Lenses For Wildlife
For the budget-minded, yet performance-conscious wildlife-action photographer, there are good alternatives to the pro "big guns." Canon's EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM, EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM (no built-in Image Stabilizer) and EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM retail for well under $2,000, yet offer very good AF performance and optical quality. The same goes for Nikon's AF-S 300mm ƒ/4D (but no Vibration Reduction). Nikon's original AF VR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D zoom also sells for well under $2,000. (Note that none of these lenses is weather-sealed.) Nikon's all-new AF-S 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G VR zoom features a quick AF-S motor, a new optical formula, Vibration Reduction and weather sealing, but costs $2,700—nearly twice as much as its still-available slower-focusing predecessor. Pentax's DA* 300mm ƒ/4 SDM costs around $1,400 and is weather-sealed (no built-in stabilization, but Pentax DSLRs have built-in sensor-shift stabilization that works with all lenses). Sony's new 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G2 zoom focuses down to 5 feet and sells for $2,199.
The 70-300mm or 75-300mm zooms in the $400-$600 range have slower autofocusing than the aforementioned lenses, and aren't quite as good optically, but they still can deliver very good results and are great choices for wildlife fans on a tight budget. My archer friend Marlo got many amazing flight shots with a 70-300mm zoom before moving up to the AF-S 300mm ƒ/4. Don't go for the really cheap 70-300 zooms, though, the ones costing $200 or so. They're too slow for birds in flight. Besides AF speed, you want a lens that lets you adjust focus manually while in AF mode, so you can "ballpark"-focus on the bird before activating the AF system, and so you can quickly return focus to the bird if the AF system loses it and runs down to minimum focusing distance. Some cheaper lenses don't allow you to adjust focus manually while in AF mode.
Sigma offers 120-400mm and 150-500mm zooms for around $1,000 that offer built-in OS optical stabilization and good performance. Tamron's 200-500mm zoom is also in this category, but without a stabilizer. If you want a lot of reach for minimal dollars, consider these lenses; I know several bird photographers who do quite well with them. Sigma also offers some pro wildlife lenses: the 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, 300-800mm ƒ/5.6, 800mm ƒ/5.6 and the world's fastest 500mm, the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 (which comes with a teleconverter that turns it into a 400-1000mm ƒ/5.6), for those who want even better performance and have higher budgets.
Long-Lens Tip: It's hard to "find" a small moving subject with a long lens, especially when you first start out. A telephoto zoom lets you use the wide end to find the bird, then zoom in on it, and thus is a better starter lens for birds in flight than a fixed-focal-length supertelephoto.