ultra-fast autofocus
  • Stellar image quality
  • Easy to handhold
  • f/2.8 aperture

Cons:

  • 300mm is too short for a lot of wildlife photography

7. Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR

The Nikon 200-500mm VR is one Nikon’s longest zoom lens.
It’s also one of Nikon’s cheapest telephoto options.

This lens is big, but not too big. You can handhold it if needs be–and you can take it on hiking trips without too much difficulty.

Now, super-telephoto zoom lenses tend to have sub-par autofocus systems. And unfortunately, this lens is no exception.

The Nikon 200-500mm autofocus isn’t terrible. But it’s not impressive, either. It’s slow, especially in low light (when it has a tendency to hunt).
 Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR - best telephoto lens for wildlife
On the other hand, image quality is pleasantly surprising:
This lens is sharp, even at the long end of its range.

Is it as impressive as the Nikon 500mm VR?
No. But it gives professional quality results–and that’s what matters.

I also love the flexibility that the huge focal range provides. It means that you don’t have to worry about lugging along several lenses. You’ve got it all in one lens.

Bottom line?
This lens is perfect for those looking for a budget telephoto–and who are willing to put up with the slower autofocus.

Pros:

  • Price
  • Focal length range
  • Image quality

Cons:

  • Somewhat heavy
  • Slow autofocus

8. Nikon 400mm f/2.8E

For serious wildlife photographers, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E is incredible. Hands down.

Yes, it’s big–big enough to be uncomfortable when handholding.
But is that a dealbreaker?

Not when you check out the other specifications.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8E - best telephoto lens for wildlife
For one, this lens has an incredible maximum aperture of f/2.8. This gives you an extra stop of light–which is absolutely critical when in the field.

The f/2.8 aperture also means that this lens will work with all of Nikon’s teleconverters. This allows for some focal length flexibility. You can shoot larger wildlife at 400mm–then slap on a 1.4x teleconverter, and photograph birds at 560mm.

Optically, this lens is superb. At f/2.8, this lens is extremely sharp. And that doesn’t change across its range.

And at f/2.8, bokeh is gorgeous–which is an added benefit when shooting wildlife.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8E - best telephoto lens for wildlife

This lens also has some impressive build quality. It is moisture and dust resistant. And it’s built to last.

One more thing: Autofocus is both fast and ultra-quiet. So you can easily capture photos of moving wildlife (even birds in flight).

The main downside is the price.
But if you need an ultra-fast wildlife lens, the 400mm f/2.8 is the way to go.
Pros:

  • Amazing image quality
  • Gorgeous bokeh
  • Fast autofocus

Cons:

  • Lens is big and heavy

9. Sigma 500mm f/4 Sport

This Sigma telephoto lens competes against its Canon and Nikon rivals–with a significant reduction in price.

Fortunately, there is no corresponding drop in image quality. Because this lens is sharp, even at f/4.

Bokeh quality is nice, as well. The f/4 aperture gives some beautiful blurry backgrounds. Perfect for more artistic wildlife photography.

At 500mm, this lens is well placed to handle smaller wildlife, including birds. And the lens is decently light–which allows for some portability and handholding in the field.
Sigma 500mm f/4 Sport telephoto lenses for wildlife photography
Autofocus is good, but not great. This lens generally does well when dealing with fast-moving subjects. But it occasionally struggles–which can be frustrating for the serious wildlife photographer.

Optical Stabilization (OS) is a nice final touch. This adds to the ease with which you can handhold this lens.
Sigma 500mm f/4 Sport telephoto lenses for wildlife photography
Overall, this lens is excellent for those wanting to reach 500mm–without breaking the bank.

Pros:

  • 500mm focal length
  • Bargain price
  • High image quality
  • Easy to handhold

Cons:

  • Slower autofocus

10. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6L

The Canon 70-300mm isn’t the flashiest lens on this list. But it’s still a noteworthy option. Especially for those looking for their first wildlife telephoto.

First, the main benefits:

Image quality: The Canon 70-300mm is sharp at every point in its focal length range.

Autofocus: Autofocus speed is fast, with the ability to capture moving subjects.

Focal length flexibility: The 70-300mm focal length makes for a lot of shooting options. You can shoot some environmental portraits at 70mm–and you can also shoot impressive close-ups at 300mm.
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6L telephoto lens
Unfortunately, this lens comes with one main drawback:
At 300mm, it’s just too short for most wildlife photography.

Yes, you can shoot larger wildlife–if they’re tame. Otherwise, you’re going to struggle to get close enough for frame-filling shots.
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6L telephoto lenses for wildlife
On the other hand, this lens is small and light. For those looking for more of a ‘walk-around’ wildlife lens, this could be the right choice.

Pros:

  • Strong image quality
  • Bargain price
  • Fast autofocus

Cons:

  • 300mm is too short for most wildlife

Our Pick for Best Wildlife Telephoto Lens: The Canon 200-400mm f/4L (With a Built-In 1.4x Teleconverter)

Despite some strong competitors, this Canon telephoto lens rises above the rest.
Our Pick for Best Wildlife Telephoto Lens: The Canon 200-400mm f/4L (With a Built-In 1.4x Teleconverter)
Here’s why:
First, the Canon 200-400mm has an impressive focal length range.

In fact, it has something for everyone–200mm for wider shots of wildlife, 400mm for larger animals, and 560mm for birds.

Second, this lens offers amazing image quality. It’s sharp, from 200mm to 560mm. And the quality of the bokeh is impressive.

And finally, autofocus is ridiculously fast. Fast enough for any wildlife, be it birds in flight or cheetahs on the run.

Is this lens frustratingly expensive?
Yes.

But for the serious wildlife photographer, this is the lens to get.

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