Which lens to choose for beginner wildlife and nature?

Ask me when did I get into wildlife photography and I would struggle to answer. Before getting my first DSLR I had been to the Kruger a total of 1 times in my life, late in 2005 I think it was.  My progression was first into landscape photography, documenting the places I had been travelling to and I started of shooting wide.  The transition to long lenses I think only started late in 2011 when I got a 70-300mm USM and even then the next step up did not come for a long while. So I will run you through some of the lenses I have owned and used and still use in some instances and hopefully guide your own journey.

1. EF-S 55-250mm F4-5.6IS

So I got the 55-250mm as a kit lens that came with the 3 lens package I got when buying my 550D.  And of the 3 lenses that came in the package it probably got the least usage, mainly because I was more interested in landscapes and got more usage out of the 18-55mm and the 50mm kit lenses.  And because of the non-usage I don’t think its fair to write this one off completely, especially with the newer kit versions that currently come with the packages.  From the little use I did get I do recall that it was not as sharp at the longer end but that could have been due to my own unknowing lack of technique very early on.  In the right light and the right hands I’m sure the lens will perform well enough.  The 55-250mm may however leave you wanting on the long end.  The lens is small and light enough to use hand held and can also serve as a portrait lens if you need a little length while shooting people.

2. EF 70-300mm F4-5.6 IS USM

I got the 70-300mm at a discounted price at a very early Canon roadshow in 2011.  I think the normal retail price was closer to R5500 at the time and I got it for something closer to R4500.  I then used it for almost 4 years and it brought me mostly fantastic results on the 550D.  The range was a little better than the 55-250mm and while it had the same F-stop rating the better internal stabilisation (IS) allowed for shooting at lower light.  The lens is mostly sharp through the full range from 70mm almost all the way to the long end at 300mm and shooting full open on the aperture allows for nature photography that I think is actually quite good for what you are paying for.  Being light and compact the lens also makes a good travel lens in that it packs away easily and won’t lead to odd looks or additional fees (which I have had to pay for having my camera bag once weigh in at 10.5kg instead of the acceptable 8kg).  When I bought my newer lenses I traded my 70-300mm in and actually think it would have served me well to hold on to. There are still many of these lenses that sell on the second hand market for around the price I got mine for new and would come highly recommended for anyone looking to get into wildlife photography and even hobbyist who want to get better wildlife photos when they are out in the bush.


3. EF 300mm F4 L IS

I did not transition onto the 300mmF4LIS immediately after the 70-300mm as I weighed up a few options before finally getting my first one second hand.  However it quickly became the lens I loved the most, so much so that at one point I owned two copies, a second hand one and a new one that I had initially bought on Take-a-lot with the intention to resell but ended up keeping and in fact still have.  Almost all of my photos of birds are taken with the lens and a great deal of my nature/wildlife shots as well as the lens hardly ever left the 7DII body.

The lens is an older model, released in 1997 for what would have still then been film camera work.  However I guess the longevity speaks volumes of how good the lens actually is.  Second hand you can easily pick one up for about R11000 these days but expect to pay a little more for a copy that is not worn out. I got my first one for what seemed like a steal at the time at the cost of R8500.  Only later did I discover that the lens had been opened up and then glued back together because the dust I kept seeing on the back element was in fact on the inside of the element and the only way it could have got there is if the previous owner had had it serviced (and not so well at that).  The dust did not affect the image quality (to my best knowledge and from what I could see) so I just kept shooting with it.

When considering the lens to buy I had looked at a couple options that were available, the 300mmF4, the 400mmF5.6 and the 100-400mmF4-5.6(mki). I chose the 300mmF4 because of a couple reasons.  The 100-400mm at the time was what was called a pump action lens – it zoomed with a push pull action that over time allowed dust to be sucked in.  The 300mm being fixed focal length did not have any zoom and therefore should not have any dust ingress, except of course if it is opened up and poorly serviced.  It was also lighter than the 100-400mm and image tests by the likes of DXOmark showed it to be sharper than the 100-400mm, especially at the longer end.  The 400mmF5.6L comes highly recommended as a beginner birding lens, however I chose the 300mm for 3 main reasons.  The first was that the 300mmF4 could be made into the equivalent of a 420mmF5.6 with the addition of a 1.4x converter, which is how I shoot with it almost all the time.  The bonus is that it has IS which not only helps in low light but also when you are shooting hand held or in a moving vehicle, stabilising the image quickly.  The last was that the 300mmF4 also has a much shorter minimum focus distance than the 400mmF5.6 – 1.5m compared to 4.5m, so the lens can be used effectively as a macro lens if you are happy to shoot macro at F4 or even F5.6.

Being light weight at just over 1kg the lens also does not make you tired if you are shooting the whole day and when mounted on the camera body can be easily moved around to track action.  That being said, with the 1.4x extender on the lens, focus tracking can become slower, a fact that I never truly appreciated until I fitted the 100-400mm mkii onto my 7D body.  I just never tried to take much action shots with the 300mm and stuck to stills so never really knew what I was missing until recently.  Using the lens without the extender can help make it faster but decent bird shots, especially small birds or distant birds become more difficult to get.

Being a fixed focal length, the 300mm can teach important lessons in composition, especially close up when you almost want to step back to get more of an animal into the shot.  Which is not always an option in the bush.  So it becomes a question of what and where you want to crop making you think of more creative shots that zooming out would maybe sometimes miss.  Even up close, when the reach of the lens is just short of where you ideally want it to be to full the frame, you need to start thinking about where you are going to crop and what format you will use in composing the shot before even taking it.  So you start taking photos that you would otherwise not take if you had the ability to zoom out.


4. EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS mkii

I got the 70-200mmF2.8 before I got the 300mmF4 funnily enough. I got the 7Dmkii and then didn’t have a lens to shoot with (except the 70-300mm which I should have kept) and was headed off into the Kruger so I hired the 70-200mm with the 1.4x extender and was absolutely blown away by the lens and camera combo.  So much so that I went out and got one for about R17000 used along with a 1.4x extender for an additional R3500.  New, the same lens now retails for closer to R30000.

But my interest turned to bird and I needed a longer lens.  So the 70-200mm took a back seat for a while.  And then I got a second camera body and I could dust it off again and it was brilliant again.  The 70-200mm is more known as a portrait lens and one of the better ones at that.  The F2.8 means that its made of some of the best glass Canon have to offer.  It also means that the lens is exceptional in low light and on that alone good to have in your bag when you are out in the bush.  On my full frame the 70-200mm allows a wider angle which is sometimes better to capture larger animals or animals that are closer or indeed when you want to show an animal in it’s environment.  And if by some off chance you get to shoot panoramas with the lens, the wider 70mm will allow some width that can then be stitched together afterwards.

I love the sharpness the lens gives, even with the 1.4x extender on it which makes it a constant F4 but closer to a 100-280mm lens.  It is however a heavy lens to be carrying around so get your exercise in and build those muscles. And carrying two cameras and lens around can get a bit much.  I do it because of the varied interest with the birds and then the 70-200mm for any other animals we might see and want to get photos of.  As a beginner lens it is great though, especially of you are ok with missing a few bird shots every now and again.  That’s not to say birds are out of the question – it will just take a little bit more patience to get closer and some luck as well.


5. EF 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS mkii

As I mentioned above on the zoom mechanism and for a couple additional reasons, I stayed away from the original version of this lens.  The F4.5-5.6 initially put me off considering this lens because at its release it was about 2 and a half times the price of the new 300mm.  Used and that got closer to 3 times as expensive.  And because it got to South Africa only early in 2015, getting a second hand copy like I did with the 70-200mm was not an option.  So I contented myself with the 300mm and then later adding the second body to use the 70-200mm on.  Then late last year Canon threw in a 1.4x extender with the purchase of some of their wildlife lenses and that knocked about R6000 off the price of the lens effectively so I decided to get it and try it out and then sell it off and make my money back for what would be an extended trial.  And in some ways it was not the best move.  Because I fell in love with the lens.

The newer lens technology means that the 100-400mm is noticeably faster than the 300mm in focusing and almost as sharp and sexy as the 70-200mm.  Coupled with the 7Dmkii the combination is actually all you need to be out in the wild and be taking pictures of almost everything except maybe landscapes.  The faster focusing allowed to get more action shots and even some birds in flight although I must still practice more on that to get it right. I shot constantly at F5.6 as the F4.5 falls away at about 200mm so the lens is effectively F5.6 through the most useful range anyway and did not have any issues, even in the gloomy rain that I found myself shooting in on my last trip to the Kruger.

The zoom mechanism is now a smooth rotational zoom like most of Canon’s other zoom lenses.  It also had the zoom lock mechanism that allowed the lens to be locked at a zoom – I used it mostly to keep the zoom at 400mm while I was birding.  The 100-400mm focal length is a good range for your larger animals more close in all the way to birds and far away animals with seemingly no loss of picture quality through the range.  Far away birds are still a problem though and maybe one day I will be able to afford a 600mm or 800mm prime lens.  The locking mechanism does have the draw back of sometimes hindering the zoom when you need to zoom back out.  That being said I used it either fully locked or fully unlock and there is an option to partially tighten the mechanism and perhaps over time a sweetspot can be found.

Two other disadvantages I experienced with the lens are that it is a big heavy set up and with the use of the 1.4x extender.  Zoomed out at a 100mm the lens is roughly the same length dimension as the 300mm and the 70-200mm as can be seen from the cover picture.  However as you zoom to 400mm the lens extends (unlike the 70-200mm which has an internal zoom mechanism) which makes it about 1/3 longer.  In terms of weight it is also the heaviest of the three and if you not using a tripod or monopod mechanism it can become a lot to carry around through a whole day.  The 1.4x extender extends the lens to an effective 140mm-560mm F8 which is not the worst F-stop if the lighting is good however the focus is then limited to just the center point.  I did shoot with the extender on and can confirm that it does work but applications are limited.

6. Some concluding remarks

When looking at any lens there is generally a couple things I consider and for wild life photography they still all apply.  First the F-stop.  Generally the F-stop number is a good indicator of the glass quality that was used in the making of the lens and therefore the picture quality that you will get out of the lens.  The lower the F-stop number (larger aperture openings) the better.  If it is constant through the range of the lens, generally this also means it is also better.  You may never however shoot at the lowest F-stop possible with a lens out in the bush, unlike in a controlled environment of a studio.  The lower F-stop will also enable shooting in lower light than otherwise possible, with less need for higher ISO settings (read more about how to balance exposure in manual here: The Pluckan easy guide to moving off shooting automatic).

Which brings me neatly into the next thing to look for – IS or internal stabilisation as Canon users know it or Vibration reduction or VR for Nikon users. I think it is a must, especially on the longer end of some of these lenses as the stabiliser reduces hand shake which becomes very apparent when you are zoomed all the way in.  It therefore helps find the focus faster and can aid in what you see through the view finder.  And in lower light it allows shooting at lower shutter speeds than otherwise be possible.  The general rule is that you should not shoot below 1/focal length of the lens you are using when you are shooting hand held.  So with a 300mm this would limit your shutter to 1/300s.  The IS allows you to get much lower than that, adding 3 or 4 stops.  I shot the 100mm-400mm lens at shutter speeds as low as 1/40s and still managed sharp images with perhaps 3 or 4 out of 10 shots containing some motion blur.

Lastly the dimensions of the lens are important. The size and weight for these zoom lenses should allow use hand held through a full day of shooting as that’s what they are used for mainly.  Adding a tripod or monopod with a gimbal adds expense and when you starting off that’s not something you can take on easily.  My 7D with the 300mmF4 on feels almost as an extension of my arm now mostly because I carry it around everywhere!  To others it will feel like a heavy cumbersome system.  The 70-200mm is heavier and the 100-400mm the heaviest ), borderline too heavy for most.

So given my nearly 3000 words of rambling review which of these lenses would I recommend to a beginner nature and wildlife photographer?  I think if you had the cash and the passion none of them.  Mostly because Canon cameras, especially the mid-range are getting a little bit long in the tooth.  If I were to buy today I would consider first and foremost the Nikon D500 with the 200mm-500mm F5.6 VR lens attached to the front.  From what I have seen its the best of the mid point entry level systems and will keep you taking excellent photos for a few years to come.  I myself will hopefully transition soon to a Sony system which I will write about shortly I hope!

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