a solo traveler in a red jacket peers into the expanse of the lamar valley in yellowstone national park

What is the BEST lens for a Yellowstone Safari?

Big wildlife, even bigger landscapes, and a region replete with amazing photography opportunities, Yellowstone is a land of superlatives for the nature photographer.  But can there be just one lens that does it all?  Well, no, not exactly.  But there is one lens that is best and will be on your camera 80% of the time if you bring it with you.

To begin, let’s talk about why I will come to the conclusions I do.

A lens for photographing big wildlife

Lots of people think about photographing Yellowstone’s wildlife and immediately go straight for their “big prime” lenses, like the 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, and perhaps even bigger (and/or they think about bringing a 1.4, 1.6 or 2 times teleconverter to get these lenses into the 1000mm plus range.

What’s right about this

These folks are not wrong.  Having a big telephoto can pay big dividends.  There is a lot of wildlife that could be spotted at great distances, like across valleys, or on distant mountain slopes.  If you go with a proper photo safari outfitter, your guides will astound you at what they can spot in this American wilderness.

The issues with big primes

Again, they’re great to have, and no doubt will enable the photographer to get more photos and perhaps even better photos when uses.  However, it’s worth mentioning that they come at a cost.  Financially, yes, but also in versatility and flexibility.

a ram big horn in yellowstone national park provides a great profile photo

Prime lenses are those that simply do not have any zoom capability.  Thus, you are “stuck” at whatever focal length they offer.  You cannot “zoom out” from 600mm if something is coming closer to you.  Oftentimes those pro photographers that use such lenses will also carry a second camera body with a 70-200mm or 24-105mm.

The other issue as that some great wildlife photography is had while walking on trails or snowshoeing through the forest (in winter only, obviously).  Carrying something that weights 10-15 pounds and is the size of a mailbox can hinder ones ability to “get out there.”

So, while a big prime is a fantastic lens for Yellowstone, is it “the best” lens for you?  Probably not.

a bison is fully covered in snow and sitting down next to a small river

A lens for photographing big landscapes

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (aka GYE) is wildly expansive.  It features not just a dizzying number of square miles, but also features many diverse habitats.  All this adds up to some stellar landscape photography opportunities.

The classic landscape lens

A classic landscape lens would be something in the 24-105mm (full frame) or 18-55mm (crop).  They’re fairly wide on the lower end of the range, and they give you a little flexibility to zoom in to help compose your photo.

What they don’t give you, though, is a good way to simplify your landscape photos by actually using some telephoto to “compress” the landscape.  See, when faced with highly diverse landscapes, a tried and true technique to showcase their beauty is to pick just a small fraction of the overall scene and compose your photo by deliberately cutting out all “the extra stuff.”

the grand teton sits mightily above the surrounding landscape

Yes, when we’re looking at the stunning Lamar Valley we can’t help but soak it all in.  Our eyes scan from left to right and we are humbled.  However, our eyes have time to adjust and interpret the dynamic lights and darks, textures, and colors in a way cameras don’t necessarily do.  That is, it’s surprisingly hard to translate what our eyes see into a photo when it comes to dramatically big landscapes that encompass multiple features (e.g., mountains, streams, trees, wildflowers, animals, trails, etc.).  Not that it can’t be done, but again, breaking your scene into multiple parts is a great way to go.

For this, I actually quite like telephoto lenses for landscape photography in Yellowstone National Park.

If you have capabilities in the 100-200mm range, you can do some really great things with simplifying and emphasizing big landscapes with deliberate composition.

So, we’re getting closer—the best lens must have something in the 100 or 200mm range at the wide end…

a solo traveler in a red jacket peers into the expanse of the lamar valley in yellowstone national park

The ideal focal length for wildlife

The big primes aren’t too far off their mark.  The 500mm or 600mm focal length is actually quite ideal for most wildlife photography.  Thus, if we could just find a way to get these focal lengths in something with the ability to zoom wider so that we can also photograph landscapes…

The balance of landscape and wildlife lens qualities

A balance is achieved in finding the “best” lens for Yellowstone when we can have the maximum telephoto range of 500mm or 600mm, but also able to zoom out to 100mm or 200mm.

If only there was a class of lens that offered something like a 100-500mm or 200-600mm range…

Well, we are all in luck, as most camera and lens manufacturers are coming out with this exact class of lens, designed for everything I’ve discussed in this article. Third party lens companies like Tamron and Sigma have highly acclaimed 150-600mm lenses, Nikon has their relatively new 200-500mm, and Canon has their brand new 100-500mm lens.  Eureka!

What’s more is that these lenses are not nearly as costly as the big primes, usually costing somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 (vs. $8,000 plus with big primes).  In addition, they are smaller and lighter than their older counterparts.

a small pine martin peers from the branches in yellowstone

Is there a downside?

It sounds like this all could be too good to be true.  Well, there is one downside to these ranges that feature such fantastic versatility—they don’t have phenomenal maximum apertures like the big primes.  Yep, that’s the catch.

While a 500mm prime might get you an f/4, a 200-500mm at 500mm might not let you get an f/number smaller than f/6.3 or even f/7.1 (technically, this would be termed the “biggest” aperture the lenses will allow, since small f/numbers equate to big apertures).

two bull elks lock antlers in the national elk refuge outside of Jackson WY

This is where you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it to sacrifice versatility, size and weight, as well as costs.  Surprisingly, the quality of these lenses are very high, getting pretty darn close to the sharpness and contrast that the fancier telephotos have exhibited for years.

The usual need for a small f/number has to do with wildlife portraiture, but what about landscape photography?  Would you be sacrificing there?

Fortunately, no!  With landscape photography, you’ll likely be shooting somewhere between 100mm and 300mm and will likely begin with an f/8 aperture, potentially going to f/11 for maximum depth of field.  And plus, this new class of lenses only has unfortunate aperture limitations at the upper end of their zoom range.  Most of these will be a variable aperture, such that you can still shoot at f/4, f/4.5, or f/5.6 at their minimum telephoto range.

a sweeping landscape view of Lamar Valley in Yellowstone

And there you have it—the BEST lens for a nature safari in Yellowstone is the class of lenses exhibited by Canon’s 100-500mm, Tamron’s 150-600mm, Nikon’s 200-500mm, and Sigma’s 200-600mm.

If you’re headed to photograph the wonders of Yellowstone National Park, be it in winter, spring, summer, or fall, be sure to choose this lens first, as it will no doubt be your workhorse for the entirety of your photo expedition.

Cheers, and be well,

Court Whelan Signature