Wildlife Photography Gear – Free Lesson 1: Learn about Gear
OK! Where should we start?
There is a lot to know about wildlife photography gear – and there are entire books on the subject of which gear is best for which situations.
This lesson will introduce you to some crucial concepts that you should know about before buying your camera and lenses.
Let’s JUMP RIGHT IN!
Camera System Features and Considerations for Wildlife Photography
This isn’t really much of a consideration for me. Why? My idea is that wildlife photos taken in the dark, or near dark, are typically horrible, no matter whether you’re using a full-frame sensor like the Nikon D610 or Canon 1Dx, or a cropped-frame sensor like on the Nikon D5600 or Canon 70D. When it’s dark, flash is essential, otherwise, the photo just isn’t going to be worth anything but a souvenir to remind you of what happened.
When the light goes away, I switch to Macro Shooting with flash. Or, camera traps. Flash is essential for low light. The two cameras above – Canon 70D and the Nikon D5600 are both good low-light cameras if that’s the kind of shooting you anticipate doing. I don’t shoot wildlife photos without flash in bad light because I don’t get the quality I desire – with any camera system.
Dynamic range says something about the amount of detail in the range of dark and light areas of your image. A very low dynamic range would show only a few gradations between the darkest and lightest spots of your photo. You would see it as high contrast.
In photography, we usually want the greatest dynamic range possible. We want details in the shadows and the highlights at the same time. In the past, using film cameras, we couldn’t do that well. The dynamic range depended highly on the type of film we were using. Slide film gave a dynamic range of maybe 5 stops of light. Tri-X 400 gave 7 stops and more (If I remember correctly! Been a while.)
Anyway, the electronic sensor has replaced film and we no longer get only 5-7 stops of range. With my Nikon D500 – I get 10.5 stops when shooting at 100 ISO. Shooting at higher ISO, I get less dynamic range.
Now there are also special HDR settings on digital cameras – when chosen, the camera can create one image by combining images exposed differently – and it takes the best of the highlights and combines it with the best of the shadows – to give us one image that has a greater dynamic range than one photo could give us. A pretty cool trick, right? High dynamic range (HDR) shots are becoming more popular, and most cameras offer it as a feature in the setup menu.
Interestingly enough, I compared my Nikon D610 to the new D5600 and they are nearly an identical match. The D5600 is a crop-sensor camera, and the D610 is full-frame – and yet, they are so similar in results! Gotta love improvements in technology.
If you want to compare the dynamic range of one camera to another – here is a fantastic graphic that will chart each camera as you click it. Excellent for comparing cameras with each other. Chart here >
Shooting RAW vs. JPG
Your camera almost surely has a setting for RAW or TIFF image recording, as well as JPG – the standard. Shooting RAW is the only way to go with wildlife photography where you need as much detail as possible. Shooting RAW files enables you to get the most out of your editing program.
Canon cameras shoot raw files with CR2 extensions – with a file name like AWP_203.CR2. Canon’s proprietary software is needed to open and edit the files. Nikon use .NEF file extensions and also has its own viewing and editing software. Neither editing software is awesome, but probably fine for most people. I very rarely use anything else.
When you shoot a photo in JPG format, your camera uses an algorithm to dumb it down to a smaller size. The camera runs all the raw data from the sensor through an algorithm that attempts to edit it by keeping the good data and tossing away the extra – all in a micro-second. What happens is that it tosses away crucial data that you could have used during editing. JPG should never be your main photo format. Switch to RAW today and learn more about it later. We are going to have an entire lesson devoted to shooting and editing RAW images in one of our later courses.
Most recent cameras will allow you to shoot RAW and JPG at the same time – saving one of each. This is the best of both worlds, and you should use this setting on your camera if possible. You may have to invest in a larger memory card or two because you’ll be recording a lot of data for each squeeze of the shutter button. Another issue is your camera may choke on all that data if writing both RAW and JPG at the same time. You may find your camera just refuses to shoot a fast string of images because it cannot write the data to a memory card fast enough. This is really frustrating. I get this with my Nikon D610 sometimes.
How many megapixels should your camera be?
It really depends on what sort of shooting you’re doing. If you want to print billboard-sized images, you’ll want something like Nikon’s D810 – 45mp camera and some super sharp lenses for the best results.
If you want to post your images online at Flickr or some other website, you’ll be fine with 12 mp or so. I even have some stock images at Dreamstime.com that I shot with my old Nikon D70s, a 6 mp camera, that is still selling well today. Megapixels are not really something to base your decision on anymore. Fifteen years ago, yes, sure, the number of megapixels correlated highly with the quality of your photo and where you could publish them.
Know this, you will have to get fast memory cards which can write data very fast when shooting with a 20 mp or higher camera. For some wildlife photography (birds for one), being able to shoot more shots per second without the camera slowing down, is a definite plus.
Today? I’d recommend you get one of the later model cameras that shoots around 20 mp. That’s plenty big enough for almost anything you’d want to do at this stage of the game.
A few cameras have the ability to set an entire range of settings – and hold them in memory for when you need them. This feature is fantastic for photographers because you only need to make 1 selection – and you instantly go from whatever settings you were shooting at, to something completely different.
On my Nikon D610 I have two of these custom settings – a U1 and U2 setting on my dial. I have U1 programmed for night flash photography so all the camera settings switch over to my pre-programmed settings when I just move that dial one time. Very nice! The Canon 70D above, has a “C” for custom mode, just like my Nikon D610. Cool!
Speed (Frames Per Second)
Camera speed is fairly important in wildlife photography. Often times you may only see the animal for a second or even just a fraction of a second. If your camera can grab 5 shots in less than a second, you might just come up with a winning shot. If you only get 1, well it’s less likely you’re a winner. Camera speed can be essential depending what you’re doing. If you’re in Africa looking for lions – and you just get a glimpse… well, you get the idea.
I think my Nikon D610 does 6 frames per second. My Nikon D500 does 10. Sometimes a camera will go faster if it has the add-on battery grip – so check the specs and see if there’s a difference. You can add 1-2 frames per second with that extra battery grip.
Camera Sensor Size
Cameras have different quality and sizes of sensors – which record the light coming through the lens. You’re probably familiar with the concept of megapixels. The more megapixels, the more data from the sensor is saved to the memory sticks.
The major differences between camera systems can be summed up by noting the different sizes of sensors in each type of camera. The bigger the sensor to record data for your images, the better the image quality – in general. For wildlife photography, I suggest you use one of two systems:
1. Crop-sensor cameras like the Nikon D500, D7100, D7200, D7500, and D5600 or Canon 70D.
2. Full-framed sensor cameras like the Nikon D610, D850, D5 or Canon 1DX or 5D Mark IV.
The other camera systems not mentioned – with smaller sensors – are just not good enough in my opinion. There are too many drawbacks using them. These days, you can pick-up a good crop-sensor camera and lenses for a similar price as some of those other smaller and lesser quality systems with smaller sensors.
Stick with one of the two I mentioned above and I think you’ll be happier in the long-run. Not to mention, you’ll enjoy higher resale value if you decide to upgrade one of the two systems above since they are more in-demand.
Sensor Size – Full-frame and Cropped-sensors
The Canon 70D has a 1.6 crop factor. The Nikon D5600 has a 1.5 crop factor. That means that a 50mm lens put on either one will actually give you a field of view equal to an 80 or 75mm lens respectively. For wildlife photography, this is actually a positive, because you can get extra virtual lens length by using a cropped-sensor camera.
A 35mm film camera or my full-frame camera, like my Nikon D610 will give a 50mm image from a 50mm lens. Good if you want to get wider, but expensive when you want to shoot telephoto.
So, 70-300mm telephoto lenses will actually give you a range of 112-480mm on the Canon, and 105-450 on the Nikon. That extra range is very helpful when shooting animals in the distant.
Full-frame sensors are bigger – so the image quality is generally better. That said, the new generation of crop-sensor cameras like the Nikon D500 are almost every bit as good as the full-frame cameras for most uses. Many pro photographers still insist on shooting full-frame. If you’re not a pro, you can almost surely get by with a Nikon D500.
Cameras with Environmental Seals
I’ve used my DSLR cameras in the jungles of Thailand for about ten years now. I haven’t any of my good cameras or lenses fail due to rain or humidity. I’m somewhat careful with my gear so it doesn’t get drenched, but even so, all the camera bodies and lenses I have do see considerable rain and 100% humidity often. The Nikon D610 has weather sealing. The Nikon D5100 does not. Only recently has the flip-out screen on the D5100 started to go fuzzy at the very top of the screen.
If you’re not going to be hard on your gear – and douse it regularly with water or extreme humidity or dust – then I would say it makes no difference if your camera is weather sealed. I did make the switch to sealed cameras about 4 years ago. Living in Thailand full-time, it just seems prudent to buy something a little tougher than the average camera. I’d hate to lose a camera out in the field, due to rain.
So, do you need a DSLR?
Now that I have covered most of 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
A super-zoom camera is one that has a zoom like a telescope, and also offers high definition video recording – even 4K video – all at a crazy-low price under around $500. The price is tempting for a ‘do everything’ super-zoom camera like the Nikon B700 or others, but please don’t bother to spend your money on one of these smaller-sensor cameras with superzoom capability because it seems that you can do everything with them. I think you’re going to want to upgrade quickly, and then you’ll take a loss as you try to sell your equipment.
That said, I’ve almost bought a Nikon B700 a number of times just to check it out! There are detailed reviews on YouTube of all equipment, and you should probably have a look at some before you go out and buy a camera or lens. You should make sure there is no glaring weakness that could affect the type of shooting you do.
If you’re on a strict budget, sure, have a look at cameras like this. Make sure they offer access to all the manual settings you’ll need. Make sure the camera will shoot RAW. Make sure it’s half-decent in low-light situations. If not, get a DSLR – even a cheap one – so you can buy lenses you’ll certainly re-use as you upgrade.
Which Wildlife Cameras to Choose from?
While I recommend a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses for everyone starting out, I realize that many people will have concerns about the weight and cost of the gear. You probably know yourself pretty well. If you think you’re likely to want awesome photos and gear which will allow you to shoot all sorts of wildlife – all options – just skip getting a starter kit, and go straight for one of the higher-priced kits. If you are sure you’re just going to be shooting on the weekend once in a while, and you’re keen on improving your photography, but won’t be turning pro anytime soon – start with something like Kit 1, below.
Let’s cover lenses first…
I’ve yet to use a camera and lens with perfect autofocus, so I shoot almost everything using manual focus. I can’t trust full auto tracking, so I just do it manually and live with the result. At least all I have to blame is myself! I hate relying on technology that isn’t up to par yet, and then being dissatisfied with the result because I didn’t get a usable image when I thought for sure I would.
Predictive autofocus is getting better all the time, and it will probably be just another year or so before it is close to perfect. Until then, I don’t bother thinking about it.
A fast-focusing lens is a wonder to behold, and if you’re shooting birds, you’re going to love a lens that can focus in a fraction of a second. This will be one of your main considerations when buying your lenses.
Do you NEED it to be super-fast?
Typically, I don’t need a fast focusing lens. I’m not shooting birds much, and there aren’t any gazelles here. I never shoot sports, so I don’t have a strong need for very fast focusing lenses.
If fast autofocus is essential, you’ll want:
· a lens that can focus on a very small area.
· a camera that fills the viewing area with sensors – the more, the better
· the ability to focus in low light
The latest Nikon and Canon cameras are getting better all the time. The more you pay for a camera, the better the autofocus will be. It’s one of the features that constantly improve with price.
The 70-300mm Nikon telephoto lens above is so sharp, that I feel like I stole it at $400. It’s really that good. Most of the wildlife (besides macro) I’ve shot during daylight was with that lens. It is convenient, and I’m not afraid to drop it in the mud or take it in the rain because it just isn’t that much money compared to another expensive lens.
What it isn’t, is FAST. It’s super slow to focus. This is the only annoying fault of the lens. It’s a big one though, so if you need fast focus, you’ll want to choose another lens. Problem is, good telephoto lenses are $1,000+ USD. If you’re not all that serious about your photography, there’s no sense in spending that much on a lens. Heck, I even have trouble spending that much.
Aperture is the diaphragm that opens up to allow light to hit the sensor. Some lenses are rated at F/2.8. Some at F/1.2. The lower the number, the more light is getting through the lens to the sensor. Lower F-stop lenses produce nice creamy bokeh because their depth-of-field (DOF) is very shallow. While shooting with my 100mm Macro lens at F/2.8 – I may have only half a centimeter of DOF! So, I need to either shoot the entire subject in the same plane, or choose what to focus on (usually the eyes).
Shooting that same lens at F/32 from a distance of a couple of meters, I’ll have about a foot of DOF – so more of the subject will be in focus.
Photography is full of trade-offs. You have to know what they are so you can shoot the best photos with what you have. For one shot, you may have low-light. On another shot, you may have too much light. You have to know how color saturation, contrast, hue, shutter speed, dynamic range, lens speed, focusing distance, ISO, sensor type, and flash affect your images so you can choose the best settings.
I notice that some photographers are still stuck in their mind that they need a F/2.8 aperture for their 300mm… or even 400mm. That was true 20 years ago. Today, no. With the amazing technology in today’s cameras, you can shoot at ISO 3200 and get great shots – negating the need for a F/2.8. You can shoot with a 4.0 or 5.6 F-stop and get amazing quality. Bokeh can still be buttery smooth at F/5.6 or F/4 if you know how to do it. We’ll have an entire section dedicated to bokeh in one of our upcoming courses.
How sharp your lens is – matters a lot. There are lenses which are sharp from edge to edge, and there are lenses which are sharp only in the center. There are lenses that are only sharp between a certain range of apertures… Many lenses are sharpest around F/8.
A prime lens (non-zooming) is typically sharper than zooms. You should research your lenses a bit before you buy them, to see how you can get the best results out of them. One of the emails coming in a few days covers taking razor-sharp photos and all that’s required. Stay tuned!
Telephoto lenses give you a telescope effect, bringing the subject closer in the viewfinder. Pro telephoto lenses are super-expensive and probably not necessary at this stage. I highly recommend you go with one of the ‘cheaper’ 70-300mm lenses for your camera – with stabilization. This will cost around $550 or less. Sometimes considerably less. One of these lenses will enable you to get great shots, without spending money you’re saving for your children’s education.
Lenses with Stabilization
Some better Canon lenses have IS – image stabilization within the lens itself. Nikon calls the same thing VR – vibration reduction. This feature enables slower shutter speeds without blurring the subject. For instance, without image stabilization, you might be able to hand-hold (without a tripod) a camera and shoot at 1/30th of a second with your 30mm lens at wide-open F-stop (F/4).
A lens with good image stabilization might help you shoot at a shutter speed of only 1/8th or even ¼ of a second! It’s a great help in cases where no tripod or solid brace is available. In particular, it has saved many photographers (me included) from carrying a tripod around when I don’t want to bother with the extra weight.
Some lenses can focus close from the front of the lens, so much so that it can be considered macro shooting. If you want to shoot very small animals – insects, spiders and things, you’ll need to get a dedicated macro lens. These lenses can typically create a same-size image on the sensor, as it is in real life. This is a 1:1 ratio. For me, I enjoy macro photography a lot – so I bring my macro lens with me wherever I go. I tend to go looking for wildlife at night, so the macro lens is a great way to get fantastic flash-photos of little animals that look incredible when blown up larger than life.
If you’re like me, you might be able to get away with just using a macro lens and not even buying a telephoto – for a while anyway. For almost all wildlife within a couple of meters (yards), I shoot with my 100mm F/2.8 macro lens. It’s a Tokina AT-X Pro lens with a Nikon mount. They have the same lens for Canon too.
I saved about $500 using this lens instead of the Nikon 100mm F/2.8 macro lens. It’s brilliant. Much better made than the Nikon, and solid like a tank.
“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 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 in most cases.
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.
Lens Tele-Converters and Extension Tubes
You can put a lens converter between your lens and your camera – it fits both – and creates some extra virtual length to your lens. How much depends on the glass in the teleconverter. 1.3x, 1.7x, and 2x are common converter strengths.
A 2x converter would take your 50mm lens and make it the equivalent of a 100mm lens. This can be $400 or so for a good one, and you’ll want a good one.
Extension tubes are hollow and also fit between the lens and camera body. They allow you to get closer to the subject – for macro-like photography. These are really inexpensive.
So, these accessories are fairly cheap if you’re comparing them to buying new lenses instead. And, they help you get closer to the subject in case you don’t have the proper lens.
Some drawbacks are:
1. Your F/2.8 lens might drop to a F/3.5 or F/4 lens with the extra extension.
2. Your autofocus function may not be as accurate or as fast.
3. Depth of field changes, and your images may be blurrier than you were counting on.
So, which cameras do I most strongly recommend for Wildlife Photography?
For beginners to mid-level learners – one of these would be great:
For Mid-level learners with a higher budget – one of these would be perfect:
· Nikon D500 – this one is also on the pro-list below. Have I mentioned that I love this camera?
· Nikon D7500 – or the D7200 is older, but is also a very good camera. If you can easily afford one of these, please just get the Nikon D500.
For those of you who are semi-pros and have the budget to get one of the best:
· Nikon D500 – I’d still recommend this camera to the most competent professional. I love mine!
· Nikon D850 – new this year, this camera is blowing minds. If I didn’t just get the D500, I’d almost surely be getting the D850.
· Nikon D5 – heavy for wildlife photography, because you can’t get rid of the built-in battery grip. This camera can be excellent for the field because it’s durable and has some pro-quality features.
Recommended Kit 1 – Crop-Sensor Camera Kit with Lens ($1,200+)
These systems have interchangeable lenses you can use if you upgrade your camera, and they are slightly smaller and lighter than full-sized pro DSLR camera kits. The cameras and lenses below were chosen for a couple reasons…
1.) Known brand, durable, and many accessories available to expand as needed.
2.) High-quality cameras and lenses, capable of very nice photos – for online, or print.
BUDGET NIKON WILDLIFE PHOTO KIT
Camera Body: Nikon D5600
Lenses: 18-140 kit lens; 70-300mm telephoto. More Info Here >
These two lenses cover a huge range, and yet won’t totally break the bank. My preference is for Nikon gear for a couple of reasons: 1.) Feels better in my hand. I like the soft-grip rubber feel of the body, and the size fits my hand better than Canon camera bodies. 2.) I like the menu system better. I’m just accustomed to where everything is.
I know it’s probably in my head, but I am sure I get consistently better images when shooting with my Nikons. This camera is not environmentally sealed (waterproof or dustproof), but we have the older Nikon D5100 in the same style, and it has done great in light rain, over and over for five years. If you’re planning on going out into heavy rain often – a sealed camera will be a good investment. The Canon mentioned next, is sealed.
BUDGET CANON KIT
Camera Body: Canon 70D
Lenses: 18-55 kit lens; 70-300mm telephoto. More Info Here >
Canon’s answer to the Nikon D5600, these cameras have very similar features, and it’s really a matter of whether you want to buy into the Nikon or Canon systems. You can’t go wrong, either way. The Canon gear is slightly less expensive overall.
OK! I hope that helped you learn something about the crucial points of buying photography gear that works for wildlife photography. The topic is massive – and this 4,300 word article only scraped the surface.
Feel free to email me with questions and I can help you with any concerns before you buy your gear.