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Jul 19, 2017 // 4:6 PM

Choosing The Right Telephoto Lens: Wildlife Photography

Written by Mike Duval

Reading through a Canon, Nikon, Sony (or any other brands) product guide is a great way to understand the full range of lens options that are available. That said, they always seem to be lacking context regarding how far away subjects were from the camera in the example photos. In this post, we fix that!

Lenses lined on Tripods-1001.jpg

How do you choose the right focal length?

Deciding what focal length lens you need can be one of the most challenging decisions a photographer makes. At LensProToGo, when asked what lens someone should use, the answer is usually... "it depends". There are many things to consider when selecting a lens:

  • Where are you standing in relation to the subject?

  • How big is the subject?

  • Are there limitations on where you can move to or shoot from?

  • How much light will there be?

In this post, we remedy that by photographing multiple subjects on a football field. For this project, we used correctly sized cardboard cutouts for accuracy (and the fact that they could stand really still, didn't want to eat us, and let us maintain consistency between shots).  This allowed us to keep the cameras in one place (at the goal line) and move the subjects. 

Having this blog as a reference can help avoid picking the wrong focal length for that once in a lifetime trip. The last thing anyone wants is to wind up frustrated that you can’t get the shot you were hoping for due to limitations of your lens. Below is diagram that will show you the angle of view for each lens we used for reference.

FIELD OF VIEW COMPARISON with Distance- FF HORIZ.jpg

African Safari - It's all about coverage

This is a call we receive often! You’re going on a Safari and it’s a perfect time to rent a lens that gets you a bit closer to the action. Maybe even closer than you may feel comfortable being. Let’s be honest, not everyone can be a lion whisperer like Kevin Richardson.

Lion - 277mm - 5DMKII - 70-300L-1001.jpgMale Lion | Canon 5D MKII | Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6L | 277mm

OUR lens choice: 70-200mm AND 200-400mm

Some of these animals aren’t quite as nervous as you are and will be happy to walk right up next to the vehicle. This is when it’s great to have a trusty 70-200mm on your camera. When the sun is setting, you’re on the way back to your camp, and you see a lion in the distance, having a super telephoto zoom might be your best option

Lion - Full Frame - 70-600mm - 40 Yards - 4x4.jpg

Lion - Crop - 70-600mm - 40 Yards - 4x4.jpg

As you can see in above images the camera body (either full frame or crop) is another determining factor in the composition/size of the subject, so keep this in mind when placing your order.

Lion - Canon 5DII - 300mm.jpegCanon 5D MKII | Canon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6L IS II @ 300mm

If you're on a tour like Thomson Safaris or with a group like the McKay Photography Academy, remember that there might be some situations where you are in a vehicle and can't necessarily move into the ideal position. Having a zoom will come in handy. Check out the Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS (which has a built in 1.4x teleconverter), the Nikon 200-400mmG f/4 AF-S ED VR II.

If you're on a tighter budget, look into the Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 SP DI VC USD G2 which is available for both Nikon and Canon.

Looking for sports photography examples? Check out my other post:
Choosing the right telephoto lens: Sports Photography.


Grizzly Bears

This, by far, is our largest subject measuring over 80” tall.  When your subject is this huge, the ranges of telephoto choices is larger. It doesn’t take much to fill a frame with such a large creature. That said, not everyone wants to rub elbows with a grizzly and your choice of glass will help dictate just how close, or let’s be honest, far away, you can stay while still getting an amazing image. If you're traveling with Wild Compass Tours they'll ensure you a great shot at a safe distance. 

kodiak.jpg

American Grizzlies by Shayne McGuire | Canon 1DX | Canon 600mm f/4L IS II 

Our Lens Choice: 600mm

You’d be happy with with a wide range of primes as you can see in the example below.  I think it is safe to say that you'll likely be pretty far from this creature (or able to retreat a bit!) to use the 600mm primes.  The two I recommend you look into are the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II or the Nikon 600mm f/4E AF-S FL ED VR 


Small Birds Need Massive Lenses

Bird photography has a bit of the opposite effect of the a huge subject like the grizzly. Most birds are so tiny, and often a little flighty (ha ha), that getting close and having them fill a frame, is particularly tricky. This is where you will really benefit from having a super-tele at your disposal.  Remember to be wary of your minimum focusing distance so that it doesn’t halt you from getting your shot.

Ben Bird - 200-400 @560 1DX-1001.jpg

Female cardinal by Ben Burrows | Canon 1DX | Canon 200-400 f/4L IS w/1.4x @560mm

As you can see in the example below, we only photographed the bird from 5 and 10 yards away because any further than that and this tiny cardinal is too insignificant to really be called a subject. Too far away and it will become part of the landscape. 

Bird - Full Frame - 70-600mm - 5 Yards - 4x4.jpg

Bird - Full Frame - 70-600mm - 10 Yards - 4x4.jpg

Remember, though, that a cardinal is a medium to small bird, and if you’re heading out to capture a bald eagle you might need a little less reach. Something like a hummingbird you might want to go big or go home.

Hummingbird - Ben - Canon 70D - 500mm-1001.jpg

Ruby Throated Hummingbird by Ben Burrows | Canon 70D | Canon 500mm f/4L IS II 


Full Frame 600mm 100 yards-1001.jpgCanon 5D Mark IV |Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3 SP DI VC USD G2 @ 600mm

In closing, we have just touched the tip of the iceberg of all that telephoto lenses really have to offer: while there isn’t always a “right” or a “perfect” for your lens choice, but more of a range, I hope that this post will help in choosing your next piece of gear. Remember to keep your subject, distance and positioning in mind as you think about those choices!

Leave a comment if you’d like us to delve even further into all of the which, where, when and why questions that always come up when choosing to rent some of our largest lenses!

Topics: Photography Tips


Interested in renting gear mentioned in this post?

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Canon 400 f/2.8L IS II
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Rent a Nikon 300 f/4E FL PF ED VR
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Rent a Canon 200-400 f/4L IS
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Rent a Nikon 600 f/4E FL ED VR
Rent a Canon 100-400 f4-5.6L IS II
Rent a Nikon 200-500 f/5.6