Choosing the best lens for wildlife photography goes beyond the simple quest for magnification. It’s about capturing a natural scene, the way you see it. The close-up details of animals, and the expansive environments in which they live are equally important.

The lens you select profoundly impacts the emotion and perspective of your images. Choose wisely to convey the feelings that experience when you are out in nature.

While long telephoto lenses are often regarded as necessary for wildlife photographers, helping to capture candid moments of distant wildlife unobtrusively, wide-angle lenses are equally important. They invite you to frame animals within the context of their habitats and offer an insight into the animals’ lives within their environment.

Macro lenses go beyond telephotos, revealing a hidden world of miniature detail, from the delicate texture of a butterfly’s wings to the complex patterns on a lizard’s skin, two things generally not visible to the casual observer.

Whether it is beautiful golden, early-morning light, or overcast shadows of a jungle, the lens you choose will have a much bigger impact on your photography than your camera.

Utilizing a full range of lenses is key to unlocking the full potential of your wildlife photography.

Let’s demystify the process of lens selection and learn how different focal lengths, apertures, and lens features can be used to capture the images that resonate with your idea of nature.

An aside about Focal Lengths

Focal length is essentially about how much of the scene you can see through your camera lens. It’s measured in millimeters (mm), and different lengths can dramatically change the composition of your wildlife photographs.

Shorter lenses show more of the scene, longer focal lengths show a ‘zoomed-in’ field of view. This is also referred to as the angle of view. Think of the angle your arms would make with one another if you held them out at the edges of your vision. If you want to zoom in, just narrow your arms to create a narrower field of view, removing the ‘unnecessary’ elements from the scene.

Focal lengths and camera sensors combine to create this field of view. For a given Focal length, the field of view will be narrower with a smaller sensor (crop sensor cameras).

It is the convention to refer to focal lengths using full-frame cameras. For those using crop sensors, such as APS-C or Four-Thirds, it’s important to remember you’ll need to adjust for the crop factor, 1.5x or 2x, respectively. This effectively gives you a “longer” focal length.

If I say a 300 mm lens is good for a situation, then on a Canon APS-C camera the equivalent would be approximately 200 mm (200 x 1.6 = 320)

Technically, though, the focal length depends only on the lens, not on the camera to which it is attached. What is important is that the field of view is what we want to consider when creating images, and the field of view depends on the focal length AND sensor.

Best Focal Length for Wildlife Photography

Most people start with telephoto lenses. Anything from 200 mm and upwards

These lenses are the go-to choice for most wildlife photography. These lenses allow you to get up close and personal with animals from a distance, ensuring you can capture detailed shots without disturbing your subjects.

Telephoto and super-telephoto lenses (think 400mm and up) are invaluable when it comes to capturing birds or timid creatures. See below for specific lenses.

Longer focal lengths help isolate the subject from its surroundings, focusing attention on the details or behaviors of wildlife. Such lenses are not as easy to use as the more common shorter focal lengths, but you will learn quickly.

You need faster shutter speeds to stop lens shake (which will be magnified as much as the animal is). Longer lenses often let in less light, unless they are professional lenses. And finally, they can get quite heavy, making them more difficult to use without a tripod. These difficulties can be easily overcome.

Your first wildlife lens should generally be between 300 and 400 mm. The best choice is a zoom lens covering this range. This will allow you to get many good images as you learn the hobby.

Wide-angle lenses, typically ranging from 16 mm to 35 mm, are great for capturing expansive landscapes and wildlife. They give viewers a sense of the animal’s environment and add context to the animal’s habitat.

However, small subjects that aren’t very close to the lens can feel tiny in a wide-angle shot. Wildlife rarely comes that close.

On the other hand, standard lenses, which cover focal lengths from about 35 mm to 105 mm (roughly your kit lens’ range) allow for habitat or environmental shots as well. When wildlife is neither close nor far away, and isolated from the background, a mid-range focal length will allow you to include a significant part of the whole scene.

Mid-range lenses are versatile, suitable for a variety of shots from portraits of nearby large animals, to slightly zoomed-in photos of animals that aren’t too far away.

While a mid-length lens is useful in most situations, it isn’t necessarily easy to get amazing shots. In many cases, wildlife will still look quite small in the frame, and it takes skill to keep the wild animal as the center of attention when the surrounding scene is much larger and more visually dominant.

Like using longer lenses, these skills can be learnt.

Field craft is as important as camera technique as understanding your subject, its behavior and the habitat will allow you to get much closer to wildlife without disturbing them.

A zoom-telephoto lens, of about 150-600 mm, will stay in your photography kit forever, probably just being upgraded from the zoom to a wide aperture prime lens if you stick with wildlife.

Aperture Considerations

Aperture is a key part of your lens that is more important in wildlife photography more than most people think.

The aperture is basically a set of metal blades that can open and close to let more or less light pass through your lens. You’ll see it mentioned as f-numbers like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, and so on. A smaller number means the hole is wider, letting in more light. This is simple the ratio of the size of the opening (aperture) to the length of the lens.

A low aperture is a must in low-light conditions or when you’re trying to capture fast-moving animals. Both quick animals and longer lenses need a fast shutter speed to prevent motion blur in the image. The faster the shutter speed is, the less time light that hits your sensor, so a wider aperture, letting through more light, is important.

A wider aperture, or a smaller f-number, doesn’t just let in more light. It also changes the depth of field. This is the amount of the image that is in focus. A shallow depth of field leaves only the subject in focus and the background will be soft and blurry. This helps your subject, like a bird or a deer, stand out clearly against a smooth, out-of-focus background.

But, keep in mind, using a wide aperture also means less of your photo will be in sharp focus. This can be great for isolating your subject but makes it more difficult to get your subject in focus. It requires a bit of practice to get the focus just right, especially with moving animals.

When choosing a lens, a wider aperture (smaller f number) for a given focal length will always give you a better lens. However, that means making the front glass of the lens bigger. This adds weight and cost. There is always a trade off.

For example you cannot get an f2.8 lens over 400 mm. The cost and weight would be prohibitive.

Other Lens Features

In the world of wildlife photography, there are a few more features to consider after you’ve got your head around focal lengths and apertures: lens speed, autofocus, and image stabilization.

Now, while these features do play a role in capturing great wildlife shots, they’re not the be-all and end-all. In fact, compared to choosing the right focal length and aperture, their impact is relatively small. But let’s dive in a little to see what they’re about before I reveal the individual lenses (skip if you like).

Lens speed is a common term, but it is used interchangably for two aspects if a len: autofocus speed and aperture size. We’ve talked about how a wider aperture (a smaller f-number) is great for low light, giving you a faster shutter speed. This is what most people mean when they say a fast lens.

The other aspect of speed for a lens is Autofocus. The ability to change focus quickly. Clearly this is of some importance for moving subjects. As wildlife moves, you want the autofocus to keep up.

When it comes to the speed of autofocus, most modern lenses are extremely quick. Yes, some are faster or slower than others, but they are still quicker than wildlife. The real bottleneck in capturing sharp shots of fast-moving wildlife often lies in challenging lighting conditions.

Essentially, your lens’s ability to focus quickly is dependent on the autofocus sensor of the camera, which works less well in low light. Mirrorless cameras are better at dealing with low-light focus issues than older DSLRs.

So, while having a lens that can focus swiftly is necessary, most lenses are usually more than adequate for wildlife photography.

Image stabilization is a bit like the cherry on top. It helps reduce blurriness in your photos, especially when you’re handholding your camera or using a long lens. While it’s nice to have, especially in challenging conditions like low light or when tracking moving subjects, I don’t think it’s a game-changer. That said, this is the contrary position to a lot of wildlife photographers.

Don’t be confused by the letters: IS/VR/OSS are all just brand specific shortcodes for image stabilization).

The truth is, with a steady hand (and a tripod) you can capture stunning wildlife shots even without image stabilization technology. So, while lens speed, autofocus, and image stabilization are nice features to have, they’re just small pieces of the puzzle.

First, choose your lens based on focal length and aperture. This will ensure that you get the images you want. Once you can do this, features like image stabilization will improve your images.

The Best Lens for Wildlife Photography

By now you should have realized that there is no one best lens for wildlife photography.

I am pretty sure, though, that that is not why you came here. So here are my guidelines:

As a beginner photographer, pick up a telephoto zoom. A Tamron or Sigma 150 – 600 is also a good pick rather than matching the brand of camera. This type of lens will cover most of your wildlife photography needs for a long time.

If you are feeling the limits of a longer zoom with a slow aperture, or you are an experienced photographer starting out in wildlife photography, consider a 300 mm f/4 lens. The wider aperture will give you more flexibility in low-light situations and more creativity with the shallower depth of field.

Longer lenses with wide apertures are quite expensive, over $10,000 new. However, by the time you decide you need a 600 mm f/4 lens, you should know exactly why you want it. If weight is an issue, then go with the 500 mm.

At the shorter focal lengths, use your kit lens. It is exceptionally versatile. The next upgrade would be a 70 – 200 mm f/2.8. These are extremely useful lenses for all types of photography and anybody moving from another branch of photography probably already has one.

If you are not a professional, I recommend getting all lenses secondhand. Reducing the price of photographic equipment, which for most people is quite expensive, is a huge benefit. So too is the environmental impact of reducing electronic waste.

For the last few years, I have purchased all my equipment secondhand. I use www.MBP.com and have always had quick and efficient service.

As of 2024, the following lenses are the standard available. However, an older model, often with an older version of IS/VR/OSS (see above), is very suitable.

Canon

Telephoto Zoom:

  • EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (DSLR)
  • RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 (Mirrorless)

Prime Lens:

  • 300mm: EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
  • 500/600mm: EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

Nikon

Telephoto zoom:

  • AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR (DSLR)
  • Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR (Mirrorless)

Prime Lens:

  • 300mm: AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
  • 500/600mm: AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR

Sony

  • Telephoto zoom: FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS

Prime lens:

  • 300mm: FE 300mm f/2.8 GM OSS (more expensive, no f/4 made by Sony)
  • 500/600mm: Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS

What’s in my gear bag.

I live in the mountains and am forced to hike a lot to find any animals, so I keep my gear as lightweight as possible. Often, I just bring my camera with the day’s chosen lens and nothing else.

That said I do have a collection of lenses that I use regularly for wildlife.

Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 Macro

The simple macro lens. Wildlife can be elephants but it can also be tiny insects. Make sure you have a macro lens in your bag to see the wonderful smaller world of animals that feeds the larger ones.

Nikon 200 – 500 mm f/5.6

This is a very versatile lens. The 200 – 500 mm range is great for most wildlife. In Europe, where overpopulation and hunting have decimated wildlife populations, I find it very rare that I use the lower end of this range.

When travelling though this lens is quite useful throughout its range. I find that I use it more often somewhere in the middle when in places like most recently India, where the wildlife is more likely to be nearby.

The drawback is that it is a rather slow lens, the aperture of f/5.6 does

Nikon 300 mm f/4 PF

My current favorite lens. Lightweight and quick to focus it creates beautiful images. The lens is extremely sharp and accepts teleconverters.

This allows for lightweight hiking, getting away from the crowds and seeing more animals. The more animals you meet the higher the chance that the lens gets a good image.

Tamron 70 – 200 f/2.8

This is an extremely useful and sharp lens. Great for getting detail and clear photos of landscapes. Especially landscapes with animals in them.

The f/2.8 is great around dawn and dusk when the light is limited.

Tamron 24 – 70 f/2.8

Other than in India, where there are still large animals, I haven’t used this for wildlife. This size lens is great for taking environmental shots and displaying how the animal lives in its habitat. However you need a large mammal to be in the foreground or the animal will look tiny in the field of view. If the animal is far away use a longer lens for habitat shots.

Teleconverters: Nikon TC14ii and TC20iii

The teleconverters are mostly used on my 300 mm f/4 lens. The 1.4x reduces the light by one stop, and the 2x reduces the light by two stops. This effectively reduces my lens to an f/5.6 or f/8 lens. The extra reach is useful for shy animals and smaller birds.

I only use the teleconverters in great light, mostly for birds in flight, who are often quite far away. In the mountain forests, light is at a premium, and the zoom just loses too much light. The focus ends up just not working.

I do use them on the macro lens as well. This allows me to increase the macro effect. The minimum focus doesn’t change but the image becomes 1.4x or 2x on the sensor at closest focus. However, the reduced light causes focussing issues in an already difficult scenario. My solution is to move back to where the macro effect is about 1:1 allowing for a slightly (very slightly) better depth of field.

Other lenses,

I have borrowed great lenses and upgraded from worse lenses. Some of my best images come with the lower quality kit lenses I used to have. The opportunity to get a photo is most important. The light and timing are what make a great image. The lens just improves it.

Using heavy, long, fast lenses is a skill that takes a while to learn, and I have not had enough practice to date, to get the most out of them. However I do see the potential benefit and will eventually upgrade when finances allow it.

In Conclusion

Choosing the perfect lens for wildlife photography involves juggling several factors. It goes without saying that the lens must be compatible with your camera body. Older lenses generally work with newer bodies but a quick google search is a good idea when you are combining older DSLR lenses with newer Mirrorless cameras.

Next, consider your budget. Photography gear can be pricey, but remember, investing in quality lenses is investing in the quality of your images. However, don’t let this push you towards breaking the bank; there are fantastic options available at various price points, especially if you consider the second-hand market.

Weight is another crucial consideration. Wildlife photography often involves a fair bit of trekking to capture the best shots. A heavy lens can become a burden, so weigh your options carefully (pun intended).

Finally, think about your specific photography needs. Are you more into bird photography, requiring a lens with a long reach? Or do you prefer capturing animals within their landscapes, where a wider angle lens might be more appropriate? Your preferences and style should guide your lens choice.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but rather a spectrum of options suited to different styles, subjects, and situations. The goal is to capture the natural world in a way that resonates with you and your audience. Don’t shy away from experimenting with different lenses to discover what works best for your vision.

The quest for the perfect shot is a journey of constant learning and exploration, one that rewards patience, creativity, and curiosity. Remember that a bad workman blames his tools, but, on the other hand, a good workman picks the right tool for the job.

Choose the lens that suits your needs, not what your favorite professional photographer says is best. But the best is definitely the most expensive 400 mm f/2.8 – Buy me one!!

Seriously though, the best lens is the one you already have. Start with that and figure out where you want to take your wildlife photography.

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