Do you need expensive gear to shoot wildlife?

In no other genre of photography is emphasis on gear so strong as it is in wildlife. Sports photography also requires roughly equally expensive gear, though sports photographers are relatively quiet about their expensive kit.

In wildlife photography, the gear does indeed get expensive. This is especially true with lenses that cost several thousand dollars, although suitable cameras are not far behind. The problem is, wildlife just doesn’t stay still like a human model and so you’ve got to have a powerful autofocus system to keep up with it. Not only that, but animals are usually not at ideal distances nor in ideal light, so you need sharp and fast expensive lenses to render them decently.

But do you need expensive gear for wildlife? If you want to achieve 5-star shots, then no. You can use relatively modest equipment to get beautiful wildlife shots. For example:

Neotropic Cormorant. Pentax K50 + Tamron 500mm 55BB Lens

Although this shot has some technical issues, it was taken with gear that would cost only about $300 today, which is inexpensive compared to typical wildlife setups. The final result however is pretty nice, and I even find charming the strange bokeh created by the mirror lens I used.

So is there a reason to use more expensive gear? Fortunuately or unfortunately, the answer is yes. Although you can get great shots with almost any kind of gear, better gear will give you more kinds of shots more often. Consider this:

Mallard. Nikon D500 + 500PF

This shot would have been a bit difficult without the autofocus performance of my D500 since this Mallard was moving erratically and constantly. In short, better and more expensive gear will not only increase your keeper rate, it will also allow you to take more kinds of shots than before.

Diminishing returns

There is a law of diminishing returns. To a very rough approximation, I’d say:

  1. $300 will get you 20% of the way there
  2. $2000 will get you 60% of the way there
  3. $4000 will get you 80% of the way there
  4. $20000 will get you 90% of the way there

And let’s be clear: when I saw 80% of the way there, I mean 80% of the way to gear not getting in your way. You’ll still need to learn fieldcraft, composition, and photography basics. Not to mention you’ll need to invest time. Without the basics and time, even the best gear is just 30% of the equation.

With regard to cameras, you don’t need to spend too much. For example, the Nikon D500 or Canon R7 will be 80% enough camera for most scenarios. Upgrading to a Nikon Z8 or Canon R3 will be 90% enough camera.

Pentax K50 + Tamron 55BB

Lenses are a bit more tricky. The Sony 200-600 f/5.6-6.3 G OSS or RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 L in mirrorless is probably the cheapest I’d recommend as a starting point for new lenses, but a lens like the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 G2 or Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 can be had for cheaper, especially used. So, in total you can get started for as little as $2000.

How much should you spend?

How do you know how much gear you’ll need? For most people who are unsure, I’d recommend aiming for $2000. This point will be the point where you won’t be frustrated at losing shots. If you are sure about what you need, you don’t need to read this guide because you’re the kind of person who knows exactly why the extra money spent on gear will be worth it.

On the other hand, you can still easily get some amazing shots with $500 worth of gear, as long as you keep an open mind and go after the shots that work with what you have. Moreover, if you have excellent composition and postprocessing skills, you’ll still get better stuff than some shots I’ve seen with gear that costs ten times as much.


So, do you need to sell a kidney to fund good shots of wildlife? In my opinion, no. In some situations, expensive gear can get you shots you otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. And of course, if you buy the latest gear, you’ll get more attention from other photographers just because so many people love talking about gear. But besides that, you can churn out a regular supply of high-quality shots without spending too much, as long as you take the time to develop your skills in all aspects of photography.

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