You Don't Need A Huge Lens to Take Great Wildlife Shots

Gear envy is an ever-present topic in the photography community, and not least so when it comes to wildlife photography. With the best super-telephoto lenses amounting to $5,000 and upwards, it's not hard to imagine why.

All is not lost, however, because with a bit of creativity and effort you can indeed capture some quality wildlife action with shorter telephoto lenses. In this video, nature photographer Spencer Cox explains how he gets around the limitations of his gear. Even though his longest lens is a 70-200mm f/4, he argues that his wildlife shots — where the animals are often shown within the context of their environments — can be just as valid and impactful as shots where the animal fills the frame — and I agree wholeheartedly.  

To take it even further, I would say that anyone who is serious about the art and philosophy of wildlife photography, including those with super-telephoto lenses, should at least try to include wider shots in their portfolios. While wildlife photographers aren't duty-bound to practice anything but ethical and respectful photography, we are — in my opinion, at least — in essence, ambassadors for nature, so our work should communicate to those who might be more disconnected from nature, the importance and beauty of the habitats where our subjects live.

With all that said though, I still want to get my hands on Sigma's 200-500mm f/2.8, which is, ironically, closer to a cannon than anything Canon has ever produced.

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23 Comments

Tom Reichner's picture

Mike O'Leary said,

"With all that said though, I still want to get my hands on Sigma's 200-500mm f/2.8, which is, ironically, closer to a cannon than anything Canon has ever produced."

Did you know that Canon produced a 1200mm lens? I think that is closer to a canon than the Siggie 200-500mm .... but the Siggie's f2.8 aperture sure would be nice!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_EF_1200mm_lens

Tom Reichner's picture

I agree that one doesn't always need a long telephoto to fill the frame nicely with wild animals.

I have actually taken quite a few photos of wild animals and birds with the Canon 24-105mm zoom, and didn't even need to crop the images to get the frame-filling results I was after. Here's a sample:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/9036119@N02/albums/72157632539565564/with/31910078972/

You will need to copy & paste the link into your browser's address bar ..... for some reason, clicking on it doesn't work.

What do you think? Does it look like the 24-105 provided acceptable results? Not that I would want to be limited to only using that lens for wildlife, but in certain situations it gave me results that I was quite pleased with, and photos that I could not have gotten with longer glass.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I'm surprised how close you were to the animals, especially the deer and birds.

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, I do get quite close.

I guess that was my point in starting that set of images on Flickr - to show others that if they work at it, they can get close to the critters and take more compelling photos, and not have to always shoot from far off with a big lens.

Plus, it is simply more enjoyable to be close to the animals, to "enter into their world", so to speak. I feel like I know the animals a lot better after spending a few hours with them, at such close distances.

Bruce Grant's picture

I find them really impressive considering the lens used.

Tom Reichner's picture

Thank you, Bruce! That is kind of you to say.

stuartcarver's picture

Big lens looks good in the car park when everyone is showing off though doesn’t it.

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmmm. Not really. I think most of us are not impressed by gear at all. We are impressed with quality photos, not the gear that is used to take them.

stuartcarver's picture

It’s called a joke, Google it.

Juan Isaias Perez's picture

When I hear about big lenses the thing that comes to my mind is max aperture and not focal length. That is the reason for those lenses size, weight and cost. And those extra stops allow lower ISO in poor light and better subject isolation. My perspective on this, having owned both slow and fast super telephoto lenses, is that the better photo is the one shoot with good light and the one that tells a better story. To that I shoot for birds preferably within 2 hr after sunrise and 2 hr before sunset AND slowing down my lens so the background is blurred but identifiable. Wildlife exists in their unique habitats. Sharing this information in the photo tells a far better story. So do I own now any fast, expensive and heavy telephotos? Do I carry a tripod with a gimbal? No. And my bird photos are better for it.

Note: this is my experience with bird photography. Your needs may be different while shooting other kinds of wildlife.

Tom Reichner's picture

Juan Isaias Perez said,

"When I hear about big lenses the thing that comes to my mind is max aperture and not focal length. That is the reason for those lenses size, weight and cost. And those extra stops allow lower ISO in poor light and better subject isolation."

Yes, Juan, you are right about the max aperture being responsible for the cost and heft of the big supertelephotos.

But it is not always best to use the max apertures. I have an 800mm f5.6 lens, yet most of the photography I do with that lens is done at f8 thru f13. Yes, it is nice to have the f5.6 available when conditions demand a large aperture, but most of the time I prefer greater corner-to-corner sharpness, and greater depth of field.

Of course, if all someone wants are sharp subjects and blurred out backgrounds, then max aperture will be okay for them. But, as you discuss, most of us progress beyond this beginner stage in our photography, and at some point we want more interesting compositions that render the backgrounds in more interesting and engaging ways.

Robert Oslin's picture

The polar bear and alligator story was pretty funny.

Evan Robinson's picture

A “canon” is a church law, not a field artillery piece.

But neither of these is where Canon got the name.

Canon was named for the Chinese Goddess of Mercy Kwan-yin (sometimes Guanyin) who was a bodhisattva of compassion. In Japanese the bodhisattva is known as Kwanon which was anglicized to Canon.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_Inc.#Name

Rich Umfleet's picture

Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 and a 2x teleconverter are roughly $2500 US. While I'll try to shoot wildlife with any lens I have available at the moment, I'm so glad I have this combination. Some animals just won't let you get close, like wolves.

David Pavlich's picture

Darned critters just don't like to pose! :-)

Jon Kellett's picture

Haven't been tempted by a teleconverter for the 200-600 yet, but man... It's now my fav lens.

Rich Umfleet's picture

I currently live and work in Taiwan. I bought the setup to shoot a once in a lifetime, for Taiwan anyway, annular eclipse, last year, with future plans of taking it back to the USA and being able to use it for wildlife. Since then, I've used it for lunar eclipses, random moon shots and the planets. The rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter are visible through this lens, even with all the light pollution around my home. The a7III does a great job of using available light. What I don't do too much of is take wildlife photos... yet. Thank you, Covid-19!

Trey Mortensen's picture

During lockdown last year, I had a blast trying to learn how to shoot birds in my backyard. Did I get print worthy result? Not even close! Was it rewarding even getting SOMETHING in frame? Absolutely. To get some of the shots, I cropped the snot out of the picture, but in those cases, it was more important to remember what I saw than it was to try and make art.

I was simply using a Canon 70-20 f/4 on a Sony a7iii. Made the time stuck at home rather enjoyable.

Tom Reichner's picture

Trey, I think it's great that you spent time shooting your backyard birds. And it's great that you have a backyard so well suited to that - as seen by the fact that the background in your photo is natural, and has no distractions. It is truly a beautiful backdrop for bird photos - I would love to have such a great setup in my yard!

May I suggest shooting from a small blind?

If you are shooting a feeder setup, as most do when shooting in their backyards, then using a blind would be the way to go. I've no doubt that you could eventually get the blind just 5 or 6 feet from the perches that the birds land on, and you would be able to truly fill the frame, even with just your 70-200mm.

Trey Mortensen's picture

I tried shooting from the window to the tree when the blossoms were popping, but I never could be quite discreet enough for the birds not to notice me. I'll have to try other things this spring :D

Tom Reichner's picture

Great to hear you are willing to trying new things!

A good blind will have only one open hole in it, and that hole will just be big enough to stick your lens through. This will keep all of your movement completely hidden from the birds, especially because your lens will already be mounted on a tripod and pre-aimed at the perch that you have for the birds to land on. That way, you don't even have to move the camera to aim it when the bird alights and is in position for a photo.

Tom Reichner's picture

Another way to get close-up wildlife and bird photos with a "normal" lens is to set your gear on a tripod where the critters are, and then stand way back and fire your camera remotely. You can either use a long cable, a wireless cable release, or your cell phone. The cell phone is best, because it allows you to change settings and select focus remotely by just using the phone's touch screen.

Canvasback ducks are a species that are notoriously difficult to get close to. Even with an 800mm lens, it is often impossible to get close enough. But with the remote setup, I was able to get shots like this with my 24-105mm lens, zoomed to 35mm.