If you're headed into the wild to take some snaps, these lenses from brands like Sony, Canon and Nikon are the best tools to bring along
Finding the best lens for wildlife photography can seem an impossible task. With prices for gear ranging from low three figures for budget gear, to low five figures for top-of-the-line pro equipment, choosing kit that suits your needs – and especially your finances – is a tall order.
We’ve rounded up a range of lenses for all budgets and species. Whether you want gear that will make light work of the local deer park, specialist kit for insects, or equipment that will help you make the most of that once-in-a-lifetime trip, we’ve got it here.
Along the way, we’ll look at lenses that suit particular camera mounts, such as the Sony E-mount, Canon RF mount, and Nikon Z-mount, as well as lenses that are available for multiple camera mounts at once. We’ll consider the all-important image quality, as well as things like build quality, features, size, weight, and more.
If you know you love wildlife and would like to shoot better images of it, but don’t know where to start, make sure you stick with us through our buyers’ guide.
Best wildlife photography lens: At a glance
- The best lens for birding on a budget: Canon RF 800MM F11 IS STM | £860
- The best all-purpose wildelife lens: Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS | £1,599
- The best lens for pros: Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED | £10,999
- The best for portability and reach: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | £849
How to choose the best wildlife lens for you
What focal length should I get?
For the uninitiated, the focal length of a lens is measured in millimetres and the more millimetres your lens has, the tighter its field of view. So a wide-angle lens for landscapes might have a focal length of around 20mm, and a lens for head-and-shoulders portrait photography might be in the 50-80mm region.
For wildlife, where you’re often photographing subjects that might be far away, or shy, or small – or all three, the whole unholy triumvirate – you will want more focal length. How much more depends on a few factors, but for simple photography in your local deer park, a lens that offers a focal length of 70-300mm will be a great start. But, more often than not, wildlife photography is shot at longer focal lengths than that – think at least 400-500mm. And if you want to photograph smaller, flightier subjects – like small, garden-variety birds – you’ll probably want even more, and between 600mm and 800mm will get you amazingly impactful results.
It is worth noting that the size of the sensor in your camera makes a difference to the focal length. Some cameras have full-frame sensors – the same dimensions, pretty much, as an old-school frame of 35mm film. If this is the case, the focal lengths marked on your lenses will be “true”. Other cameras – such as crop-frame cameras with APS-C size sensors; or cameras with even smaller sensors like those with a Micro Four Thirds lens mount – apply a multiplier to every lens you attach. On an APS-C sensor the multiplication factor is either 1.5 or 1.6x, so a 400mm lens becomes a 640mm lens on an APS-C camera. On Micro Four Thirds cameras the multiplication factor is a straightforward 2x; so a 400mm lens becomes an 800mm lens.
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Should I get a zoom lens?
Now there’s a good question. Lenses that zoom – starting at a relatively wide focal length and then zooming in to a much tighter field of view – are undeniably convenient, as they allow you to re-compose a scene without needing to get closer. That’s useful if you’re photographing animals that are likely to be scared off by a photographer moving about.
So why would you get a “prime” lens – a lens with a fixed focal length? A zoom lens needs to produce acceptable images at all its focal lengths, but a prime only needs to be really good at one. And while it’s true that you’re trading in a bit of convenience, you’re potentially saving quite a lot of weight. You can lose the zoom mechanism and quite a bit of extra glass – for example, Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 contains twice the number of glass elements and is almost twice as heavy as the Canon 200mm f/2.8 prime – or have a lens that weighs the same but has a larger aperture. Speaking of which…
What size aperture do I need?
The aperture is the iris mechanism in a lens that changes size to let in more or less light and, without wishing to be flippant, you want the biggest aperture you can possibly afford. A bigger aperture means a shallower depth of field, and so more subject isolation against its background, but it also has an effect on shutter speed – a bigger aperture means more light which means faster shutter speeds. This is crucial for wildlife photography, where the limiting factor for image sharpness is not necessarily the stability of the photographer, but how much the subject is able to move mid-shot. Affordable lenses for wildlife photography tend to offer apertures in the region of f/5.6 to f/8 – and you should get something brighter if you can afford it, as the difference between a lens that can shoot f/4 and one that can only shoot f/8 will make itself known when the light starts to fade.
Do I need image stabilisation?
Image stabilisation certainly doesn’t hurt. If you’ve got a static subject in failing light, then being able to shoot slightly longer exposures, without sacrificing image sharpness, can be a godsend. However, if your kind of photography is a bit more action-packed – a leopard pouncing on prey, or a tiger tearing through the trees – then sharp images will be the result of an appropriate shutter speed. So image stabilisation is a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have.
How much should I spend?
Prices for wildlife lenses run from the reasonable – around £100 – to the frankly absurd – around £20,000 for a current-generation prime super-telephoto. As you spend more, you’re going to get a little more focal length and a lot more aperture. And a bigger spend will also result in more weather-sealing – which will let you shoot longer and in worse conditions – and better overall build quality, both of which are useful for lenses that can expect to spend much of their working lives outside. There’s no simple answer here, as it depends what you can afford and what you need from a lens.
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The best wildlife lenses you can buy in 2023
1. Canon RF 800MM F11 IS STM: Best lens for birding on a budget
Price: £860 | Buy now from Amazon
If you’d told us that one day Canon would be selling an 800mm prime lens, for its latest mirrorless cameras, for under a thousand pounds, we’d have found you a comfy blanket and a quiet place to lie down for a bit. And yet here we are: the 800mm f/11 IS STM costs under £900, and, on paper at least, looks like it could be the answer to quite a few wildlifer’s prayers.
Pop it out of the box and you’re in for a pleasant surprise – at just 1.3kg, it’s a lightweight little character. And it’s small too – just 282mm long when closed, although you’ll need to extend it to its full length of 352mm to actually shoot a picture with it.
It achieves this thanks to diffractive optics – “grated” elements within the lens that drastically reduce how long it needs to be to produce the desired focal length. And there’s further weight reduction in the absence of a traditional aperture mechanism – unusually, the 800mm’s f/11 aperture is fixed, so you can’t opt for anything bigger or smaller.
Of course, this produces limitations, and those in search of straightforward image quality will probably want to look elsewhere – there are sharper lenses out there, to say nothing of lenses with more attractive bokeh. You’ll also find yourself in a continuous hunt for high ISOs, particularly at the kind of shutter speeds you’ll want for moving subjects.
All that said: thanks to its low weight, this is a lens that you won’t mind carrying about with you.
Key specs – Focal length: 800mm; Maximum aperture: f/11; Mount: Canon RF; Image stabilisation: Yes; Filter diameter: 95mm; Dimensions (LxD): 351.8 x 101.6mm; Weight: 1,260g
2. Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS: Best lens for all-purpose wildlife snapping
Price: £1,599 | Buy now from Amazon
We’re huge fans of this one. Price-wise it’s not too shocking, particularly when you look at the specs. The focal length lends itself to pretty much any type of wildlife photography, without the compromise in convenience you’d have to make with a prime lens. 200mm is good enough for animals-in-their-environment images, while 600mm at the long end will get you those ultra-detailed close-ups of distant faces.
It fits the bill weight-wise as well – 2kg isn’t exactly light, but it’s certainly handholdable, as well as being tolerable in a backpack. The aperture gets smaller as you zoom in – f/5.6 at the wide end is nothing special, and f/6.3 at 600mm is going to result in some pretty astronomical ISOs if you want shutter speeds in the mid-thousandths of a second – but these are compromises worth making for a lens this good.
And it is good. It’s lovely and sharp throughout its focal length range. And while it does get a little sharper, and shows a little less chromatic aberration, as you begin to stop down, it’s still pretty good when you shoot it with the aperture wide open – which is likely to be the case for much of your photography. It vignettes a little at wider apertures as well, but that’s nothing a quick trip through Lightroom can’t fix.
There are better quality lenses out there – just compare this to Sony’s FE 600mm F4 GM OSS to see what an extra £10,000 can buy you – but, for a lens that won’t destroy your spine and returns images that are more than “good enough”, this is a great piece of kit.
Key specs – Focal length: 200-600mm; Maximum aperture: f/5.6-6.3; Mount: Sony E; Image stabilisation: Yes; Filter diameter: 95mm; Dimensions (LxD): 318 x 111.5mm; Weight: 2,115g
3. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR: Best lens for pros
Price: £10,999 | Buy now from Wex
If you own a Nikon Z-mount camera, you’ve got a decent number of options when it comes to Nikon-made, pro-am wildlife optics. But it’s possible Nikon got it right back in 2018 when they announced this: the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, an unapologetically top-flight lens whose price matches its insane specifications and image quality.
To start with the basics, the focal length is wildlife-friendly to say the least. 180mm is a decent enough wide-angle, while 400mm is a great option for detailed close-ups. The aperture – f/4 at its largest – doesn’t get smaller through the focal length range, which means your exposure won’t change as you zoom in.
But there’s more: contained in an innocuous-looking hump on the lens’ right hand side is an integrated teleconverter – a small mechanism that flips in at the back of the lens to magnify its focal lengths by 1.4x. That means the lens goes from having a 180-400mm focal length to a 252-560mm focal length. You lose a stop of aperture in the process, but a pro-quality zoom lens with a maximum reach of over 500mm and an aperture of just f/5.6 is really something worth writing home about.
And it’s pro quality – terrifyingly sharp throughout both its focal and aperture range, it controls chromatic aberration superbly well and will do justice to just about any subject. Image stabilisation (or “Vibration Reduction” in Nikon’s slightly clumsy parlance) works fantastically well, useful given the 180-400mm’s build quality – we’re happy describing it as tank-like as tanks are exceptionally heavy which, at over 3kg, this lens is too.
Key specs – Focal length: 180-400mm; Maximum aperture: f/4; Mount: Nikon F; Image stabilisation: Yes; Filter diameter: 40.5mm; Dimensions (LxD): 362.5 x 128mm; Weight: 3,500g
4. Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM: Best lens for portability and reach
Price: £849 | Buy now from Amazon
The Sigma 150-600 ticks a lot of boxes. Practical focal length? Check – at 150-600mm we’re talking about a lens that can handle subjects big and small, near and far, really well. Sensible aperture range? Check – f/5 at 150mm might not be particularly generous, but f/6.3 by the time you get to 600mm is a good compromise between heavy and bright, and lightweight but dark. Portable? You bet – 1.8kg might not be the kind of weight you’ll forget about, but it’s light enough that you could tote it through an airport, or in a backpack, for a few hours.
It’s a well-built optic as well – pro super-telephoto lenses might offer a slightly more robust-feeling build quality, but the Sigma’s tough plastic construction won’t give you too much concern. It’s dust and splash resistant to boot, offering even more peace of mind.
All of which is for naught if it can’t take a decent image but, thankfully, it can. It’s nice and sharp, even wide-open, with attractive bokeh and extremely well-controlled chromatic aberration.
Compromises? Sure, but, for this price, most amateurs – and even a few pros – will find the Sigma offers amazing bang per buck.
Key specs – Focal length: 150-600mm; Maximum aperture: f/5-6.3; Mount: Sigma, Canon EF, Nikon F; Image stabilisation: No; Filter diameter: 95mm; Dimensions (LxD): 260.1 x 105mm; Weight: 1,930g
5. Olympus M.ZUIKO ED 75-300MM F4.8-6.7 II: Best lens for practicality
Price: £410 | Buy now from AmazonThe plus points with the M.Zuiko 75-300mm lens just don’t stop coming. For wildlife types, it’s ultra-long – because of the small sensors on Micro Four Thirds cameras it has an effective focal length of 150-600mm – all bound up in a tight little package that weighs only a shade more than 423g.
It’s well-built – the zoom ring, in particular, is huge and easy to find. And the autofocus mechanism is fast and effective, locking onto subjects quickly. The manual focus ring on the very front of the lens is a little smaller, but still easy enough to get hold of.
It’s hard to overstate just how practical this lens is. Micro Four Thirds cameras are already small, so this – which measures just 117mm from end to end, suitable for popping in a pocket – might just be the ultimate travel and wildlife lens. It’s easy to justify taking just about anywhere you go, and both the focal length and aperture range – f/4.8-6.7 at the wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths respectively – makes comparing this lens to almost identically specified lenses for larger-sensor cameras feel positively unfair. A great (tiny) bit of kit.
Key specs – Focal length: 75-300mm; Maximum aperture: f/4.8-6.7; Mount: Micro Four Thirds; Image stabilisation: no; Filter diameter: 58mm; Dimensions (LxD): 116.5 x 69mm; Weight: 423g