The best wildlife lens is a huge telephoto. Right? I mean, that’s what I’ve come to expect from all the ads in the photo magazines anyway. So it must be true.
Not so much.
The reality is there is not one best wildlife lens. I’ve shot some of my favourite wildlife images with wide angles, but that’s hardly what I’d recommend to someone diving into the art of wildlife photography for the first time.
The fact is, you’ll need a decent telephoto. It doesn’t have to be as long as your leg, but a long lens will get you some of that reach to bring those critters in close.
There are dozens on the market from the main brands like Canon and Nikon to the third party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma lenses for Canon and Nikon.
You can also find alternative format manufacturers like the micro 4/3rds systems of Panasonic Lumix and Olympus.
Caribou migrating on a stormy day through Alaska’s northwest Arctic.
Many of these lenses can take admirable wildlife photos, but deciding which is right for you? Well that’s a process.
Rather than simply telling you: Buy THIS lens! I want you to consider your needs, shooting conditions, camera system, and of course, your budget. Then you can decide on the best wildlife lens for you.
Let’s start with the lens options available and the price ranges.
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Prime Lenses for Full Frame/APSC DSLRs
I used a big prime, Canon 500mm f4L IS lens to make this image of a pair of lions in Botswana. The cleanly fading bokeh is hard to replicate in smaller lenses.
500mm and 600mm F4 lenses from Canon and Nikon have for years been the standard for professional photographers and very serious (or rich) amateurs. These lenses are enormous, flashy, heavy, and with extraordinary image quality.
They are also as expensive as a good used automobile. Somewhere north of $10,000 is the current going rate for a new 500mm or 600mm f4 from Canon and Nikon.
Sadly, few third party manufacturers make anything comparable. Sigma makes a 500mm f4, and a f4.5 lens for Nikon and Canon.
These, while still not inexpensive, come in at around $6,000 USD for the f4 and $5,000 for the f4.5. Substantially less than the offerings from Canon and Nikon.
Sony has recently introduced a 400mm f2.8 for their mirrorless E-mount system, but at nearly $12,000, it’s hardly an affordable option for most photographers.
The big glass is perfect for animal portraits. The shallow depth of field separates your subject from the background beautifully.
A somewhat more affordable option is the 300mm f2.8 lenses. There are a few on the market from Canon, Nikon, and Sigma with a price point that varies from $3,400 for the Sigma to around $6,000 for the Canon.
I have personal experience with the Canon and can say from experience that it is incredibly sharp with lighting fast focus. I would expect the alternatives to be comparable. They also work well with 1.4x and even 2x teleconverters.
Advantages: Amazing image quality, sharp, fast autofocus, with a beautiful, creamy bokeh, great snob appeal.
Disadvantages: expensive, heavy, cumbersome, and difficult to use without a tripod.
This may be one of the fastest evolving categories of lenses currently on the market. Every year it seems a new manufacturer has entered the fray, or introduced a new version of a lens in this range.
Blue-footed Booby, Peru, made with a Canon 100-400L lens.
These are mid-priced lenses, by which I mean they are still expensive, varying from $1,000 – $2,500.
There are so many, I’m hesitant to even list them all, but here are a few highlights:
Canon and Nikon 200-400 f4 – Priced nearly as high (or equal to in the case of the Canon) as the big prime lenses, these two are excellent options for the photographer with money to burn, but who also wants some zoom range.
They are somewhat smaller than the big 500 and 600 primes, but hardly petite. Both the Canon and the Nikon are lightning fast autofocus and sharp enough to cut with.
Canon 100-400L – This is a classic wildlife lens, with excellent quality and a broad zoom range. The newest versions, introduced in the last year or two, also work admirably well with a 1.4x teleconverter.
The ability to zoom greatly increases your compositional options. For this image, I used a Canon 100-400L IS.
Sigma 150-600 (Contemporary and Sport) – Sigma produces two lenses in this range. The less expensive is the “Contemporary” line which is lighter, has a few less glass elements, and is housed in plastic.
A Willow Ptarmigan hides in the tundra. Made with the Sigma 150-600 Sport for Canon.
The “Sport” lens is more durable and larger and heavier with a full metal housing and somewhat better image quality.
Caribou on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Sigma 150-600 Sport for Canon.
Tamron 150-600 – Similar to the Sigma lens, and about halfway between the Contemporary and Sport in price, this lens has been getting solid reviews, particularly in the lastest iteration.
Nikon 200-500 f5.6 – With a fixed, relatively fast aperture of f5.6, this lens is popular with many Nikon wildlife shooters. Though not as heavy as the Sigma 150-600 Sport, it is still a physically large lens.
I’ll be honest. I like this category of lenses for wildlife photography. The zooms provide a range of compositional options for any shooting situation.
They are also substantially smaller and lighter than the big fixed 500 and 600mm lenses, and much, much, less expensive.
But there are drawbacks. These tend to have reduced sharpness at the top end of the zoom range (sometimes substantially), and let’s face it you probably will want to use the top end of the range, more often than not.
Snowshoe Hare portrait with a Lumix G9 camera and the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO.
The smaller maximum aperture also results in an increase in depth of field when compared to the big F4s. That also means a rougher bokeh, that lacks the hallmark creaminess of the big, pricey glass.
Autofocus speed is compromised at the lower levels of these lenses, but remains excellent at the top end.
Advantages: More reasonably priced, compact, and manageable. Generally acceptable image quality at most zoom points. Some options are very sharp.
Disadvantages: Variable image quality between models, smaller maximum aperture, image quality is somewhat less than prime lenses, variable autofocus speed.
Micro 4/3rds System
Common Raven, Juneau Alaska. Olympus 300mm f4 PRO with a Lumix G9 body. That bokeh is easily comparable to my Canon 500mm f4.
Earlier this year, just a few short months ago, I was exclusively a Canon shooter and I had a broad range from professional bodies, and L-series lenses. From wide angles all the way up to my much used and loved 500mm f4L IS.
I had carried that big lens all over the planet with me and made some of my very favourite images of wildlife with it.
But it was so big and heavy. So large, in fact, that for assignments and leading workshops in remote places, I’d stopped carrying it. It was just too big and cumbersome.
Instead, I started relying on smaller lenses, and eventually I invested in a compact Lumix mirrorless camera, which I viewed as a backup… until I started using it more than my big Canon DSLR.
For a week, I rented an Olympus 300mm f4 that I used on my Lumix body. After that week, I realised that the available equipment had moved past the need for the huge prime 500mm lens.
After a week of making images like this with the Olympus 300mm f4, I knew I was ready to sell my Canon 500mm f4.
So, I made the tough decision to sell off all my Canon gear, including the beautiful white 500mm f4. I opted to purchase a Lumix G9 camera, and an Olympus 300mm f4 PRO lens.
At $2,500 for the lens it was a quarter of the price of a new Canon 500mm f4, and the quality, quite frankly, is extraordinary.
There is a misconception in digital photography that the only “professional” cameras have full-frame sensors. I’m here to tell you that’s utter nonsense.
Other sensor sizes like APS-C and particularly m4/3rds are not worse, just different.
The smaller sensors of Olympus and Lumix cameras mean that you gain a 2x crop factor relative to full-frame, and lenses can be produced smaller and lighter while retaining the same maximum aperture as the big glass.
This means that my 300mm f4 lens is comparable to a 600mm f4 in a full-frame, but at a third the size and weight. That’s a formula I like.
Anyway, my point is: don’t blow off the 4/3rd system. Here are three great options for telephoto lenses for these cameras:
Lumix 100-400 – Offering an equivalent range of a whopping 200-800mm, and priced about $1,600, this little lens (and it is small), is a great option for the 4/3rd system, though it lacks the sharpness and smaller max aperture of the two below.
Semipalmated Plover on a gravel bar in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Made with the Lumix 100-400 on a Lumix GX85 body.
Lumix 200 F2.8 – At $2,500, this lens comes equipped with a 1.4x teleconverter making it a 280mm f4 (560mm f4 equivalent). Sharp, compact, light and with a clean bokeh, this is a great lens.
Olympus 300mm f4 – Also priced about $2,500, this telephoto is my current wildlife lens. It’s sharp with a clean bokeh and much lighter and more compact that a comparable prime for a full-frame camera.
Advantages: Smaller and more compact with a magnification and bokeh (almost) equivalent to the prime 500 and 600mm f4s made by Canon and Nikon. Also much more reasonably priced.
Disadvantages: Requires a different camera system than Canon or Nikon, some loss of bokeh, and less snob appeal.
Choosing a Telephoto Lens
Now that we’ve covered a good portion of the options available to you, it’s time to decide on a lens.
But first, a word of warning: You should concern yourself with function and quality, not size. There is a lot of snob appeal to a big lens.
It draws attention, and lots of “wows” from fellow photographers and passersby, but it won’t make you a better photographer.
Follow these steps when deciding on a lens:
- Determine your budget. If you’ve got $10k to blow, then by all means purchase the big glass if that’s what you need. You certainly won’t be disappointed by the quality. But many of us don’t have that kind of cash laying around, or perhaps we’d prefer to spend a quarter of that on a lens then take a month-long trip to Africa with the leftover.
- Check used lens options. There are numerous places to buy good quality used gear. Before committing to a new lens, you might consider checking out used options. Used lenses are often priced half of new.
- Camera system. If like me, you want to switch systems, then you’ll need to incorporate that into your planning. However, if you are already happy with your current camera, then you need to look at offerings for your system in your price range.
- Rent it and try it. No need to purchase right away! There are several online lens rental companies, and many local camera shops rent equipment. Rent your final choice or choices for a few days or a week and put them through their paces. If you like it, great, if not, you can look elsewhere.
- Buy it.
Finding the best wildlife lens for you is not simple. There are many things to consider and no matter which option you select, it won’t be cheap. So don’t make the decision off hand. Consider the options, explore the gear, try stuff out, and then decide.
Don’t get wrapped up in lens snobbery. The big glass is unquestionably incredible, but it’s not required for great images. Remember that.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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