Sports vs. Wildlife: What Features to Look for in Telephoto Lenses

14Share

Many photographers, attempting to postpone a major decision or save money, will buy a lens they believe will give them the results they desire, only to find that the lens does not perform as expected. When budget is a factor (and when isn’t it?), it’s important to select a telephoto lens that best serves your specific purposes. When it comes to sports and wildlife photography, the purposes are often similar—magnify distant subjects, separate the subject from background—but it’s worth understanding a few basic distinguishing features and how they best advance either of these genres before making a lens purchase.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens

In addition to prime or zoom focal length and aperture, it is important to consider image stabilization, lens dimensions and weight, optical design, and weather sealing, and then balance these features based on your budget and the needs of your practice. Even lenses with the same focal length or range of focal lengths can be different from one another and perhaps not ideal for your discipline. For example, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, such as this one from Sony, is an all-arounder that serves sports, wildlife, photojournalism, and many other photo needs. However, there is also the 70-200mm f/4 version, which is a worthy, more affordable, and lighter alternative.

Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens
Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS Lens

As a rule of thumb, sports photography calls for telephoto lenses with wider maximum apertures, which can utilize faster shutter speeds and, therefore, freeze moving action. These lenses tend to be large and heavy, not bad if you are relatively stationary and working with support, but if you are carrying them into the woods or holding the lens for long durations, it’s worth looking into lenses with slower maximum apertures as well as zoom lenses, which are often smaller.

Also, image stabilization technology is something less critical for sports because it does not have an effect on moving subjects, only on camera movement. Many sports photographers use monopods to stabilize their cameras and are shooting at particularly fast shutter speeds, thus negating the need for image stabilization. Also, many sporting events are held indoors, at night, or in less-than-ideal lighting, and it is here when a faster maximum aperture lens is of value, despite its cost.

When it comes to wildlife photography, image stabilization can be more effective, so finding a lens and camera combination that has a quality stabilization system is advantageous—and more affordable than buying a lens with a wider maximum aperture. Think of bird photographers who photograph a perched, relatively still subject at a distance. The vibration and camera shake in those instances can be “compensated for” by image stabilization and, in normal daylight conditions, a “slower” f/4 or f/5.6 maximum aperture lens is sufficient. As mentioned, size and weight, while important in all disciplines, may be more crucial to wildlife photographers since their subjects are usually a bit less predictable than sports subjects.

Also, certain lenses and brands are known for their durability and weather sealing, which could be important at outdoor sporting events, but is certainly important when photographing birds and wildlife. Pentax lenses are recognized for their weather-resistant designs.

Pentax HD PENTAX D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 DC AW Lens
Pentax HD PENTAX D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 DC AW Lens

To be clear, there are telephoto lenses that are ideally suited for both sports and wildlife photography. A 400mm prime lens, for example, is a lens that can be used in both practices, and if you use teleconverters, it can be a one-lens solution for several needs. Looking again at the previous example of an f/2.8 lens versus an f/4 lens, the f/4 is often the better choice for wildlife photographers, who benefit from the smaller form factor and lighter weight, and can manage the f/4 design because they will typically be working in natural light. The reduced cost and inclusion of image stabilization in f/4 designs are further added benefits, too.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens (left) and Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens (right)

Another aspect to consider is prime lenses versus zoom lenses. Telephoto primes are some of the most expensive on the market and, while versions from most brands are undoubtedly of the highest quality, is a prime lens the best use of your photo dollar, especially for wildlife shooters? You will often see sports photographers on the sideline with long prime lenses, and this is ideal if they are at an established distance from their subject (think tennis or baseball). Of course, bird and wildlife photographers do use long primes, but a versatile telephoto zoom, around the 100-400mm range, may be more useful when composing images of less-predictable creatures.

Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary Lens for Leica L
Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS Contemporary Lens for Leica L

These have been some generalized considerations to explore when you’re researching lenses for shooting sports and wildlife, and it’s very important to look at all the specs and features of each lens before you make a purchase.

In the Comments section, below, please let us know your thoughts, and feel free to ask us questions about purchasing the right telephoto lens for your purposes.

For more sports-related news, tips, and reviews, be sure to check out the Sports Photography section of B&H Explora.

14 Comments

A very interesting article, thank you for it.

I'm not a pro, photography is a hobby (nowadays pretty much on ice due to lockdown), and I discovered long ago I like wildlife and birds specially as subjects for my hobby.

At the time I was told to get a NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Lens, but was (and still is) a no no for my budget, so a 600 f/4 is obviously out of this galaxy (let's not even mention the Sigma APO 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG).  :)

So I bought a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary, and have been one of the best investments I've ever made.  It's heavy but not cumbersome (so I can shoot handheld if needed), have an excellent response in AF mode, very silent, and most of the time does the trick for me.

I had a cheaper lens indeed, but allowed me to get a good ball head for the tripod, as well as a gimbal head adapter that give the lens a lot of mobility with added stability.

I guess the lens (as well the rest of the gear) have to go according to the needs and possibilities of the user.

Thank you Rolando, we appreciate the feedback and yes, yes, yes on that Sigma ...great price and as versatile as it comes; very successful lens... and they also do a Sport version as well... check out my colleague's hands-on review from a few years ago and also a general buying guide to ultra-teles. Thanks for reading and commenting.

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-review/sigma-150-...

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/buying-guide/recommende...

Thanks for sharing your set-ups Roger...and good point on the rain protection. I have always found that lenses dry ;)

I have used Sigma's 50-500mm lens (now discontinued) for wildlife photography on my Canon 6D and 6D II with excellent results. I find it's been easy for me to hand hold and shoot. Of course I was taking photos with a Nikon Photomic Tn back in the '60s so, without any stabilization, I learned how to take an unblurred photo. I recently bought Sigma's 60-600mm lens. Unfortunately it's much heavier than their excellent 50-500mm. So I'll probably have to use a monopod. The 60-600mm works great with Sigma's 1.4 teleconvertor which gives me over 800mm of power. Autofocus with the teleconvertor works fine usually but on rare occasions I need to encourage it. Both of these lens focus pretty close which, to me at least, is absolutely essential for wildlife photography.

I take a lot of photos inside museums. For that work I use Tamron's 28-300mm which has just been discontinued. I asked Tamron what they were replacing it with and they said nothing. It's an excellent little lightweight macro lens. The only thing else that's even close is Canon's 28-300mm which doesn't focus very close and is pretty heavy. 

Everyone always seems to be worried about how waterproof their gear is. I'm outside a lot. I have shot in rain many times without any concerns whatsoever. I screw a UV filter on the front of all my lenses and use a rainsleeve (2 for $5.90) that I always carry with me. I have never had any water intrusion. 

I make no claims about being a great photographer however I do have over 41,000 photos on flickr. It's just a hobby with me. I hope some folks here will learn something from my experiences and/or photos. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/80431173@N00/albums

responding to David and Mike... i do birds too, and i used to have a Canon 7Dii, 5Div, 1DXii, with a 100-400 and first a 500ii and finally a 600iii.  I now shoot Sony a7Riv and a9ii with 100-400, 200-600 and the 600.  so i know which combos work, and i am sympathetic to the budgetary issues.  Stick with Canon.  I love Sony, and i'm about to upgrade to the a1, but in your situation(s), i'd go with the R5 and an adapter for your EF lenses, plus the 100-500.  here's why.  I've thought for some time, why can't they (all the big names) come up with a full frame, 30-40MP camera that shoots 20fps and focuses super fast.  the 1DXii shot fast and focused super fast, but i'm the CropMaster, and i just couldn't crop much with just 21MP.  the 5Div had superlative detail, but did not focus fast enough for birds in flight.  so when i went out, i had to decide ahead, am i aiming for BIFs or stationary birds?  with the Sony a7Riv and a9ii, i have the same problem.  now they have the a1 (which i have ordered) but its $6500!!!  the Canon R5 is $3800 (much more affordable), and it solves BIF/stationary dilemma.  on the lens end, there is a problem with the Sony 200-600 in that it does not play well with the a7Riv.  as far as i know, that's the only body it doesn't play well with.  but i've done comparisons with other friends lenses and my big prime, and its pretty good optically on my a9ii.  not as good as the 600 prime, but quite nice, especially in good light.  i don't know this personally, the but Canon 100-500 is probably better than the Sony 200-600.  i suspect it will focus faster and is maybe a smidge sharper.  i suspect that between those 2 performance factors, they make up for the lesser reach of the 500 end of canon, vs the 600 end of sony.  so that leaves only the 24MP of Sony vs the 45MP of Canon, plus the birds eye AF tracking of Canon.  if you can afford the whole new rig, Canon.  the 1.4x converter of the Sony is great.  I can't speak about the newer 1.4x RF of Canons.  my friend with a R5 and a 500 makr ii does quite well with that combination, and his adapter.  now, if you're dying to spend more (I'm already committed to sony), then by all means, order the Sony a1, but get in line!

I have been thinking of upgrading to full-frame mirrorless set-up for wildlife (mostly bird) photography. I am a long-time Canon user who is a birder first, photographer second. I have gotten some nice images over the years with a Canon 7D Mk II and the 100-400mm Mk II. I find the 1.4 x converter mostly useless because the focus is too slow for most living things. So, for just over $7k, I am torn between the Sony A9 II with the 200-600mm zoom and a 1.4 converter and the Canon R5 with the 100-500mm zoon and a 1.4 converter. Given the number of pixels a distant bird represents, the packages are pretty similar, with the extra punch of the Sony lens offset by the higher pixel count of the Canon body. Both cameras have significantly better tracking capability than the 7D II. One thing that tips the balance a bit for Sony is the possibility of adding a crop body at some point for even more apparent magnification with less weight and the same lens mount. I guess I am wondering which rig would serve me best as a carry-around, hand-held, every-day rig? I would not intend to use either body with other lenses--I am happy with my Canon macro rig and Canon people camera--so using an adapter for my current Canon EF lenses is not a factor.

I'd stick with the Canon, for no other reason than (as you noted) your other equipment is Canon.  I've been using a 5DSr and 100-400 with great results, and now the 800 (but not hand-held).  Not familiar enough (yet) with the R5 and 100-500 to comment on them, but this sounds like a good solution, but I've tried the new 600 (yes, I know, if's f/11) and gotten some nice hand-held images that way. 

Thanks Robert. BTW the new 600 is not weather-proofed--and that's a must for me.

David.. you may want to have a listen to this episode of the B&H Photo Podcast...the Canon R system for bird photography is discussed in depth...    Let us now what you decide...  

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/podcasts/photography/podcast-mirror...

Honestly, both camera options you list above would be good options for your usage needs.  While I do use multiple brand cameras, as a primary Canon shooter, I personally find the menu system of the Canon cameras easier to navigate, and I do like the ability to focus at lower light levels with the Canon EOS R5 Mirrorless Digital Camera, as well as the higher image resolution and the higher number of phase detection autofocus points.  The Canon EOS R5 does have a slightly faster mechanical shutter capturing 12 fps compared to 10 fps on the Sony A9, but when shooting at this speed, you only see a slideshow of the last image that was captured, so it makes it harder to follow action, but you can lower the speed to 8 fps and enable '[Cont.H] High Speed Display' to get live viewing between frames for an easier time of following your subject.  You can use the electronic shutter which would also allow you to track your subject, and both cameras would shoot 20 fps using the electronic shutter.  The Sony a9 II would have a virtually lag-free, blackout-free burst shooting experience when using the electronic shutter.

Both cameras have better low-light focusing compared to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II, and will still have good autofocus performance when using the 1.4x teleconverters on the lenses you specified above, and I think you would be happy with the performance of either camera.  However, as you state you would be open to considering switching between full-frame and APS-C sensor cameras, though I am a Canon fan, I think the Sony Alpha a9 II Mirrorless Camera would be the better option as it uses the same E-mount lens mount as its APS-C counterparts, whereas the Canon APS-C sensor mirrorless cameras currently use the ​EF-M mount instead of the full-frame mirrorless R-mount.  Unless you often print large images over 20x30" in size or you want the ability to crop in tight into your image during post-processing for re-composition purposes, as long as you do not mind reacquainting yourself with the Sony menu system, you should be fine with the slightly lower resolution of the a9 II, while still benefiting from the better battery life, no blackout or lag when using the electronic shutter, better low-light performance with less digital noise, and lighter weight of the a9 II, as well as smaller file sizes.  

For years, I could only drool over other photographers' big Canon whites. I used a 70-200 L lens for yrs for my son and grandson's athletic events and it produced some great photos. However, it just didn't have the necessary reach to photograph birds and other wildlife in the distance. Not being a professional, I just never could justify spending $10-15k on a new super tele lens. So, after saving for yrs, I bought a used Canon 500mm F4L is tele lens. For my casual wildlife and bird endeavors, this bargain ($2500.00) has been a game changer, without breaking the bank for a new one. I can put up with a few cosmetic boo boos, as long as the glass and photos are good and boy, are they......

I completely agree with Mike’s comment. I have a 5D-IV and a 7D-II body that I used to photograph birds with the EF100-400 IS L II and a 1.4x III teleconverter and get good results; however, when the first stimulus checks came, I splurged on an affordable “heavily used” EF 500 f4 L IS prime from B&H, spent three days cleaning and dialing it in with both bodies and then spent a lot of time in the field shooting small birds — the results are outstanding! There’s no substitute for good glass and knowing your gear. One suggestion I have is to get a target and adjust your micro focus for each lens body combination. I’m extremely picky about eye focus and when your subject is small and fast, like a Pacific wren, shooting a moving target at 5m at f/4 depth of field is shallow and precision counts...

Thanks for the comment Mike and for reading Explora, good advice on the focus adjustments.

Yes!  Great point about used glass. Thanks Mike.

Close

Close

Close