Wildlife eagle sea

Lenses for Wildlife Photography

Get closer to nature than ever before

Wildlife photography is all about capturing your subject in its natural environment. You need to know the habits of your subject as well as numerous other factors e.g. where they are likely to be during the day, positioning of the sun in relation to your subject and how close you can get to your subject without disturbing it. Some of these factors will affect the type of lens you use on your shoot.


Knowing your subject

It’s important to try and plan what you’re going to shoot – e.g. if you are lucky enough to be in a wildlife park where the animals are enclosed, then you’ll probably know where they are likely to be found during the day, so you can then consider where you want to be in terms of light and distance from them. You may also want to think about the action you want to capture so consider the behavioral aspects such as when the animal is most and least active. If you want to shoot in a situation where it isn’t possible to plan what you’re going to be photographing, e.g. if you are on a safari, then you don’t always have the option of planning your shots, so it becomes a question of how far you are going to be from your subject and the types of animals you are going to see. All of these aspects will influence your lens choice.

Ponies sunrise relaxed
Taken with EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • f/5.6
  • 1/4000
  • 800

Keeping your distance

You may not always be able to get physically close to your subject, as it may be dangerous, or they may notice you if you get too close. That’s why a telephoto lens with a focal length of 300mm or above is generally used for wildlife photography, as this will offer a good amount of magnification, so you can keep your distance from your subject, yet still fill your frame. However factors such as the size of the animals you are photographing start coming into play, for example, if you’re trying to photograph a small bird then you are going to need a much larger magnification to capture its detail, something closer to 600mm.

Monkey climbing candid
Taken with EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
  • f/4
  • 1/80
  • 3200

Capturing Action

When photographing fast moving animals, such as cheetahs or birds, you will want to have the fastest shutter speed possible. By selecting a lens with a fast aperture you will be able to utilise more of the available light, helping you freeze your subjects motion and capture a sharp image. A telephoto lens with a wide aperture, such as the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, will make the most of the available light and still enable you to freeze action.

Whale tail ocean action
Taken with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM + 2x III
  • f/8
  • 1/1600
  • 400

Time of day

When shooting wildlife, you want to make the most of your available light source (the sun). There are typically three times of day that give you the best lighting for wildlife photography – morning, midday and dusk. The hour after sunrise and the hour before dusk are known as the golden hours. These times provide much softer light, as the light from the sun has to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere due to the position of the sun in relation to the Earth, this also results in longer shadows for a more dramatic effect. When shooting at midday you are provided is a much harsher light from the sun, this gives you higher contrast light from above and helps to eliminate long shadows across your scene.

Eagle flying sea action

Shooting conditions

When you’re trying to capture wildlife in its natural habitat, such as in the desert or on safari, then you might find yourself in some extremely harsh conditions where you need to know that your gear will perform, no matter what you throw at it. In these instances a lens from Canon’s L-series would suit you best, along with a camera body that provides some weather sealing. With weather and dust resistance you can have the confidence to stay out and capture images in the harshest of conditions. L-series lenses also have the added benefit of using Canon's most advanced optical designs and technologies for groundbreaking performance.

Two seals iceberg
Taken with EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM + 2x III
  • f/7.1
  • 1/1000
  • 800

How your camera influences your lens choice

Canon's EF-S lenses are designed exclusively for APS-C sensor cameras such as the EOS 760D and are not compatible with full-frame models such as the EOS 5D series of cameras.

EF lenses can be used with any EOS DSLR camera, but when an EF lens is used on an APS-C type EOS, it will give an angle view equivalent to a lens with a focal length 1.6x longer on a full-frame camera. For example, a 300mm lens used on an EOS 760D gives an angle of view equivalent to a 480mm lens on a full-frame camera, meaning that your subject appears larger in the frame.

Deer full frame sensor wildlife

FULL FRAME SENSOR

Deer APS-C sensor wildlife

APS-C SENSOR

Understanding aperture and shutter speed

Aperture doesn’t just allow more light in, it also helps to isolate your subject from its background as shooting at a faster aperture, such as f/2.8, reduces the depth of field. Having an understanding of the relationship between aperture and shutter speed is extremely important for photographers – especially when trying to shoot wildlife. For example, increasing the aperture by one stop (e.g. from f/4 to f/2.8) doubles the amount of light hitting the sensor, meaning that you can use a shutter speed that is twice as fast and allows you to capture moving subjects with ease.

Blue parrot claw wildlife
Taken with EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • f/2.8
  • 1/1250
  • 3200

Choosing the right lens

  • Do you need a lens that will get you close, without disturbing your subject? Then a lens with a focal length of 400mm or above would be suited to you, as they allow you to fill your frame without needing to get close.
  • Is your subject fast-moving? If so you’ll need a fast aperture (e.g. f/4 or f/2.8) in order to make the most of all available light, allowing you to increase your shutter speed. Faster apertures are found in prime lenses so you should consider these. 
  • Do you need a degree of resistance to shooting in harsh conditions? Then you’ll want to select a lens from Canon’s L-series range, for increased durability.

  • Do you need to be able to change your composition quickly, without moving? If this is the case then you should consider looking at a zoom lens in the 100mm to 400mm range, so that you have more flexibility of your composition without having to change lens or move closer to your subject.

Horses beach action wildlife

Push Wildlife further

Smaller wildlife

Macro lenses are a great choice for capturing insects, and other small wildlife creatures. These lenses allow you to keep a large enough distance between you and your subject (so you don’t disturb them), but allow you to fill your frame. A macro lens with Image Stabilizer such as the EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, allows you to shoot hand held in conditions that would normally require a tripod.

Macro butterfly colourful insect
Taken with EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
  • f/8
  • 1/400
  • 400

Tripod

The longer the focal length the more likely the need for a tripod will arise, as any shake from the camera body is exaggerated more and more the higher the focal length you use. Buying a lens with Image Stabilizer will dramatically reduce the need for a tripod by reducing shake. However, if you are waiting for a long time, you may have to keep the camera and lens in a fixed position. In this situation having a tripod or monopod available can be handy.

Squirrel frozen in motion wildlife
Taken with EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM
  • f/4.5
  • 1/250
  • 1000

Using Extenders

If your lens is compatible with extenders, you can easily expand the usage of your lens, as they allow you to get even closer to your subject. However, if you are going to use an extender you need to keep in mind that they will reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor. Using an EF 1.4x III extender will mean you lose 1 stop of light and a EF 2x III extender loses 2 stops of light. This will effect the maximum aperture of the lens and the highest shutter speed you can achieve, e.g. f/4 becomes f/5.6, which may not be ideal for photographing fast moving subjects.

Two seals sea action wildlife
Taken with EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM + 1.4x III
  • f/6.3
  • 1/500
  • 400

The professional choice Wildlife lens

EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM

This high performance L-series lens with 4 stop Image Stabilizer, is renowned for its ability to achieve amazing levels of sharpness, colour, contrast, even when a teleconverter is used to increase the telephoto magnification, whilst remaining unbelievably sharp.

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EF 300mm f2.8L IS USM pack shot

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