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The Best Telephoto Lens for Wildlife Photography: Buying Guide & Recommendations

written by: Jennifer Zimdars•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 1/19/2011

Photographing wildlife can be challenging in and of itself, but having a good telephoto lens and patience will go a long way towards getting that perfect shot. Below you will find recommendations for several lenses for photographing wildlife.

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    What To Look For In A Telephoto Lens

    It’s hard to pin down exactly what the best telephoto lens for wildlife photography would be, because you have to consider a number of things. First, where are you shooting the wildlife? Are you going to be in a zoo? Will you be going on a safari in Africa? The lens you choose will be priced for its features. The saying "you get what you pay for" is very apt in this situation. A lens with a lower f-stop like a 2.8 will cost more than one with an f-stop of 4.5. The quality of glass is another important factor and you will pay much more for name brand good quality glass than you will with off brands. Will you need an image stabilizer on your lens, probably not if you will be using a tripod or monopod for your shots.

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    Canon Telephoto 400mm f/2.8L IS Image Stabilizer USM Autofocus Lens

    This Canon lens is a beautiful, but extremely large lens. It is also bulky and heavy and will need to be on a tripod. It is a great lens for photographing wildlife and sports. It has 16 elements in it, the lowest f-stop you can get, an image stabilizer and it has an autofocus. This lens will run you about $7,000 for the “older” model and about $12,000 for the newer and lighter model. You really can’t go wrong with this lens, but if you need something just a little more, but can’t afford paying more consider a cheaper alternative of purchasing an extender, it will give you an added focal length, minus a few f-stops, but without the cost.

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    Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR Autofocus

    This beauty of a lens has a greater focal length at 600mm and is more expensive at over $10,000 new. This is a wonderful lens for capturing wildlife. It has the “Silent Wave Motor” feature that enables you to have quieter and faster functions. Beware that this lens is camera specific to certain cameras. Beware of using an extender with it that you will lose f-stops so you should use a tripod when using it.

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    Sigma 300-800mm f/5.6 EX DG APO IF HSM Autofocus Lens for Nikon AF-D

    This lens has incredible versatility with its focal range from 300 to 800mm. The f-stop is 5.6, but with the 800mm range you will not need an extender. It is not as costly at $8,000 through B&H Photo as its name brand counterparts, but still a very good lens. Also like its counterparts, it is also a heavy lens and should be used with either a monopod or tripod.

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    Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM Lens

    This prime lens produces quality images with fast focusing. It has a fixed focal length at 500mm and is excellent for photographing wildlife. Be sure to use a tripod when using an extender, although you will likely be using one anyway since this lens is also on the heavy side at 8.5 pounds.

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    Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens for Canon SLR Cameras

    While this lens does not have the focal length of any of the other lenses above, it is an excellent telephoto zoom lens that combined with a 2x teleconverter will get you a 400mm focal length, however you will lose several f-stops by using a 2x. This is also the least expensive option at $2,300. With this lens you will get consistently clean and crisp shots of wildlife. As with the other lenses featured here, it is a heavy lens so be prepared to buy a nice heavy duty strap if you won’t be using a tripod.

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    Sample contents.