Photography 101: Shooting Wildlife on a Budget


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Its never been easier (or more cost-effective) to shoot wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not cheap—you’re going to have to spend some hard-earned bucks to realise your dream. This post will be written from the Canon perspective because that’s what I shoot. However, some of the third-party lenses I mention come with either a Canon or Nikon mount and thus apply to other camera platforms as well (even Sony cameras can use other lenses with a Metabones adapter).

Shooting wildlife is all about reach (longer is better). Excellent fieldcraft can improve the situation but it still comes down to a Distance to Subject algorithm—the greater the distance to the subject the more degraded your image becomes. This is where the long lens (telephoto) comes into play, it effectively narrows the FOV (Field of View) creating the illusion that you are much closer to the subject than you really are. The old axiom is: always try to fill the frame with your subject. With wildlife that’s often easier said than done.

Galapagos Hawk – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Prime Lens)

In this post I am going to discuss some lenses that provide great value when compared to Canon’s $10,000 to $15,000 USD fast prime lenses like the 500mm f/4L, 600mm f/4L and 800mm f/5.6L. For the beginning wildlife photographer I would recommend an APS-C crop-sensor camera body like the stellar Canon EOS 7D Mark II because it automatically gives your lens a 60% FOV boost with its 1.6x crop-factor (i.e. 400mm x 1.6x = 640mm EFOV). Even a consumer grade Canon Rebel can provide great results with a good telephoto lens. Although a feature-rich camera body (brain) is fun to shoot and can make life easier it’s the lens (eye) that really makes the difference in IQ (Image Quality).

Male Cinereous Harrier – Southern Patagonia, Argentina (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Prime Lens)

Some of the finest Canon wildlife lenses are older models lacking IS (Image Stabilisation) but when shooting wildlife handheld your higher shutter speeds often renders this feature moot. As an example the rule of thumb for photography is the reciprocal rule: The basic premise of the reciprocal rule is that the shutter speed of your camera should be at least the reciprocal of the effective focal length of the lens. … Using such fast shutter speeds should prevent blur by camera shake. So if you’re using a 400mm lens, for instance, your minimum shutter speed should be 1/400s. However, when using a telephoto lens handheld without IS I would suggest doubling that (1/400s x 2 = 1/800s).

Upland Geese (Male & Female) – Southern Patagonia, Argentina (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Prime Lens)

The minimum FL (Focal Length) for successful wildlife photography is probably 200mm when coupled with an APS-C crop-sensor camera body. This combination provides an EFOV (Effective Field of View) of 320mm (200mm x 1.6x = 320mm EFOV). Depending on your fieldcraft this can be an effective combination when photographing large mammals or large birds (like Herons, Egrets, Storks and even some Hawks). My personal preference is 400mm (providing an EFOV of 640mm). Zoom versus Prime: Zoom lenses offer greater flexibility but at the expense of greater weight and cost. One of the very best Canon wildlife lenses still available is the venerable Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM (non-IS) prime lens.

Gentoo Penguins – Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Prime Lens)

This is an old non-zoom lens without IS but it provides world-class performance at a budget price ($1,180 USD brand new). The “L” denotes Luxury or Pro-level quality. You might be asking yourself how an $1,180 USD lens can be a budget lens—remember all things are relative in photography—when compared to prime lenses in the $10,000 USD to $15,000 USD range this lens is a steal. I’ve owned and used this lens for years and only replaced it recently with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM super-telephoto lens at twice the price (Image Quality is the same but I get a little more flexibility with the zoom and it has IS).

Male Chimango Caracara – Southern Patagonia, Argentina (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L Prime Lens)

If you’re a Canon shooter and serious about pursuing wildlife photography I would recommend the following equipment (you can also get equivalent performance from Nikon and Sony—I just don’t have any recent experience with either of those systems):

Canon EOS 7D Mark II Camera Body (no budget) $1,500 USD

Canon Rebel T6 Camera Body (budget) $335 USD

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II Super-telephoto Zoom (no budget) $2,050 USD

Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L (non-IS) USM Prime (budget) $1,180 USD

Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD XLD (budget) $450 USD

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom (no budget) $1,950 USD

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM Telephoto Zoom (no budget) $1,100 USD

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L (non-IS) USM Telephoto Zoom (budget) $600 USD

Sigma 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 Sports DG OS HSM Super-telephoto Zoom (no budget) $1,800 USD

Sigma 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM Super-telephoto Zoom (budget) $990 USD

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 Di VC USD Super-telephoto Zoom (budget) $870 USD

As you can see prices and quality run the gamut. If budget is of no concern I would probably recommend the combination of a Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm super-telephoto zoom for $3,550 (camera $1,500 + lens $2,050). If you’re on a tight budget then a Canon Rebel T6 and Tamron 70-300mm telephoto zoom (with Canon mount) at $785 (camera $335 + lens $450) would be a great little shooter.

Roseate Spoonbill – Yucatan, Mexico (Photo: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens)

Some additional observations: the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm are real temptations but they come with caveats. First, they’re big, they’re heavy and they’re slow (f/6.3 at the long end). Based on personal experience I know that for best results you have to stop them down to f/8 or f/11 (and that’s really slow for wildlife). I’ve captured some great images with these lenses but it better be a really sunny day and most wildlife prefers open shade or early mornings and evenings (all low light situations). There is a real temptation to go for an inexpensive 600mm lens but there are tradeoffs. Take it for it’s worth.

American Flamingos – Yucatan, Mexico (Photo: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Super-telephoto Zoom Lens)

Personally, I would opt for the Canon 400mm prime lens and let my feet do the zooming. Most of the images on this page were captured with this stellar lens. The next lens that I would seriously consider is the Tamron 70-300mm—for its price you get a huge bang for your buck relative to IQ (Image Quality). I have included a photo (below) of an Anna’s Hummingbird I captured with this lens—great detail from a moderately priced lens. Finally, I have included a YouTube review of the Sigma Sports lens, in this review you will get a better feel for its pros & cons. Basically the same info applies to the Tamron 150-600mm. I hope you find this post somewhat helpful.

Anna’s Hummingbird – San Diego, CA (Photo: Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Tamron 70-300mm)

In the review below Nick complains about camera shake and soft images. I respectively disagree with his conclusions, I don’t think his problem was camera shake. Based on my experience I think he was just too far away from his subjects and suffered image degradation as a result (this is a common mistake among new wildlife photographers). Many photographers have the expectation that a telephoto lens will make up for a lack of fieldcraft—the old adage fill your frame with the subject still holds true. However, with wildlife this can be a difficult thing to accomplish. He was shooting stopped down to f/8 and f/9 (which is optimum for this lens) and his shutter speeds were often approaching 1/2000s which is more than adequate. Again, I think his problem was Distance to Subject. I would be interested in your opinions on this subject. SFD

5 responses to “Photography 101: Shooting Wildlife on a Budget

    • Excellent question. For me (personally) they are more trouble than they’re worth (much like tripods). I shoot almost exclusively handheld and at rather high shutter speeds (1/800s static and 1/2000s dynamic). At the speeds I shoot camera shake is all but a moot point. I shoot in jungles and from small river boats (skiffs and pangas) and a monopod would only get in the way. I would rather boost my ISO than constrict myself with a monopod or tripod. My Canon 5D Mark IV is an exceptional low light performer and my 7D Mark II does pretty well up to ISO 3200 in modest light. Of course it’s all personal preference and there is no right or wrong, but that is my preference. I value flexibility highly. Thanks for your question. Steve

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.