Equipment for wildlife photography… where do you start?!

Over the last few weeks, I have received many requests for gear-buying advice. In this email, I am going to explain what camera and lens features are important if your primary aim is to photograph wildlife. I will also tell you a few of my favourite camera/ lens combinations at the end of this email.

Every camera and lens has its own set of features that make it best-suited for a particular type of photography. Often particular features are a compromise, since optimising for one type of photography means making sacrifices for another type.

Cameras

So what do I look for in a camera for wildlife photography?

 

Nikon D4S

Sensor

For me image quality is my primary concern.

Sensor: Low Light

Firstly, I want a camera that can record clean images in low light. This allows me to use faster shutter speeds and to shoot in twilight conditions when many animals are most active (remember, with telephoto lenses, fast shutter speeds help eliminate camera shake). Low-light sensitivity is usually one of the main improvements in each new generation of camera so this is one of the things you pay for when you get the latest camera.

Low-light sensitivity requires large pixel sites in order to gather lots of light. This means cameras with more megapixels often have worse low-light performance. Therefore, in my opinion more megapixels isn’t always a desirable feature.

Full-frame cameras have a larger sensor which means they collect more light and therefore will usually have better low light performance than crop-frame cameras.

So how can you compare the low-light performance of different cameras? Well fortunately, the hard work has already been done by DxO. You can find a listing of cameras ranked by low light performance here.

Sensor: Dynamic Range

A second important measure of image quality is dynamic range. This relates to how much detail the camera records in the highlights and shadows. Often we can’t control the lighting when photographing wildlife so we may need to lift detail from dark shadows or recover it from bright skies in post-production. A sensor with a large dynamic range gives more flexibility to do this. Note, to take advantage of this you must shoot in RAW mode as JPG compression strips this extra detail out of the files.

DxO has also ranked cameras based on their dynamic range.

Sensor: Megapixels

Lots of megapixels can be nice to have, particularly if you want to crop your images. However, more megapixels usually comes at the expense of frame rate (see below), low-light performance and dynamic range.

When I print an image or view it on a computer screen, it is rare that I wish the resolution was higher. For me, the megapixel sweet-spot (at this point in time) is around 20MP on a full frame camera. Note, this is for wildlife photography. For landscape photography I can use a tripod so I don’t need fast shutter speeds. This means low-light performance is much less important and therefore a camera with a higher megapixel count might be preferable.

Conclusion: Sony are generally considered to make the highest-quality DSLR sensors. Their top sensors are found in their A7 range of cameras and also in some Nikon cameras such as the D810. I have been using a Sony A7S for a while now and I have just picked up a A7R II. So far I have been astounded by the image quality!

Autofocus

After image quality, the next most important area of performance is autofocus. Wildlife photography requires a camera that can focus quickly and reliably. Often we have moving subjects and shallow depths of field which means it is critical that the focus is accurate.

The most important features of autofocus for me are:

•   The ability to select a very small focus point to focus on.

•   Lots of autofocus points to choose from so that I can select a focus point over my subject and still have plenty of flexibility to compose my shot.

•   An accurate autofocus engine that can reliably track moving subjects.

•   Ability to focus in low-light.

In my experience, the autofocus on the latest Canon and Nikon cameras is excellent. Canon’s system is slightly more customisable than Nikon’s. As mentioned, I have recently been experimenting with the Sony A7 line of cameras but unfortunately the autofocus on these is a serious limitation and means they are not suitable for long-lens wildlife photography. Autofocus generally improves significantly in the higher-end DSLRs so this is one of the things you are paying for when you purchase a more expensive “pro” camera body.

Lens availability

Whatever camera you get you will need suitable lenses. Canon and Nikon both make excellent lenses for wildlife photography. Sigma now also make lenses that are high quality, good value and compatible with a range of different cameras.

In my opinion, the latest Nikkor lenses are simply outstanding. They are very sharp and also light for their size, which makes handling them easier. I have included more detail about what I look for in a lens in the “lenses” section below.

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Ergonomics

When photographing wildlife, I need to be able to respond to situations quickly so that I don’t miss the shot. This means I need to be able to adjust settings in the blink of an eye. I frequently adjust aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus points, exposure modes and more. Ideally, I should be able to adjust these settings with minimal button presses and without taking my eye away from the viewfinder.

I like a camera where I can customise the controls so that I can choose which buttons and dials control which settings. In general, this is another feature that you get with the higher-end camera bodies. I have customised my Canon EOS-1D X so that I can quickly change all of the main modes and settings by touch.

Speed

The speed of the camera, i.e. the number of frames you can take per second, is important if you are aiming to photograph action or birds in flight. A fast camera may be able to shoot 10 frames per seconds or more, whereas a slow camera may give you closer to 3 frames a second. The more shots you take of a fast-moving subject, the more likely it is that you will capture that decisive moment when the focus, composition and animal’s pose all come together. If, however, you are mainly after fine-art style portraits then you can get away with using a much slower camera as you will usually be photographing a relatively still subject and you will be able to carefully compose your picture and deliberately pick the moment to take your shot.

Full-frame/crop factor

This is another area where you may have to compromise. A DSLR with a small sensor has a crop-factor. This means that if you use the same lens on a full frame camera and a camera with a 1.3x crop-factor, the resulting picture will be magnified by a factor of 1.3. For example a 300mm lens on a full frame camera, becomes the equivalent of a 1.3x300mm = 390mm lens on a crop-frame camera. This may be desirable when photographing wildlife because it means you can get away with using a shorter (less expensive) lens and still get the required magnification.

On the other hand, since full-frame sensors are larger, they collect more light which means they will give you superior image quality over a smaller sensor. You can also get shallower depths of field with a full-frame sensor which can help isolate your subject.

Which you choose therefore comes down to budget. If you have a limited budget then I recommend getting a crop-sensor camera because they are cheaper and you can also use less expensive lenses to get your desired focal length.

If, however, you can afford it, you will get superior image quality from a full-frame camera, but you also need to be prepared to spend more on lenses in order to get the same reach.

Build quality and weather sealing

Wildlife tends to live in wet or dusty places so our gear needs to be able to survive in these conditions. No matter how hard we try, our equipment does get exposed to the elements and inevitably gets knocked around a bit while travelling.

Build quality and weather sealing tend to be features of the “pro” bodies. Higher-end cameras are often made from metal rather than plastic. If you are aiming to spend lots of time in the field then investing in a well-built camera is worth it. If the latest high-end cameras are above your budget, then you can usually get hold of an older iteration of a top-end camera for a significantly reduced price. These older cameras will usually have equally high-end build quality.

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So do you need a DSLR?

Now that I have covered what I look for in a camera let me address this common question. There are plenty of alternatives to DSLRs on the market including super-zooms and mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras.

DSLR vs Super-zoom

Super zooms are certainly an attractive option because you get a lot of bang for your buck. You get good magnification and reasonable image quality. However, if you are committed to progressing with your photography then you will find that your camera will start to limit you in the future.

I recommend investing in a system with interchangeable lenses. This is because you can invest in lenses and upgrade your camera body in time. If you get a super-zoom then you will have to change your camera AND lens every time you want to upgrade. Investing in lenses is always worthwhile because a good lens will last you many years and will hold its value reasonably well should you ever want to sell it.

DSLR vs Mirrorless

These two systems have many of the same advantages. There are also some areas where mirrorless cameras have the edge. For example, they are much smaller and often less expensive.

However, in my experience, the current generation of mirrorless cameras can’t compete with the focus performance of DSLRs and for this reason they aren’t suitable for long-lens photography. In addition, there are much fewer telephoto lenses options available for these cameras. For wide-angle and mid-range zoom photography however, they are certainly a very capable alternative.

Mirrorless cameras are evolving and improving at an incredible rate so in a few years from now I may have changed my tune.

Canon or Nikon?

It doesn’t matter! Both companies make incredible cameras and either option will serve you well. I use Nikon because I am heavily invested in the Nikon ecosystem of lenses. I know plenty of photographers producing incredible work with both systems. My recommendation is to go into a physical camera store, pick up both brands of camera, and see which you like the feel of best.

I have now covered what I look for in a camera for wildlife photography.

Lenses

Picking lenses to go with your DSLR can be an overwhelming experience. Your choice of lens is also every bit as important as your choice of camera. Below I have covered the key things to look for when selecting a lens for wildlife photography…

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Focal length

This relates to how much magnification you get. A 35mm lens is more or less equivalent to what we see through our eyes. An 800mm lens is more like a telescope!

Often we photograph animals that we can’t get close to and therefore for wildlife photography we need a relatively long focal length.

I would say a focal length of 300mm is the minimum you would want for wildlife photography. I typically use a 400mm on full frame camera which is enough for most animals that I photograph in Africa (but not birds).

Many photographers also like a 500mm which allows them to get closer, frame filling shots.

If your focus is smaller creatures such as birds, then you may want a longer lens than this… something like a 600mm or 800mm may be required for frame-filling shots!

In addition to your primary long-lens, you may want something like a 70-200 for more environmental shots and a wide-angle zoom such as a 17-40 or 24-70 for landscape shots.

Aperture

This refers to how much light your camera lets in. A lens with a big maximum aperture collects lots of light and therefore you can use faster shutter speeds… these are known as “fast” lenses.

Note that a large aperture is represented by a small f-number so an f/2.8 lens is faster than an f/5.6 lens.

F-numbers are stated in factors of the square root of 2 (approximately 1.4). F2/8 x 1.4 = f/4, f/4 x 1.4 = f/5.6, f/5.6 x 1.4 = f/8 and so on. F/2.8 lets in twice as much light as f/4 and is therefore twice as fast.

In addition to being faster, lenses with large aperture also give you a shallower depth of field and smoother bokeh (the out of focus area behind your subject). This makes it easier to isolate your subject and take clean, striking images.

The downside of faster lenses is that they cost more and can be much larger and heavier than slower equivalents.

Sharpness

Sharpness is obviously a very important consideration. Lenses will usually be sharpest in the centre of the frame and less sharp towards the corners. Lenses will also tend to be sharpest at a particular aperture. For example, you may find your lens produces sharper results at f/5.6 than at f/4. Usually, when you pay more for a “pro” lens you will get a sharper result. Prime lenses are typically sharper than zoom lenses.

There are various charts that allow you to compare lens sharpness. DxO is again a good source for these.

Zoom vs prime

This is one of the main choices you will have to make. Zoom lenses give you more flexibility when composing your shots. Prime lenses tend to be sharper and faster.

I prefer primes if the situation allows it but I do also use zooms for their ease and flexibility. It can be tricky to switch between prime lenses quickly in the field and so using a zoom lens may mean not missing the shot.

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Image stabilisation

Some lenses have in-built image stabilisation. This combats camera shake and will allow you to use slower shutter speeds while hand-holding your camera. This is definitely a worthwhile feature to invest in where possible.

Size, weight & build quality

If you want a fast lens with a long focal length then you will be looking at some large lenses! These can be difficult to travel with and cumbersome to use. If in doubt, you may want to hire a lens so that you can try it out before buying.

“Pro” lenses will typically be faster and have superior build quality to normal lenses. This downside is that they tend to be significantly heavier. If you plan to spend significant amounts of time travelling and in the field then well-built lenses are likely to serve you better in the long-run.

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Minimum focusing distance

If you are interested in photographing little creatures, then you will want a lens with a close focus distance or even a dedicated macro lens. Some telephoto lenses may not focus closer than 5m and are therefore not good for photographing insects!

Macro lenses can focus very close which means you can get frame-filling shots of small subjects. However, often they focus slowly so they are not always the best option for general wildlife photography. When possible I carry a dedicated macro lens with me just for this purpose.

Converters

You can buy 1.4x and 2x converters which fit between your camera and lens and increase your focal length by the stated amount. These give you more reach but will make your lens slower, may make your autofocus slower and may reduce image sharpness. I don’t use them very often but I do always carry a 1.4x with me just in case I can’t get close enough to my subject.

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Crop-frame lenses

“Pro” DSLR lenses are designed to work with full-frame (35mm) cameras. However, if you have a crop-frame camera then you may be able to get a lens specifically designed for the smaller sensor. These lenses tend to be smaller, lighter and cheaper. The downside of them is that they don’t tend to be as fast or sharp as the more expensive lenses. In addition, if you want to upgrade to a full-frame camera in the future, you won’t be able to use your old crop-frame lenses.

Canon crop-frame lenses are labeled as “EF-S” lenses. They are for use with Canon’s APS-C sized sensors (1.6x crop factor) found in cameras such as the 7D, 70D and 750D. Canon’s full frame “Pro” lenses are known as “L” lenses.

Nikon crop-frame lenses are labeled as “DX” lenses. They are for Nikon’s DX cameras which have a crop-factor of 1.5x. Nikon’s full-frame lenses are “FX” lenses.

Hiring

Investing in lenses can be expensive but you really do get what you pay for and you can be confident that a good lens will last a long time. One option that you may want to consider, particularly if you just want a lens for a particular trip, is to hire instead of buying a lens. I recently rented a 200mm f/2 lens specifically to photograph gorillas. It produced incredible results but I didn’t buy it because for general wildlife photography I prefer the flexibility of my 70-200 zoom.

What gear do I use?

Over the years I have upgraded my equipment and I am now fortunate to

own a collection of gear that serves me well in most situations.

•   My main camera is a Nikon D5 with a 400mm f/2.8 lens.

•   My back-up is a Nikon D4S with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom.

•   I also carry a Nikon 810 with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens and a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for jungle work.

Nikon D810

Of course I have a load of specialist equipment such as BeetleCams

and Camera Traps but I’ll cover that stuff in a separate email!

 

 

 

 

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