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What Lenses Do Professional Wildlife Photographers Use

by Alec Druggan on Oct 8, 2019

Wildlife photography has resulted in some of the most incredible images you may have seen. Impossibly close to animals, how do professional wildlife photographers do it? What lenses do these photographers use?

It could be a bird in flight, staring straight down the lens of the camera. It could be a herd of wild elephants stampeding across the savannah. Either way, wildlife photographers need the right tool to capture these moments.

There are a lot of lens features that wildlife photographers use. Immense telephoto ranges, wide apertures, fast shutters, and image stabilization are a few of these. Physical differences like crop sensor or APS-C camera bodies and teleconverters also play a role.

In this guide, we’ll go through the different lenses wildlife photographers use to capture stunning action and beauty in their photos. We will cover:

  • Types of lenses used in wildlife photography
  • Cost of lenses for professional wildlife photography
  • Tips for choosing a wildlife photography lens
  • Best lenses for wildlife photography

We are also going to take a look into which lenses are best for certain jobs. For example, what lens would be best for capturing a darkened image, like this one of a tiger below?

Tiger cub close-up from profile

Or this one of a bird flying through the air?

Owl in flight with snowy background

If you don’t know, now’s the time to jump right in!

Types of Lenses Used in Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photographers are often forced to depend on their lenses to capture the perfect moment. Unlike other areas of photography, they don’t have the same degree of access to their subjects. By leveraging their lens choices, professional wildlife photographers have nailed down the best ways to get these images.

Wildlife photographers never know what kinds of animals or weather conditions they’ll encounter on a job. What should be in your bag as a wildlife photographer? It depends on your subject and the equipment available to you.

Some wildlife photographers get amazing images without spending tens of thousands of dollars for super fast long prime lenses. For other applications in wildlife, however, some of these lenses may be necessary.

How Many Lenses Does the Typical Wildlife Photographer Use?

Depending on the circumstances, a wildlife photographer’s camera bag may range from carrying a single camera body and lens, to a multiple of both. Some scenarios allow photographers to pack a ton of gear. Others may only allow them to carry a single lens.

It is important to understand other tools that photographers can use to maximize their lenses. A ~600mm f/4 or ~800mm f/5.6 lens seems perfect capturing these amazing moments with wildlife. But, these lenses come with a catch — their weight.

Take a look at this image, where we are incredibly close to a tree animal:

Red tree squirrel close-up with blurred background

Notice how out of focus the background is relative to our subject. This was likely shot at a low aperture with a big telephoto lens!

Certainly, these are some of the highest quality lenses on the market. However, they may not be the best options for a wildlife adventure. You might find yourself slowed down carrying around a weirdly shaped, heavy, metal and glass tube. 

Slightly shorter focal length lenses, like a 400mm f/2.8, f/4, or f/5.6 can be significantly lighter options. There are several things a professional wildlife photographer might do to make up for the lower focal length. Some of these include using higher megapixels, which will allow for cropping in post-processing.

Utilitarian Versions of These Lenses for Wildlife Photographers

A variable aperture zoom lens might serve you better than a telephoto lens. Third party companies, like Tamron and Sigma, make fantastic options. Lightweight weather sealed 150-600mm f/4.5-5.6/6.3 lenses are light in comparison, and can still deliver fantastic images.

Another upside of these versatile zooms is their built in Image Stabilization. This means that even with their slow apertures, you can get an image in the dark if you need to. The action modes can help even when higher shutter speeds are necessary.

Additionally, tools like teleconverters and APS-C camera bodies can lower weight substantially and add options to your kit. APS-C cameras have some of the best frames per second to pixel density ratios. This means that your shots will be tighter but retain quality, thanks to the crop of the camera sensor.

Teleconverters focus the light of the lens, multiplying focal length and aperture. These come standard in 1.4x and 2.0x options. However, because these devices focus light, they can impede image quality.

The benefit here is that they add a lot more range to lenses. So, a 70-200 f/2.8 can also be a 100-280mm f/4 or a 140-400mm f/5.6. You just added a ton of range with very little weight!

How Do Lens Requirements for Wildlife Photography Differ from Other Types of Photography

Wildlife is on the opposite end of the spectrum compared to most other types of photography. Landscape and architecture photography require ultra wide angle lenses. Portraiture finds itself most comfortable in the medium focal range.

Wildlife, on the other hand, requires lenses with a maximum focal length. The longest possible lens you can carry might be the lens for the job. There are lighter options when necessary, but in a perfect world, you would be shooting the longest and fastest lenses you could. 

Additionally, we see how important widest maximum aperture becomes in wildlife photography. While for landscape or studio work you might be shooting at f/8, this isn’t the case in wildlife. There are many reasons you need wider apertures for wildlife photography.

First, wildlife subjects move incredibly fast. A bird in flight moves at a faster pace than a building, which is stationary. To achieve a sharp photograph of this bird, you’ll need a similarly fast shutter speed. 

Second, longer focal lengths require faster shutter speeds. Since your field of view is so small, any amount of movement of the lens creates much more shake. To combat this shake, you’re going to need super fast shutter speeds.

What Do Wildlife Photography Lenses Have in Common with Action Photography Lenses?

Action photography is the closest thing to wildlife photography, in terms of gear. You want to fill the frame with the subject as much as possible, and this often means cropping. 

In action photography, you’re limited by barriers like the line on a pitch. You aren’t going to run onto a football field mid play to get a photo! In wildlife, you probably don’t want a lion to eat you, so you’ll get the following photo from the safety afforded by your long lens:

Lion portrait with mellow, yellow tones

Certainly, there are other commonalities between the lenses for action and wildlife photography. Both genres require low apertures that allow for faster shutter speeds. Additionally, they both need the fast autofocus that motors such as USM provide.

If you’re currently an action photographer, wildlife photography provides a different outlet. Instead of being on top of every moment in an event, you wait for moments. This makes wildlife photography more akin to street photography in some ways.

Street photography with more expensive lenses, that is! If you miss photographing for fun, wildlife photography can get you immersed in nature, simply waiting for those perfect moments. 

Also, you can take a break on your hike and pretend you’re not out of breath. Not that I’ve ever done that.

Gear like monopods will help you shoot large lenses, and it is a big part of both genres. The ability to hold massive lenses up is one that very few have. Don’t feel bad about needing an extra leg if it makes your photos better.

Lastly, these genres of photography overlap in my favorite part of photography. The decisive moment. The emotional second when you either caught or missed the perfect moment is my favorite part of photography.

The Cost of Wildlife Photography Lenses

As I’ve alluded to, the top end of wildlife lenses are incredibly expensive. While this is true, you can still get fantastic results out of less expensive lenses. Don’t let the prices deter you, as there are a lot of intermediary lenses available. 

Certainly, keep in mind that creative compositions can do a lot more than technically perfect images. Technically perfect yet boring images inspire no emotion. They have a place in your portfolio, but make sure to inject it with some life, even if your lively photos aren’t technically impeccable.

If you are looking to make a portfolio website, checkout this great tutorial. It teaches you how to make your own photography WordPress website. 

Here is an example of a more creative shot taken on a slower lens:

Shadow outline of an animal with antlers against an orange sky background

When thinking of the cost of gear, know that at the top end, you would be spending tens of thousands of dollars. But a lot of these images, specifically those taken in good light, can be captured for a lot less. 

Furthermore, only start investing in multiple pieces of high end glass when you feel you need it. Get a taste of wildlife photography first with an f/5.6 or f/4 lens, and then choose to jump in.

How Much Do Lenses for Professional Wildlife Photography Cost?

At the top end of professional wildlife lenses, the cost is high. These lenses are especially expensive because of their wide apertures. Just the material costs to manufacture them are high, and the build quality is exceptional. 

It is important to keep in mind that a lot of these lenses have versions that are much cheaper. These variations typically come with a one or two stop difference in aperture. Otherwise, they may differ in autofocus motors, sharpness, aberrations, and image stabilization. 

The fast telephoto lenses used in wildlife photography are typically prime lenses. Zoom lenses don’t exist in this super telephoto range. The longest zooms barely touch the bottom end of the longest prime lenses.

Lastly, there are a couple extra pieces to factor into the cost of your start-up kit, including:

  • Multiple camera bodies
  • Good quality monopods for heavy lenses
  • Fast and reliable memory cards
  • Teleconverters

How Many Lenses Should a Professional Wildlife Photographer Have?

There is a balance between great lenses and diminishing returns. A professional wildlife photographer probably doesn’t need two super telephoto prime lenses. Rather, you can have several pieces of kit that do everything for you.

Know how far you need to reach. Will 600mm be enough for your images? What about 600mm with a teleconverter?

Importantly, remember two key things when using a teleconverter. First, the teleconverter will reduce the amount of light your camera sensor reads. A 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverter will reduce the light by one or two stops respectively. 

Second, your camera has a maximum focusing aperture. So, there is a point at which your camera won’t autofocus anymore. Consult your manual before assuming that a teleconverteradapted lens will focus!

This is a big deal because autofocus is crucial to wildlife photography. Losing autofocus will mean you have to manually focus a big lens. This is not a position that you want to be in.

Having a wide angle prime lens on you is a great idea, specifically a macro lens. When exploring wildlife, you may come across a scene in which you want wide framing. In this scenario creative use of a wide angle lens will be supremely helpful.

You might want to capture a tight image, like this:

Close-up of a bird of prey from a profile view

Alongside a wider image, like this one:

Leopard walking in the snow, partially obscured by blurred foliage in the foreground

Having a larger variety of lenses will allow you to both. Carrying around one big lens and a couple smaller lenses is a choice you can make. At the end of the day, find what is most practical for your personal photography.

What Is the Least Expensive High-Quality Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Sadly, no single lens will work perfectly for every wildlife photographer. However, you might be able to find a low cost lens that produces high quality images for you.

One type of lens to look for is a crop sensor lens. APS-C camera bodies already add a 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor for you. This means a mere 400mm lens on a full frame camera is an ASP-C native 600mm or 640mm lens. You can also look into APS-C lenses that are typically cheaper.

Camera companies like Fujifilm have invested a lot of money in making high quality APS-C lenses. Companies like Canon and Nikon have professional qualities bodies in the APS-C sensor format. The Canon 7D Mark ii and the Nikon D500 are great and durable, both housing APS-C sensors. 

Look into telephoto zoom lenses. Third party lenses like the 150-600mm or 100-400mm produce high quality images. They have the downside of variable aperture, and lower apertures like f/5.6 or f/6.3 at the long end.

Here is a night time image, but because the wolf is still, this shot could have been captured with a slower lens:

Dark image of a white fox sleeping

Another creative way to make the best of a less-than-perfect lens is creativity. Creativity in composition can make you get away with using terrible gear. Here is a creative example utilizing shadows:

Shadow of birds in a nest against a properly-exposed orange sky background

Smaller apertures might be a downside, but these lenses are still high quality. A lot of the time, a lighter lens and a higher ISO is worth the shot. These lenses come with great image stabilization or vibration reduction, and those can save your shots.

Tips for Choosing a Wildlife Photography Lens

Choosing a first lens for wildlife photography can be daunting. These wildlife lenses are very specialized, so you might worry about the use cases for each of them. How often will you be able to use it?

If you’re fully committed, you could jump in with a long prime right away. If you’re not as committed, maybe find a mid range zoom and teleconverter. This will let you play with wildlife photography, without investing too much initially. 

Crucially, try lenses before you buy them. If you’re going on a safari and won’t have much use for a lens after, rent it. After taking a shot like this one, you might fall in love:

Mother and baby elephant walking through grass

On the other hand, you might never want to take another nature photo again, and you’ll have literally saved thousands.

If you are starting a photography business and need to be on the cheaper side, look for refurbished lenses.

What Should You Consider When Choosing a Lens for Wildlife Photography?

There is definitely a lot to consider. Across the board, cheap and expensive lenses vary. Finding the right lens can be a challenge.

Consider your subject. Birding will require faster lenses that need to be as long as possible. Birds scare easily, so the further you are from them, the better.

Birds in flight require fast autofocus motors, like the Canon USM motors. Here is an example of how tight you might need to get:

Bird surrounded by blurred purple flowers in the foreground

When choosing a subject, know that most lenses can cover a lot of these subgenres. 

Next, consider the typical light for that subject. Some animals are best photographed in the early morning or in the dead of winter. See this owl:

Owl sitting on a tree branch with blurred background

It was shot early in the day, you can even see that in the catchlight in the eye. For some subjects, you might need a super wide aperture.

On the other hand, look at this tucan:

Toucan with blurred background

Bright light on the beak suggests daylight. Because of the long length of these lenses, background separation is maximized even on a f/5.6 or above lens.

In terms of lens quality, make sure that your lens is weather and dust proof. Same goes for your camera body. 

You might be in some of the least environmentally forgiving places. You don’t want you gear going out on you in these crucial moments.

Lastly, consider weight. Lens weights allow you to quickly snap around and get those perfect shots. This is especially true for birding, a long lens that weighs too much will be hard to hold towards the sky.

What to Avoid When Choosing a Lens for Wildlife Photography

There are several things that you should avoid until you become more confident shooting.

As mentioned above, make sure you purchase weather sealed lenses you can trust. Unless you are absolutely confident your lens won’t get damaged, don’t risk it. 

Second is lenses with bad aberrations. See this shot with the birds flying over some blown out skies: 

Birds in flight against white cloudy sky background

Now imagine the same shot, but the birds wings are fringed over and there is a ton of flaring. Look for lenses that minimize both aberration and flaring. Photoshop can only do so much.

To sell more of your shots, you want to get them technically perfect in-camera. Some companies require minimal editing, or only allow dodging and burning. Pay attention to these rules when selling on sites like Adobe Stock and Getty.

Notably, avoid manual focus lenses. While it is possible to capture quality images with manual focus, this feature will likely cause you to miss you shots. Instead, look for lenses with faster autofocusing capabilities.

Image stabilization and vibration reduction are great to have, but not necessary. Don’t break the bank for a fancier version of a lens unless absolutely necessary.

The Best Lenses for Wildlife Photography

The best lens for your wildlife photography is going to be the culmination of all this information. Overwhelmed? Don’t be, we’ll get you there.

There are different lenses, ways to understand how they work, and places to buy them. Combining these traits after you know what you need can save you a lot of trouble.

How Are Lenses Rated?

There are many ways lenses are rated. Reviews are often subjective, but there are also objective tests.

On the objective end, sharpness tests are a great place to look. Similarly, look through images straight out of the camera. Try to notice any aberrations, vignetting, or strangeness. 

Websites like DXOmark provide objective sharpness analysis for lenses. Sharpness is important, but don’t let it be the only factor in lens choice.

Finally, subjective ratings. While subjective reviews can be paid advertisements, look at what  professionals are using. There might not be an obvious reason why someone chose a lens over another, so ask them!

Most photographers are incredibly receptive to questions. Feel free to ask why someone made a choice they did, and if they regret it. This can inform you more than paid reviews.

If there is a certain wildlife photographer whose work you love, see what they use!

The Most Popular Lenses for Wildlife Photographers

The most popular lenses are super long telephoto prime lenses. These lenses allow for the cleanest image with the longest focal length, which means minimal cropping.

In a similar vein, telephoto zoom lenses with teleconverters are popular. They’ll give you multiple focal lengths. Shoot across the field for one animal, and much closer for the next. Like this beauty!:

Portrait of antlered animal against slightly blurred background of grass, trees, and a blue sky

Another tool at your disposal? Creative cropping. Rather than focusing on the lens, see how composition can affect your image.

Popular lenses for shots like the one above are the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. These lenses are great for budding wildlife photographers. They allow you to have some fun with wildlife, but still serve great purposes in other genres. 

Where Can You Buy Lenses for Wildlife Photography?

My largest money saving tip here is to buy used or refurbished. A lot of these lenses are built to survive the extreme. Then, people buy them and realize that they can barely ever use them.

This means you get a great bargain on a lens in A+ condition.

Outside of the used and refurbished market, look at sales from the likes of Amazon. These sales often come with manufacturer warranties, so you won’t need to deal with problems down the road.

The safest place to buy your glass is always straight from the manufacturer. Register the warranty as soon as you get the lens. Make sure these expensive lenses are insured!

Feel ready to tackle wildlife photography? We hope this tutorial has helped you gain the knowledge to purchase the perfect lens for your wildlife photography.

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more wildlife photography tutorials if you enjoyed this guide!

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