Shooting wildlife is both exciting and challenging. It usually requires longer focal-length lenses so you can capture close shots of the wildlife without having to get close to them.
Wildlife photography also means shooting in varying light conditions such as the low light of sunrise or sunset, so it’s also important to have wide aperture lenses to let in as much light as possible.
This means that choosing Nikon lenses for nature photography can be tricky and can get expensive.
I took a close look at the Nikon lens lineup and came up with 7 of the best Nikon lenses for wildlife photography including some that won’t break the bank. My favorite here was the Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G2.
Here’s how the top picks break down so you can find the right one for your needs.
Best Nikon F-Mount Lenses For Wildlife
1. Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2
The 70-200mm f/2.8 is the most used lens for sports and Tamron’s G2 version is every bit as good as the Nikon at half the price.
Although there are undoubtedly some excellent Nikkor lenses available to meet your wildlife photography needs (we’ll talk about those later in this article), the best bet for most wildlife photographers is the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2. Designed for FX bodies, it also works with DX bodies where its zoom range changes to 140-300mm.
The focal length offered by this high-end piece of glass maintains its maximum 2.8 aperture throughout the zoom range which means that you’ll have no problem capturing wildlife, even in low light conditions. Even in normal light conditions, the need to freeze fast-moving animals means using high shutter speeds or facing blurry images.
These factors coupled with Tamron’s innovative VC optical image stabilization system, which can compensate for up to 5 full stops (for stationary subjects), give you lots of rapid-fire hand-held freedom for a variety of wildlife shooting situations.
You can also add Tamron teleconverters to increase the reach of this lens to 400mm. This is helpful for wildlife that requires more reach like bird photography, for example. Just keep in mind that the aperture is cut by a proportional amount so a 2x teleconverter will give you a maximum f/5.6 aperture.
With so much to offer and user-confirmed great performance, the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2 just makes sense.
At $1300 MSRP, it’s still an investment piece but also basically half the price of an equivalent Nikkor glass—and offers at least 95% of the performance. This is the first lens I would put in my bag to shoot wildlife.
2. Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR
Although this isn’t the sharpest or fastest wildlife lens Nikon offers, it will get you the reach of 300mm at an affordable price.
At roughly $500 MSRP, you can expect that this lens does make some sacrifices. However, it remains a solid piece that will up your sports photography game considerably.
One of this lens’s most attractive features undoubtedly is its wide zoom range extending all the way out to 300mm, bringing you closer than ever to your rapidly moving target to capture those unforgettable sports moments.
Designed to be a compact lens that offers more hand-held shooting possibilities, this lens includes Nikon’s upgraded Vibration Reduction II technology to compensate for up to 2.5 stops of camera shake.
This means that you can have more freedom to shoot in less-than-ideal lighting conditions that some other telephoto lenses can’t handle. But keep in mind that vibration reduction only helps to combat hand shake, it won’t freeze fast-moving subjects.
NOTE: There is a much less expensive model of this lens without VR that I don’t recommend. So be careful and use the links above to make sure you get the right one.
Unfortunately, in order to achieve being friendlier on the wallet and less bulky, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR sacrifices aperture. With a maximum aperture of f/4.5 at 70 mm and f/5.6mm at 300mm, this is not a prime lens and you will likely note its limitations if you frequently shoot wildlife in very dimly lit spaces.
The smaller f-stops for focal length mean that it will be difficult to get the fast shutter speeds needed to freeze action. So speedy wildlife can be difficult to capture with this lens, especially in lower light.
3. Nikon DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED
An affordable crop sensor (DX) option that has great reach at 300mm but some compromises such as the f/4.5-5.6 variable maximum aperture and some sharpness.
A similar option to our budget FX pick but designed specifically for DX body cameras, the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR offers practically the same benefits in a smaller and less expensive package than the full-frame version.
Reaching out to 300mm at the long end, this lens makes getting close to wildlife more affordable than you might have expected.
Thanks to the sacrifices made with regard to the aperture, this lens is rather compact and not too weighty which makes it friendly on the back when you’re out shooting or hiking for several hours. Obviously, you can expect to lose the advantages offered by a wider aperture that makes for faster shooting with clearer results.
However, at only $400 MSRP, that may not be a deal-breaker for many shooters. Despite its limitations, this lens is quite capable of producing great wildlife images.
This piece of glass also includes the Silent Wave Motor for more accurate and responsive autofocusing. Additionally, Vibration Reduction technology helps control camera shake.
You may find some degree of aberration in shots taken at 300mm, but it is not extreme and outperforms many other lenses in this same price range.
4. Nikon D200-400mm f/4 AF-S ED VR II
When you need a lens longer than 200mm, it’s time to invest in a larger and more expensive lens. The Nikon 200-400mm f/4 is an excellent option for this focal range and will give you a lot more reach.
For wildlife adventures where a 70-200mm telephoto lens isn’t enough, your best option may be the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II.
This impressive piece of professional-grade glass lets you get up close and personal with your wild subjects without putting yourself in peril.
Designed with multiple features like Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor, Vibration Reduction Technology, Extra Low Dispersion Glass, and Nano Crystal Coat, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II is prepared to meet the challenges of wildlife photography with ease.
These elements help ensure consistent performance that produces clear images without falling victim to camera shake or sluggish focus issues. The consistent f/4 aperture also gives additional control over lighting conditions making for reliable, fast performance.
The f/4 max aperture is quite impressive for a zoom lens and I tend to prefer zooms for shooting wildlife because you never know if you’ll come across a closer shot.
As you can expect a piece of glass with this range and these kinds of professional specs, doesn’t come cheap. At $7000 MSRP, this one’s only going to be an option for a very specific type of photographer with well-defined photography goals in mind—and a back healthy enough to lug around nearly 7.5lbs of extra weight when out hiking.
5. Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2
With an impressive zoom range at a relatively affordable price, this lens is perfect for wildlife shooting as long as you don’t need a large max aperture.
For photographers wanting to experiment with a wide gamut of sports shooting conditions using just one lens, one solid piece of glass that offers great reach and reliable performance could be the best option.
Our runner-up choice, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 fits that bill.
Spanning from 150-600mm, this lens gives you a broad span of reach. With its limited aperture, low light shooting can be a challenge, particularly at f/6.3 when extended to 600mm. This means that nighttime or dusk shots at long range are probably not going to turn out magazine-worthy results.
Some reviewers online note that the autofocus on this lens can tend to be a little more sluggish than what might be desirable with fast-moving subjects, but I found that although it’s not as fast as many 70-200mm lenses or the $5000 plus long telephotos, it’s still quite fast and didn’t really hurt my keeper rate.
In daylight shooting conditions, the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 is more than up for the challenge to produce solidly impressive wildlife photos. And at only $1200 MSRP, it’s a pretty economical option for the versatility it offers.
Best Nikon Z Lenses For Wildlife
The Nikon mirrorless system is quite impressive. The larger mount makes it possible for Nikon to produce lenses that are at the top of the industry in quality and that is very apparent when you get to Nikon Z lenses for wildlife photography.
Even the longer telephoto Z lenses are smaller, lighter, and sharper than their F-mount counterparts which make this a perfect system for wildlife photographers. But they are also a big investment, so remember that you can use any of the lenses above on a Nikon Z camera with the FTZ Adapter.
Using one of the F-mount lenses above with the adapter is the best way to save money and still get excellent results with your Nikon mirrorless camera.
But let’s get to the Z-mount lenses, starting with the essential 70-200mm, a lens that has won awards since it was released…
6. Nikon S 70-200mm f/2.8
The Z mount version of the popular 70-200mm is one of the best lenses on the market today. Impeccable edge-to-edge sharpness and near-instant autofocus make it an essential piece of kit for Nikon Z wildlife shooters.
For shooters with a Z mount body ready to make a big investment in wildlife photography, the obvious choice is the Nikon S 70-200 f/2.8. Without a doubt, this stunning piece of glass is a gem that both promises and delivers excellent results.
Part of Nikon’s S-line lenses designed exclusively for Z mount bodies, the painstaking focus on optical quality and performance makes this lens possibly the best 70-200 lens currently on the market. In features, it really leaves nothing to be desired.
This lens pairs very well with the Nikon Z6II which made the top of our list of best Nikon cameras for wildlife photography.
The consistent f/2.8 aperture guarantees broad low-light shooting capabilities even when extended to 200mm. This coupled with not one but two autofocus motors makes rapid-fire autofocusing a reality, meaning that shooting in almost any situation is now not only possible but easier than ever. As a bonus, the performance is nearly silent which makes it easier to avoid disturbing your subjects.
Additional notable characteristics of this lens include coatings like Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat and Fluorine Coat to fight both reflections and dirt that can ruin an otherwise award-winning shot. On top of that, the lens body itself is ruggedly designed against dust and moisture to make sure this lens can withstand field conditions.
One look at all this lens offers and there is absolutely no doubt that it has been meticulously designed to be fast, reliable, and optically superior to all its competitors. Unfortunately, that incredible attention to detail and the stunning results it helps produce do come at a steep price, to the tune of $2,600 MSRP.
This makes the Nikon S 70-200 f/2.8 an investment piece, probably only for the serious photographer or deep-pocketed amateur. If you’re looking for excellence in a telephoto lens, this is certainly worth the accompanying price tag.
7. Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S
The Z 100-400mm lens is a perfect example of the advancements in lens technology made possible by the Nikon Z mount. At just over 3lbs., it may be the perfect wildlife companion.
This lens is quite unique and impressive. The combination of a 100-400mm zoom range and a relatively small and lightweight body pushes lens technology forward.
While the f/4.5-5.6 variable max aperture may not be exactly what a wildlife photographer would prefer, the other benefits seem to far outweigh this compromise.
Like most Z-mount lenses, the sharpness, contrast, and color rendition are impeccable. But it’s the versatility of this lens that makes it a good option for wildlife photography in my opinion.
It works great outdoors as it is well-sealed and while it has an extending barrel for zooming, the design is such that it won’t creep open on you as you have it hanging at your waist. The focus ring is smooth and easy to use and focus breathing is minimal.
It can also be used for close-ups (perhaps of small wildlife you find on your trails) with a focusing distance as close as 2.46 feet away at 100mm or 3.22 feet away at 400mm.
The big downside to this lens is the $2699.96 MSRP. But that seems relatively reasonable compared to other lenses of similar zoom ranges and you are certainly getting your money’s worth.
8. Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S
A more affordable version of the classic 400mm prime lens gives you excellent reach, good max aperture, and a body that won’t break your back if you have a long way to carry your gear.
This lens sits in a really nice sweet spot between the 100-400mm and the much more expensive 400mm f/2.8 that might make it exactly what a wildlife photographer needs.
The design emphasis when it comes to this lens seems to have been on producing a 400mm prime lens that is easy to use and carry around. At just over 9 inches long and 2.5 lbs., its one of the smallest and lightest 400mm primes out there.
The savings in size means that there had to be a compromise somewhere and that means an f/4.5 max aperture. It’s not quite the f/2.8 that you’ll see in the next lens but it also comes in at over $10,000 less expensive with a $3,249.95 MSRP.
Keep in mind that the f/4.5 aperture isn’t that big of a difference from f/2.8 and the Nikon Z full-frame cameras all have exceptional low-light performance, so you can crank up the ISO and still get excellent results.
9. Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S
The Z-mount version of the classic 400mm f/2.8 that can be found in the bags of many wildlife photographers has been improved.
Even though this lens isn’t available for purchase at the time of writing this, I have to include it.
The 400mm f/2.8 is a lens that many wildlife shooters are probably familiar with. It has a great combination of reach and wide max aperture so that you can capture wildlife even in low light.
But Nikon has improved that classic lens. In addition to the expected exceptional image quality, they have added a built-in 1.4x teleconverter. So you can turn your 400mm lens into a 560mm lens with the flip of a switch.
This type of versatility can make the difference between nailing the perfect wildlife shot or missing it. You don’t have to carry around a separate teleconverter or spend time taking your lens off to get it on.
If you can deal with the anticipated $13,999,95 MSRP, this is looking to be the ultimate wildlife lens.
What to Look for When Choosing a Wildlife Lens
After hours of research, we feel convinced that our top picks for a Nikon wildlife lens are the best options on the market today. However, we also realize that you might still want to compare other possibilities to make sure you choose the glass best suited to your particular needs.
If that’s your case, try keeping in mind the following specifications when making your final decision.
Long Enough Focal Length for What You’re Shooting
Before purchasing a Nikon lens for wildlife, think about what type of wildlife you typically shoot.
Depending on what it is, you may not need a very long focal length. In that case a simple 70-200mm lens will do just fine. However, if you want to shoot wildlife that requires you to be far away, either out of fear of scaring them off or fear of being eaten…then you may need to invest in some extra reach.
Fast Max Aperture
As you may have noted throughout this article, having a reliable fast aperture is a primary concern for wildlife photographers.
Having a wide-open aperture that lets in lots of light and enables you to use lightning-fast shutter speed is always helpful. But it can be especially beneficial when shooting wildlife because many animals are at their most active (and most interesting) at dawn and dusk when the light is low.
Of course, a wide max aperture also comes at a price (as you can see above for the 400mm f2.8 lens!). So you’ll have to figure out how important it is to you in terms of investment based on what (and when) you typically shoot.
Speed is essential for a wildlife photographer. In the literal blink of an eye, big moments happen and if your lens is struggling to focus, you’ll miss most of them.
All of the lenses on this list are autofocus lenses and the more expensive options are going to have the fastest focusing capabilities.
Also, take time to consider how the lens you choose will feel in your hands. Everything from size to weight and button position can affect the ease of use for you, the photographer.
If a lens feels overly bulky or awkward in your hands, it’s very likely to cause you undue frustration out in the field. While there is an expected learning curve with all new equipment, if the first thing you notice when you pick up a lens is the ache in your shoulders or if your fingers can’t easily reach essential buttons, that may be an indication to look for another option more suited to your needs.