I just returned from weeks on the road, first in Tampa filming a new training video for Kelby Training (more on that later), and most recently teaching a workshop with ANPW in Yellowstone. This was our 9th year there, a sell out trip almost every year, and with good reason. Yellowstone is just plain magical in winter; wildlife, geyser basins and feather-like ice crystals on the trees. Since we were photographing a lot of wildlife this year, one topic that came up was what is the best lens for wildlife photography. As you can imagine, there is no simple answer, but I can give you a few thoughts to consider. Through the years I’ve owned every long lens focal length from 300mm on up except the 800mm, and after much buying and selling I’ve settled on the lens I first used in Alaska starting out, a 500mm F4.
The 300mm F2.8 is a tack sharp lens, small/compact, and only weighs 6.39 lbs. But 300mm is a little short for much of my wildlife photography. A great option is to use a teleconverter with this lens; still very sharp and the added reach is much needed. Next would be the 400mm F2.8. Often mentioned as the sharpest of the Nikon big glass, this lens weighs just over 10 pounds and is expensive. And for me 400mm is still to short for my wildlife photography. Weighing about the same at 11 pounds is the 600mm F4. Now this is plenty long, but at 11 pounds and pretty large to carry around, both the 400 and 600mm were not the best options for me. The 800mm is quite the lens, weighs just over 10 pounds, but the cost is high.
And then there is the 500mm; 8.5 pounds, nearly 3 inches shorter than the other big glass (except the 300mm) and long enough for wildlife shooting. Tack sharp, and combined with the 1.4x teleconverter I get a 700mm lens. The bison shot above was taken using this combination. And since this lens has VR, I shoot it hand held when I can’t get a tripod set up in time. This is a big lens, but I find if I sit down and balance the lens on my knees I can get sharp images. Of course always better to use a tripod with long glass, or a bean bag shooting through car windows.
One nice option for many has been the new 80-400mm. At 400mm you can get some nice wildlife shots without carrying a large lens around. In the end, your shooting style, budget and willingness to carry big glass will decide what lens you use.