Wildlife photography is a challenging discipline that requires preparation, but also equipment that is often more expensive and cumbersome. Even if, in theory, “amateur wildlife photographers” can be satisfied with relatively simple equipment, as soon as you want to go up in range and dig a little deeper into the subject, the choices will be quickly complicated and the investment can become substantial. It’s not that simple to choose between cameras with a high-performance auto focus (AF) and long focal length lenses that don’t offer apertures as large as the more standard focal lengths. As we will see below, slower lenses considerably reduce the possibilities as soon as the light conditions worsen. Not to mention the various accessories such as camouflage, shelters and others to blend in with the environment so as not to frighten the animals.
This article will therefore focus primarily on photographic equipment and more specifically on the choice of your lenses for wildlife photography. For those who want more advice, especially on the settings to use and how to prepare a wildlife photography session, I will write a complementary article soon. You don’t need to go to the other side of the world on safari to try wildlife photography. It can be in the park next to your home, in your garden, etc. In this article, I mention the lenses adapted to this practice, both for DSLR’s and mirrorless camera, and the bodies that can be adapted of course. I discuss at the end of the post some accessories that will allow you to complete your backpack and start looking for our animal friends to bring back your most beautiful pictures. Although mirrorless cameras have been popular over the last few years, DSLRs are generally more responsive and have a faster autofocus to follow moving subjects. DSLRs also have a wider and more varied lens choice, not requiring adaptor rings which can sometimes ensue in some functions of the camera to be lost, especially AF which, as you might expect, is quite annoying for photographing moving subjects! For those interested in photography equipment, I invite you to read the article on the best lenses for landscape photography and how to choose them?
First and foremost, I wanted to discuss, in a few paragraphs, camera bodies, which can be essential for wildlife photography. Indeed, a camera with a large sensor obviously allows better performance in low light, being able to raise ISO sensitivity more easily before the digital noise (a defect that is characterized by colored fringes) alters the image. It will therefore provide better images when you need to compensate for the reduction in exposure time to maintain correct exposure and not end up with very dark images. If you are new to photography, remember that the exposure settings (ISO, shutter speed and aperture) are interrelated. If your shutter speed is not fast enough when shooting, you always have the option to double the ISOs to double your shutter speed. For wildlife photography, you are often in situations where you have to choose very short exposure times to freeze the movements of some of the fast-moving animals. Thus, it would be interesting to have the possibility to increase your ISO and a better management of the latter it, via a large sensor.
However, this implies that the price, weight and space will be increased. Many wildlife photographers stick with the APS-C sensor because, in addition to “extending the focal length” (APS-C bodies have an area about 1.5x smaller than full-frame sensors), the cameras with the best AF are usually the top-of-the-line ones, and these are cheaper in APS-C. Nevertheless, most of the advanced lenses for this discipline are more often designed for full frame, which reduces the interest of the APS-C a little bit. These ends of the line lenses are usually quite big and they will eventually make your bag big and heavy regardless of if you have an APS-C or full frame body. To go further down the road in learning about this, I invite you to read the article on how to choose the best DSLR for you!
But the APS-C has the advantage of offering fast and very efficient AF without having to spend several thousands of euros. For example, you will find the Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras such as the D7100/7200/7500/500 or 77D/90D/7D at around 1000 € with performances close to those of full-frame sports cameras costing around 5000 €, with high bursts rate and buffers whose capacity will allow you to shoot successive shots over a longer period of time.
Some mirrorless cameras are beginning to offer a quality of performance that’s good enough for wildlife photography, the latest X-T from Fuji and A6x00 from Sony for example, or the G9 / E-M1 X from Panasonic and Olympus in micro 4/3. Sony has even released a full-frame sports camera that is supposed to compete with the €5,000 cameras dslr’s. But don’t worry; if you’re interested in full frame, the latest Sony A7s are also efficient and relatively capable. However, there is a more limited choice of camera lenses for mirrorless camera due to the fact that the bodies are relatively new. In addition, very long focal lengths are often less in demand. Manufacturers have focused primarily on the design of standard lenses, and in most brands offering mirrorless cameras, this type of lens is only just beginning to be developed.
Most DSLRs in this range are also often more robust, with all-weather constructions, whereas with a mirrorless camera this will not always be the case, especially from Sony. In this discipline, where you’ll have to get out in the morning humidity, hide in the bushes and crawl around, a solid construction will often be preferable. Being able to own a durable battery so you don’t have to change it regularly will also be a big bonus, which gives DSLRs an added advantage.
Now let’s get to the point. It’s obvious but, in most cases, the animals will not be easy to approach, which should lead you to favor long focal lengths. This will allow you to stay away from them so as not to disturb them and still get images that are detailed that people will think you were right next to them (for instance when I was photographing a group of lions in the Savannah in Serengeti, Tanzania, I was pretty happy to be using my 300mm and not a wide angle, eh!).
When choosing lenses for wildlife photography, lenses from 300 mm and above tend to be recommended, although it is possible to get close enough to certain animals or use certain techniques to work with shorter focal lengths. Unfortunately, the longer the focal length, the more expensive, heavy and large is the lens. Using cameras with “small” sensors reduces the disadvantages of weight and size but very little in terms of price and, in these formats, the offer on this type of lenses is in any case quite limited. Remember also that a 300mm on a Micro 4/3 sensor does not equal to a 300mm on APS-C or full frame. So be careful not to confuse everything when comparing focal lengths between different sensor sizes (it’s the same for aperture and ISO, eh…).
These long focal lengths also have another disadvantage, their maximum aperture. Indeed, it is difficult to have a large aperture with this type of long focal length, at the risk of increasing the size and weight of the lens. The longer the focal length, the more this will be the case. Indeed, beyond certain focal lengths, you won’t find a lens opening more than f/2.8, then f/4 (at 800 mm you won’t even find a lens opening more than f/5.6 from Nikon and Canon). We are already talking about lenses measuring 45 cm long and weighing nearly 5 kg… at unbeatable prices, of course! Some manufacturers therefore offer zooms covering already very long focal lengths, like the 100-400mm Panasonic (200-800 mm in full frame equivalent) or the 150-600mm from Sigma and Tamron which are even more limited on apertures since they rarely offer better than f/6.3 on the longest focal length.
It will also be necessary that the AF lenses be sufficiently responsive. Indeed, having the animal in the frame is one thing, being able to follow its movements is another, especially as the more you zoom in on it, the faster it will go out of the frame. Manufacturers are aware of this and pay particular attention to this point, by incorporating the best AF and adding distance limiting features that allow you to speed it up even more by preventing the lens from going into focus at distances where you know the animal won’t go. Of course, the camera body as mentioned above will also have its role to play since its autofocus module largely determines the responsiveness, speed and tracking of the camera.
Finally, most of these lenses are stabilized and we can understand why. Stabilization is not only intended to reduce blur in the image caused by your movements. Generally speaking, it is not a problem with very fast animals that will force you to use such short exposure times anyway (e.g. 1/1000 or 1/2000) that stabilization is not necessary. However, it also helps to stabilize the viewfinder because the longer your focal length is, the more your movements will impact your framing in the viewfinder. Concretely, what does it mean? Well, for example, with a 600mm, as soon as you move a little bit, you won’t see the animal in your viewfinder anymore (your angle of vision is really very small with this type of focal length). With mirrorless cameras in which the sensor is stabilized, you will benefit from this comfort even if the lens is not stabilized itself. On the contrary, on a DSLR and by placing your eye in the viewfinder, only the lens can bring you this comfort.
To conclude about lenses, everything will depend on your budget (yes!), the type of camera (mFT/APS-C/full frame) and the type of usage. You’re not going to buy a 600mm at 5000 € to take a picture of a bird in your garden twice a year, are you?!
For information, all of the lenses mentioned below are summarized in a table just after the paragraph.
For Nikon and Canon APS-C DSLRR, to begin with, you can look at the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 entry-level which will give you 105-450mm equivalents, and which remain within very accessible price ranges (between 400 and 500 €). Sigma and Tamron brands offer cheaper lenses of this type available for these DSLRs (from 150-200 €). However, be careful to choose the appropriate mount for the brand of your camera body (it would be stupid to buy a Sigma with Canon mount for your Nikon, eh!). These 70-300mm lenses also exist for full frame camera, which are compatible with APS-C cameras and have the advantage of being fully compatible if you upgrade to full frame later on. Always for full frame but compatible with APS-C cameras, you will find the 100-400 mm f/4.5-6.3 from Sigma and Tamron (about 800 €), better quality than the 70-300 mm, but also more expensive and bigger. Another top of the range in price, Canon offers a very nice 100-400 mm vII. Finally, in terms of zooms, you can have a look at the 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 which have a longer focal length and have great reputation (from Sigma and Tamron), but here again with slightly higher prices (around 1000 €) and bigger dimensions. Nikon also offers a very nice 200-500mm f/5.6, close to the prices of 150-600mm and of very good quality. I personally own the Canon 70-300 mm in L-series (pro version), but with a price corresponding to this range (still in the 1000 € range).
For fixed focal lengths, the choices aren’t less varied but more complicated to afford. Concretely, it will quickly end up costing an arm or even both, which will complicate the task when you have to take pictures! There are still 300 mm f/4 (Canon) / 300mm f/4 (Nikon), or 400 mm f/5.6 “relatively affordable” (between 1000/1200 €) but unless you look to the second hand market, you will hardly find 300mm f/2.8, 400mm or 500mm f/4 in your budget. I won’t go into detail about 600 mm / 800 mm lenses, which are out of reach for the average person. Finally, but even more expensive, you will find the wide aperture zooms such as the Sigma 120-300 mm f/2.8 or 200-400 mm f/4, or even the completely crazy Sigma 200-500 mm f/2.8, at about 20 000 € (yes, that’s the price without counting the sherpa or the rental of the donkey to carry its 15 kgs…).
Below is a summary table of all the DSLR lenses for wildlife photography that I think are interesting to consider when you buy, both for third party brands and natives. The price is the approximate price at the time of writing the article. The lenses are in the order of being cited in the paragraph above. For information, all tables can be sorted by clicking on the desired column title.
|Brand||Model||Focal length||Max. aperture||Approx. price||Best price|
|Canon||70-300mm f/4-5.6 II||70-300mm||f/3.5-4.5||500€||Amazon|
|Nikon (FF)||70-300mm f/4.5-5.6||70-300mm||f/4.5-5.6||400€||Amazon|
|Nikon (APS-C)||70-300mm f/4.5-6.3||70-300mm||f/4.5-6.3||300€||Amazon|
|Canon||70-300mm f/4-5.6 L
|Canon||300mm f/4.0 L
As for the DSLRs lenses mentioned above, you will find a summary table below.
With a mirrorless camera, the choice is a little more complicated because there are more brands to choose from. In addition, there are three sensor sizes (mFT, APS-C and Full Frame) but paradoxically the choice remains smaller. So, we will talk first about micro 4/3 sensor cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, which have the advantage of sharing the same mount and can therefore use lenses from both brands. To start, you can choose the 45-150mm f/4-5.6, 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 and 100-300mm f/4-5.6, which have the advantage of remaining affordable and offer the equivalent field of view of the 100-400mm and 150-600mm with more reasonable dimensions. However, the apertures remain small and, as soon as there is a lack of light, you will obviously have trouble. The Panasonic 100-400mm f/4-6.3, for a higher budget, offers the equivalent of a 200-800mm. Fixed focal lengths in these focal ranges are therefore, as mentioned before, quite rare at also much higher prices. For example, there is a 200mm f/2.8 which appears to be very popular, but is still expensive.
For Fujifilm APS-C cameras, the choice is reduced to 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, the 200mm f/2 being once again unaffordable. For APS-C Sony cameras, you can start for example with 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3. At a higher price, Sony has recently released a 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 for this format. Other lenses will be compatible but they are designed for full frame cameras, so you can find them below. For Canon APS-C cameras, you will only have the 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 and for Nikon the 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3.
For Sony Full Frame cameras, the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 will allow you to start although its price is already high, then the 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. The 300, 500 and 600 mm fixed focal lengths are again sold at extremely high prices. For Nikon and Canon, the mirrorless camera products are too new, so these brands have not yet begun to manufacture these types of lenses (nothing under 200mm when i write this article).
Here’s a summary table of all the mirrorless camera lenses for wildlife photography I recommend. The table can be sorted by clicking on the column title.
|Brand||Model||Focal length||Max. aperture||Sensor||Approx. price||Best price|
|Canon||55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM
All this equipment will end up weighing a lot, so a tripod or monopod will be a good friend. Especially since, if you use lurking techniques, you will have to stay in the same place for a long time holding your equipment ready to use and ideally directed towards the place where the animal(s) will appear. A monopod will allow you to follow the movements of the animals more easily, although it will obviously not stabilize your camera as well, but it will give you more flexibility. Some tripods also have a built-in monopod, which means that you can remove the central column. Don’t hesitate to invest a minimum in this equipment, tripods and monopods that seem affordable are often not very stable and rarely hold the distance. You will find good references at Manfrotto, Sirui, Benro, Gitzo…
Sometimes you won’t have the budget to afford lenses that reach a certain focal length, or you simply already have a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and don’t want to add another big zoom lens to your arsenal. In which case, you may want to look into teleconverters, which are accessories allowing to extend the focal length. There are three types in particular.
- The TC14s allow you to “multiply” your focal length by 1.4, so to speak. Your 70-200mm will thus become about 100-300mm. Be careful however, because you will lose an aperture stop, which simply means that you will no longer be able to open at f/2.8 but at f/4, which may be important depending on the situation;
- The TC17s allow you to multiply your focal length by 1.7, but you will lose 1.5 stops, which will make your f/2.8 an f/4.8;
- Finally, the TC20s, more commonly known as “tele extenders”, will therefore “double” the focal length and make your 70-200 a 140-400mm. This time, however, you lose 2 stops, i.e. an aperture of f/5.6 instead of f/2.8.
Here is a small table summarizing the different focal length teleconverters of the main brands.
If you count correctly, you will understand that the smaller the maximum aperture of your lens, the more the use of a teleconverter will limit its possibilities until you lose Auto Focus. For example, Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6 will become a 400-1000mm f/11 (with TC20) but AF needs a minimum aperture lens at f/8 to work…In addition, they cause a loss of image quality. Therefore, they are more suitable for high-end lenses with a minimum aperture of f/4. Moreover, this loss of quality makes the TC17s not very famous, the TC14 and TC20 are often less destructive. Manufacturer brands offer TC’s, but you will find good TC’s in the brands Sigma and Kenko, among others.
Other accessories have their benefits for wildlife photography, especially for lookouts. You will therefore find shelters, which allow you to hide from animals to be more discreet and make it easier to approach them. Some animals will approach by themselves more easily too. You also have camouflage accessories for your camera, some lenses are even sold with an express camouflage coating. You can also buy these coatings designed for particular lenses like the one sold by the Easycover brand for the 150-600mm contemporary by Sigma.
For mirrorless camera users, the lack of such lenses in some brands will require the use of an adaptor ring that allows you to mount some DSLR lenses on your camera body. But beware, these can also cause you to lose functions such as AF or cause compatibility problems. It will be necessary to inform you particularly about their limits before acquiring them.
Well, this article on lenses for wildlife photography is coming to an end, remember that even if the equipment is important, the technique and preparation are at least just as important. So do not hesitate to read the article (coming very soon) on my advice for the shooting and to ask me your questions in comments. In the meantime, if you are interested in landscape photography, you can take a look at the choice of your wide-angle lens.
See you soon