which lens?

Lenses are the most important part of photography equipment. Many beginners and non-photographers are surprised to hear this, but this is true: Only the level of colour noise depends on the camera; all other aspects of image quality are entirely associated with the performance of lenses. Although cameras are very complicated electronic devices, lenses are optical, electromechanical and electronic devices at the same time, hence they require a much more sophisticated engineering and manufacturing. Digital camera models have much shorter life cycles than lenses. Usually manufacturers need about a decade to make significant improvements to a lens that was already nearly perfect. Absolutely new and technically innovative lens designs appear very rarely. Cameras have a much shorter development cycle: Their models usually get updated more frequently — every 5 years at most; new and better models of cameras are even released every two or three years. Therefore, when we purchase a lens, we do it for at least 10 years, till we are forced to upgrade by competition and by technical progress. With cameras it happens much earlier. Therefore, if selected carefully, lenses serve longer than much of the rest of our equipment. Only supports (tripods, etc.) are more timeless.

Usually lenses are also the most expensive items in our equipment kit. While many have only 2 or even just one camera body, no serious photographer has just 1 lens per camera. 3 was the minimum number of lenses owned by the photographers whom I knew so far. I currently have 8 lenses. The cost of several lenses usually exceeds the cost of a camera many times.

Cameras are rather than lenses “many-purpose tools”: With the same camera you can photograph various subjects, in various photography areas and genres, while a certain lens is usually needed for a certain subject and genre.

All this makes the process of choosing lenses much more difficult than of cameras. While technical specification and a couple of independent reviews are usually enough for making a judgement about a camera, for a correct decision to purchase a certain lens you need to know very well your needs, be clear about ambitions and plans for the future, have a lot of practical experience with other lenses. When people are asking me for lens recommendations, I am, of course, saying: "Get the best lens you can afford!" This is my usual answer of the question "What lens I should buy?", and I explained the reasons of it in my earlier article — Choosing the Camera Brand. Unlike with many other things that may be overpriced, the price of a lens is usually a good indicator of its quality: Expensive lenses are usually better than cheap although many cheap lenses are quite good. A much more difficult question is “Which one?” Every lens has its specifics, and the choice of lenses depends on a number factors that may be different for different photographers. Therefore, a universally applicable and straightforward answer isn't possible to give.

This article should be a general overview of choices a photographer has and of recommendations based on my own experience and knowledge. However, I am not going to give definite recipes — “To shoot this, take this lens...” It is the reader who should draw conclusions and make decisions.

Although I use Canon equipment I am mentioning lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras. This shouldn't be understood as a recommendation to choose either of the brands but only as an example of lenses with a certain focal length.

what about sony?

Sony is a very innovative and very promising brand of photographic equipment. However, most lenses for Sony cameras are made by other manufacturers. Although some lenses are really good, there is not a so wide variety of them as for Nikon and Canon. Therefore Sony even recommends to use lenses made for other systems via an adapter with their α series of full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses.
When I was writing this article Sony was still rarely used by nature photographers. Therefore, I didn't discuss the lenses for this platform in depth. However, everything I have written here is valid for Sony too.

parameters and characteristics

There is a usual misconception that in certain areas and genres of photography lenses with certain technical characteristics are to be used. I often see people writing or saying that, for instance, a 14mm lens is a “landscape lens” and a 100mm one is “for portraits”, etc. This is an extremely simplistic and counterproductive point of view. In reality a photographer chooses a lens not according to the subject but according to the way how he wants it to be depicted. Landscapes can be photographed with ultra wide-angle and with super telephoto as well. Portraits shot with wide-angle lenses often look more dynamic and impressive than those that were shot with a telephoto lens.

The focal length is the most evident technical characteristic and the key parameter for choosing a lens. According to my observations, a photographer decides to get a new lens much more often because he needs a lens with a certain focal length. Therefore, also in this article I structured the discussion of lenses based on this characteristic. The focal length of a lens can be either constant (fixed) or variable. The short name commonly used for lenses with variable focal length is zoom, and lenses with fixed focal length are usually referred to as prime. I described the advantages and disadvantages of both these kinds of lenses in the article Prime vs. Zoom. Actually the biggest practical difference between them is in the need for the photographer to move which greater with prime lenses. Therefore, it is easy to decide which type of lens if better for you: If you can't or don't want to move a lot when you are photographing, a zoom lens is what you need.

Since a single zoom lens can have a wide range of focal lengths, it is difficult to discuss them together with prime lenses. Therefore, I am going to maintain the division between prime and zoom lenses also in this article and treat them separately.

Once the need for focal length is clear, other parameters apply in the following order:

  1. Special features and capabilities, such as tilt-shift, fisheye, zoom, work distance, etc.;
  2. Resolution;
  3. Contrast and colour rendering;
  4. Aperture range (maximum and minimum);
  5. Out-of-focus rendering (bokeh);
  6. Level of chromatic aberrations and flare;
  7. Distortion, vignetting;
  8. Autofocus;
  9. Image stablisation;
  10. Protection against dust and moisture;
  11. Build quality, brand.

Once you know what focal length you need, technical specialities and features is the next important thing for lens choosing. In some cases, you have to decide, for instance, if the lens should be with mechanically adjustable optical system — so-called, “tilt-shift”, or if it should be a fisheye type lens, or if you only should need a zoom lens for you work and not a prime... Also you may need to make a decision about focusing distance that you subject would require. This parameter is very different even in the lenses with the same focal length. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers clearly show it in the technical details of their lenses probably because they think that it isn't an important information. In some areas of nature photography this parameter may play an important role however. For instance, a very short focusing, or working, distance is required for making close-up photographs of small animals so that the surroundings are also visible in the resulting image. Another parameter magnification ratio that is usually stated in the description of lenses is related to minimal focusing distance.

When you know all this and know how much money you can spend, it's time to start looking for the best lens that fits into this framework of requirements and limits. When assessing and comparing the quality of various alternatives, resolution is the most important quality aspect that photographers normally look at. The resolution results in sharpness, so when someone is talking about a “sharp” lens, he is meaning that this lens has good resolution, i.e. can capture finer details. There are at least three reasons to want the highest resolution. First, the more detailed the image the larger can be the presentation of it, i.e. the larger can be the print of it, or the higher the resolution of the screen it will be displayed on. Of course, modern computer screens or projectors have still a much lower resolution than cameras. However, it is increasing rapidly. For the time of writing, so-called “4K” monitors, i.e. capable of displaying a 8Mp image at 100% size, were already entering the mass market. The first “5K” screen was released 2014 capable of displaying 14.7 Mp. This means that your 14 Mp photographs can be presented on it without size reduction. Certainly, it isn't the limit, and the resolution of screens will continue to grow. Also new high-resolution or very large display media will appear in the future. Therefore, if you want your images still to look good on large format prints and electronic media in the next decades, you have to produce them with maximum possible resolution already now.

The second reason is related to resolution of the recording media, i.e. of the imaging sensors of our cameras. Lenses made for film cameras don't provide adequate resolution for modern digital camera sensors. Although adapters for such lenses are still available, using them even with 5 Mp cameras doesn't make sense. The same problem arises with low-end lenses that were produced for digital photography when you attempt to use them with high resolution cameras. Currently only the best lenses can provide adequate resolution for 35 Mp or 50 Mp sensors of modern full-frame cameras. Due to the natural limitation caused by the optical phenomenon of diffraction it is unlikely that the lens resolution will grow in future far beyond the already achieved maximum. However, we can expect the majority of cameras to have 30-50 Mp sensors very soon. This means that low-quality lenses that we buy now won't be useable anymore.

The third reason why you need maximum resolution is more typical for wildlife photography. Too often images of wild animals need to be cropped during postprocessing for better composition. This happens, for instance, because the animal has moved in the frame before you released the shutter or because the distance was too large so that the subject appears too small in the photograph. Obviously, the more detailed is the image the more space is available for cropping. Cropping leads to enlargement of the rest of the image because the physical dimensions of the output medium remain constant. For instance, if you planned a print on a 60x70 cm paper sheet but cropped the digital original by 15%, thus reducing its size, the paper sheet size will still remain the same. In the consequence, only 15% less content will be printed, or in other words, the remaining 75% of the original instead of 100% will be stretched to fit the 60x70 cm large medium. Everything in the image will be enlarged by 15% in that case. As a result, a not very sharp and not very detailed image will then look even worse.

The best lenses provide a more or less uniformly sharp image all over the frame surface. However, not very many are so. The wider the lens the more prone it is to sharpness fall off at frame borders and in the corners. Also aperture plays a role: The majority of lenses deliver the sharpest images at apertures that are at least 1 stop smaller than the maximum and 1 stop larger than the minimum while the sharpness improves further towards the middle of this range. For instance, a good lens that has f/1.4 maximum and f/16 minimum aperture would be sharper in the range between f/2.0 and f/11. The best sharpness will be at the aperture around f/2.8-f/8. A wider range of sharpness is another reason that makes us wish lenses with wide maximum aperture. Lenses with aperture starting at f5.6 will usually be good only at f/8 and f/11. While in wide angle lenses f/16 is the most used aperture, in telephoto lenses the sharpness may noticeably decrease already at this aperture value. Aperture of f/22 and f/32 is generally considered as useable only in extremely good lenses that are free of other optical imperfections, such as chromatic aberrations. Otherwise the image will be too blurry due to the effect of diffraction. The urge for such extremely narrow apertures exists only in macro photography. In other areas, f/16 is the upper limit that is enough for the required depth of field.

For all new lenses, it is easy to find information about resolution. Manufacturers are the first source of it because they always publish in the announcements of the new lenses the so-called MTF charts — graphical presentation of resolution and contrast. Resolution is of course the main parameter that the reviewers always test. They do it through photographing either so-called ISO resolution charts or any objects with fine details — postal stamps, banknotes, etc. Then they evaluate and compare the sharpness in the middle, a corner and sometimes at the border of the image shot with different aperture and, in zoom lenses, at different focal length. When you are looking for a new lens, study the official MFT charts and the results of several tests from independent reviewers and make your decision accordingly.

Contrast is the next issue photographers usually pay attention to. Through contrast the ability of the lens to gather and to transmit to the sensor the luminance and the colour of the scenery is described. Good lenses should do it without loss of detail in the image. Therefore contrast and resolution always go together. Photographers talk sometimes about “micro-contrast” meaning the contrast of fine detail. This contrast can't be as easy corrected in postprocessing as the general contrast of the entire image. Therefore it is important that the lens is capable of capturing the finest details with sufficient contrast.

Usually photographers praise lenses that provide more contrast over the entire image. The colour in such images looks more intensive already when they come out of the camera. Of course, brightness and contrast can be adjusted afterwards in the process of RAW format conversion or in the editing software, but more photographers seem to prefer stronger initial contrast and like the lenses that provide it. I often have heard people saying that Nikon lenses have better contrast and criticising Canon. Indeed, contrast is among things that I like in Carl Zeiss lenses more than in Canon.

Although contrast is displayed in MFT charts, viewing sample images of various subjects at 100% size (so-called 100%) is a better method.

Aperture range is important for choosing lens for several reasons. Two of them are quite obvious: First, a wider aperture allows a higher shutter speed and provides a shallower depth of field; second, a narrow aperture results in more depth of field, thus has an advantage in macro photography or for telephoto lenses. Another reason was already mentioned above: The wider the total aperture range the wider is the range with better sharpness.

A shallow depth of field causes problems with small subjects but in many situations it is preferred because the majority of photographs that the nature photographers create are portraits of animals. A blurred background is one of the basic requirements of this genre. Of course, a shallow DOF is of advantage when there are too many objects in front and behind the photographed subject. This a very usual case, for example, when the subject is in grass or in a tree.

The blur pattern in out-of-focus parts of the image (referred to as bokeh) differs in various lenses and even can be a speciality of a certain brand. Sometimes photographers even are looking for lenses with a special kind of bokeh. Fortunately, it is a parameter that is very easy to evaluate: Just look at sample shots done with the widest aperture and decide if you like the blur.

Also a number of quality related issues exist that photographers aren't so often confronted with but would want a lens to be free of it. They may become evident in certain lighting conditions. Colour fringing, or chromatic aberration (CR), is one of them. It appears at the edges between very light and very dark elements of an image. Chromatic aberrations can be hardly found in the images made with wide-angle lenses, but lenses with greater focal length may be more prone to it. Modern RAW converters and photo editors can correct the CR very well, and it is isn't a knock-out criterion in lens choice. There are no lenses that are completely free of it like there are no lenses that don't have other issues that are normal to any optical system, such as flare, i.e. a phenomenon when the light is reflected by the optical elements inside the lens. Unlike CR, flare can't be corrected in postprocessing automatically. Some flare artefacts can be removed through retouching, but it is a very annoying and destructive for the image pixels work. To recognise and to evaluate how strong lens flare is, you need to look at photographs done at various aperture when the light source was in the image, for example, the sun shining across the image from one of the corners. If the artefacts that you see won't appear to you as too bad, you may decide to take the lens. Don't be very critical, remember that literary all lenses have such issues and ask yourself how often you are going to shoot against the sun.

Distortion is a common problem of wide-angle lenses. Some ultra wide lenses produce images where only objects that are in the middle of the frame preserve their shapes. There are two types of distortion — barrel/pincushion and perspective. Strong barrel distortion is normal for the so-called fisheye lenses but may be irritating elsewhere. Strong perspective distortion is typical for wide-angle lenses and many people don't perceive it as disturbing in landscape photographs. However, in images with clearly rectangular objects, for instance with trees, it may be particularly unwanted. Certainly, distortion is particularly noticeable in close-up photographs of animals. Some people can live with it and even regard it as an artistic effect, but for my taste, it is just an imperfection that should be avoided or corrected whenever possible.

To a certain extent both kinds of distortion can be corrected in postprocessing, however, always with loss of some parts of the image. Even if automatic correction is possible, for it to be effective the distortion should be uniform: If there is, for instance, a barrel distortion, than it should not be interrupted in some parts of the image. Look at sample images and decide yourself if you like what you see. If the distortion appears too strong or non-uniform, look for a different lens. A tilt-shift lens is the best solution of the distortion problem. Such lenses are also free of many other issues, such as non-uniform sharpness, strong flare, vignetting, etc. However, all this to a somewhat higher price than of normal wide-angle lenses.

For some kinds of photography and for some lenses, autofocus and image stabilisation are either required or nice to have. Autofocus is absolutely important in wildlife photography, when the subject is moving or may move at any moment, or when you just need to change the focus quickly and precisely. Autofocus is a standard feature in telephoto lenses. However, the speed and precision of it is different in various lenses of various manufacturers. Autofocus is not needed in macro and landscape photography. Macro lenses usually have it, but in mine I never turn it on. Wide-angle and ultra wide-angle lenses are normally with manual focusing only.

The same applies for image stabilisation (or “vibration reduction”, in Nikon terminology). Both, in Canon and Nikon equipment it is not the camera but the lens that should provide image stabilisation. Image stabilisation isn't necessary in landscape photography and is even thought to be disturbing and should be turned off when the camera is mounted on a tripod. It is, however, absolutely required for telephoto lenses used in wildlife photography. All such lenses made by Sigma lack image stabilisation, and therefore are not useable in very many cases when the photographer has to handhold the camera.

A nature photographer would want a lens that is protected against harsh environment influence — is sealed against dust and moisture, has scratch resistant finishing. Most lenses aren't so. The best protection against dust and moisture is in the big super telephoto lenses of Canon and Nikon. These are also lenses with most scratch proof paint. Since such lenses are usually carried open and used sometimes in bad weather conditions, you should always ensure that the wildlife lens that you are considering to purchase has some kind of environmental protection. Unfortunately, most other lenses aren't so. All Carl Zeiss lenses have at least very stable finishing and due to exceptionally good build quality are very sturdy. They are an exception. Even expensive lenses of other manufacturers are completely unprotected and very prone to scratches. Among them, tilt-shift lenses are particularly prone to dust and moisture. Also the black paint of current Canon lenses is quite unstable and begins to get off already in the first field use.

Build quality shouldn't be your main concern if it is going to be an expensive lens of a renowned manufacturer. Normally, such lenses have good or very good build quality. However, it is important to look at it in cheaper lenses. In some cases you'll have to decide if you should get a cheap lens and be careful when you use it, or to get a more expensive one that may be more reliable and sturdy. Anyway build quality shouldn't be the main reason for your decision. Other parameters discussed above are much more important. Personally, I would take just the lens I need, even if I would see that it isn't very well built.

As I already wrote in my article about choosing the camera brand, I don't regard price as something one should first look at when choosing the equipment. If we can't afford something, the too high price is an obstacle, and not a factor that makes us not to want or not to need that item. Our needs and wishes aren't defined by prices, hence the cost of a lens isn't regarded here as a choice parameter though I am giving a hint about the price range of lenses in a certain focal length range as a number of dollar signs ($) corresponding to the number of digits in the price tag. For instance, $$$$$ means that prices start from 10.000$, and $$$ — that they are less than 1000$ but more than 100$. Except when you buy it used, an SLR lens that is suitable for nature photography wouldn't cost less than 250-300 dollars, or euros, or pounds. Even the cheapest lenses made, for instance, by Korean companies aren't cheaper. Usually, depending on subjects and personal requirements, a nature photographer has to be prepared to pay more, much more for lenses. An average price of good lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras varies between 700 and 1500 dollars (or euros, or pounds).

Of course, I am aware that many people can't afford top-priced lenses. Then they should consider the less expensive alternatives. I will suggest them in gray boxes in this article. With some subjects, such as birds and many other animals there is simply no cheap way to quality photographs. Everyone who is serious about wildlife photography has to be ready to pay dozens of thousands for equipment, or to choose subjects and photography techniques that would require less expensive equipment. For example, someone who can't pay 15.000$ for a 800mm lens, can have a 300mm one for 6000$ and find a way to get closer. If even 6000$ is too much money, then one can use a wide-angle lens for 700$ or less and go even closer to the subject. If it shouldn't be possible, other subjects are still there, such as landscapes, plants, invertebrates, etc.

Also a word needs to be said about lenses for cameras with imaging sensors that are smaller than 36x24 mm — so-called APS-C, or “cropped” sensor cameras. This topic is specific for Canon and Nikon technical platforms because other manufacturers make exchangeable lens cameras either only with 36x24 mm (Sony, Leica) or with smaller sensors (Olympus, Fuji, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Sigma). While APS, i.e. full-frame, lenses in Canon and Nikon are absolutely compatible with APS-C sensors, there are restrictions for use of lenses for APS-C sensors with APS cameras. In Nikon, an APS-C lens (identified as “DX”) will fit the mount of a full-frame camera but will render a correspondingly (1.5 times) smaller image. In Canon, the EF-S lenses are made exclusively for APS-C cameras and won't fit a full-frame camera at all. Some manufacturers of expensive hi-end lenses, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach, make them only for full frame. Sigma and Tamron produce different lenses for APS-C than for APS. Sigma marks such as “DC”. Tamron's APS-C lenses may be more difficult to recognise. The compatibility with Canon and Nikon will be the same as of native lenses. Therefore, owners of full-frame cameras have to watch what lens they are buying. If it is a APS-C lens and you have an APS camera, in Nikon, there is no reason to have a lens that won't render the whole frame, in Canon, such a lens won't be useable at all.

So why do APS-C lenses exist when an APS lens can fit both types of cameras? The lower cost ist the main cause of popularity of APS-C cameras. Obviously, a budget camera needs a budget lens. EF-S and DX lenses in Canon and Nikon are just so, as well as their equivalents produced by Sigma and Tamron. APS-C lenses usually accompany a camera body in a so-called “kit” — a set of a camera body and lens sold together, and many occasional users of SLR cameras are completely satisfied with them, or buy another such lens they learn about from a magazine or a discussion in the Internet. Also it is obvious that for a lens to be low-cost also technologies, know-how, materials and manufacturing of APS-C lenses should be low-cost. APS-C lenses made by Tamron or even by Sigma may have similar quality as APS lenses of these manufacturers. The APS-C lenses of Canon and Nikon can measure only with their low-end APS lenses. Some APS-C lenses can deliver images of decent quality but still aren't good enough for serious photography. Personally, I never have seen a professional or semi-professional photographer using them although there are even professionals who use APS-C bodies at least as a spare camera. I too don't use them, never had one and don't recommend anyone who has serious ambitions in photography. Therefore, I just omit APS-C lenses in the following discussion in this article. All lenses that I am mentioning further are for APS sensors.

fixed focal length lenses

As explained in the article Prime vs. Zoom, fixed focal length, or prime, lenses generally have a reputation to be more sharp and less prone to typical problems of systems with many optical elements, such as flare or chromatic aberrations. The bad thing with primes is that you need several such lenses for the focal length range of a single zoom lens. Using several lenses means having more weight and volume to carry. Even more important for nature photography is the other disadvantage of prime lenses: Exchanging lenses takes time that a photographer quite often hasn't. Much more often than for any other reason, I miss shots because I take a lens out of the bag, remove the lens previously used, attach the new one, put the previously used one into the bag. During this procedure not only your subject will have time to escape or the light will change, but there is high risk that you drop the camera or a lens and break it because you are in a hurry or tired. Certainly, also dust and moisture may enter the camera body when I am doing this.



The focal length of 600mm and more is simply a must for a serious wildlife photographer. With some subjects, often even 800mm isn't enough, but currently no longer lenses are in production. Therefore, we use teleconverters (TC, or focal length extenders). (Note: Since the goal of a photographer should always be to obtain a perfect image already “as shot” and not with extensive postprocessing, I am not taking in consideration a possibility to crop the image in a processing software. We also live aside a “reach extension” through use of a APS-C, or so-called “cropped frame” camera that has a similar effect, but already during shooting.)

Lenses with focal length greater than 400mm are usually referred to as super telephoto. Also 300mm and 400mm with maximum aperture of f/2.8 belong to this category because their focal length may be increased with a teleconverter up to 600 or 800 mm. To begin with wildlife photography, 300mm focal length and f/2.8 is an abosulute minimum unless the photographer has another smart technique allowing a very short distance to the subject. If subjects are small and the distance to them can't be reduced, for instance birds in canopy, 500mm is the focal length to start with. Obviously, the shorter the telephoto lens the more often the distance to the subject will be too large for a good photograph. When I had a 300mm f/2.8 lens, I rarely was using it without a TC. Even now when I have a 600mm lens, I need a TC for at least a half of the shots — mostly for birds and shy small mammals.

All of us would want a 600mm or 800mm lens with f/2.8 or wider aperture, but unfortunately no such lens exists. If someone would try to construct such a lens with currently existing materials and technology, the result would have a monster size and weight. 5.6 is the maximum aperture available for 800mm lenses. The aperture of 600mm lenses usually starts with f/4. Such lenses also offer an extremely narrow minimum aperture of f/32. Honestly, I don't know know what is it for, when even f/22 is generally not recommended for use because of diffraction.

Only top-quality lenses have good performance with teleconverters. Since a TC reduces the maximum aperture by 1 or 2 stops, the lens has to have a large maximum aperture. In fact, only lenses with maximum aperture f/2.8 - f/4 can be used with both teleconverters — 1.4x and 2.0x. If it is f/5.6, only a 1.4x teleconverter can deliver acceptable results. With a 2.0x the maximum aperture becomes f/11 which is too dim for real use. Therefore, a 600mm f/4 lens is, in fact, better than a 800mm f/5.6. With it you can have 600mm, 840mm and 1200mm focal length while only 800mm and 1120mm are possible with a 800mm f/5.6 lens. Therefore, 600mm f/4 is the first choice of a wildlife photographer.

Honestly, I don't see what 800mm f/5.6 is for and why it exists. Maybe there are use cases such as some areas of sports photography or surveillance when a bare 800mm may make sense. However, there is for sure no reason for a wildlife photographer to purchase it.

When I was going to purchase a new super-telephoto lens I had a hard time considering all pros and cons of possible alternatives. Finally I decided to go for the best but most expensive of them and wrote my argumentation for this choice in a blog post that I am giving here in a grey box below. It is about a lens for Canon but would also be correct for Nikon as well.

why should you buy a $12K lens?

I am sure, for the majority of people spending, or saving, thousands of dollars is a serious matter that is worth to be considered carefully. I also belong to them – not only because I am not swimming in money, but also because I always know that there will be an opportunity for me to invest the saved money into something good elsewhere. At the moment, I have again a hard time deciding if I should save several thousands of euros choosing a cheaper from several alternatives or just to pick the best one.
If I should buy such an expensive piece of gear, is for me out of question, however. If you are serious about what you do and want to achieve the best results, you have to use proper tools. A couple of years ago I read in a discussion on an Internet forum a remark that the price of such a lens is outrageous because it is “like of a car”. Yes indeed, you can buy a new car for a similar amount of money. So what? Then don't buy the car if you can't afford both. For a photographer the equipment has clear priority, therefore the choice should be obvious – the lens. (Not to mention that one can always buy a used car very cheap - so what are we discussing?)
A much more appropriate question is again: Which of several alternatives makes sense in terms of money saving or spending? This time I am choosing a super telephoto lens that should become my main wildlife photography tool for at least the next ten years. Of course, every Canon shooter (and not only) knows that EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is not only the best super tele currently on the market but most probably the best telephoto lens this company has ever made. It is also one of the most expensive DSLR lenses, hence the reasons to purchase it and the alternatives need to be considered very carefully. To make it easier for someone who may need to do the same, I decided to share my thoughts and arguments in brief below.

600mm vs. 500mm: focal length
The closest alternatives of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II among Canon lenses are the 500 mm f/4 and the 800 mm f/5.6. The first – EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II – has similar high image quality as the 600 mm but is a little lighter and a little cheaper: It weighs about 700 g less and costs about 2000$ less. It looks like a significant difference, and it is indeed. However, these advantages are being relativised by the much greater reach of the 600mm. Additional 100mm of focal lens result in increased magnification by 1.44x compared to 500mm. Therefore, the same  subject would fill 44% more of the frame produced by the 600mm lens. Since more pixels would be captured, the noise to detail ratio will be improved. As a consequence, sensor noise would be much less recognisable and would much less disturb the detail. If compared with my old 300mm lens, it will be even a 4x increase in magnification!
The difference in price between EF 300mm 1:2.8 L IS USM II and EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is almost 100%, i.e. the 600mm costs almost double the price of 300mm. The EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II costs about 2000-2500$ less than 600mm. This may also look significant if you consider that you can get a full-frame camera body or a couple of lenses for that amount of money. The choice should be made according to your personal situation and requirements. Someone who urgently needs a new camera or other lenses may prefer to go for 500mm. However, normally a photographer choosing a super telephoto lens would have other equipment. For me the increase of overall image quality mentioned in the above paragraph is a reason strong enough to make me invest more in the lens and to choose the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II.

600mm vs. 500mm: weight
The difference in weight between 600mm and 500mm is in the version II of these lenses not as significant as in the version I. The old 600mm lens was 5.4kg heavy while the 500mm was only 3.9kg and was considered by many wildlife photographers as hand holdable. In both, the image stabilizer, with 2 f-stops of shake compensation, was inferior to current one that is able to compensate for 4 steps. Therefore, both lenses were being used with tripods by most people.
Now the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II weighs as much (or as little?) as formerly the EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM. Both, 600mm and 500mm, lenses can be regarded in current version II as suitable for handholding although most people would probably still mean that they are heavy and prefer to use a tripod. So the weight isn't such an important reason for choosing 500mm anymore.

600mm vs. 800mm
The EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM has been an outstanding product among Canon lenses since its announcement in 2008. It took Nikon 5 years to release its counterpart. Despite a narrower maximum aperture of f/5.6 it has some improvements over the much older EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM. It was 1kg lighter, had a higher magnification, better IS and some handling improvements. The f/5.6 aperture was still wide enough to create nice out-of-focus background blur at such large focal length. While EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM could be used with teleconverters, this didn't make much sense with EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM whose aperture was becoming too narrow. However, it wasn't necessary regarding such a large focal length. The image quality of this lens was at f/5.6 better than of 600mm used with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Of course, the price of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM was proportionally higher than of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM – 14,000$ vs. 10,000$ – but the improvements and benefits were worth it, and for someone who could afford it was the #1 choice.
Then, in 2011, Canon introduced the new generation of super telephoto lenses. This changed the situation completely: Now the EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM is outdated and inferior to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II in every aspect. With an Extender EF 1.4x III the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II has similar the same maximum aperture f/5.6 and even a little greater focal length (840mm) than EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM but outpurforms it in image quality, weighs less, has better image stabilisation, and is more versatile (because the focus length can be decreased to 600mm). This all for a similar price of around $12,000-13,000. Nowadays, a purchase of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM isn't worth a consideration anymore, and I am wondering who is buying it.

600mm Mk. II vs. Mk. I
The only reason to think about purchasing the Mk. I version is the price. With about 7.000$ for a used one, it is about 1/3 cheaper than a new Mk. II. However, we should remember that it is a cost of a used vs. new lens. The Mk I is now out of production, and you won't find it in a shop anymore.
The EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM appeared on the market in 1999 and had some real improvements in comparison with the previous non-IS version. Canon seems to update its super telephoto lenses every decade. So it is to expect that the current EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II that replaced the previous generation in 2011 will remain up-to-date till 2021-2022. The history of these lenses has showed that the prices were remaining more or less at constant level till the lens was replaced by a new version and the old one was taken out of market. Will you really be happy for the next 10 years with a lens that has worse image quality, is much heavier and technically outdated, but priced at 7000$ – still very expensive? For me, I doubt it. The improvements of the new version are so great that I certainly would be disappointed with Mk. I and would want to sell it very soon if I would buy it now. Having bought a used lens and saved 30% now I most probably will loose more money again trying to sell it again and to buy the Mk. II version in the next couple of years.

Canon vs. Sigma
Sigma has been making 500mm and 800mm super telephoto lenses for Canon mount for awhile. Despite a much lower price, both failed to become popular wildlife lenses, however – not just because they lack image stabilization and are very heavy. The image quality they deliver is noticeably worse and doesn't justify the price that is still quite high. Therefore, most photographers preferred to pay more for the first class lenses that Canon was offering.
In the last couple of years Sigma has greatly improved its lens technology, so that some new lenses are on par with Canon lenses or even outperform them. As a result, we can expect this company to produce a super telephoto lens some day in future that would be on par with Canon lenses. However, this is only a theoretical possibility and not yet a fact. Therefore, it doesn't help much those of us who need a lens right now. Since we don't know plans and road map of Sigma regarding development and production of new lenses, we can't rely on it.
Of course, the above argumentation against 500 and 800mm also applies for Sigma lenses. To be a real alternative to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II a Sigma lens has to have similar optical quality and technical features (IS, autofocus, weather protection, low weight...) and the same focal length and aperture. More than that: I has to be cheaper. Will it be ever possible? Who knows...

There is one more consideration in favour of 600mm vs. 800mm that I didn't mention in the blog. I use my 600mm very often when I am holding it in hands or on a monopod. Even if it is with a 2.0x teleconverter and the focal length is 1200mm I can obtain very good images even at f/8 aperture. Someone may argue that the focal length with 800mm will be 1600mm in that case, and longer reach is so desirable in wildlife photography. However, there is a downside of this improvement: Extra 400mm is a huge increase of reach: when already with 1200mm you notice even the slightest vibrations when you a look through the viewfinder even if the lens is mounted on a tripod. In the past Canon had built a 1200 mm f/5.6 lens and sold only several dozens of items priced at 120.000$ each. Having the weight of 16kg it could be used only with a very stable tripod. Certainly, such set-up was able to completely prevent shakes and vibrations. Theoretically, it might be possible to use that lens with a 1.4x TC to achieve 1680mm and f/8. With modern more lightweight, though technically more advanced lenses, a good image quality simply may not be possible to achieve, particularly in situation when no heavy and bulky tripod can be used. Thermic air turbulences, dust or smoke particles in the air are the next reason why quality photographs of very small or distant objects a rarely possible at focal lengths above 1000-1200mm. Overall, it appears that 1200mm is the upper limit in current lenses when the image quality is still good.

So, not because I own such a lens myself, but for all reasons discussed above, my definite recommendation as a basis for serious wildlife photography will be a 600mm f/4 lens. For the time of writing the world best among such lenses was Canon EF 600mm 1:4L IS II USM. The Nikon counterpart AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm 1:4G ED VR was older, hence much heavier and technically inferior. An update — AF-S NIKKOR 600 mm 1:4E FL ED VR — was already expected. So, when you'll be reading this text, a similar to Canon or even better lens may be already available for Nikon.

Also for this lens, you'll need two teleconverters — 1.4x and 2.0x — to achieve 840mm and 1200mm focal length. You will need teleconverters also for all alternatives given in the box below.

A 600mm f/4 lens is one of the most expensive lenses currently in production. However, it isn't a luxury but an important tool of a wildlife photographer! If you can't afford it or don't want to spend such money, you can choose one of the alternatives that I am suggesting below, but be ready to a compromise either in image quality, or in usability, or in flexibility, or in availability of subjects.




Such lenses offer the same image quality as 600mm f/4 but not so high magnification. Obviously, a 500mm f/4 lens is smaller, more lightweight and cheaper. For a price difference between 600mm and 500mm you can get another full-frame camera body or up to 3 lenses with short focal length (wide-angle, standard, or short tele). Therefore, if your budget is tight, this option is really worth to consider.



The difference between 500mm and 400mm in real images will be bigger than the difference in numbers may appear. Therefore, in my opinion, 500mm f/4 should be preferred, particularly when your subjects are small or distant. However, 400mm lenses can be with f/2.8 aperture and may allow the use of both teleconverters at the same time, i.e. stacked. Also the performance with 2.0x TC alone may be better: You'll get 800mm f/5.6, and the image quality will be similar to that of a bare 800mm lens. For photographers who usually shoot only large and not very shy animals, the 400mm f/2.8 may be a better choice even than 600mm. Also at low light this lens has a clear advantage.



Only those 300mm lenses that have f/2.8 initial aperture are super telephoto and can be used in combination with teleconverters. This is a “poor men's” way in wildlife photography that was mine, too, for some time in the past.

Both, Canon and Nikon offer these lens models. Sigma also produces a 300mm f/2.8 lens that has mounts for several camera systems. 300mm f/2.8 is the only Sigma super tele that I can recommend, though only as the last chance to enter wildlife photography. Like other super teles of this manufacturer, in current version, it has no image stabiliser, but otherwise it is an almost excellent lens.

Currently, I would warn of buying Sigma telephoto lenses for Canon and Nikon rather than recommend them. Generally, Sigma makes excellent lenses and offers some unique lenses that other manufacturers don't produce. However, their super telephoto lenses with fixed focal length currently in production lack image stabilisers and offer a very moderate image quality. Since they aren't cheap, too, although much cheaper than of Canon and Nikon, I regard a purchase of such a lens as a wrong investment. A much better alternative for the same money should be an older version of Canon or Nikon super teles. But note: I am writing this in early 2015. In the next years Sigma may surprise us.



There are two kinds of subjects that require this focal length range: 1) small animals, such as amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates; 2) large animals that are very close. If you have a super telephoto lens instead, in the first case you can use it with a macro extension ring with quite good results. In the second case, however, you'll have to run away of the subject till it fits in the frame.

Typical macro lenses, i.e. those that provide 1:1 magnification ratio at minimal focus distance, have focal length within this range. The best macro lenses for nature photography are with 150mm and 180mm focal length (or 200mm for Nikon). Although, this is a telephoto range, macro lenses are normally extremely sharp when focused at close subject (up to 1-1.5m), and often too soft when focused at remote subjects or at infinity. With a teleconverter the image quality remains almost the same as of the bare lens.

For people who frequently photograph small subjects a macro lens is a must. There are, of course, other solutions, such as use of extension rings or add-on lenses with standard or telephoto lenses, but a dedicated macro lens gives the best image quality. A 180mm or 200mm macro lens should be the first choice. I highly recommend EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM for Canon, AF Micro-Nikkor 200mm 1:4D IF-ED for Nikon, or Sigma Macro 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM for both platforms. The Sigma lens is extremely good and much less expensive. The main reason to go for Nikon or Canon is the use of telconverters. If you need them also for a Nikon or Canon super tele, it is better to have also the macro lens of these manufacturers because the same TC can be used also with it. For a Sigma lens Sigma teleconverters are necessary. It is not a problem, however, if macro photography is your speciality, and you don't have a super telephoto lens or plan to purchase one in future.


150mm-300mm (macro)


The 150mm Sigma macro lens is a less pricy alternative to Sigma and Canon 180mm or Nikon 200mm, and at the same time more “save” investment than Tamron 180mm (see below). This lens is of the same excellent quality as 180mm and works with both TCs and is, in my opinion, the best opportunity for a less frequent macro photographer who doesn't want to spend more on a 180-200m lens. A somewhat shorter working distance than of 180mm is the only disadvantage of this lens. With a 2.0x TC this lens becomes 300mm, and the distance to the subject can be much larger. Since the image quality doesn't noticeably suffer, this makes this lens a really great alternative.

100mm-200mm (macro)


Tamron offers currently the least expensive 180mm macro lenses that should be also very good. Someone who is looking for an even cheaper alternative may consider a Tamron ($$$). Currently there is SP AF 180mm F/3.5 Di LD[IF] MACRO 1:1 both, for Nikon and Canon (and for several other camera systems). It makes sense, however, only if you need a bare 180mm and never are going to use it with a teleconverter otherwise the absence of a Tamron TC would be the biggest drawback. However, it the situation for the time of writing that may change in the future. Technically Tamron macro lenses may be compatible with Sigma teleconverters, but I have no information about the resulting image quality, hence can't recommend such a combo.

If you want to stick with only one brand but aren't ready to spend much for a 180mm macro lens, 100-105 mm lenses of Canon and Nikon may be another alternative. Currently Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM and AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm 1:2,8G IF-ED are so. They are particularly useable if you photograph only small subjects, i.e. don't need a large distance. In terms of saving money this option isn't very good though because both lenses are quite expensive ($$$$). In the same price category, getting a 150mm Sigma should be a better way.

Of course, there is a less expensive ($$$) 105mm lens offered by Sigma that is similarly good as Canon and Nikon. The current version of it is Sigma Macro 105mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM.

Some other telephoto lenses with focal length range around 100mm or less are called and marked by their manufacturers as “macro” if they offer a magnification ratio up to 1:2. Unlike true (1:1) macro lenses render sharp images also of a distant subject, i.e. can work as normal telephoto lenses. Among them, Zeiss Macro Planar T* 2/100 should be the first choice. It is not as suitable for photography of small subjects as specialised macro lenses but is more versatile, at least than 100-105mm 1:1 macro lenses. Like all Zeiss lenses, it is high priced ($$$$) but worth every cent you pay for it.

<100mm (macro)


Even shorter than 100mm macro lenses are of more limited use in nature photography. Since they require a much shorter distance to the subject, the best use area for them is photography of small slowly moving or static subjects — invertebrates, flora fragments, minerals, etc. A famous lens of this type is Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1. It offers excellent image quality. However, I would recommend it only to someone who regularly shoots subjects not larger and not quicker than a caterpillar. Even more this applies for 1:1 macro lenses with even shorter focal length — 40mm or 60mm — that are offered by Nikon.

For Canon users and specialists in really tiny things my number 1 recommendation would be the legendary MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro ($$$$). It is a unique lens with a very special area of use, thus I am not suggesting it as an alternative for anything discussed above. I am mentioning it here only for completeness of this discussion of macro lenses. No counterpart for Nikon mount currently exists.

Why do I recommend a longer tele-macro lens rather than a shorter, i.e. 180-200mm and not 150mm or less? The greater focal length the larger can be the distance to the subject. This has two important effects. First of all, it is more convenient if your subject is shy. Most lizards and butterflies are so. Or it may be a dangerous animal — such as a venomous snake — that you may want to stay away of. With a 2.0x teleconverter that doubles the focal length you can increase the distance to the subject even further. Better out-of-focus blur (bokeh) is the second effect. Smooth background is a standard requirement in macro photography. With the same subject, a longer lens would render the background more nicely blurred than a shorter.

If you happen to get very close to a large animal with your super tele, it may not fit into the image frame anymore. For such situation, a shorter focal length would be perfect. However, the least of us would probably walk around with two prime telephoto lenses ready for shooting. Stepping or going back, thus increasing the distance, is not always possible in wildlife photography because the animal may just disappear in the meantime. This is a situation when a zoom lens has a clear advantage. Currently, I have no zoom lenses, therefore the problem of having only one 600mm super tele in hands is mine, too, and I remember how many times already I wished a second, shorter telephoto lens.

For anyone who can manage it to have two large lenses at the same time in the field, my definite recommendation would be a 200mm f/2 lens as a companion to the above recommended 600mm f/4. Currently such lenses are AF-S NIKKOR 200 mm 1:2G ED VRII for Nikon and EF 200mm f/2L IS USM for Canon. They are expensive ($$$$) but absolutely amazing. Of course, they are perfectly compatible with teleconverters. Even with a 2.0x TC the maximum aperture will be only f/4 while the focal length will increase to 400mm.

Low light photography is another use area where such lenses really shine. Also some special cases when smaller animals need to be photographed from a distance of a couple of meters, such as small rodents, bats or hummingbirds require 200-300mm focal length.

Of course, adding a 200mm f/2 to an already very expensive super telephoto lens would be a too big investment for many photographers. Fortunately, there are a couple of alternatives that can satisfy even professional requirements. However, none of them is nearly as good as 200mm f/2 because most of them lack image stabilisation, have too narrow aperture; none can be used with teleconverters.




I do not discuss here the “luxury” option at all — carrying around a 300mm f/2.8 lens — because this lens is too heavy to be combined with a super tele and because it costs more than 200mm f/2 which is a far better option for this purpose. I owned a 300mm f/2.8 and sold it when I got a 600mm f/4 because using both lenses didn't appear to me really possible.

For 300mm there a f/4 lens is the lightweight and relatively low-cost option that I would suggest instead. The one for NikonAF-S NIKKOR 300 mm 1:4E PF ED VR — is currently more expensive than for Canon but still around 2.5 times cheaper than the 200mm f/2. The Canon counterpart — EF 300mm f/4L IS USM — is even 3 times cheaper.

A good thing with these lenses is that they have an image stabiliser. Other alternatives don't.



For Canon there is an excellent lens 200mm f/2.8. It is small, has large maximum aperture, excellent build quality, and renders very good images. All this to a moderate price. The version EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM of it was available when I was writing this article. Lack of image stabilisation is the only important deficit it has. Therefore, I am mentioning it here not as the first alternative.



There is a popular 400mm f/5.6 that exists only for Canon, however. For the time of writing, Canon was still offering only the older version EF 400mm f/5.6L USM, and it was unclear, if an update should ever be expected.

It is small, lightweight, very sharp and for this focal length, relatively inexpensive. Lack of image stabiliser and too narrow aperture make the use of this lens difficult. Obviously, teleconverters can't be used with it, too.

Photography of large animals from a car (“safari”) is the only area that comes to my mind where I would expect good results from a 400mm f/5.6 lens on regular basis. I wouldn't seriously recommend it for any other uses. Anywhere else it would be either too short or too long, and always too dim.



A number of very good lenses with focal length 135mm are being made by Canon, Nikon and other manufacturers. They all can be used in wildlife photography under some circumstances. However, they are generally, too, short, and therefore not optimal. Image stabilisation is absent in all of them.

Such lenses are also quite pricy. So there is no particular reason to prefer them except when you use it elsewhere — for instance, for travel photography or human portraits.

Among 135mm lenses for Canon, I personally would choose Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135. Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM is, of course, another option. For Nikon there is AF DC-Nikkor 135mm 1:2D. When you'll be reading this article, there may be already successors of these lenses on the market. Also Sigma is rumoured to work on own 135mm lens.

Landscape photographs are additional area of use of short telephoto lenses although such occasions are less frequent than with wide-angle and shorter telephoto lenses that I am going to discuss in the next sections.



I recommend this focal length range for landscape and flora photography. These lenses are perfect when you photograph thick vegetation and want that your images really show it. For me, such lenses are essential in forests, woodland and mountains because of their ability to compress the composition rather than to stretch it as the wide-angle lenses do.

In this range, 85mm lenses should be the first choice. They all have a very wide maximum aperture — f/1.4 or even f/1.2. The sharpest lenses for Nikon and Canon are in this group. The best 85mm lens is currently Zeiss Otus 1.4/85 but it is also the most expensive. Therefore, I don't recommend it, unless it is going to be your main working lens. Sigma may produce (or already will have released when you'll be reading this) a lens that would be close to Zeis Otus in terms of image quality but cost a fraction of that price. The same applies for a cheaper but still expensive and phenomenally good Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM that Canon photographers may really enjoy. For more occasional use, a less expensive alternative would make more sense. My current choice among 85mm lenses is Zeiss Planar T* 1,4/85 that I love and would certainly recommend. It is less expensive than other 85mm lenses for Canon mount but renders very beautiful images. Nikon users have a choice between the relatively moderately priced AF-S NIKKOR 85 mm 1:1.4G and Zeiss lenses.



Overall, there are two typical use areas for the lenses in this range: 1) landscape photography; 2) wildlife photography with automatic or remotely controlled cameras.

50mm focal length results in a view field that is close to that of a human. Therefore such lanses are traditionally referred to as “standard”. They are of limited use in nature photography although sometimes it is just nice to have that what-you-see-is-what-you-get effect. For instance, when you see a beautiful landscape, with such a lens you can expect the same look in the image that you have shot. For most other situations, 50mm is either too short or too long. If you want such a lens, you can choose from many options — from very cheap to very expensive. Among them I recommend either Sigma Art 50mm F1,4 DG HSM or Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 2/50. The first is extremely sharp while the second could be used also for macro photography due to magnification ration of 1:2.

The lenses with focal length 30mm, 35mm, 40mm play an important role in landscape photography. Everyone who seriously shoots landscapes needs one of such lenses. My current recommendation is 35mm f/1.4. For the time of writing, the best such a lens in terms of image quality and price was made by SigmaArt 35mm F1,4 DG HSM. In my photography practice, is is a kind of walk-around lens: When I am going somewhere with a camera and want to take with me just one lens, most usually it is the 35mm f/1.4.

When used for shooting medium sized and large animals from near distance with an automatic or remotely controlled camera lenses in the focal length range 30-50mm deliver a naturally looking image with no or only minimal distortion. The view field is wide enough for capturing the entire animal and the surroundings, but at the same time not so wide that the camera needs to be too close to the subject like with a wide-angle lens.



This is a classical landscape range of focal lengths. Even for a photographer who shoots landscapes occasionally, it should make sense to have one of such lenses. 21-25mm is the middle of the wide-angle range in classification of lenses. Therefore, I particularly recommend such a lens for people who want to have only one “landscape lens” for occasional landscape photography.

From currently available lenses, both, for Canon and Nikon owners my first recommendation would be Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/21 ($$$$). Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L ($$$$) is a more sophisticated lens for Canon for that Nikon has no counterpart. Optically and mechanically it is one of the most advanced lenses made by Canon and it is one of the best lenses this company has ever produced in terms of image quality. Overall, tilt-shift lenses are certainly the first choice for serious landscape photography.

Two other lenses in this focal length range that are currently made by Canon and Nikon have very wide maximum aperture, and therefore are suitable for photography of night skies. Particularly, AF-S NIKKOR 20mm 1:1.8G ED ($$$) is so due to a wider view field. It looks like the best choice of a Nikon photographer who wants to shoot landscapes at night. Unfortunately, Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM has a longer focal length and therefore a narrower view field. It is also quite expensive ($$$$), so it makes sense only for someone who frequently needs such a wide aperture. Currently, the less expensive ($$$) equivalent from Sigma — Art 24mm F1,4 DG HSM — looks like an excellent alternative to the Canon lens, but not to Nikon that is still wider and cheaper.

20-25mm lenses can be used also for wildlife photography with remotely controlled or automatically released cameras. However, due to wide angle the distance to the subject should be even shorter that with 35 and 50mm lens. This is not always possible.



In a situation when space is limited, you may need such a lens for your camera trap or remotely controlled camera setup. Otherwise, landscape photography is the main use area of lenses in this focal length range.

Most such lenses have a protruding front element. This makes them prone to damages. Also front attached filters are difficult to use. Lee offers an adapter that allows attaching their filter holders. However, such adapters may cause vignetting.

For Canon owners with serious interest in landscape photography I would strongly recommend a tilt-shift lens. Currently, Canon offers TS-E 17mm f/4L that is certainly the best lens in this focal length range. Unfortunately, there is still no equivalent for Nikon cameras.

Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 is the only lens this category with a flat front so that 82mm screw-in filters and filter holders can be used with it without any problems. There are versions of this lens with Nikon and Canon mount. I own this lens and have reviewed it a couple of years ago — see Zeiss Distagon T* 3.5/18 ZE. I still recommend the Zeiss 18mm lens for both systems without any reservations for photographers who want a prime lens in this focal length range.

Otherwise, if I needed such a wide lens and wouldn't mind that it has a protruding front element, I would get one of excellent zoom lenses that are currently produced by Nikon and Canon (see discussion in the next section).



14mm-15mm is the lowest limit in focal length of APS lenses used in nature photography. The 12-24mm Sigma and the 11-24mm Canon zoom lenses that I am going to mention again below in the discussion of zoom lenses are the only exceptions I was aware of for the time of writing.

In my opinion, such lenses are too wide for general landscape photography. It may be my personal taste, however. I don't like how the lenses with focal length less than 20mm render landscapes in many situations. They pull out the foreground and make the background look small. This works well for wide vistas or cases when an object in foreground should be the main content of the photograph. So 17mm is for me the lowest bound that I still would choose for a landscape shot under certain circumstances, for instance, for sea shore or desert. 14mm or 15mm is a lot wider. Therefore, I am not recommending such lenses for general landscape photography although many others do it. If you really need a prime lens with 15 mm focal length for landscape photography, Zeiss Distagon T* 2,8/15 ($$$$) is one that I would recommend. Other options at the same price and quality level are 14mm lenses made by Nikon (AF Nikkor 14mm 1:2.8D ED) and Canon (EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM).

However, 14mm-15mm lenses are important for other area of photography which is one of my favourite. It is photography of small animals (small mammals, amphibians and reptiles) in their environment.

Both above mentioned 14mm lenses are suitable for photographing such subjects because they can focus at a distance of only 20cm. However, for best results the photographed animal should be at least 10cm large.

Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal-Fisheye is the most popular lens for such kind of photography. It is capable of focusing at a distance of only 15 cm, so that the subjects can be even smaller than for 14mm lenses. It also costs less ($$$). I recommend this lens as a great value for money, although the Canon and Nikon may be a better alternative because of lower distortion.

The Sigma lens is also good for panoramic photography due to its huge view field (around 120°). However, the Canon and Nikon 14mm may be better than Sigma for normal landscape shots. Therefore they look like a better investment for photographers who need a lens both, for close-up shots of small wildlife and for landscapes.

what about those korean lenses?

There is a Korean brand known as Samyang, or as Walimex (in Germany), or as Rokinon and Bower (in the US) with a number of prime lenses for Canon and Nikon (and for various other systems) that are much cheaper than of other manufacturers. Overall, they aren't bad. Particularly, I have read good opinions about 14 f/2.8 IF ED UMC. They aren't as good, however, as the lenses of the leading manufacturers. With exception of 24/3.5 Tilt-Shift that is awful, the image quality is okay, but not superb, i.e. it can't be compared with that of Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and even of Sigma and Tamron lenses, not to mention the build quality. I don't see any reason to buy a lens that would produce mediocre images with your expensive full-frame camera. When you will be reading this article, the situation may change and the quality of Samyang (or whatever the name) products may improve further. So, if your budget is very tight, you may check the Korean lenses.

variable focal length lenses

Currently, all my lenses are with fixed focal length. Although all of them are the best in class, I am often envying the owners of zoom lenses because they don't need to change the lenses too often and because they carry fewer lenses. The resolution of the best zoom lenses is so high that this advantage of prime lenses doesn't play an important role nowadays even when images are made for large format prints. Although prime lenses are still generally sharper, the number of sharp zoom lenses on the market is constantly growing.

Except 600mm-1200mm the whole range of focal lengths required for nature photography can be now covered by zoom lenses in both systems, Canon and Nikon. Choosing a focal length when it should be a zoom lens is not a problem at all: You don't have to ask yourself whether you'd need 100mm or only 85mm because you get all focal lengths between 70mm and 200mm included if you purchase a 70-200mm zoom lens. The approach to buying zoom lenses is very simple: Get several lenses that will cover the maximum range of focal lengths you'd need.

More zoom lenses are better than less. As a rule, the larger the range of focal lengths the worse the image quality. So do never purchase super-zooms, i.e. lenses with very large range of focal lengths! They are very handy, and occasional snap shooters love them, but any serious photographer would be disappointed with the image quality they render. The zoom lens Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM is a famous example of such a lens. It is very comfortable when you travel, but the image quality was for Canon an epic fail. Finally they made a decent lens EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM that can be nicely combined with Canon's classic EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM so that the image quality is much better and the focal length is about the same. Even the weight of this combo is the same as of EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM alone that is nonetheless still in production.

Typically lenses with the same aperture along entire focal lengths range are better than those with varying aperture. For instance, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM is a better lens in terms of image quality than Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM.

Don't plan to use teleconverters with zoom lenses. They may work with some of them that have f/2.8 maximum aperture but the image quality will suffer more than in prime lenses. Even the famous Sigma 200-500mm F2.8 EX DG that Sigma suggests to use with a 2.0x TC isn't an exception (see a comment in the box below). In other zoom lenses the widest aperture is f/4 or even f/5.6. With a 2.0x TC it would be f/8 or f/11 — too dim for real use.

what about sigma 200-500 f/2.8?

In 2008 Sigma introduced the first 500mm lens with maximum aperture f/2.8. In reality it was not a great deal because 400mm f/2.8 had been on a market for awhile. A much more remarkable feature of this lens was that it was a zoom. The Sigma 200-500mm F2.8 EX DG is still in production although not so many copies of it were presumingly sold. For the company this lens appears to be more of symbolic importance than as a market runner. The Sigma 200-500mm F2.8 EX DG is 72cm long, has a diameter of 23cm and weighs almost 16kg. For this reason alone it is not a lens for casual use. The autofocus is powered by a separate battery that needs to be charged. Like all current Sigma super teles, it has no image stabiliser.

The technical progress has moved further, and this lens isn't the sharpest among current super telephoto lenses, but it was one of the sharpest back in 2008, when it was first released — particularly at f/4-f/8. Sigma recommends to use the 200-500 f/2.8 with a teleconverter (included in the kit) to achieve focal lengths 400-1000mm. However, when you do it, the image becomes very soft — too soft when measured with modern standards that the current prime lenses of Canon have defined. Even the 800mm f/5.6 with a 1.4x TC renders better images at even greater focal length — 1120mm.
Sigma positions the Sigma 200-500mm F2.8 EX DG as a lens for wildlife and sports. Although I can imagine a sports photographer with a huge tripod using it in a stadion, no wildlife photographer would seriously use it.

The preferred for wildlife photography maximum focal length of 1000-1200mm can't be reached with lenses that have variable focal length (except the above mentioned Sigma) because teleconverters can't be used. The longest currently existing zoom lens Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM is often called “Sigmonster”. It has no image stabiliser and weighs almost 6kg, thus can be used only with a very stable tripod. For this reason the “Sigmonster” isn't really suitable for wildlife photography unless it is done from a hide or a safari car. Even then due to the quite high price a purchase of this lens doesn't make much sense when there are prime lenses with much better capabilities for not much more money. Hopefully, Sigma will improve this lens some day, making it more lightweight and providing an IS. In that case my negative judgement wouldn't be valid anymore.

Focal length up to 600mm can be achieved with current zoom lenses. This is usually enough when you are shooting from a hide, a car or a boat. If you photograph when you are walking around and searching for subjects, I recommend a 600mm or 500mm prime lens with teleconverters instead or in addition to the long zoom lens that you use when you are staying in one place and can't move.



To current state of the technology, convenience it the only reason to use a zoom lens in the super tele range, i.e. greater than 300-400mm, because the image quality will always noticeably suffer. The best lens that allows focal length up to 800mm is currently made by Canon. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x is relatively compact and light weight. Since the maximum aperture is f/4 theoretically it can be used with a 2.0x teleconverter, and there were reports about decent quality of images shot at 800mm. With the built-in 1.4x TC the image quality even at 560mm is excellent for a zoom lens although not as great as of a 600mm or 500mm prime lens. For car and hide photography this lens is the best choice in terms of reach and image quality. However, it's high cost ($$$$$) makes all these advantages relative. Personally, I would prefer the 600mm f/4 plus 200mm f/2 combination of prime lenses (discussed above) instead.

Nikon photographers have a less expensive ($$$$) but also less technically advanced option — AF-S NIKKOR 200–400 mm 1:4G ED VR II. Although I wouldn't recommend to use it with a 2.0x TC, it can render decent images with a 1.4x TC even at 560mm, thus looks like a great additional lens to a 600mm prime.

Personally, I think that no zoom lens still can compete with prime lenses in super telephoto range of focal lengths. Therefore I don't recommend any zoom lens for use as main super tele for serious wildlife photography. For people who often photograph in tropical and subtropical regions from cars and boats, and can live with 600mm maximum reach my main recommendation would be among current lenses Sigma Sports 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM. With f/5-f/6.3 it isn't very fast, but in terms of quality and cost ($$$$) looks like a bargain. For other situations, I recommend a lens with fixed focal length of at least 500mm.



70-200mm zoom lenses are classic reportage lenses, favoured by many photo journalists worldwide. In nature photography, they are suitable for at least three kinds of subjects — small animals, large and not shy animals, landscapes. 70-200mm lenses are compact, relatively lightweight, thus convenient to use and to carry. They are produced by Canon and Nikon, but also by Sigma and Tamron for Canon and Nikon mounts.

Currently Canon has three versions of 70-200mm in production — f/2.8 with and without IS, and f/4. I would recommend a f/2.8 lens with image stabilisationCanon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM — because it is so good that you can use it even with teleconverters. The same applies to the Nikon counterpart — AF-S NIKKOR 70–200 mm 1:2,8G ED VR II.


70–200mm f/4


The versions with f/4 — Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM and AF-S NIKKOR 70–200 mm 1:4G ED VR — are much cheaper but due to narrower aperture of more limited use. Instead I would recommend the Sigma f/2.8 lens70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM. It is a little more expensive but not really worse than Canon and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8.



Both Canon and Nikon offer such odd lenses — EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM and AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70–300mm 1:4.5–5.6G IF-ED. The Nikon ($$$) costs about the same as 70-200mm f/4. The Canon is almost twice as expensive ($$$$). Both have a variable aperture and overall render less sharp images. Some people love them, however, because they are more compact.



For Nikon it is currently AF-S NIKKOR 80–400 mm 1:4,5–5,6G ED VR. Canon's counterpart has 100mm at the shorter end — EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. 400mm is the only advantage of these lenses. However, considering that they are still too short for wildlife, their disadvantages seem to be more serious: too narrow aperture, not so good sharpness, high price.



This focal lengths range is a transition between wide angle and short tele and is more important for landscape photography. Many landscape photographers would use such a lens probably more than the rest. For a beginner in landscape photography this would be the lens I would recommend to get as the first because focal lengths around 20-25mm, 35-50mm and 70-85mm are required for at least 80% of landscapes.

This focal lengths range is also optimal for close-up photography of wildlife with remotely controlled or automatically released cameras.

Both, Nikon and Canon have excellent 24-70mm lenses — currently, AF-S NIKKOR 24–70 mm 1:2.8G ED and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. Both aren't cheap but should be the first choice if it should be a replacement of prime lenses in this focal length range.




Currently Canon and Nikon offer great lenses in this range of focal lengths — EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17–35 mm 1:2.8D IF-ED — that are very good alternatives in terms of image quality. However, these focal lengths aren't good for someone who wishes his lenses line-up to be gapless. For someone who needs focal lengths between 35mm and 70mm purchasing a 24-70mm lens makes more sense.

The f/4 lenses in this range are less expensive ($$$) although not so good as with f/2.8. These are Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 16–35 mm 1:4G ED VR and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM. They are a good alternative for photographers looking for a less expensive equipment. (Note: Nikon's lens has even an image stabiliser.) Currently Canon still offers an even cheaper option — Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM.

All these lenses aren't bad, but I would recommend them only for people who aren't going to need longer and shorter focal lengths in the future. Otherwise, either focal lengths would overlap or there would be gaps.

Tamron 15-30mm


There is Tamron SP 15-30mm F/2.8 Di VC USD for Nikon and Canon (and Sony) mounts. It is cheaper than AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 17–35 mm 1:2.8D IF-ED and much cheaper than the corresponding Canon lens — EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. According to sample images that I have seen, the image quality is very impressive, and this might be a real competitor for Canon and Nikon. I don't know this lens and therefore can't recommend it from my experience. I only recommend to consider it as an option because this lens might be awesome. A very positive thing is the longer range that covers all wide angle focal lengths needed for landscape photography — 15mm, 24mm and 30mm. Personally, I would prefer this lens to the above mentioned f/4 lenses.

Super zooms


Generally I don't recommend them, and above I've already explained the reasons. 24-105mm or 24-120mm zooms aren't so extreme, but still you should expect decrease of sharpness, particularly at the longer end. Currently, Canon's lens EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM (or maybe soon already its successor) is popular because it is being bundled for sale with camera bodies. Its Nikon counterpart is AF-S NIKKOR 24–120 mm 1:4G ED VR. There is also a lens from Sigma24-105mm f4 DG OS HSM — that has more or less similar image quality. All these lenses are good but not excellent. They make sense for someone who often works with this focal lengths range and wants to change lenses less frequently. If so, my choice would be the Sigma because it is less expensive, and there is no reason to spend more for a not perfect lens. Maybe in not so distant future these lenses will improve. Therefore my critique applies only to the current status of them.



There are two fantastic lenses in this range — Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM and AF-S NIKKOR 14–24 mm 1:2.8G ED. They are the best ultra wide-angle lenses. For landscape photography, I would recommend them even more than any ultra wide prime lens. However, for close-up shots of small animals you would still need a prime lens because the focusing distance of zoom lenses is too large.


Sigma 12-24mm


Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM II isn't nearly as sharp as Nikon and Canon but was for a long time the only such lens for Canon mount and therefore became popular. It is much cheaper and can still be an alternative for someone who needs such a zoom. However, I am not recommending it because it isn't sharp enough for use with modern high-megapixel cameras.



Only Canon has a zoom lens with this focal lengths range — EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM. To me it looks like very good lens for two use areas — panoramic and underwater photography. For close-up photography its focusing distance is somewhat too large. I'd recommend this lens only for real zoom freaks who can't stand lenses with fixed focal length. Otherwise this is a case when there are prime lenses that would do the job better.

my lens choices

Many photographers publish an equipment list at their websites on a dedicated page. I never completely understood the goal of this. Maybe they want to get an advertisement contract with equipment manufacturers, or are just showing off... Or maybe it is just a tradition. Anyway I don't follow it — first of all because equipment means nothing about the work of the photographer; second, I update my equipment quite often, and maintaining a list of it for the public would be too much effort which I consider as useless. Therefore you won't find a list of my current gear at his site.

In this section I am describing my set of lenses as it was when I was writing this article. It may change when you will be reading this text a couple of years later, and this list won't be up-to-date anymore. However, this isn't what it is for. My goal is to give examples of why and how certain lenses are being selected.

I have only lenses with fixed focal length. There had been 2 zoom lenses in my kit but I have sold them 4 years ago. The reason was simple: I saw prime lenses with better image quality. As I already mentioned — I am a big fan of the idea of variable focal length lenses in general, but haven't got any zoom lens yet that I liked more than an equivalent prime.

A half of my lenses have no autofocus, and even in those that do have I almost never use it. The 600mm tele is the only lens where I always have autofocus turned on. The IS is always active, too, when I am handholding it; but usually I turn it off when the lens is on a tripod.

Except Canon EF 600mm 1:4L IS II USM I have no lenses with image stabilisation. Most prime lenses have no IS; some manufacturers, such as my favourite — Carl Zeiss — don't make lenses with image stabilisation at all.

Currently, I own the following 8 lenses. It took me 6 years to select and purchase them, and now I am regarding my lens kit as almost perfect. I use all these lenses more or less frequently. This is actually my main reason to keep or to sell a lens: When I see that I don't use a certain lens often anymore and that another one among my lenses can do the same job, I sell it immediately. Don't ask me which lens of these 8 is my favourite: I love all of them, otherwise I wouldn't keep them.

(Note: All sample images shown below are full, i.e. non-cropped, frames.)

These lenses I have owned:

The following are lenses I'd like to have (in order of priority):

I haven't got these 7 lenses yet because I regard them as luxury and not as something that I really need and am going to use very often. For instance, I am sure that I would use a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM only for shooting landscapes at night because I already have two lenses with this focal length that I would use with other subjects. A Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM can't replace any of them. Occasions for night photography come not very often. Therefore, I would need this lens maybe once or twice a year. This will be only during trips because there are no nice landscapes near my home. This and the other 6 lenses from this wish list that aren't critical for my work, will be the first candidates to remain at home if I would see that my luggage is getting too heavy. I know that this is always the case. Then, most likely, I would never come to use them.

the takeaway

For a busy reader who doesn't have time or doesn't want to read the whole text above, here are my recommendations for choosing a lens in short.

Photographers who do all genres of nature photography would ideally need to cover a focal length range from ca. 12-14mm to ca. 1200mm. This would require at least 6-7 fixed focal length lenses or at least 4-5 zoom lenses. Someone whose interest is restricted to a certain type of subjects will, of course, need less or also the same number, but of different lenses. Here are my basic lens kit recommendations for various specialisations in nature photography:


Focal length range

prime lens kit

zoom lens kit

Mammals (various)

30mm to 1200mm

3 lenses: 35mm; 200mm f/2 or f/2.8; 500 or 600mm f/4 (autofocus, image stabiliser); 1.4x-2.0x TC

2 lenses: 24-70mm; 200-400mm f/4 (autofocus, image stabiliser); 1.4x TC

Large terrestrial mammals (“safari”)

30mm to 400mm

2 lenses: 35mm or 50mm; 300mm or 400mm f/2.8 (autofocus, image stabiliser); 1.4x-2.0x TC

2 lenses: 24-70mm; 200-400mm f/4 (autofocus, image stabiliser); 1.4x TC


30mm to 1200mm

3 lenses: 35mm; 200mm; 500 or 600mm f/4 (autofocus, image stabiliser); 1.4x-2.0x TC


Amphibians and Reptiles

15mm to 800mm

2 lenses: 150mm or 180mm f/2.8 (or 200mm) + 2.0x TC (1:1 macro, image stabiliser); 14-15mm (short focus)



8mm to 70mm

2 lenses: 14mm or 15mm, 35mm

2 lenses: 9-15mm, 24-70mm

Invertebrates, flora, fragments and other small subjects (so-called, “macro”)

90mm to 400mm

3 lenses: 90-105mm and 150-180mm + 2.0x TC;
Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro



12mm to 100mm

3 lenses: 17mm or 18mm, 21mm or 24mm, 35mm, 85mm

2 lenses: 11-24mm (Canon) or 14-24mm (Nikon), 24-70mm

Any subject (no specialisation)

12mm to 1200mm

8 lenses: 14mm or 15mm, 17mm or 18mm, 21mm or 24mm, 35mm, 85mm, 180mm or 200mm (macro), 200mm f/2 or f/2.8, 600mm f/4, 1.4x TC, 2.0x TC

5 lenses: 9-15mm (Canon only), 11-24mm (Canon) or 14-24mm (Nikon), 24-70mm, 70-200mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4, 1.4x TC5

1I am not recommending any zoom lenses for bird photography unless you are shooting mainly from a hide (then 200-400mm f/4 may do the job); prime lenses perform much better with such subjects;
2Some telephoto zoom lenses may be used with macro extension rings for herp photography, but specialised macro prime lenses are a better way to go; there are also no short focusing wide-angle zoom lenses that could be alternatives to prime lenses;
3Obviously, you can't change lenses when you are diving, therefore a zoom lens looks like a better choice for U/W photography if the housing and the dome allow it;
4All 1:1 macro lenses are with fixed focal length, therefore I can't recommend any zoom lens kit for macro photography;
5There is no zoom lens for macro photography, however.

In the above table I am giving only recommendations for focal lengths. See the sections about fixed and variable focal length lenses for details about concrete brands and models. Of course, various kits given in the table can be combined. For example, if you photograph birds and landscapes, combine the kits I recommended for these subjects. Zoom and prime lenses can, or often even need to be mixed, and I recommend to do it to get the best from both. If you want to be a purist then fixed focal length lenses are a better choice because zoom lenses still have too many limitations and deficits, and aren't suitable for some types of subjects in nature photography.

February, 2015