Wildlife photography is in the realm of the telephoto lens. While almost any focal length lens works for landscapes and other types of photography, in general, when it comes to photographing animals in the wild, you'll want to have the longest reach you can. We will start our buying guide here with a discussion about focal length and then we will talk about other aspects of a wildlife photography lens you might consider when making a purchasing decision.
While it is sometimes possible to get close enough to wildlife to use a shorter focal length lens (please be smart and always use care!), to capture wild animals at a distance where you aren't intruding on their territory or scaring them off, you'll want a long focal length lens.
The consensus among wildlife shooters is that the minimum focal length you should be equipped with is 200mm or 300mm. Of course, if you are photographing small birds from a distance, you might want an even longer lens than you would for photographing something like an elephant or bison that will fill the frame of a shorter lens at the same distance.
For photographing at great distances, or with smaller animals, you might want to consider a 400mm, 500mm, 600mm, or even 800mm lens.
The photography world is filled with full-frame digital sensor pundits; wildlife photographers can get real-world benefits by using crop-sensor cameras like APS-C or Micro Four Thirds bodies. On a camera where the sensor is smaller than traditional 35mm film frame, the smaller sensor virtually magnifies the image through a lens—effectively changing the focal length of the optic.
On a 1.5x APS-C sensor, a 300mm f/4 lens becomes a virtual 450mm f/4 lens. And, that same focal length optic on a 2x Micro Four Thirds sensor becomes an equivalent 600mm f/4 lens.
Full-frame shooters reading this might make the argument that you can just crop your full-frame image later to get the same field of view, but there is a definite advantage for composition and general "seeing" with crop sensor cameras since their viewfinders (electronic or optical) show you the true field of view of the camera/sensor combination.
An unfortunate side of the inherent physics and mathematics is that with longer focal lengths, you magnify camera shake. Camera shake leads to less-than-sharp images and no one likes a blurry photo of a beautiful animal in the wild (or anywhere else for that matter). Thanks to modern camera and lens technology, image stabilization (IS) systems (known by various monikers depending on your brand of choice) can help combat that camera shake. Image stabilization comes in three basic types—lens-based IS, camera-based in-body IS (IBIS), and dual IS when the camera and lens are both stabilized.
There are many caveats and exceptions, but a lens with built-in stabilization can give you IS on a camera that does not have IBIS. Similarly, a camera with IBIS can give you a stabilized image through any lens—even vintage optics.
As amazing as IS technology is, it is not infallible—with a long telephoto lens and a lot of movement, you might not get a razor-sharp image. Also, knowing the basics about how your IS systems work is important. Some IS systems have different modes to help compensate for general shake or to allow the camera to accept some panning movement if you are tracking a moving subject. Also, some IS systems react poorly when placed on a tripod. Be sure to read your camera's manual or search the Internet for tutorial videos about your camera's or lens's IS systems.
Zooms vs. Prime Lenses
There are real-world advantages for wildlife photographers who can change focal length instantly with a zoom lens. In all types of photography, but especially in wildlife photos, you cannot always get to the vantage point you desire and, frustratingly, the wild animal you are trying to photograph might not be standing exactly where you want them to. Having a zoom lens allows the photographer to zoom in or zoom out to get a better composition.
On the other hand, prime lenses generally offer greater light-gathering capabilities (larger maximum apertures) and sometimes offer optical advantages. Discussions of light-gathering often revolve around low-light and nighttime shooting, but, for long focal-length wildlife photography, having a lens that allows more light into the camera means you can photograph at faster shutter speeds. This is an advantage that helps take some pressure off your IS systems and reduce camera shake leading to sharper photos.
Modern zoom lenses can be spectacularly sharp, but prime lenses are usually even sharper. For maximum image quality, wildlife photographers may have to forego the convenience and flexibility of the zoom lens.
A telephoto lens's maximum aperture factors into many aspects of wildlife photography—light gathering, depth of field, and weight. What is a large maximum aperture? Well, for a long telephoto lens, apertures wider than f/5.6—f/4, f/2.8, f/2—are relatively huge. The longer the lens, the less wide an aperture needs to be to be considered large. For example, an f/5.6 aperture on a super-telephoto lens is considered very large.
In the prime vs. zoom section, we discussed light gathering and that is probably the Number One advantage of lenses with larger maximum apertures—the ability to photograph at faster shutters speeds for any given lighting condition. Faster shutter speed means less blur from camera shake and can let you freeze fast action.
Another factor of larger maximum apertures is the ability to photograph at shallower depth of field—helping to isolate your subject from the background. The combination of long focal lengths and wide apertures delivers very shallow depth-of-field capabilities.
The last factor to consider with large maximum aperture lenses is weight. We will dive further into this later in the guide, but larger maximum apertures = larger optical elements = a heavier lens. For wildlife photographers, this is an important consideration.
Teleconverters effectively increase the focal length of your lens by adding magnifying optics into the light path. These tools can be a boon to wildlife photographers because you can effectively multiply your focal length by 1.4x, 1.7x, 2x, or another multiplication factor without adding too much weight to your rig or necessitating another huge lens.
The downside of the teleconverter is the unfortunate side effect of reducing your maximum aperture while you increase your focal length. With a 1.4x teleconverter you lose a stop of light. A 1.7x costs you 1.5 stops. A 2x sacrifices 2 stops. For example, a 300mm f/4 lens with a 2x teleconverter is transformed into a 600mm f/8 lens.
Some wildlife photographers swear by teleconverters. Others, searching for ultimate image quality, eschew them because they can degrade image quality (teleconverters add more glass between the subject and sensor). As far as telephoto bang for the buck, teleconverters cannot be matched.
As good as today's IS systems are, you cannot beat a good tripod for ultimate stability. Hiking into the wild with a heavy tripod is not always feasible, but, when shooting at extreme telephoto focal lengths, having a tripod might make the difference between getting the shot and getting nothing—especially in less than ideal lighting conditions.
Many telephoto lenses, even those around 200mm, often come with a tripod collar installed as standard equipment. These collars allow you to mount your lens, not your camera, on the tripod to keep the center of gravity of your camera and lens over the tripod head—very important for long focal length lenses since you do not want to hang a large amount of unsupported weight from the front of a camera.
As an additional mention, while a tripod ball head is great for almost every kind of photography, some long telephoto lenses can benefit from using a gimbal head with your tripod. Alternatively, don't forget monopods and sandbags for stability.
The ideal setup for awesome wildlife photography is a large professional DSLR or mirrorless camera, a large maximum aperture 800mm f/5.6 lens, and a heavy-duty carbon fiber tripod. Equipped with that rig, you'll likely want to stay within a 30 second walk from your 4x4 adventure vehicle. This is not the kind of gear you would take with you for a multi-day hike into the wilderness in search of a rare and elusive animal.
Depending on where you are going, what you want to photograph, and how you are getting there, weight is a huge component of shopping for a lens for wildlife photography. Not only do you need to think about your lens, but also about associated gear. Weight considerations might be another significant advantage for a crop sensor camera system. Tripods and accessories need to be factored in, as well.
Inclement weather is a part of all outdoor photography. And, when you are far from shelter, it is important to protect your gear from the elements and maybe even keep shooting when the skies open or the dust blows. Modern electronics are remarkably robust, but many of today's cameras and lenses feature seals designed specifically to keep contaminants out. When it comes to lenses and harsh environments, zoom lenses with "internal zoom" keep components from being exposed to nature while changing focal length and some lenses feature specialized coatings, such as fluorine, to help combat moisture on the front elements.
Do you have any questions about shopping for a lens for wildlife photography? Contact us via chat, email, phone, or leave a note in the Comments section, below. We would be happy to help!