When it comes to wildlife photography more often than not we need to use telephoto lenses. These lenses allow us to get tight close-ups of skittish and dangerous wildlife along with giving us the shallow depth of field needed to make our subjects stand out from the background. Telephoto lenses come in a wide variety for focal lengths, speeds, and price ranges. Depending on the type of wildlife you want to shoot you’ll need different focal lengths. Some more personable creatures may allow you to get close enough to use shorter lenses with focal lengths between 70-200mm where as small exotic birds and dangerous predators like bears or lions will need longer lenses in the 500-800mm range.
Focal length isn’t the only thing to consider. Lens speed is crucial to the type of images you can get. The faster the lens the smaller the number after the F in the name. The slower the lens the bigger the number after the F in the name. This number refers to what apertures this lens can use. The wider aperture (smaller F number) the more light is let in through the lens, so you can use a quicker shutter speed. With zoom lenses the widest aperture may change throughout the zoom range. For example my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens can shoot at f/4.5 at 70mm but can only shoot at f/5.6 at 300mm. Generally the faster the lens the better. You’ll be able to get images in lower light and with a shallower depth of field with a 300mm f/2.8 lens than you can with a 300mm f/5.6 lens. Another thing to consider is autofocus speed. Faster lenses tend to have quicker autofocus which is a big advantage when shooting moving subjects like birds.
Prime lenses (lenses with one focal length) are usually faster and better quality lenses than zoom lenses with the same focal lengths. Zooms are usually slower and have slower autofocus. Zooms can be a cheaper and reliable alternative if the cost of high end primes turn you off and you need the focal length.
To get even more reach out of your telephoto lenses you can add tele converters. These fit in-between your camera and lens and allow you to get a longer focal length but cut some light. Tele converters usually come in 1.4x, 1.7x, or 2.0x strengths. For example if you use a 2.0x tele converter on a 300mm f/2.8 lens you’d now have a 600mm f/5.6 lens. Getting faster shorter telephotos with tele converters can allow you to change them into longer, cheaper, and lighter weight versions of other lens.
Image stabilization can be very helpful when shooting handheld. Most stabilized lens claim to allow you to use lenses handheld with shutter speeds three stops longer than with non stabilized lenses. I have been able to get sharp images of elk and moose at 1/125 of second shutter speed at 300mm with my Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens handheld.
With long lenses more often than not it’s better to use a tripod. Carbon fiber is best material for tripods (in most situations.) Carbon fiber is lighter and more stable than aluminum or metal. Basalt fiber is a happy medium in terms of quality and price between aluminum and carbon fiber. Wood tripods can withstand vibrations better than carbon fiber (for example if you’re doing a long exposure near a highway and a semi went by) but due to the weight of wood tripods they can be a hassle to carry and move quickly. Going with higher end brands like Gitzo, Manfortto, Feisol, and Berleback will be worth the extra money. I currently have an old Velbon which I have lost some great images from it not being stable enough. I plan on upgrading in the near future. Tripod head choice also makes a big difference. Pan and tilt heads are nice for landscapes but ball heads or gimbaled heads are needed for the fast action of wildlife photography. Really Right Stuff, Kirk, Wimberly, Acra Swiss, Acratech, Manfrotto, and Gitzo are all known for making good tripod heads. Alternative supports like Bushhawks, beanbags, or monopods can also be used to brace long lenses.
When it comes to price telephoto lenses can be from everywhere from under $200 to over $8000. The faster and longer the lens the lens greater the increase the price. It’s difficult to find a lens over 500mm for less than $1000. It’s hard to find short telephoto zoom lenses with a constant aperture of f/2.8 for under $800. Most camera manufactures make both high end and low end 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens. Inexpensive ones in the $100-$300 price range are usually not worth buying. Lenses with the same focal lengths in the $500+ price range usually tend to have much better image quality, quicker autofocus, and usually some type of image stabilization.
I currently use a Nikkor AF-S VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens which most amateur and semi-pro photographers would be happy with. It’s very sharp, has quick autofocus, and VR comes in very helpful. I hope to upgrade to a 70-200mm f/2.8 with 2x tele converted in the future.
Hopefully this post has helped you learn about telephoto lenses and which one is right for you!
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