Choosing Right Lenses for Wildlife Photography.

lenses

lenses

There is no single “Magical” lens that would give you out of the world images. Buying most expensive lens does not guarantee best wildlife images, however when it comes to optimising your image quality, it does help. Here is a list of things to be considered while choosing lenses for wildlife photography.

Lets talk about how to choose lenses for wildlife photography, especially  for Indian and African wildlife photography.

Ability to get close : Most wildlife photographers always crave more reach. Obviously, we have to stay at a safer distance from the wild animals for our own safety, for that reason we need the ability to get close to the wild animals and birds. The top brand long telephoto/prime lenses can be very expensive and may well be out of reach for most beginners.

Lets taken an example of 70-200mm lens. The minimum focal length is 70mm and maximum focal length is 200mm. When attached to a (full frame) camera body, when we are on 70mm, we can capture a larger area. This is ideal when we want to show the animals and their habitat. This is also particularly useful when shooting huge animals like elephants. We can gradually twist the ring on the lens and it moves from 70mm to 200mm and overs all focal lengths in between.

At 200mm, it takes us closer to the subject and we can fill the frame to show details. This is particularly useful we want to get a closer picture, without physically moving any further. This is also useful when we want to photograph small animals / birds and we want to fill the frame for a detailed picture.

Popular wildlife Photography focal lengths start from 70mm (wide shot) to 800mm (narrow shot). We will discuss particular lenses below.

Aperture of the Lens : Aperture, literally means opening. The bigger the opening, more light is going to come through the lens and will be used on camera sensor. Having a bigger aperture on a lens helps in blurring the background behind the subject and hence the subject in focus stands out in the photograph. Bigger aperture also helps in gathering more light, so that the photographers can take picture even in low light situations.

lenses for wildlife photography

Choosing lenses for wildlife photography

Wild animals tend to be most active before sunrise and after sunset (i.e. in low light). This is why, we should choose camera body with bigger sensor (full frame) and lenses with bigger aperture, so that we continue taking picture of wildlife in the available natural light.

Every lens model has different aperture and it is usually written on top of the lens. Now here comes the tricky part and most beginners get confused here. The bigger aperture (i.e. more light taking lenses ) have smaller F number and bigger F number indicates smaller aperture.

Let me explain with an example. Lets consider 2 lenses, Lens “A” which has F/2.8 as minimum aperture and lens “B” which has F/5.6 maximum aperture.

When the lens A is set to its maximum possible aperture, which is F/2.8 the amount of light coming on the camera sensor is 1/2.8= 0.3571

If I was to express that in % terms, out of 100% light only 35.71% light which reflected from the subject could reach the sensor of the camera due to the size , shape  (aperture) and material of the lens.

However, when I consider lens “B” which has F/5.6 maximum aperture, at its  maximum possible aperture, the amount of light coming on the camera sensor is 1/5.6= 0.1785

If I was to express that in % terms, out of 100% light only 17.85 % light which reflected from the subject could reach the sensor of the camera, again due to the size , shape  (aperture) and material of the lens.

Notice the difference, the smaller F number gives us 35.71% light whereas the bigger F number lens only sent 17.85 % light through the lens on to the camera sensor.

In order to gather more light (and keep the ISO noise low), we should choose lenses with smaller F number.

Build & Construction of Lens: Cheaper lenses tend to be made from plastic type material, which can break and may not last very long. Cheaper lenses may not be weather sealed, which means if you are out and about and it suddenly starts to rain or dust storm come your way, it can easily cause damage to the cheaper lens. The expensive lenses are made from metal and durable material , which lasts longer and capable of handling rough weather conditions so that the professionals can continue shooting, no matter what the weather condition may be.

Autofocus Speed & Weight:  Not all lenses are the same, some lenses are faster to focus and sharp. In relations to fast moving wildlife subjects, we should choose lenses which are fast to acquire focus on the subject and easy carry around. Heavy lenses are not for everyone. It takes stamina to carry them all day long and  practice to be able to focus them on the subjects. You are more than welcome to try these big/heavy lenses in our photography workshops/ safaris , free of cost!

Flexibility of shooting (Prime Vs Zoom Lenses) : One of the most important decision you would face before buying lens for wildlife photography is to go for prim lens or to go for zoom lens.What are the prime lenses and how are they different from the zoom lenses, one may ask.

Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses, where you can NOT change the focal length by rotating the ring on the lens.If you are too close to your subject, you would to PHYSICALLY back off until you achieve the desired composition. If you are too far from the subject, you would have to PHYSICALLY move forward to get the desired composition.

Lets take an example of a long prime lens, 500mm f/4 . if your subject is too close, and you are on a safari vehicle, which cant move any backwards (due to limited space or other safari vehicle standing behind), you are stuck!

If the wild animal starts walking in your direction and comes too close, your high caliber 500mm lens cant fit the animal in frame.

However instead of 500mm f/4 if you have a zoom lens (which goes from 200mm to 500mm and covers all the focal lengths in between), you can rotate the lens ring and take desired compositional pictures, without you or your safari vehicle PHYSICALLY moving backward or forwards. You get the flexibility to compose different shots are 200mm (showing wild animal with habitat) and also 500mm (taking a close up portrait of the same animal).

In my opinion, zoom lenses are very versatile and gives greater control for creativity. Prime lenses are built like a tank and since they do not have any moving part, they do not suck air or gather dust inside at all.

 

Ideal wildlife lens and camera body combination for Indian Wildlife Photography:

Indian wildlife is inherently shy, especially Tiger and Leopards. It is best to give them maximum space , keep your distance and shoot with a longer lenses, because sometimes these wild animals simply disappear behind thick bush if they don’t appreciate your presence.

We recommend full frame camera bodies, One main and one backup body, just in case your main body malfunctions for any reason.

For Mammals:

a) On the long end: At least 400mm lens, which includes 100-400mm, 80-400mm, 200-400mm, 200-500mm, 400mm fixed (prime), 500mm prime, 600mm or even 800mm prime lenses.

b) On the mid range: 70-200mm F/2.8 or F/4 lens (This lens also serves as a great portrait lens and many wedding photographer use it regularly)

c) On Wide angle side: 10-24mm or even 18-55, 18-105 and that sorts.

d) If the budget permits and you want to capture macro shots eg. insects, bees,frog or flowers, We recommend a true 1:1 macro lens. The macro lenses are also available in various focal lengths. For shooting flowers with 60mm macro lens may be enough but for shooting snakes and dangerous reptiles, you should get a longer focal length, for your personal safety (very obvious). The longer focal length will give you more working distance between you and the dangerous creatures.

For Indian birds, at least 500mm focal length with teleconverters is required.

 

Ideal wildlife lens combination for African Wildlife Photography:

African wild animals are bold and they can come very close to your safari vehicle. This means there is hardly any need for ultra long range lenses.

We recommend full frame camera bodies, One main and one backup body, just in case your main body malfunctions for any reason.

For Mammals:

a) On the long end: At MAX 400mm lens, which includes 100-400mm, 80-400mm, 200-400mm, 200-500mm, 400mm fixed (prime) lenses.

b) On the mid range: 70-200mm F/2.8 or F/4 lens (This lens also serves as a great portrait lens and many wedding photographer use it regularly)

c) On wide angle side: 10-24mm or even 18-55, 18-105 and that sorts.

d) If the budget permits and you want to capture macro shots of insects, bees,frog or flowers, We recommend a true 1:1 macro lens. The macro lenses are also available in various focal lengths. For shooting flowers with 60mm macro lens may be enough but for shooting snakes and dangerous reptiles, you should get a longer focal length, for your personal safety (very obvious). The longer focal length will give you more working distance between you and the dangerous creatures.

For African birds, at least 500mm focal length with teleconverters is required.

 

Summary & our recommendation: No matter how expensive camera body / lenses we buy, the gear alone may not give you the results and pictures you expect. Photography is about capturing right moments and showing something unseen to your viewers. We should be focusing on sharpening our photography & natural history skills first and then invest into suitable camera great to compliment your style of photography.

We should buy what we can afford and start shooting. Spending your money on wildlife photo safaris with an experienced photography safari leader is definitely recommended .It will be a great investment, which will enhance your portfolio.

Camera body alone wont give you the desired results. Also look at how to choose right camera body for wildlife photography.

Contact us on free advice on choosing right lenses for wildlife photography.

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