Ah, the age-old question: Does size really matter? Honestly, in some cases (many cases) size does matter. At least in photography it does. They make long lenses for a reason—to get closer to your subject. Especially if that subject is skittish or dangerous wildlife. Modest telephoto lenses typically begin somewhere around 100mm but when I talk about long lenses I’m referring to any lens 300mm and longer. A 70-200mm (at 200mm) would qualify when coupled with a 1.6x crop-sensor camera body (like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II): 200mm FL x 1.6x crop factor = 320mm EFOV (Effective Field of View). On a full-frame camera (like the 5D-series bodies) it would not.
To get into wildlife photography, in a serious way, you’re going to have to invest in some long glass. Long lenses can be prohibitively expensive but there are options available to the Newbie and Intermediate photographer. Also, your best friends are your two feet—getting closer to your subject trumps FL (focal length) every time. The farther you’re away from your subject the more your image will degrade—it’s simply a matter of physics. Fieldcraft (stalking) is a learned skill and it takes time, patience and persistence. In my article Shooting Wildlife in the Head I compare photographing wildlife to the skill-set of a Marine Corps sniper.
This image of a male Cinereous Harrier pictured above, photographed in the Laguna Nimez Nature Reserve of Southern Patagonia, is the result of a combination of things: good fieldcraft, a long lens and a decent camera body. I was able to stalk this wild raptor to the MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) of my lens which was 3.5 meters (11.5 feet), I was shooting with the classic Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto prime lens and it was coupled with my Canon EOS 5D Mark II full-frame digital DSLR. This gear is old and in need of refreshing but it still can produce absolutely stellar results as seen above. This photo is tack-sharp, especially the eye, face and head.
You don’t need the latest photo gear to get great shots. The fieldcraft was the result of my experience and two legs (I will be seventy years old in May), my lens was released in 1993 (twenty-four years ago) and is still considered one of the best wildlife lenses ever produced (even though it lacks IS-Image Stabilization, is a prime lens and has a sucky MFD) and my camera body was released in 2008 (I purchased my copy in 2009). This isn’t the best rig for wildlife photography but it’s what I could afford at the time. I know its limitations and can work around them in a pinch. It will soon be refreshed with a new Canon EOS 7D Mark II and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom combination.
Whatever your skill-set (Newbie to Seasoned Professional) you can shoot wildlife. And you can shoot it well—meaning getting images that are suitable for printing and/or publication. Fieldcraft and knowledge are the most important things but admittedly gear does come into play. I am heavily biased towards full-frame cameras because of their larger sensors and high ISO low light performance. Having said that, however, a crop-sensor camera body does increase your EFOV (it doesn’t actually change the FL of the lens but it does change the EFOV). When refreshing my kit I will also be upgrading my FF camera body to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (using the 7D primarily or wildlife and the 5D for everything else).
If you’re primarily a wildlife shooter a crop-sensor camera makes sense, if you shoot everything else I think a full-frame might be a better choice. Cost is also a factor, crop-sensor (APS-C) camera bodies are less expensive. A full-frame (CMOS) camera is more expensive—you’re going to pay for those extra megapixels. But the improvement in high ISO low light performance is well worth the investment in my opinion. If I could own only one camera body it would be a FF, however having the financial resources to own both I will also have a crop-sensor in my toolkit (again mostly for wildlife photography). Always do your homework before purchasing camera gear.
If you’re a Canon shooter like me you can’t go wrong with either of these lenses: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens or the classic Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Super-telephoto Prime Lens. The zoom (Mark II not Mark I) retails for $2,049 usd on Amazon and the prime sells for $1,199 usd. My first choice would be the zoom (Mark II) but stay away from the original Mark I push-pull version (in my opinion it sucks). If you can’t afford the zoom then the prime is an excellent choice even though it lacks IS and its MFD is less than desirable—its IQ (Image Quality) is outstanding even after twenty-four years (see images on this page).
Two third-party alternatives would be the: Sigma 150-600mm 5.0-6.3 Sports DG OS HSM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens with either a Canon or Nikon mount or the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5.6-6.3 Di VC USD G2 Super-telephoto Zoom Lens with either a Canon or Nikon mount. The Sigma Sport retails for $1,999 usd on Amazon and the Tamron sells for $1,399 usd. Many photographers love the Sigma and Tamron but I’m not one of them. I owned the older version of the Tamron and found it to be too big, too heavy and too slow at f/6.3. Also it did not produce good results at f/6.3 and I had to stop it down to f/8 or f/11. Canon shoots great wide open at f/5.6.
The extra reach to 600mm (and beyond on a crop-sensor camera) is tempting but I found the added inconvenience coupled with a slow speed (f/6.3) and degraded IQ just wasn’t worth it (for me). Again, other photographers may have differing opinions. I’m going to list two final alternatives that have also worked well for me. One is using the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L non-IS USM Telephoto Zoom Lens with a 1.4x Tele-converter and another is the Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD XLD Telephoto Zoom Lens. The Canon retails for $599 usd and the Tamron sells for $449 usd.
Conclusion: If you’re a Canon shooter I would opt for either the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L Mark II zoom or the classic 400mm f/5.6L prime if you can afford them. If not you get a HUGE bang for your buck with the outstanding Tamron 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 zoom. I shot this lens for a couple of years with incredible success and you will not be disappointed with its IQ. On a 1.6x crop-sensor (AFS-C) camera body your reach will go all the way to a 480mm EFOV. Its build quality isn’t quite up to Canon L-Glass but its optical quality is very impressive. Bottom-line, if you want to shoot wildlife on a budget you can. SFD
Note: I receive no financial compensation for these reviews, they are strictly my opinions based on personal shooting experience. Your opinions, and those of other photographers, may differ and that’s okay.