Best Nikon Lens For Nature Photography

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Best Overall

Nikon 200-400mm f/4 ED VR II

  • Large zoom range
  • Wide max aperture
  • Excellent image quality
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TOP PICK

Budget Pick

Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

  • Less expensive
  • Huge zoom range
  • Smaller max aperture
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Best DX Option

Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR

  • Huge zoom range
  • Compact
  • Inexpensive
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Nature is Earth’s biggest photo op, and the best part is that she shares her beauties with us for free.

Whether you find yourself taking a long hike in the woods or traipsing across the family farm, it’s practically impossible to resist the temptation to pause and capture the splendors of nature.

In those golden moments, having the correct lens can make all the difference between lackluster results and a work of art worth framing to hang on your wall.

If you’re looking to gear up for that next nature excursion, take a look at our picks below for the best Nikon lenses for nature photography needs.

Best Overall | Nikon 200-400mm f/4 ED VR II

If nature photography is more than just a hobby and you’re ready to go all in with a big investment for stellar results, the Nikon 200-400mm f/44 ED VR II is your obvious choice.

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This lens is, quite frankly, enormous, weighing nearly 7.5 lbs. and measuring over 14” in length. However, all that bulk is for good reason.

Nikon calls this lens “the ultimate super-telephoto zoom lens”, designed to be an all-purpose piece of equipment for even the most demanding nature photography assignments. With weather-sealing and rugged construction, it has been intentionally designed to withstand a variety of field conditions.

With the 200-400mm f/4 ED VR II, you’ll be able to capture breathtaking wildlife images rivaling your wildest dreams. The extended focal length range assures that you’re able to get up close and personal with skittish wild animals without scaring them away. Using a teleconverter also allows you to zoom in even more.

The focal length capacity coupled with background separation provided by the decently wide f/4 aperture (which also helps with low light shooting) means that your wildlife images will have stunning gallery clarity. It is worth mentioning here, however, that some users do note a slight edge softness at 400mm focal length.

Nikon has also designed this lens with various tech elements to help ensure clear, consistent results. The ED glass resists distortion, the Nano Crystal Coat fights against various light-related flares and the included VR technology reduces blurry images caused by increased sensitivity to handshake at extended focal lengths.

Not surprisingly, with all that it offers, the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 ED VR II comes with a hefty $6000+ price tag that rivals the bulk of its physical size, although buying refurbished or used can potentially save you $2000. At the time of publishing, even directly through Nikon, new models were out of stock, which does make us wonder if an upgrade is in the works.

Pros
-Impressive 200-400mm focal length range
-Compatible for use with a teleconverter
-Designed to meet the conditions for wildlife photography

Cons
-Very expensive
-Heavy and huge
-Probably too much lens for the casual shooter

Budget Pick | Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

If you’re passionate about nature photography but can’t swing the high price tag on the 200-400 mm, Nikon’s 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens could be a great addition to your camera bag. This solid FX zoom lens offers versatility at a much more accessible $850 price range.

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Like our top pick, this lens includes elements like VR technology and ED glass to help produce clearer images free of distortion. On top of that, its zoom capabilities make it adaptable to a broader range of nature photography situations, including landscape, macro and some wildlife photography.

Obviously, with this lens you exchange an extra 100 mm of focal length for shorter (but also wider) framing possibilities. When used at its maximum 300mm focal length, the 28-300mm only reaches a maximum aperture of f/5.6 which inevitably affects its ability to perform in lower light conditions, limiting hand-held shooting possibilities.

Other compromises to consider with the 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR are its more economic construction and what some users note to be a slight lack of crispness in images. Its overall construction is also not weather-sealed, although the mount is.

This is not a small lens, but, weighing in at roughly 1.75 lbs. and measuring 4.5” in length, it’s far less bulky than a longer telephoto lens would be. This makes the 28-300 an easier option to pack along in the field, because it allows you to shoot a wide variety of nature photography with one (more or less) compact piece of glass.

Pros
-Versatile zoom lens
-More compact option for use in the field
-Accessible price range for the serious nature photography enthusiast

Cons
-Maximum aperture only f/5.6 at 300 mm
-Slight lack of crispness when compared with a prime lens
-Not weather-sealed

Best for Crop Sensor Nikon Cameras | Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR

Our previous two picks are not suitable options for shooters using DX bodies, due to being designed specifically for FX (full frame) models. Instead, for crop sensor bodies, Nikon has created the 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR.

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In many ways, this lens compares closely to the 28-300mm FX model. Both are telephoto zoom lens offering practically the same range of focal length. This means that the 18-300mm DX model will equally be applicable to landscape, macro and some wildlife shooting, just as the FX version.

This lens also includes practically the same design elements to produce sharper images, including ED glass and VR technology. Selling for roughly $625 and weighing just a little over a pound, this lens looses even more of the bulk of our previous picks, in both price and size.

Unfortunately, the 18-300mm only offers a maximum f/6.3 aperture at 300mm, which inevitably ends up affecting low-light shooting and bokeh. That’s not to say that it can’t be used in lowlight or that you won’t have background separation.

It’s just important to be aware that you may have to make some adjustments to your shooting settings. The 18-300mm is fully capable of producing stunning images, but don’t expect to find the crispness of a prime lens when you zoom in on your photos.

That being said, the 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G ED VR is a solid, well-loved lens. Many users mention that they end up using only the 18-300mm during entire trips because of the consistent performance, portability and adaptability to most shooting scenarios that it offers. Like our previous pick, only the mount, not the overall construction, of this lens is weather sealed.

Pros
-Versatile and reliable option for DX models
-Includes ED and VR technology to help produce clear images with less distortion
-Not overly bulky

Cons
-6.3 maximum aperture at 300mm
-Images not as crisp as produced by a prime lens
-Not weather-sealed

Best for Nikon Z Cameras | Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S

For those shooters using a mirrorless camera body from Nikon’s Z series, the obvious option is the Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S. While some of Nikon’s DSLR lenses can be used on Z series bodies with an adapter, the Z 70-200mm is a telephoto zoom lens designed specifically for Nikon Z cameras.

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Maybe one of the most outstanding features of the Z 70-200mm is the wide f/2.8 maximum aperture even at 200mm. This not only creates beautiful background separation and blur, but also allows hand-held shooting in more low light conditions.

This lens is adaptable to a wide variety of shooting scenarios, making it a great one-lens option for your landscape shooting events. It’s sealed against both dust and moisture to help it hold up in the field and boasts a short 18” minimum focusing distance, allowing you to get closer than ever when shooting macro.

Clearly, at a maximum focal length of 200mm, wildlife shots may be a bit more complicated if the animal is further away. However, thanks to the wide aperture, if getting physically closer is an option, you can usually leave the tripod behind and move in with just your camera to capture your shot.

The Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S is part of the S-line label reserved for Nikon’s Z series lenses. This means the lens has been designed with numerous elements focused on superior optical quality as well as with the exclusive Nano Crystal Coat used only on Nikon’s top of the line lenses to fight light reflection problems.

You can use this lens on the full-frame Z6 and Z7 series as well as the crop-sensor Z50, which made our list of the Best Mirrorless Cameras Under $1000.

Not surprisingly due to the wide aperture, this lens is on the larger side measuring 8.7” and weighing a hearty 4 lbs. However, thanks to the Z series mount design, the overall bulk of the body plus lens is more compact, which compensates at least a little for the heftiness of the lens.

Pros
-Wide f/2.8 aperture telephoto zoom lens
-Designed for optical quality and professional-level results
-Short focusing distance

Cons
-Only for Z series camera bodies
-Bulky
-Expensive ($2600)

Best for Wide Angle Landscapes | Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4 DI OSD

For those interested in shooting primarily landscapes, a wide-angle lens that permits you to capture as much as possible of what your naked eye sees will be a far more practical option than a telephoto lens. If macro or wildlife photography is not your passion, the Tamron 17-35 f/2.8-4 DI OSD could be the lens that you’re looking for to take your landscape photography to the next level.

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This piece of glass offers wide angle shooting in a compact, easy to transport package, designed to give you reliable results. Tamron’s 17-35mm weighs in a just over a pound and measures a mere 3.5” in length, making it easy to transport. It’s also moisture-resistant to help protect the lens elements from drops of water or rain.

It is worth noting that the maximum aperture available does drop to f/4 when zoomed into a 35mm focal length, but depending upon your shooting conditions, that may or may not affect you in the least. And thanks to the short maximum focusing distance of 11”, if you shoot at a 17mm with the maximum 2.8 aperture, it’s still possible to achieve some degree of background blur for certain macro images.

Not surprisingly, one of the most attractive features of the Tamron 17-35 f/2.8-4 DI OSD is its reasonable price point. At $600, it is a solid option that many users claim rivals or exceeds the performance of similar Nikon models. Reviews rave about the sharpness and consistent performance offered by this lens.

Pros
-Wide angle lens for landscape shooting
-More affordable price point
-Compact

Cons
-Not suitable for wildlife photography
-May produce soft images in low-light conditions due to a lack of image stabilization
-Cheaper construction

Runner Up | Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2

If you’re looking for a telephoto zoom lens option lighter on both your wallet and your back, you may want to consider Tamron’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Thanks to it’s wide maximum f/2.8 aperture even at 200mm, you’re guaranteed great depth of field in your wildlife shots, as well as more control over low light conditions.

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Selling for approximately $1300, this Tamron lens offers similar performance to the equivalent Nikon model and at over $1000 less. Considering all that Tamron has packed into this lens, including vibration control mechanisms and teleconverter capability, you really end up getting a lot of bang for your buck.

It is also made to hold up to the elements with moisture-proofing and a dust-resistant construction.

Obviously, this lens doesn’t reach as far as our top pick, so if you’re looking to shoot close-ups of skittish wildlife at long ranges, you may find yourself somewhat limited. On the other hand, however, it is a prime lens in a decently compact package. At 3.28 lbs. and 7.5” in length, this Tamron model is definitely more user friendly for carrying over long distances and in tight spaces.

Users continually rave about the sharpness and great low-light performance of the SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2, frequently mentioning that any advantage the Nikon version may offer is so slight that it’s practically unnoticeable.

Pros
-Affordable prime telephoto zoom lens
-Comparable performance to the Nikon model
-More compact for use in the field

Cons
-Shorter reach than our top pick
-Limited use for wildlife photos
-Will crop out a decent amount of landscape photos

Features to Look for in a Nature Lens

With so many options to choose from, lens shopping can quickly become an overwhelming experience for any photographer—and a near impossible task for the indecisive shutterbug unsure of what they truly need. Thankfully, when it comes to choosing a nature lens, there are just four basic features that you need to consider.

Reach/Zoom

Overall focal length and zoom capabilities will be one of the most important features to look for when picking a nature lens. While fixed length lenses or short-range lenses are appropriate and even preferred for some other types of photography, these lenses are generally not your best options for nature shots.

Unless you are only interested in landscape shots, you’ll want to look for a telephoto zoom lens that gives you the flexibility to quickly adapt to changing photo opportunities as you find them in the field.

Depending upon if your goal is to reach very long distances you may be ready to invest in a longer reach lens that extends all the way to 400mm. But it’s also quite possible that a middle of the road option that goes up to 200mm may be ideal to let you experience a little of everything in a more compact package.

 

Weather Sealing and Ruggedness

Nature photography will expose your equipment to potential damage perhaps more than any other type of photography. From dirt to rain to bumps and drops, nature can be unforgiving to electronics. For that reason, you need a lens made to withstand the elements.

While more expensive models generally have a more durable construction and are sealed against moisture and dust, many economic models compromise both in materials and weather sealing.

That’s not to say that you have to buy a $2000+ piece of glass in order to feel safe taking it out on a hike, but the durability of the lens is an important element to consider when choosing which lens will meet your needs.

 

Weight and Size for Traveling

Perhaps one of the biggest downfalls of many telephoto zoom lenses is their bulk. Due to their focal range, aperture and rugged construction, most end up being enormous pieces of equipment that not only take up a lot of space in your camera bag. They’re also incredibly heavy to carry around for several hours.

If extreme zoom capabilities and pro-quality images are paramount for you, lugging a big lens around may be more than worth it. However, for the casual shooter or someone who doesn’t want to feel like a packhorse, a really heavy lens may end up spending more time at unused home than out in nature.

 

Affordability

Buying camera equipment is always a big investment and nowhere does that show up more than when looking for new glass. For many shooters a lens costing several thousand dollars simply is not a practical option.

Thankfully, it’s not at all necessary to buy the biggest and best telephoto zoom lens on the market in order to enjoy the satisfaction of shooting beautiful nature photography. There are many budget-friendly options available, including some of our top picks, that also perform with excellence.

Ultimately, when it comes to choosing a nature lens for your Nikon camera, it’s all about recognizing what features are important to you in a lens, thinking about your photography goals and deciding what compromises you’ll be willing to make to find the best piece of glass for you.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.
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