Equipping Yourself for Wildlife Photography
Welcome to the exciting world of wildlife photography. Wildlife photography can be rewarding but it is also challenging. Animals won’t pose for selfies; you have to seek them out. They also tend to be off the beaten path in a variety of adverse conditions, including mud, dust, rain, and snow.
You can’t always get as close as you might like. They also don’t like you getting too close, so, in addition to helping you select an affordable camera body, we will also spend a bit of time on selecting ideal long telephoto lenses.
You Will Need a Good Telephoto
The cameras I am going to recommend all use the Advanced Photo System Type-C, generally known as APS-C (Nikon calls it the DX system), which is slightly smaller than that used by 35 mm film cameras and advanced digitals that use that same size screen. The good news is that this system enables you to get a nice long effective lens focal length for a reasonable price.
A lens’ reach, its ability bring in a distant subject is measured by its focal length in millimeters. I’m going to recommend that you will need a lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300 mm. It won’t be cheap but anything less than that will result in frustration. But both Nikon and Canon offer body plus lens bundles that can save you a bit.
Since we’re working on a putting together a system for wildlife photography, we need to consider a variety of factors. First off, you may be shooting in a variety of adverse conditions – rain, snow, tropical heat – so we’ll stick with cameras that have a reputation for ruggedness. My suggested purchases below are from Nikon and Canon, two brands that are known for reliability and durability.
Second, wildlife tends to stay off the beaten path, so weight may be a factor. (Weight may also be a factor in your tripod or monopod purchase: see my prior blog post on light-weight tripods.) APS-C systems tend to be lighter than systems that retain the 35 mm format.
There will also be times when you to fire off multiple bursts of shots (what we used a motor drive for in the old 35 mm era). All the cameras I am recommending can fire off multiple images at high speed.
Do You Have Enough memory?
Keep in mind that a fast-firing camera requires an equally fast memory card. A slow memory card will force the camera to slow down.
For example, if your camera is capable of shooting 4.5 fps (frames per second) it might slow down to 2 fps because the memory chip can’t memorize the images and they back up in the camera’s buffer system, causing a slowdown. The images will eventually download, but meanwhile, that wildebeeast has galloped across the Serengeti. (This is doubly important if you shoot video, which these cameras all can do.)
Keep in mind that your camera body shipped with a memory card but it may not be fast enough or big enough. Sandisk makes a wide variety of quality memory cards. Here’s a nice one, the SanDisk 128GB Ultra UHS-I Class 10 SDXC Memory Card (available on Amazon).
Many cameras have two memory card slots, and if yours does it is a good idea to buy two cards. If you use two cards you have three options: record every shot on both cards so that if, in the unlikely event that one fails, you have a back-up; set the second card as an overflow card if the first card fills up, or, third and my recommendation, set the two cards up so that every shot you take is recorded in JPEG on one and RAW on the other.
Buy two memory cards if your camera supports 2 slots.
Consider setting the camera up to store every shot in JPEG on one card, and RAW on the other
Affordable Cameras for Wildlife Photography
The Nikon D500 body, which Nikon describes as the “flagship” of the DX line, is the best Nikon using the DX system. It captures images at 20.9 megapixels and has all the bells and whistles you would expect in an upgraded Nikon, including the rapid autofocus wildlife photographers need. It can fire off multiple images at 10 fps. It can also deliver high-resolution video.
It also has Bluetooth and WiFi capability so you get can get your images onto social media as fast as those snapshots you take on your smartphone. (Note that if your camera body does not have WiFi capability, such as with an older D7000 series Nikon, you can purchase an inexpensive adapter that plugs into one of your camera’s ports and updates your camera.)
Nikon sells the D500 with a superb lens as the Sports and Wildlife bundle. The lens is a gem: AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens. On the D500’s DX image sensor, this results in a 300-750mm length. That is all the reach you will need. The lens also includes Nikon’s image stabilization and autofocus.
Note that, even with vibration reduction, the rule of thumb is the longer the lens the more likely you will want a tripod or monopod to avoid blur.
This lens comes with a feature I recommend: a tripod mount on the lens itself. Every camera has a tripod mount, but when you have a long, heavy lens attached to the camera the balance shifts forward and by mounting the lens on the tripod you restore a better balance.
A minor drawback of the bundle is that you are purchasing an extra battery pack which is very helpful in sports photography but might not be necessary for wildlife photography.
Second, the 200-500mm is a very specialized lens, which is not particularly useful for everyday use. You might need a second lens such as the Nikkor 18-55, which is sold paired with many Nikon bodies and is perfect for everyday use. This lens can be found for a reasonable price. Many Nikons are sold with this lens, so you may already have it if you have a DSLR body.
The D500 is a solid choice in the Nikon range but will stretch the budget a bit.
Check Price on Amazon.
If the D500 gave you a bit of sticker shock, how about a nice Nikon bundle that costs roughly half the price? The D7500 is another DX format Nikon and is also high quality. The body has a high resolution of 20.9 megapixels. It would be unfair to describe the D7500 as a step down from the D500. In fact, it shares many internal features with the top-of-the-line D500. It has a very fast autofocus system, which you can override as needed, shoots up to 8 fps for that fast-moving subject and can be used to record high-quality video.
But the lens is what seals the deal for the bundle. The zoom’s focal range goes from 18 mm to 300 mm. That takes you from a mid-range wide angle to a very impressive zoom. That means you can use it as an everyday lens and still have the power you need for wildlife shooting. It has image stabilization and is fairly compact for its reach.
The D7500 is a great value for a Nikon camera setup, especially when purchased as a bundle.
Check Price on Amazon.
Other Nikon Lenses
In addition to the lenses mentioned above, we also published a roundup of some budget telephoto lens options for Nikon which would work for wildlife photography.
Canon EOS Rebel T6S
Canon offers a number of nice alternatives in its popular EOS Rebel series. The EOS Rebel T6S is a 24.2 megapixel platform with built-in W-Fi that allows you to immediately send your latest wildlife pictures to social media or to any nearby Android device.
It also comes with a two-lens bundle. The first lens is an 18-55 lens ideal for day-to-day use, which also comes with Canon’s vibration reduction technology. But for your wildlife shooting, you will want to switch to the 55 to 250 mm. This compact telephoto also has vibration reduction technology. The system can rapidly autofocus with either lens in place.
If you just need the lens, the The 55-250 mm is available separately.
The T6S is a good mid range choice from Canon. The two lens bundle gives you versatility to capture every shot.
Check Price on Amazon.
Canon EOS Rebel T6
The Rebel T6 is Canon’s entry-level DSLR. It’s an 18 MP APS-C sensor which shoots at 3 frames per second. Video recording is limited to 1080p. Available as a bundle with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Autofocus Lens and an EF 75-300mm f/4.0-5.6 telephoto lens it has everything you need to get started in wildlife photography.
The EOS Rebel T6 is a good entry level choice from Canon which is very affordable.
Check Price on Amazon.
Canon EOS M50
There are a wide variety of Canon bodies to consider. If you want to go in the mirrorless direction, a new entry is the M50, which features 24.1 megapixels and is just a bit more pricey than the T6S we just looked at. It can shoot bursts at 10 fps, comes equipped with WiFi and has a fast autofocus system.
It’s available as a kit with an EF-M15-45mm and EF-M 18-50 mm Lenses. The 18-150 mm has slightly less reach than other options we covered. Since it’s a mirrorless camera, the body is more compact than typical DSLR’s, which is an advantage if you value portability.
View the Canon EOS M6 (Black) 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM Kit on Amazon.
What I Didn’t Cover
Mirrorless cameras are getting better all the time, but the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) format is still your best option. In addition, I stuck with the APS-C format, although full frame cameras, i.e. images the same size as 35 mm, are available.
I avoided these for two reasons.
First is the fact that these cameras, aimed at professionals, cost a great deal more than their APS-C counterparts. For example, the Nikon D5 significantly more expensive than any of the cameras we discussed, and that’s for the body alone.
Second, with the full frame cameras, you don’t get the bonus of 1.5x effective increase in focal length with lenses that the APS-C/DX format provides. Thus you will be paying more for the same amount of reach in addition to the increase in the cost of the body. They also tend to weigh a bit more, which, as I mentioned, is a negative when you are carrying your gear on a long hike into the wilderness.
A Few Final Words
As you can see, you are faced with a lot of options when trying to assemble a wildlife shooting set-up. Because a long focal length telephoto is the heart of your system, you need to focus on your go-to lens when determining your set-up.
High-end options start with Canon or Nikon glass but there are other ways to go, such as keeping an eye out for used and reconditioned lenses from KEH Camera. Another way to save is with body-lens bundles or quality off-brand lenses. Happy shooting!