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Building Your Lens Kit For Digital Action

With the autumn migrations and rutting season approaching fast, now is the time to put together a set of lenses to help you capture all the action
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Now is an ideal time to upgrade your lenses. Fall wildlife season is here, and it’s also the time of year when you can make some of the best landscapes. Particularly when it comes to action shooting (wildlife and sports), having a kit that includes a supertelephoto, a telephoto zoom and a long-range zoom will give you the tools to get spectacular photos and let you make images you couldn’t get armed with just a supertele. The supertelephoto will bring in the distant animals, the tele-zoom will provide compositional flexibility and the long-range zoom will let you capture environmental portraits that show the animal and its surroundings while also giving you the flexibility to change perspective dramatically with the twist of a barrel.

Supertelephoto lenses (200mm and longer for an APS-C-sensor D-SLR, 300mm and longer for a full-frame D-SLR or 35mm camera) let you get “close-ups” of shy wildlife that won’t let you approach closely. Wildlife pros, especially bird specialists, like the pro supertelephotos—300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4 and 600mm ƒ/2.8. These offer three major advantages:

Canon EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM

• They have wide maximum apertures, so you get a bright viewfinder image for easy composing and manual focusing, you get faster shutter speeds for sharper shots of moving subjects, and you can isolate a subject from a busy background due to the extremely limited depth of field with the aperture wide open.

• They autofocus more quickly and accurately than lesser lenses.

• They’re dead-on sharp.

Canon EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM

On the downside, pro supertelephotos are quite large and heavy, and they’re very costly—the 300mm ƒ/2.8s run $3,000 to over $6,000, and longer lenses go up from there. If you intend to compete full-time with wildlife pros, you need one or more of the pro lenses. They really are that good.

Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM

Canon’s most popular lenses with wildlife pros include the EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM, EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM, EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS USM and EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM supertelephotos, all featuring Canon’s pioneering optical Image Stabilizer. Estimated street prices for these run from around $4,000 to over $10,000.

For those on tighter budgets, good Canon wildlife choices include the EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM, EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM, EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM, EF 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM and (a bit short for wildlife with full-frame cameras, but good for non-full-frame D-SLRs) EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM and EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM. These all allow you to prefocus manually without leaving AF mode, very handy when photographing birds in flight.

Canon offers two long-range zooms, the pro EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM and EF 28-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 USM.

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AF-S VR Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4G ED

Telephoto Zooms
Telephoto zooms offer compositional flexibility—you can change the framing without moving, which can be important when your surroundings make it physically impossible to move closer or farther away, or when doing so may startle your subject. Tele-zooms also make it easier to “find” a subject—zoom back to the widest focal length to pick up the subject, then zoom in for the actual shot. That’s a lot easier, especially when you’re starting out in bird photography, than trying to find a moving bird with a supertelephoto lens and its very narrow angle of view. A zoom also makes it easy to switch focal lengths silently when working from a blind—the noise of changing lenses may scare off a nearby subject.

Most manufacturers’ 70-300mm or 75-300mm zooms are reasonably priced, and zooms that go out to 400mm or even 500mm can be purchased for under $1,000 from the major independent lensmakers and around $1,500 from the camera manufacturers. The higher-end zooms in this price range will produce better results with wildlife than the lower-end 70-300mm zooms, but even the latter can deliver excellent images and provide long focal lengths without breaking the bank.

The drawbacks to zooms are that once you get below the pro-level models, sharpness suffers compared to prime lenses of equivalent focal length. Also, the zooms are slower—maximum aperture at their longest focal length is generally ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/6.3. This produces a darker viewfinder image, requires slower shutter speeds in any given light level and slows down autofocusing. Despite these drawbacks, you can save a lot of money and still get frame-filling shots.

AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED

Long-Range Zooms
When you’re able to get closer to a subject or want to include its surroundings, a long-range zoom is a good choice: 18-200mm, 18-250mm or 18-270mm for an APS-C D-SLR; 28-200mm or 28-300mm for a full-frame D-SLR or 35mm SLR; or 14-140mm or 18-180mm for Micro Four Thirds and Four Thirds System cameras. Shooting at closer range expands perspective, doing away with the familiar “flattened” look of long-lens shots. Of course, it all depends on how close the subject animal will allow you to approach and the look you want in your image. For example, grizzly bears look more imposing with the flattened perspective of (and are much more safely photographed from) greater shooting distances.

The main drawback to long-range zooms is that they don’t provide the optical quality of pro prime lenses, but their all-in-one versatility and convenience make them valuable components to your wildlife lens kit.

AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G IF-ED

Nikon wildlife pros like the AF-S VR 300mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED, 400mm ƒ/2.8G ED, 500mm ƒ/4G ED, 600mm ƒ/4G ED and 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED Nikkors, all with built-in Vibration Reduction and Silent Wave focusing motors that permit prefocusing manually without leaving AF mode. All are superb lenses with excellent AF performance. Estimated street prices run from $5,300 to over $10,000.

For those on tighter budgets, good choices include the AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D IF-ED (excellent AF performance, but no Vibration Reduction) and AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED (has Vibration Reduction, but not the AF-S focusing motor). The AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G IF-ED sells for under $600 and has both the Silent Wave focusing motor and Vibration Reduction. The AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED zoom is a superb lens for DX- and FX-format Nikon users with larger budgets.

For users of DX (APS-C) format Nikon D-SLRs, the AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm ƒ/4-5.6G IF-ED zoom is very inexpensive and has both the AF-S focusing motor and Vibration Reduction.

Nikon offers one long-range zoom, the AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G IF-ED, which can be used only with APS-C-sensor D-SLRs, not 35mm or full-frame D-SLRs.

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Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 300mm ƒ/2.8

Larger Formats
Some wildlife photographers work with medium-format film and digital SLRs. These can produce even better image quality due to finer grain (film images don’t need to be blown up as much to obtain a given print size) and more megapixels on larger sensors (while current 35mm-form-factor D-SLRs top out at 24.5 megapixels, medium format goes up to 60.5 megapixels). Medium-format D-SLRs are excellent for wildlife portraits, but not so good for action shots, as the cameras are more awkward to use and the AF systems aren’t as quick.

Because medium-format film frames and image sensors are much larger than 35mm image frames and APS-C sensors, a given focal length doesn’t produce as big an image in the frame with a medium-format camera. And the longest lenses available for medium-format cameras are shorter than the longest lenses available for 35mm-form-factor D-SLRs—about equivalent to a 135mm lens on an APS-C D-SLR or a 200mm lens on a 35mm SLR. So you’ll have to get closer to your subject to get an equivalent framing with a medium-format camera. (Of course, you can blow up the medium-format image more than you can a smaller camera’s image, which helps even things out.)

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 18-180mm ƒ/3.5-6.3

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 90-250mm ƒ/2.8

Due to the smaller size of the Four Thirds System’s image sensor, any lens used on a Four Thirds System camera frames like a lens of twice its length on a 35mm SLR. So Olympus’ Zuiko Digital ED 300mm ƒ/2.8 pro supertele produces the same field of view as a 600mm lens on a 35mm camera, but is a stop faster than the 600mm ƒ/4 lenses, costs less, and is lighter and more compact. The Zuiko Digital ED 90-250mm ƒ/2.8 pro zoom is equivalent to a 180-500mm ƒ/2.8 on a 35mm SLR.

For those on tighter budgets, Olympus offers the Zuiko Digital ED 50-200mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 SWD with the Silent Wave Drive AF motor (equivalent to a 100-400mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 zoom on a 35mm SLR), Zuiko Digital ED 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 (equivalent to a 140-600mm ƒ/4-5.6 on a 35mm SLR, for $400), Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm ƒ/4-5.6 and long-range Zuiko Digital ED 18-180mm ƒ/3.5-6.3.

As Four Thirds System cameras, Olympus E-system D-SLRs can use all Four Thirds System lenses, including Sigma’s 300-800mm zoom, which is available in a Four Thirds mount (equivalent to a 600-1600mm zoom on a 35mm SLR).

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Panasonic Lumix G Vario 45-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.

Panasonic’s Four Thirds System D-SLRs and Micro Four Thirds System cameras can use all Four Thirds System lenses (Micro Four Thirds models require an adapter and lose some features when using Four Thirds System lenses; Micro Four Thirds lenses can’t be used on Four Thirds cameras).

Panasonic offers two lenses of interest to wildlife photographers. The Lumix G Vario 45-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. is equivalent to a 90-400mm on a 35mm camera, yet measures just 2.8×3.9 inches and weighs 13.4 ounces. The Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm ƒ/4-5.8 MEGA O.I.S. zoom provides silent continuous autofocusing during HD video recording with the Lumix DMC-GH1 camera, as well as 35mm camera-equivalent focal lengths from 28-280mm.

Panasonic Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm ƒ/4-5.8 MEGA O.I.S.

One item that belongs in any wildlife lens kit is a teleconverter. Also known as a tele-extender, it fits between the camera body and lens, and increases the focal length by a factor of 1.4x, 1.7x or 2x. A 2x converter costs $200 to $350, and turns my $1,200 300mm lens into a $1,500 600mm—quite a deal. Another teleconverter advantage is that the lens’ minimum focusing distance doesn’t change when you use one—with the 2x converter, my 300mm lenses that focus down to five feet become 600mm lenses that focus down to five feet. (In comparison, a typical pro 600mm prime lens won’t focus closer than around 18 feet.)

Of course, teleconverters have their drawbacks, too. For one thing, they cause a slight loss of sharpness, especially at the edges of the image. This can be minimized by using a quality converter that’s designed for the lens (or focal length range) with which you’re using it—wildlife pros use converters quite successfully. The second drawback is a loss of light—a 1.4x converter cuts light transmission by one stop, a 2x by two stops. Thus, my 2x converter turns my 300mm ƒ/4 lens into a 600mm ƒ/8. Since my D-SLRs require an aperture of at least ƒ/5.6 to autofocus, I have to focus manually when using the 2x converter. (This is most easily done using the camera’s Live View feature, since the viewfinder image at ƒ/8 is pretty dark.) Some pro D-SLRs will autofocus with an ƒ/8 lens-converter combo, but autofocusing is noticeably slower than with a faster lens or combo.

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Pentax DA* 60-250mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM

All Pentax lenses can be used on Pentax D-SLRs, including older, discontinued but still excellent supertelephotos. Among Pentax’s current lenses, the best wildlife units are the DA* 300mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM and DA* 60-250mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM. Since all Pentax D-SLRs have APS-C-format sensors with a 1.5x magnification factor, these frame like 450mm and 90-375mm lenses on a 35mm SLR, respectively. They also feature Pentax’s smooth, quiet SDM focusing motors (compatible only with newer Pentax D-SLRs; earlier cameras will use the focusing motor in the camera body). A rumored DA* 400mm ƒ/4 SDM should be a terrific wildlife lens. Lower-priced options for wildlife include the DA 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 ED AL(IF) and DA 55-300mm ƒ/4-5.8 ED zooms.

Pentax DA 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 ED AL(IF)

Pentax used to make a full line of pro superteles, including the FA* 600mm ƒ/4, 400mm ƒ/5.6, 300mm ƒ/2.8 and 250-600mm ƒ/5.6 (with a minimum focusing distance of 11.5 feet), as well as a manual-focus A* 1200mm ƒ/8, all of which may be available on the used market from time to time.

Lens Supports
The smaller wildlife lenses can be handheld, but the larger ones are best used on a tripod. Because these lenses weigh much more than camera bodies, the lens rather than the camera body attaches to the tripod head (via a rotating mount).

Pentax DA* 300mm ƒ/4 ED (IF) SDM

Ballheads are favored by many outdoor photographers, as they let you quickly position the camera at any angle and then lock it in place with a twist of a single knob. But ballheads aren’t ideal for action shots. Bird pros use gimbal heads, like those from Custom Brackets, Jobu, Kirk and Wimberley. A gimbal head holds the camera firmly, but allows you to pan in any direction to track moving subjects. It also saves a lot of wear and tear on your arms and shoulders, as it supports the camera between shots, especially handy when you’re waiting for a bird to do something photogenic.

Pro-Optic 500mm ƒ/6.3

Samsung D-Xenon 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 ED

If you don’t want to lug a heavy tripod around, you can work from a monopod. This provides better steadiness than handholding (especially with stabilized lenses or camera bodies), and is a lot easier to carry around than a tripod.

The Pro-Optic 500mm ƒ/6.3 mirror lens provides a lot of focal length in an inexpensive ($159.95), compact package. It’s the fastest mirror lens we know of (most 500mm mirrors are ƒ/8s) and is available for virtually all 35mm and digital SLRs. It’s manual only (focus via a ring on the lens, adjust shutter speed to control exposure, no electronic connections to the camera), but it’s 500mm for under $200.

Samsung’s D-SLRs were developed in conjunction with Pentax and use Pentax-mount lenses, so the same wildlife lenses mentioned in the Pentax section should be terrific on Samsung cameras. Samsung’s own longest lens is the D-Xenon 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 ED zoom, which frames like a 75-300mm zoom on a 35mm camera.

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Sigma APO 150-500mm ƒ/5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM

Sigma is best known as a lens maker and offers a full lineup for popular D-SLRs, including its own. In the “big gun” category are the APO 300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG/HSM, APO 500mm ƒ/4.5 EX DG/HSM and APO 800mm ƒ/5.6 EX DG/HSM, available in mounts for Sigma, Canon and Nikon AF SLRs, with Sigma’s Hyper Sonic AF Motor. They’re also available in Sony/Minolta and Pentax mounts, but with standard focusing motors (the 800mm isn’t available in a Pentax mount).

Ideal Sigma wildlife zooms include the APO 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM and APO 150-500mm ƒ/5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM, both with built-in Optical Stabilization systems for sharper handheld shots. (Note that the HSM functions only with camera bodies that support it, and the Sony and Pentax versions don’t provide the OS system; Sony and Pentax D-SLRs have built-in sensor-shift stabilization.) For photographers with bigger budgets, the APO 300-800mm ƒ/5.6 EX DG HSM is available in Sigma, Canon, Nikon and Four Thirds mounts.

Sigma APO 300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG/HSM

Sigma 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM

Of special note is Sigma’s APO 200-500mm ƒ/2.8/400-1000mm ƒ/5.6 EX DG in mounts for Sigma, Canon and Nikon. This zoom costs more than my parents paid for the house I grew up in, but it’s both the world’s fastest 500mm lens at ƒ/2.8, and with the provided dedicated 2x converter, the world’s fastest 1000mm lens at ƒ/5.6.

Sigma offers two basic long-range zooms, both with built-in Optical Stabilization—the 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM and 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM. They’re designed specifically for APS-C-format D-SLRs and can’t be used with full-frame models.

Sony 300mm ƒ/2.8 G

Sony 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G

Sony DT 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3

Sony’s top wildlife lenses are its relatively new 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G zoom and its pricey but excellent 300mm ƒ/2.8 G supertele. On all Sony (and Minolta) D-SLRs, these are equivalent to lenses 1.5 times longer on a 35mm SLR; on the full-frame Sony DSLR-A900, they frame just as they would on a 35mm SLR. Other good choices would be the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 G and 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 G (the G series being Sony’s best optics), and the Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm ƒ/1.8 (for the APS-C-sensor cameras, on which it’s a very fast 200mm equivalent). Sony also offers the only AF mirror lens in production, the 500mm ƒ/8 Reflex.

Sony’s three long-range zooms are the DT 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3, DT 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 and DT 55-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 zooms. They’re designed for APS-C D-SLRs and vignette if used on the full-frame A900.

Sony D-SLRs also accept legacy Minolta Maxxum lenses.

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Tamron SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF)

Tokina AT-X 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6

Tamron’s longest lens is the SP AF200-500mm F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) tele-zoom. Usable on full-frame and APS-C D-SLRs (as well as 35mm SLRs), this lens provides an excellent range of focal lengths (on an APS-C D-SLR, it’s equivalent to a 300-750mm zoom). It focuses down to 98.4 inches for a 1:5 reproduction ratio, making it suitable for some insect and spider photography. The 200-500mm is available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts.

Tamron AF18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD

Tamron offers a whole series of wide-range zooms: the AF18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di II LD, AF18-250mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II LD and AF18-270mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD (all for APS-C-format D-SLRs), and the AF28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD Aspherical IF and AF28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC for full-frame D-SLRs and 35mm SLRs. The 18-270mm and latter version of the 28-300mm have built-in Vibration Compensation, which provides sharper results when shooting handheld.

Tokina’s best wildlife lens is the AT-X 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 zoom, which comes in mounts for Canon and Nikon AF SLRs and can focus down to 8.2 feet (for a 1:5.4 reproduction ratio). It measures 3.1×5.4 inches and weighs 35.9 ounces, quite compact
for 400mm.

(800) OK-CANON

(800) NIKON-US

(888) 968-4448

(800) 211-PANA

(800) 877-0155

Pro-Optic (Adorama)
(800) 223-2500


(800) 896-6858

(877) 865-SONY

Tamron USA
(631) 858-8400

Tokina (THK Photo Products)
(800) 421-1141