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8 Best DSLR Camera Lenses for Wildlife Photography (Amazing Results!)

Best DSLR Camera Lenses for Wildlife Photography

When you're in nature with nothing but the pack on your back and a camera in-hand, and you come across one of those perfect moments, you'll want to be carrying one of the best wildlife photography lenses. One of the primary reasons to use a DSLR for wildlife photography is the interchangeable lens system. It lets you use the absolute best tool for any specific job or subject.

Quick Compare: 8 Best Wildlife Photography Lenses

**Below, you'll find our detailed reviews, but you can also click the links above to quickly check the prices of our top picks for the best wildlife photography camera lenses.

The Importance of Telephoto Lenses

When shooting wildlife photography you will always feel like you want to be closer to your subject, and that’s achieved with extreme focal length telephoto lenses. Don't throw away your wide angle lens just yet, but consider making a little extra room in your bag.

While extreme telephoto lenses can sometimes seem steeply priced, they are a necessary investment, because they are the tool you need for the job you want to do. Quality lenses hold their value well and will last you through multiple camera body upgrades. Spending your money on building a good lens collection will enhance your photography and is a better investment than constantly upgrading your camera body.

If you've ever tried to snap a picture of a bunny in your backyard, a bird in a tree, or a lion at the zoo then you've no doubt realized your normal kit lens makes it difficult. You need a telephoto lens for wildlife photography...

Advantages of Telephoto

  • You bring the subject closer, allowing you to fill the frame.
  • Animals are less likely to be scared away when you shoot from a distance.
  • It is significantly safer to shoot more dangerous animals from a distance.
  • When shooting over greater distances you can achieve razor thin focus points that separate subject from creamy soft backgrounds.
  • If you are shooting through a fence or mesh, you can get close to it, use a wide open aperture and often the fence or mesh will melt away so you don't see it if the subject is a fairly long distance away.

How Long of a Lens Do I Need for Wildlife Photography?

The first question you’ll ask yourself, and the hardest to answer, is what focal length lens do you need?

The reality is you, like most wildlife photographers, will probably spend most of your time within the 100mm–400mm focal lengths. This is a commonly covered range in zoom lenses that will offer you a solid entry point and flexibility to grow as you discover your style.

Start with something in the 100mm-400mm range, perhaps add a teleconverter to dabble in longer ranges, and then upgrade yourself to something in 500mm focal length or beyond when you decide you absolutely must. If you already know you want to shoot small birds, for instance, from 50+ feet away then skip straight to a more expensive 600mm or 800mm prime.

Should I Use a Teleconverter Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Teleconverters add more focal length at the expense of light traveling to the lens. It's also worth noting they cannot add to image quality, only detract. The absolute best you can hope for from a teleconverter is that it will not detract from image quality. Common converters are 1.4x, 1.7x, or 2x. Their multiplication factor works both in extending the length and multiplying their potential cons.

Example: You are shooting with a 400mm lens at f5.6. You attach a 2x teleconverter giving you an extremely long 800 mm reach, but you've sacrificed 2 stops of light so while your settings read f5.6 you are shooting the equivalent of f11. This is important because some auto-focus systems will not work, or work very poorly past certain aperture limits like f8.

So why use one? Well, the obvious answer is they take a long lens and make it longer. If you have enough wiggle room in ISO or shutter speed to accommodate for the light loss, or it's a particularly bright day, you will get unparalleled reach from your lens. Teleconverters offer you more reach for far less money than buying a bigger longer lens. Your mileage may vary but I personally recommend sticking 1.4x extenders and prefer to go without when possible.

The Differences Between Zoom Lenses and Prime Lenses

If you are only carrying one lens and aren't 100% sure what you'll need, always choose the zoom. If you have a shot or small and distant subject in mind, nothing produces the image quality of a good prime lens; Primes are also almost always faster and the only option when it comes to hyperfocal lengths like 600 or 800 mm.

What About Weather Sealing?

The more professional grade the lens, the better it should weather harsh environments. Nonetheless, I'm a careful person so I prefer more protection and highly recommend carrying an inexpensive rain cover. When you spend big money on a lens, it is a small investment to help keep it safe.

A Few Quick Thoughts About Aperture

Generally with all lenses “faster is better”. It's far from the end of the world if you are using a variable aperture f4-f5.6 but you'll really start to appreciate that constant f4 when you do upgrade. It gives you a little room to stop down for extremely crisp shots and should offer plenty of light in most scenarios.

When shooting telephoto lenses over longer distances, it's easier to isolate your subject and get a soft background effect even with a higher aperture setting (f4, f6 or f8). This is why they are often used for portrait photography.

The f2.8 lenses on the market are wonderful, though heavy and expensive, and you'll only really need them in low light scenarios.

Choosing the Best Lens

If you are in the market for an 800 mm prime, you already know what you want and already have a subject planned. With that in mind, we are going to focus our reviews on zoom lenses for wildlife photography as they offer more photographers the most flexibility. Primes may be the peak of pixel peeping technical image quality, but high-quality zoom lenses are just as capable of producing award-winning and commercial quality print photos.

With every lens we suggest, you’ll maximize your “keeper” shots by using a tripod, or at least a sturdy monopod. Most telephoto lenses are hefty to carry and cumbersome to use hand-held for more than a few minutes at a time. Good camera technique will absolutely trump technology like image stabilization.

The Best Canon Lens Options for Wildlife Photography

You've seen the professional grade telephoto Canon lenses at sporting events before, the long white barrels have become iconic and widely hailed as some of the best professional telephoto lenses available.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Canon EF 200-400mm f4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Our Rating

This unique entry is one of our personal favorites because of its built-in teleconverter. Perfect for sports and wildlife photographers, Canon built a 1.4x teleconverter directly into the lens, so you don't need to switch or swap anything in the field. Your 200-400mm f4 becomes 280-560mm f5.6 with the flick of a switch.

This means a huge range is covered without needing to swap lenses, no comparability issues and no perceivable loss of image quality. If you can afford it, this is among the best Canon lenses for wildlife photography. Constant f4 aperture means no surprises, and a very comfortable f5.6 constant with the teleconverter turned on.

At the end of the day... less kit to travel with, a huge range covered, unbelievable image quality, easy focal range changes, and lightning fast autofocus. This lens is an absolute gem, you really do get what you pay for.

Specs:

  • 200-400mm zoom
  • 280-560mm zoom (teleconverter mode)
  • Image stabilization (4 stops)
  • Internal ring-type ultrasonic autofocus
  • Max aperture of f4 (5.6 in teleconverter mode)
  • Min aperture f32
  • 25 Optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Magnesium alloy barrel
  • Weather sealed
  • Filter thread: 52 mm.
  • Length: 14.41 inches.
  • Weight: 7.98 lbs

Pros

  • Built in teleconverter
  • Incredible focal length
  • Superb quality
  • Image stabilization
  • Relatively compact/light kit for the range
  • Fixed aperture

Cons

  • Expensive

Canon EF 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6L IS 2 USM

Canon EF 100-400 mm f4.5-5.6L IS 2 USM

Our Rating

The focal range on this option covers 90% of wildlife photography scenarios in a relatively compact size with extremely high-quality image production. Incredible image quality and a focal range that comfortably covers shooting larger animals easily with plenty of range even for most birders.

A fast, silent, and very accurate auto-focus implementation is complemented with a very good 4 stop image stabilization system. If you can keep yourself steady the IS and relatively low weight of this lens (for the category) will help you snap long shots you may otherwise miss. Variable aperture, unfortunately, means you'll have to change settings throughout the focal range to maintain a consistent exposure. In our opinion, an incredibly small trade-off for the smaller size, relatively light weight and incredible image quality this lens provides. This is the best bang for your buck lens in the Canon line-up for wildlife photographers, bar none.

Specs:

  • 100-400mm zoom
  • Image stabilization (4 stops)
  • Internal ring-type ultrasonic autofocus
  • Max aperture of f4.5 – f5.6
  • Min aperture f40
  • 21 Optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Magnesium alloy barrel
  • Weather sealed
  • Filter thread: 77 mm.
  • Length: 7.6 inches
  • Weight: 3.46 lbs

Pros

  • Great focal range
  • Image stabilization
  • Great price for quality

Cons

  • Variable aperture is not ideal

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS II USM

Our Rating

Want a long reach combined with a fast fixed aperture? The Canon 400 mm f2.8 is brilliant.

Incredible sharpness from wide open apertures of f/2.8 all the way up through f/16 where you might start to see slight sharpness reduction. Chromatic aberration is essentially a non-issue and you'll notice very little vignetting in the extreme corners and only wide open. As a wildlife photographer, not only is the autofocus insanely fast, it's also dead silent.

Publication quality image potential, creamy bokeh backgrounds, and an image resolve so good there’s no Adobe lens correction profile… because there’s nothing to correct. Fast lens aperture means you can shoot lower light wildlife photography without relying on high ISO capabilities. It also means you have the flexibility to use even a 2x teleconverter making it an 800mm f/5.6 for only a small additional investment.

Side benefit: The fast aperture and creamy bokeh, combined with the telephoto compression effect will mean this lens is incredible for both sports, portraits or full body model shots.

Specs:

  • 400mm prime
  • Image stabilization (4 stops)
  • Max aperture 2.8
  • Min aperture: 32
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • 16 optical elements
  • Auto-focus: Ring-type ultrasonic
  • Filter size: 52mm drop in
  • Length: 13.5 inches
  • Weight: 8.49 lbs

Pros

  • Unparalleled image quality
  • Flexible uses beyond wildlife
  • Fast f/2.8 for low light and depth of field
  • Beautiful bokeh performance
  • Fast aperture means more flexibility with teleconverters

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Less flexible than a zoom lens
  • A bit heavy for regular handheld use

The Best Nikon Telephoto Lenses

Nikon may not have the iconic white barrels of Canon telephoto lenses, but Nikkor glass is still known by professionals as some of the best. Here are the best Nikon lenses for wildlife photography.

Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR

Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-5.6D VR

Our Rating

In very much the prosumer category this makes a great first wildlife lens for a Nikon shooter. Attached to a full frame camera body you'll find the center frame tack sharp while the corners can be a little soft as you progress to longer focal lengths, on a crop sensor body like the Nikon D7200 you'll extend your reach and avoid much of the corner softness altogether.

While the auto-focus is fairly quick, it's not as dead silent as the 'silent-wave' name suggests and does lag behind the truly "pro" lenses on this list. Providing a terrific field of view and sharp images. “VR” or image stabilization can help you hand-hold certainly at 80mm maybe even out to 400mm, but you may lose a little sharpness.

The build quality is not as high end as professional lenses, though the use of plastics and variable aperture also means it's a lighter lens to carry in your backpack. While this lens might require some time to master in situations like nailing focus on a bird in flight, once you get the hang of it, you'll produce beautiful sharp images. There are certainly some tradeoffs but for the price, this lens will let you capture outstanding quality images.

Specs:

  • 80-400mm zoom
  • Image stabilization (4 stops)
  • Max aperture 4.5-5.6
  • Min aperture: f/40
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • 20 optical elements
  • Auto-focus: ultrasonic
  • Filter Size: 77 mm
  • Length: 7.99 inches
  • Weight: 3.46 lbs

Pros

  • Very sharp lens for its price
  • Lightweight
  • Image stabilization
  • Great price

Cons

  • Build quality is ‘pro-sumer’ level
  • Auto-focus accuracy falls off in low contrast or low light
  • Variable aperture

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-500 mm f5.6E ED VR

Our Rating

This is Nikon’s most reasonably priced ultra-telephoto ever. It has a brilliant focal length for wildlife photography with a fixed aperture, vibration reduction, and terrific image quality. The fixed aperture is f/5.6 is not ideal in low light situations, but given the low light capabilities of modern bodies, it should be more than enough for all but the gloomiest or dark day. The max aperture also means you're limited in teleconverter usage as a 1.4x teleconverter might be the longest you'll fit on it and the auto-focus will probably slow down a fair bit as you'll hit F/8.

Telephoto lenses often do double duty as solid portrait lenses, at f/5.6 this lens can do the job provided your subject is close and the background is at a great distance. What you sacrifice for having so much in an inexpensive package, is autofocus speed. It’s not as snappy in finding focus as it’s significantly more expensive counterparts. At this price, the slightly higher max aperture and auto-focus speed are all that hold it back from being “too good to be true".

Specs:

  • 200-500mm zoom
  • Image stabilization: 4.5 stops
  • Auto-focus ring-type ultrasonic
  • Max aperture 5.6
  • Min aperture 32
  • Minimum focus: 2.2 m
  • 19 optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Filter size: 95 mm
  • Weight: 5 lbs
  • Length: 10.55 inches

Pros

  • Incredible value for price
  • Great focal length
  • Fixed aperture
  • Good bokeh
  • Vibration Reduction

Cons

  • Extended - it can be cumbersome to hand-hold
  • Auto-focus is decent, but not fast

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR 2

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-400mm f4G ED VR 2

Our Rating

This is the longest of Nikon’s professional zoom line. The focal length step beyond the Nikon holy trinity of zoom lenses (the 14-24, 24-70, and 70-200 mm f2.8). It works at fixed f4 and while it’s a somewhat limited 200-400 focal length, that covers you in most wildlife use cases, especially when combined with a teleconverter. It features superb optics, incredible build quality, fantastic vibration reduction and a constant aperture.

This is a popular ‘go-to’ long telephoto zoom lens for professional Nikon shooters. A 1.7x quickly turns this into a 340-680 mm f6.8 so your auto-focus may slow down a little but remains more than usable. Without a teleconverter though auto-focus speeds are lightning quick and accurate.

Nearly perfect, the nature of the amazing build quality is that the lens is both large and heavy to carry, in addition to being quite expensive. Professional materials, stunning image resolution, incredible auto-focus, great focal range and a fixed aperture make this the go-to Nikon telephoto for wildlife. Wildlife photographers who shoot Nikon will not be disappointed, you are paying for one of the best.

Specs:

  • 200-400mm zoom
  • Image stabilization: 4 stops
  • Auto-focus ultrasonic
  • Max aperture 4
  • Min aperture 32
  • Minimum focus: 2 m
  • 24 optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Filter size: 52 mm
  • Weight: 7.4 lbs
  • Length: 14.39 inches

Pros

  • Incredible image quality
  • Fixed aperture
  • Professional build quality

Cons

  • Expensive
  • A little heavy

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 600mm f/4E FL ED VR

Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 600mm f4E FL ED VR

Our Rating

Professional Nikon prime telephoto lenses offer unbeatable image quality if you are willing to spend the money. Nikon offers similar lenses in various focal lengths but the 600mm is perfect for shooting most mammals and many birds. Going beyond the focal range of the stunning 200-400mm this lens again has stunningly fast auto-focus and incredible image resolutions.

At 8 lbs, it’s still possible to do hand-held for short periods thanks to being more well balanced than previous versions and the vibration reduction features. The main issue of this long lens is the stock tripod collar has an annoyingly tall foot, which can be remedied with aftermarket tripod-foot options.

This is an extreme lens, the build quality, and moisture sealing will allow it into rugged situations, the nano crystal coat means you can shoot backlit situations without worrying about flare, and the autofocus is stunning in both speed and precision. The auto-focus speed and focal length make this perfect for bird photographers.

Incredible image quality, durable build, lightning fast autofocus, fixed aperture at f/4, and beautiful photos. This is a top tier professional lens where once again, you pay for the best if that's what you need.

Specs:

  • 600mm prime
  • Image stabilization: 4 stops
  • Auto-focus ring-type ultrasonic
  • Max aperture 4
  • Min aperture 22
  • Minimum focus: 4.4 m
  • 16 optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Build: Magnesium alloy
  • Weather sealing: yes
  • Filter size: 40.5 mm
  • Weight: 8.4 lbs
  • Length: 17.5 inches

Pros

  • Image quality
  • Very fast auto-focus
  • Build quality and durability
  • Vibration reduction
  • Fixed aperture

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Heavy to carry for long periods

Third Party Telephoto Lens Options

Sticking to a lens matching your camera system has benefits like obvious compatibility and known quality. There are, however, alternatives on the market that can help you get started for less. Sigma and Tamron both make telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon mounts that are viable and attractive telephoto alternatives.

Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Sports DG OS HSM Lens for Nikon / Canon / Sigma mount

Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Sports DG OS HSM Lens for Nikon - Canon - Sigma mount

Our Rating

Sigma has packed an insane focal range, 150-600mm, into an inexpensive package for those who are still experimenting with telephoto ranges and aren’t prepared to drop big money on the first party behemoths. Weather-sealed with a well-constructed feel, it is front heavy so the further you extend it the more unwieldy it will become.

Image quality is really very good, only a hair beneath more elite lenses. Auto-focus isn't going to touch a Nikon prime, but especially using a center focus point you'll achieve a very good 'hit' rate with sports and moving wildlife.

With a variable aperture of 5-6.3, you can get very sharp images by stopping down to f 7.1. Autofocus is reasonably quick, the OS or image stabilization is effective and the build quality is quite good. Its weight is not always well distributed, so while it can be used handheld, it’s best used with a solid tripod.

All in all, the focal range alone makes this lens something special, the weight means you'll bring it with you, and the image quality is pretty great. You will produce images with this lens you would not otherwise have caught, and it makes a brilliant 'all around' and 'first time' lens for wildlife and sports photography. It may not quite hit the same marks as professional wildlife photography lenses, but for the price it's a good starting point.

Specs:

  • 150-600mm zoom
  • Image stabilization: 4 stops
  • Auto-focus ultrasonic
  • Max aperture 5-6.3
  • Min aperture 22
  • Minimum focus: 2.6 m
  • 24 optical elements
  • 9 diaphragm blades
  • Build: Metal
  • Filter size: 105 mm
  • Weight:6.31 lbs
  • Length: 11.42 inches

Pros

  • Amazing price
  • Good build quality
  • Fantastic focal range

Cons

  • Variable aperture
  • Poor weight distribution
  • Not as consistently sharp as some pro lenses

Best Lens for Wildlife Photography WINNER


Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Canon EF 200-400mm f4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Our Rating

Which lens you pick will depend on upon which DSLR eco-system you have already invested in. The truth is both Canon and Nikon have incredible wildlife lens options.

With that said, it’s undeniable that Canon made something special with the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x. It’s a perfect “all in one” package for wildlife photography. The built in extender saves you time and trouble, professional build, and top notch image quality. While it may seem pricey at first, remember that lenses tend to hold their value well and the top-end lenses get shots you simply cannot get any other way. This is our choice for the one lens that stands out as the leader, even among the absolute best DSLR camera lenses for wildlife photography.