What is the best type of lens for wildlife photography? No doubt, the most popular and easiest way to photograph animals is with a telephoto lens. However, there are many other factors to consider: focal length, aperture, weight, price, close focusing distance, image quality, focus speed, and more. Where do you start?
That’s a tough question. I would answer it by starting with focal length. The ideal focal length of a telephoto lens depends on how large, shy, or potentially dangerous the animals you want to photograph are. For the smallest or most distant subjects, you’ll usually want the longest lenses.
If you want to photograph mostly birds, the optimal focal length in my experience would be 500 or 600 millimeters. Even longer lenses can work, too, for smaller or more distant birds.
When using lenses of 400mm or less, you will often find yourself needing to crop (including the use of a crop-sensor camera) or use a teleconverter to extend your reach for bird photography. A 400mm f/2.8 can still be an amazing bird photography lens for this reason. However, a slower 400mm f/5.6 would not be my first choice for bird photography, since you can’t use teleconverters as easily, and you’ll need to use higher ISOs that limit your ability to crop.
The next question is one of maximum aperture. Since the peak of bird activity is in the early morning or late afternoon, I would recommend lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/2.8 to make the most of the light. Another advantage of these lenses is that they tolerate the use of teleconverters well. For example, a 600mm f/4 can become an 840mm f/5.6 by using a 1.4x teleconverter, or a 400mm f/2.8 can become an 800mm f/5.6.
Even if you don’t shoot at the maximum aperture every time, the ability to use it in a pinch will be very useful for bird photography. One way to think of the value of a lens for photographing distant birds is to divide the focal length by the maximum aperture. The higher the result, the better the lens for bird photography. For example, a 600mm f/4 is akin to 600÷4, for a score of 150. A 400mm f/2.8 would have a similarly good score of 143, while a 300mm f/4 only scores 75 by comparison.
A special tool for photographing small songbirds or animals that cannot be approached for various reasons is the 800mm lens. Both Nikon and Canon offer these lenses. The price of these lenses is largely dictated by their maximum aperture. For example, the Canon RF 800mm f/11 is fixed at f/11, which is terrible in low light, but it only costs $1000. Meanwhile, the Canon RF 800mm f/5.6L costs $17,000. Even the best price-to-performance 800mm lens, the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3, still costs $6500.
My personal choice would be to use a shorter lens in the 400mm to 600mm range and then extend it to 800mm if needed by using teleconverters. You can make a 400mm lens longer with a TC, but you can’t make an 800mm lens shorter. Even for bird photography, 800mm will sometimes be overkill. Buying one of these lenses, especially one of the heaviest and most expensive f/5.6 versions, requires determination and deep pockets.
Taking all of this into account, the king of exotic super-telephoto lenses, in my opinion, is the 400mm f/2.8. Not the longest of them all, but definitely the most versatile. It works well both for larger, closer wildlife as well as small, distant hummingbirds thanks to its compatibility with teleconverters. Such lenses are really a trio: 400mm f/2.8, 560mm f/4, and finally 800mm f/5.6.
In the case of the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 with the built-in 1.4x teleconverter, you can get up to 1120mm with a maximum aperture of f/8 in combination with the TC2.0x. A bit of an extreme solution for special situations, but it works, as I tested in the field.
However, the price of such lenses match their quality. They are also heavy lenses that generally require the use of a tripod or monopod. Fortunately, today’s lens manufacturers are making more affordable, smaller alternatives.
One thing to remember is that the lower prices of these lenses is not due to lower image quality, but due to the narrower maximum aperture. Of course, this translates to worse image quality in low light situations, but that’s the price you pay. I’m thinking of lenses like the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 for DSLRs and the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 for mirrorless cameras.
For a similar price, you can also find zoom lenses like the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3, or Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 which will maximize your versatility. Interestingly, a lot of supertelephoto zooms are less expensive than supertelephoto primes even when the maximum aperture is the same. However, they tend to weigh more, and critical sharpness is generally lower (though usually still good).
So far, I’ve been thinking mainly about lenses for full-frame cameras. However, all of these lenses can also be used on cameras with smaller APS-C format sensors. The advantage of APS-C cameras is their lower weight and price, and the fact that you can multiply the lens’s focal length by a crop factor of 1.5, giving you a seemingly longer reach.
But only seemingly, because the actual focal length of the lens does not change. For example, when I crop a photo from a 45.7MP Nikon D850 or Z9 to APS-C size, I get essentially the same image quality, resolution, and field of view as if I used the same lens on a 20.9MP Nikon D500. Still, if you were going to crop the full-frame photo so much anyway, you could have saved money with a crop sensor!
The 2.0x crop factor plays a significant role with the smallest advanced camera system, Micro Four Thirds. Some of the best cameras on this system are the OM SYSTEM OM-1 and the Panasonic Lumix GH6. These cameras have a high pixel density, allowing you to capture impressive detail with relatively compact lenses. For example, we recently reviewed the Olympus 300mm f/4 and found it to be a great choice for wildlife photography. The ultimate solution is the Olympus 150-400mm f/4.5 with built-in TC1.25x.
These cameras don’t have the same level of high ISO performance as full-frame or even APS-C, so f/4 isn’t enough to get you clean high-ISO photos before sunrise or after sunset. However, the size and portability of the system, combined with the high-quality image stabilization of Micro Four Thirds, means that it is a great option for traveling as a wildlife photographer or working in tough conditions.
As for other qualities of a wildlife photography lens, two that stand out to me are the lens’s focusing speed and the lens’s weatherproofing. A lot of wildlife photography is done in tough conditions where both of these considerations are paramount.
For example, I recently tested the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 and found it to be only a modest optical improvement compared to the prior DSLR version, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6. However, the 180-600mm focuses much more quickly, and it is an internal zoom rather than an externally zooming lens, giving it better weatherproofing. As such, I found it to be a clear improvement over the predecessor (which I already liked a lot and still consider part of Nikon’s best budget wildlife combo with the D500).
So, it’s not just about optical quality, focal length, or maximum aperture. You also need to think about how the lens handles and performs in tricky field conditions, which means weatherproofing and focus speed are often important as well.
So, with everything that I’ve said so far, you might think that the best wildlife photography lens is an exotic 400mm f/2.8. Or, to save money, perhaps it’s a lens with a narrower aperture, but still optically excellent, like a 500mm f/5.6.
However, I don’t think those are the answers. Actually, I believe that there is no such thing as a best lens for wildlife photography! That may sound slightly heretical, but I’ll explain my answer in a moment, don’t worry. Maybe the photo below gives you a hint?
A great thing about telephoto lenses, but also the biggest downside, is that they strongly suppress everything that is out of focus. Everything in the photo is neat and tidy. There are no distracting background elements sticking out of the subject’s head, back, or butt. Let’s be honest, nature is often one big mess. Telephoto lenses have an amazing ability to bring order to that chaos by isolating your subject against a creamy background.
As aesthetically pleasing as it usually is in photographs, the resulting detachment from the environment can become boring over time. Most of all, it tells you almost nothing about where the animal lives, and that’s a shame, don’t you think? An alternative is to use a shorter lens, or even a wide angle, and get closer – much closer – to the animal. That’s easy to say, but much harder to do.
Photographing animals with wide angle lenses is becoming something of a trend in wildlife photography. The advantage is that the initial investment in a wide angle lens is ten times less than for exotic telephoto lenses. The disadvantage is obvious. If you shoot with a telephoto lens, you will return from an expedition with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good photographs. If you use a wide-angle telephoto lens, you’ll bring back maybe ten photos in the same amount of time, maybe less. If you’re lucky, however, some of them will be really great.
Suitable lenses for wide-angle wildlife photography are essentially the same as those used for landscape photography. The focal length can be anything from a fisheye to a standard zoom like a 24-105mm f/4.
It is, however, useful if the lens can focus at short distances. Great lenses in this regard are the Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro for full frame and the Leica DG Summilux 9mm f/1.7 for MFT cameras. The Nikon Z 17-28mm f/2.8, Canon RF 14-35mm f/4 or Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 can also focus pretty close. And as Spencer just showed in his article on secret macro lenses, the Nikon Z 24-120mm f/4 S is able to photograph tiny creatures like dragonflies up close, as well as larger wildlife.
At this point, the only thing that remains to be answered is how to get close enough to the animals, how not to disturb them unnecessarily, and how to stay safe and not get eaten! But those are other questions that I will address in one of my future wildlife photography articles.
Is there anything you’d like to ask about choosing the right lens for wildlife photography? Of course, you may also see some things differently than I do. Either way, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.