Pho­to: juzaphoto.com

— Holmes, do you hear this ter­ri­ble noise and crack­ling in the thick­et? It must be the Hound of the Baskervilles run­ning…
- No, Wat­son, this is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er with a meter high-aper­ture tele­fix run­ning!
Jok­ing aside, choos­ing the right tele­pho­to lens is no easy task. We fig­ure out which para­me­ters of “glass­es” are more impor­tant for shoot­ing sports events, and which ones are more impor­tant for wildlife.

What to look for when choosing a telephoto lens

The task of any tele­pho­to lens is to mag­ni­fy dis­tant objects and effec­tive­ly sep­a­rate them from the back­ground. There­fore, when buy­ing, you need to pay atten­tion to such para­me­ters as:

  • focal length;
  • is it zoom or “fix”;
  • max­i­mum aper­ture val­ue;
  • image sta­bi­liza­tion lev­el;
  • lens size and weight;
  • pro­tec­tion from adverse weath­er con­di­tions.

In a suit­able mod­el, these fac­tors should be bal­anced depend­ing on your goals and bud­get. Even if two lens­es have the same focal length, they can be very dif­fer­ent from each oth­er, and one of them may not be so well suit­ed to your shoot­ing genre. For exam­ple, the 70–200mm f/2.8 lens from Sony is an all-rounder that can be used for sports, wildlife, pho­to­jour­nal­ism, and many oth­er pur­pos­es. At the same time, there is anoth­er ver­sion in the com­pa­ny’s line­up: 70–200mm f/4 — a lighter and more afford­able lens, although less fast. How­ev­er, it may be your pre­ferred option.

Maximum aperture

For sports pho­tog­ra­phy, it is bet­ter to use tele­pho­to lens­es with a larg­er max­i­mum aper­ture. This way you will shoot at a faster shut­ter speed, freez­ing the move­ment of the ath­letes. In addi­tion, many sport­ing events are held indoors, at night, or with imper­fect light­ing. There­fore, despite the high cost, it is worth choos­ing a faster lens with a large max­i­mum aper­ture.

You have to pay for aper­ture: Sony FE 70–200mm f/2.8 vs Sony FE 70–200mm f/4. Pho­to: camerajabber.com

These lens­es are usu­al­ly larg­er and heav­ier, but that should­n’t be intim­i­dat­ing if you don’t have to move around too much and are work­ing with extra support/tripod. How­ev­er, run­ning with such a “mon­ster” through the forests will be a real test of willpow­er, because you need not only to car­ry it on your­self, but also take pic­tures (and, most like­ly, with your hands). There­fore, for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, you can sac­ri­fice the max­i­mum aper­ture — pay atten­tion to zooms: such lens­es are small­er and lighter (more on this in a bit).


Many sports pho­tog­ra­phers use spe­cial sup­port to sta­bi­lize their cam­eras and shoot at very fast shut­ter speeds, which elim­i­nates the need for addi­tion­al image sta­bi­liza­tion.

But for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy, this can be crit­i­cal. There­fore, choos­ing a com­bi­na­tion of lens and cam­era that pro­vides the best sta­bi­liza­tion sys­tem will be more impor­tant than buy­ing more expen­sive fast lens­es. Imag­ine a bird pho­tog­ra­ph­er tak­ing pic­tures of an almost immo­bile owl perched on a branch at a con­sid­er­able dis­tance. Vibra­tion and cam­era shake in this case will be eas­i­ly com­pen­sat­ed by the image sta­bi­liza­tion sys­tem. At the same time, in nor­mal day­time con­di­tions, a lens with a max­i­mum aper­ture of f / 4 or f / 5.6 will be quite enough.

Zoom lenses and “fixes”

You also need to take into account the dif­fer­ence between zooms and “fix­es” (lens­es with a fixed focal length). Tele­pho­to primes are one of the most expen­sive cat­e­gories of lens­es on the mar­ket. Of course, the qual­i­ty of these “glass­es” is at the high­est lev­el from most man­u­fac­tur­ers, but is it worth the extra mon­ey, espe­cial­ly for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers?

A fixed lens “on the edge” is a good solu­tion. Pho­to: the-afc.com

Dur­ing live broad­casts of match­es, you can often see sports pho­tog­ra­phers behind the touch­line with long “fix­es” — this is ide­al, espe­cial­ly if the per­son is at a con­stant dis­tance from the sub­ject (for exam­ple, when shoot­ing ten­nis). Of course, those who shoot birds and wild ani­mals also use long-focus “fix­es”. But a more ver­sa­tile tele­zoom with a range of about 100–400 mm may be more con­ve­nient for them, because the dis­tance to the sub­ject can change at any sec­ond (a bird flut­tered from a branch, a bear sud­den­ly began to reduce the dis­tance).

Other factors

While the size and weight of a lens mat­ters to any pho­tog­ra­ph­er, for ani­mal pho­tog­ra­phers, a less bulky lens is also impor­tant because their move­ments are much more unpre­dictable than those of ath­letes. For this rea­son, some­times you have to abrupt­ly change the direc­tion and posi­tion of the lens, which is not so easy when your “glass” weighs sev­er­al kilos.

Weath­er pro­tec­tion is anoth­er option that any pho­tog­ra­ph­er will ben­e­fit from (espe­cial­ly those who shoot out­door sports like foot­ball match­es). But for those who shoot birds and oth­er wild ani­mals, this fea­ture is sim­ply nec­es­sary.

When you’re con­stant­ly shoot­ing out­doors, it’s hard not to take into account the sur­round­ing con­di­tions. Pho­to: abouther.com

In gen­er­al, of course, there are tele­pho­to lens­es that are ide­al for shoot­ing both sports and wildlife. In par­tic­u­lar, the 400mm “fix” can be used in both gen­res, and if you add a tele­con­vert­er, such a “glass” becomes almost uni­ver­sal. Let’s go back to our exam­ple with f/2.8 and f/4 lens­es. In gen­er­al, f/4 will be more suit­able for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy. These “glass­es” are more com­pact and lighter, and their aper­ture will not be a prob­lem for any­one who usu­al­ly shoots in nat­ur­al light. A bonus to this is good sta­bi­liza­tion and low­er cost.

Results for telephoto lenses

Oth­er things being equal, choose a lens that will fit in your bag! Pho­to: borrowlenses.com

So, for shoot­ing sport­ing events First of all, aper­ture ratio (max­i­mum aper­ture) will be impor­tant. Sta­bi­liza­tion and size are less crit­i­cal as you will be shoot­ing from the same posi­tion more often and will be able to use tripods/supports with­out any prob­lems. When shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tions in the open air, weath­er pro­tec­tion will not be super­flu­ous. And “fix­es” are per­fect for “pho­to hunt­ing” from a set dis­tance.

For wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers the size and weight of the lens is much more crit­i­cal, so you can eas­i­ly sac­ri­fice its aper­ture in order to throw off a cou­ple of hun­dred grams. Oth­er things being equal, the zoom will be a much more con­ve­nient option for your tasks than the “fix”. Qual­i­ty sta­bi­liza­tion and weath­er pro­tec­tion are also very impor­tant.

PS When you select a lens for spe­cial tasks, it is very impor­tant to study all the char­ac­ter­is­tics and fea­tures of each mod­el. We also advise you to first read the reviews of experts and ordi­nary users.

Do you shoot sports or wildlife? We’d love to read about your expe­ri­ence in the com­ments, and we’re also hap­py to answer ques­tions about tele­pho­to lens­es.

* In prepar­ing the arti­cle, mate­ri­als from the resource bhphotovideo.com (author — John Har­ris) were used