This is a guide to the best lens for wildlife photography, but first, let’s address the elephant in the room (pun intended!)
Every wildlife photographer and every animal subject is different, which means there isn’t a single best wildlife photography lens.
Some wildlife photographers will need the longest telephoto zoom to photograph eagles from a distance.
Others may need an ultra-wide angle to take pictures of animals up close, including some fauna in the background.
In this guide, we’ve narrowed it down to a selection of great lenses suitable for taking photos of animals in most scenarios.
We’ve organised everything by brand and attempted to include some budget wildlife photography lenses in there too.
We’ll also discuss the types of lenses for wildlife photography so you can decide which one is right for your next safari adventure.
Table of Contents
Understanding the ‘Best’ Lens for Wildlife Photography
As mentioned above, due to all the various factors relating to taking pictures of animals, it’s hard for us to recommend a single best lens for wildlife photography.
However, let’s first discuss the 4 main types of lenses suitable for wildlife photography:
Prime lenses are excellent for wildlife photography because they tend to have a wide aperture and are able to focus rather quickly.
Compared to a zoom lens, prime lenses generally have greater optical quality.
However, prime lenses don’t offer the flexibility a zoom lens can deliver.
Zoom lenses are an ideal choice for shooting wildlife photos.
Arguably the best lenses for wildlife, zoom lenses offer the versatility you want with varying focal lengths within a single lens.
Anyone attempting to photograph wildlife knows that things can change in an instant.
For this reason, the best wildlife lens will be a zoom lens with a versatile zoom range and longer focal lengths.
A telephoto lens could easily become your go-to for bird photography and other kinds of wildlife photography thanks to its ability to capture far-away subjects with remarkable accuracy and fantastic image quality.
While some telephoto lenses can be expensive, there are tons of budget-friendly options out there!
Compared to a standard telephoto lens, a telephoto zoom lens can sometimes be the cheaper option.
However, some pros would argue that you trade the wider aperture you get from a standard telephoto lens for the convenience of not having to change lenses in the wild.
If you have the freedom to safely get close to wild animals, a macro lens is your best friend.
By allowing you to take sharp images with exceptional detail, macro lenses are designed to deliver 1:1 magnification.
The most effective focal length for wildlife photography with a macro lens will be on the longer end — typically 1oo-200mm.
A focal length that’s longer will help you nail a 1:1 reproduction ratio.
If you’re looking to achieve a life-sized look, shoot for a focal length range between 35 and 50mm.
Should You Use Primes or Telephoto (Z0om) Lenses for Wildlife Photography?
While this will vary based on personal preference and specific project needs, I believe wildlife photographers benefit most from a telephoto zoom lens.
Telephoto lenses offer the invaluable flexibility you need in dynamic settings out in the wild.
If the animals around can move at a moment’s notice, your lens should match that!
Because they allow you to adjust the composition and fine-tune your shots, telephoto lenses would be the winner for wildlife photography in my book.
Should You Add a Teleconverter to Your Zoom Lens for Wildlife Photography?
You can’t always predict how close you’ll be able to get when shooting birds, insects, or other animals.
In this case, adding a teleconverter to your zoom lens is your best bet.
This will allow you to achieve striking close-ups with unrivalled image sharpness.
And most times, purchasing a teleconverter will be less expensive than splurging on a new lens.
Choosing the Right Focal Length and Magnification for Wildlife Photography Lenses
Choosing the right focal length is critical in capturing the entire scene in front of you, so it’s particularly important when shooting wildlife photos.
A shorter focal length, like you’d get from a wide-angle lens, allows you to work with a more expansive field of view. A shorter focal length brings a wider angle of view but lower magnification.
Conversely, longer focal lengths like you’d get from a telephoto lens will bring more grandeur to your shots by making far-away subjects appear bigger and closer than they actually are. A longer focal length also means higher magnification and a narrower field of view.
Different lenses and different focal lengths each have a purpose, but in the case of wildlife photography, I think versatility is king.
As stated in the intro, there isn’t one best lens for shooting wildlife because every photographer’s preference and every animal subject is different.
You need to be able to flex and shift with the wildlife around you — you need to be able to zoom in to capture the details of a cardinal sitting on a tree branch or to zoom out to capture a herd of deer cautiously crossing the street.
All Settings At Play
I think there’s a misconception that you need to use the widest maximum aperture when shooting wildlife.
While a wide aperture allows more light into the lens and the freedom of a faster shutter speed for capturing moving animals, you have to pay attention to the other elements at work here.
For example, the shallow depth of field may produce issues with blurring or parts of the subject being out of focus.
If you shoot a bald eagle with a maximum aperture of f/4, you’ll likely get crisp, clear eyes and an out-of-focus beak.
In this case, a smaller maximum aperture would take the beak into focus.
Best General Telephoto Zoom Lens Settings
Telephoto zoom lenses are ideal for giving viewers an intimate look into animals in action.
As I’ve mentioned already, you won’t want a fixed focal length here. You’ll want a flexible zoom range.
The best settings when shooting with a telephoto lens include:
- An ISO between 200 and 800.
- A maximum aperture of f/6.
- Fast shutter speeds, typically at least twice your focal length.
Running Animals and Flying Birds Settings
You’ll rely heavily on speed for in-action animals because slow shutter speeds will prevent you from getting smooth shots of lions running or fast-moving birds.
I’d specifically recommend:
- A minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 for sprinting animals.
- A minimum shutter speed of 1/3200 for quick-flying birds.
Close-up Animal Settings
As noted earlier, paying attention to aperture is critical when shooting close-ups.
As opposed to keeping some things in focus and some things out of focus, you want to keep all the details of your animal’s faces in focus.
For this reason, I believe in sticking to a maximum aperture between f/3.5 and 5 when using wide lenses and an aperture range of f/5-6 with zoom lenses to preserve image quality within this shallow depth of field.
Is it Necessary to Use Fast Lenses for Wildlife Photography?
In addition to ISO and shutter speed, the aperture directly affects exposure.
Because lighting can vary significantly in wildlife settings, adjusting your aperture to ensure the right amount of light reaches the sensor is paramount.
We also know that the aperture has a direct connection to depth of field control.
A wider aperture creates a shallow depth of field, while a narrow one increases it.
Avoiding a fixed aperture is important here because you need to be able to adjust to changes in light.
Wide vs. Narrow Apertures for Wildlife Photography
Wide: A wide aperture allows you to hone in on your subject, guiding the viewer’s eye toward it without distractions from the background.
Go wide and use fast shutter speeds in low-light conditions when you want to take:
- Stunning wildlife portraits.
- Still shots of flying birds.
Narrow: A narrow aperture is the go-to choice for capturing more of everything in front of you. When you want to showcase an animal contextually and let less light in, go narrow.
In short, go narrow when you want to capture the whole scene in front of you while keeping everything in focus, such as:
- A herd of elephants roaming around the Sahel region.
- A long-exposure effect of zebras running across African woodlands.
To learn more about when to use a wide or narrow aperture, check out our article with all the details!
What are the Most Important Factors to Consider When Shopping for Lenses for Wildlife Photography?
There are a variety of things to consider when shopping for lenses to shoot wildlife.
Here are just a few factors to think about:
- Focal length: You need to be able to capture animals both up close and from a distance, so a zoom lens is ideal.
- Aperture: If you’ve made it this far, you already know how important aperture is in keeping what you want in focus when shooting wildlife!
- Design: You want something that can be easily transported anywhere, so a lightweight design is key.
- Durability: Equally important to portability is durability. You want a lens that can withstand the elements, so look for weather-sealed lenses to prevent damage from moisture and dust.
- Stability: You’ll want to make sure you have the necessary gear to keep your camera safe and stabilized, whether that’s a tripod or some bean bags.
- Budget: There’s an enormous array of wildlife lenses out there, so be sure to find the one that best suits your needs and your wallet. More on that below!
What are Some Recommended Lenses for Wildlife Photography?
Budget: Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR (widely popular, good Z Mount lens)
Intermediate: Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S (Z Mount, slightly faster than the above lens and overall better)
Premium: Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S (Z Mount, and though premium-priced, cheapest option for this enormous focal length)
F-Mount Option: Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II (Most versatile overall F-mount option and moderately priced)
Intermediate: Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II G Lens
Premium: Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS Lens
Budget: FUJINON XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS (excellent all-around action photo lens and cheap)
Intermediate: Fujifilm XF 150-600mm F5.6-8 R LM OIS WR (almost a budget lens considering its TF, but highly recommended for wildlife)
Premium: FUJIFILM XF 200MM F2 OIS WR (well-recommended and not too expensive)
Budget: Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 (Great price and sturdy recommendations)
Intermediate: Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 G2 (reasonable price)
Maintaining and Protecting Your Wildlife Lenses
Preserving your wildlife lenses will not only protect them from damage but can also help them last longer.
Let’s discuss some of the best ways to maintain and protect your lenses.
Cleaning and Care
- The safest way to clean your camera lenses is with a lens-cleaning liquid and cleaning paper. I recommend you don’t apply anything directly to the lens — instead, apply a few drops of cleaning liquid to the cleaning paper and gently wipe your lens. You could also use a camera lens cleaning kit.
- After you’ve cleaned your lens, gently polish it with a microfiber cloth.
- I’d also suggest investing in a high-quality lens hood for additional protection. Think of it as the helmet you wear when riding a bicycle. It’s an easy way to achieve instant protection.
- Another thing I’d invest in is a UV lens protection filter to reduce reflections and shield your lens from damage.
Wildlife-Friendly Attire and Accessories
Now that you know which lenses to use and how to take care of them, let’s dive into some must-have items when shooting wildlife.
Keep in mind that you’ll also want to bring several lenses to fit different needs, including normal lenses, macro lenses, wide-angle lenses, and telephoto lenses.
Here are the items I consider essential when shooting wildlife:
- Camouflage attire: You’ll want something that blends in well with your setting and has long sleeves to protect against scratches, bites, and sunburn.
- Quick-dry pants: You’ll very likely come in contact with water or wet mud while shooting, so you want long pants that protect against injuries and dry quickly for optimal comfort all day.
- Water-resistant underwear and socks: You want to stay dry from head to toe, so I recommend water-resistant materials such as merino wool.
- Boots: You need arch and ankle support when trekking through rough and irregular terrain. I can’t emphasize the importance of footwear enough, specifically waterproof boots.
- Hats: You need to protect your face from sun damage while also being able to see in sunny conditions. I suggest a ball cap or a visor!
- Winter Photography Gloves: Depending on the season you’re shooting in, gloves are a must for keeping your hands warm and dry in cool or wet settings.
- First aid kit: Be sure to have bandages, aspirin, scissors, and a flashlight in your kit so you’re prepared for anything.
- Water and snacks: Always bring water bottles and snacks because a quick shoot can turn into an all-day affair pretty quickly.
- Bean bags: Your camera needs to be stabilized no matter where you are, and bean bags can help keep your camera steady on irregular surfaces such as uneven ground or even tree limbs! Bean bags with adjustable handles and a water-resistant design are best.
- Adjustable camera strap: An adjustable, easily removable strap is vital when shooting wildlife.
- Headlamp: An LED headlamp is great for nighttime photography and outdoor safety.
- Batteries, cables, and chargers: Sometimes, the most obvious items can be the easiest to forget! Batteries, cables, and chargers are critical when shooting to ensure backup if your battery dies.
- Backpack: A photographer’s backpack is super important not only so you can comfortably carry all your stuff but also, so you can keep your items safe.
The list above is a great start, but every list will vary depending on the time of year and setting, so make sure to continue researching.