Find Your Wildlife Action Lens

How to pick the right lens to match your photo needs and your budget
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Grizzly bear chasing after Coho salmon in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo by Matthias Breiter/Minden Pictures

Wildlife action covers quite a range, from huge bears snagging salmon while standing in a river to quick and tiny birds zipping by. The best lenses to capture wildlife action also cover a lot of range. Primary considerations for wildlife-action lenses include focal length, lens speed, AF performance and cost.


Clockwise from top: Pentax DA* 300mm ƒ/4 ED(IF) SDM; Sony 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G; Tokina AT-X AF 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6; Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 Di VC USD

Focal Length
The best focal length depends on your subjects and how close you can get to them. It’s hard to get close to most wild subjects, so wildlife photographers generally use long lenses: at least 300mm for an APS-C DSLR, or 400mm for a full-frame DSLR or 35mm SLR. If you can get fairly close to larger animals, a 70-200mm zoom can work. Zoom lenses do provide some framing flexibility, important when you can’t easily change the distance between you and your wild subject. Keep in mind that changing focal length—zooming—alters magnification and framing, but not perspective; you have to change camera-to-subject distance to change that.

Lens Speed
Faster lenses let you use a faster shutter speed in any given light level, which is obviously important when photographing action. Fast lenses also provide a brighter viewfinder image for easier composing and faster, more accurate focusing. The fastest lenses are generally in the pro lineups from the various manufacturers so they also tend to have rugged construction, superior glass elements and overall more refined designs.

On the downside, fast lenses also usually cost more than slower models for a given focal length or zoom range, and they’re usually bulkier. Because of their size, they’re harder to handhold and to carry around into the field.

Note that many lower-end and mid-level tele-zoom lenses have variable maximum apertures: A 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 has a maximum aperture of ƒ/4 at 70mm and a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6 at 300mm. Keep this in mind when considering a tele-zoom versus a fixed-focal-length lens of the zoom’s maximum focal length. Also, the variable aperture is seldom even across the zoom range (as we showed in a previous OP article, “Get The Most Out Of Variable-Aperture Lenses,” Jan./Feb. 2011). That is, a 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 might be ƒ/4 at 70mm, but ƒ/5.6 from 120mm to 300mm. You just don’t get something for nothing.

Teleconverters
A teleconverter, also known as a tele-extender, attaches between the lens and camera body, and increases the lens’ focal length by 1.4x or 2x (there also are a few 1.7x converters out there). Adding a 2x converter to a 300mm lens gives you a 600mm lens for a lot less money than a real 600mm lens. But there are a few things to bear in mind.

First, converters reduce the amount of light transmitted to the image sensor or film (and to the viewfinder): a 1.4x converter, by one stop, a 2x, by two stops. This requires the use of longer shutter speeds or higher ISOs. Longer shutter speeds don’t yield sharp action shots, so you’ll have to increase the ISO—not a big problem with today’s DSLRs, more so with early digital cameras and film. The light loss also makes the image in the SLR finder dimmer, which can be annoying in dim light or when trying to focus manually. The smaller effective aperture also will slow AF performance, and with some lens/teleconverter/camera combinations, you lose autofocusing capability altogether. Many SLRs can’t autofocus with lens/converter combinations slower than around ƒ/5.6.

Second, the converter adds more elements to the optical system, thus potentially reducing image quality. With good converters matched to good lenses, this isn’t a big problem. With lesser converters and lenses, it can reduce image quality noticeably. Pro wildlife photographers often add a top-quality converter to their expensive supertele lenses for more reach, while maintaining pro-quality images.

Converters offer some serious advantages, however. First, of course, they provide access to focal lengths that otherwise wouldn’t be affordable for many. Another benefit is that converters don’t affect the lens’ minimum focusing distance. Attach a 2x converter to a 300mm ƒ/4 lens that focuses down to five feet, and you get a 600mm ƒ/8 that focuses down to five feet—much closer than the 15- to 18-foot minimum focusing distance of a typical 600mm ƒ/4 lens. You rarely get that close to wildlife in the field, but when you do, you definitely want your lens to be able to focus!


This Article Features Photo Zoom

From top: Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG APO HSM II; AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 D ED; Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5

AF Performance
The fast pro lenses autofocus more quickly and more accurately due to their better AF motors and algorithms, and the wider base they provide for the phase-detection AF system. You need a higher-end DSLR to take full advantage of this.

It’s true that a skilled action shooter can get sharp images with just about any SLR and lens, while an unskilled one won’t get good results even with the most costly gear. But it’s also true that a lens/camera combo that acquires focus on the subject more quickly and tracks it more accurately will, in skilled hands, deliver more sharp action images than lesser gear. If you know what you’re doing, and that merely takes lots of practice, you’ll be happier with better gear. But if you’re one of the many budget-limited photographers, we’ve listed some lower-priced lenses that can do wildlife action quite well (see the accompanying chart).

Cost
The fast pro lenses cost a lot more than midrange lenses. They’re worth it in terms of image quality and AF performance, and their ability to stand up to harsh field conditions. But they can be beyond the means of many of us. For example, a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens costs around $5,000, and a 600mm ƒ/4 is close to twice that, so you probably have to look first at your budget when selecting a lens or lenses for wildlife action. Here’s what to look for in wildlife-action lenses on various budgets.

Under $1,000
In the under-$1,000 category, you’re looking at the tele-zooms; the single-focal-length superteles cost more than $1,000. In this price range, you’ll find 70-300mm zooms from Canon, Nikon and Sony (we suggest you stick with the ones in the accompanying chart), and longer zooms from independent lensmakers, including Sigma’s 120-400mm, Tamron’s 200-500mm and Tokina’s 80-400mm. While the under-$1,000 zooms don’t offer the speed of the higher-end superteles, they can do the job and get you up close to wildlife action.

$1,000-$1,999
This is the sweet spot for many dedicated wildlife shooters. In this price range, you get better-quality optics and better AF performance. Many shooters can’t afford the pro superteles, but a good 300mm ƒ/4 lens from Canon, Nikon and Pentax is doable. Used on an APS-C-format DSLR, a 300mm lens is equivalent to a 450-480mm lens on a 35mm or full-frame digital SLR, and works well for birds and other animals. Yet it costs less than one-third the price of a 300mm ƒ/2.8, and also is much smaller and lighter, making it easy to carry in the field and to use handheld. This category also includes Canon’s very handholdable 400mm ƒ/5.6 and 100-400mm supertele zoom, Nikon’s 80-400mm supertele zoom and Sony’s 70-400mm superzoom, plus Sigma’s 150-500mm supertele zoom.

Starts With A Zoom
It’s not easy “finding” a moving subject through a long lens, so you might want to start with a telephoto zoom because you can zoom to the shortest focal length’s wider angle of view to more easily find the subject, then zoom in on it. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to find the subject easily at the long end of the range and can progress to a fixed-focal-length supertele.


This Article Features Photo Zoom

Clockwise from top: Sigma 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 APO EX DG; Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM; AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II; Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM; AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR

$2,000-$4,999
When you venture above $2,000, you’re getting into some top-tier pro lenses, including the latest 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 zooms from Canon and Nikon, and some pro superteles from Sigma. These models are optically excellent. Their main disadvantage is price. The $2,000-$4,999 range tends to include large and heavy lenses, which also is a disadvantage if you’re planning on hiking a lot with one.

Over $5,000
Here are the best of the best: the lenses used by most pro wildlife photographers. These include the latest 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4 and 600mm ƒ/4 lenses from the major players, some 800mm exotics, and even the world’s fastest and largest 500mm lens, the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 Sigma zoom. Lenses in this category offer the best optical quality, the best AF performance and the most rugged construction. They’re bulky and costly, but worth it to those who make their livings photographing wildlife and to enthusiasts who can afford the entry fee.

Camera Considerations
What if you have an older camera and an older action lens, and your budget allows you to upgrade only one? Which should it be? If you have an older DSLR body, a new camera body is probably more important. It provides better image quality and has a better AF system. However, today’s best action lenses have an AF motor in the lens, so the AF system is in both the camera body and the lens.

Assuming a competent camera body, though, the lens is more important. A midlevel DSLR with a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens will outperform a pro DSLR with a 300mm ƒ/4. But the pro DSLR with the 300mm ƒ/2.8 will be superior to either of these combinations. An entry-level camera will perform better with the 300mm ƒ/2.8 than with the 300mm ƒ/4, but not as well as the midlevel because the midlevel’s AF system is optimized for the ƒ/2.8 lens and the entry-level camera isn’t.

The Biggest Factor
The best thing you can do to improve your wildlife action photos is actually quite inexpensive: Practice! Shooting action is a skill that takes time to acquire, and once acquired, must be practiced regularly to keep sharp. You don’t have to go to exotic locales to practice, either. A local park or your own backyard should provide birds, squirrels, even dogs and cats, as practice subjects.

Support
While the lighter action lenses can be used handheld, the larger ones require a sturdy tripod or at least a monopod. Some wildlife-action photographers like a rifle-stock support like the BushHawk for tracking action. If you choose a tripod, get a sturdy one capable of holding a heavy lens steady—cheapie tripods don’t cut it with long lenses. Besides keeping your camera steady for sharper shots, a tripod will hold the camera in position for long periods, as when you’re waiting for a wildlife subject to do something interesting—handholding a long lens for minutes while waiting for a hawk to take off is a major pain.

For action shooting from a tripod, you’ll need a gimbal head, rather than a conventional ballhead or pan-tilt head. A gimbal head holds the camera and lens in position, but when unlocked, also allows you to move the camera freely to track even birds in flight. Gimbal heads are available from a number of manufacturers, including Custom Brackets, Flashpoint, 4th Generation Designs, Induro, Jobu, Kirk Enterprises, Manfrotto and Wimberley.


A SELECTION OF LENSES FOR WILDLIFE ACTION

  Max.
ƒ-Stop
Focal
Range (mm)
Elem./
Groups
Min.
Focus
Max.
Magn
.
Filter
Size
Diam. x
Length (in.)
Weight Street
Price
 
UNDER $1,000
Sigma 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 DG OS 4-5.6 70-300 18/11 4.9 ft. 0.26X 62mm 3.0x5.0 1.3 lbs. $359
Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 Di VC USD 4.5-5.6 70-300 17/12 4.9 ft. 0.25X 62mm 5.6x5.9 1.7 lbs. $449
Tokina AT-X AF 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 4.5-5.6 80-400 16/10 8.2 ft. 0.19X 72mm 3.1x5.4 2.2 lbs. $499
AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 4.5-5.6 70-300 17/12 4.9 ft. 0.25X 67mm 3.1x5.6 1.6 lbs. $529
Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM 4-5.6 70-300 15/10 4.9 ft. 0.26X 58mm 3.0x5.6 1.4 lbs. $569
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L USM 4 70-200 16/13 3.9 ft. 0.21X 67mm 3.0x6.8 1.6 lbs. $699
Tamron SP 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Di 2.8 70-200 18/13 3.1 ft. 0.32X 77mm 3.5x7.6 2.5 lbs. $769
Sony 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 G 4.5-5.6 70-300 16/11 4.0 ft. 0.25X 62mm 3.3x5.4 1.8 lbs. $849
Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG APO HSM II 2.8 70-200 18/15 3.3 ft. 0.29X 77mm 3.4x7.3 3.0 lbs. $949
Tamron SP 200-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 Di 5-6.3 200-500 13/10 8.1 ft. 0.20X 86mm 3.7x8.9 2.7 lbs. $949
Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 APO DG OS HSM 4.5-5.6 120-400 21/15 4.9 ft. 0.24X 77mm 3.6x8.0 3.9 lbs. $999
 
$1,000-$1,999
Sigma 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM 5-6.3 150-500 21/15 7.2 ft. 0.19X 86mm 3.7x9.9 4.2 lbs. $1,069
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 2.8-3.5 50-200 16/15 3.9 ft. 0.21X 67mm 3.4x6.2 2.2 lbs. $1,199
AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D IF-ED 4 300 10/6 4.8 ft. 0.27X 77mm 3.5x8.8 3.2 lbs. $1,299
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM 5.6 400 7/6 11.5 ft. 0.12X 77mm 3.5x10.1 2.8 lbs. $1,300
Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM 4.5-5.6 70-300 18/12 4.6 ft. 0.19X 58mm 3.2x3.9 1.6 lbs. $1,349
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM 4 70-200 20/15 3.9 ft. 0.21X 67mm 3.0x6.8 1.7 lbs. $1,349
Pentax DA* 60-250mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM 4 60-250 15/13 3.6 ft. 0.15X 67mm 3.2x6.6 2.3 lbs. $1,349
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM 2.8 70-200 18/15 4.9 ft. 0.16X 77mm 3.3x7.6 2.9 lbs. $1,399
Pentax DA* 300mm ƒ/4 ED(IF) SDM 4 300 8/6 4.6 ft. 0.24X 77mm 3.3x7.2 2.4 lbs. $1,399
Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM 2.8 70-200 22/17 4.6 ft. 0.13X 77mm 3.4x7.8 3.2 lbs. $1,399
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM 4 300 15/11 4.9 ft. 0.24X 77mm 3.5x8.7 2.6 lbs. $1,399
Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6L IS USM 4-5.6 70-300 19/14 3.9 ft. 0.21X 67mm 3.5x5.6 2.3 lbs. $1,599
Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G 4-5.6 70-400 18/12 5.0 ft. 0.27X 77mm 3.8x7.8 3.3 lbs. $1,599
AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED 4.5-5.6 80-400 17/11 7.5 ft. 0.42X 77mm 3.6x6.7 2.9 lbs. $1,649
Sigma 50-500mm ƒ/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM 4.5-6.3 50-500 22/6 5.9 ft. 0.32X 95mm 4.1x8.6 4.3 lbs. $1,659
Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM 4.5-5.6 100-400 17/14 5.9 ft. 0.20X 77mm 3.6x7.4 3.1 lbs. $1,675
Sony 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G 2.8 70-200 19/16 4.0 ft. 0.21X 77mm 3.5x7.8 2.9 lbs. $1,799
 
$2,000-$4,999
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 35-100mm ƒ/2.0 2.0 35-100 21/18 4.6 ft. 0.09X 77mm 3.8x8.4 3.6 lbs. $2,299
AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II 2.8 70-200 21/16 4.6 ft. 0.12X 77mm 3.4x8.1 3.4 lbs. $2,399
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM 2.8 70-200 23/19 3.9 ft. 0.21X 77mm 3.5x7.8 3.3 lbs. $2,499
Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM 2.8 120-300 23/18 4.9-8.2 ft. 0.12X 105mm 4.5x11.4 3.6 lbs. $3,199
Sigma 300mm ƒ/2.8 EX APO DG HSM 2.8 300 11/9 8.2 ft. 0.13X 46mm* 4.7x8.4 5.3 lbs. $3,399
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM 2.8 300 17/13 8.2 ft. 0.13X 52mm* 5.0x9.9 1.7 lbs. $4,799
Sigma 500mm ƒ/4.5 EX DG APO HSM 4.5 500 11/8 13.1 ft. 0.13X 46mm* 4.8x13.8 6.9 lbs. $4,999
 
OVER $5,000
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250mm ƒ/2.8 2.8 90-250 17/12 8.1 ft. 0.08X 105mm 4.9x10.9 7.2 lbs. $5,295
AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II 2.8 300 11/8 7.5 ft. 0.16X 52mm* 4.9x10.5 6.4 lbs. $5,899
Sony 300mm ƒ/2.8 G 2.8 300 13/12 6.6 ft. 0.18X 42mm* 4.8x9.5 5.1 lbs. $6,299
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM 4 400 17/13 11.5 ft. 0.12X 52mm* 5.0x9.4 4.3 lbs. $6,349
Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300mm ƒ/2.8 2.8 300 13/11 7.9 ft. 0.15X 43mm* 5.0x11.2 7.2 lbs. $6,499
Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM 2.8 300 16/12 6.6 ft. 0.18X 52mm* 5.0x9.8 5.2 lbs. $6,599
Sigma 800mm ƒ/5.6 EX APO DG HSM 5.6 800 12/9 22.9 ft. 0.11X 46mm* 6.2x20.5 10.4 lbs. $6,599
AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED VR II 4 200-400 24/17 6.6 ft. 0.27X 52mm* 4.9x14.4 7.4 lbs. $6,899
Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM 4 500 17/13 14.8 ft. 0.12X 52mm* 5.8x15.2 8.5 lbs. $6,999
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8 L IS USM 2.8 400 17/13 9.8 ft. 0.15X 52mm* 6.4x13.7 11.8 lbs. $7,800
Sigma 300-800mm ƒ/5.6 EX DG APO HSM 5.6 300-800 18/16 19.7 ft. 0.14X 46mm* 6.2x21.3 12.9 lbs. $7,899
AF-S Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4G ED VR 4 500 14/11 12.6 ft. 0.14X 52mm* 5.5x15.4 8.6 lbs. $8,579
Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS USM 4 600 17/13 18.0 ft. 0.12X 52mm* 6.6x18.0 11.8 lbs. $8,899
AF-S Nikkor 400mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR 2.8 400 14/11 9.5 ft. 0.16X 52mm* 6.3x14.5 10.2 lbs. $8,999
Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS II USM 4 500 16/12 12.1 ft. n/a 52mm* 5.7x15.1 7.0 lbs. $9,499
AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR 4 600 15/12 15.7 ft. 0.14X 52mm* 6.5x17.5 11.2 lbs. $10,299
Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8 L IS II USM 2.8 400 17/13 9.8 ft. 0.15X 52mm* 6.4x13.7 11.8 lbs. $10,499
Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM 4 600 16/12 14.8 ft. n/a 52mm* 6.6x17.6 8.6 lbs. $11,999
Canon EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM 5.6 800 18/14 19.7 ft 0.14X 52mm* 6.4x18.1 9.9 lbs. $12,499
Sigma 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 APO EX DG 2.8 200-500 17/13 6.6-16.4 ft. 0.13X 72mm 9.3x28.6 34.6 lbs. $25,999
 
*Indicates rear drop-in filter
Sigma lenses are available in mounts for Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta SLRs, except the 800mm, 300-800mm and 200-500mm, which are available in mounts for Sigma, Canon and Nikon.
Tamron’s 70-300mm is available in mounts for Canon and Nikon SLRs; the 200-500mm is available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sony; the 70-200mm is available in mounts for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony.
Tokina’s 80-400mm is available in mounts for Canon and Nikon SLRs.

7 Comments

    Excellent article as I have the Sigma 150-500 mm but looking to upgrade to a faster lens, like the Sigma 120-300 mm 2.8 lens. However I have not seen any reviews for that lens. Do you have any sources where there might be some?

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