Best entry-level lenses for wildlife photography

Getting started in wildlife photography? Capture striking images of wild animals and birds with these Canon prime and zoom lenses.
A swan on a body of water glistening in golden light.

Capturing intimate images of wild animals and birds in their natural habitat requires an understanding of animal behaviour, fieldcraft skills, patience and persistence. But even with all of those, you still won't get far without a telephoto lens.

The good news is that you don't need to break the bank with an expensive professional lens in order to get started in wildlife photography. There's a wealth of lightweight, high-performance wildlife lenses to choose from, with lenses to complement the compact EOS M camera range, the advanced AF and high ISO capabilities of the full-frame mirrorless EOS R System, and the latest EOS DSLRs.

Three deer photographed in silhouette against clouds bathed in golden light.

Zoom lenses give you more framing options, allowing you to go from tight shots of animals to a wider shot that captures them in their environment. This shot was taken on a camera with an APS-C sensor at 187mm, which is a 35mm equivalent focal length of 299mm. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-6 IS II USM lens at 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO800. © Ben Hall

A close-up of a colourful parrot with green plumage on its head, green-blue wings and a bright orange body.

Telephoto lenses enable you to get detailed shots of animals that you are unable to approach closely, whether that's because they are dangerous or because you just want to avoid disturbing them. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/350 sec, f/11 and ISO1600.

Do I need a telephoto lens for wildlife photography?

Not always. You can sometimes use a wide-angle lens – usually defined as one with a focal length of 35mm or less – to capture pictures of wild animals in their environment, but you will have to get close to do this. If you want to get frame-filling wildlife photos, you usually need a lens within the telephoto (85mm or greater focal length) or super-telephoto (300mm-plus) range. These types of lenses capture a narrower field of view – only a sliver of the scene in front of you – which makes distant animals and birds appear larger in the picture.

Should I use a zoom or a prime lens for wildlife photography?

Telephoto zoom lenses are more versatile, allowing you to change the framing of your photo without having to move your position or stop shooting and switch to a different lens. Prime lenses offer just one focal length, but they are generally lighter in weight than the equivalent zoom lens. They are also available in longer focal lengths, making it easier to photograph wildlife that you are unable to physically get closer to when even your zoom lens doesn't have quite enough reach.

A Canadian goose swimming on still water.

The groundbreaking EOS R System enables innovative, lightweight lens designs – such as the Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM, which weighs 1,260g and measures just 281.8mm when retracted, making it easy to take with you. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/11 and ISO1250. © Ben Hall

A deer with prominent antlers stands in a grassy field, head raised and facing the camera.

A zoom lens gives you the flexibility to recompose your shot to capture the scene when you just wouldn't have the time to change lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-6 IS II USM lens at 300mm (35mm equivalent focal length is 480mm), 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO400. © Ben Hall

Which focal lengths are best for wild animals and birds?

Birds are typically smaller and harder to approach than other wild animals, so you often need a longer focal length to photograph them. While you can take frame-filling shots of a large mammal with a 300mm or 400mm lens, you may need to use a 500mm, 600mm or even 800mm lens for some types of bird photography.

The size of your camera's sensor can help, though. The APS-C sensors inside EOS M mirrorless cameras and APS-C EOS DSLRs are smaller than full-frame sensors, so in effect they crop the image from the lens, making the subject fill a larger proportion of your frame. The "crop factor" is 1.6x, meaning that if you take an EF lens designed for a full-frame camera and use it on a camera with an APS-C sensor, you will in effect increase the reach of the lens by a factor of 1.6. For example, a 400mm EF lens on a Canon EOS 250D gives a view equivalent to a 640mm lens (400 x 1.6) on a full-frame camera. Other characteristics of the lens stay the same, but larger sensors do tend to be capable of narrower depth of field, which produces more background blur.

A male photographer in a green waterproof jacket crouches down to look through the viewfinder of a camera paired with a long lens with a camouflage cover.

What other features are important when choosing a wildlife lens?

Lenses with longer focal lengths can be harder to hold steady, but a built-in optical Image Stabilizer (IS) can help to correct any blurring caused by camera shake. A powerful focus motor will help you to keep up with fast-moving animals, and the quieter it is in operation, the less likely you are to scare an animal away. A higher maximum aperture (lower f-number) means the lens can let more light into the camera, which can help if you're photographing fast-moving animals in low light conditions. Finally, you should consider the size and weight of your lens, as you're more likely to carry a compact, lightweight lens with you, allowing you to make the most of any opportunities for wildlife photography.

Blur isn’t always bad though, as pro wildlife photographer Ben Hall explains in his getting creative with abstract wildlife photography video*.

Which are the best Canon lenses for wildlife photography?

Here's a selection of easy-to-use prime and zoom lenses that produce high-quality photos of wild animals and birds.

Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM

CANON RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM great for wildlife photography

Doubling the focal length – going from 200mm to 400mm, for example – makes animals and birds appear twice as large in the photo, making the most of your subject as the focal point. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/40 sec, f/8 and ISO800. © Ben Hall

A deer with small antler buds stands framed by ferns in a green forest.

The narrow angle of view offered by telephoto lenses makes it easier to pick out the perfect soft background to frame an animal against. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 373mm, 1/50 sec, f/8 and ISO1250. © Ben Hall

Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM

Currently the longest RF lens available, the RF 800mm F11 IS STM enables you to get frame-filling shots of wildlife, whether you're photographing big game or birds in your back garden. Add the Canon Extender RF 1.4x or Canon Extender RF 2x to the lens and you can get even more reach – up to 1600mm with the latter. The EOS R System cameras are able to focus automatically even at this impressive focal length.

For a lens with such a long reach, the RF 800mm F11 IS STM is surprisingly compact and lightweight, and features a 4-stop Optical Image Stabilizer for sharper handheld photos and videos.

A hare in a field, the background blurred, with sunlight showing the veins in one ear.

The long reach of a telephoto lens such as the RF 800mm F11 IS STM makes it possible to photograph skittish animals without alarming them. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/11 and ISO500. © Ben Hall

An alert lemur on a rock with some openings in the rock face behind it.

Telephoto lenses with smaller maximum apertures, such as f/5.6 and f/11, are easier to carry and more affordable than lenses with large maximum apertures (lower f-numbers). Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/1400 sec, f/11 and ISO1600.

Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM

While the Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM is particularly suited to bird photography, the RF 600mm F11 IS STM is a more general-purpose super-telephoto lens, suited to birds and animals alike. Its feature set is similar to the RF 800mm, including a bladeless aperture of f/11 for pleasing background blur and an STM motor for near-silent autofocus, and it works with the Canon Extender RF 1.4x (giving you 840mm focal length) and Canon Extender RF 2x (giving you 1200mm). The lens also retracts down to less than 20cm in length, making it a versatile super-telephoto that you can take anywhere.

Canon EF 70-300mm IS f/4-5.6 IS II USM

A duck photographed from the water level, droplets of water dripping from its beak.

The versatile Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM lens is compatible with both full-frame and APS-C EOS DLSRs, and can also be used on EOS R System and EOS M series cameras via adapters. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF 70-300 IS f/4-5.6 IS II USM lens at 267mm (35mm equivalent focal length is 427mm), 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO640. © Ben Hall

This is a zoom that covers an extensive 70-300mm focal length range and is a classic beginner wildlife lens, providing flexible framing options for larger animals. To get even closer, attach the EF 70-300 IS f/4-5.6 IS II USM to a Canon EOS DSLR with an APS-C sensor (such as the Canon EOS 850D, EOS 250D or EOS 90D) and you can take advantage of the smaller sensor's magnification effect, giving you a reach equivalent to 112-480mm.

Weighing just 710g and compacting down to 14.55cm, it's an easy lens to travel with, and its 4-stop Image Stabilizer helps to reduce blur from camera shake for sharper images, too.

Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM

A coot swimming on a still river.

The versatile EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens is lightweight and compact, which means you can take it anywhere. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens at 250mm (35mm equivalent focal length is 400mm), 1/400 sec, f/5.6 and ISO800. © Ben Hall

Two swans swimming on still water.

The EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens allows you to get close to distant animals and shoot smoothly and quietly so as not to disturb your subject – STM focusing is so quiet that it is far less likely to be picked up by the camera's microphone. Taken on a Canon EOS 850D with a Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens at 200mm (35mm equivalent focal length is 320mm), 1/4000 sec, f/5.6 and ISO800. © Ben Hall

If you're looking for a telephoto zoom to complement an 18-55mm kit lens, this is a good option. Designed for EOS DSLRs with APS-C sensors, such as the Canon EOS 2000D and EOS 4000D, the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM gives an image with the equivalent field of view as an 88-400mm lens on a full-frame camera. It's small, lightweight and easy to carry during a day out at a zoo or a wildlife park, or on a trip further afield.

Canon EF-M 55-200mm f/4-5.6 IS STM

A colourful parrot perched on a branch, leafy trees in the background.

The manual-focus ring in the EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens allows you to make precise focusing adjustments quickly and easily, which is great for powerful portraits and details. Taken on a Canon EOS M2 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS M6 Mark II) with a Canon EF-M 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3 IS STM lens at 200mm, 1/30 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

This compact telephoto zoom for EOS M mirrorless cameras gives a view equivalent to an 88-320mm lens on a full-frame camera. The EF-M 55-200mm f/4-5.6 IS STM features a 3.5-stop Image Stabilizer that enables you to take sharper handheld shots, and it uses a Stepping Motor (STM) for smooth, whisper-quiet autofocus that's particularly good for shooting frame-filling videos of wildlife.

Alternative wildlife lenses

Although telephotos are the workhorse lenses for wildlife photography, there are plenty of other lenses that can be put to creative use when photographing animals and birds.

Macro lenses, such as the Canon EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM, Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM, Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM are perfect for taking pictures of insects and other tiny creatures, for example. They focus closer than other types of lenses, enabling you to fill the entire picture with a small subject. Macro lenses come in a range of focal lengths, with longer lenses being better for wildlife photography because you can shoot close-up details from further away. Although the Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM is not a dedicated macro lens it has an impressive near half size macro magnification and close focusing capabilities which could come in handy when all of a sudden you spot something nearby, that is worthy to be captured.

Wide-angle lenses such as the Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM and the ultrawide Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM can also be good for capturing more of an animal's habitat, or a whole flock of birds, or even a vlog with yourself in the frame talking about the wildlife behind you. If you're using a Wi-Fi-enabled camera, it is possible to step back from the camera and allow the animal to approach it, then take your shot using the free Canon Camera Connect smartphone app to trigger the shutter remotely.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

*Video only available in English language.

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