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Best Budget Lens for Wildlife Photography

I am a quality technician. In my spare time, I enjoy bird watching and photography.

This bald eagle is close enough that its tail and wing are touching the water. Photo taken with telephoto zoom lens.

This bald eagle is close enough that its tail and wing are touching the water. Photo taken with telephoto zoom lens.

Best Telephoto Zoom Lens

The best lens for wildlife photography is a telephoto lens with zoom capabilities. There is wildlife that you can't get close to or that would be dangerous if you did. So you want to have a lens that can take a good photograph from a safe distance.

However, you have to consider that wildlife also tends to move. Let's say there are two people taking pictures of an animal or bird at a distance. One has a prime telephoto lens and the other a telephoto lens with zoom capabilities. Both can get good photographs while the subject stays far enough away.

What happens once the subject gets closer? The person shooting with the prime lens will soon not be able to keep the subject in the frame. Meanwhile, the person with the zoom capabilities will be able to back off the lens and keep getting great photographs.

Great horned owl in a snowstorm

Great horned owl in a snowstorm

Lenses I Have Tested

When I first started bird photography, I found the kit lens (18–55 mm) that was provided with my camera was not going to be good enough. The birds were just too far away. So I started looking into buying a lens that would get me the shots at longer distances.

Canon 55–250 mm Lens

I didn't want to spend too much money, so I bought a 55–250 mm Canon lens. While it was better than what I had, I still found myself in situations where I was not able to get all of the shots that I wanted.

Sigma 150–500 mm Lens

In the area where I would go for bird photography a few years ago, I found most of the people were using a Sigma 150–500 mm lens. So I went out and bought one as they had all said they were good. It certainly was getting me better shots for distance than my 55–250 mm Canon lens. So at first, I was really happy.

Then I became more concerned about the quality (or sharpness) of the photograph that I was taking, and I was finding the shots were not quite as sharp as I wanted. This was going to be important as I was starting to look at selling my photographs.

While my photos looked acceptable while viewing them, I could really see the problem when I used Photoshop. When I would try to increase the sharpness or clarity the photo would not become sharper, they actually started to look worse.

Canon EF 600 mm f/4L IS II USM Lens

I was able to confirm it was the lens, not me or my camera, when one of the other bird photographers in the area let me put my camera on his Canon EF 600 mm f/4L IS II USM lens and take some photographs using it. When I saw those images on my computer the difference was stunning.

Then I tried editing them in Photoshop and the difference was astronomical. The details in the feathers and the accuracy of the branches around the Heron were sharp as a tack. However, I knew I couldn't afford the lens that he had, nor would I want to have to carry all that weight.

Canon EF 100–400 mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM Lens

So I started doing research on what would be the best choice for me. The Canon EF 100–400 mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM lens had the best reviews on the internet, but it would cost me about $2,200. I didn't want to spend that much money only to possibly not be satisfied with the results again.

So I did some more research, and I found out that I could rent lenses from a local photography shop. I figured this would be a good idea so I could test them out before I bought them. Since I had already spent about $1,500 on the other two lenses combined, I wanted to make sure I would be happy with the next lens that I bought.

Since it had the best reviews, I rented the Canon EF 100–400 mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM Lens, and I was able to test it out for the weekend. I booked a bird photography workshop so I would be able to make sure I would get the opportunity to get the shots that I wanted.

I found the sharpness was better, but I still found it somewhat lacking (note: I have been told this may have been due to it being a rental lens). I also had to consider that if I bought it, I would also be losing 100 mm of distance from what was my current lens. I also did not like the push/pull style for adjusting the focal length.

Best Budget Lens for Wildlife Photography

My Choice: Sigma 150–600 mm 5–6.3 Contemporary

So which lens will give you the best bang for your buck? For me, I want to have as much distance as I can possibly get on a lens. Plus I want to have a good range of my zoom, so I only have to buy and carry only one lens.

If you look at buying one of the camera manufacturer's lenses, they usually have the reputation for having the best quality but they also usually cost a lot more. They sometimes cost even double what the other brands will charge you.

Of course, you want to spend as little as possible, but you don't want to sacrifice the quality of your photographs to do it.

In 2016 some of the people that had that Sigma 150–500 mm lens switched to the new longer Sigma contemporary lens. So I started asking if it was worth the change. They were telling me how happy they were, and they showed me the detail that they were now able to get of the feathers of the birds.

Having seen how sharp the pictures were, I went and checked its reviews. They were pretty favorable, and the price was less than half of what I would pay for the Canon. I would also gain an extra 200 mm of distance (actually 320 mm due to my 1.6x crop sensor) compared to the Canon.

So I went to Henry's (a huge Canadian photography store and imaging experts), and I asked them how well the Sigma 150–600 mm would compare to the Canon 100–400. They talked about how Sigma had upgraded their glass. If you bought a Contemporary, sport or Art lens from Sigma, the quality would be quite good.

So I bought the new Sigma 150–600 mm Contemporary lens for my Canon 7D Mark II. I again booked a bird photography workshop to test out my new lens. The difference is incredible I now get the sharp images that I wanted. I actually found it was better than the Canon 100–400 mm that I had rented. Plus I have increased my distance an extra 100 mm (actually 160 mm due to 1.6x crop sensor on my 7D) from my previous Sigma lens.

Questions & Answers

Question: I purchased a Sigma 150-600mm C lens. Was it a good choice?

Answer: Yes, it is good. I had the previous 150-500mm, and the new one is much better. I tried the Canon 100-400mm as a rental, and I did not see enough of a difference to make up for the price and less distance that I would get by choosing the Sigma instead.

Question: Is the Sigma 150-600 lens capable to be used with my Canon 80D and not lose autofocus, IS, etc?

Answer: I do not own a Canon 80D or tried that combination, but I do not see why it would be an issue for you. On Youtube, there is a video showing the Canon 80D and the Sigma 150-600 lens with a Canon 1.4x ii teleconverter and it shows how quick it acquires the autofocus.

Question: Would the Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 be a good, slightly lighter option for wildlife photography?

Answer: It would be a good lens. The concern I would have is will it give you the distance that you will need for wildlife? So take into consideration how close will you be able to get to the wildlife that you want to photograph and how big is the wildlife. If the wildlife is small and you can't get very close to it, then 100-400 may not be good enough for what you want it to do. That was why I chose the 150-600. I use a tripod or a monopod to rest the camera on while I am not shooting to help deal with the weight.