Safari company & publisher
Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel
Shenton Safaris

To set you on your way to becoming Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year in 2016, the amazing Will Burrard-Lucas has been dishing out his tips and tricks for wildlife photography. After covering 8 things to look for in a camera for wildlife photography he now lets us know what lenses you need to go with that perfect camera.

Your choice of lens is every bit as important as your choice of camera. Here are 9 key things to look for when selecting a lens for wildlife photography, accompanied by some of the great entries we have received thus far in the competition:

cape-union-mart

1. Focal length

This relates to how much magnification you get. A 35mm lens is more or less equivalent to what we see through our eyes, while an 800mm lens is more like a telescope!

For wildlife photography we need a relatively long focal length. A focal length of 300mm is the minimum you would want for wildlife photography but many photographers like a 500mm, which allows them to get closer, frame-filling shots. However, if your focus is on smaller creatures such as birds, then you may want a longer lens than this.

A close-up of an impala shedding a tear at Imfolozi Game Reserve © RN (Nobby) Clarke
A close-up of an impala shedding a tear at Imfolozi Game Reserve ©RN (Nobby) Clarke

In addition to your primary long-lens, you may want something like a 70-200 for environmental shots and a wide-angle zoom such as a 17-40 or 24-70 for landscape shots.

2. Aperture

This refers to how much light your camera lets in. A lens with a big maximum aperture collects lots of light and, therefore, you can use faster shutter speeds. These are known as ‘fast’ lenses.

A large aperture is represented by a small f-number so an f/2.8 lens is faster than an f/5.6 lens.

In addition to being faster, lenses with large aperture also give you a shallower depth of field and smoother bokeh (the out of focus area behind your subject). This makes it easier to isolate your subject and take clean, striking images.

The intensity and focus of the perfect hunter is clear in this image of a wild dog at Mana Pools, Zimbabwe © Trevor McCall-Peat
The intensity and focus of the perfect hunter is clear in this image of a wild dog at Mana Pools, Zimbabwe ©Trevor McCall-Peat

The downside of faster lenses is that they cost more and can be much larger and heavier than slower equivalents.

3. Sharpness

Lenses will usually be sharpest in the centre of the frame and less sharp towards the corners. Usually, when you pay more for a pro lens, you will get sharper results. Prime lenses are typically sharper than zoom lenses. There are various charts that allow you to compare lens sharpness. DxO is a good source for these.

4. Zoom vs. prime

Zoom lenses give you more flexibility when composing your shots while prime lenses tend to be sharper and faster. However, it can be tricky to switch between prime lenses quickly in the field, so using a zoom lens may mean not missing the shot.

5. Image stabilisation

Some lenses have in-built image stabilisation. This combats camera shake, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds while hand-holding your camera.

6. Size, weight and build quality

Pro lenses will typically be faster and have superior build quality to normal lenses. The downside is that they tend to be significantly heavier. A fast lens with a long focal length can be difficult to travel with and cumbersome to use.

7. Minimum focusing distance

If you are interested in photographing little creatures then you will want a lens with a close focus distance or even a dedicated macro lens. Some telephoto lenses may not focus closer than 5m and are, therefore, not good for photographing insects!

Up close and personal with a spider in a garden in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa © Jean Goldstone
Up close and personal with a spider in a garden in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa © Jean Goldstone

Macro lenses can focus very close, which means you can get frame-filling shots of small subjects. However, often they focus slowly so they are not always the best option for general wildlife photography.

8. Converters

You can buy converters that fit between your camera and lens, and increase your focal length. These give you more reach but make your lens slower, autofocus slower and may reduce image sharpness.

9. Crop-frame lenses

Pro DSLR lenses are designed to work with full-frame (35mm) cameras. However, if you have a crop-frame camera then you may be able to get a lens specifically designed for the smaller sensor. These lenses tend to be smaller, lighter and cheaper. The downside is that they don’t tend to be as fast or sharp as the more expensive lenses. In addition, if you want to upgrade to a full-frame camera in the future, you won’t be able to use your old crop-frame lenses.

Canon crop-frame lenses are labelled as ‘EF-S’ lenses. They are for use with Canon’s APS-C sized sensors (1.6x crop factor) found in cameras such as the 7D, 70D and 750D. Canon’s full frame pro lenses are known as ‘L’ lenses.

XC10

Investing in lenses can be expensive but you really do get what you pay for and you can be confident that a good lens will last a long time. One option that you may want to consider, particularly if you just want a lens for a particular trip, is to hire instead of buying a lens.

You have to be quick to capture action in the bushveld like these lions seen at Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa © Des Jacobs
You have to be quick to capture action in the bushveld like these lions seen at Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa ©Des Jacobs

Find out which cameras Will recommends on his website here, and sign up here to get more great tips and advice in his free wildlife photography course.

Think you have what it takes to be Africa Geographic’s Photographer of the Year? Enter here.

Shenton Safaris
Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year

The Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition is brought to you by Land Rover and Canon, in association with At Close Quarters, Airlink, Klaserie Sands River Camp, Hideaways, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Thule and Rhino Tears. The competition will run from December 2016 to May 2017 and entrants can submit images via the online entry form or via Africa Geographic's Instagram channel. This profile will be used to showcase photographic tips from experts as well as blogs from our sponsors to set you on your way to becoming our Photographer of the Year!