What kind of camera lens is best for wildlife photography? This is not a simple question to answer. The type of equipment you need, including lenses, depends very much on the type of wildlife you intend to photograph. It also depends on your location – photographing wildlife can vary between underwater photography, macro photography, bird photography, and other environments. Each genre has its own particularities and each really deserves an article of its own.
However, I’m basing this article on the knowledge that many (amateur) wildlife photographers dream of an African wildlife photo safari where they can experience animals in a truly wild environment. In this article, I concentrate on photographing mammals in their natural surroundings. For this type of wildlife photography, a telephoto lens is a prerequisite.
Why a Telephoto Lens?
Photographing wildlife in their natural habitat holds some special challenges. There are quite a few factors over which the photographer has no control. For instance, most wildlife is active during the early morning hours or in the hours just before sunset. Although the resulting low light is a good thing for the aesthetics of the photo, it presents the challenge of getting sufficient light onto the camera’s sensor. Accessing sufficient light is vital – the animals often move around and perform all kinds of interesting actions that you much capture in as sharp of focus as possible.
To add to the challenge, your animal subjects are most often quite a distance away, making it difficult to capture an effective photo.
The ideal wildlife photography camera lens would have the following characteristics:
- A focal length as large as possible
- A maximum aperture as low as possible
- A fast autofocus and tracking capabilities
- Preferably a favorable price tag.
Ok… so it’s time to wake up and acknowledge that the ideal camera lens for photographing wildlife simply does not exist. But don’t despair! The following are some tips that you can use to select the best camera lens for your purposes.
Ideal Focal Length for Wildlife Photography
What is the ideal focal length for photographing wildlife? Sometimes when you are photographing wildlife from a blind, the distance between you and the subject is more or less fixed. However, when you are on a wildlife photo safari, you might want to have a variety of focal lengths at your disposal.
Not only is the distance between you and the subject often unpredictable, but you would surely appreciate a variety of options to frame your image. Having different focal lengths allows you to create different wildlife photography compositions. With the enriched range, you are better able to clearly show that the wild animals are living free in nature.
Going through our own wildlife photos, we figured that almost 60% of the wildlife photos were captured using focal length between 200 and 400mm on a full frame camera. Only 10% of the wildlife shots were used at a focal length greater than 400mm. On the other side of the spectrum, 25% of the photos were made in the range of 100-200mm. And 5% of our wildlife images were captured with focal length of less than 70mm.
Zoom vs Prime Telephoto Lenses
Personally I prefer a zoom telephoto lens over a prime telephoto lens for photographing wildlife. Not only are telephoto lenses are more versatile, one telephoto lens can easily replace two to three prime telephoto lenses. This comes in very handy, especially with weight restriction imposed by airlines.
Another key advantage of having a zoom telephoto lens is that they allow you to be ready to shoot with the appropriate focal length at any given time without the hassle of switching lenses and or teleconverters in the field.
Yes, you may be able to get slightly better image quality with a prime telephoto lens. However, the difference between them in terms of sharpness and image quality is a whole lot less than it used. In fact, many high-end zoom telephoto lenses have become as good as prime lenses in the same (price) range and, in some instances, even better.
Maximum Aperture Settings
It is true that prime lenses for photographing wildlife have a wider maximum aperture than their zoom counterparts. That means they perform better in low light conditions and enable you to use faster shutter speeds under any given situation. This gives prime telephoto lenses a technical advantage over zoom telephoto lenses for wildlife photography.
However, you don’t always photograph wildlife with the widest possible aperture. This is particularly true when you are using focal lengths between 300mm to 600mm.Sometime you may want to increase the depth of field to capture the whole animal in focus. In this case, you often end up photographing wildlife with narrower aperture ranging from f/5.6 to f/8, sometimes even f/11.
Keep in mind that, when capturing wildlife in action, you need to use a fast enough shutter speed (1/1000 sec or higher) to freeze the motion of your subject. So, wildlife photography requires you to find a good balance between the right aperture and the shutter speed. Good news is that the modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have excellent high ISO performance that allows wildlife photographers to use a higher shutter speed and narrow aperture at the same time.
What About Teleconverters?
Teleconverters (or extenders) typically multiply the focal length of your camera lens. Most teleconverters have either 1.4x or 2x focal length multiplier settings. Initially, this may seem like an awesome idea to gain considerable focal length for wildlife photography. But there are a few major downsides to take into consideration.
First, almost all teleconverters reduce the sharpness of your wildlife photo and degrade the quality of the image. Second, a teleconverter decreases the amount of light that reaches the sensor by either 1 or 2 F-Stop. This forces you to return to a higher ISO setting to capture the wildlife photo. Some third party teleconverters may impact the autofocus performance of your DSLR or mirrorless cameras or may not even work at all.
I prefer to use a teleconverter on a high-end lens, and I prefer to use the smaller of the two popular teleconverters with 1.4x multiplier. I recommend that the teleconverter, camera body, and camera lens for wildlife photography have the same brand (if possible). This minimizes any potential incompatibility.
Keep in mind that even when using the components from the same brand, the autofocus may be less accurate with a teleconverter. Another common issue with teleconverters is that you may not be able to use all the autofocus points. It is best to check the compatibility of teleconverters with your camera body and camera lens before embarking on that photo safari of a lifetime.
The development of in-lens as well as in-camera stabilization has provided a huge advantage for handheld shooting. Because it allows you to use slower shutter speeds without the risk of blurred images, you can gain one to several stops of light in any given situation.
Of course, it can by no means replace a tripod for really slow shutter speeds. But it does give you the extra freedom to shoot handheld for very mobile subjects when necessary. Be sure to read the manual to check in what kind of circumstances it’s best to turn on or off the stabilization when using a tripod or monopod, or when using panning techniques. Instructions can vary according to brand and within brands according to type of lens.
Telephoto Lens Weight
The weight of your camera-lens combo is another issue to reckon with. A sturdy tripod can seem like the best choice for dealing with heavy camera and lens combination but it is not feasible when you are shooting from a car or moving canoe. Here you might consider using a monopod for some support. Oftentimes a bean bag filled with beans or rice and put on the edge of a car or boat can do the trick to provide the necessary support.
Be mindful of the fact that you will not want to burden your back or shoulders with heavy equipment for long periods of time, as this will hamper your wildlife photography. Airlines will also limit the amount of weight you can carry in an overhead compartment. International airlines often limit weight carried in an overhead compartment to 10-12kg at maximum. So it is best that you keep the weight of your camera lens as low as possible.
Should I Rent a Camera Lens for Wildlife Photography?
We suggest you own one or more high quality zoom lenses that cover the spectrum focal length from 70mm to 400mm. Depending on how often you find yourself in a situation that needs reach beyond 400mm, you can either decide to rent or buy the lens that gives you that reach.
Our motto is to always come prepared for a wildlife photography trip. We have our main camera with a tele zoom attached, for example a 100-400mm or a 200-400mm (with built in extender it is a 200-560mm). The second camera (which serves also as a backup) has a more modest focal length zoom attached like a 24-105mm or a 70-200mm. We choose versatility over reach and zoom over prime. This best suits our needs while we are travelling long distances and to remote areas.
As you can see, there are many parameters to take into account when considering the ideal camera lens for photographing wildlife. In general, we advise you borrow or rent the camera lens you have in mind to try it out. It is important that you get a thorough look and feel of it. This way, you’ll know for sure that the choice you make can fulfill your needs to pursue the kind of wildlife photography you are after… and enjoy every minute of it.