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.
Best Nikon Zoom Lenses:
- Nikon 55-250mm f/4-5.6G ED VR DX II
- Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR DX
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM C
- Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
- Nikon 200-400mm f/4E ED VR
Best Nikon Prime Lenses:
- Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED
- Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
- Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
- Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
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 a DX camera you need to multiply the focal length with 1.5x to get the actual field of view. Because of the crop factor, DX 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 600mm lens instead of buying an actual 600mm lens. For more useful tips, check out the PhotographyLife post about wildlife focal lengths and Nikon’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 Nikon 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 SWM (or HSM for Sigma) technology as those types of motors are the quickest and nearly silent.
3. What About Teleconverters?
You can either use a 1.4x or a 2x Teleconverter. The former slows your maximum aperture down by 1 f-stop, while the latter does it by 2 stops. When using teleconverters, 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 teleconverter mounted turns into a 640mm f/5.6 beast. A maximum aperture of f/5.6 will focus on every Nikon DSLR, but when using the 2x teleconverter, that 400mm f/4 would turn into a 800mm f/8. Only a small number of Nikon’s can auto focus at f/8 and you’ll have to rely on your manual skills with cheaper DSLRs.
- Use teleconverters 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 Nikon Lenses for Wildlife in 2017
Widest to Longest
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1. Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II DX
The Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II is highly affordable and provides an excellent combination of reach, quality and size for the small price.
200mm is too short for wildlife or birds, but seeing as this is for DX cameras only, the lens is actually equivalent to a 80-300mm telephoto lens. It’s your best option if you’re not too serious about wildlife yet and just want something cheap that’ll get you close.
Its Vibration Reduction system helps you up to 4 stops, which can mean a difference between 1/250 and 1/15 in extreme cases. VR also makes your videos look less shaky which you’ll want if you record Full HD videos. In short, the 55-200mm is perfect if you want to start wildlife and sports on a tight budget.
2. Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR DX
If you know you’ll mostly shoot outdoors and don’t want to spend too much, check out the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G. It costs more than the 55-200mm yet offers better quality, focus and 100mm more reach.
Since this is a DX only lens, it means it’ll actually be equivalent to a 82-450mm lens once mounted on a DX camera.
Bokeh looks good due to 9 diaphragm blades compared to “just” 7 on the 55-200mm, and it also focuses quicker and more silent. However, both lenses will often hunt in low light so be ready to do a bit of manual focusing from time to time. Outdoors, this is rarely an issue. Build quality has also been improved and feels a lot less cheap/plastic, but in return the lens weighs more.
3. Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM C
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 Nikon 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 Nikon 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. It fits both DX and FX cameras.
4. Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
Released in late 2015, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is Nikon’s answer to superzoom telephoto lenses from other brands.
Image quality and colors wise, it’s almost identical to the Sigma above. Jared Polin (video here) compares it to the Sigma above and finds little to no difference in quality, but Nikon’s biggest advantages are the slightly bigger aperture at 500mm and a lighter weight. You do lose 50mm at its widest length, and 100mm on the far end.
Vibration Reduction helps up 4.5 stops, more or less a standard today and a must for shooting above 400mm. The lens is a little bit more expensive, but if the advantages it offers are important to you, it’s definitely worth it.
5. Nikon 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II
If you already know 400mm is more than you need (for FX or DX), check out the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G E VR II.
It’s not as long as the Nikon 200-500mm, but it’s got a 1 stop bigger maximum aperture which is very hand for wildlife early in the morning or in low light. This is one of the reasons why it costs almost 4x as much as the 200-500mm.
Speaking about the construction, you’ve got 24 elements in 17 groups. There are 4 Extra Low Dispersion elements, Nano Crystal Coating to reduce glare and Silent Wave Motor for quick and accurate auto focusing. For around $6000 you can expect to get pretty much the best there is.
The length and aperture make it a perfect choice for any type of action; sports, races, wildlife, planes etc. It’s even more awesome if you’re using a DX camera since it’s equivalent to a 300-600mm lens.
Best Nikon Prime Lenses for Wildlife
6. Nikon 300mm f/4 ED VR II
The Nikon 300mm f/4 ED VR II is your cheapest option if all you want is a high quality, affordable 300mm prime.
The length makes it good for bigger animals, but might be too short for majority of bird photographers. On DX cameras it’ll “turn” into a 450mm which is actually acceptable for plenty of birds, but it won’t be as long on FX cameras. You can always improve your skills and try to get as close as possible, which is what we recommend to you regardless of what lens you use!
It’s more expensive than the Nikon 200-500mm or Sigma 150-600mm, despite having less reach. What you’re basically paying for here is the faster AF, image quality and more compact design. It weighs 26.6 oz (755g) which is almost 3x lighter than the Sigma 150-600mm.
If you know 300mm is more than you need, and you’re okay with f/4, you’ll love the lens. Indoors, you’ll have to raise the ISO every now and then, but f/4 is more than perfect for outdoor shots. Hand held photography is a lot easier than with most other lenses here, and the Vibration Reduction helps up to 4.5 stops.
7. Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
If you find the 400mm below too long or expensive, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II is another great telephoto option.
It’s half the price of the 400mm and if you really need the extra reach you could perhaps get a 1.4x or 2x converter and still save a lot of money and weight (although quality and focus speed won’t be as good).
It features a new Vibration Reduction II system that works up 4 stops, and while hand holding is an option, we strongly recommend to use a monopod with it. It weighs 102.3 oz / 2900g 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 teleconverter, auto focus will work with every Nikon DSLR since the aperture at 2x is still f/5.6. Overall quality and focusing speed do drop noticeably, but it’s still very usable for fast subjects. On an DX camera, it’s equivalent to a whopping 450mm f/2.8 lens!
8. Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
There’s nothing better out there than the Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR. There’s also hardly anything more expensive than this lens, but if you’re serious about sports/action photography then you’ll love it.
The 400mm length has always been a popular among wildlife photographers and it’s just perfect for all types of light. With such a long focal length your depth of field looks shallow even when shooting with smaller apertures, let alone when using it at f/2.8.
It’s got excellent image quality at all aperture sizes, focuses quickly and accurately and has rich colors. It’s also heavy, big and you’ll need to use a monopod or a tripod if you plan on shooting for a long time.
Released in 2014, the lens naturally features Vibration Reduction which is a must if you’re using it without some sort of support. It’s doable, just not recommended.
9. Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
For shooting birds, you can never have too much focal length. The Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR is slightly cheaper than the 400mm above but that’s because the maximum aperture size is 1 stop smaller, even though you get 100mm more reach.
The image quality is fantastic, auto focus speed and accuracy are top notch and the lens actually weighs 2 pounds less than its previous version, which puts it at 109 oz (3090g). Definitely not something you can use without a monopod for a long time, but it helps knowing you’ll have to carry 2 pounds less.
You can expect these expensive lenses to have the best elements possible. The 500mm features 3 ED elements, 2 Fluorine elements as well as Fluorine and Nano Crystal coating. You’ve got Vibration Reduction, SWM for quick focusing and 9 diaphragm blades. Its closest focusing distance is 11.9 ft. (3.6m) but you’ll be shooting subjects that are much further away anyways.
If you’re not sure about owning a 500mm prime you could perhaps get yourself a zoom (Nikon 200-500mm or the Sigma 150-600mm) first and see how you like that range. The prime of course gives you a big advantage in image quality, aperture size and focus speed, but you need to carry more weight and have no zoom, not to mention a 7x higher price tag.
10. Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR
Our last spot goes to the Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR.
At this point, it’s more about how much weight and size you’re willing to carry in order to shoot birds. If you think the 500mm above is already too heavy, the 600mm comes in at 134.4 oz (3,810g).
Most wildlife photographers will always want more reach, but as we mentioned it previously, at some point you simply have to accept the price and size of the lens and work on your photography skills (as in getting closer), rather than buying more and more. However, if you really know 600mm is the bare minimum for your bird photography, location and work style, then get the 600mm by all means. It’s expensive but worth it.
You can also use it with a teleconverter to get even closer, not to mention it becomes a 900mm lens on DX cameras. With a max. aperture f/4, blazing fast auto focus and great image quality, this is a beast.
Put it this way. Most people who need the 600mm already know or have a lot of experience with other telephoto lenses and know what they need. If you’re one of those, get it, otherwise we recommend looking at cheaper zooms or using other primes with teleconverters.
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 Nikon.
Even though all lenses above are awesome, sometimes less options makes it easier to decide.
- Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR DX – Great for DX users that want something cheap, with lots of zoom and good quality
- 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
- Nikon 200-400mm f/4E ED VR – Fastest AF, best build quality and weather protection, excellent optics
- Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II – Excellent for low light and great optics. Better for bigger animals, but you can shoot birds if you’ve got a DX camera
- Nikon 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR – Big f/2.8 and fast AF make this a perfect lens for animals
- Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR – Optically great, fast AF, 4 stops of IS help, also a perfect combination with the 1.4x teleconverters.