Zoom Telephoto lenses are the workhorses of wildlife photography. However, there are many attributes that differ between each "class" of zoom telephoto. Whether you're deciding which telephoto to bring on your next trip or are just wanting to know what to look for in your next purchase, this covers it all.
In this episode, we dive into the various components that you should consider when picking out a lens for wildlife photography, including max telephoto length, range, build quality, image quality, and aperture. I specifically go over the pros and cons of different features and which ones are the most important and dealing with various conditions for wildlife photography.
Canon Super Telephoto 300mm f/2.8
The zoom telephoto category of lenses is probably the most important lens for any sort of wildlife adventure. It could be a proper African safari. It could be photographing brown bears in Alaska, or polar bears in the Arctic, or or heck birds in the Amazon, sea lions and the Galapagos Islands. Like anytime you're photographing wildlife, some sort of zoom telephoto is going to be your absolute best friend. So how to choose the right zoom telephoto lens for any wildlife photo trip, let's get into that today. So the first thing you want to think about is your maximum focal length. This means, like, what's the biggest this thing can zoom to? I eat a max telephoto power, and we're talking about things like 300, 400, 500, 600 millimeters. It's that millimeter number on your lens that we're discussing here. So what's to think about? Well, the first thing is you know how far away are your subjects going to be, and I know that's kind of an obvious one, but we're talking about specifics because there's a difference if your main photographic subjects are going to be 20 yards away versus 40 yards away or 60 yards away. There's an adage that you can really never have enough telephoto power for wildlife, but there are advantages to lenses with lesser telephoto power, principally the aperture range. So it's not just a catch. All to say, I want the biggest and most firepower possible with my lens. You actually want to dig in and understand a little bit more about what your average photo distance is going to be. For instance, in the Galapagos Islands you do not need a 500 or 600 millimeter lens. Yes, for one inch photo that's a little bit far away. You might wish you'd had it, but the vast majority of shots you can shoot at the 200 and 300 millimeter range. So, as a result, you really need to dig in, drill in heavily on what that distance is going to be. For polar bears, for instance, you're probably talking about things like 50 yards in less. There are places where you have a huge, huge distance, like wolves and Yellowstone. Now the problem eventually gets to be that if things are so distant away, you're not going to get a good shot anyway. Or what often happens, especially in cold, snowy environments like the Arctic with polar bears or wolves and in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is that if you do actually spot something that far away, you're actually going to have a lot of distortion from the atmosphere. You're going to see those waves through your photo kind of like refractory light, because that's just differential heating and cooling of the air as the air rises and falls above colder ground. So as a result, you know, even if things are far away, you don't necessarily want an 800 millimeter lens. I personally find the sweet spot for any wildlife adventure to be somewhere around 400 millimeters or 500 millimeters. There are new Super telephoto lenses coming out that are like 150 to 600 millimeters and that's great because you're covering your range. You may not need or always go to 600 millimeters, but at least you can zoom wider back to the 150 range. I personally like my 100 to 500 millimeter quite a lot because it's an extraordinary range. It's a newer lens. That range is really just previously unheard of Before that. We're really kind of used to our 70 to 300s or 100 to 400s, but again, there's a lot of great stuff coming out from the major manufacturers of huge focal lengths and huge focal ranges, which is really really good. So the first thing you want to consider again is your maximum focal length. When you talk to your photo guide, when you talk to the company that's planning your photo adventure, you know getting an idea of what is that average distance going to be for the wildlife. With that, you also kind of it's not just distance all the time, it actually is a little bit more about what the landscape is. So I'm just thinking in my mind of photographing tigers in India, and while, yes, there are many situations where a tiger might be across a lake or you might see it and want to get a really close up shot, even though the tiger is close, you're often restricted by some of the brush and vegetation around. So tigers like to hunker down in the grasses. They like to hunker down in the brush and in the trees and in the the sort of more brushy bush areas, as we call it. So, as a result, you could have the biggest telephoto lens in the world, but you're really not going to get a whole lot because there's a lot of stuff in your way. So, as a result, that's where the aperture comes in, and aperture is something you should not ignore. I'm talking about a second in succession of these, these things to consider, but it's it's equally as important as focal length, your maximum focal length. So what you're going to find with typical zoom telephoto or, you know, any telephoto lens, is that it's going to have some sort of aperture associated with it with your zoom telephoto is. It's generally a range of aperture, and this is where you're going to see your f number, your f Ford f 5.6 or your f 5.6 to f 7.1. What that's going to mean is that's going to be your maximum aperture, which corresponds to your minimum or smallest f number. The smaller your f number is, the shallower the depth of field you can have and also the more light your lens lets in the camera. So there's sort of two advantages there. One is you can have that really nice shallow depth of field. We term that blurring effect of bokeh or bokeh tomato tomato, in terms of how you pronounce that B, okay, e, h, and photographers love that. It's a beautiful, pleasing look. So having that small f number like an f four heck, if you can find and get a lens at f 2.8, that is dreamy. It's an extraordinary bokeh. But we often have to settle with things like f 5.6. And with these new, bigger super telephoto, is that that have that range to it? We're seeing the upper number being like 7.1 and even f eight in some cases. Now the reason for that range that little f 5, 6 to 7.1 is that as you zoom in more and more, that lens has to go to the higher number as its minimum, like the smallest f number can do so, even though it says f 5.6 to 7.1. So if you're shooting all the way out at its extent of telephoto, like 500 millimeters, you can't get to 5.6. That's only going to be at the 100 millimeter end of the spectrum. So as a result that both numbers are very, very important and just like there's a range in aperture as you zoom in from, let's say, 100 to 500, that that minimum f number or we also call it a maximum aperture. The nomenclature is a little bit confusing because the maximum aperture is also the smallest f number. Just kind of get used to that list in one of my podcast episodes on aperture if you want to get the deep dive there. But as you zoom in, that f number will gradually increase at its minimum all the way from again, from 5.6 to 7.1. So aperture is huge. You know we kind of started this section talking about tigers is that when you are photographing into the brush, the reality is that you don't need a super telephoto necessarily. Something in like the 300 range, maybe even 200 range of times is really, really worth it. But you all of a sudden start to become a little bit more consumed by your aperture about that, that shallow depth of field that you can achieve. Because what you want to do is, when you're photographing stuff in brush, in the trees, in the bushes, in the canopy of a forest is that you want to blur the foreground and background, meaning you want to blur the branches in front and the stuff behind, because it's very, very, very distracting for the viewer of your photograph. So all of a sudden, when you think about the, the venerable 7 to 200 millimeter zoom telephoto, it's at f 2.8 throughout, meaning that number doesn't increase. It's a gorgeous lens, it's one of the most iconic out there. It's all of a sudden that lens starts to be a lot more attractive when you're shooting in dense vegetation, because that f 2.8 is going to blur out a lot of stuff. You're going to get that beautiful bouquet. If you're shooting at 400 millimeters, you're going to want to shoot all the way down at the lowest possible f number. So if you have a lens like there's some fixed focal length lenses out there that are 400 millimeter, f 5.6, that's a good thing. Um, you know so, in other words, you you want to balance the need for maximum telephoto with the need for aperture. It is. I'm just going to say it right here it is really hard to have your cake and eat it too With all this very, very difficult. You're something's going to have to give with all these things I'm talking about. Um, I just want to kind of talk about the considerations and the, the ideal scenarios. But yeah, if you're photographing tigers, can you do the whole trip with a 70 to 100 f 2.8? Heck, no, no, absolutely not. Uh, you might want to have that in your kit but no, would not be the ideal lens, cause you need that focal length more than you need the aperture. Um, so you know, we kind of touched about this already, but this is something I want to dive a little bit more into is that focal length range? So the range is very important. This, and this is indeed probably one of the the lower items you know, after maximum length and aperture. But the range is actually pretty darn important too, because this is going to give you diversity. And what I mean by range is is that entire 100 millimeter to 500 millimeter? That's? That's a big range, um, a 70 to 200 millimeter is not a big range, you know. Do the math, and you know it's much smaller than one to five. Uh, 100 to 400 is not as big of a range as 100 to 500. A 200 to 600 is about the same as the 100 to 500. So these, these are all good considerations to think about, because it's going to give you maximum versatility and also means you can keep that lens on your camera for more shots, meaning you don't have to change lenses each and every time, which, let's face it, and a lot of these wildlife destinations, is difficult to do. It might be difficult to bring multiple lenses in the field. If you're slogging through mud flats photographing Grizzlies and coastal or I should say Grizzlies, aka coastal brown bears in Alaska, it's the same thing. Basically, if you're trudging along in these mud flats having a tote lenses along, to switch, because all your lenses have very, very narrow focal length ranges, you know that's a problem that's less than ideal. So this new class of lenses that we're seeing pop up quite often now, like the 200 to 600, the 150 to 600, the 100, 500, really, really good, because you can keep it on your camera longer. Um, it might mean that you don't need that quote, unquote other lens you were going to buy or bring. So therefore you can put that money more into just that one lens. And that gets me to my next topic, which is just general build quality and image quality. So this is as important as anything, and I don't mean to talk about this last. But your build quality is going to be very, very important for wildlife expeditions because you're going to be out there, you're going to be in the field. You're not photographing under the cover of an awning at the local zoo, you're out there in the elements. Now any proper, good photo tour company is going to put you up in you know great vehicles or give you some sort of protection. You might be photographing from blinds or hides in certain parts of Africa or Asia, but nevertheless you want to have something that can withstand the elements. I, I eat. Hopefully water resistant I should say waterproof is kind of strong word. They use that term for a lot of lenses, but obviously you know we can't dunk this stuff in a bucket of water and expect it to survive. So water resistant, you know rain resistant more than anything. And then also good build quality. You know some of the plastic lenses. If you knock those things around, if they happen to, you know, come off your shoulder and get dinged on the edge of a safari vehicle or you know, heaven forbid fall to the ground in you know sand or in a coastal area. Those plastic, cheaper lenses are not going to hold up as much. They're going to get grit in it or they're going to straight up crack, whereas the nicer lenses I'm a Canon guy, so we we call them the L series they're going to be metal, they're going to be some sort of like magnesium alloy and they're going to be weather sealed. They're going to have gaskets and they're going to get to take a beating. Obviously I never subject metal lenses to any sort of harsh conditions needlessly. But let's face it, when you're out photographing wildlife around the world, that's something to indeed think about. And then with that image quality so we're kind of getting into the realm of of just the quality of the lens in general you'll find that the build quality and image quality typically go hand in hand, which is nice, it's easy for you, you don't have to dissect your lens choices too too much. But as a result, when the build quality increases and the image quality increases ie the glass that goes into it, the number of elements and number of plates and all that. The price goes up, obviously, and we can talk a little about price after this. But image quality is something that's super duper important, obviously, but it's also very subjective. If you're kind of a more of a weekend warrior or a one trip a year warrior and you mostly are going to just save the photos for your own recollection and for your own memories and maybe post a few online, yeah, getting the $3,000 lens is going to be subjective, like you might really want it, but is it going to be worth it to you compared to getting a suite of lenses or a new camera body or that new tripod you're pining over or just going on another trip or a bigger, better photo tour? So money is, of course, a factor here, but image quality is something that really does go a long way. You're going to get what you pay for. A $2,000 lens is going to be significantly better than a $1,000 lens. If all other things are created equal, if you're really comparing apples to apples, like you know one 70 to 200 versus another 70 to 200, one 100 to 400 versus another 80 to 400, you know similar kind of stuff. You'll know it pretty easily just from the look of the lens. They're going to look better. They're going to look sturdier. They're going to be a different color. Usually A lot of these manufacturers like to have either a red ring around the front of the lens element or maybe a different casing color, like white for the more expensive ones, versus black. You're going to have all sorts of different, like kind of gold markings on it. So you're going to know pretty quickly If you don't tell by price already, you're going to tell by the look of the lens and what image quality allows you to do other than just get a great quality image. That's kind of a duh moment, but it's going to allow you to crop in, and this is actually a pretty big deal. So it allows you to crop into the photo while retaining the quality of your shot better or almost perfectly nowadays. And so what this means is you, almost, with these huge megapixel cameras these days, you you're kind of buying yourself more telephoto power, because if you can crop that thing in 50%, basically doubling the size of it you almost doubled your focal length and if it doesn't reduce the quality of the resulting photo very much, you really have a much more powerful lens than what the label on the front of it says so. This is a really, really important side note. On image quality, the other part, kind of the intersection of build quality and image quality, is just general quality of the mechanics. The autofocus is going to work faster. It's going to have better contrast, better light lights and dark darks. It's going to have a little bit more dynamic range in the lens. So there are other things besides just looking better or sharper, as we sometimes really fix it on, and then just the type of material it's made. There's some other gine sais quoi within the lens that you certainly want to consider and this all just comes down to quality. So let's talk about price. So lens prices, again, very, very subjective. I'm not here to tell you what you should spend or what you can spend. I am not your financial advisor. But you know, when you were talking about a good telephoto lens, you know I think that most of the lenses that are kind of on the top quality end of the spectrum, that are zoom telephoto is meaning kind of like my choice of lenses for today they're going to be in around $1500 to $3000. And yes, that is a big range, usually the more focal length you have. So if you get to 400 or 500 versus 400, 600 versus 500, you're going to probably pay a little bit more If those aperture numbers are smaller. You're probably going to pay a little bit more If you have a higher build quality, a little bit more. So there is a range there. Now there's an entire end of the spectrum, there's an entire range down at kind of like the seven, eight, nine hundred thousand dollar range and those are going to be more of your intro zoom telephoto's. Be aware that when you look at these numbers, everything I'm telling and talking with you now, um, as far as maximum focal length, the zoom range and the aperture, like apples to apples, you're probably going to see those exact same numbers on that seven, eight, nine hundred dollar lens as you would on the $2000 lens. So what the difference really is going to come down to is build quality and image quality. So you can certainly find lenses with great range with pretty normal apertures. But that difference that thousand you know, in some cases $2000 difference is really going to come down to the sharpness of the photo, the speed of the autofocus and all those really, really nice to have features If you are an ardent photographer that is going out multiple times a year and you, you really work at your photos and you process them and you post them and you might even be aspiring to write a book one day. Yeah, it's. I think it's worth the extra money because it is a really, really significant difference. And then, with all this, I think this is going to be sort of my last point to talk about is when you get into these really nice higher end lenses, like in the two and $3000 range, they tend to hold their value really really well because everybody wants them and everybody covets them. And, yes, most people think, gosh, $1000 for a lens, $1500 for a lens that's about the top of my budget. So what happens is when you buy a lens for $2500, you use it for three, four, five years, multiple expeditions, you can sell it for $1500 or sell it for $1000 and you, you basically just rent that lens for four years for about $1000, which is Awesome. Whereas if you buy an $800 lens, yes, you might be able to sell it at some day, but a lot of times people don't want those lenses because they're going through the inventory, they're going through new makes and models of the lower stuff a little bit quicker, like they're improving at a more rapid pace than the real venerable L-series style lenses that Canon, nikon, olympus. They make one every 15 years because they're just that good. So again kind of a recap here when we're talking about how to choose the right telephoto lens for any wildlife photo trip, you wanna really think about the maximum focal length. That's probably the first thing to consider, and you can't go too wrong by just getting a good 400, 500, or 600 millimeter range or end top end of the range. That's pretty darn good. But then the second thing you wanna think about is well, if I shave off a little bit of that focal length extent, that maximum focal length, can I get a significantly better aperture? Do I need that better aperture, ie do I need to have a more shallow depth of field for where I'm going? And then of course I like to get a pretty big range on my focal length. Now, this is something I actually missed saying in the main body of all this. But I do hesitate getting the huge zoom ranges like the 28s to 300s. They're pretty good, but as soon as you start getting below 100 or 150 on that bottom end, it just takes totally different optics and curvature and grinding of the glass to make those photos look good as the big upper end 300 millimeters. So, as a result, I just don't dabble with those all multipurpose lenses that are like wide angles and zoom telephotos. My zoom telephoto is gonna still be at minimum 100 millimeters because below that you just start getting into sort of optical issues. But anyway, a big length is obviously advantageous and then as you have bigger and better budget for these sort of things, your build quality and image quality are gonna go up. If you're keen on making the investment, these things do hold their value. Build quality means it's gonna look better, perform better, be better for longer, and image quality is something that, as you start to dabble in this world of higher end lenses, you make a step that you don't ever wanna go back from, because it is dreamy to see the high quality of stuff coming out these days. I can tell you, with any of the new higher end mirrorless camera lenses, it is unbelievable how sharp and how quick they are, especially with autofocus. But just the sharpness is something that I didn't think was even possible just a few years before, so they're really worth their while. I hope this is helpful to you. How to choose the right telephoto lens for any wildlife photo trip. Hope you get out there and give it a shot.