The best all-round wildlife lens out there?

It would be extremely difficult to name one lens as the perfect all round wildlife lens in fact it would be impossible. Everyone would love a 600mm f4 for those tack sharp images of small birds with a perfectly blurred out background but what about when the bird flies a bit closer to you? The 5 meter minimum focusing distance is gonna scupper your chances of getting a shot of that stunning and incredibly rare migrant which just showed up yesterday and will most probably be back on its travels later today. No problem, on average one shows up every fifteen years so there’s always next time.

Nikon D7200 Nikkor 300mm 2.8VR1 f7.1 1/200 iso400

“Yeah nice one smart a$$ I have a 150-600mm zoom lens. If the bird comes closer I just zoom out and boom I get the shot.“ And while this is a great point and there are now a plethora of really great long range zoom lenses available on the market, from my personal experience using one of these lenses, it doesn’t give you the best possible chance of getting a really great image. 

Nikon z50 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR + TC-14eii f6.3 1/3200 iso 500

Now before I upset too many people let me explain in greater detail what I mean. The lenses I am referring to are the two 150-600 lenses made by Tamron, the 2 150-600 lenses made by Sigma plus their 60-600 and to a lesser extent the 200-500 lens by Nikon. These lenses definitely have their strengths and the ability to zoom out to 150mm to get the subject and it’s environment can be invaluable. However I am looking for a lens that gives you the best possible chance to get really great images and from my experience the superzooms have three main areas where they lack in regards to my preferred option which I will reveal shortly.

Nikon D7200 300mm 2.8vr1 f3.5 1/1250 iso500

First of all I think it is generally recognized that these versatile long range zooms suffer with IQ at the long end. Yes stopping down to F8 with nice light can produce sharp images, there are many examples online;  but one has to work within these parameters to get the most out of the lens. 

Nikon z50 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 f7.1 1/4000 iso 400

The next compromise is bokeh. Now with good field technique, getting level with the subjects eyes and making sure the background is far off in the distance can again produce excellent results but again one has to work that bit harder and even then it’s never gonna produce that perfect out of focus background that the big primes are famous for. 

Nikon d500 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR f3.5 1/2000 iso400

Finally the autofocus on these lenses even coupled with the latest and greatest camera is never gonna match the prime lenses. Especially for fast moving subjects. 

This is not meant to disparage these lenses in any way. They offer incredible value, versatility and opportunity for almost anyone to try and experience the wonders of wildlife photography. They also tick other boxes that the big primes in particular can’t. I owned a Tamron 150-600 G2 for a while and really enjoyed using the lens. The handling of a lens is something that specs can’t really portray and it’s really important. If the lens is fun and nice to use and not too heavy to boot, it’s a huge factor in deciding if a lens is a keeper or not. The Tamron G2 was light, felt great in the hands and it”s arca swiss compatible tripod foot was a brilliant feature. I also captured a lot of very sharp images that I was happy with. So what’s the problem then?

D500 Nikkor 300mm VR + TC-14eii f6.3 1/2500 iso800

I feel at this stage in my photography journey I don’t want to be just happy with my images, I want to be excited by the images I am capturing and the potential for growth within all facets of wildlife and nature photography. While owning the Tamron it became apparent very quickly that the lens had a ceiling with what I could achieve and as a result I sold it not long after.

Nikon D600 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR f8 1/200 iso500

Nikon d500 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR F5.6 1/200 iso1000

Nikon D7200 300mm 2.8 VR f6.3 1/160 iso500

So before I reveal what I personally feel is the best option for getting the best wildlife photos I will say I haven’t tried anywhere near all the lenses available in this category and this is just from my experience and what suits my needs. Someone else will almost certainly have a different opinion and that’s fine. Also like everybody else,  one has to factor in budget. We would all like 3 or 4 different primes and a superzoom for maximum flexibility but that is not an option for most people so I am looking at just 1 lens. I shoot Nikon so I am going to be talking about a Nikon lens. Canon has it’s own versions of this lens and I’m sure they are off equal quality and performance.  Sony is developing it’s gear at a frightening pace and this whole piece could be obsolete in a few years with all their new offerings potentially blowing the established piers out the water. With all that said I think the lens that gives one the best chance of capturing the highest quality pictures of all wildlife… big and small, near or far is the ……………………………..300mm F2.8 VR.

Nikon D500 300mm 2.8 VR + TC-14eii f8 1/1000 iso400

HELLO HELLO are you still there? If you are and your computer still works after throwing it across the room let me try and explain. I know a new 300mm VR version 2 costs more than most of us can afford. I am referring here to the older first version and am suggesting buying it used. Four years ago. I was shooting with a Canon 7d mk ii and a 400mm 5.6 and 300mm F4. A great combination but felt I wanted better image quality and that I was getting the maximum out of the gear I had. I needed to go full frame. Unfortunately Canon offered very few full frame options without bursting the budget. I also wanted to change lenses and was considering the canon 100-400 mk ii lens which was getting rave reviews. Nikon had several used full frame options at very affordable prices and a used 300mm 2.8 in ok condition could be picked up for about the same as a new Canon 100-400 mk ii. I also knew that I would need a teleconverter and factored that into the cost. Again only ever considering used goods.  I felt the switch would give me the best option of taking the next step with my photography.

Nikon D500 300mm 2.8vr1 + TC-14eii f6.3 1/2500 iso800

I didn’t expect how much better everything would look. I had never used a full frame camera before and although I had taken many pictures I was happy with with my old set up, everything was better from image quality to background appearance. The 7d had a faster frame rate than my new old D600 plus more autofocus points but I didn’t care the images were beautiful. I loved the new set up but in particular I loved the lens. 

Nikon D600 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 vr1 f4 1/1600 iso640

Two years later and I went back to APS-C with Nikon’s brilliant D500. The lens again was stellar and coupled with the amazing performance of Nikon’s flagship crop sensor camera made a wonderful wildlife combination. I added the TC-14e version 2 and image quality and speed was still of the highest order and any performance / quality degradation wasn’t noticeable, not to me anyway.

Nikon d500 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR f6.3 1/2500 iso500

On the full frame camera the lens takes the TC-17 and TC-20 teleconverters so well that image quality even with these attached ( especially the TC-17 ) is of high quality. The 300mm 2.8 plus the TC-17 gives one a 500mm lens at F4.8 and in my experience the Tamron at 500 wasn’t as sharp and the bokeh certainly wasn’t as good. I also felt the TC-17 didn’t affect the autofocus as much as I thought it would beforehand. It was difficult to tell how much because the D600’s autofocus isn’t great anyway. The TC-20 definitely did have an adverse affect on autofocus and general performance but it can create even better bokeh and can help to make some good images.

Nikon D600 Nikkor 300mm VR + TC-20eiii f10 1/800 iso1400

Unfortunately teleconverters can be temperamental and work well with some lenses and less so with others without any real consistency. From my experience the TC17e ii while great with the D600 doesn’t go as well with the D500 and the same goes with the Tc20e iii. However the d500 goes superbly well with the TC14e ii and for me that is all I need in terms of reach. So in conclusion the 300mm 2.8 works brilliantly with at least 1 of the teleconverters either on full frame or crop sensor. 

Nikon d500 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR f6.3 1/2500 iso500

I mentioned it before but just in case I didn’t stress it enough this lens produces the most amazing bokeh which is not necessarily a prerequisite for the best shots but it can really help depending on the situation. The superzooms mentioned above are just not gonna be able to replicate the unique background that this lens can offer in so many different circumstances.  With a pretty short minimum focusing distance one can take pictures of butterflies, dragonflies, lizard, snakes and in particular flowers and still blur out the background to produce the most beautiful shots. This just isn’t possible with the bigger primes and the superzooms won’t be able to separate the background in the same way. One could even use this lens on a full frame outside for some long range people portrait shots, headshots look amazing!

Nikon d500 Nikkor 300mm 2.8 VR + TC-14eii f5.6 1/1250 iso500

So as I draw this piece to a close I still feel confident that this is the one lens I would recommend if one had the budget to maybe upgrade from a superzoom. I would however stress that the lens alone isn’t enough in all situations. On the crop sensor D500 it can get the job done in nearly all situations, still or action, near or far but as wildlife photographers, we are always striving for more reach and to this end I would advise picking up a used TC-14e ii for that shy bird that won’t come quite close enough. On a full frame camera just pick up the TC-17e ii along with the lens and that is all you need to give yourself the greatest chance of getting the best possible pictures. It is heavy no doubt but from my perspective perfectly manageable and I shoot this lens handheld 95% of the time. All the images here were shot with this amazing lens and either the D500, D7100, D7200, z50 or the D600.

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