Best Nikon Lenses for Wildlife Photography

What are the best Nikon lenses for wildlife photography? Our readers often ask us about lenses for nature photography and while I have already written about which Nikon lenses I consider to be the best for landscape photography, I have received numerous requests to write about lenses for wildlife photography as well. In this article, I will not only talk about which Nikon lenses I believe are the best for wildlife and nature photography, but also when I use a particular lens, along with plenty of image samples from each lens. Please keep in mind that the information I present below is a personal opinion based on my experience so far, which is subject to change. If you have a favorite lens of yours for wildlife photography that is not listed below, please feel free to add a comment on the bottom of the page with some information and links to pictures (if you have any that you would like to share).

When photographing wildlife, whether shooting bears in Alaska, or capturing birds in flight, one of the most important factors in choosing a lens is its focal length. Generally, the longer the lens (in focal length), the better. Unlike landscape and portrait photography, where you could get away with a cheap lens and still get great results, wildlife photography pretty much requires high-quality, fast-aperture telephoto optics. This obviously translates to a high price tag, with the lowest end of the spectrum averaging between $500 to $1,500, and the highest-quality / best reach lenses costing as much as $10,000+. Without a doubt, wildlife photography is a very expensive hobby to have (unless you are so good that you can sell your pictures and make good money), especially once you add up all the gear and travel costs.

1) Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR

If you want to get into wildlife photography on a tight budget, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR is the lens you want to get. It is a great buy that will get you to 300mm at under $600 USD. Its autofocus is pretty good in daylight and its versatile zoom range of 70-300mm is great for large animals and perched birds. The lens is light and compact, making it easy to carry it around when scouting for wildlife in parks and wildlife spots. It is capable of producing relatively good bokeh, especially on its longest end, although its sharpness performance also drops quite a bit at 300mm. Having VR is a definite plus when hand-holding the lens.

AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED

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Nikon D4 Battery Life

Nikon EN-EL18

One of the big surprises from the Nikon D4 announcement was its lower battery life compared to the older Nikon D3 and D3s cameras. According to the Nikon D4 specifications, the new EN-EL18 battery that is shipped with the Nikon D4 is rated at 2,600 shots, while the older EN-EL4a battery used on D3/D3s/D3x cameras is rated at 4,200 shots – almost half in difference.

Rob Galbraith spoke to Nikon’s senior official about the battery issue. It turns out that while the new EN-EL18 is rated lower, it in fact delivers greater shooting time than the old EN-EL4a battery. Here is the quote from the article:

The particular Lithium battery chemistry they ultimately selected for the EN-EL18 delivers greater actual shooting time than the EN-EL4a, says Akagi, despite its lower milliamp-hour rating, when the camera is autofocusing and firing constantly. For example, when a photographer is covering a soccer match with a 400mm f/2.8, or any other situation where the camera is spending more time fully active than idle. When the battery is being continuously pushed to provide current to drive the lens motor, shutter, mirror, image sensor, processing circuitry, memory card and more, Akagi indicates the EN-EL18 will power the D4 through more frames than the EN-EL4a could have, and more frames than the D3S and EN-EL4a too.

Akagi accompanied his explanation with hand-drawn approximations of the discharge curves of the EN-EL18 vs the EN-EL4a at low, medium and high current draws, which showed the EN-EL18 outstripping the EN-EL4a when current demands were highest. The high-current discharge characteristics of the two batteries, he says, are different enough that it enables the 10.8V/2000mAh EN-EL18 to outlast the 11.1V/2500mAh EN-EL4a when the D4 is doing lots of autofocusing and capturing lots of pictures. In this scenario, says Akagi, the EN-EL18 will provide roughly 10% more runtime than the EN-EL4a, at normal temperatures. In cold environments, the EN-EL18′s runtime advantage is described as being even greater.

Put simply, if you’re using the D4 to take a steady stream of photos, Nikon’s contention is the EN-EL18 will give you more frames per charge than would have been possible with the EN-EL4a. Conversely, if the camera is kept awake but is spending far more time idle than it is taking pictures, the EN-EL4a would last longer on a single charge than the EN-EL18.

Read the full article about the new battery on Rob’s blog.

That’s great news for future D4 owners. As I have already stated before, Nikon typically does not disappoint with new product announcements, especially if it is a high end product like the Nikon D4.

Big thanks for my friend Tom for sending me the link.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is available for pre-order at B&H

I have also been notified that the brand new Nikon 85mm f/1.8G is also available for pre-orders at B&H, shipping around the same time as D4, which is mid-February. As always, I highly recommend B&H for their superb service and lowest prices.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G Preorder at B&H

Nikon D4 is available for pre-order at B&H

I have just been just notified that B&H is now accepting pre-orders for the Nikon D4, with shipping to start around mid-February. As always, I highly recommend B&H for their superb service and lowest prices.

Nikon D4 Preorder at B&H

Here is the link: Nikon D4 at B&H ($5,999)

Benefits of a High Resolution Sensor

As camera manufacturers are continuing the megapixel race, with Sony releasing a bunch of 24 MP APS-C (1.5 crop-factor) cameras like Sony A77, A65 and NEX-7, and Nikon releasing a high resolution 36 MP Nikon D800, many of us photographers question the need for such a high resolution sensor. Some of us are happy while others are angry about these latest trends. Just when we thought companies like Nikon abandoned the megapixel race, instead of seeing other companies do the same, we now see Nikon back in the game with a new breed of product with a boatload of pixels. Why did Nikon all of a sudden decide to flip the game? Why does everyone seem to be going for more pixels rather than better low-light / high ISO performance? Does a high resolution sensor make sense? What are the true benefits of a high resolution sensor? In this article, I will provide my thoughts on what I think has happened with Nikon’s camera strategy, along with a few points on benefits of a high resolution sensor.

Nikon D4 Sensor

Pixel Size, Pixel Density, Sensor Size and Image Processing Pipeline

OK, this topic is rather complex if you do not know anything about pixels and sensors. Before you read any further, I highly recommend to read my “FX vs DX” article, where I specifically talk about pixel and sensor sizes and their impact on image quality.

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Nikon D4 vs D800

While the Nikon D800 has not officially been released yet, its specifications have been leaked for a while now, so our readers have been asking more and more questions about it. In this Nikon D4 vs D800 comparison, I will write about the rumored specifications of the D800 and compare it to the Nikon D4. While these cameras are for completely different needs and obviously are at difference price points, both are generating lots of interest from the Nikon community. Once the Nikon D800 is officially released and I have both cameras, I will provide much more detailed analysis of differences between these cameras, along with image samples and ISO comparisons. Please keep in mind that some of the D800 specifications below are pure speculation and might not match the actual specifications of the camera when it is released.

Nikon D4 vs D800

Before I get into the camera specifications comparison, let me first talk about these two cameras. The Nikon D4 is a high-end DSLR targeted at news, sports, wildlife and action photographers. It is Nikon’s new flagship low-light king with very impressive high ISO capabilities and extremely fast speed, both in terms of autofocus and camera frame rate. To allow for such impressive low-light performance, Nikon had to keep the pixel size large, which translates to lower resolution (by lower I mean 16.2 MP). The upcoming Nikon D800, on the other hand, is aimed at landscape, architecture and fashion photographers that need high resolution for large prints.

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Nikon D4 vs D3s

Many of the current Nikon D3s owners like me probably wonder about the differences between the new Nikon D4 and the now obsolete Nikon D3s DSLR cameras. While I do not yet have the Nikon D4 to do more in-depth side by side comparisons, I decided to write about differences in body design and specifications between the two. More details about the Nikon D4 will be published in my upcoming Nikon D4 review.

Nikon D4 vs D3s

First, let’s talk about differences in camera body design.

Nikon D4 vs D3s Camera Body Design Comparison

As expected, the Nikon D4 went through rather significant changes in camera body design. The overall shape of the camera has been completely changed and it now looks more curved than the D3/D3s/D3x models. Let’s start from the front of the camera, which went through the least number of changes. The only major change I see on the front is the C/S/M focus lever (bottom left side of the camera) that has been modified to adapt to the same switch we see on the Nikon D7000 DSLR. This was a good design change, because it will prevent accidental changes to autofocus when you pull the camera out of the bag. Now the switch only has two options – AF for autofocus and M for manual focus. The button on top of the switch replaces the AF mode switch on the back of the camera. Now you can switch between the different AF modes (single, dynamic and 3D) by pressing this button and rotating the camera dial. Oh and it looks like the grip is shaped a little differently, which should help with handling the camera a little more.

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Nikon 85mm f/1.8G Announcement

Along with the Nikon D4, Nikon also announced the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G lens today. While all photography sites are buried with the Nikon D4 announcement, this little gem is receiving very little attention. I am super excited about this portrait lens, because it not only replaces the old 85mm f/1.8D, but considering how good the latest f/1.8 lenses have been, should deliver superb performance at a relatively low price of $500.

Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

You might be wondering why one would want an 85mm lens, if there are cheaper 50mm portrait lenses out there. Well, 50mm lenses were never considered to be portrait lenses in the past, because 50mm falls into the “standard” range. However, because of digital cameras with smaller cropped sensors, 50mm lenses are now more like 75mm lenses, which is too long for a standard range and hence the new name. Even I often refer to the 50mm lens as a “portrait” lens. In fact, 50mm lenses are not portrait lenses – they are just designed to be small, lightweight and portable for everyday photography and occasional portraiture. 85mm lenses, on the other hand, are specialized tools created specifically for portraiture in mind. This means that they are optically designed to deliver outstanding results when photographing people with very sharp optics, superb colors and exceptionally good-looking bokeh. The current Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, like its predecessors, is often called the “bokeh king” for a reason – there are very few lenses out there that can deliver similar results (the superb Nikon 135mm f/2.0 DC is one of them).

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Nikon D4 DSLR Announcement

Nikon has just released the much anticipated Nikon D4 DSLR, a major update to the existing Nikon D3s camera that was released back in 2009. The Nikon D4 is Nikon’s flagship DSLR, designed specifically for sports, news, wildlife and event photography that require superb low-light capabilities. Due to the high resolution sensor of the Nikon D800, we might not see a Nikon D4x for landscape and fashion photography needs, but a Nikon D4s might follow in a couple of years.

Nikon D4

So, what does the Nikon D4 bring to the table? Here is a summary of its features:

  1. Sensor: 16.2 MP FX, 7.3µ pixel size
  2. Native ISO Sensitivity: 100-12,800
  3. Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 50
  4. Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 25,600-204,800
  5. Camera Buffer: Up to 100 12-bit RAW images, 70 14-bit uncompressed RAW and up to 200 JPEG images in continuous 10 FPS mode with XQD card
  6. Processor: EXPEED 3
  7. Dust Reduction: Yes
  8. Shutter: Up to 1/8000 and 30 sec exposure, self-diagnostic shutter monitor
  9. Shutter Durability: 400,000 cycles
  10. Camera Lag: 0.012 seconds
  11. Storage: 1x Compact Flash slot and 1x XQD slot
  12. Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
  13. Speed: 10 FPS, 11 FPS with AE/AF locked
  14. Exposure Meter: 91,000 pixel RGB sensor
  15. Autofocus System: Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX with 51 focus points and 15 cross-type sensors
  16. AF Detection: Up to f/8 with 11 focus points (5 in the center, 3 on the left and right)
  17. LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 921,000 dots
  18. Movie Modes: Full 1080p HD @ 30 fps max
  19. Movie Exposure Control: Full
  20. Movie Recording Limit: 30 minutes @ 30p, 20 minutes @ 24p
  21. Movie Output: MOV, Compressed and Uncompressed
  22. Two Live View Modes: One for photography and one for videography
  23. Camera Editing: Lots of in-camera editing options with HDR capabilities
  24. Wired LAN: Built-in Gigabit RJ-45 LAN port
  25. WiFi: Not built-in, requires WT-5a and older wireless transmitters
  26. GPS: Not built-in, requires GP-1 GPS unit
  27. Battery Type: EN-EL18
  28. Battery Life: 2,600 shots
  29. Weight: 1,180g

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What is a Low-Pass Filter?

A low-pass filter, also known as anti-aliasing or “blur” filter, was designed by camera manufacturers to eliminate the problem of moiré by blurring what actually reaches the sensor. While extreme details are lost in the process, the problem of moiré is completely resolved. Since most cameras are designed to be used for day-to-day photography, where moiré pattern is very common, most cameras on the market today use a low-pass / anti-aliasing filter. While this surely benefits most photographers out there, it is a big blow on landscape photographers that never see moiré and yet end up with blurred details. Because of this problem, some companies on the market started specializing in removing the low-pass / anti-aliasing filter from modern DSLR cameras, specifically targeting landscape photographers. Most digital medium-format and some high-end cameras do not have a low-pass filter, because they want to deliver the best performance from their sensors. While those cameras are affected by moiré, manufacturers leave it up to the photographer to decide on how to avoid it or deal with it in post-processing. Below you will find two examples of low-pass filters used on typical Nikon DSLRs and on the Nikon D800E.

A typical low-pass filter contains of 3 or more different layers, as shown on the top illustration below:

Nikon D800 vs D800E Low-Pass Filter

As light rays reach the first “horizontal low-pass filter”, they get split in two, horizontally. Next, they go through an infrared absorption filter (illustrated in green color). After that, the light rays go through the “second vertical low-pass filter”, which further splits the light rays vertically. This light ray conversion process essentially causes blurring of the details.

With the Nikon D800E DLSR model, Nikon took a different approach. The full low-pass filter cannot be completely removed, because it would cause the focal plane to move; plus, the camera still needs to be able to reflect infrared light rays. Instead of making a single filter with one layer, Nikon decided to still use three layers, but with two layers canceling each other out. As light rays get split into two with a vertical low-pass filter, then through the IR absorption filter, those same light rays get converged back when passing through a reversed vertical low-pass filter. Hence, instead of getting blurred details as in the first illustration, we get the full resolution.

I am not sure if the above method is the best way to deal with the issue, but I suspect that Nikon decided to take this route for cost reasons. It would probably be more expensive to produce a single IR absorption filter layer coated on both sides, than continue to use the same layers, but in a different configuration.

Here is a sharpness comparison between the Nikon D800 and D800E (Image courtesy of Nikon):
Nikon D800 vs D800E Sharpness