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.
- Updated for Christmas 2019
Quick Compare: 8 Best Wildlife Photography Lenses
Wildlife Camera Lens
**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.
Table of Contents
- 1 The Importance of Telephoto Lenses
- 2 Advantages of Telephoto
- 3 How Long of a Lens Do I Need for Wildlife Photography?
- 4 Should I Use a Teleconverter Lens for Wildlife Photography?
- 5 The Differences Between Zoom Lenses and Prime Lenses
- 6 What About Weather Sealing?
- 7 A Few Quick Thoughts About Aperture
- 8 Choosing the Best Lens
- 9 The Best Canon Lens Options for Wildlife Photography
- 10 Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x
- 11 Canon EF 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6L IS 2 USM
- 12 Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
- 13 The Best Nikon Telephoto Lenses
- 14 Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR
- 15 Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR
- 16 Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR 2
- 17 Nikon AF-S FX Nikkor 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
- 18 Third Party Telephoto Lens Options
- 19 Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Sports DG OS HSM Lens for Nikon / Canon / Sigma mount
- 20 Best Lens for Wildlife Photography WINNER
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.
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.
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.
Best Lens for Wildlife Photography WINNER
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x
This post has been updated for Christmas 2019. 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.