Choosing a Camera for Wildlife Photography

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Choosing a Camera for Wildlife Photography

If your dreams involve capturing stunning images of beautiful, wild animals in nature, there is no getting around it—you need the right gear. Although every camera can capture wildlife, not all cameras are created equally and some certainly have technological advantages that benefit wildlife photography. We have discussed buying considerations for the right lens in this article, and here we will take a deep dive into what to look for in a camera for dedicated wildlife photography.

What Makes a Camera Better for Wildlife?

For wildlife photographers, the most important camera features are:

  • Fast and accurate autofocus

  • High-speed capture (frames per minute, buffer, fast memory writing)

  • Resolution

  • Crop factor / Sensor size

  • Lens compatibility

  • Video options

  • Ancillary considerations (battery, viewfinders, ergonomics, weight, etc.)

Fast and Accurate Autofocus

With (most of) our reliance on autofocus (AF) these days, it’s difficult to imagine that wildlife photography was done with manual focus cameras not too long ago. When shopping for a camera for wildlife photography, having a fast and accurate AF is a must. Animals rarely remain still, and many of them move very fast. You need a camera that can keep up!

Most camera manufacturers tout their AF speed, but make sure you dive into online tests and reviews for outside opinions. Remember that a lens/camera combination has a lot to do with AF performance.

When it comes to phase detection vs. contrast detection AF, phase detection is going to give you an advantage for speed and accuracy. Hybrid AF systems combine the two options. Low-light AF performance is also something to consider, especially when stalking wildlife in less than ideal lighting conditions.

Modern digital camera AF systems have a dizzying array of options and modes, so be sure, again, to look at reviews or videos to see how intuitive the systems are for you. One of the more recent advancements on the market is eye-detect AF that works on birds and land animals, and not just humans. When it works well, this can be a great advantage to a wildlife photographer.

High Speed Capture

Here again, when we start being critical of cameras with less-than-supersonic shooting speeds, it is important to remember that not too long ago, shooting speed was only as fast as the photographer’s thumb could move the frame advance lever. Then came the accessory motor drive and eventually built-in motor drives—and we have been on a quest for speed ever since.

With sports and wildlife photography, your capture speed (frames per second—FPS) can make the difference between getting the shot and missing it. Digital cameras, especially mirrorless cameras, have leveraged technology to bypass the mechanical shutter and capture frames at previously unheard-of FPS rates.

While capturing double-digit fps is awesome, you need a camera that can keep up with the amount of data that is pouring in like water from a 2.5" fire hose. The camera’s buffer needs to keep pace with the capture. Generally, a buffer will fill, and the capture rate will eventually slow, but some cameras have more robust buffers than others. Assisting the buffer, the camera needs to write to the memory card in rapid fashion to allow the buffer some room to breathe.

Resolution

While it is tempting to reach for the camera with the highest resolution—What do we want? More megapixels! When do we want them? Now!—if you’ve soaked in the previous section you might be aware that the super-high resolution cameras have buffer performance that's less than ideal for wildlife photos. Therefore, it might be beneficial to the wildlife photographer to take a step back from ultimate resolution for a camera with a higher capture rate and better buffer performance.

For another reality check, wildlife photographers used to shoot in the single-digit megapixel resolutions, so bypassing, for example, 40+MP for 24MP is not really a huge sacrifice.

The counter argument to less-than-stratospheric resolution is the possible need for more resolution to handle heavy cropping, which is important if you are photographing wildlife at extreme distances and the animal(s) in question are relatively small in the frame. In that case, you might be thankful for a ton of resolution.

Crop Factor / Sensor Size

The world is full of photographers who swear by the ultimate power of the full-frame sensor. However, for those brave enough to shoot with crop sensor cameras, there can be real-world benefits. As we discussed in the wildlife lens article, telephoto reach is what most wildlife photographers seek. Having a camera that effectively multiplies your focal length is a huge benefit when you want to get closer to your subject.

Full-frame photographers will argue that you can get the same benefits as a crop sensor by cropping the final image, but there is an advantage to having a camera that shows you the precise cropped view as you look through the viewfinder. There is also an advantage to not having to crop the images after capture—effectively reducing the resolution of the image.

And, for another selling point, see “Weight” in the final section below.

Lens Compatibility

Your lens is also a key component to taking great wildlife photographs. If you are building a system from scratch to take you on a wildlife photography journey, make sure to look at the quiver of compatible lenses before choosing a camera. A camera that is filled with wildlife-friendly features is not going to be great at capturing wildlife if it cannot be paired with the best super-telephoto optics. Counter to how most people enter the photographic world, when starting to build a wildlife photography system, it might make the most sense to start with studying a family of compatible lenses and then get the right camera to match those optics.

Video Options

Very few photographers and creatives are exclusively shooting stills these days. And not every camera’s video prowess is equal. Overlapping with a lot of what we have talked about, video resolution (4K, 6K, 8K, etc.) and formats could be a critical factor for many photographers. At high resolutions, video frames can be used as still images and the frames per second during video might well exceed that available in still photo modes. High resolution video capture is tough on cameras—pushing their processors, heating the electronics, and always asking for more from batteries and memory cards. If your goal is to capture exquisite videos and stills, you need to make diligent consideration for video specs.

Ancillary Considerations

All the above is some heavy food for thought when thinking about the best possible camera for wildlife photography. Yet, there are more things to consider!

Battery life—Combine long treks into the wilderness with the fact that you might be firing off hundreds of images of elusive wildlife means having robust battery life is crucial to capturing the action and beauty. You can find cameras that are battery friendly or battery hungry—and then decide how many extra batteries you need in the field.

Viewfinders—The days of the DSLR are coming to an end, but, for wildlife photographers, there is a definite advantage to the speed and simplicity of the optical viewfinder. For mirrorless cameras, having a viewfinder with fast frame rates and resolution and performance to match the camera’s capture prowess is important.

Ergonomics—Do not discount the pleasure of carrying a camera that feels good in your hands. If your camera does not feel like an extension of you, the entire experience of capturing images is degraded. Each camera company has its own ergonomic qualities—be sure to choose a camera that you like carrying around.

Weight—A huge factor for outdoor wildlife photographers who are shooting far from the beaten path. If you have a crew schlepping your gear for you on multi-day treks, then, by all means, travel heavy (and pay them well!). But, if it is just you, you may want to lean toward lighter and smaller gear. This is a second arena where crop sensor cameras shine—not only are they smaller and lighter, but they also use smaller and lighter optics.

Weather sealing—Outdoor and wildlife photography is always done under ideal weather conditions, so you don’t have to worry about weather-sealed cameras and lenses. Just kidding! Yet another buying consideration is a camera that can take some abuse when it comes to precipitation, dust, and other contaminants. Many modern cameras are weather sealed, but not all are, so do your due diligence when shopping.

Do you have specific questions about cameras for wildlife photography? Do you need us to expand on any of the above subjects? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

1 Comment

Good list, but I would add to it 1) making sure the camera has 3 dials, so you can quickly adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO without having to push another button first.  Shooting manually is key as backgrounds change and automatic exposure settings often lead to incorrect exposures, so being able to change any of the 3 above mentioned settings quickly is important.  2) I would add the ability to program buttons on the surface of the camera for those features that you most often change.  Personally, I change AF settings pretty frequently, going from all points to single point, or going from tracking On to Off, etc.  and 3) I would add Image Stabilization, in-body, and in-lens; the more the better.  Online reviews of image stabilization are particularly important as all manufacturers seem to over-rate their own systems.  Implicit in this is how the combination of body and lens perform together, so be specific in your search.