Make no mistake about it. Wildlife photography is a gear heavy endeavor. You have to be not only at the top of your game as a photographer, but also carry top quality equipment to make your efforts worth the while. You need a good quality DSLR capable of shooting in low light, and if possible something that is ISO invariant.
You need a tripod, or a monopod or at least a bean bag that will give you extra support to stabilize your lenses when shooting in tight places. But above and beyond everything else you need top quality glass. This is something that cannot be compromised with. Even if you cannot afford the ultimate wildlife lens, a good quality optic is imperative.
In an ideal world budgets are unlimited and you can pick any gear you want having walked into a camera store. In such a situation an ideal pick would be something like the Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 or the Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6. However, that does not happen on an everyday basis, at least not with photographers like you and me. For a majority of photographers, scrounging and borrowing and slowly building up a body of work that can make buying such a lens worthwhile, are the only ways to owning one of those dream pieces of optics. In most cases what happens is we have to make do with the best that we can afford and then make up for what we don’t have with a lot of planning and preparation. There is certainly a bit of luck involved in wildlife photography.
Considerations to choosing a wildlife lens
The search for the ultimate wildlife lens, for the budget constraint fledgling wildlife photographer, is an interesting one. It involves a lot of considerations including focal length, maximum aperture, whether the lens can zoom, the kind of stabilization it offers, focus delimiter, tracking /panning assist and a bunch of other features. Above all we are concerned with the budget. Because in this article we shall not be considering anything that’s above $3000.
Agreed, $3000 is a not a lot of money, especially when it comes to choosing a decent wildlife lens. The problem in wildlife photography is that you are require to shoot from a distance. For the most natural shots, where the animal is not conscious of your presence, you need to shoot from a fair distance, preferably upwind and definitely out of visibility. This is not a rule, however, as some photographers have photographed lions and cheetahs sitting 50 yards from a pack (from inside the relative safety of a 4×4). But I prefer the animal to be left alone and in its elements. This is where I can hope to get the most natural shots. In Africa, because of the overcrowded tourism circuit, the animals have developed a sense of apathy towards human presence.
This is kind of exciting for newbie wildlife photographers, to be able to get a clear shot of one of the big fives from less than 50yards – ‘ya that was when I went to Africa!’ However, a photo like that wouldn’t have what we photographers call ‘the spark’.
To have that spark you need to shoot from a distance and that’s what we are going to do. We are going to figure out some lenses under $3000 which will allow us to do just that. The budget should be enough to lay our hands on some respectable pieces of optics, which should hold its own when shooting in the wild.
Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II
Let’s start with something that you wouldn’t pick as your first choice as a wildlife lens – the Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II. Version II of a very popular lens, this one’s got a smallish 70-200mm focal length range. However, being compliant with all the Nikon (and some comparable third party) tele-converters, including the TC 4E III, TC-20E III and the TC 17E II, you can easily extend the focal length of the lens albeit at a maximum loss of 2 stops of light. That means when you use the AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II with the TC-20E III it becomes a 140-400mm f/5.6 lens. Not bad when you consider that the total price comes to only $2593.90; way less than what we had in our hand at the start.
The AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II is useful as a wildlife lens, especially when you consider he crop factor of smaller APS-C cameras. This lens was designed for the larger image circle of full-frame cameras. The focal length of the lens, when mounted on a crop sensor powered camera, becomes 105-300mm (1.5x). That is before using a tele-converter. Another feature that should interest budding wildlife shooters is the weather sealing properties. As a wildlife photographer you would need a lens that can withstand the vagaries of Mother Nature. However, to complete weather sealing you will also need a weather sealed body.
The other features of the lens includes, A/M, M/A and full manual focusing modes, focus range selection option (full / infinity to 5 meters), a 9-blade round lens diaphragm, seven extra-low dispersion (ELD) lens elements, Nano crystal coating, 3.5 stops of image stabilization compensation, internal focusing and Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) auto-focusing technology.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM is the comparable Canon lens to the Nikon that we just finished reading about. I am not a Canon user, but that does not stop me from admiring this lens. Again, just like the Nikon before this lens is designed for the full-frame EF mount cameras. Having said that the lens is compatible with the smaller EF-S mount cameras as well. On an EF-S mount camera the lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 112 – 320mm.
The lens is compatible with Canon’s latest range of tele-converters including the Extender EF 1.4x III and the Extender EF 2X III. This extends the focal length of the lens to 98 – 280mm using the 1.4x extender and 70 – 400mm using the 2x extender on a full frame camera, albeit with a one to two stops of loss in light.
Lens construction consists of one fluorite and a total of five ultra-low dispersion (ULD) elements. This lens is a tag better in terms of image stabilization than the one that we discussed before. It gives up to four stops of stabilization and has two stabilization modes. The second one helps when you are panning an animal. It stays disengaged even though you have the shutter release half-pressed, allowing you to pan smoothly. However, if your hands move vertically to the direction in which you are panning, traditional image stabilization will kick-in. this mode is frequently used when shooting birds or animals which are moving in full steam. This mode, however, tend to misfire when the trajectory of the animal / bird changes erratically.
This lens only has weather resistance capabilities much like any other L series lenses in the Canon stable. The other features of this lens include an ultrasonic auto-focus motor that focuses quickly and silently, a focus delimiter button that ensures that you can preselect the focusing distance by choosing 3.9’ to infinity or 8.2’ to infinity. The focus delimiting button ensures that your camera does not uselessly hunt around for focus when shooting.
Sigma 150-600mm f/5 -6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens
This is one of two lenses that sigma launched at the same time. Both having the same focal length range and a similar maximum aperture and a number of other associated features. One was marked as Sports and the other Contemporary. These are versatile lenses for shooting wildlife and sports. We are going to review the professional grade Sigma 150-600mm f/5 -6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens.
Personally speaking, I am not too keen on shooting fast indoor action like swimming or badminton etc. with this lens. This lens is way too slow for those low light photography requirements. I wouldn’t shoot birds in fight with this one either. Having said that at a sub-$2000 budget the Sigma 150-600mm f/5 -6.3 DG OS HSM takes you to super-telephoto domain, which is a great thing.
The maximum wide open aperture that you can open with this lens is f/5 at the shorter focal length and f/6.3 at the tele-end. This is probably where the lens loses out to some of the higher end telephoto and super-telephoto lenses and the two that we discussed before in this article. But there is a silver lining. This lens, labelled as Sports comes with a good quality weather sealing. As a matter of fact the other lens that was launched with this one, the ‘C’ or Contemporary one, does not have all-around weather sealing, except for the sealing at the lens mount.
The biggest USP of the Sigma 150-600mm f/5 -6.3 DG OS HSM Sports is definitely the pricing and the super-telephoto range that it offers. There are not many other options except for the very similar Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC that we are going to review next. The super-telephoto range of this lens allows you to create those magnificent photos of a silhouetted animal against a setting sun, with the sun appearing larger than usual. This lens allows you to make tight compositions of the big animals from a safe distance. You will, however need to watch out for haze and distortions as these come into play when shooting from an extremely long distance over a dry or parched area.
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 Di VC USD Lens
Tamron was the first manufacturing company that came out with a superzoom of this focal range. It was followed soon after by Sigma with two very similar lenses, one of which we just finished reading about. The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 Di VC USD has the same focal length range and maximum aperture as the one that we just read. It is also very similarly built and handles pretty much the same way. The lenses are identical in many ways.
In both the lenses, the one that I reviewed above this one the big advantage is that you don’t need to add additional glass to make your lens go from medium telephoto to super-telephoto. Adding extra glasses is not always a great idea, even if these are high quality and are original equipment manufactured by the lens manufacturer. Plus, you add the convenience factor of being able to shoot with a single lens and yet go from a medium telephoto to all the way into super-telephoto domain.
The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 Di VC USD works with both larger full-frame cameras as well as the crop sensor cameras, with an equivalent focal length extension due to the crop factor. The lens design consists of a total of 20 elements arranged in 13 groups. It has three low dispersion elements in the overall scheme of things.
Image stabilization is a must have for telephoto lenses. The Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 Di VC USD has Vibration Compensation (VC) to stabilize hand-held shots. The 9-blade aperture diaphragm creates excellent bokeh for those soft out of focus backgrounds of your four-legged or winged subjects. Additionally, the lens has Ultra-sonic Silent drive powered auto-focusing motor.
The other features include full-time manual focusing override, eBand and BBAR coating that ensures less flare and ghosting and resultantly better contrast, color and clarity in the images shot.
We have left out some good quality optics out of this discussion. These are good quality but either loses out to the focal length reach or the overall image quality. These include the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5 – 5.6 G ED VR, the Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5 – 6.3 APO DG OS HSM and the Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/4 G ED VR.
Overall at $3000 or below the choices are not something pro grade. If you are merely trying out wildlife photography for the first time and require a lens to get started $3000 should get you some good pieces of optics. However, if you are looking to pursue wildlife photography seriously you should opt for something that gives you better image quality. The required budget is a lot higher than $3000.