While mirrorless cameras have been closing the gap, DSLRs remain the best choice for wildlife photography. The availability of extreme telephoto lenses, AF performance, fast continuous shooting rates and high ISO capabilities are all advantages for capturing animal interactions and behavior.
Full Frame or APS?
Telephoto reach is the most important requirement for wildlife photography, bringing you close to subjects without disturbing them. While full-frame cameras are in some respects superior to APS-C models, for wildlife photography, the magnification factor of a smaller sensor enhances telephoto reach. For example, comparing a 20-megapixel full-frame camera with a 20-megapixel APS-C camera, the APS-C model will give you approximately 1.5x magnification of your lens’ focal length, making a 400mm lens equivalent to a 600mm lens. Keep in mind that this is only true if you’re comparing two cameras with the same resolution, as a full-frame image from a higher-resolution camera can be cropped for a similar result. Learn more about working with extreme telephoto lenses for wildlife photography.
For wildlife action, AF speed and accuracy are prime considerations. Definitive numerical ratings aren’t available for AF performance, but higher-end DSLRs typically deliver better AF performance than entry-level bodies, and newer models with the most up-to-date AF technology improve upon earlier models.
More AF points are potentially an advantage, but evaluate the entire AF system. Cross-type points provide additional information to the AF processor and, therefore, improved accuracy. Algorithms and processor capabilities also play a major role—newer AF systems with fewer AF points and more powerful processors will potentially outperform older systems with more AF points. Multi-point AF is most useful when your subject is in front of a relatively uncluttered background. Otherwise, it may be more effective to simply use the center AF point, lock focus and then compose, or for stationary wildlife, to activate the AF point over the animal’s eye that’s nearest to the camera.
While cameras with focus-tracking capabilities can greatly enhance your chances of success, they’re not infallible, so it’s good to be able to fall back to basic technique and an understanding of your camera’s available settings. Review your manual’s recommendations for AF mode selection and experiment with your camera’s AF options to see which work best for your style of shooting.
Your lens also has a significant impact on autofocus performance. The availability and number of cross-type AF points may be limited by your lens selection. Professional super-telephoto lenses have faster motors and smarter AF algorithms, as well as finer optics than lower-end lenses. They’re more durable, with better sealing against weather and dust. They also cost a lot more, and are much larger and heavier—but that’s the price of superior performance.
Did you know your camera’s AF system operates with the lens wide open at its maximum aperture? When you activate the shutter, the lens then closes down to your selected aperture immediately before the shutter opens. Most AF systems require a minimum aperture of ƒ/5.6, which usually isn’t a problem. However, if you use a teleconverter to extend your focal length, you’re also reducing the effective maximum aperture of your lens—the stronger the teleconverter’s strength, the greater this reduction—making an AF system that’s compatible with apertures as small as ƒ/8 preferable for telephoto work.
Frames Per Second and Max Burst
While fast continuous capture rates aren’t absolutely critical for most wildlife photography, they’re certainly beneficial. More frames per second increase your chances of recording the perfect expression, gesture or wing position for moving wildlife. In addition to frames per second, the number of frames that can be stored in a single burst is also important. The larger the file, the faster your camera’s buffer will fill, so if large bursts of images are desired, shoot JPEG instead of RAW, as you’ll be able to capture significantly more images per burst. Regardless of your selected file type, to take full advantage of your camera’s speed, use the fastest-rated memory cards that your camera supports.
For best image quality, it’s always preferable to set lower ISOs, but wildlife photography often means shooting in low-light conditions near dawn and dusk when higher ISOs are needed. Considering the minimum aperture requirements of AF systems, plus the creative flexibility of selecting the right aperture for your desired depth of field, cameras that offer wider ISO ranges provide a significant advantage for wildlife photography. Though noise increases at higher ISOs, it’s better to compromise with noise than with sharpness or not getting the shot at all.
More light translates to less noise, and larger sensors collect more light due to their increased surface area. That’s one reason why full-frame cameras are able to offer comparably higher ISO equivalents and provide better image quality at higher ISO settings than smaller sensors.
Following is a selection of DSLRs, both full-frame and APS-C, which we recommend for wildlife photography. While not a definitive list, these models represent the latest options from their respective makers. When selecting a DSLR, also consider the telephoto lenses and teleconverter options available for the models you’re evaluating.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Canon’s newest professional DSLR is an excellent choice for wildlife photography. It’s the fastest DSLR currently available, with 14 fps capture using the optical viewfinder or up to 16 fps when shooting in Live View. The AF system is also impressive, with 61 AF points, 41 of which are cross-type, all of which are compatible with apertures as small as ƒ/8.
Sensor: 20.2 MP Full-Frame
AF Points: 61
Max Frame Rate: 16 fps
Max Burst: 170 RAW
ISO Range (Expanded): 100–51,200 (409,600)
Canon EOS 80D
Another new model from Canon, this APS-C DSLR features a 45-point AF system, all of which may be cross-type (depending on the lens selected). The AF system is also compatible with apertures of ƒ/8 or larger. Like the new EOS-1D X Mark II, the AF system can function in low-light situations down to -3 EV, which is approximately the luminance of moonlight.
Sensor: 24.2 MP APS-C
AF Points: 45
Max Frame Rate: 7 fps
Max Burst: 25 RAW
ISO Range (Expanded): 100–16,000 (25,600)
Nikon’s new flagship is ideal for wildlife, promising extremely fast and precise AF, with 153 AF points, 99 of which are cross-type, and 15 that can function at apertures as small as ƒ/8. The AF system also features a dedicated processor, and works in extremely low-light conditions, down to -4 EV. It can capture 12 fps using the viewfinder or 14 fps with the mirror locked up.
Sensor: 20.8 MP Full-Frame
AF Points: 153
Max Frame Rate: 14 fps
Max Burst: 200 RAW
ISO Range (Expanded): 100–102,400 (3,280,000)
The D500 includes the same new AF system as the top-end pro D5, as well as its new EXPEED 5 processor. Though it’s not quite as fast as the D5, it’s still very speedy at its max rate of 10 fps. It also features the same level of weather sealing as the pro-model D810, and though less than the D5’s astronomical ISO max, offers a remarkable ISO range, expandable to 1,640,000.
Sensor: 20.9 MP APS-C
AF Points: 153
Max Frame Rate: 10 fps
Max Burst: 79 RAW
ISO Range (Expanded): 100–51,200 (1,640,000)
The first full-frame-sensor camera from Pentax is built for outdoor photography, with 87 weather-sealing components. The K-1 offers a useful APS-C Crop Mode that not only allows it to accept a wider selection of Pentax lenses (and enhances telephoto reach), but also boosts the max frame rate from 4.4 fps to 6.5 fps. Pentax SR II five-axis shake reduction built in provides stabilization with every lens.
Sensor: 36.4 MP Full-Frame
AF Points: 33
Max Frame Rate: 4.4 fps (full frame)/6.5 fps (crop)
Max Burst: 17 RAW (full frame)/50 RAW (crop)
ISO Range: 100–204,800
Pentax K-3 II
Like the full-frame K-1, the K-3 II is well protected against the elements, with 92 seals. The 27-point AF system includes 25 cross-type points and can function in low-light conditions down to -3 EV. Also like the K-1, the K-3 II has image stabilization built in, offering up to 4.5 stops of shake reduction regardless of the lens used.
Sensor: 24.35 MP APS-C
AF Points: 27
Max Frame Rate: 8.3 fps
Max Burst: 23 RAW
ISO Range: 100–51,200
Technically not a DSLR, the a99 is built around Sony’s Translucent Mirror Technology, which passes most of the light to the image sensor, but reflects a small amount to the phase-detection AF system. At full resolution, the a99 can capture at 6 fps, but you also have the option of shooting at up to 10 fps with a resulting cropped file of 4.5 megapixels.
Sensor: 24.3 MP Full-Frame
AF Points: 19
Max Frame Rate: 6 fps
Max Burst: 14 RAW
ISO Range: 100–25,600
Sony a77 II
Like the a99, the a77 II employs Translucent Mirror Technology, though as a newer model, it offers some advantages for wildlife photography over the a99, like faster capture rates and a more sophisticated AF system with 79 points, 15 of which are cross-type. The a77 II also incorporates weather sealing around the buttons, controls and camera openings.
Sensor: 24.3 MP APS-C
AF Points: 79
Max Frame Rate: 12 fps
Max Burst: 60 JPEG
ISO Range: 50–25,600
Updated April 7, 2016
Published July 23, 2013