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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Top DSLRs For Wildlife

To capture the decisive moment in animal activity and behavior, choose a camera with the AF performance, speed and image quality that are up to the task

Labels: CamerasD-SLRsGear
This Article Features Photo Zoom
It's very hard to get close to wild subjects. So "reach"—the ability of camera and lens to "bring the subject to you"—is very important, especially for small wildlife subjects such as birds.

The black area represents a full-frame (36x24mm) image area. The blue rectangle shows the area "seen" by an APS-C sensor with a 1.5X crop factor, the red rectangle, the area seen by Canon's 1.6X APS-C sensors. The green rectangle represents the portion of the "full-frame" area seen by a Four Thirds sensor, and the smaller rectangles, the portions seen by the smaller sensors used in compact digital cameras. Note that the image produced by the lens doesn't change with the format; only the portion of the image that's recorded changes. A smaller sensor doesn't increase magnification of the image at the image plane; it just crops the image more tightly.
You can get more reach by using a camera with a smaller image sensor. An APS-C sensor measures about 23.6x15.6mm vs. 36x24mm for a "full-frame" sensor. The APS-C sensor thus "sees" a smaller portion of the image produced by any given lens, providing a tighter cropping on the subject (see the illustration below). A given focal length on an APS-C camera frames like a lens 1.5X longer on a full-frame camera. If a full-frame camera and an APS-C camera have the same number of megapixels, the APS-C camera will have more reach—it will produce a larger image of the subject on a per-pixel basis. If the full-frame camera has at least 2.4X more pixels than the APS-C camera, the full-frame camera will have more reach (i.e., you could crop into the full-frame image until it matches the APS-C image and still have more "pixels per duck"). Four Thirds System DSLRs (the Olympus E-5 is the only current one) have even smaller sensors: 17.3x13.0mm, for a 2.0X crop factor. A 300mm lens on the E-5 frames like a 600mm on a full-frame camera (or a 450mm on an APS-C camera).

The best way to increase reach is to get more focal length, of course. As mentioned in the "AF Performance" section, many wildlife photographers employ the less costly alternative of attaching a 1.4X or 2X teleconverter ($200-$500) to a telephoto lens rather than buying a big, fast, heavy and expensive lens. Add a 1.4X converter to a 300mm lens, and you have a 420mm lens. Add a 2X converter to the 300mm lens, and you have a 600mm lens. The main drawbacks to converters are that they reduce image quality a bit, they slow AF performance somewhat, and they eat light: one stop for a 1.4X converter, two stops for a 2X converter. Add a 1.4X converter to a 300mm ƒ/4 lens, and you get a 420mm ƒ/5.6; add a 2X converter, and you get a 600mm ƒ/8. This loss of lens speed means you have to use a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO setting in a given light level. Also, only higher-end DSLRs can autofocus at ƒ/8; with others, you lose AF capability with lens/converter combos slower than ƒ/5.6 or so. Many pro wildlife photographers use matched teleconverters with their supertelephotos to extend reach and get incredible results. An added teleconverter bonus is that the lens' minimum focusing distance doesn't change when you use one. Add a 2X converter to a 300mm ƒ/4 lens that focuses down to 5 feet, and you have a 600mm ƒ/8 lens that focuses down to 5 feet. A typical 600mm ƒ/4 lens won't focus closer than 15 to 18 feet.

  Sensor Normal
AF Points
Min AF
Shutter Cycles Max.
Top Video MSRP
Full Frame
Canon EOS-1D X 18.1 MP 100-51200 204,800 61 (to 41) 8 -2 400K 12 38/180 1080/30p $6,799
Canon EOS 5D Mark III 20.2 MP 100-25600 102,400 61 (to 41) 8 -2 150K 6 18/65 1080/30p $3,499
Nikon D4 16.2 MP 100-12800 204,800 51 (15) 8 -2 400K 10 92/170 1080/30p $5,999
Nikon D800/D800E 36.3 MP 100-6400 25600 51 (15) 8 -2 200K 4 (6) 21/56 1080/30p $2,999
Sony SLT-A99 24.3 MP 100-25600 25600 19 (11)*** 5.6 -1 200K 6 15/15 1080/60p $2,799
Canon EOS 7D 18.0 MP 100-6400 6400 19 (19) 5.6 +1 150K 8 25/130 1080/30p $1,499
Nikon D300S 12.3 MP 200-3200 6400 51 (15) 5.6 -1 150K 7 18/44 720/24p $1,699
Nikon D7100 24.1 MP 100-6400 25600 51 (15) 8 -2 150K 6 (7) 7/73 1080/60i $1,199
Pentax K-5II/K-5IIs 16.3 MP 100-12800 51200 11 (9) N/S -3 100K 7 20/30 1080/25p $1,099
Sigma SD1 Merrill 15.3x3 MP 100-6400 6400 11 (11) N/S -1 100K 5 7/7 No Video $2,299
Sony SLT-A77 24.3 MP 100-16000 16000 19 (11) 5.6 -1 150K 12 13/13 1080/60p $899
Four Thirds
Olympus E-5 12.3 MP 200-6400 6400 11 (11) N/S -2 150K 5 20/card 720/30p $1,699
Criteria include AF performance on action subjects, image quality, high-ISO performance, shooting speed, ruggedness and operational comfort. Some cameras are better in some of these areas than others, but all are excellent wildlife cameras.

* Maximum fps at full resolution with AF for each frame; figure in parentheses is maximum fps in 15.3 MP cropped mode
** Maximum number of RAW/highest-quality JPEG images per burst; "card" means can shoot JPEGs until memory card is full
*** SLT-A99 has a 102-point phase-detection AF sensor overlaying the image sensor, as well as a main 19-point AF sensor

N/S = not stated by manufacturer


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