Guide to Buying Your First Super Telephoto Lens

Every wildlife photographer looks forward to the moment of retiring his or her lens for one of Canon’s great white super telephoto lenses.  However, the vast number of options offered by Canon/ Nikon makes this a daunting task.  I’m going to talk about what I learned from my experiences, and show you how you can learn from my mistake.  I talk about the offerings offered specifically by Canon, however Nikon also sell similar lenses to the ones mentioned in the article.

After my personal experience, and after talking to others, everyone always buys a lens to short.  My first great white was the Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, and I purchased the lens because I believed that the low- light capabilities packaged with versatility with converters made a killer package.  Don’t get me wrong, the Canon 300mm f/ 2.8 IS is a killer lens, but I underestimated how often I would use converters.  Even shooting shorebirds in Florida, either the 1.4x or 2x converters were glued to the lens.  Instead, I wish I opted for a larger lens because I would have enjoyed even more reach and faster auto focus.  If you are a wildlife photographer that primarily shoots large mammals, in areas where you can get close without scaring them, a 300mm is the right option for you.  However, anyone shooting smaller subjects, like shorebirds, will be better off with longer glass.  A good check for this is open Lightroom, use library filters, filter by metadata, and then look at the total amount of photos taken at each focal length.  If your photos are taken at 300mm with minimal cropping, then the 300mm is a perfect fit.

Black Bear- Canon 1DX, 300mm f/ 2.8 IS II

Black Bear- Canon 1DX, 300mm f/ 2.8 IS II

The 400mm focal length lenses are coveted in the sports world, but are less common among wildlife photographers.  Canon’s 400mm f2.8 IS II is one of the most flexible lenses offered, and works great with both converters.  The ability to photograph in low- light situations, and having the ability slap on a 2x to turn the lens into a 800mm f/ 5.6 is a killer combo.  Before buying this lens consider the subjects you shoot.  If you predominantly photograph larger game animals, such as bears, then the lens is a great option.  However, if you are trying to photograph smaller species this might not be the best option.

Another flexible option is Canon’s 200-400mm f/4 IS with 1.4x converter.  The ability to turn a switch, and have access to 560mm at f/ 5.6 is great.  The flexibility offered from this lens works great for people on safaris.  However, Canon’s release of the 100-400mm f/ 4.5-5.6 IS II gives the 200-400mm a run for it’s money.  If you are considering this lens, then use Lightroom’s metadata filter.  If your photos aren’t spread out across multiple focal lengths, then the lens isn’t for you.  Most people end up using the lens at the maximum zoom, and you might as well swap it for a 400mm f/ 2.8 or save a chunk of money by buying a 300mm f/ 2.8 or 400mm f/ 4 DO II. 

Canon recently introduced the 400mm f/4 DO IS II lens, which is a small, lightweight, and a sharp lens.  If you are worried about the weight/ portability of your equipment, then the lens is great.  Honestly, I would consider the 300mm f/ 2.8 over the DO for the low- light characteristic alone.  Furthermore, a 400mm f2.8 IS II kills the DO in flexibility with converters/ low- light performance, but comes at one disadvantage: size.   

Now for the big boys: 500mm, 600mm, and 800mm lenses.  Canon’s introduction of the version II lenses completely changed the staple focal length previously used.  Years ago, the Canon 500mm f/ 4 was the king of the land.  Most wildlife photographers used this lens because of the combination of reach and portability.  The old 600’s long size, coupled with brick- like weight, made the lens practically impossible to handhold for a long duration/ a burden to hike with.  For these reasons I purchased a 500mm f/ 4 lens soon after owning the 300mm f/ 2.8. 

The staple among Canon shooters is the 600mm f/ 4 IS II.  The lens weighs as much as the old 500 therefore you can handhold it.  The new 600 also improved focus speeds with converters coupled with the increased sharpness make the 600mm with a 1.4x converter a better option than purchasing a 800mm lens.  The 600mm lens is best lens to own if you’re shooting any bird, small mammal, or a large timid mammal.  The ability to have a sharp portable lens that can be used from 600mm to 1200mm is unbeatable.  The 600mm is a better well- rounded lens compared to the new 500mm, but the 500mm is a better option if you only care about good reach in the lightest package.      

Roseate Spoonbill- Canon 1DX II, 600mm f/ 4 IS II

Roseate Spoonbill- Canon 1DX II, 600mm f/ 4 IS II

Overall, if you’re photographing larger mammals your choices can be narrowed down to the 400mm and under offerings.  However, if you generally shoot birds or mammals, then 500mm+ will work better for you.  Currently, I use a 600mm/ 300mm combo.  Since my focus is birds, and I occasionally photograph mammals, if I had to choose between the two it would be the 600mm lens.  If you don’t have the ability to own two, the Canon 100mm-400mm f/ 4.5-5.6 makes a killer combo.  I wish you luck in making your investment.  Remember, the lens can drastically help with more reach, but the same person is still behind the camera.   

I look forward to hearing your comments.