UPDATED: February 4th 2017 – Article was updated to remove and replace a few recommended products that are no longer available, as well as updating my long lens photo pack recommendations, having used some newer products that have hit the market since this guide was first published. January 2018 – A few tweaks were made to keep things up-to-date with current product models.
I’ve just returned from a two week wildlife photography expedition in the Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia where I was photographing grizzly bears from a kayak. Since the memories are fresh in my mind I thought it would be the perfect time to craft a list of essential items for wildlife photographers. My previous list, 21 Essential Pieces of Gear for the Travelling Photographer, was very popular and is also worth a look since most people do travel to their wildlife photography locations!
Quick Reference List
I know what some of you are like so I’ll kick things off with a simplified version of the list. For more information, and my reasoning behind each item, please scroll down.
- Binoculars /monocular
- Telephoto lens
- Bean bag – LensCoat LensSack
- Camera bag capable of holding long lenses
- Long lens rain cover
You’ll have to scroll to the bottom to find out the biggest myth!
1 – Binoculars or a monocular
Wildlife photography is often a waiting game and you might spend hours scanning the horizon for your intended target. It’s simply not practical or comfortable to do this with your camera and lens – a pair of binoculars or a monocular are an absolute essential accessory for a wildlife photographer. A monocular can be a great choice when you have to hike to your location because they are smaller, lighter and fit easily onto your belt. If you are shooting from your car, or a safari vehicle, then a pair of binoculars will likely be a better choice. In fact for many people there’s good reason to have access to both options in your gear closet but I’ll leave that decision up to you.
The most typical magnifications are 8X and 10X. 10X devices are physically larger but in most cases I don’t find them to be prohibitive. There is probably some math that you could do to work out the 35mm equivalent of a 10X pair of binoculars but all you really need to know is that it’s a lot! A 10X set of binoculars is going to show you a far closer view than your super telephoto lens does and that’s the important thing.
When you’re looking at specifications you’ll see they are always represented as two numbers. For example; 10X42 or 9X32. The first number is of course the magnification, while the second number is the size of the objective lens in millimetres. A larger lens lets more light in and offers a brighter view through the viewfinder, at the expense of added weight of course. Juggling these two numbers gives rise to a huge variety of different size options. Another thing that you’ll likely want to take notice of is the waterproofing. Since we can’t really guarantee what the weather will be like, I would always opt for a fully waterproof setup. In most cases this actually adds very little cost to the equation.
When you start looking at the options that are out there you’ll also see a huge variance in pricing, even when comparing binoculars with seemingly similar specifications. Price is somewhat determined by the quality of the optics, and also the size of the device. It’s possible to get very small 10X devices, but the smaller you make a 10X device, the more expensive it becomes to maintain a good optical quality in a miniature form-factor. It’s a definite balancing act so you need to decide what’s most important to you between price, magnification, physical size and optical quality.
After much consideration, the binoculars I chose for my primary pair are the Nikon Monarch HG 10×32. I absolutely love them, but they don’t come cheap at around the $1000 mark. I highly recommend the Monarch HGs if you can afford them, but the options below are also great, and hit some much lower price points.
- Nikon 10×42 Monarch 7 ATB Binocular
- Nikon 8×42 Monarch 5 Binoculars – Smaller option than the ones above
- Bushnell 10x42mm Legend Ultra HD Binoculars – Extremely popular and multi award winning
- Leica Ultravid 10x25mm Compact Binoculars – Incredibly compact and optically excellent but at Leica prices of course
- Zeiss Terra ED Pocket Binoculars – This is what I use when I’m hiking longer distances. Brilliantly portable and rugged.
- Bushnell 9×32 Monocular – Cheap, waterproof and pocket-sized. Less than $50 so this is a great gift idea!
- Vortex Solo 10×25 Waterproof Monocular – Also available in 8x magnification version or with a 36mm lens.
- Leica Monovid 8×20 Waterproof Monocular – Superior image sharpness and ultimate portability at a price.
2 – Headlamp or Flashlight
The majority of good wildlife photography opportunities will be early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is less harsh. This almost certainly means that you’ll spend some time in the darkness, whether it be before or after your photography session. I personally like to carry both a headlamp and a flashlight with me. The headlamp is perfect when you need two hands to rummage in a camera bag, and they also do a great job of illuminating your immediate surroundings when you are walking in the dark.
A small, powerful LED torch can be great as well though, as this allows you to light up distant objects and it can also be a handy light painting tool! I use the Petzl Reactik+. You can recharge it via USB and it also has a red LED mode which is great for illuminating closer objects, like your camera, but without affecting your night vision. For photographers, I would consider that to be a must-have feature, and you’ll also find it in the slightly cheaper Actik Core rechargeable headlamp, which is like the baby brother to the Reactik+. I try to keep as many of my accessories as possible, chargeable via USB, so that I can top them up with my Goal Zero Venture 30 battery pack.
For LED flashlights I rely on a couple of slightly different sized Quark models from FourSevens. These kinds of accessories don’t have to break the bank, but they can make a huge difference to the success of your photo mission!
3 – Telephoto Lens
Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4ext + Canon 5D Mk3
There’s really no escaping the fact that you’re going to need a relatively long lens to achieve the kind of wildlife photos you’ll likely be proud of. At a bare minimum I would suggest having something in the 400mm equivalent range. I say equivalent because the crop factor of APS-C sensor cameras like the Canon 7D MK2 will provide you an angle of view that’s equivalent to a longer focal length lens in 35mm terms. For example a 300mm lens on a 1.6x crop Canon camera has an equivalent angle of view to 480mm on a full frame camera.
The Canon 100-400 is a popular option for enthusiasts, as is the Nikon 80-400, the Fuji 100-400 and the Sony 100-400. In 2014 Tamron also released the excellent 150-600mm lens which comes in at an astonishingly cheap price for a lens that will take you all the way to 600mm. I’ve actually tested this lens myself whilst shooting grizzly bears and was extremely impressed by the lens’ sharpness. Sigma have also released two variations on a 150-600mm lens as well, taking direct aim at the unmitigated success of Tamron’s lens with wildlife photography enthusiasts. The cheaper of Sigma’s two models takes direct aim at the Tamron equivalent, while the higher end version is built to withstand the rigours of professional usage.
Newer to the budget section of the super telephoto zoom party is the Nikon 200-500 which was previously reviewed on this site by Matt Jacques. This looks to be an excellent option for wildlife enthusiasts, especially on a cropped body. The Nikon 100-400 will always be a great general purpose zoom, but I thin the 200-500 will take over as the go-to choice for critter chasers.
Shot with the incredibly good value Tamron 150-600 f/5-6.3
Of course there are always the more expensive Canon and Nikon super telephoto lenses as well. Canon’s 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4ext (a lens that I own myself) is widely regarded as the king of wildlife lenses at the current moment, but the price of this lens is enough to cause most people to spit out their coffee. The question that often arises then, is should you bother to own a cheaper long lens option like the Sigma’s or the Tamron, or should you simply spend that money on renting the more expensive options when you need them? This is a great question!
I’ll tell you right now that there is a discernible difference in image quality between these two brackets of lenses if you look closely. But the BIGGEST difference is that the apertures on the larger primes and zooms from Canon and Nikon are larger and constant. Having access to f/4 on something like a Canon 600m f/4 L IS II, over f/6.3 on something like the Tamron, makes a huge difference when you are shooting in low light. You can go on shooting keepers much longer with the prime lens and you’ll also be shooting at a lower ISO. On paper it looks like a small difference, but having just come off the back of a trip where I shot the Tamron 150-600 alongside the Canon 200-400, I can tell you that in the field, in practice, it makes a MASSIVE difference.
So what does this mean? Well for me it means that my advice for people taking that once in a lifetime safari trip is to rent one of the big guns from someone like Lensrentals, and not bother with these cheaper variable aperture zoom lenses. If on the other hand you are shooting wildlife more regularly, and not just on one-off safaris, then definitely consider the Tamron and Sigma options as well as the native Nikon or Canon ones.
The variable aperture tele zooms also occupy a great space alongside the super telephoto lenses if you have a second camera body. For example, if you have a rented 600mm on your primary camera, it’s nice to have a 100-400 on a second body right next to you so that you can grab some wider scenic shots.
4 – Bean Bag – LensCoat LensSack
Bean bags are an excellent way to support your camera and lens combination where a tripod just isn’t practical. They are often used in safari vehicles, but of course they work just as well in your own vehicle! LensCoat LensSacks are the perfect answer and they come in a couple of different sizes. Their design means they rest easily over a car door, or provide a perfect lens cradle when being used on the ground for low angle shooting. The idea is that you empty the sacks for travel, then fill them up with whatever you can find when you get to your destination. Buckwheat hulls work well, or you can simply use rice! I keep one of these in the back of my car at all times – you just never know when you’ll come across something interesting to shoot. As with many of the items on this list, they are inexpensive and don’t take up a lot of room, yet have the ability to really enhance your wildlife photography experiences.
The LensSack has a threaded stud on the top so you can attach a clamp or ballhead. I like to use the RRS Panning Clamp! That way I have a perfectly smooth panning motion with a heavy setup, but it’s much less bulky to set up than using a full gimbal in my car.
5 – Tripod
Hand holding longer lenses can work for birds in flight but that’s about it. Many of the best wildlife photography opportunities happen early in the morning or late in the evening when light levels force you to use a very slow shutter speed. Combine this with the magnified shaking effect of longer focal lengths and a tripod is really an essential item. I regularly find myself shooting well under 1/200 second even with focal lengths in the 400-600mm range. Even a 4-stop image stabilizer isn’t going to help you get consistent results in that area without a tripod. The other reason for getting a tripod is simply to prevent fatigue. On a day of shooting, many hours can be spent watching and waiting. Save your energy and use a tripod to have your gear ready and waiting right in front of you.
Choosing a tripod could be the subject of a very very long post on its own, but I’ll offer a few tips here and tell you about some of my favourite options. The two biggest mistakes I think people make when choosing a tripod are to buy one that’s too cheap and buy one that’s too short. I’ve made both these mistakes myself! Pay close attention to the height of the tripod when it’s fully extended. The trap most people fall into is getting one that appears to correctly put their camera at eye level. The problem with this is that it assumes flat ground! When have you ever found flat ground outside? In reality you’ll want to have the ability to have have one downhill leg extend longer and still have the camera at eye level. I’m not a tall guy (5’10”) but I still find that the Really Right Stuff TVC-24L is a great tripod for me and I regularly rejoice at the height I can extend it to. I previously had a TVC-33S but the constant hunching over to my camera quickly drove me nuts so I had to switch it for something taller.
The other mistake I’ve made is buying a cheap tripod and then constantly having to deal with problems and breakages. In the beginning it’s all too easy to think the tripod is a place you can save money. It’s perfectly possible to get good photos using a cheap tripod, right up to the point at which it breaks, and then you’re screwed! Please, please do not buy the cheapest tripod that will “do the job”. You’ll regret it. Trust me! In the end you’ll only have to replace it and then you might as well have just started with a good one in the first place. A well maintained, quality tripod will last ten years or more. Yes my tripod is a pricey choice, and I’m not saying you have to pay RRS prices, but I take great satisfaction in the sturdiness of it and knowing that it’s going to be with me for many adventures to comes.
If funds can’t stretch to RRS pricing then I’d take a look at Induro’s carbon tripods and the ever present Manfrotto 055. I have a carbon Induro monopod that I’ve been using for 8 years now and I love that thing. Is carbon worth the extra cost? I believe it is. You get superior vibration dampening, considerable weight savings and vastly improved strength. On a long day where you’re already carrying a heavy lens and camera setup, you’ll be thankful for the weight saving. Gitzo tripods, particularly the 2-series and 3-series legs, are also worth a good look. They are about 80% of the price of RRS tripods, though their capacity/weight ratio isn’t quite as good.
6 – Gimbal
A gimbal is a device that sits on top of your tripod and perfectly balances your camera and lens combination, allowing you to pan and tilt it in any direction with almost zero effort. For wildlife photography with any lens of 400mm or more, I would consider this an essential item. Ballheads are designed to be positioned and then locked for the photo, but with wildlife you are often following your subject and a gimbal makes this a breeze.
In the past, Wimberley made the only gimbals worth considering, but today there’s actually a few excellent options out there. My personal choice is the Really Right Stuff PG-02, used without the optional cradle. The PG-02 comes apart into two pieces which makes it easy to travel with, and it’s also an integral part of the RRS multi-row panorama system which means less gear to travel with if I want to work on some panos during a wildlife expedition. It is the most expensive option at $700, but since it’s both a gimbal AND a pano rig, it can actually give you a saving if you need both those items. Of course RRS’s build quality is legendary, and it fits into my kit well with their TVC-24L tripod and quick-release levelling base.
The Wimberley WH-200 is another great option and it’s definitely the one I’ve seen on fellow photographer’s tripods the most. It’s a little cheaper than the RRS option, but it’s buttery smooth and equally well built. It also features a bottom mount cradle which is an additional $100 option on the RRS PG-02. I personally don’t mind a side-mount and I happily use it with my heavy beast of a Canon 200-400 f/4, but I know it perplexes some folks when used with heavier lenses.
One of the latest additions to the gimbal market is the Gitzo Fluid Gimbal Head, which is actually priced very attractively at $499. Unlike most other gimbal which rely on bearings, the Gitzo gimbal is actually a fluid head, making the pan and tilt motions buttery smooth. I don’t think I’ve ever said a Gitzo product was good value before, but that’s exactly what I think about their gimbal because it’s priced the same as many cheaper brands such as Induro, and it’s several hundred dollar cheaper than the Really Right Stuff gimbal. Usually those two companies go toe-to-toe. If I didn’t already have an RRS gimbal, I’d have the Gitzo one.
For smaller lenses like a 300mm, or something like the Tamron 150-200 we talked about earlier, the Wimberley Sidekick would also be an excellent option and this can work with your existing ballhead so long as you have an independent panning lock knob on the head. Looking for a budget option that doesn’t totally suck? Check out the Jobu JR3 for $350.
7 – Camera Bag For Long Lenses
You’ll want a pretty rugged camera bag to carry your gear in, and it’ll need to be able to accommodate fairly long lenses. The current king of long lens bags is the MindShift Gear Moose Peterson pack, available in three different sizes (MP-1, MP-3, MP-7). The MP-3 is my pick for most situations, since it fits within international airline carry on limits for many airlines. It’ll hold up to a 600mm lens with a body detached, or a 500mm/200-400 with a body attached.
I absolutely love the organizational possibilities of this pack, and you can even pack two long lenses into it, since the divider between the two smaller openings is removable. If you have the ultimate wildlife photography pairing or a 600mm + a 200-400mm, then this bag will comfortably hold that setup for travel. The only real caveat of this pack is that it’s not as comfortable on longer hikes as some of MindShift’s other packs. The support harness is designed to be fairly low profile for travel purposes, so this pack may not be the best option if you really plan on walking all day with it on your back. For working from a car, or safari jeep though, this is absolute perfection.
If you do need a bit more comfort for hiking, then I recommend the MindShift Gear FirstLight 30L and 40L (read my MindShift FirstLight review here). The 40L firstLight pack holds a roughly similar payload to the MP-3 V2 pack, but it has a more traditional opening system and a MUCH beefier harness that even includes adjustable torso length which is a rarity on a camera pack. This pack will also take long lenses like a champ, and even includes a special long lens padded collar for securing it.
If you are just needing a simple case for your long lens, check out the Think Tank Glass Limo. If you need a rolling camera bag, specifically for airline travel with your long lenses, then check out the Think Tank roller range. You won’t be disappointed!
Get a Free Gift from MindShift Gear
MindShift Gear have a deal that I want to share with you. When you click one my links to the MindShift website and spend more than $50 in their store, you’ll automatically get the option to choose a free gift when you get to the checkout. For more details on this special offer, I’ve detailed everything here. The important thing is that to initiate the automatic process of getting the free gift, you need to click one of my links to their store, like this one, or any of the product specific ones that are on this page. Since MindShift and ThinkTank are essentially the same company, you can get the same offer by clicking through to the Think Tank site and spending over $50 too.
8 – Long Lens Rain Cover
When you consider the cost of your lens, a waterproof cover for it should be a no-brainer. Since it is impossible to make any guarantees on the weather, it’s an inevitability that at some point you’ll be caught in the rain while trying to find, or waiting for your chosen subject. There actually aren’t a whole lot of options out there for quality long lens covers. The Think Tank Hydrophobia 300-600 V2 is probably the best known one. Think Tank’s products are universally well made and I’ve owned a Hydrophobia for many years. The cover surrounds the lens and camera body entirely, and your LCD screen and controls can be viewed through the clear back panel. It comes with a front lens cover which can be neatly stored in a small pocket on the side, and it’s long enough to work with lenses from 300mm all the way to 800mm.
My main grievance with this cover is the need for a rather expensive dedicated eye-piece for your specific camera. This is needed to form a tight seal on the back panel of the cover, so when you purchase the cover, you have to purchase an eye-piece as well. The cover is also pretty bulky, so it’s not the kind of thing you can always store in your bag, and that has caused me to be without it in some circumstances where I wish I’d had it. Note that the opening for the cover is on the bottom. For those using side-mount gimbals like the Sidekick from Wimberley, or the Really Right Stuff gimbal, you’ll have to use the arm hole on the left to pass the lens foot through. This works fine, although it does very slightly impede comfortable operation, but not to the point where it would actually cause a real issue.
The second option is the Aquatech Sport Shield which is available in four different sizes. Just like the Think Tank cover, these also need a dedicated eyepiece, although they are considerably cheaper than the Think Tank eyepieces and also far better made! The Sport Shields only have an arm hole on the right-hand side, which some might deem to be a disadvantage, particularly if you are trying to operate the zoom ring on a long lens like the Canon 200-400. Having said that, the lack of a second arm hole means the Aquatech covers are a little less bulky when packed into their mesh storage bag. It’s a pretty close run race between these two options, but if you pressed me, I’d pick the Aquatech ones due to the far superior eyepiece. I also like the fact that they make a small size that’s very compact, and perfect for using with a small zoom like a 24-70. These days my Hydrophobia tends to stay in my cupboard, and I pack a small and a large Aquatech Sport Shield in my bags when I’m off on a shoot.
9 – Teleconverter
Teleconverters, sometimes called extenders, are a great way to extend the reach of your long lens when photographing smaller animals, or ones that you simply can’t get close to. There’s a lot of dud information out there on the internet when it comes to extenders, and a lot of that is based on old technology. The fact is that extenders from the major brands are all very good when used properly, with compatible lenses. Whether or not your lens is compatible with an extender is something you’ll have to research, as there are too many variables for me to comment on that here.
What I really want to do is to reassure people that it is perfectly possible to get stellar images when using an extender. Many of my favourite images have been shot with extenders, and that even includes 2x extenders which some people would have you believe are garbage! It’s simply not true at all, but to correctly use them, you do need to understand their limitations. They do affect AF speed, contrast and sharpness, but there are ways to mitigate that. I’ve previously written what I believe to be the most in-depth guide to extenders on the internet: The Ultimate Guide to Extenders or Teleconverters. In that free guide you’ll learn everything there is to know about extenders, and I share a ton of photos that were created by using them. Photos that the internet naysayers might have you believe are not possible.
Whilst I would never buy a lens with the sole intention of using it continuously with an extender on it, they can be an incredibly handy tool to have in your back pocket for occasional extra reach.
MYTH – You Need A Super Fast Camera
While we are thinking specifically about gear for wildlife photography, it might be a good chance for me to jump on my soapbox. I’ve seen a lot of websites out there stating that you need to have a super fast camera for wildlife photography. This is, quite simply, bull. The majority of my wildlife images up to this point have been taken with a Canon 5D MK3 or a 5D Mark IV, neither of which has ever been called a fast camera. Now I’m not saying that a faster camera, say a 7D MK2 or a 1D-X Mark II won’t help some people, I’m simply saying that it’s not a necessity. Very rarely do I have the thought that I missed a shot because I was using a camera that was too slow. More often than not, it’s a case of carefully watching the animal and anticipating their movement and gestures to capture a defining look.
I don’t “spray and pray”. I carefully consider the shot and then formulate the perfect image in my mind’s eye. Maybe it’s when the animal looks my way, or as in the case of the bear image at the top of this post, when he looked away which cast light onto both of his eyes. Then I wait for that look and……. click. I actually take a lot of satisfaction from shooting only a few images from a particular encounter, and it gives me a chance to observe the animals and learn from them. Now there are some instances where a faster FPS can be a benefit, particularly with birds in flight where you are trying to capture a specific wing positioning, but again I would never say that it is completely necessary.
What do you carry in your wildlife photography kit? Leave a comment below and share with us!