Wildlife and Sports Photography | Lens F.A.Q

December 29, 2016  •  Leave a Comment


The previous post was meant to be the last one of 2016...but I forgot a previously started piece on Wildlife & Sports photography. Seems like a good way to close the year out. I get a lot of "what lens should I buy for..." emails and while portraits and travel questions are fairly straightforward, but the path to wildlife photography has a few more twists and turns.

Lenses used for these images

  • Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
  • Fujinon XC50-230mm F4.5-6.7 OIS
  • Fujinon XF50-140mm F2.8 R LM OIS WR
  • Fujinon XF55-200mm F3.5-4.8 R LM OIS
  • M.Zuiko ED40-150mm F2.8 Pro

*   Multiply focal lengths for Fujifilm lenses by a factor of 1.5

** Multiply focal lengths for Olympus lenses by a factor of 2.0

I've included sports in the title because the lenses for these are specialized and can be applied to either genre. It's important to clear up exactly what I mean when I reference the term "Wildlife". If it means going down to your local zoo or animal sanctuary then I can save you the time you would have spent reading this article and money. It's likely you already have all you need in the camera gear you already own. I will advise you to add a box of disposable wipes, very handy for cleaning the glass at each viewing area of the zoo. They tend to get really messy from all the hands etc. that touch them each day.

Emerald Tree Boa

Emerald Tree Boa behind the glass of a terrarium

You don't need much more than that because frankly, zoos already do all they can to present each of their animals for optimal viewing. After years of human handling and visitors to their enclosures, the animals get very used to being observed and tend to stay put long enough for you to get some decent pictures. There is nowhere for them to go...


Female Iguana on a sun deck

Some animals like the Iguana above are fairly confident with human presence and won't run away at the sight of you. This female and her mate were regular visitors to our rented villa in Bonaire. They seemed well fed so I'm sure each family that stayed at the same residence fed them scraps of food over the years as they came towards me looking for handouts each day. They are still wild animals but we definitely enabled them to become...somewhat domesticated. Such animals will provide excellent subjects for your standard camera equipment.
World Water Day

Harbour Seal performing for food

True story...I have a good friend who enjoys kayak fishing in his down-time. He told me something recently that's been happening with greater frequency which I'll share. Fisherman have been reporting that seals and sea lions are jumping unto their kayaks. They have gotten so used to seeing these fisherman catching and storing fish on their kayaks that they have begun to see them as an easy source of a meal. If you don't throw them one they get up unto the kayak to grab them sometimes dumping the fisherman into the ocean. This is what happens when we humans interfere with wild animals and their normal feeding behaviour...more on that later as it applies to lenses.

BON05-0172-Edit-Edit.jpg I like to get my "not so good news" first...and I'll answer the "what lens to buy...etc" question the same way.

For "real" Wildlife & Sports photography Prepare to significantly lower the balance of your bank account. The lenses that are well suited to the subject matter are expensive and specialized. You simply cannot reliably capture images of wildlife (or most sports) in a meaningful way without them. I'm talking about focal ranges of 200 thru 600mm telephoto lenses priced in excess of $1000 on the low end. Depending on your camera brand that can rise well above $5000 for a single lens.

Love Nature

300mm, F3.5 at 1/50 seconds shutter

Birding (Bird Photography) requires at least a 300mm lens. Even at that focal length most wild birds simply will not allow you to get close enough to fill your frame. You will likely be cropping in order to reach the desired composition. The image above was cropped by 30% for the final image.


600mm, F5.6 at 1/110 seconds shutter

A 600mm is far more effective as it allows you to get much closer to your desired composition without cropping. Also it allows enough distance between you and the bird subject for mutual comfort...by which I really mean "it's comfort". This image was still cropped by about 15%.


Crocodile | 300mm, F4.8, 1/450 seconds shutter

Some wild animals require a wide berth by necessity. When faced with a choice they "may" run...or they may run right towards you for an easy meal of stupid photographer. No offence. I took that shot from the safety of a boat as we were racing down a river in Belize. The Croc didn't feel threatened, safely ensconced on it's perch along the shore. I felt safe because we were moving fast enough to outrun her if she decided on being hungry.

Ontario Cup NO.2

Mountain Bike Race | 300mm, F2.8, 1/500 seconds shutter

Ditto for sporting events. The key is to get as close to the action as possible without interfering with the subjects. Depending on your access you may be able to get away with a shorter focal length but something on the long side of 200 to 300mm should always be in your bag.

Some Practical Considerations

Maximum Aperture: If your bank account can manage it, get the best maximum aperture available for your camera brand's lens. In my case it's F2.8 - 4.5/5.6 at the moment. The reason for this is two-fold...when  making images in wildlife or sport photography, shutter speed is of the utmost importance. Subjects will be moving quickly the majority of the time. A lens with a max aperture of F2.8 will enable shutter speeds fast enough to freeze action and prevent what's known as subject blur. You may also need to combine that maximum aperture with a high ISO setting (800-3200). As a general rule if you are using a 300mm lens your shutter speed should be at least 1/300 seconds "just" to eliminate motion blur cause by your shaky hands. You will likely need 1/500 seconds to freeze the motion of a fast moving subject at the slow end.

Vanguard Veo 265CB

Vanguard VEO 265CB Tripod

Image Stabilisation: Whatever name your camera manufacturer calls it (IS, VR, OIS etc..) the function is the same...eliminate motion blur caused by "your" involuntary movements. For instance I can make sharp pictures at 1/50 seconds using a 300mm focal length without the use of a tripod or monopod. As long as my subject remains static I'm assured a sharp capture. A lens without image stabilization would have required a minimum of 1/300 seconds shutter speed to achieve the same thing, or utilize a tripod.


Flash used to light subject and freeze motion

Artificial Lighting: The light is not always on your side. There will be times when you are shooting in lighting that is not very helpful to making images...think deep woods, forests, jungles etc. Adding a flash to your telephoto lens setup can make a huge difference. In the case above I was using a flash mounted to a "Better Beamer" extender to apply fill light to the bird. Despite the sun being behind the bird I was able to make a nice bright image by using flash combined with a relatively slow shutter speed. The flash also freezes the birds movement.

Tripod: Depends completely on you...big lenses tend to be heavy and Wildlife & Sports photography requires a lot of standing around and waiting. When your not standing around, your walking around and that takes a toll on the body. The rise of Image Stabilization helps out a fair bit but it won't replace a good tripod in all situations.


Get yourself the longest focal length lens you can afford, with the widest maximum aperture. If you can pony up a little more for image stabilization then you have most of the bases covered. Add to that a good mono/tripod and a flash with an extender.

The rest i all patience and practice.


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