Wildlife photography is one genre where the right lens makes a big difference, and the wrong one simply won’t let you get the shot. Wild animals may not be at optimal distances and they frequently appear in challenging light. So, how can you find the best lens to overcome the challenges of wildlife photography?
Luckily, compared to something like landscape photography lenses, there are relative few lenses that work well for wildlife photography, and they fall into fairly distinct categories. Once you understand these categories, you should be able to choose the best lens for your wildlife photography needs.
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Is There a Best Wildlife Photography Lens?
Even ignoring price, I’d say there is no single best wildlife photography lens, simply because wildlife is such a huge category. If someone mentions wildlife, I typically think of birds, but there’s a lot more than just birds out there. There are mammals, insects, and herpetofauna to name a few. So, while a 600mm f/4 is great for birds, it might not be right for something like a larger, closer mammal (unless you’re using the lens to fight it off).
That said, there are still “best lenses” for certain situations and budgets in wildlife photography. In the following sections of this guide, I’ll introduce some of the different kinds of wildlife lenses and explain whether that lens is right for you.
The Budget Long Zoom Lens
I think that for most people, the budget zoom (which goes to at least 500mm) is going to be the optimal wildlife lens. These lenses start out at around 100mm and end at 400mm to 600mm. Some brands have two different options here, like a 100-400mm as well as a 200-600mm. They may differ in price, weight, or maximum aperture.
Below, I’ve listed the longest-available zoom for each major lens mount today, only counting first-party lenses. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all budget zooms (that list would get very long once third-party and older optics are included) but gives you an idea of the available options:
|Nikon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6
|Nikon 180-600 f/5.6-6.3
|Nikon 200-500 f/5.6
|Canon 100-500 f/4.5-7.1
|Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6
|Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3
|Fuji XF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6
|Fuji XF 150-600 f/5.6-8 R
|Pentax 150-450 f/4.5-5.6
|Micro 4/3rds (Panasonic)
|Panasonic 100-400 f/4-6.3
|Micro 4/3rds (Olympus)
|Olympus 100-400 f/5-6.3
|Sigma Sport 150-600 f/5-6.3 DG DN
Long zooms like this tend to have three advantages: they are hand-holdable compared to huge primes, they have a wide zoom range, and they are relatively affordable. The zoom range is one of the nicest features of these lenses; they are perfect if you want to photograph many kinds of wildlife, from butterflies to dinosaurs. Most of these lenses also have decent minimum focus distances, which means you can fill the frame with smaller creatures like frogs.
That said, budget telephoto zooms have two disadvantages. The first is image quality: Especially at their maximum focal length, budget zooms don’t resolve as much detail as prime lenses. If you mainly photograph at the widest apertures like f/5.6, you may notice some softness up close no matter what you do.
However, with recent zooms, this difference is getting smaller. I was actually shocked at some of the images coming out of the Sony 200-600mm from some of my fellow wildlife photographers. This is also true of Canon’s 100-500mm and Nikon’s 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 lens. So, if you do end up going the budget zoom route, a newer lens like this will offer the fewest compromises.
The other disadvantage of the long zoom is speed, in two ways. They have narrower apertures, such as Canon’s 100-500mm being an f/7.1 on the long end. This means less light on your sensor, and thus worse image quality in low-light situations. With modern sensors and judicious post-processing, this limitation is not horrible, but there’s no way around capturing less light.
Also, the narrower maximum aperture tends to make focusing a little slower compared to primes. This is especially true with certain DSLRs whose phase detection system goes downhill after f/5.6. However, if you are shooting a newer camera, especially a higher-end mirrorless, the difference isn’t as dramatic.
You should get a budget long zoom if…
- You want to capture a variety of wildlife of different sizes and distances
- You want to do wildlife photography at a reasonable cost
The High-End Zoom
Unlike the budget lenses I just discussed, high-end zoom lenses are constant-aperture, top-notch lenses. A classic example is the beast Nikon 180-400 f/4E, which has a built-in teleconverter.
High-end zooms are less common than you might expect among wildlife photographers. They usually don’t have quite as long of a focal length reach, and they’re generally massive, expensive lenses. Their focal lengths and constant aperture are perfect, however, for larger animals and environmental shots. I usually only recommend such a lens to someone who is deeply into that genre.
One exception would be the Olympus ED 150-400mm f/4.5 for micro four thirds cameras. This lens isn’t tiny, but it’s smaller than most constant-aperture, high-end telephotos (although not much less expensive). It has a substantial reach – 800mm equivalent – and can put a fair amount of pixels on your subject. It’s a popular lens among wildlife photographers who use the higher-end OM-1 micro four thirds camera.
You should get a high end zoom if…
- You want to focus on wider shots or larger animals
- You shoot in lower light where a budget zoom will result in too much noise
- You still need the convenience of a zoom
- You want uncompromised image quality from edge to edge of the frame
The Wide Aperture Prime Lens
The most “traditional” prime lenses for wildlife photography are the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses. There are also wider 300mm and 400mm options from almost every manufacturer. Nikon recently released the Z 400 f/2.8 and Nikon 600mm f/4, both with built-in 1.4x teleconverters making these prized focal lengths even more versatile.
Compared to zoom lenses (even high-end ones), primes tend to be at least a stop faster. They generally focus faster and have unsurpassed resolving power. The two disadvantages of these lenses – other than losing the flexibility of a zoom – are price and weight.
The weight in particular rules out long, wide-aperture primes if you want to carry them around for long distances and shoot spontaneously. It’s usually not possible to hand-hold these lenses for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, if you have such a lens, you will want to use a tripod with a gimbal head (or at least a monopod) for most of your shooting.
Since these are prime lenses, you’ll find it helpful to have a subject in mind ahead of time and stand the appropriate distance away. A 300mm or 400mm lens is better for larger, closer subjects, whereas anything 500mm and beyond is more popular for small birds and distant mammals.
You should get traditional prime if…
- You don’t need to handhold your lens very often, or you’re the Hulk
- You photograph mainly smaller creatures like birds
- Razor sharpness (or bragging rights) are your main priorities
Narrower Aperture Primes, Especially Canon’s DO and Nikon’s PF Lenses
A class of long lenses that has become more popular recently is the longer focal length telephoto prime with a narrower maximum aperture. Most of the lenses in this category have a Fresnel lens element to save weight, including Nikon’s PF lenses and Canon’s DO lenses.
The earliest successful example of one is the Canon 400 f/4 DO II. It’s an excellent performer, albeit an expensive lens at $6900 new. Most PF and DO lenses stand out because they’re a good balance of weight, maximum aperture, focal length, and price.
In that respect, Canon has two intriguing lenses worth mentioning: the 600mm f/11 and 800mm f/11, both of which have a DO element. These lenses are light weight, inexpensive, and relatively sharp, at the cost of a small aperture. Don’t get me wrong: f/11 can work, but I would not consider these lenses to be general-purpose. Instead, the Canon 600mm and 800mm f/11 lenses are perfect for someone who wants to have wildlife shots in their portfolio without breaking the bank.
On the Nikon side, there are two very special PF lenses for wildlife: the 500mm f/5.6 PF and Z 800mm f/6.3 PF lenses. These lenses provide outstanding optical quality, and they are lighter and less expensive than traditional primes. The maximum apertures of these lenses aren’t as wide as f/2.8 or f/4 glass on the market, but it’s still enough for most wildlife photography.
The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 falls into the same lighter-weight category, although it has no PF elements. And the Nikon 300mm f/4 PF is another good option for this type of lens, albeit (at least without a teleconverter) not necessarily a long enough focal length for bird photography and distant wildlife.
Narrower aperture prime lenses are one of the best balances for wildlife photography, if you don’t need the convenience of a zoom. You’re basically taking something like a 200-500mm f/5.6, getting rid of the wider focal lengths, and ending up with a lighter, sharper result (although not necessarily less expensive).
You should get a narrower aperture prime lens if…
- You want top-notch image quality
- You don’t mind shooting with a slower lens compared to f/2.8 or f/4 primes
- Light weight is of paramount importance to your photography
Something to Think About: Minimum Focus Distance
The minimum focus distance of a lens is the distance at which the lens will cease to focus if the subject comes any closer. For example, my Nikon 500mm f/5.6 has a minimum focus distance of 3m (9.8ft). If a bird comes any closer than that, I simply won’t be able to get the shot.
Interestingly, budget zooms often have a better minimum focusing distance than high-end zooms and primes. But it varies quite a bit from lens to lens. For example, when I see a dragonfly on a rock, I often have to move back a little before my Nikon 500mm PF will focus on it – but Nikon’s 300mm f/4 PF lens by comparison is widely praised for its close minimum focusing distance, and a common choice among dragonfly photographers.
If you expect to photograph small, close subjects like butterflies, lizards, and dragonflies, pay close attention to the minimum focusing distance and maximum magnification in a lens’s specifications. Try to choose a lens with at least 1:5 magnification (0.2x) or greater for these subjects.
Another Thing to Think About: Weight
A lot of people go out and buy a lens only to return it or sell it later just because it’s too heavy. Everyone will have a different tolerance for weight, but I like to think about three categories:
- Lens and camera under 2500g (under 5.5 lbs): So comfortable that it’s a joy to use
- Combination between 2500g and 3200g (5.5 to 7 lbs): Can be handheld, but a day of photography feels like a day at the gym
- Combination over 3200 g (over 7 lbs): Typically the “big glass,” which can be handheld for short periods of time but needs a tripod/monopod in many cases
Based on these categories, this table will give you an idea of your options as a wildlife photographer:
|Camera and lens
The comfortable ones
|Olympus OM-1 + 300 f/4
|Canon R5 + 100-500 f/4.5-7.1
|Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5.6 PF
|Olympus OM-1 + 150-400 f/4.5
The slightly less comfortable ones
|Nikon Z9 + 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 S
|Sony A9II + 200-600 f/5.6-6.3
|Nikon D500 + 200-500 f/5.6
The heavy, razor-sharp beasts
|Sony A9II + 400 f/2.8
|Sony A9II + 600 f/4
|Z9 + 800mm f/6.3 S
|Canon R5 + RF 600 f/4
|Nikon D500 + 600 f/4
|Nikon Z9 + FTZII + 600 f/4
Pure numbers are not the only thing that matters. For handholding, it’s better to have more of the weight concentrated in the camera body, putting less leverage at the end of your system. For instance, the Nikon Z9 plus 800mm f/6.3 weighs almost exactly the same as the Sony A9 II and 600mm f/4, but it has more weight closer to your body. Between the two, the Z9 pairing is going to be easier to handhold for long periods of time.
The Macro Lens?
Macro photography is sometimes considered to be a different genre than wildlife, but since it’s also about photographing living things, I consider them closely related.
Compared to the mere ten thousand or so species of birds, there are around a million known species of insects, and likely millions more that have not even been discovered. A macro lens – which is a lens that gives at least life-sized magnification – will allow you to take pictures of such creatures.
That’s why I think most wildlife photographers should also have a macro lens in their bag. The most common macro lenses are usually about 100mm equivalent in focal length, like these:
- Nikon Z (mirrorless): Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR S
- Nikon F (DSLR): Nikon 105mm f/2.8G
- Canon RF (mirrorless): Canon RF 100mm f/2.8 L (does 1.4x instead of the usual 1x)
- Canon EF (DSLR): Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L
- Sony FESony FE 90mm f/2.8 G
- Fuji X: Fuji XF 80mm f/2.8 R
- Leica L: Sigma 105mm f/2.8 DG DN Art
- Micro four thirds: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8
- Pentax K: Pentax SMC D FA 100mm f/2.8
There are also plenty of third-party macro lenses that are very good, and a handful of longer 150mm or 200mm macro lenses on the market.
With few exceptions, if you want greater than 1x magnification, you need to use third-party lenses (or tools like extension tubes and teleconverters). One such example is the specialized Venus Optics Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x lens that Spencer reviewed not too long ago, but it’s only a macro lens and cannot focus on non-macro subjects.
You should get a macro lens if…
- You want to take pictures of insects, flowers, and tiny creatures
- You want to take unique photos anywhere in the world, even your backyard, with easily handholdable equipment
- You secretly have trouble photographing birds, but you can’t admit it
Choosing a wildlife lens can be a bit daunting. It’s a fairly expensive purchase, and yet you’ll want a lens that will meet your expectations in in a challenging field of photography. So, I hope this guide gave you a head start in picking the best wildlife photography lens for your needs!