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Zoom Lenses For Wildlife Photography: Complete Guide

While wildlife photography is a fun hobby for a lot of people around the world, it is also a profession for many people. This hobby/profession has a special set of rules for those who are serious about it. Whether you are new to wildlife photography or not, you should know one thing for certain; not many wild animals will let you come close to them, not to talk of being comfortable with the knowledge that you’re around.

Hence, you need to devise a way to get up close to them while being far away. The way to achieve this is to get a quality zoom lens that is able to give you the perfect shot no matter how challenging the conditions.

A zoom lens is going to provide you with the required flexibility to make adjustments to the image in case the wild animal leaves their position or goes far away from you. Also, in situations where the animal doesn’t even move, but you are unable to move as you don’t want the animal spooked, a zoom lens will give you a little flexibility to have a good shot of the animal.

So, now that we have established why you need a zoom lens, aren’t you wondering which lenses are the best? Don’t worry because we got you covered. Here, we will guide you through the different factors to consider when choosing a wildlife lens. Are you ready? Let’s go!

What’s a Good Zoom Lens for Wildlife Photography? – Factors to Consider

We know you don’t want to buy the wrong zoom lens and that is why we implore you to carefully read this section. You should understand that wildlife photography is clearly different from regular photography as you wouldn’t expect animals to pose for you to take their pictures. In order to buy the best lens, consider the following factors:

Focal Length

The focal length is perhaps the most important consideration when selecting the best lens for wildlife photography. It is sure that you wouldn’t be able to get really close to the wild animal when you utilize a short lens. This is why lenses made for wildlife photography usually come with a 300mm focal length or even higher.

Maximum Aperture

This is a very important aspect as well. The larger the aperture (the smaller the f-number), the faster the shutter speed, and the sharper the images. Wildlife photography often implies shooting in difficult lighting conditions and larger apertures will enable you to keep a reasonably fast shutter speed that will both avoid camera shake blur and will freeze the animal’s movements. See the next FAQ for more details about the aperture.


When you’re capturing a flying bird or an animal in motion, you must ensure that your lens is capable of keeping up. If you are spending time focusing every time the wild animal makes a movement, you wouldn’t be able to capture the animal because it would be long gone before you are done focusing. Therefore, remember to check the autofocus speed of your potential zoom lens.

Image Stabilization

Zoom lenses for wildlife are often large and heavy and it’s not always easy to hold them without moving too much. Luckily, they often feature a good image stabilization system and it’s really a big plus when your maximum aperture is not optimal or you can’t bump up the ISO too much to avoid noisy images.  That’s why you need to make sure that your future lens does have a good and efficient stabilization.

What Is “Variable Max. Aperture” About and What Difference Does It Make?

The maximum aperture represents the maximum amount of light the lens is able to let in. That’s a big deal – From an f-number to the next, the amount of light is doubled! So getting an f/4 lens instead of an f/5.6 for example, makes a significant difference.

You may have noticed that some lenses have a fixed aperture and others have a variable aperture. This distinction can also be a decision factor (I am referring here to the widest aperture the lens can offer). The aperture basically represents how much light the lens is able to let in, to hit the camera sensor. Between each f-number (from f/5.6 to f/4, from f/4 to f/2.8…) the amount of light that can penetrate the lens doubles.

A wide aperture leads to fast shutter speeds, which is exactly what you want to avoid camera shake and freeze the animal’s movements – in a word, get beautiful super-sharp pictures. That’s why wider apertures are a big advantage, but I digress.

The thing is, we are dealing with lenses offering a very broad focal length range, and it is not easy to get a lens to keep a super-wide aperture all the way to a very long focal length. When a lens offers this, it is usually very expensive. The 400 mm f/2.8 lens costs 10,000 dollars. With most lenses, the more you zoom, the smaller the aperture gets. In other words, the more you zoom, the less light comes in.

For example, if we take the Canon EF 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM Lens, it means that when you are shooting at 70 mm the maximum aperture is f/4, and if you are shooting at 300 mm the maximum aperture is f/5.6. The maximum aperture gradually goes from f/4 to f/5.6 as you zoom from 70 to 300 mm.

The disadvantage is that if you play a lot with the zoom you may have to modify your other camera settings to keep a good photo exposure in spite of the different aperture values. If you are shooting in aperture priority it won’t be such a big deal, and you will just be playing with the ISO sensibility if there is not enough light when you are completely zoomed in.

Shooting Wildlife With a Full Frame or an APS-C Sensor, What’s The Difference?

This has more to do with the camera than the lens, but since I am specifying for each lens if they are compatible with full-frame or APS-C cameras, you might be wondering what difference it makes.

There is an advantage and an inconvenience to each. APS-C sensors are smaller than full-frame, and are often called “crop sensors”. The crop factor defines how smaller it is, compared to a full-frame sensor. This crop factor is often around 1.5x. What does it mean?

To shoot wildlife, we often need to zoom as much as possible and thanks to the crop factor it’s easier with an APS-C sensor. With a crop factor of 1.5x, a picture shot as 200 mm will actually be the equivalent of 300 mm! APS-C cameras can lead to really incredible focal lengths.

That said, there is still an advantage to shooting with a full-frame camera, and that’s higher image quality and better low-light performance. A full-frame sensor has bigger pixels, resulting in better low-light images with less noise. And wildlife photography often takes place in rather low light…

If I were to choose, I would prioritize the quality of the sensor and choose a full-frame camera.

Final Thoughts

To be a good wildlife photographer, you need more than techniques and skills. You need equipment that can match your skills. Buying a zoom lens for wildlife photography often requires a fairly large investment, and it’s important to get it right to get the images you long for and not be disappointed.

I believe that we have gone through the most important aspects to consider, and I hope that this guide will help you make your choice!

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