ARTICLE

The best Canon cameras and lenses for wildlife photography

Pro wildlife photographers Marina Cano and Markus Varesvuo reveal their preferred tools of the trade for producing stunning images of the natural world.
Two male black grouses with blue, red and white markings fighting in the snow, one descending on the other from above.

Specialist bird photographer Markus Varesvuo says the Canon EOS R5 has had a huge impact on his work. "In late winter, early spring, I dedicated two weeks to photographing black grouses at lek [a type of mating ritual], busy in display activities," he says. "This is something I've been doing every year for decades, resulting in an extensive library of fast fights and action-packed flight shots, but the EOS R5 has changed the game profoundly. It's a major leap forward." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO5000. © Markus Varesvuo

Wildlife photography requires patience, persistence and a sound knowledge of animal behaviour and fieldcraft techniques. A very long lens doesn't hurt either. The Canon EOS system has much to offer professional wildlife photographers, with a vast range of telephoto and super-telephoto prime and zoom lenses available, along with high-speed, high-quality camera bodies, built to withstand punishing conditions like those encountered when seeking elusive animals.
But which Canon cameras and lenses are the best for wildlife photography? To help answer that question, two Canon Ambassadors – African wildlife specialist Marina Cano and bird photographer Markus Varesvuo – offer an insight into the cameras and lenses they use to capture their own memorable images of the natural world, while Mike Burnhill, Professional Imaging Product Specialist at Canon Europe, shares technical highlights.

This guide includes RF lenses for use with Canon's full-frame mirrorless EOS R System cameras, plus EF lenses, which can be used with EOS DSLRs and also EOS R System cameras with an EF-EOS R Mount Adapter with no loss of quality or functionality.
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A black and white image of a male lion with a huge mane standing on a rock.

African wildlife specialist Marina Cano values the fast continuous shooting speed and autofocus system of her Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. "Together, these features allow you to be ready quickly and catch the best moment," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/2000 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Marina Cano

A serval wild cat clearly visible behind out-of-focus purple flowers in the foreground.

"With wildlife, you never know what kind of action you will face," says Marina. "Animals can run behind bushes or move quickly in between branches. But the EOS-1D X Mark III's tracking system is capable of keeping the focus on the subject." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/9 and ISO2500. © Marina Cano

1. Best DSLR camera for wildlife photography: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

With its high-speed autofocus, 20fps continuous shooting speed and robust build, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is a natural fit for professional wildlife photography.

"When you are shooting wildlife, in my case in Africa, action happens very quickly, and you don't have time to be gentle with the equipment," says Marina. "I often leave my cameras on the dusty ground or on the muddy car floor, and I frequently have to deal with dust clouds or rain coming inside the car as well – sometimes both during the same day.
A Canon EOS-1D X Mark III camera.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

A tough, reliable and intuitive DSLR with a 20.2 megapixel full-frame sensor and 61-point AF system, the EOS-1D X Mark III lets you capture winning images before the competition.
"In my most recent trip to Tanzania in April 2021, I photographed a cheetah running from mound to mound under heavy rain. There was no time to be worried about getting wet, and I knew I could totally rely on my EOS-1D X Mark III."
A Kentish plover running towards the camera on a sandy beach.

Wildlife photographer Bruno D'Amicis put the Canon EOS R3 to the test photographing the elusive Kentish plover on the seashore in Abruzzo, Italy. With the EOS R3's EVF refresh rate of 120fps and continuous shooting speed of up to 30fps with full AF/AE tracking, it has never been easier to follow and capture fast-moving subjects even in low light. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO1600. © Bruno D'Amicis

An adult male Kentish plover running along the shoreline.

On the EOS R3, the AF tracking which includes birds as a priority subject can be used in conjunction with any AF area mode, including the new Flexi Zone AF, where the AF area size and shape can be customised. This unique combination of capabilities makes the EOS R3 ideal for fast-moving small subjects such as these shore birds. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens and Extender RF 2x at 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © Bruno D'Amicis

2. Best mirrorless camera for high-speed wildlife photography: Canon EOS R3

The flagship Canon EOS R3 full frame mirrorless camera introduces a new level of performance to professional wildlife photography. Featuring a Canon-developed stacked BSI CMOS, the EOS R3 offers a continuous shooting speed of up to 30fps with full AF/AE tracking. It also features a game-changing Eye Control AF system that enables you to move the focus point by moving your eye.

"If you're photographing a flock of birds, for example, you can isolate a single bird more quickly with Eye Control than you can by changing the AF point or moving the camera around to choose the right bird," explains Mike. "With the EOS R3, you have the ability to look anywhere in the frame to choose the right subject for the system to track, while continuing to maintain your composition."
A Canon EOS R3 camera.

Canon EOS R3

A camera designed to capture the fastest moving action and built to meet the exacting demands of professional shooters, with ultra-responsiveness, high sensitivity, reliability and durability.
Subject tracking AF is supported for all AF area settings, including the animal AF for birds, cats and dogs and the new Flexi Zone AF, through which the AF area size and shape can be customised – ideal for creatures great and small. AF modes are backed up by the world's fastest and lowest-light AF for full-frame, focusing in as little as 0.03 seconds and in light conditions as low as -7.5 EV or lower.*

The EOS R3 is equipped with in-body image stabilisation, providing up to an industry-leading 8-stops of IS when the EOS R3 is paired with certain RF lenses, giving unparalleled flexibility at long focal lengths.
A small dipper bird lands at speed in grey water, causing a big splash.

"The wide maximum aperture of the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens makes it my number one tool in low-light conditions," says Markus. "For fast action situations, it's also an unbeatable choice." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/3.2 and ISO4000. © Markus Varesvuo

Two swans swim on a lake at dusk. The Moon is reflected in the still water behind them.

The Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM is also an excellent choice for low-light photography. "The team working on the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM was also partly working on RF lenses at the same time," says Mike. "So these two actually share a lot of the same technology and circuitry." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/4000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200.

3. Best Canon lenses for low-light wildlife photography: Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM

With their bright, f/2.8 maximum apertures and high-quality glass, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens and its RF counterpart the Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM deliver outstanding images in the most demanding situations.

"For bird photography in the Finnish winter, the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM is a vital lens," says Markus. "Taking flight shots in low-light conditions is made possible thanks to its combination of fast focusing and fast maximum aperture."
The Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM

A high-performance super-telephoto lens with class-leading portability, performance and image quality.
The isolating power of the telephoto focal length, combined with the f/2.8 maximum aperture, makes these professional 400mm lenses a perfect choice for separating an animal or bird from its environment. "I've used the EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM at f/2.8 to photograph meerkats, and the background just melted into pure softness," says Marina.

With comparable technologies and feature sets, the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM and Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM offer a similar level of high performance, so whether you prefer to use the full-frame mirrorless EOS R System or DSLR, you can be sure of great quality shots. "And they're both super-lightweight lenses," adds Mike.

However, the 12-pin RF mount connection in the Canon EOS R3 provides faster, higher-bandwidth communication between the RF lens and the camera, delivering even better focusing performance when the RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM is used with the EOS R3.
An African fish eagle just above the water, wings outstretched and talons poised.

The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens features a 5-stop Image Stabilizer and rapid, ring-type USM autofocus that's helpful when tracking fast-moving subjects, such as this African fish eagle. "I've used this lens to photograph all kinds of wildlife, including elephants, lions, caracals, eagles and herons," says Marina. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/3200 sec, f/4 and ISO640. © Marina Cano

A great spotted woodpecker peers out from behind a tree.

The Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM super-telephoto lens gets you up close and personal with the most reserved of subjects, delivering sublime image quality whatever the conditions. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4 and ISO800.

4. Best Canon lenses for bird photography: Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM and Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM

When asked which lens they couldn't live without, both Marina and Markus selected the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM. "The quality is out of this world," says Marina.

Markus requires as much magnification as possible, so he can keep his distance because many of the bird species he photographs are easily spooked. "The EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM is the lens that I use most," he says. "And I use the Extender EF 1.4x III and Extender EF 2x III when necessary, with both the EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM and my EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM, without losing image quality. The extended reach makes it possible to photograph even the most timid species from a distance."
A Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

A super lightweight 600mm f/4 lens with a 5-stop Image Stabilizer, delivering outstanding image quality and a polished professional performance.
With class-leading portability and performance, the RF mount Canon RF 600mm F4L IS USM is also set to be a kitbag essential for pro nature photographers. When paired with the Canon EOS R3, the RF 600mm F4L IS III USM is enhanced for bird photography via the camera's animal AF setting which prioritises birds, as well as the new Flexi Zone AF, which enables you to customise the AF area size and shape – particularly helpful for shooting smaller birds.

For super-telephoto wildlife photography on a budget, also consider the Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM – or even the Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM. "Up until now, 800mm lenses have been too expensive, and they've just been too big and heavy – you have to plan to go out to shoot with them," explains Mike. "But here's a lens that's lighter than a bottle of water, which you can keep in your bag all of the time."
A stag with impressive antlers stands in a field. The colour of the grasses around him matches his auburn coat.

The compact size of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens makes it a great choice for wildlife photographers, who often need to travel light. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm, 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO800.

A willow tit perched on a splintered tree stump in evening light.

"The Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM is light to hold, produces very good image quality and focuses fast," says Markus. It's also able to focus down to 1.2m at 500mm, which enabled Markus to get close enough to frame this shy willow tit. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM lens at 472mm, 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO250. © Markus Varesvuo

5. Most versatile Canon wildlife photography lenses: Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

The flexibility provided by their focal length ranges, combined with their excellent optics and portable, weather-sealed designs, make the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM the go-to lenses for handheld wildlife photography.

Both the EF and RF lenses have effective three-mode Image Stabilizers, with the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM enabling handheld shooting with shutter speeds up to four stops slower than lenses without IS, and the RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM going one better, with five stops.
A Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens.

Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM

With 5-stop image stabilisation and L-series build quality, this lens offers performance and image quality like no other thanks to UD lens elements and ASC coatings for unrivalled contrast and sharpness.
"500mm is a great entry point for bird photography," says Mike. "Plus, you can use the RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM with the RF extenders as well. The AF system on the Canon EOS R3, EOS R5 and EOS R6 works at such low light levels that the cameras will happily focus at these smaller apertures – you can even focus down to f/22."

If you have the budget, then the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x is an even more versatile option. "It gives you the ability to go from 200 to 400mm with a constant f/4 aperture, and you've got the built-in extender as well," says Mike.
A great grey owl swooping close to the ground in a snowy, forested landscape.

"The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM [now succeeded by the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM] is one of my all-time favourite lenses," says Markus. "I have used it regularly and extensively over the years, and it's the lens I choose when I want to photograph birds and the landscape, such as this shot of a great grey owl." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 1/2000 sec, f/10 and ISO10000. © Markus Varesvuo

6. Best Canon lenses for general wildlife photography: Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

Shorter telephoto zoom lenses like the Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM and EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM are a great addition to a wildlife photographer's kitbag, allowing you to include more of the animal's environment in a shot. The constant f/2.8 aperture of these professional zooms means they're a great choice for low-light wildlife photography too.

The RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM has the added advantage of being more compact than its EF counterpart, as well as packing a 5-stop Image Stabilizer.

Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM

This high-performance F2.8 telephoto zoom is the third in the Canon trinity of essential RF lenses offering exceptional image quality in a compact body, designed to work in all conditions.
"When you're travelling by plane, you want to be able to pack as much as you can into your carry-on luggage," adds Mike, "so size and weight make a real difference. The RF version is a lot smaller, a lot lighter, and super-fast at focusing too."
In the distance, a giraffe turns its head while walking through the savannah at sunset.

Marina took this image with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens (now succeeded by the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) in order to capture the towering sky. "Telephotos are great for wildlife photography," says Mike, "but they compress everything. A wide-angle adds depth and opens everything up." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/500, f/5.6 and ISO1000. © Marina Cano

7. Best Canon lenses for showing wildlife in its environment: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM

It can be challenging to get close enough to photograph wildlife with an ultra-wide-angle lens such as the Canon RF 15-35MM F2.8L IS USM, but doing so enables you to place animals in context within a wider scene. The ability to control a Wi-Fi enabled EOS camera at a distance using the Canon Camera Connect app on your smartphone or tablet means these lenses are also perfect for remote wildlife photography.

Marina uses the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM). "I love the way that you can use this magical lens to record a tiny giraffe or elephant on the horizon against an infinite sky," she says. "It enables you to create a sense of immensity that captures the hugeness of Africa."
A Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

A premium quality ultra-wide angle zoom lens, with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, for the highest image quality possible even in low light conditions.
The advanced optical design of the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM delivers edge-to-edge sharpness, with the RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM offering the same level of performance but with additional improvements. "It's a similar sized lens, with similar image quality, but there's a lot more crammed into the same package, including a 5-stop Image Stabilizer," says Mike.
A close-up of a butterfly with striking black and red markings.

The Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM and EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM feature Hybrid IS. "When you do handheld macro photography, the camera's moving up and down or left and right, rather than pitching and yawing," explains Mike. "So the hybrid system is designed to compensate for both types of vibration." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO6400 © Oliver Wright

8. Best Canon lenses for close-up wildlife photography: Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

For small-scale wildlife photography, nothing beats the convenience and image quality of a dedicated macro lens. The short telephoto focal length of the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM enables 1:1 life-size reproduction to be achieved from a distance that's less likely to scare off dragonflies and other insects.

The RF counterpart of this lens goes even further, offering a class-leading 1.4x magnification. "1.4x doesn't sound a lot compared to 1x magnification," says Mike. "But it gives you nearly a 50% increase in the size of the subject.

Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM

The RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM is a professional macro lens with class-leading 1.4x magnification and a variable Spherical Aberration Control to adjust bokeh.
"Another benefit of the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM is that it has focus breathing suppression," adds Mike. "This makes it easier to line up the images in a focus stack when you want to create macro photos with a much greater depth of field."

And when paired with the Canon EOS R3, the RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens offers ultimate flexibility with up to 8-stops of image stabilisation, enabling sharp macro images when shooting handheld at high magnifications.

Írta: Marcus Hawkins


*For still photos only with an f/1.2 lens, except RF lenses with a Defocus Smoothing (DS) coating, using centre AF point and One-Shot AF used at room temperature and ISO 100.

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