A wildlife photographer’s greatest tool is the lens that sits in front of the camera. More than the camera itself, it is the lens that takes center stage when it comes to capturing stunning wildlife shots. It’s always a combination of the right focal length, aperture, autofocusing speed, image quality, and pricing that sways the decision-making process.
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Which is the Best Sony Lens for Wildlife Photography?
My preferred pick as the best Sony lens for wildlife photography is the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS.
It ticks all the boxes when it comes to focal length, compatibility with teleconverters, price, fast aperture, handling, image quality, and of course it’s versatility. Additionally, the build quality of the lens is very good. It comes with rugged weather sealing, making it perfect for the demands of outdoor photography requirements.
Major Requirements for Choosing the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography
Focal length is a major requirement for choosing a lens for wildlife photography. You need a minimum focal length of 300mm to capture tight shots of large animals. Anything less than that and there is a risk of getting too close to the animal you were trying to photograph, which is never recommended.
Ideally, you should always be outside the personal space of the animal and by doing so ensure that the animal is not under stress at any point. I have seen far too many instances where a photographer has violated this cardinal rule of ethical wildlife photography.
You will no doubt be wondering at this point why I chose a few 200mm lenses in my recommendations despite mentioning a minimum focal length of 300mm.
The 200mm lenses that I’ve chosen to include in this list are all compatible with Sony’s teleconverters. These teleconverters extend the focal length coverage of the lenses by 1.4x to 2x times, effectively making the focal length suitable for wildlife photography.
Having said that there is a downside to using teleconverters and that is you lose about one to two stops of light.
The need for a fast aperture is almost universal in the world of photography. Except for landscape, architecture, and a little bit of street photography, where you naturally look for a larger depth of field, and therefore, choose a small aperture, most of the other genres can do with a fast aperture lens. Wildlife photography is one such genre.
The need for a fast aperture lens for wildlife photography comes from the need to freeze the moment. With wildlife being a fidgety subject for the most part you would want to use a fast shutter speed to be able to freeze movements. To achieve that a fast aperture is necessary.
The problem with long lenses, however, is that they don’t always open up to a wide aperture such as an f/1.8, or f/1.4, or even an f/1.2.
A 300mm f/1.8 lens is unheard of in the world of photography. But if you can get yourself an f/2.8 lens such as the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II you can use a 2x teleconverter and extend the focal length of the lens up to 400mm at the expense of two stops of light.
The lens would still be a decent-performing one considering that the maximum aperture will drop down to f/5.6.
Build quality is an important consideration when it comes to wildlife photography. It is important for any kind of outdoor photography pursuit. The simple reason is the more time you spend outdoors the more you expose your gear to the inclement weather.
As a wildlife photographer, somebody who spends a lot of time waiting for birds sitting behind blinds, or having to shoot in dusty environments, I am sure you will realize the importance of weather sealing and a general good build quality.
For somebody who is a beginner wildlife photographer looking to invest in decent quality gear, I would say that you choose a lens that comes with weather sealing.
The same goes for the camera body. I would write a separate article on the topic of choosing a camera body specifically for wildlife photography jobs. In that, I will discuss at length all the important parameters that you should consider when choosing a camera.
For clarity, however, I would just like to add that if you are going for weather-sealed equipment make sure both your lens and camera are weather sealed. If you have a lens that is weather sealed and a camera that isn’t, you are still putting your gear at risk.
These days most mirrorless cameras that are coming out have body-based image stabilization. That goes for Sony mirrorless cameras as well. So in one way, it does not matter whether or not the lens you choose comes with image stabilization or not If the camera body has IBIS (In-body Image Stabilization) the lens is going to be stabilized.
However, in some cases, lens-based image stabilization works in tandem with a body-based image stabilization system, offering a larger amount of stabilization. When it comes to wildlife photography that is a big bonus.
Plus, with built-in panning assist and other features lens-based image stabilization is always a positive feature to have. On the flip side, however, image-stabilized lenses cost more.
Teleconverter compatibility is a parameter that comes into the picture if you are going to shoot with a medium telephoto lens. Such as a 200mm one. A 200mm lens is on the shorter side and not the perfect focal length for shooting wildlife photography. However, if you pair it with a teleconverter and therefore extend the focal length, you can always use it for tight compositions of wild animals. I would recommend using the 2x teleconverter with the 200mm focal length.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend using the 600mm lens with teleconverters because the extended effective focal length becomes too long to manage. More on that later.
Ergonomic, Weight, and Handling
Heavy lenses, and I mean lenses that are designed for DSLRs offer stability but they’re a pain to work with over long hours. On the other hand, lenses that are designed for mirrorless cameras are lighter, more convenient, and better suited for long usage.
As I am discussing Sony E Mount, which is a mirrorless mount, the associated lenses are lightweight compared to their DSLR brethren.
The Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS weighs 2895 grams. Comparatively, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, which is the Nikon DSLR equivalent of the same focal length, weighs 3800 grams. A good 900 grams more than the Sony. Out on the field, this is going to be a major advantage for Sony mirrorless users.
If you’re wondering about the other super telephoto lens that I have listed here – the Sony 600mm f/4 weighs 3040 grams, which is the same as the Canon equivalent the EF 600mm f/4 which weighs 3050 grams. So, in the case of at least the 600mm f/4 prime, there isn’t a difference in weight between the DSLR and the mirrorless versions.
Ergonomics is a subjective aspect and each photographer has their preferences. The positioning of a button may be perfect for one photographer but the same may be inconvenient for another. In the same way, the positioning of the manual focusing ring may also be perfect for one photographer but limiting for another. So, I will not delve too much into this. Ditto for handling.
Personally speaking, I prefer the zoom ring of a lens to be somewhere down the middle of the lens. This allows me to have a balanced grip
By far the most important parameter for choosing a lens – image quality is what should be your top priority. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this discussion, the lens is the most important tool in your camera bag.
If you’re using the best camera that money can buy and then pairing it with a cheap lens, the lens will struggle to resolve a lot of detail.
Always choose the best lens that you can and then pair it with a decent camera that ticks most of the boxes.
Lens Choices: Best of the Best
These are the best lenses in terms of build quality, focal length range, and aperture. However, these are extremely pricey and therefore beyond the reach of most photographers. If you’re on a budget I would recommend you skip to the section where I discuss the budget choices.
1. Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS
Compatible with both the Sony FE 1.4x and the Sony FE 2x teleconverters.
I have recommended this as the best Sony lens for wildlife photography. Let me explain why.
The 400mm is a solid focal length and one that offers you the advantage of pairing a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter and further extending the focal length. I am not suggesting that you can’t do the same with a 600mm lens, but with the 600mm, the effective focal length becomes too unwieldy. The 400mm is a much better focal length in that sense to be used with the 1.4x and even the 2x teleconverters.
With the 2x teleconverter, the effective focal length becomes 800mm and you lose two stops of light. So that the effective aperture becomes f/5.6. I have used the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR extensively with both crop and full-frame Nikon DSLRs, and I know that even f/5.6 is decent for background blur and subject separation.
This is a G Master lens and therefore comes with the promise of excellent build quality.
The lens opens up wide with its maximum aperture of f/2.8. When shooting in low light conditions this is going to be a great advantage.
The depth of field becomes very narrow with long telephoto lenses. You can easily isolate the background and therefore isolate an animal/bird from its surroundings quite easily. Additionally, the bokeh quality is excellent. The fact that this lens comes with 11 aperture diaphragm blades helps.
One of the stand-out features of the 400mm f/2.8 is its superior autofocusing speed and accuracy. The lens is powered by XD (Extreme Dynamic) Linear Motor systems, and this system offers faster and more accurate autofocusing performance than comparative systems.
Among the flip sides, however, I have to mention that the lens is very heavy. At 2895 grams this is one of the heavier primes that you will come across in the Sony mirrorless category. Compared to something like the Nikon AF-S 400mm f/2.8 ED VR FL, however, this is still “lighter.” The Nikon weighs a hefty 3800 grams. Mirrorless lenses tend to be lighter than their DSLR counterparts and that’s a major advantage.
A word about the rumored Sony FE 300mm f/2.8 GM OSS
There is a rumor of a Sony FE 300mm f/2.8 GM OSS that’s been going around for a while now. At the time of writing this B&H even had a page dedicated to this lens marked New item – Coming soon. Sony Alpha Rumors have also mentioned this lens but interestingly the Sony UK press release page no longer has the news. I suspect unless the idea has been shelved this is going to be an interesting telephoto lens for birding and large mammals. We’ll wait and see what happens over the next few months before updating this.
2. Sony FE 600mm F/4 GM OSS
Compatible with both the Sony FE 1.4x and the Sony FE 2x teleconverters.
This is a great lens for tight shots of small birds and large predators at significant distances. For example, if you’re photographing a warbler or a finch at 200 yards this 600mm will give a good magnification of the small creature.
On the other hand, when photographing a male lion, you wouldn’t want to be too close for obvious reasons, the 600mm is a great option for photographing the majestic creature and capturing a regal image.
Thanks to the fast f/4 aperture this lens captures an incredible amount of light that comes in handy when photographing small animals and particularly birds.
Small birds that may be perched on a branch or mammals that may be sitting in the shade pose a serious challenge for photographers to produce bright well-exposed images.
With the f/4 aperture, you won’t have to push the ISO too high and that means better dynamic range and less noise.
The Sony FE 600mm F/4 GM OSS is compatible with both the Sony 2x and the 1.4x teleconverters. However, I don’t necessarily see a reason that you would be needing to use those. Especially, the 2x teleconverter. The Sony FE 2x teleconverter transforms the 600mm into a jaw-dropping 1200mm f/8 behemoth. So, you gain the extra focal length but lose two stops of light in the trade-off.
But more than that I feel the concerning aspect is the tracking bit. The angle of view of the 600mm f/4 lens is just 4° 10′. That’s incredibly tiny and it makes panning with an animal or a fast-moving bird very difficult.
Also, when you shoot over vast distances the effect of heatwaves starts to take a toll on the images. It’s the classic mirage effect that happens when the sun is over the head and starts to heat the ground or any water body that may be there between you and the subject. This rarely affects you when you’re shooting at closer distances and or with shorter/medium telephoto lenses, but is more frequent when using longer telephoto lenses.
3. Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS
I wouldn’t say that this is a budget option. This lens costs nearly $1900 and that means it’s quite expensive. But compared to something like the 600mm f/4 and the 400mm f/2.8 that I have discussed above, this is a budget option.
As with most budget lenses, this lens too comes with a variable maximum aperture. The maximum aperture of this lens starts from f/5.6 and drops down to f/6.3. The lens is compatible with Sony’s 2x and 1.4x teleconverters. However, I wouldn’t recommend using this lens with the 2x teleconverter. The maximum aperture would drop down to f/13 making it impossible to shoot sharp well exposed photos.
If you’re going to choose this lens for shooting wildlife photography I would recommend that you shoot without a teleconverter.
In terms of build quality, the lens is very well made. However, don’t expect the same build quality as some of the G Master lenses that I have listed here.
Another advantage of this super telephoto lens is that it’s significantly lightweight compared to the likes of the 400mm f/2.8 and the 600mm f/4. This is an advantage but on the flip side, you’ve to live with the smaller aperture.
Let’s quickly give an overview of the Optical Steady Shot feature of the lens. The OSS feature offers a steady shooting experience with all compatible Sony E-mount camera systems. The system works in tandem with cameras that come with built-in sensor-shift image stabilization. The two systems combine together to give you a blur-free experience.
There are three dedicated stabilization modes on the lens including one that’s a dedicated panning mode that comes in handy when following birds and animals moving across the frame.
4. Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II
Recommended with the Sony FE 2x Teleconverter.
I love this lens because it’s compatible with both the 1.4x and the 2x teleconverters and that makes this lens a very versatile piece of glass.
You can easily use this lens for shooting birds and large mammals by pairing it with a 2x teleconverter.
There is a significant advantage of weight when compared to something like the 400mm f/2.8 that I have mentioned above. The 400mm f/2.8 weighs 2895 grams. However, this lens weighs only 1045 grams. Even if you add the weight of the teleconverter (the 2x teleconverter weighs only 207 grams) the total weight is significantly less than that of the 400mm f/2.8.
I have listed two 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses in this list. This one and the original Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS. The OSS II version is significantly lighter than the original OSS I version. Having said that the original OSS I version is about 900 dollars cheaper than the OSS II version.
Additionally, this is a G Master lens and that means this lens comes with the promise of superior build quality compared to the standard Sony G lenses.
In terms of build quality, this is one of the best lenses that you will come across with excellent weather sealing. I have already mentioned in this discussion the value of weather sealing and how it can be a lifesaver when you’re exposed to bad weather. Weather sealing also comes into use when you’re shooting in a dusty environment, often normality in some places.
One additional feature of this lens is the fluorine coating on the front element of the lens. This coating helps prevent the accrual of dust and dirt on the front element of the lens. Additionally, cleaning the front element becomes a lot easier because of the presence of the fluorine coating.
Many times even when I am shooting in a dusty environment and I generally don’t like using a clear filter on my lens. I feel that the optical quality of the lens is compromised when I am putting another glass piece in front of it.
Unfortunately, that means the front element of my lens remains susceptible to dust. I like the lenses that come with this coating because it allows me to easily clean my lenses.
5. Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS
Recommended with the Sony FE 2x Teleconverter.
This is the original version of the 70-200mm f/2.8. I would recommend that you go for this lens if you are on a budget. The Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS is a little heavier than the OSS II version and that for me is one aspect to consider when making the decision.
1480 grams compared to 1045 grams means this lens is going to make you feel its weight as you continue to lug it around for an extended period of time. Add another 207 grams for the Sony FE 2x teleconverter and all of a sudden you now have a kit that’s nearly 650 grams heavier than the OSS II version.
Please note that I am inferring this purely from the point of view of wildlife photography. That means I am only going to use this lens when paired with the 1.4x or the 2x teleconverters. The 70-200mm is an excellent lens for shooting wedding and portrait photography and I can perhaps discuss those other usage cases some other time.
These teleconverters will extend the focal length of the lens to 280mm and 400mm making it suitable for wildlife photography.
On the flip side, however, the effective aperture of the lens will drop down to f/4 and f/5.6 respectively. That’s still an excellent focal length range for wildlife photography purposes.
A lot of photographers have the misconception that you need to shoot with the widest aperture possible to blur out the background. Background blur does not always depend on the aperture. It also depends on the distance between the subject and the camera. Even if you are shooting with a relatively smaller aperture, you can still create background blur if there is sufficient space between the camera and the subject.
So, technically speaking, even with an aperture of f/5.6, you should be able to capture excellent background blur. I have shot extensively with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 which has a constant aperture of f/5.6 across the focal length and is not as optically superior as this lens, and it offers excellent background blur.
Coming down now to the build quality of this lens. This is a G Master lens and comes with the promise of superior build quality. Having said that, however, it does not have the same quality of weather sealing as the OSS II version.
The Optical Steady Shot is really useful when shooting. It assists in easy composition with very little, if any, visual jerks when image stabilization kicks in. The real test of optical image stabilization, for wildlife photography at least, is when you’re panning with a subject. In that respect the OSS feature in the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS is good.
6. Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS II Macro
The 70-200mm f/4 OSS II Macro is a budget version of the 70-200mm focal length for the Sony E-mount. Significantly affordable compared to the 70-200mm f/2.8 OSS II and the OSS I this lens is recommended for anyone who is looking for a versatile lens that they can use for wildlife as well as for other photography purposes. The reason I have recommended this lens is that this lens is extremely versatile, can work with Sony’s FE mount teleconverters, and handles very well.
Sure this isn’t a G Master lens and that means it does not have the same build quality as the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II and the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS. However, this lens is a versatile piece of tool.
The fact that this is a macro lens means you can use this for capturing the odd macro photo when you get the opportunity during your wildlife photography sojourns. Macro lenses are very sharp across the frame and that promises excellent results more times than none.
One of the major features of this lens is the autofocusing system. The AF system is powered by 4 XD linear motors that significantly speed up the entire focusing performance. When it comes down to nailing that “significant moment” when a cheetah chases down an impala or a herd of lionesses goes for a kill you need your autofocusing system to be firing at all cylinders to be able to capture those.
Despite the versatility and all the good things that I have written about this lens, there are also a few things that I don’t like. One of them is the fact that this isn’t a G Master lens. That means you won’t get the same build quality as you come to expect from the 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II or the 400mm f/2.8 GM. These are two of my top recommendations in this segment. I heard somehow say, “This is still a white-painted lens.” That could be one of the reasons you would want to use this lens outdoors in hot weather where the white paint will reflect much of the heat and its ill effects.
The second thing that I noted when using this lens is that it extends by quite a bit when zoomed. This is a classic way to suck in dust and dirt when used in the field and this is what concerns me.
The third thing is that this isn’t a true macro lens. I often get this question that if a lens is marked “macro” it means it’s a true macro lens. It isn’t. Look for the term 1:1 or 1.0x macro on the lens’ body and or the packaging to confirm that the lens is able to reproduce 1:1 magnification.
Only when the lens is able to produce a 1:1 magnification it suggests that the lens is a true macro lens. will that make me change my buying decision? Not really. I would still be using this primarily for the purpose of shooting wildlife at a distance and paired with either a 1.4x or a 2.0x teleconverter.
7. Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS
Recommended with either the Sony FE 2x or the FE 1.4x Teleconverters.
Interestingly, the lens is compatible with Sony’s teleconverters, further extending its effective focal length and operating range. However, do keep in mind that you lose 2 stops and one stop of light, respectively, with the 2.0x and the 1.4x teleconverters.
For a lens that’s already at f/5.6 at its longest focal length, that means the effective aperture will become f/11 with the 2x teleconverter. Conversely, with the 1.4x teleconverter, you only lose one stop of light, yet your advantage is that you can.
Build quality is good. This is a G Master lens, and that suggests that the build quality is better than the standard G lenses. That said, I did not expose my rented piece to rain to check the build quality.
However, the front element zooms considerably, and that’s a cause for worry. I prefer internal zooms because there is a lower chance of sucking in dust and moisture when in use.
The lens weighs 1395 grams. For a 400mm lens, this is still a decently manageable weight. Compared to the 400mm f/2.8 that I mentioned above, this is a much lighter option.
I appreciate the fact that the lens comes with a focus delimiter/range button that allows you to switch between choosing the full focusing range or limiting it to 3 meters to infinity, depending on the distance at which your subject is.
Additionally, there are two OSS modes on the lens that you can toggle between using the Mode button. Alternatively, you can choose to switch it off when not required.
8. Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS
This is my final recommendation as one of the best Sony lenses for wildlife photography. This is also the only APS-C lens on this list.
The effective focal length when mounted with an APS-C camera like the Sony Alpha A5000 is 105 to 525mm.
This is a budget option and one that will not burn a hole in your pocket, unlike some of the other lenses that I have recommended on this list.
To be honest, wildlife photography is a very gear-centric genre. If you don’t have the best lenses and a fast camera, it will be difficult for you to capture great wildlife shots.
However, you can still choose beginner gear to try out the genre before investing in more expensive options. In that sense, the Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS is a great lens to work with.
Nevertheless, there are a few areas of concern. First is the maximum aperture. The maximum aperture is only f/4.5. Additionally, as you can see, the maximum aperture drops from f/4.5 to f/6.3 as you turn the zoom ring. In low-light situations, this lens will struggle a bit. Fortunately, though, it comes with OSS (Optical SteadyShot) which helps to stabilize the shot in low-light situations.
Let me provide some details about the lens here. Firstly, there’s weather sealing. Sony states that the lens is moisture and dust resistant. However, I would be hesitant to test out my rented gear to verify the weather resistance of this lens. I do believe whatever Sony states, the weather resistance on this lens is nowhere near that of some of the G Master lenses that I have listed here. So, keep that in mind when using this in inclement weather conditions.
Overall, the lens is lightweight, which is a big bonus for someone just starting in wildlife photography. At 625 grams, this is a very lightweight lens. That means you wouldn’t feel too much discomfort when wielding this lens over an extended period.
The 350mm focal length is going to give you a decent reach for large mammals like elephants, cape buffaloes, and giraffes, for example. However, if you’re trying to capture a small finch at 100 meters, the lens will not provide a large magnification.
My recommendation is that this is a great beginner lens for getting into wildlife photography but not the best if you’re serious about capturing the kind of images that you see on the cover of NatGeo or Wildlife Photographic.