What is the Best Focal Length for Wildlife Photography?
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photo by lara_zanarini via iStock
What is the best focal length for wildlife photography? Obviously, there will be as many answers for this question as there are as many photographers that you ask.
The best lenses for wildlife photography will depend on your camera format, the type of wildlife you’re photographing, and your personal style. Regardless of these variables, wildlife photography lenses tend to have a few things in common.
Here is a very short list of wildlife photography gear I like to use and three of my personal favorite contenders for best focal length for wildlife photography.
Fast Medium Telephoto Zoom
photo by Nataba via iStock
Among the most versatile of all lenses is a fast medium telephoto zoom lens. For Full Frame 35mm camera format, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is hard to beat.
If you're shooting APS-C format, this lens is also a great choice. The crop factor will yield an equivalent Full Frame format apparent focal length range of 105-300mm which is very useful for wildlife photography.
Medium telephoto is a versatile choice and is able to capture wildlife at a moderate distance with its 4X magnification over normal lenses, 6X if shooting APS-C format. While 200mm is fairly good for magnification and extremely easy to use, it isn’t really very powerful for the National Geographic style of wildlife images many of us aspire after.
That fast maximum aperture is what really opens up the usefulness of this style of lens. Wildlife photography tips tell us how important it is to have a fast enough shutter speed to handle the movement of the subjects and to counteract any camera movement.
A nice wide aperture like this also allows for selective focus techniques that help isolate the subject from the background or surroundings.
The medium telephoto focal length range is one of my options for best focal length for wildlife photography in the tamer wildlife settings of our own backyards such as local parks, the municipal zoo, wooded areas, and even our literal backyard. It has reach and a fast aperture meaning we can usually hand hold the lens for these nearby excursions.
Fast Long Telephoto Prime
photo by Dennis Stogsdill via iStock
Way back when I first started in serious photography, the lens I and all of my photographer friends drooled after was the 300mm f/2.8 prime focal length telephoto lens.
The prime focal length allowed for a relatively compact size for a fast, long telephoto and was also a sharper lens than many of the long zooms of that time period. I’m not that old, but lens options have improved so much over the past 20 to 30 years.
With today’s zoom lenses offering better and better performance with each new crop released, a 300mm f/2.8 lens may seem a little tame nowadays. Wildlife, tame, get it? Sorry, I’ve been seeing puns everywhere this week.
But other focal lengths and lens speeds are more affordable now. Many manufacturers have a 500mm f/4.0 lens at a price that while high, isn’t out of reach like exotic lenses were a few years ago.
500mm is a great focal length for wildlife photography lenses since it gives us 10X over magnification over the Nifty Fifty normal lens, even more magnification if using one on an APS-C format camera, the crop factor yields an equivalency of 750mm focal length.
Crop factor is a great benefit for wildlife photography, as it provides wildlife photographers with a fantastic reach from telephoto lenses. Since there are so many amazing cameras in APS-C format with professional ruggedness, high quality, and even weather sealing, they have became a a favorite of many wildlife photographers.
Ultra-Long Third-Party Zoom
photo by Sjo via iStock
Many of the lens choices for my first two recommendations are camera manufacturer brands, though there are some great choices for those lenses from high quality third-party lens manufacturers.
A lens type that I have to like as a nice recommendation for best focal length for wildlife photography is the ultra-long zoom telephoto lenses from several of the better third-party manufacturers.
Two makers have lenses in a focal length range of 150-600mm, with a maximum aperture that isn’t too shabby, variable from f/5 at 150mm to f/6.3 at the 600mm end. Used on an APS-C format camera, the apparent focal length based on crop factor (compared to 35mm Full Frame) is 225mm to a whopping 900mm, or 18X magnification over 50mm.
That’s some serious lens firepower for wildlife photography gear. The major issue with this style of lens is size and weight. Tripod or monopod use is very recommended.
photo by WendellandCarolyn via iStock
Another of the important wildlife photography tips is to grab a gimbal tripod head. We talk alot about gimbals in our videography articles, using them as stabilization for video movement.
That’s not the gimbal we're talking about for capturing still images of wildlife. A tripod head gimbal is a mount that lets you rapidly reposition the camera and lens to follow the subject while still giving a stable platform for shooting.
As you can see, choosing the best focal length for wildlife photography is not a cut and dried job. There are a lot of excellent choices available, even the option of using a pro or prosume level APS-C camera opens up our available lens preferences.
Most likely, like me and thousands of other serious wildlife photographers, you’ll end up with more than one of these wildlife photography lenses.