When it comes to wildlife photography, you usually want to get as close to your subject as possible. Sometimes that’s simply not possible, and in those moments you’ll need a quality telephoto lens.
Taking a few steps closer is always better than zooming, but not every animal will react the same. That’s why having the right lens for wildlife photography is very important, especially because the focal length is not the only thing that matters here!
Speaking about best wildlife lenses, one must also have fast auto focus that is accurate in all sorts of conditions, and an aperture that’s big enough to be used when there is not a lot of light. Animals are often the most active in dusk and dawn, couple that with rain and other bad weather conditions, and you’ll wish you spent a little bit more on a lens that is properly weather sealed.
Below, we’ll dive deeper into what makes a lens good for wildlife and birds, but first let’s check out what lenses we picked that we feel give you the most for your money.
- Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
- Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM
- Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM C
- Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
- Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
- Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4
- Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS II USM
- Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM
- Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
- Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM
How to Choose a Wildlife Lens?
The camera you use is very important too. If you’re looking to get your first DLSR or are thinking about upgrading, take a look at our Best DSLR cameras for Wildlife guide.
1. What Focal Length? Is 300mm Enough?
For birds, you’ll want to start with 400mm. Anything less is okay for bigger animals, but birds are so small you’ll have to have to get close AND use a long telephoto lens in most situations.
Generally speaking, 300mm is the minimum for wildlife photography and while you could use something wider, it’s how we selected the lenses in this guide.
If you own an APS-C camera you need to multiply the focal length with 1.6x to get the actual field of view. Because of the crop factor, APS-C cameras are the best choice for getting as close as possible. For example, you can get a lighter, cheaper and smaller 400mm lens that acts like a 640mm lens instead of buying an actual 600mm lens. For more useful tips, check out the PhotographyLife post about wildlife focal lengths and Canon’s Lens page.
2. Auto Focus is Everything
Even with the best optical quality, a wildlife lens with bad AF is quite useless.
Animals are constantly on the go, and even when they’re still you still need a lens that can quickly and accurately acquire focus. They must also track the subject as best as possible, allowing you to take a ton of shots to then filter out the ones in focus.
The more expensive Canon L lenses offer amazing auto focus accuracy, speed and performance. They’re often used by sports and action photographers in both low light and outdoor situations. Make sure to get a lens with the USM (or HSM for Sigma) technology as those types of motors are the quickest and nearly silent.
- USM stands for Ultra Sonic Motor and it’s something you want for the best focusing speed. Your camera matters a lot too!
3. What About Extenders?
You can either use a 1.4x Extender or a 2x Extender. The former slows your maximum aperture down by 1 f-stop, while the latter does it by 2 stops. When using extenders, auto focus speed and image quality tend to get worse and the more you stack together, the more differences (especially in ghosting and aberration) you will notice.
For example, a 400mm f/4 lens with the 1.4x extender mounted turns into a 640mm f/5.6 beast. A maximum aperture of f/5.6 will focus on every Canon DSLR, but when using the 2x extender, that 400mm f/4 would turn into a 800mm f/8. Only a small number of Canon’s can auto focus at f/8 (1D X II, 5D IV, 7D II) and you’ll have to rely on your manual skills with cheaper DSLRs.
- Use extenders if you want, but don’t forget that every DSLR has a minimum aperture size required for focusing.
4. Aperture Size
Telephoto zooms usually end at around f/5.6, more expensive telephoto primes have f/4 apertures, while the most expensive and biggest feature f/2.8.
All 3 sizes are perfectly okay for wildlife photography, especially with how good new DSLRs are when it comes to high ISO shooting. Both f/2.8 and f/4 are excellent for shooting in all sorts of conditions, but with f/5.6 you will have to raise the ISO speed a little bit if not shooting on a bright sunny day.
Best Canon Lenses for Wildlife in 2017
Widest to Longest
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1. Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM
On APS-C: 88-400mm | Weight: 13.2 oz / 375g
The Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM is highly affordable and provides an excellent combination of reach, quality and size for the small price.
Seeing as it’s an EF-S lens (and the only one on this list too), it will only fit on an APS-C camera. Because of the 1.6x crop factor, it’s actually equivalent to a 88-400mm telephoto! This makes it a great choice for both animals and birds, as well as more casual, everyday stuff such as portraits and sports, because of that big zoom range.
Image quality is also surprisingly good at both 55mm and 250mm lengths. In fact, it’s identical to the 300mm below in terms of quality and chromatic aberration. It’s definitely usable at f/4 and f/5.6 at both ends, but sharpness gets even better at f/8.
To auto focus, the lens uses STM (Stepping Motor) technology that makes focusing nearly silent. Thanks to this, it’s great for video recording where the camera won’t pick up any lens focusing noise! It’s also quite quick and can follow the subject well, but it’s not something you can compare to the more expensive L lenses with a USM motor. You will most likely experience some hunting when shooting small birds with bad light.
An extremely welcome feature to have is Image Stabilization ,and the 55-250mm IS STM helps up to 3.5 stops. At 250mm, this will help a lot as the longer you’re at, the more blur will be visible if you move (even if you’re not tired). The closest focusing distance is 0.85m / 2.79 feet, and the lens only weighs 375g / 13.2 oz.
2. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM
On FF: 70-300mm | On APS-C: 112-480mm | Weight: 25.04 oz / 710g
Here’s what the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM offers: full frame compatibility, 50mm more reach, better build quality and faster auto focusing.
It replaces the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM released in 2005. Optically, it’s more usable from 250 to 300mm, shows less chromatic aberration and more contrast.
Image Stabilization is 1 stop better (4 stops) and it features a Nano USM motor for focusing. It’s silent, quick and more accurate than the 55-250mm above. It also looks cooler and has an LCD display that displays information such as focal length (also when on an APS-C sensor), aperture and more. Not really that useful, but can’t complain.
It costs $100 more than the first version, and $250 more than the 55-250mm. It might be a tough decision to pick one, but if you’ve got a FF sensor and don’t want to spend much, the 70-300mm II is a great option. For APS-C users, the image quality is more or less identical to the 55-250mm and the biggest difference is the AF speed and of course the extra 50mm. For birds and really far animals, this will make a difference, but it’s up to you to decide.
3. Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM UD
On FF: 70-300mm | On APS-C: 112-480mm | Weight: 2.31 lbs / 1050g
Since 70-300mm zooms are extremely popular, Canon also released the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM UD.
First, we’ll talk about the things that are the same or almost identical to the non-L version. The lens has a variable aperture so you’ll have to raise the ISO when shooting indoors at 300mm because you won’t be getting enough light. Unless you have an older DSLR, this shouldn’t be that big of a problem.
The second is the image quality; this is also not the reason for the biggest price as both lenses are equally as sharp and it’ll be hard to spot any differences in corners and center. It does have a floating focusing mechanism, but they both show good contrast, sharpness and colors, even wide open. The Image Stabilization system also helps up to 4 stops.
As you can see from the design and the red ring, the L lens is built much much better, and also feels like . It not only feels, but is actually weather sealed, something you’ll definitely appreciate when shooting outside, because many beautiful images actually come in situations when it’s the toughest for us to go. Bad weather? More like soft light and unique opportunities. Having the right gear makes a big difference here.
Thanks to Ring type USM, auto focus is very fast and accurate even in tougher conditions. It’s perfect for both APS-C and FF shooters that are looking for a fast zoom to use outside without worrying about the weather, and if the shot will come out fine, or if your gear is going to make it. The non-L version does seem like a better option if you don’t care about weather sealing, but if you know for yourself that you spend a lot of time outside/traveling and can’t risk anything, and want better AF, it’ll be worth it. A bit heavier with 2.31lbs (1050g) vs 25.4 oz (710g), but still nothing compared to the rest of the lenses on this list.
4. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C
On FF: 150-600mm | On APS-C: 240-960mm | Weight: 4.25 lbs / 1930g
Want a super telephoto zoom without spending too much? The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM was released in 2015 and does what no Canon lens does for this price; gets you to 600mm.
It’s not cheap because it would be bad, Sigma and other third-party companies simply need to be more competitive when it comes to pricing. In fact, the image quality is absolutely great and it’s usable wide open at all focal lengths. It does get softer at 600mm, but you can always sharpen the images in post process and it’s not like any other Canon zoom takes you this far.
Chromatic aberration and ghosting are very well controlled and won’t be an issue. Again, it’s only at 600mm where aberration gets more visible but it’s not drastic. Colors and contrast are top notch and your images will look rich!
A very important feature of every telephoto zoom is the auto focus performance, and the Sigma doesn’t stop here either. With its HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) it allows the lens to focus quietly and quickly, rarely hunting for the subject. It’s accurate most of the time, but it’s not perfect as lenses that cost 4-5x+ more. If you’d like to have more control over the focus performance, you can always use the Sigma dock to calibrate your lens.
With all the good stuff aside, you need to factor in the weight and size of this monster. Weight: 4.3 pounds (1930g), Size: 4.1×10.2″ (105x260mm). It also accepts 95mm filters which aren’t the cheapest around.
5. Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
On FF: 300mm | On APS-C: 420mm | Weight: 42.0 oz / 1190g
The first prime on our list is Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM.
Before the age of 70-300mm zooms, this was a no-brainer if you were looking for a quality 300mm lens. Let’s see how it compares to similarly priced, 70-300mm L version.
The 300mm prime is a little bit heavier (42 oz vs 37.1 oz / 1190g vs 1050g) and longer, but nothing that would ultimately impact your buying decision.
Second, the 300mm being a prime lens, it has slightly better image quality and less aberration at f/5.6 but the difference is again small, showing how well the 70-300mm L is made.
The biggest difference is f/4 compared to f/5.6 at 300mm on the zoom. With the prime you’re getting twice as much light which helps a lot when shooting in bad light, or simply when you need super fast shutter speeds to freeze the action during the day. It also accepts converters, so with 1.4x you’d now be shooting with the same f/5.6, but at 420mm!
The downsides compared to both, L and non-L 70-300mm, is that the IS technology helps only up to 3 stops since the lens was made back in 1997.
6. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
On FF: 400mm | On APS-C: 640mm | Weight: 2.8 lbs / 1250g
Here’s another telephoto monster from the old days, the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM.
You’ve probably noticed the lack of IS. Unless your subject is static, you won’t actually be missing it a lot since stabilization only helps if you’re the one that’s not stable enough. The lens is fairly light for 400mm, but a monopod/tripod is always recommended when shooting wildlife for a long time.
Quality wise, it’s nearly the same as the 300mm f/4L and 100-400mm II, but it displays a little bit more chromatic aberration than the 100-400mm II zoom at f/5.6.Nonetheless, the 400mm is very sharp and an excellent performer for the price, whether you’re shooting birds, big animals or sports for that matter.
It’s the lightest Canon lens that can reach 400mm, so if this is an important factor for you, every ounce less helps. It weighs 44.1 oz (1250g), whereas the 100-400mm II zoom weighs 55.4 oz (1570g).
Auto focus is really fast and quick, and despite being released in 1997 it does feature Full Time Manual focus. If you’re looking for a more affordable 400mm lens that’s lighter than anything that goes this far on this list, and are okay with f/5.6 because your DSLR handles high ISO well, it will be a good choice.
Best Canon Lenses for Wildlife Over $1500
1. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
On FF: 100-400mm | On APS-C: 160-640mm | Weight: 3.46 lbs oz / 1570g
The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is an optically excellent lens with superb build quality.
Compared to the first version of the 100-400mm, the one change you’ll immediately notice is that the lens no longer uses the old push/pull type of zooming and instead features the more common twist and turn as 99% lenses do.
It’s a tad bigger and heavier at 55.4 oz, but also has a 77mm filter thread size. Image quality, focusing speed and accuracy are both much improved, especially when shooting wide open at 400mm.
Then there’s the Image Stabilization that was upgraded from 2 stops to 4 stops of help. In the field, that makes a huge difference (1/30 instead of 1/125). Because of the “wide” 100mm length on this zoom, you can also use it for sports and not only for animals, where IS will definitely help a lot. It’s not an indoor sport lens, but feel free to bump up the ISO to 3,200+ if you’re looking for fast speeds.
When compared to the 70-300 L and 400mm f/5.6 prime, the 100-400mm definitely seems like an excellent choice for outdoor photography, but it does come at a price slightly higher than $2,000. Worth it? Definitely, it’s the best Canon telephoto zoom for the money. Fast AF, great optics and sharp images, top notch build quality made for heavy outdoor use in the nature.
2. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x
On FF: 200-400mm | On APS-C: 320-640mm | Weight: 7.98 lbs / 3620g
Less zoom, lower price right? The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM does indeed offer 2x instead of 4x zoom, but it costs 5 times as much. Here’s why.
By having less zoom, the 200-400mm has excellent optical quality as there’s less different focal lengths to worry about. When creating a zoom, companies always have to make some compromises between the size, aperture values and focal lengths it offers. As a matter of fact, the 200-400mm is one of the sharpest zoom lenses ever made, but that’s why it costs more than $10,000.
On top of that, the aperture stays fixed at f/4. That’s twice as much light as the 100-400mm above offers at f/5.6 and 400mm, and when shooting in low light or just needing the fastest shutter speed to freeze action, you’ll greatly appreciate any extra help.
On top of that, it features a built-in 1.4x extender. By simply flicking a switch, this lens becomes a 280-560mm f/5.6 monster, potentially replacing all of your primes at similar focal lengths you already own (assuming the cost and size are okay with you). On an APS-C camera, the field of view is equivalent to 320-640mm, and with the 1.4x extender in use, 512-1024mm. It saves you a lot of time and trouble that you’d otherwise spend on removing/mount the extender, and also risking your gear in certain situations.
Like with most other lenses on our list, you can use it with additional extenders on top of the already built-in one! Combining the built-in one with another 1.4x means your aperture will be f/8, and most DSLRs won’t be able to auto focus anymore.
It’s big, heavy and super expensive. Image quality is absolutely fantastic and so are the AF speed and accuracy. At this price point, they better be of course.
3. Canon EF 300m f/2.8L IS II USM
On FF: 300mm | On APS-C: 480mm | Weight: 5.18 lbs / 2350g
Want an f/2.8 telephoto? The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM is not only great for wildlife, it’s one of the most popular lenses for indoor and outdoor sports photography too.
Auto focus is blazing fast and extremely accurate, like all other Canon telephotos that use the Ring type USM. To reduce hunting and improve the already fast AF focusing speed, you have 3 different distance limiters to choose from, depending on the distance of your subject. Its closest focusing distance is 6.6ft / 2.0m.
The biggest reason why you’d go with this lens is obviously if you need the f/2.8 aperture. Compared to f/4 (let alone f/5.6), the amount of light hitting your sensor is enormous and that’s why you won’t have to worry about shooting early in the morning or late during the day and raising your ISO a lot.
It features a new Image Stabilization system that works up 4 stops, and while hand holding is an option, we strongly recommend to use a monopod with it. It weighs 82.9 oz / 2350g so you’re gonna get tired quite quickly without investing in good support.
Telephoto f/2.8 lenses are expensive, but for a reason. You get a ton of light, fast auto focusing, excellent image quality and even with a 1.4x or 2x extender, auto focus will work with every Canon DSLR since the aperture at 2x is f/5.6. Overall quality and focusing speed do drop noticeably, but it’s still very usable for fast subjects. On an APS-C camera, it’s equivalent to a whopping 480mm f/2.8 lens!
4. Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM
On FF: 400mm | On APS-C: 640mm | Weight: 4.62 lbs / 2100g
See that green ring near the front element? This is used in lenses that use Diffractive Optics, making lenses lighter and smaller.
The difference in weight is nothing short of impressive; the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM version weighs 74.1 oz instead of 135.9 oz, almost half less! One of the reasons for this is also the smaller, f/4 aperture, but it’s nonetheless a dream for any wildlife photographer that likes the 400mm length but dislikes carrying a lot of weight. It’s actually a little bit shorter than the 300mm f/2.8L IS II and much
It has 3 different IS modes and the stabilizer helps up to 4 stops. The first IS mode is the most common type of stabilization, the one where your subject is static and you’re the one not stable enough. The second IS mode is for panning horizontally moving subjects, while the third one acts is strictly for tracking subjects and is similar to the previous one.
The lens is usable from f/4, which is great news as anything bigger than f/5.6 for sharp shots is always welcome in wildlife photography. Contrast, colors and sharpness are top notch and on par with the more expensive f/2.8 teles released during the same time. Vignetting and chromatic aberration are also rarely apparent, and this is seems to be the standard for all Canon’s L telephoto monsters.
You can use extenders with it, but a 2x extender will turn this into an 800mm f/8 lens, and only a few DSLRs can auto focus with the maximum aperture this size since there’s not enough light for the camera to focus accurately. If you’ve got the 1D X, 5D or 7D series it will focus, but anything cheaper means you’ll have to rely on your manual skills.
If you’re looking for a 400mm lens, the choice must be pretty hard now. You’ve got the 100-400mm L, a cheap 400mm f/5.6L with no IS, an expensive and heavy 400mm f/2.8, and this 400mm f/4 DO that seems like a mix of everything. How to tell which prime to go with? If weight is the most important decision for you, get the DO version. If you’re trying to spend as little as possible, the f/5.6L is the winner, and if you want the most beautiful background blur and the ability to shoot in low light, get f/2.8. They’re all built extremely well and have focusing performance far superior to anything else.
3. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
On FF: 400mm | On APS-C: 640mm | Weight: 8.48 lbs / 3850g
If you have a full frame DSLR and shoot birds, 400mm is pretty much the minimum to get started. The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM is another pricey lens.
It is razor sharp in the center and corners, focuses quickly and is more or less like the 300mm f/2.8L, but with an extra 100mm.
That increase in length also comes with a few unwanted features. It’s a lot longer and heavier (8.49 lbs vs 5.19 lbs) than 300mm, and weighs almost twice as much as the DO version above. You’ll have to decide which one is more important; an extra f-stop of light, or less weight to carry with you. A monopod is a must for all of these lenses, but you still need to carry everything and sometimes it can make a difference between getting the shot or not going out at all. Despite complaining about the weight, the second version of this 400mm f/2.8L II is actually a lot lighter than the first version (8.49lbs vs 11.85lbs) and that alone would be a big reason for many to upgrade.
Like with the rest of Canon telephoto L lenses, it’s weather sealed and features SWC (type of coating) that reduces ghosting and improves contrast. Since dirt and water are easy to get on your gear when shooting, the front element uses fluorine coating that makes cleaning off any dirt or fingerprints way easier.
4. Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM
On FF: 600mm | On APS-C: 960mm | Weight: 8.64 lbs / 3920g
Lenses above too short? Let’s check out the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM.
It weighs a little bit more than the 400mm f/2.8L II and is a lot lighter than its predecessor. 600mm length is absolutely fantastic for both FF and APS-C shooters, where this turns into a 960mm lens! Even with the 1.4x extender, auto focus will work on all Canon DSLR cameras, whereas the 2x extender will only support AF on bodies like the 1D X, 5D IV and 7D II.
With 600mm, you can stay far away from your subject and not risk your life, or distract the animal. Even at f/4, the depth of field is super shallow and your background blur will look beautiful. In wildlife, the background is quite often just as important as your subject itself, especially if they’re not the same color.
A lens this big is also not something you’ll want to use without a proper monopod/tripod. Hand holding, you’ll probably last a few minutes before going back home. It does feature an Image Stabilization with 4-stops of help (1/30 instead of 1/500) but this only helps if your subject is not moving.
Completely wide open, it does display a little bit of chromatic aberration in the corners, but the overall image quality and sharpness are nothing short of amazing. It’s an expensive lens, but you get the best of everything! Auto focusing is super fast and accurate thanks to the Ring USM technology, so tracking your subjects whether they’re small or big won’t be an issue. The DSLR you use also plays a big role here of course, especially when shooting in bad light where more cross-type points is a big advantage.
When writing this guide, we had our minds on the Canon EF 800mm as the ultimate wildlife choice, but Bryan at TDP has said it well: the 600mm with the 1.4x extender is less expensive, lighter, has a shorter closest focusing distance and can always be used as a 600mm lens when 800mm is too long.
Our Recommended Wildlife Lenses
Consider this a shorter, more direct version of this entire guide. Simply what we think gives you the absolute most for your money and what we’d go with personally. Except for the Sigma lens, all of our recommended picks belong to Canon.
Even though all lenses above are awesome, sometimes less options makes it easier to decide.
- Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM – If you’ve got an APS-C camera and want something cheap and good, this is it
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C– For maximum reach with great quality. but a smaller aperture at 600mm, the Sigma is awesome and quite affordable
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM – Fastest AF, best build quality and weather protection, excellent optics
- Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM – The most affordable and lightest 400mm prime
- Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM – Big f/2.8 and fast AF make this a perfect lens for animals, but might be too short for birds on FF for some
- Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM – Optically great, fast AF, 4 stops of IS help, also a perfect combination with the 1.4x extender