The biggest expense you’ll be looking at as a new wildlife photographer is your lens. You’ve probably heard people talking about how the glass is the most important aspect to your gear, and that’s definitely true to an extent. You could have the best camera on the market, but with a poor quality lens attached you could find your photos soft and below expectations. So what is the best lens for wildlife photography, anyway?
There are plenty of things to consider when choosing a lens for wildlife photography. Should you use a zoom or a prime lens? What about using a teleconverter to extend the reach of a smaller lens, rather than buying a super telephoto? What kind of maximum aperture is necessary? Should you spend a lot, or a little?
It’s no surprise, then, that ensuring you are making an informed decision can be a little daunting.
In a rush? Jump to my wildlife lens recommendations.
First, let’s look at some of the things you need to consider when making your purchase.
Choosing between zoom or prime lenses
Personally, I’ve always been a great fan of zoom lenses. They allow for flexibility, giving you a range of focal lengths you can use. This means you can achieve a variety of compositions for your photo, since you aren’t limited by the fixed focal length of a prime lens.
However, zoom lenses often come with a varying maximum aperture as you zoom in. The popular Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens is an example of this. When you’re shooting at 150mm, you’ll be able to achieve as wide as f/5 for your aperture, but when at the 600mm end you’re limited to f/6.3 and smaller. Not all zoom lenses have this limitation – the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens (read our review here) has a fixed maximum aperture throughout the range, for example.
Some people would argue that prime lenses are sharper than their zoom cousins. This is most likely true in general, but you’d have to look at comparisons between particular lenses in your budget to see the true differences. There are zooms on the market sharper than many primes – it just depends what you can afford.
Prime lenses tend to be more expensive than zooms, but they are also faster. They have a much wider maximum aperture, which is a big part of why the price shoots up. The Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens is fantastic and very fast, but will set you back over £10,000.
Canon have their own expense counterpart too: the Canon 400mm f/2.8. But if you like the idea of a fast prime, but not the idea of the £10,000 price tag, I recommend looking at the Sigma 500mm f/4 lens. We reviewed it here, and it performed very well at a great discount to the big brands’ offerings.
Considering adding a teleconverter to your lens?
It seems like a no-brainer to take a shorter focal length and add a teleconverter to extend the reach of your lens. However, these will often reduce the sharpness of your lens by a noticeable amount.
From personal experience of the Nikon teleconverters, I would insist you avoid the 1.7x and 2.0x versions (the 1.7x is actually the worst of the bunch for Nikon). They soften your images too much in my opinion, and unless you’re using a very expensive high-end lens, it’ll degrade the quality of the image from any cheaper lenses more.
Having said that, the 1.4x teleconverter offered by Nikon is a good buy. I have one, and I’ve used it myself on my 200-400mm when I need that extra bit of reach. I’ve also used the Canon 1.4x teleconverter too, and that’s another great choice.
If you want more reach than what the 1.4x converter can offer you, think about buying a camera with a cropped sensor. This will introduce a crop factor into your photography, giving you more reach for your lens. Read our article on the difference between full frame and cropped sensors to understand about this.
Do you need the fastest lenses?
It might be great to have a lens that opens up to f/2.8, but you won’t necessarily always need to shoot at this level. Bigger is not always better when it comes to the aperture size of your lens, as the narrower depth of field can render important parts of the scene out of focus.
I’ll often shoot at f/8 in an effort to keep my subject sharp entirely – you can still get the soft bokeh effect, as it’s not only the aperture which affects this.
Don’t just ignore lenses slower than f/4. The most important thing to think about is quality of the glass and the consequent sharpness of the image. Yes, this tends to correlate with price, but you can still get sharp images on slower lenses – the two factors are not connected.
The best lens choices for wildlife photography
Let’s take a look at some of the best lenses available for wildlife photography. These recommendations are based on lenses we’ve reviewed here at Nature TTL, as well as information gleaned from real life experience with the gear.
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II (£1,820 // $2,000)
Canon’s 100-400mm Mark II lens is an extremely popular lens. In fact, most professional wildlife photographers (including myself) shoot with this lens and not the more expensive 200-400mm f/4 lens.
This lens is actually very sharp and is lightweight, so it’s ideal for photographers who don’t want to break their backs lugging a 200-400mm around for a small gain in speed.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 (£1,150 // $1,400)
This is a fantastic lens. I own the more expensive 200-400mm f/4 VR II by Nikon, but the 200-500mm is truly brilliant. At 2.3kg, it’s incredibly lightweight for what it is.
Images are sharp and the constant aperture throughout the range is very welcome in a telephoto aimed at the budget market. It’s the perfect option for photographers finding themselves travelling around a lot, not wanting to be burdened by clumsy, heavy equipment.
You can read our full review on this lens here.
Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 (£800 // $1,000)
The king of ‘budget’ lenses, the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 is the latest in Sigma’s popular line of telephoto zooms. I started my career with the 150-500mm they offered at the time, many generations behind what is now on the market, and it lasted me for a good few years.
You’re going to be sacrificing some image sharpness with this budget telephoto, but it’s still a great lens when you’re on a tighter budget. If you can afford it though, I’d recommend the Nikon 200-500mm alternative listed above. Read our full review of this lens here.
Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 G2 (£1,300 // $1,400)
Another third-party brand, Tamron have their own 150-600mm lens available. This second generation is an upgrade to the original 150-600 they launched, which was very popular with users. This lens features faster AF speed, enhanced vibration reduction, and better overall optical performance.
Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (£1,750 // $2,100)
The Nikon 80-400mm: a beast that works across a wide focal length range. You’re almost taking wide-angle images on one end, and close-ups on the other.
The smallest maximum aperture across the range is still only 5.6, similar to the Canon 100-400mm. If you’re looking for flexibility in one lens, then this is something to consider.
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 (£4,800 // $5,500)
If you’ve got a bit of a bigger budget to spend, then the 300mm from Nikon is ridiculously sharp. It’s super quick, too, at f/2.8. Combine this with a 1.4x teleconverter for a 420mm equivalent lens and you have that extra bit of reach when you need it.
Stick a 2x converter on and you’ve got a 600mm, albeit the quality reduced to some degree. Avoid the 1.7x converter, as that is the worst of the three on the market.
Canon 300mm f/2.8 (£5,800 // $6,100)
You could do the same with the Canon 300mm, opting for the 1.4x converter to give you the extra increase in reach. The high-end Canon lenses tend to be more expensive than their Nikon counterparts, but not for much reason other than brand pricing.
There are other choices, of course, that you can make for lenses. There are plenty of cheaper lenses, such as the DX range from Nikon, that address the 300mm range, but the quality of the glass is lower.
This article looks at the best lenses for wildlife photography, so I’ve not paid too much attention to the price of them (other than excluding the 5-figure options, which are not always the best choices anyway).
Any of the above recommendations would do you well. My only advice would be to get the best lens you can afford, as it’ll last you longer before you feel the need to upgrade and lose out by spending more.
If you’re looking to do this on a budget, have a read of The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography on a Budget. We’ve also got a great article on the best camera for wildlife photography that looks at the ideal camera body for capturing wildlife photos.