What is the ultimate Canon wildlife lens?
Wildlife comes in all shapes and sizes.
Wildlife has a wide range of tolerance for human presence, and wildlife photographers have a wide range of get-close skills, patience, time, and motivation.
Adding complication is wildlife images can be framed in a variety of ways ranging from tight headshots to wide environmental portraits.
All this results in a wide range of focal lengths being useful for the pursuit of wildlife photography.
A kit of lenses in various focal lengths is the ideal option for wildlife photographers. Wildlife photographers opting for a one-lens kit usually need as much focal length as they can carry or afford because it is generally easier to get farther away from wildlife than it is to get closer. The farther away you can photograph your subject from, the more likely you will have time to get multiple natural shots of your wild subject before it departs. Longer focal lengths also make it easier to create a strong background blur that makes your subject stand out from the often distracting background. I don't recall ever a bird photographer or anyone photographing potentially dangerous game ever complain about having too much focal length, but be mindful that heat shimmer/haze/waves can be negatively impact long distance image quality. Sometimes getting closer is the better option.
Wildlife is most often active early and late in the day when light levels are at their lowest. Especially in low light conditions, it is great to have a wide aperture enabling motion-stopping shutter speeds at lower, less noisy ISO settings. Wildlife in fast motion (birds in flight, deer leaping, etc.) can make the best images, and the wide aperture can be useful in that regard even under direct sunlight. The wide aperture also increases the lens's background blur capability.
If your subject is not moving or is moving slowly, image stabilization can be a huge asset for low light wildlife photography. A tripod, monopod, or other support can alternatively or additionally be used.
Wildlife does not mind rain or snow, but some lenses (and cameras) do. A weather-sealed camera and lens kit rules for wildlife photography, and it is still a good practice to cover even sealed gear with a LensCoat camera rain cover or similar.
The best wildlife lenses are among the most expensive lens options available, and the ultimate wildlife lenses will differentiate your work, delivering professional-grade image quality and appearance.
1. Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM Lens
The Ultimate Canon Wildlife Lens
If I could have only one Canon lens to photograph wildlife with, this would be the lens. It's awesome, and especially awesome is the light weight of the IS version III lens, weighing about 1/2 as much as the IS version I lens. The 600 f/4L is a professional-grade lens built for the rigors of constant outdoor use. The price tag will be a barrier for entry, and this lens can create differentiating quality in the results.
2. Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM Lens
Impressive Performing Lens
The 500 f/4L IS II has a wider focal length than the 600mm f/4L IS II, but the 500mm f/4L IS II is otherwise a match in performance and build quality – and it is smaller and less expensive. The longer focal length 600mm lens will create a stronger background blur at the same aperture with similar subject framing. Like the other big white Canon L IS II lenses, this lens performs very well with extenders mounted behind it.
3. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens
Who Thought a Zoom Lens Could Deliver Image Quality This Impressive?
This lens is large, heavy, and expensive, but it delivers image quality few of us thought would ever be possible from a zoom lens. That image quality along with the versatile made-for-wildlife zoom range this lens offers, especially with the built-in 1.4x extender, has launched the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens to wildlife shooter fame. Pro-grade build quality ensures reliable operation for those with careers depending on getting the shot.
4. Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM Lens
The Longest Focal Length f/2.8 Lens
The 400L IS III has the longest f/2.8 focal length lens available – except for Sigma's enormous and incredibly-high-priced Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG IF Power Zoom Lens. If your wildlife photography is occurring in low light conditions, this may be the right lens for you. With the f/2.8 max aperture, this lens retains a reasonably wide aperture with extenders mounted. If your wildlife is in the forest or there are other line-of-sight obstructions, a 400mm lens may be a better choice than a 600mm lens. The image quality from this lens is very impressive, as is the rest of this lens' performance.
5. Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens
Impressive Performing Lens, Ultra-Light Weight
If the 400mm focal length works for you and an f/4 aperture is wide enough, the 400mm DO II performs superbly. The extreme light weight of this lens (relative to its focal length and aperture) allows comfortable handholding for most and reduces fatigue when carrying for long periods.
6. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Excellent Image Quality, Pro-Grade Build Quality, Fast and Accurate AF, Very Effective Image Stabilization, Excellent Focal Length Range
The hugely-popular 100-400L IS II is, overall, an incredible lens featuring excellent image quality at all focal length and aperture settings. This lens is well-built, including weather sealing. When wildlife, surfers, aircraft, large-field athletes, and other small/distant subjects are in the viewfinder, you will greatly appreciate having this lens on the camera. Still, the small size afforded by f/5.6 max aperture means that this is a lens that you can carry and hand-hold for long periods. This is one of my most-used lenses, and I frequently carry it to complement a 600mm f/4 lens.
7. Sigma 60-600mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports Lens
This Focal Length Range is Awesome
A 10x focal length range that ends at 600mm is simply awesome for wildlife photography. Capture a wide environmental portrait, and a second later, capture a tight portrait. Lenses with long focal length ranges tend to suffer in the image quality area, but this lens performs quite well in that regard. Sigma's Sports lens feature robust, weather-sealed build quality and great looks.
Crazy Good Focal Length Range, Reasonable Price
While the 150-600mm focal length range is perfect for even distant and small wildlife, I was a bit conflicted in deciding which 150-600mm lens I was going to recommend and there is more than one good choice. The Which 150-600mm Lens Should I Get? page attempts to guide you in that selection process, but I picked the Sigma Contemporary version for this choice due to the low price and good performance.
Long Focal Lengths, Great Image Quality, Great-Value Price
Wildlife photographers on a tight budget need to look no further than the Sigma 100-400 Contemporary lens. For a value price, this lens avails the long focal lengths needed for wildlife photography. The aperture isn't wide, and a tripod foot is not available, but this lens is a great value, and the image quality is excellent.
Many additoinal lenses can be used for wildlife photography, but this list includes my top picks. Visit the Canon Lens Recommendations page for other recommendations.
A great wildlife lens needs a great camera behind it. Check out our Best Wildlife Camera page to get our recommendations.