The Benefits of Fast Telephoto Lenses for Wildlife Photography


The benefits of fast telephoto lenses can be summed up with the phrase “Just an f-stop or two.” The distinction between a lens that costs $3000 and one that costs $13,000 may come down to the difference between f/4 and f/2.8. The question is, is the price and weight worth it for wildlife photography? In this article, we will explore that question.

Imagine you’re photographing birds in a tropical forest with limited light, even during the day. As the sun starts to set, you begin to pack up your equipment. With your subject matter, using a long shutter speed is not feasible, and you’ve already pushed your ISO above ten thousand. Furthermore, you’ve reached the maximum aperture of your lens at f/5.6.

However, your friend standing next to you is still actively exploring and capturing photos. While you’ve already pushed your ISO to 12,800, his camera shows a mere ISO of 3200. It dawns on you that the significant difference is the maximum aperture of f/5.6 compared to f/2.8.


This is clearly only one side in the range, however it’s an experience that’s occurred to me several times in various forms or. The “f-stop one or two” get more significant near the edges of daytime.

In the same way an aperture of F/4 or f/5.6 could be sufficient when the conditions aren’t bad one as I mentioned above. Even during sunset and sunrise it is possible to shoot with an aperture that is smaller as that you’re shooting in open areas rather than the forest. Instead of choosing either extreme, for example selecting one of a $300mm f/2.8 prime or 500-200mm f/5.6 zoom, you can choose a compromise such as a 300mm f/4.

NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR @ 300mm, ISO 3200, 1/2000, f/5.6


Autofocus Reliability

You’re on your sofa while reading a book and you realize that you’re not able to concentrate on the words for long as it becomes dark outside. Naturally, you start the flash however that’s difficult to achieve outdoors when shooting wildlife. A flash will not help the camera’s focus module which is dependent on the ambient light to pinpoint a fast-moving animal.

Fast telephoto lenses have an advantage in terms of speed of focusing and reliability over slower counterparts. However, not all telephotos with slow apertures are able to focus at a high speed. For instance it’s the Nikon 200 to 500mm f/5.6 is a sluggish focuser, however this Nikon 500mm f/5.6 Focusing Fluid is as fast as a telephoto with a dazzling design… it’s if it’s lit. You can’t fight physics. As light becomes scarce and the sun’s rays become less plentiful, the f/2.8 lens will feed your focusing system with sweet, sweet light particles, however, an f/5.6 lens will have trouble.

If autofocus reliability is a concern take a look at the conditions under which you prefer to capture wildlife. Do your subjects move slow? If so, you’ll likely get by with the majority of lens types, such as slow-focusing optics and third-party glass. However, if not you’ll require an optical system with a faster focus motor. However, even the case, you might prefer lenses that have an f/5.6 or f/6.3 lens as that you prefer to shoot in brighter lighting.

NIKON Z9 + VR 200-500mm f/5.6E @ 500mm, ISO 640, 1/800, f/5.6

Using Teleconverters

Teleconverters won’t work well with lenses that are slow. You can certainly make use of a 2x teleconverter when using an f/5.6 lens if you’d like but the maximum aperture is just f/11. This is sufficient to cause damage to the autofocus systems of any. This is particularly true of DSLRs, as their phase detection systems could refuse to fully focus at this narrow aperture.

Personally, I like lenses that have larger than f/4 if I’m using an 1.4x Teleconverter or f/2.8 or greater for a teleconverter that is 2x. My maximum aperture is at an acceptable f/5.6 in both instances. This isn’t a shackle standard, and I certainly extend my lenses beyond they are sometimes. However, when I do I observe that the autofocus system is unable to focus often.

To understand the impact of a teleconverter’s effect on the maximum aperture of your lens, simply multiply the maximum aperture of your lens by the teleconverter’s conversion factor. With an 1.4x converter it is possible to convert an f/2.8 lens will transform into f/4; an F/4 lens transforms into f/5.6 and an f/5.6 lens becomes f/8 and it goes on. The math is simpler using a teleconverter that is 2x, which is why I leave it for readers 🙂

NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S @ 560mm, ISO 5600, 1/200, f/4.0

Optical Performance

It’s a little bit of a misconception that telephotos with wide apertures lenses are superior in terms of clarity. In actual use, a quality lens can be equipped with the following specifications: f/2.8 maximal aperture f/5.6 max aperture or even a lot more.

It is what is most likely to be the case is that all “cheap” Telephoto lenses have narrow maximum apertures. You shouldn’t expect 100-500mm f/6.3 No-name lens to be able to stand at the level of the Nikon, Canon, or Sony 300mm f/2.8 in clarity. But that if a lens maker would like to create a top-quality 300mm f/5.6 and put all their top technology to it, you’ll find no legal requirement that says it’s inferior to the 300mm f/2.8 in the common aperture range.

As I am a Nikon photographer, I’m acquainted with the Nikon’s capabilities So I’ll share a few examples from my experiences. Lenses such as Z 400mm f/4.5, 500mm f/5.6 PF Z 400mm f/4.5 500mm f/5.6 F and the Z 800mm f/6.3 all have small apertures, however they’re also very precise and can perform up to the standard of f/2.8 or f/4 glass.

In essence, evaluate each lens based on its individual strengths. The most luxurious f/2.8 or f/4 supertelephotos can be very sharp, but their apertures that are smaller are often extremely top-quality optics too.

Australian lapwing
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 320, 1/2500, f/5.6

Depth of Field and Bokeh

A smooth small depth of field, one the most popular selling features for fast lens. Photographers of wildlife all over the world love this type of look. But do you require f/2.8 to capture it?

It’s true that I frequently shoot at smaller apertures, such as F/4 and f/5.6 deliberately, even if I’m using an f/2.8 lens, as blurring of the background is too high at the highest aperture! In wildlife photography it is easy to achieve shallow depth of field a lot often.

Noisy pitta
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 1100, 1/250, f/4.0

But, I’m in love with the f/2.8 appearance at times. Prime lenses with fast speeds certainly are more effective at capturing it than slow zooms or slower primes which is the reason I love the f/2.8 glass.

In many instances it’s not just about more smoky backgrounds however, it’s also about the bird’s silhouette from other distractions such as the branches of trees around it. In such situations I don’t really care that as much for the backgrounds, but more about the space between and in front of my subject. Wide apertures clean the image for you by transforming the branches into a stunning blur.

In this instance wide aperture lenses are in the lead. Even if you slow the apertures down a bit such as the majority of me do, will at most have an possibility to blur your surroundings to the point of the void. This isn’t a feature that you’ll get – at the very least not in the same manner that you would with the f/5.6 or f/6.3 optic.

Durability and Handling

Like optical performance, excellent build quality has been ascribed to those huge 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 lenses. It’s actually a result of camera companies putting all their effort to these cameras, it has nothing to do with the highest aperture.


There’s absolutely no reason why an aperture of 400mm f/4 shouldn’t be made as 400mm f/2.8. Sometimes, the smaller aperture lens are constructed also (or at the very least, close). Like the optical quality, this is a matter to be evaluated on a lens-by lens basis.

The same applies to the lens’s handling. Particularly the layout of buttons. I’m a big fan of the Memory Recall button that is used on high-end lenses which includes nearly all f/2.8 zooms. Some lenses with a smaller aperture also have this feature, such as those from the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 F/5.6 PF.

In the end the quality of the construction as well as the weather sealing and the handling of telephotos with wide apertures will be superior than those with lenses with a smaller aperture. However, that’s only because these lenses are of higher quality initially, and generally come with cameras with more advanced features.

NIKON D600 + 200-400mm f/4 @ 360mm, ISO 1600, 1/200, f/6.3

Weight and Price

Now, let’s get to the core of things! With all the categories that have been discussed so far, they’re all in the direction of wide aperture lenses, you wondered what the reason is to invest in a smaller aperture lens in the first place.

In reality the real world, an f/5.6 lens typically weighs less than an equivalent F/4 lens. It weighs less than the comparable f/2.8 lens! The prices for both work in the same way. If you’re on a tight budget and many of us are, an investment of $3000 is already an enormous cost. A $10,000 investment plus to get an additional stop of light might not be justified.

Even if you’re in the market for a budget (congrats!) it’s possible to be satisfied by an f/5.6 lens due to the weight. I am always feeling my back, but not in a positive way, when shooting with a 300mm f/2.8. While my 500mm f/5.6 lens makes me feel like a feather.

In most cases, if I’m intending to shoot in forest conditions, I’ll choose to carry one of my smaller lenses and put my 400mm f/2.8 beast at home. This lets me be more mobile and adept at experimenting with unusual compositions, and also walking farther to locate my photographer’s. Like everything else it’s a compromise however, lenses with f/4 or f/5.6 lenses certainly have a better balance compared to f/2.8 glass a lot often.

Mandarin Duck_04
NIKON Z7 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 2200, 1/800, f/5.6

Professional Look

Don’t believe everything I’ve said in the past. The larger your lens, the greater respect you’ll earn from photographers around the world. There’s something distinctly primal about it. You’ll be greeted with admiring glances by women and men alike!

Okay, okay. Perhaps it’s not an issue. But it’s not the most important aspect of photography. I do hope that I’ve at the very least diverted you from serious issues for a moment.

Perhaps more than the matter about whether or not you require an ultra-fast telephoto lens, you’re concerned about where you can get the cash for it at all. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to assist you out with that as I’m in the deep pit already.

In any event I’d love it when you leave your feedback on the post – for instance regarding the reasons we don’t require fast lens for telephotos. Perhaps you can help others to save a significant amount of money!