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.
In daylight conditions the Nikon 70-300mm VR can overall produce great results, but its performance does suffer in low-light situations – something to be expected from a slow variable aperture zoom lens. Unfortunately, the Nikon 70-300mm VR cannot be used with any teleconverters, so its range is limited at 300mm.
Here are some sample images from the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR:
See my old Nikon 70-300mm VR Review for more information on this lens.
2) Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II
The next step-up from the 70-300mm lens is the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, a superb lens not only for portraiture, but also for wildlife photography. While its rather short on the long side, it is one of the few Nikon lenses that works with all current Nikon teleconverters. The Nikon TC-14E II makes it a 100-280mm f/4 lens (1.4x focal length multiplication), the Nikon TC-17E II makes it a 120-340mm f/4.8 lens (1.7x) and the latest Nikon TC-20E III doubles the focal length to 140-400mm (2.0x) at f/5.6. A truly versatile lens indeed. The latter combination needs good light for reliable AF and should be stopped down to f/8 for best results (there is some sharpness degradation at f/5.6).
Unlike the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II is a very sharp lens from 70mm all the way to 200mm. It sports some of the best Nikon technologies, including fast AF, Nano Coating and VR II.
See my detailed Nikon 70-200mm Review for more information on this lens.
3) Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S
The next lens is one of my all-time Nikon favorites, the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S. It is a pro-level lens with superb optics and very fast autofocus. Optically, it is a world better than the Nikon 70-300mm, better than the Nikon 70-200mm VR II + teleconverters and pretty close to its much bigger and heavier brother, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II.
I love this lens because it is light (compared to the big 300mm+ guns below), compact, sharp, capable of producing beautiful bokeh and works extremely well with the Nikon TC-14E II 1.4x teleconverter. In fact, I have my TC-14E II permanently glued to this lens, because it performs so well wide open at f/5.6 (the 1.4x TC slows the lens down from f/4 to f/5.6) and gets me to 420mm. This is the lens I prefer taking with me on a plane when travelling. It does have a couple of annoyances that I hope Nikon fixes on a future version of this lens. First, the lens has no VR. Second, its lens collar is not designed for good stability and you will have to replace it with a better one. Third, it has no rear optical element, all the way to the lens diaphragm, so you will have to be careful when shooting in dusty conditions (that’s another reason why I keep the TC-14E II mounted on it).
When hand-holding a telephoto lens with no VR, you always have to make sure that your shutter speed stays fast enough not to cause camera shake. Always remember that the longer the focal length of the lens, the more prone it is to camera shake. A general rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed faster than the focal length of the lens. So if your focal length is 300mm, then your shutter speed should be faster than 1/300 of a second. If you use a DX camera, then don’t forget to multiply the number by 1.5x, which in this case would be around 1/450. Obviously, it all depends on your hand-holding technique. If you have very strong hands and a good hand-holding technique, you might be able to get great results with much slower shutter speeds, while those with shaky hands might need to increase the shutter speed even more to get acceptably sharp images. I explain all this in detail in my “how to photograph birds” article.
One question that I get a lot from our readers, is which combo to get – the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III, or the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S + TC-14E II. I have both and I certainly prefer the latter combo (300mm f/4 + TC-14E II). First, as I have already stated earlier, the 70-200mm + TC-20E III should be stopped down to f/8 for best sharpness, while the 300mm f/4 + TC-14E II is sharp wide open, so there is a stop of advantage right there. Second, AF speed and accuracy with the 300mm f/4 + TC-14E II is much better – you will get a lot more consistent results. What about VR (or lack thereof)? When I use the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens, I always keep the shutter speed fast, knowing that I do not have VR. It helps to shoot with a good low-light camera like the Nikon D700 or Nikon D3s that can handle high ISO, because I can set Auto ISO to regulate camera ISO when light conditions change. I definitely prefer faster and more accurate AF to VR.
Some image samples from the Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S:
What about the Nikon 80-400mm VR lens? Forget about it – its AF is slow in comparison. I have tried the 80-400mm and would not consider it for fast-action photography, especially birding.
4) Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II
The next big jump (in terms of size, weight and cost) gets us to the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II – a phenomenal lens, one of Nikon’s best lenses to date. It is a workhorse tool used by professionals for sports, wildlife and portrait photography. I used the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II for several months and I was very impressed by its performance, especially when coupled with teleconverters. In fact, Nikon specifically released the TC-20E III together with this lens, which makes this lens almost like a “reference” lens for use with teleconverters (with the TC-20E III, the lens becomes a 600mm f/5.6 lens). It is loaded with Nikon’s latest technologies like VR II and its optics are simply outstanding. AF performance is top notch, with super fast and accurate autofocus acquisition, even in low-light situations.
I have been shooting with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR lens for the last 4-5 years and I can assure you that the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is overall a better lens to buy (unless you shoot large animals from a close distance, like bears in Alaska). I bought the Nikon 200-400mm for its zoom capabilities, but the lens turned out to be heavier, bulkier and it just does not tolerate anything longer than the TC-14E II. This leaves me with 560mm of effective focal length to work with on the long end, which seems to be very close in terms of IQ to the 300mm f/2.8G VR II @ 600mm. But its biggest problem is not the 40mm shorter focal length – it has one notable weakness, which only shows up when you photograph anything at a distance. Up close, the 200-400mm creates beautiful images, but as soon as you start shooting subjects over 200+ feet, its autofocus accuracy starts to suffer. Mind you, this does not typically happen when shooting lone birds in the sky, but primarily when there is something immediately behind the subject. For example, when I was photographing bears in Yellowstone, 8/10 times I would get grass behind the bear in focus. When I first noticed this behavior 3-4 years ago, I thought that it was just my bad camera/focusing techniques. I tried reacquiring focus, using only the center AF point and tried all kinds of tricks and the problem did not go away. I then thought that something was wrong with my lens, so I calibrated it like crazy, only to find that there was nothing wrong with it. Then I read complaints from other 200-400mm owners on various forums, who reported exactly the same problem with this lens and that’s when I realized that it was the lens that was the problem. I tried the 300mm f/2.8G (along with 400mm and 500mm lenses) in very similar conditions and they do not have the same problem.
See my detailed Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II Review for more information on this lens.
5) Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR
The next best wildlife lens is Nikon’s heavyweight super telephoto bazooka, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR. This is the lens that will get you to 800mm at f/5.6 with a 2x teleconverter! Weighing a whopping 4.6 kilos, it is almost as heavy as Nikon’s longest 600mm f/4 lens (more on the 600mm below) and almost twice as heavy as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. It is a massive lens for a reason – its large aperture of f/2.8 requires huge glass elements to transmit so much light into the camera. Similar to the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II, it also works exceptionally well with all teleconverters, including the Nikon TC-20E III.
Due to its massive size, this lens requires a good tripod setup. Forget about trying to hand-hold it, even if you have arms as big as Schwarzenegger’s. It has very impressive optical features and it delivers exceptionally good-looking images, especially at its maximum aperture of f/2.8. However, its weight and size are its biggest enemy. This is not the lens you would pack in a backpack for hiking.
A summary on which super telephoto lens I would recommend and my thoughts on 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 lenses is provided at the bottom of this article.
See my detailed Nikon 400mm f/2.8G Review for more information on this lens.
6) Nikon 500mm f/4G VR
The Nikon 500mm f/4G VR is sort of a “sweet middle” between the 400mm and 600mm lenses. Due to its slower f/4 aperture, it is actually a much lighter lens than the 400mm f/2.8G VR (by almost a kilogram) and only slightly heavier than the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR II. This is the only super telephoto lens that I would even consider hand-holding for short periods of time. Optically it is an insanely sharp lens, I would say about the same as the Nikon 600mm f/4 below. Again, not much to complain about in terms of optics and features.
Unlike the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR, the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR only works well with the TC-14E II teleconverter, giving an effective focal length of 700mm at f/5.6. Unless you shoot with the new Nikon D4 that can handle autofocus up to f/8, forget about using either the TC-17E II or the TC-20E III on this lens. I tried them both on the D3s and I was disappointed. Not just because I was getting softer images, but also because AF with the TC-17E II is very inaccurate and manual focus with the TC-20E III at 1000mm is very painful and cumbersome.
I will soon publish a detailed review of the Nikon 500mm f/4G VR lens, along with more image samples.
7) Nikon 600mm f/4G VR
And lastly, I present you the Cadillac of all Nikon super telephoto lenses: the Nikon 600mm f/4G VR – the longest, the heaviest, the bulkiest and the priciest lens of them all. This is the lens that many wildlife photographers get, especially those that photograph birds. It goes without saying that you need a good support system for this lens – a very sturdy Gitzo Systematic series tripod with a Wimberley Gimbal head is what I would get to hold this monster. Couple it with a professional camera body like the Nikon D3s, and we are talking about a whopping 6.5 kilograms here!
Again, your only choice for longer reach is to use the Nikon TC-14E II, which will give you 840mm of effective focal length to work with at f/5.6. Neither the Nikon TC-17E II nor the new Nikon TC-20E III work reliably well with the 600mm f/4 lens. Yes, in good light you can get some decent results with the TC-17E II, but the lens will occasionally hunt. As for the TC-20E III, AF is very unreliable and all over the place. Lens hunts even in good light with the 2x TC.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8 vs Nikon 500mm f/4 vs Nikon 600mm f/4
Choosing between the three Nikon super telephoto lenses can be difficult, given the weight/size considerations and how many different combinations you can do with teleconverters to get to a certain focal length. While you can do all kinds of math to see what you would get with each lens and shoot charts to see which combination wins, at the end of the day, it is all about which lens gives you the longest focal length with the least amount of problems like weight, size and transportation considerations. What is optically better? The Nikon 400mm + TC-20E III @ 800mm, the Nikon 500mm + TC-17E II @ 850mm or the Nikon 600mm + TC-14E II @ 840mm? The Nikon 600mm + TC-14E II performs the best wide open with the 500mm + TC-17E II coming in second and 400mm + TC-20E III coming last, but when all three are stopped down to f/8, those differences pretty much go away. The most important factor to consider is not how a lens performs sharpness-wise when shooting a test target from a distance, but how reliably its AF functions in mixed light environments. How good is sharpness if you cannot even lock AF on your subject? In this case, the Nikon 600mm f/4 is always going to be the top choice. As for 400mm f/2.8 vs 500mm f/4, the 400mm will give you more options and working AF with all three teleconverters, while the 500mm has a weight/bulk advantage. In summary: if you need the reach, you get the 600mm f/4. If you want to be able to hand-hold a lens, you get the 500mm. And lastly, you get the 400mm f/2.8 for its versatility – if you want to be able to use all three teleconverters with working autofocus. If your plan is to always use a tripod, then either get the 600mm f/4 or the 400mm f/2.8, depending on your budget. Here are the price differences between the three lenses:
As you can see, the price difference between the 400mm and the 500mm lenses is minimal, while the 600mm is priced significantly higher.
Now with the upcoming D4, things might change quite a bit. If AF accuracy on the Nikon D4 is indeed better than on the D3s when teleconverters are used (with working AF at f/8), then the Nikon 500mm might be a better choice over the 400mm (850mm with TC-17E II and 1000mm with TC-20E III vs 800mm with TC-20E III) for reach.
Please let me know if you have any questions!