Wildlife Photography: Choosing the Perfect Lens

January 11, 2024
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Photography is about capturing the world around us, and wildlife photography is a perfect example. It’s a way to connect with nature and see its beauty and realities up close. The lens you use is important in wildlife photography; it connects you, the photographer, to your subject. 

For both new and experienced photographers, understanding different lenses is crucial. The lens choice can significantly alter the appearance of wildlife photos, affecting perspective, clarity, and overall impact. It’s not merely about using sophisticated equipment but about selecting a lens that aligns with your artistic vision and the specific environment. While professional photographers often concentrate on the technical details of lens choices, we aim to demystify this process, making it straightforward and beneficial for everyone, regardless of their photography experience.

When discussing different lenses for wildlife photography, remember that the best lens is sometimes the most expensive or advanced one. It’s the lens that fits with what you want to achieve in your photos and the nature scenes you want to capture. Whether you’re just starting out in wildlife photography or looking to improve your skills, this guide is for you. We’ll help you understand lenses better, making your next wildlife photography experience more successful and rewarding.

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography

Choosing the right lens for wildlife photography is crucial to capturing the essence of nature’s most elusive subjects. Long focal lengths are essential since getting close to wild animals is often not an option. Ideally, you should aim for at least 300mm, but often, you’ll find the need for even more.

The decision often boils down to choosing between zoom and prime lenses. Zoom lenses offer greater flexibility in shooting with varied focal lengths, making them a popular choice for amateurs due to their versatility and generally lower cost. On the other hand, prime lenses offer superior optical quality at a fixed focal length.

lens for wildlife photography

Other essential features to consider are the size and weight of the lens, especially if you’ll be carrying it to remote locations. Since wildlife photography is predominantly outdoor, outdoor, dust and weather sealing are also vital considerations. Additionally, if you’re interested in close-up shots of smaller or more approachable animals, the lens’s minimum focus distance becomes an essential factor.

Many wildlife photographers rely on tripods, so check if your lens has a tripod mount or if one can be added. Also, consider if the manufacturer offers compatible teleconverters that can extend your reach at the cost of some aperture width. These converters are particularly effective with mirrorless cameras, as they often maintain better autofocus functionality than DSLRs.

The maximum aperture of the lens is another key aspect. A larger aperture (smaller f-number) can be helpful for creating a shallow depth of field and shooting in lower light conditions. However, lenses with larger apertures are typically bigger and more expensive.

Irrespective of your budget, various excellent long telephoto lenses are available that balance price, performance, and portability. For an in-depth look at the best lenses for wildlife photography and compatible camera options, be sure to check out our guide to the best cameras for bird photography.

What Are the Best Lenses for Wildlife Photography?

When it comes to birding and wildlife photography, getting close to your subject, as mentioned, typically requires using lenses with at least a 300mm focal length. It’s common to see top photographers capturing stunning wildlife images with huge and incredibly expensive telephoto lenses. These lenses, while impressive, often seem out of reach for the average photographer.

However, there’s good news for enthusiasts who dream of taking similar breathtaking shots without breaking the bank. The market offers several excellent options that are more reasonably priced. These alternatives allow even amateur photographers to achieve professional-level wildlife photography, proving that you don’t need to invest in ultra-expensive gear to capture the beauty of nature. 

Whether you’re a budding photographer or a seasoned pro looking for a more budget-friendly option, here are the best lenses to help you get those spectacular wildlife shots.

1. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM 

The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM stands out as the top super-telephoto lens from Sigma’s Contemporary line, acclaimed for offering an impressive blend of quality and affordability. This lens is a game-changer for wildlife photographers looking for a substantial focal length without the hefty price tag. It’s hailed as the best-value wildlife lens on the market, demonstrating that high quality can sometimes come cheaply.

Featuring a Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM), the lens delivers fast and accurate autofocus, crucial for capturing wildlife that might quickly disappear into the wilderness. Its optical performance is excellent at shorter focal lengths, with minimal chromatic aberration or ghosting. However, some distortion might be noticeable at the higher end of the zoom range.

This lens has advanced flare reduction capabilities, maintaining a high dynamic range in challenging backlighting situations. Its design is dustproof and splashproof at the mount, making it suitable for harsh environments, though it requires careful handling. Furthermore, the lens’s water and oil-repellent properties enhance image quality and ease the cleaning process.

Lightweight yet robust, the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary lens is an excellent choice for wildlife photographers who need quality and affordability in one package. It’s available for Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras, so select the version compatible with your camera model. 

With this lens, capturing stunning wildlife shots becomes more accessible and enjoyable.

2. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens is a top choice for Canon camera users looking for an affordable zoom lens that doesn’t compromise quality. This versatile telephoto lens strikes an ideal balance between performance, portability, and price, making it a fantastic option for those seeking a compact lens with powerful capabilities.

This lens is designed to deliver exceptional image quality. It features one fluorite and one Super UD element, significantly reducing chromatic aberration across the entire zoom range and ensuring high contrast and resolution. The Air Sphere Coating is another highlight, effectively minimizing flaring and ghosting, especially in backlit situations. Its 9-blade circular aperture contributes to pleasingly soft backgrounds, enhancing the aesthetic quality of your shots.

The lens is equipped with a 3-mode Optical Image Stabilizer for image stability, offering up to 4 stops of image correction, a crucial feature for capturing sharp wildlife images. Additionally, the lens boasts user-friendly features like a rotation-type zoom ring with adjustable torque for precise composition, a redesigned tripod mount for added stability, and a new lens hood with a side window, making it easier to adjust specialty filters.

Durability is also a key feature of the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. With rugged construction and advanced dust and water sealing, it is a reliable companion for wildlife photography, ready to face various outdoor conditions. 

This lens is not just an investment in your photography gear but a trusty partner in your wildlife photography ventures.

3. Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens is an attractive choice for Nikon DSLR users, especially those seeking an affordable telephoto option. It offers a substantial long-range benefit for DX-format camera users like the Nikon D500. It achieves an effective reach of up to 750mm on such cameras, making it a versatile lens for various photography needs.

One of the standout features of this lens is its f/5.6 maximum aperture, which makes it quite portable given its range. Its weight and design are balanced so that shooting handheld is comfortably feasible. The lens comes equipped with an effective Vibration Reduction (VR) system, rated to offer up to 4.5 stops of stabilization, further enhancing its suitability for handheld shooting.

Autofocus performance is another strong point of this lens. It’s equipped with an AF-S motor, ensuring focusing is quick and precise, which is essential in wildlife photography, where capturing fleeting moments is crucial.

However, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind. Firstly, the lens is not advertised as weather-sealed, which might be a concern for shooting in challenging outdoor conditions. Additionally, as an E-type lens featuring an electromagnetic diaphragm, it’s compatible only with relatively recent Nikon DSLR bodies. Therefore, verifying compatibility with your camera model before making a purchase is important.

For a deeper exploration of suitable lenses for Nikon DSLRs, particularly for those keen on wildlife photography, be sure to check out our comprehensive guide to the best lenses for Nikon DSLRs. This guide can help you decide based on your photographic needs and camera compatibility.

4. Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 ED G OSS

The Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 ED G OSS is a remarkable lens for wildlife photography, particularly suited for Sony camera users. Its maximum focal length of 600mm offers an impressive level of magnification, making it an ideal lens for bird photography and capturing scenes in expansive environments like the African savanna or the American prairies.

One of the key features of this super-telephoto lens is its autofocus (AF) system. It incorporates Sony’s Direct Drive Super-sonic Motor (DDSSM), renowned for its speed and focus accuracy. This ensures the lens remains sharp and responsive, crucial for early morning or late evening shoots, typical in wildlife photography.

Although the maximum aperture is limited to f/6.3 at 600mm, the lens’s optical image stabilization system effectively compensates for low-light conditions. It offers three different stabilization modes, all beneficial for wildlife photography, helping to maintain image sharpness and clarity.

Another notable aspect of this lens is its 11-blade aperture diaphragm. The additional blades contribute to a beautiful bokeh effect, adding smoothness to out-of-focus areas in your photographs. This feature is particularly appealing for bird photography, where isolating the subject from the background can create stunning images.

Overall, the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 ED G OSS is an excellent choice for wildlife photography, especially for those with full-frame Sony cameras. Its focal length range, autofocus efficiency, image stabilization, and bokeh effect make it a top contender for capturing the beauty and intricacy of the natural world.

5. Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6R LM OIS WR

The Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6R LM OIS WR lens is a top contender for wildlife photography, particularly for those using X series Fujifilm cameras. This lens stands out with its powerful magnification, superior image stabilization, and robust build, making it a versatile and reliable choice for capturing wildlife.

While its 400mm maximum focal length may not be the longest on the market, the quality and power of its magnification are noteworthy. The lens maintains minimal distortion throughout its zoom range, allowing for precise and detailed shots of distant animals. The 100mm end also offers versatility, enabling you to take closer shots and capture the environment around your subject.

Fujifilm’s image stabilization system in this lens is exceptional, offering five stops of compensation. This feature is handy for shooting with slower shutter speeds without worrying about camera shake, ensuring crisp and stable images even in low-light conditions.

Durability is a key aspect of this telephoto lens, designed to withstand the challenging conditions often encountered in wildlife photography. It’s dust-resistant, making it suitable for shooting in arid environments like deserts and dry plains. The lens’s water resistance is a boon for wet or humid conditions, and its capability to function in sub-zero temperatures makes it ideal for adventures in the Antarctic or Arctic Circle. 

The Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6R LM OIS WR lens is a competent and resilient option for wildlife photographers, capable of thriving in various environmental conditions and offering a blend of versatility, clarity, and stability in image capture.

Final Thoughts 

In wrapping up our exploration of the best lenses for wildlife photography, it’s important to note that numerous other options are available. You might find more budget-friendly alternatives in your local store, as it’s worth mentioning that the most expensive options are only sometimes the best choice for some photographers.

Any lenses we’ve discussed would be a great addition to your photography kit. Our key advice is to invest in the best lens you can afford. A high-quality lens enhances your current photography experience and remains a valuable asset for a more extended period.  This approach can save you money in the long run, as it delays the need for an upgrade and avoids the cost of frequent replacements.

Remember, in photography, your lens can be a lifelong companion that grows with your skills and aspirations.


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