Lenses For Wildlife Photography

The OP guide to telephoto optics for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras

wildlife photography lenses

When it comes to selecting wildlife photography lenses, the first thing most photographers look for is focal length—a long lens that can reach out and cover great distances, bringing animals in for close-ups—but other features are also incredibly useful. Vibration reduction makes lenses more easily handholdable, especially in low light, and a large maximum aperture, such as ƒ/2.8, is also helpful for shooting in low light and at fast shutter speeds. Alternatively, if size is a consideration—and extreme telephoto lenses are big—variable maximum apertures, which change with the focal length, make lenses compact, lighter and more affordable. Here’s a rundown of practically all the telephoto zoom and prime lens options for wildlife photographers using DSLRs and compact mirrorless cameras.

Canon
Wildlife photographers regularly encounter nasty weather, not to mention the normal wear and tear and dust and dirt that accompany working outdoors. Canon L-series lenses feature improved weather sealing and rugged build quality to withstand the rigors of professional sports and wildlife photography. The Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is an L lens that manages to cover the telephoto spectrum while remaining fairly compact and light thanks to the variable ƒ/4.5-5.6 maximum aperture. At $2,100, it’s also a relatively affordable way to reach long telephoto lengths.

The Canon EF-M 55-200mm ƒ/4.5-6.3 IS STM is a telephoto zoom for the EOS M compact mirrorless camera system. Built-in optical image stabilization provides 3.5 stops of stability, meaning, in theory, you should be able to handhold this compact lens—which offers a full-frame-sensor equivalent of 88-320mm—at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 sec., even at the full telephoto end of the zoom range. The estimated retail price is $350.

Serious wildlife shooters will go crazy for this extreme telephoto zoom lens from Canon. It’s the EF 200-400mm ƒ/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, and along with being a fixed ƒ/4, it’s the first ever to sport a built-in 1.4x tele-extender. With the flick of a switch, this 200-400mm lens converts to a zoom range of 280-560mm, with the loss of one stop of light. The lens also offers four stops of vibration reduction thanks to built-in optical image stabilization. The biggest obstacle is the price, at over $10,000, but when you’re getting a fast, sharp, relatively compact and versatile lens with a focal-range extender built in, it’s a premium serious sports and wildlife shooters are willing to pay.

Canon EF 600mm F4L IS II USM
Canon EF 600mm F4L IS II USM

Canon shooters who want the longest and fastest lenses available will look to the EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM and EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM primes. The focal lengths offer extreme reach for photographing big game on safari or when access to animals is limited and an extreme focal length can fill the frame for an animal portrait even from a hundred yards away. In some national parks, regulations limit how close photographers can get to wildlife like bears and wolves. Having the ability to reach out across that 100-yard gap can be the difference between getting the shot and missing it. This reach, of course, comes with a price: nearly $12,000 for the 600mm and $13,000 for the super-long 800mm glass.

Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR

Fujifilm
Fujifilm has announced the Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, a super-telephoto zoom for the X series of compact mirrorless cameras, which covers a tremendous focal range equivalent to 152-609mm. Five ED elements and one Super ED element fight refraction and chromatic aberration. Designed for outdoor use and handholding, the lens features five stops of optical image stabilization and a special fluorine coating on the front element to repel dust and moisture. The estimated retail price is $1,900.

Nikon
What’s better than a fairly typical 80-200mm or 80-300mm zoom lens? It’s the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR from Nikon, of course. This variable maximum aperture ƒ/4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom reaches 30% farther than an 80-300mm zoom would—bringing you significantly closer to the wildlife you’re watching. The lens features four ED, extra low-dispersion elements and one “super ED” element with Nikon’s nano-crystal coating designed to minimize chromatic aberration, especially when used at 80mm. The optical vibration-reduction system provides four stops of handholdability. The estimated retail price is $2,300.

For telephoto reach in a compact package, Nikon DX camera users should consider the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3G ED VR superzoom. It’s an ideal one-stop shop of a lens, perfect for traveling photographers who want to maintain small, light kits. The variable maximum aperture keeps it compact, and it covers a whopping 35mm-equivalent range of 27-450mm, making it possible to shoot everything from wide-angle landscapes to wildlife close-ups. The estimated retail price is $700.

This lens may have a familiar focal range of 70-300mm, but it’s not for full-frame DSLRs. It’s the NIKKOR VR 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 for the Nikon 1 system. Its equivalent focal range is so large, at 190-810mm, it just may inspire wildlife photographers to switch to the compact mirrorless Nikon 1 line of cameras. Small and light for such a long zoom, the lens retails for about $1,000.

AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR

One of Nikon’s newest lenses is a super-telephoto zoom that covers a whopping range that’s perfect for wildlife photographers, even on the short end. The AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR has built-in optical vibration reduction, delivering 4.5 stops of additional handholdability, yet the lens remains fairly compact thanks to the ƒ/5.6 maximum aperture, which is constant across the zoom range. The VR’s “sport mode” is perfect for panning with a fast-moving subject—such as a bird in flight or a sprinting cheetah. The nine-bladed aperture helps to create pleasing bokeh in the out-of-focus area of an image, too.

For photographers with deep pockets who want tremendous telephoto reach, this pair of Nikon prime telephotos is perfect for wildlife photography. The AF-S NIKKOR 500mm and 600mm ƒ/4E FL ED VR primes offer powerful vibration reduction up to four stops, they have fast ƒ/4 maximum apertures, they utilize Nikon’s Electromagnetic Diaphragm to ensure consistent exposures from frame to frame during burst shooting, and while they won’t be confused for compact primes, they utilize fluorite elements that not only reduce weight, but improve the optical quality of the glass. The magnesium frame is particularly durable for serious outdoor expeditions—which is especially important given the high cost of this prime glass. The 500mm lens retails for about $11,000, and the 600mm lens is more than $12,000.

Olympus
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm ƒ/4-5.6 II fits Micro Four Thirds camera mounts and provides an equivalent zoom range of 28-300mm, making it a compact superzoom that can do a little bit of everything. An updated version of an earlier lens, this model features the new ZERO (Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical) coating on the surface of the lens to eliminate scratches and reduce flare. At 3.27 inches and 10 ounces, it’s a compact, go-everywhere, all-in-one traveling companion. The estimated retail price is $400.

The newest lens in the M.Zuiko lineup is the 300mm ƒ/4 IS PRO. This compact super-telephoto lens fits Micro Four Thirds mounts and provides an equivalent focal length of 600mm. It may not be tiny, but it’s significantly smaller than the typical 600mm equivalent. The lens is designed to resist the intrusion of dirt and water—essential when working outdoors for any length of time—and features ZERO optical coating and built-in image stabilization that can work with the sensor stabilization of the OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 Mark II cameras to provide a whopping six stops of steadying power. Even without in-camera stabilization, the lens alone provides four stops of stabilization. The estimated street price is $2,500.

Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II

An updated 150-600mm equivalent, the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm ƒ/4.8-6.7 II is a compact super-telephoto at a low price. A variable maximum aperture of ƒ/4.8-6.7 keeps the lens small, while updated ZERO optical coating helps fight lens flare and ghosting. MSC technology makes focusing faster and quieter when used in movie mode. The estimated retail price is $550.

Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm F4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.
Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm F4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.

Panasonic
A strong telephoto zoom for the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, the Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. delivers a full-frame-equivalent 200-600mm focal range. Seventeen elements in 12 groups include an extra-low dispersion element to fight flare, and a seven-bladed aperture provides a pleasing shape to out-of-focus image areas. Optical image stabilization makes handholding this compact lens easier. The estimated street price is $550.

Panasonic’s partnership with Leica has produced an even more powerful telephoto zoom option for the Micro Four Thirds system. It’s the Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm ƒ/4.0-6.3 ASPH super-telephoto zoom, equivalent to a massive 200-800mm range on a full-frame sensor. Power O.I.S. steadies the lens for handholding, which is crucial at such long focal lengths, and weather-resistant construction helps fight dust and moisture intrusion. Also, the 240 fps autofocus motor is fast and quiet, which, along with the optical quality of the lens, makes it perfect for capturing 4K video. The estimated retail price is $1,800.

Pentax
The Pentax HD D FA 150-450mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 ED DC AW from Ricoh has a name that’s almost as long as its tremendous focal length. Designed to fit the Pentax K mount, this lens features three extra-low dispersion glass elements and one super-low dispersion glass element to fight chromatic aberration. The weather-resistant construction makes this long zoom ideal for wildlife photographers who shoot year-round. The variable ƒ/4.5-5.6 maximum aperture helps keep the cost and weight down, too. It retails for about $1,800.

If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of zoom reach in favor of faster glass, you may want to wait for the Pentax D FA* 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED DC AW telephoto zoom for K-mount cameras. It has a fast, constant maximum aperture, great for low-light shooting at fast shutter speeds necessary to photograph active wildlife. And, as part of the high-quality Pentax Star series, the lens features revamped optics including four extra-low dispersion elements and two super-low dispersion elements to minimize aberration and maximize sharpness across the frame, as well as Aero Bright Coating II on the elements for minimizing reflections and ghosting. Improved autofocus is faster and quieter, too. The estimated street price is $2,300.

Pentax HD D FA150-450mm F4.5-5.6 ED DC AW
Pentax HD D FA150-450mm F4.5-5.6 ED DC AW

The Pentax HD DA 560mm ƒ/5.6 ED AW is a massive super-telephoto prime with a constant ƒ/5.6 maximum aperture and a long 560mm focal length. As if 560mm weren’t already enough, this lens becomes a whopping 859mm equivalent when used on APS-C K-mount cameras. HD and SP lens coatings improve clarity and maximize sharpness while minimizing flare and ghosting. The lens includes a drop-in circular polarizer, perfect for deepening blue-sky backgrounds and seeing past glare to let the true colors of a scene come through. The estimated street price is $5,000.

Sigma
Designed for use with APS-C cameras from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma and Sony, the Sigma 18-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM Contemporary lens is an all-in-one extreme zoom with an equivalent 27-450mm focal range. Built with four FLD glass elements and one SLD glass element, the lens minimizes chromatic aberration, particularly when used at the telephoto end of its range. Optical stabilization helps with handholding. The estimated street price is $579 (OS/Optical Stabilizer not available on Pentax/Sony mount).

For a strong telephoto zoom range and a fast and constant maximum aperture, Canon, Nikon and Sigma camera owners should check out the Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports super-telephoto zoom. The original lens built for Sigma’s Sports category, it features optical stabilization, internal focusing and a Hyper Sonic Motor for fast and quiet autofocus. The build quality is high on this lens to fight the dust and moisture wildlife shooters encounter. The lens is also highly customizable through Sigma’s USB dock. The estimated street price is $3,599.

Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM

Sigma offers Contemporary and Sports versions of its 150-600mm ƒ/5-6.3 DG OS HSM super-telephoto zoom. Wildlife photographers may prefer the Sports model, which is slightly larger, but features more rugged construction and more elements than the Contemporary model—two FLD and three SLD elements, as opposed to one and three, respectively. The built-in optical image stabilization uses an accelerometer for improved panning, both horizontally and vertically. Enhanced autofocus and a Hyper Sonic Motor ensure fast and quiet focusing, while a manual override switch provides maximum control. The lens is available for Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts, and is customizable via the Sigma USB Dock. The estimated street prices are $989 (Contemporary version) and $1,799 (Sports version).

Sony
The Sony FE 24-240mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 OSS superzoom for full-frame E-mount cameras provides a huge 10X zoom range, making it an ideal travel partner for photographers who traded in large DSLRs for Sony’s compact a7 line. Capable of everything from wide to telephoto, the 24-240mm packs a lot of versatility into a fairly compact lens—it weighs 1.72 pounds and is just shy of 4.7 inches in length. Used on an APS-C camera, its equivalent focal range is 36-360mm. Optical Steady Shot vibration reduction, or OSS, makes it easier to handhold this lens when zoomed to 240mm or when working in low light. Its estimated street price is $1,000.

Wildlife photographers who use Sony A-mount cameras will be interested in the 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G SSM II telephoto zoom. An upgraded version of a previous model, the lens features improved coatings for fighting flare and minimizing ghosting, plus faster autofocus performance. When used on an APS-C camera, the lens turns into a powerful 105-600mm zoom. Its estimated retail price is $2,200.

Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II
Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II

Dedicated wildlife and sports photographers want fast telephoto primes like the Sony 300mm ƒ/2.8 G SSM II for A-mount cameras. The challenge with fast glass is that it can be big, because large elements let in lots of light, but with its constant ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture, this lens makes up for its size when it comes to low-light and fast shutter speed performance. Used on an APS-C camera, it turns into a whopping 450mm equivalent. Sony’s ultrasonic SSM focus motor is fast and silent, so it won’t scare skittish subjects. The estimated retail price is $5,300.

Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD
Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD

Tamron
Users of APS-C cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony have a great option for an all-in-one extreme zoom lens that’s also great for wildlife. It’s the 16-300mm Di II VC PZD Macro zoom from Tamron. Equivalent to a focal range of about 25-480mm, this lens is fairly compact, especially given its equivalent telephoto power and optical stabilization. It’s a do-it-all lens, with even macro capability, and it’s great for the traveling photographer on a budget. The estimated retail price is $650.

A great value for full-frame Canon, Nikon and Sony shooters, the Tamron SP 150-600mm Di VC USD super-telephoto zoom provides a versatile range at an accessible price. Vibration compensation helps steady shots when working at the long end of the focal range, and the variable maximum aperture helps to keep the lens compact—at least by 600mm telephoto standards—and to keep the cost down, too. The estimated retail price is $1,100.

Resources

Canon usa.canon.com
Fujifilm fujifilmusa.com
Nikon nikonusa.com
Olympus getolympus.com
Panasonic shop.panasonic.com
Pentax (Ricoh) us.ricoh-imaging.com
Sigma sigmaphoto.com
Sony store.sony.com
Tamron tamron-usa.com

6 Comments

    I’ve had my Nikon 200-500 a couple of weeks. So far, for the price it seems like a 500mm free lunch! The VR is spooky good. Handheld shots at max zoom are a breeze. Weight is just at the acceptable level for extensive carry and handheld use. Images are fantastic with excellent resolution and contrast. The extra optical zoom really makes a difference with small birds etc. Focus following is fast, but not instant. Capturing explosive warblers at 10 feet will not be this lens’ forte… but once they perch! Shots of egrets, ducks etc on the wing are no problem. This is a BIG lens when at 500, and can pump alot of air. Without being nuts about it, I try to extend/collapse it off the camera if I can. Build quality was a pleasant surprise after looking at Nikons 80-400 for a grand more!

    I have been shooting the Tamron 16-300mm and 150-600mm lenses for years. They have delivered some exceptional shots. I have been a Tamron customer for over 15 years. Excellent quality!

    I’ve been using the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary for months now, and it’s a very good lens. A bit heavy, but no heavier than you should expect from such a lens. Zoom is smooth, it’s packed with customizable features, good contrast, and colors are rich and vibrant.

    My only real gripe is the focus ring. It’s tight/stiff, i.e. not smooth; it’s stiff and tends to jump as you zero-in / make micro adjustments. I frequently use manual focus, so this can be bothersome; however, this is my ONLY gripe with this lens. Other than that, it’s a very good lens, very reasonably priced, and very capable in the field.

    Tamron recently announced a “second generation” version of their 150-600 mm lens, which costs slightly more than the previous one, but has so far drawn good reviews for improved quality and performance.
    BTW I have the older version and its an awesome lens for the money.

    I’m 13 and just got a d3400 I would recommend the new(ish) Nikon AF-P 70-300mm STD f4.5-6.3G ED Zoom you could pay more money and get the VR but for your first (I’m assuming) “wildlife lens”, and the for the zoom range VR is not that necessary. Hope this helps.

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