When discussing best lenses for wildlife photography there is a distinction between best wildlife lenses for full time professionals and best lenses for hobbyists, enthusiasts and those looking for more affordable options.
This list features the best options available in the current three best selling photography brands namely:
- Sony – Mirrorless Only
- Sony – 52
- Canon – 39
- Nikon – 24
What are the best lenses for Wildlife Photography?
Top Recommendations for DSLR Cameras
AF-S FX 200-500 mm
Top Recommendations for Mirrorless Cameras
Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S
RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM
FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS
Best Nikon DSLR (F mount) Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Nikon has always been famous for the quality of their lenses and the F mount line up is no exception.
The 600 mm f4 is unmatched when it comes to bird photography in my opinion and I owned one for many years.
My current go to lens for wildlife in the F mount line up is the 500 mm PF f5.6.
- AF-S FX 400mm f2.8 / USD 11 000
- AF-S FX 600mm f4 / USD 12 000
- AF-S FX 200-400mm f4 / USD 11 000
- AF-S FX 200-500mm f/5.6E ED f5.6-f6.3 / USD 1 100
- AF-S 500mm F5.6 E PF / USD 3 200
- AF-S 300mm f/4 E PF / USD 2 000
Above image taken with Nikon 500 mm f5.6 PF and FTZ converter
Best Nikon Mirrorless (Z mount) Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Nikon have been lagging the field with their roll out of mirrorless lenses and many Nikon users have been obliged to use the Nikon F mount to Z mount converter to use the current line up of F mount lenses on the Nikon Mirrorless camera bodies.
Nikon are releasing a 600 mm f4 Z and a 200-600 mm Z zoom at the end of 2023.
Here are the best Nikon mirrorless lenses for wildlife currently available.
- Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S / USD 16 000
- Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S / USD 14 000
- Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S / USD 2 600
- Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S / USD 3 200
Best Canon DSLR (EF mount) Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Canon have a long and illustrious history of producing quality and reliable lenses for wildlife photography.
The unmistakable grey EF mount lenses with the red ring are a common sight when on Safari and at sports events.
- EF 600mm f/4L IS / USD 14 000
EF 500mm f/4L IS / USD 9 000
EF 200-400mm f/4L IS / USD 11 000
- EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS / USD 1 800
- RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS / USD 2 900
- Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS / USD 7 000
Best Canon Mirrorless (RF mount) Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Canon have rolled out their mirrorless line of lenses much quicker than their long time rival Nikon.
Canon users have had a wider choice for some time now and the wildlife lens options are more varied than that of Nikon.
- RF 600mm F4 L IS / USD 13 000
- RF 400mm F2.8 L IS / USD 12 000
- RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS / USD 2 900
- RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS / USD 500
Best Sony Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Sony are currently the leading mirrorless camera brand by sales.
Having invested heavily in mirrorless technology for many years, Sony easily beats out Nikon and Canon when it comes to range and quality of wildlife lenses.
- FE 600mm F4 GM OSS / USD 13 000
- FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS / USD 12 000
- Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G / USD 1 800
- FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS / USD 2 500
3 Important Points to Note when Choosing a Lens for Wildlife Photography
1. You need ‘fast’ lenses for wildlife photography
2. You need a variety of focal lengths
3. You need support when shooting at very low shutter speeds with long lenses.
These ideal requirements present the following challenges:
- Fast lenses are very expensive (f2.8 and f4 lenses)
- Fast lenses are heavy and you may have weight and space restrictions
- Tri pods and bean bags are also heavy and take up room.
Before we look at work arounds let us try and narrow the field a bit and decide what you should have with you as a minimum when on a wildlife photography Safari.
When compromising on gear one needs to decide what you are likely to be using most of the time and then accept that you won’t be able to get images that you would ideally have wanted some of the time. In other words, rather be grumpy some of the time than most of the time – yes?
We therefore need to go back a few steps and look at where you are going on Safari and what you will be seeing.
Just to recap –
• National Parks = no offroading allowed = subject generally at a distance
• Private Reserves = offroading allowed = more opportunities to get close to subject
• Birding = small subject generally at a distance and/or moving at high speed.
Ideal Lens Selection: Self Drive Safari
600 mm f4 prime super telephoto lens
200mm – 400 mm f4 telephoto zoom lens
70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens
24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens .
Less expensive alternatives for the above would be the same focal length or ‘reach’ but the f4 to f5.6 versions.
Ideal Lens Selection: Fly in Safari
You will likely be staying at a private lodge with two game drives daily where a certain amount of off road driving is allowed. As many of the animals have grown up around vehicles they often show little concern when a game vehicle packed with photographers comes bouncing across the scrub towards them.
I cannot emphasise enough how much your destination and accommodation should impact your choice of lenses.
500 mm f4 super telephoto lens
200 – 400 mm f4 telephoto zoom lens
70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens
1.4x teleconverter (takes the 200mm to a 280mm f4)
24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens
Less expensive options as mentioned for self drive.
Wildlife Photography Lenses - in Summary
To summarise then: Let’s look at what I believe you ‘must’ have. In each instance I will note ‘flagship’ lens together with a less expensive alternative (works the same way when renting).
24-70mm f2.8 zoom
Terrific optimal performance at any aperture, this lens will be your ‘go to’ lens for landscapes, night sky images, macro images (beetles, flowers and the like) , group images around the fire etc. Budget option 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5
70-200mm f2.8 zoom
One of the very few quality zoom lenses that will take a tele converter without noticeably impacting optical performance or focussing speed. This lens will shoot at f2.8 throughout the zoom range. You will use this for mammals, large birds etc. within reasonable range. Ideal if you are allowed off road. Budget option 70-200mm f/4
You could take one lens that covers the entire range above – with slightly inferior speed and optical quality – if you really are travelling light namely: 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 This will obviate the need to take along any of the above however note bene!
1. The longer the aperture (zoom) range the more the optical quality decreases
2. This will not take a tele converter.
1.4x tele converter
Whether you choose to take along or rent the 70-200mm or even a 300mm f2.8 consider packing a 1.4x tele converter. This extends your reach from 200mm to 280mm and 300mm to 420mm respectively whilst only losing one stop in aperture. i.e from f2.8 to f3.5 and from f4 to f5.6 respectively. Personally I wouldn’t go bigger than a 1.4x converter although either lens handles a 1.7x converter reasonably well.
Nice to have……..
If you are able to overcome baggage and weight restrictions then the lens to add on top is either the 500mm or 600mm f4. This brings birds into range and improves your point of view when shooting subjects from a distance. If you are only travelling to South Africa then you should consider renting one of these long lenses. Unfortunately the connecting flights onwards to neighbouring countries usually have a total weight restriction of 20kgs so taking one along with you may prove impossible. They are also very awkward to use on a packed game viewing vehicle. These long prime lenses are the ultimate for bird photography as you can get decent sized images without cropping and they completely blur out the background – see image below.
A wide to mid range zoom lens will be your go to lens when you are not on the game viewing vehicle. Use this or something similar to take pictures around camp as well as landscapes, pictures of your fellow travelers etc.