Best bargains for wildlife photography

My wildlife kit

  • 5D IV + 500mm f/4L IS II
  • 5D III + 70-200 f/2.8L IS II
  • 40mm f/2.8 pancake
  • 1.4x TC III

Photography in general is an expensive hobby, and wildlife photography is definitely at the more expensive end of this spectrum with many of the larger lenses costing in excess of 10,000 €. I am frequently asked, as I am sure a lot of us are, “what camera should I buy?”...  Sometimes, for fun, i reel off the best-of-the-best kit, quote a price (around 30,000€) and watch there eyes pop out of their heads. The problem is that it is such an open ended question, it is not easy to answer, and that is exactly why we are asked! It depends on many things but basically comes down to this; what do you want to shoot, and how much do you want to spend? Even when broken down, the answers to these questions are so diverse, it is little easier. 

Generally, the people who ask the question fall in two categories; those who are starting out, and don’t want to invest that amount of money (right away), and those who want to get the best gear they can but have not got the crazy budget required for the top of the line lenses and camera. Well, I've been in both of these places, and i spent a lot of time agonizing over each of my camera and lens purchases to get to where I am now (and yes, there are still lenses I would love to get).

I am going to try and answer this question the best I can based on my own hindsight and experiences, offering some suggestions at the end in different price brackets, but for more specific advice, give me a shout and I'll try my best to help out. :) 

I shoot Canon, so feel I can only really talk about Canon gear as I have had little to no expierence with other manufacturers...  But the general premise is true.


What needs to be in a kit?

I frequently use focal lengths ranging from 16mm to 700mm to shoot nature and wildlife, but that is because different situations need different lenses. I can’t come up with combinations of lenses and cameras to cover every possible situation, so I am going to make some recommendations for a ‘Safari kit’. For me a minimal safari kit needs to have the following capabilities:

  1. A long telephoto lens - it is rare to get the subject as close as you want, so we need a telephoto of some description. That is to say a lens which is 400mm or more ON A FULL-FRAME CAMERA (this is an important distinction).
  2. A DLSR - Mirrorless cameras are getting better all the time, but DSLR's still have the best auto-focus, which makes shooting any kind of action easier.
  3. A fast lens - Wildlife is usually most active in the mornings and evening when light is not good...  having a fast lens (low f-number) means it will let in more light and means you can take better images in those low light situations. It will also make images with blurred out background easier as it will have a narrower depth-of-field.

In addition to this, you might want to extend your kit to include:

  1. A normal to wide angle lens - for those times you are lucky enough to get a close sighting, and to capture landscapes.
  2. A tele-converter (TC). These extend the focal length of your lens, but be warned, it will also increase the f-value equally, and reduce image quaility. They work better on some lenses than others, and can reduce focusing too... 

Choosing a camera

There are two types of DSLR cameras. Full-frame (FF) and cropped sensor (APS-C). The full-frame cameras have a sensor the same size as an old frame of film (hence the name); the cropped APS-C cameras have a sensor 1.6 times smaller.  Many people consider APS-C cameras as worse than full-frame because their sensors have lower image quality, lower low light performance compared to full-frame. But they have two big benefits, they are also a lot cheaper and by cropping the sensor, you are also increasing the magnification. A sensor that is 1.6x smaller makes any lens on it 1.6x longer. So a 250mm lens on a APS-C camera is like having a 400mm lens on a FF camera. This is a major plus for wildlife photography, as longer lenses cost a lot more, and all of a sudden, every lens is 1.6x longer if you use a crop sensor body; which in turn is cheaper too! Twice the win! So if you are a budget Wildlifer...  APS-C is your friend! :)

A general rule of thumb to get the best value camera body is to go for the previous model, or even the one before that. Most entry-level and mid-range DSLRs are updated every year or two with incremental improvements in general. As a result you can pick up the previous model for a great price.

Since cameras are constantly changing, I will just say this: choose the best camera you can in that range considering the following actors;

  1. AF points - the more the better!
  2. ISO capabilities - the higher the better!
  3. FPS - the higher the better, but this is the least important.

Go second hand.

If the shit hit the fan and lost all my gear (touch wood), I would probably replace most of it second hand... there is a huge second hand market for cameras and lenses, and if you know what to look for, you can get some great deals. Click here for advice on buying and selling Lenses and Cameras.


The lens is mightier than the camera...

Lenses are the most important part of your equipment. So when choosing a kit, I put the lens as my number one priority. Also, lenses don’t get updated nearly as often as cameras, so investing in a good lens will last you longer than a camera body. As a rough guide I would say spend 25-30% of your budget on the camera, the rest on a lens…  but when you look at the lower end of the budget scale, you don’t have many options.

The mainstream options

These are the lenses that I would initially recommend to anyone wanting to get into wildlife photography (other than the big white's)

Some alternatives well worth considering

Now that I have gotten the obvious and mainstream recommendations out of the way...  here are some fantastic alternatives, especially if you can pick them up second hand! The other advantage of using some 'less popular' yet excellent lenses is that your images will look more distintictive, and not the same as everyone elses! :)

The no-brainer

There are two lenses that I say are so good, useful, and cheap, there is really no excuse to have them. they are the Canon pancake lenses; EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM (APS-C) and EF 40mm f/2.8 STM. These lenses are so small and useful, they are a solid addition to a wildlife kit for those times you need a wider angle. You can get them for around 100€, which makes them a fantastic deal! I always have the 40mm in my bag. So get one if you have the chance! :)

These lenses are so small, I use them as body caps a lot of the time. Just leave them in your bag and you will always have a wider option if the need should arise! :)

Tele-converters

Tele-converters (TC) extended the focal length of your lens. For canon there is a 1.4x and a 2x TC which will multiple the focal length accordingly. At about 400€ this seems like a great idea, turning a 300mm lens into a 480mm or even a 600mm lens. But like everything in life, it comes at a cost. You don't only increase the focal length, but you increase the aperture, slow down the auto-focus and increase the flaws in the lens too. So that 600mm lens you could have is an f/8, with significantly slower AF and no where near as sharp as the lens without the TC. So you have to balance the extra length you get with it against the drawbacks.

Another point of consideration is that a TC works better with different lenses. For example, on a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, both TC's work fantastically, but they do not work well on a 135mm f/2L...  so it is not a global solution. I do have TCs and use them from time to time, but not often. They can be a useful addition to a kit to get some extra reach, but only when paired with already excellent lenses.


Some complete set-ups!

Now that I have tried to go trough a lot of the options, I challenged myself to see what would I get within 4 different price brackets; 500€, 1000€, 2000€, and 4000€. A lot of the time, i went for buying second hand/used gear, as I feel this is the best value. If you have the cash to buy new, do it...  but don't be afraid of those used bargains! 

     

    Canon 450D and EF-S 55-250 IS II... This is one of my first shots when I ventured into wildlife photography in September 2012.

    Scenario 1 : <500€

    At this price range, there really is only 1 option:

    the Canon EF-S 55-250 STM (make sure it is the STM version) + the best cameras you can buy with the change (a used 650D at the time of writing).

    This is a great kit, and pretty much what i started with. It covers the middle to long telephoto range, has good image quality, and is light. It will do everything you need to make great images. It will however struggle in poor lighting conditions as the lower end camera body and lack of a fast lens will make it difficult. It will though, without a doubt, beat any bridge and compact camera hands-down! If you are just getting into wildlife photography, check out my previous post with tips that might help you.

     
    The Canon 300mm f/4L IS

    The Canon 300mm f/4L IS

    Scenario 2 : <1000€

    This is still at the budget end of the spectrum but you can start to get some great lenses if you dig around for used gear.

    1. A used 300mm f/4L IS + the best cameras you can buy with the change (a used 650D at the time of writing).
    2. A used 70-200 f/4L IS + the best cameras you can buy with the change (a used 650D at the time of writing).

    The choice between these really depends on you...  the longer 300mm (480mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) is great, but you lack flexibility you could get from having the 70-200 zoom. Both are fantastic lenses, but the choice comes down to how and what you want to shoot....  Option 1 would be my choice, but I am used to shooting a long prime with all of its inherent benefits and drawbacks.

     
    Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS I

    Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS I

    Scenario 3 : <2000€

    Ok, this is starting to get into the expensive part, but it is still tough to buy a great new set-up in this price range. But the extra money allows you to have two lenses and a better camera body too. Here are my two suggestions.

    1. A used 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 L IS I + 200mm f/2.8L + the best camera with with the change (a used 70D at time of writing)
    2. A used 300mm f/4L IS + 135mm f/2L + the best camera with with the change (a used 70D at time of writing)

    Both set-ups have a longer lens and a shorter faster lens. giving you length and low-light capabilities. This is what I would consider my minimal kit...  The 100-400mm zoom is a classic and great lens, despite its age, and you can pick them up easily and cheaply second hand. this lens on a APS-C camera is like having a 160-640mm lens on a full-frame body... it is not, however fast, so I have combined it with the 200mm f/2.8L prime lens to give some low light power to the kit, and to get some nice blurry backgrounds for those larger subjects or when the subject is closer. This would be my general recommendation for other people.

    The second option is probably my personal choice, being very similar to my own kit (480mm and 200mm full-frame equivalents). The 300mm is a great middle ground telephoto length on a APS-C camera, and a f/2 lens is just fantastic!

     
    The mighty 300mm f/2.8L IS I

    The mighty 300mm f/2.8L IS I

    Scenario 4 : <4000€

    This is definitely well into the expensive range, but is still a fraction of the price of the top end kits. It also gives you many more options and possible combinations. That being said, this is what I would get for this money.

    1. A used Canon 70-200 mm f/4 L IS USM + Canon EF 300mm f2.8 L IS USM lens + the best camera with with the change (a used 70D at time of writing)
    2. A used 300 f/2.8L IS I + 1.4x TC III + the best camera with with the change (might get a 7D II in this range)

    A 300mm f/2.8L IS I is a top level pro lens...  even the version I which is now old. It is fantastic, truly! Combine that with either the 70-200 f/4 to give you more width or a 1.4x tele-converter (turning it into a 420mm f/4) for more range, and you have a killer kit. I would be very happy with this kit.


    The bottom line:

    • Lens is the major factor, so invest in them
    • Buy second hand to get the best bargains
    • Pick up a pancake lens
    • There is no right answer, just the answer the is right for you...  really look at how and what you want to shoot
    • You will always need more money! :)

    If you have any specific questions, leave a comment or contact me and I'll do my best to help!

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