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How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography Featured image

Before you select a lens for wildlife photography, first ask yourself – what are you passionate about photographing? Do you love exploring the forest and chasing big cats on a wildlife safari? Perhaps you love photographing birds flying around? Maybe you love to explore reptiles and amphibians?

After you have figured out what you are passionate about, think about how many of those subjects are available and whether you can access that location. For example, if I am passionate about exploring forests full of tigers, leopards, and elephants, I have to see if those subjects – and the location – are accessible to me at least once a month.

Alternatively, if I am passionate about colorful birds, I have to check if I can access those locations at least once a month.

If you can access the location and subject of your choice, you are lucky. It will make your lens selection an easy decision. Since you will be using that lens every month, it makes complete sense to own the glass.

Baya Weaver Bird in flight
Homecoming : Baya Weaver Bird in Flight

On the other hand, if you love birds and African Big five. If you live away from Africa, then it is better to buy a lens that is perfect for birds – which you are more likely to shoot every weekend. Whereas, you may only visit Africa once every three years. Hence, think about it before you purchase a lens.

The most crucial factor is the budget. How much cash you can allocate to the lens. Keep aside some money for the camera body, accessories, and most importantly for travel, as wildlife photography involves a considerable amount of travel. While travel is sometimes hectic and a bit expensive, it is an awesome experience!

Key factors to consider while selecting the lens for wildlife photography

To summarise, below are the key factors to consider while selecting the lens for wildlife photography:

  1. Personal liking
  2. Subject availability
  3. Location accessibility
  4. Budget

Technical factors to consider when choosing the best lens for wildlife photography

Let’s start with the technical factors you should consider while choosing the best lens for wildlife photography.

  1. Focal length range
  2. Maximum aperture
  3. Focusing speed
  4. Controls and ergonomics
  5. Compatibility with Teleconverters
  6. Weather sealing
  7. Low light performance
Tiger in a river
The King – Power, Dominance, Calmness and Royal presence

1. Focal length range

The range of focal lengths is essential to photographing wildlife images. You need longer focal lengths to photograph birds and mammals. For photographing birds, you need a focal length of at least 400 mm. And it can go up to 600 or even 800 mm.

If you are photographing mammals, the required focal length is from 200mm up to 600 mm. The longer the focal length, the better reach you will have.

However, there are exceptions in some of the cases.

When you want to show wildlife in its habitat or if you can approach the wildlife at a close distance, you can use shorter focal lengths, such as 12mm or 14mm.

But in most of the wildlife cases, there will be a distance between you and the wildlife you photograph. Hence longer focal lengths are useful.

2. Maximum aperture

Lens aperture determines how much light passes through the lens to the camera’s sensor. Larger apertures help to capture maximum light.

Large aperture lenses focus faster than smaller aperture lenses too.

In wildlife photography, the action is fast, so to capture fast action, you need a quicker focusing lens. Hence, it’s preferable to use a lens with a large aperture in Wildlife photography.

The maximum aperture can be f/2.8 and f/4. The lenses with a fast aperture (smaller number) can focus fast.

Image quality, depth of field, and sharpness are superb for lenses with a faster aperture.

Select the lens with an aperture value of f/2.8 or f/4. The smallest aperture you can go up to is f/5.6. Try not to choose lenses slower than f/5.6.

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography - Sony FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS
Sony FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS

3. Focusing speed

Focusing speed is critical for wildlife and bird photography.

The best lens should focus fast and accurately and should be able to focus precisely – even in the low light as well.

Focusing speed is mainly dependent on the maximum aperture and lens construction.

While looking at the lens construction, we will not be able to figure out the focusing speed. But, based on the maximum aperture number, we can get an idea of lens focusing speed.

A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 focuses fast and accurate.

In general, a fixed focal length lens performs better than a zoom lens because of less moving glass elements. (There are exceptions. Some of the zoom lenses focus fast; we will discuss it later in this article)

4. Controls and ergonomics

Controls and ergonomics determine how you can handle and use the lens.

Lens zooming and manual focus rings should be smooth and accurate.

The lens should zoom with optimized ring rotation, so you don’t have to rotate the zoom ring by 360 degrees.

Autofocus and manual override (A/M or M/A) is a great feature. It means you can autofocus the lens. Further, to fine-tune the focus, you can manually focus it.

Vibration reduction/image stabilization helps to compensate for any camera movement. This feature helps to capture a sharp image at low shutter speed.

The weight of the lens is a significant factor in choosing the lens too. Less weight is always preferred because you can carry the lens while hiking or traveling. Similarly, smaller size lenses are right for traveling and packing.

Most of the wildlife and bird photography lenses are a bit heavy and bigger. Of course, there are exceptions. Some of the lenses are equally great in terms of image quality at a much lower weight and size. But the price of those lenses is higher. We will evaluate those lenses as well in the next sections.

NIKKOR AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR
NIKKOR AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR

5. Compatibility with teleconverters

As you will be using the lens for many years, compatibility with a teleconverter is essential.
The lens should be compatible (in terms of Autofocus performance such as accuracy and speed) with the teleconverter.

Teleconverters help to expand the range of the lens. For example, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with a 2X converter will be 140-400mm f/5.6. It doubles the focal range of the lens and reduces the maximum aperture of the lens from f/2.8 to f/5.6.

For any lens brand, generally, there are 1.4X, 1.7X, and 2X teleconverters. If the lens is compatible with all 3 teleconverters, it’s excellent! But at least it should be compatible with either one of the teleconverters.

If your lens is compatible with teleconverters, you will be able to extend the focal length of the lens.

6. Weather sealing

The right lens for wildlife photography should be able to take beatings from outdoor weather.

The lens should withstand against rain drizzle, temperature extremes (both hot and cold temperatures), and dust.

Weather sealing should be good enough to stop raindrops and dust from entering into the lens.

The weather sealing of the lens depends on lens construction, protruding lens elements, type of seals at zoom/focus ring, and at the camera mount.

With that said, while photographing outdoors, take care. It is always better to clean the lens after each photography trip. Cleaning of lens contacts, lens mounts, front elements, zoom/focusing rings, and protruding parts is good enough.

Black and white photo of an elephant walking
A graceful walk of a Tusker

7. Low light performance

Low light focusing performance is dependent on the lens and camera as well. Both camera and lens play an essential role in low light focusing.

Most of the wildlife action happens during early dawn and late dusk. During this edge of day, light conditions are poor.

Good lenses should be fast and accurate enough to focus in low light.

A lens’s low light performance depends on the maximum aperture and moving glass elements. Larger apertures of f/2.8 or f/4 and less moving glass elements mean the lens focuses fast. (Assuming your camera is having excellent low light autofocus performance.)

Now you are aware of what technical factors to look for, let’s learn what types of lenses are available for Wildlife photography.

Different lens types for wildlife photography

3 oriental white eye birds sitting on a branch
Oriental White Eye Birds

1. Prime lenses

A prime lens has a fixed focal length.

Prime lenses are best for birds and wildlife at a distance.

Because of fewer moving glass elements and maximum aperture, autofocus performance is excellent.

Image quality, sharpness, low light capability, and focus response is excellent for a prime lens. Prime lenses are compatible with teleconverters too.

One caveat is, if the wildlife approaches closer to you, you cannot zoom out and take the picture. Instead, you are stuck with a fixed focal length. In this case, you may want to take a portrait/close up image.

Compositional flexibility is limited when using prime lenses.

Prime lenses are higher in price and can be a bit heavier as compared to zoom lenses.

However, buying the best prime lens is the most significant investment you can make in your photography. These lenses last more than a decade and keep making beautiful images.

Out of your budget, try to spend the maximum amount of money on buying the best prime lens.

Some of the best prime lenses are:

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography - Red munia sitting on grass
Red Munia

2. Telephoto zoom lens

A telephoto zoom lens is a variable focal length lens. You can change the focal length of the lens by rotating the zoom ring on the lens.

Telephoto zoom lenses are best for birds and wildlife at long and short distances.

As compared to prime lenses (fixed focal length), Zoom lenses have more moving glass elements. This affects the focus performance.

However, there are exceptions.

Some of the Telephoto zoom lenses are as fast as prime lenses. We will see which of those lenses are in this article.

Telephoto zoom lenses are compatible with teleconverters. However, teleconverter compatibility is limited. Telephoto zoom lenses are fully compatible with some of the teleconverters, while only partially compatible with other teleconverters.

When choosing a telephoto zoom lens, check the teleconverter compatibility as well.

The main advantage of a zoom lens over a prime lens is variable focal length. Variable focal length helps in photographing farther as well as closer objects. Zoom lenses give freedom in image composition as well.

The size and weight of zoom lenses are relatively manageable as compared to that of prime lenses. Most of the zoom lenses are hand-holdable and travel-friendly.

While selecting the telephoto zoom lens, look out for aperture numbers such as f/2.8 and f/4 (for particular lens you can go up to f/5.6). Try to get the largest possible aperture for the telephoto zoom lens. This helps in autofocus performance, low light capability, Image sharpness, and smooth bokeh.

Some of the best Telephoto zoom lenses are:

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography - Green vine snake
Raindrops and Green Vine Snake

3. Micro Lens

Micro-lenses are a prime lens (fixed focal length).

If insects, snakes, butterflies, or small creatures are your interest, then micro lenses are for you.

The most popular lenses among the photographers are 105mm f/2.8, 180mm f/2.8 and 90mm f/2.8. Among all 105mm f/2.8 lenses are the right balance of image quality, range, size, weight, and price.

Here are recommended micro-lenses from popular brands:

There are additional micro-lenses from third party brands such as Sigma and Tamron.

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography - sunbird in flight
Sunbird in Flight

4. Micro 4/3rd Format lens

Micro 4/3rd format lenses are a bit different. The cameras with the Micro 4/3rd system have a smaller sensor size.

For example, a full-frame 100mm lens will become 150mm (1.5 X) on the crop sensor (small camera sensor body). Whereas on the micro 4/3rd system cameras, a 100mm lens will become 200mm (2 X).

Micro 4/3rd systems have their benefits such as size, compactness, weather sealing, and convenience. With a small sensor, as compared to a full-frame sensor, there is a compromise in terms of image quality and dynamic range. Lenses for the Micro 4/3rd system are built well. The quality of the glass, weather sealing, and ergonomics are excellent too.

In wildlife photography, weather conditions will be hostile. You have to hike along with your gear. Size and weather resistance of the equipment matters.

Hence specifically for wildlife, photography Micro 4/3rds is an excellent and unique option to consider.

Some of the best micro 4/3rds lenses for wildlife photography are:

How to Choose the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography - elephant in the wilderness
Elephant Scape

Process for selecting the best lens for wildlife photography

As you are now aware of what type of lenses are available for wildlife photography, let’s look into the process of lens selection.

These steps will help you to select the best lens for wildlife photography.

Identify your photography requirement

Find out what your area of interest is and identify what you want to photograph. You may want to photograph birds or big animals or small creatures. The key is to find out your objects of interest.

Evaluate the lens

Once you have found out what do you love photographing the most, select the lens accordingly. For example, if you love photographing birds, then select a telephoto (prime lens). If you like photographing butterflies, insects, and snakes, then select a micro-lens.

Rent the lens

Before you buy the lens, rent it. Also, try renting similar options in the lens. For example, if you are looking for a telephoto (prime) lens for birds, then rent and use the lenses such as 600mm f/4, 500mm f/4, and 400mm f/2.8 and see which lens you find comfortable while using.

If you want to photograph wild animals, try using lenses such as 70-200 f/2.8, 300mm f/4, and 200-500 f/5.6. By using the lens, you will be able to evaluate it better.

Buy the lens

Once you have evaluated and tried the lens, it is time to buy the lens. Generally, there is no discount for good lenses. Also, it is better to buy the new lens as you are going to use the lens for a long time (likely, more than a decade). Once you buy the lens, make sure all the functions work correctly.

Make sure you have a lens warranty in place, and you are good to go!

Now it’s your turn

What is your favorite object? Which lens have you selected?

If you have any questions regarding lens selection for wildlife photography, please let us know in the comments below.

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Shreyas Yadav
Shreyas Yadav

is an engineer, wildlife photographer, and nature photographer from India. He is also a writer and lifelong adventure explorer. Through his writings, he teaches about digital post-processing and nature photography. He shares field techniques about nature photography, post-processing, and wildlife photo stories on his website.