While you can photograph wildlife with any camera and lens, some gear makes doing so easier and more productive. Here, we look at the best wildlife photography gear available for a low budget, a mid-range budget and a high-end budget.
The best wildlife cameras are DSLRs because they have the best bang for the buck—the best AF systems for animal action and the widest selection of long wildlife lenses, along with excellent image quality and ease of use. Mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras have far fewer native wildlife focal lengths available, and their AF systems don’t handle quick and erratic subjects like flying birds nearly as well as DSLRs. If your wildlife ambitions lean more toward animal portraits than action, then action AF performance isn’t so important, and mirrorless cameras offer the advantage of smaller bodies and lenses, easier to carry into the field where the wild things are.
The prime requirement for a wildlife lens is reach (focal length), followed closely by AF speed and accuracy. It’s hard to get close enough to most wild critters to get good shots, so wildlife specialists like really long lenses—300mm is a bare minimum; most use 500mm, 600mm and even 800mm, often with teleconverters to increase the reach (see the “Teleconverters” sidebar). AF performance is a matter of both camera body and lens; those hugely expensive pro bodies and lenses really do autofocus more quickly and more accurately on action subjects than lesser gear. But, besides cost, they’re much bulkier and thus more difficult to carry and handle. Two things you want in a wildlife action lens are a focusing-range limiter (so the lens doesn’t have to hunt all the way down to minimum focusing distance when your subject is 100 feet away) and the ability to set focus manually while in AF mode (the AF system will acquire focus more quickly if you start with it manually “ballparked” on the subject, something you can’t do quickly if you have to switch to MF mode to do it). A close minimum focusing distance is important if your wildlife subjects include insects and spiders.
A tripod can hold the camera steadier than a photographer can, especially important when using long lenses, where camera shake is magnified along with the subject’s image. But with today’s image stabilization—both optical in-lens and sensor-shift in-camera body—many wildlife shooters do work handheld. The important thing, if you use a tripod, is to get a sturdy one; a flimsy one won’t hold the camera and lens steady. Note that because long lenses generally weigh more than a camera body, you generally mount the lens to the tripod head, rather than using the camera body’s tripod socket.
To carry gear in the field, a photo backpack is the best solution; it leaves your arms free for shooting and climbing, and won’t fall off as a shoulder bag might. You want a rugged one that can handle life in the wild and that can hold what you need and provide easy accessibility, preferably without having to take it off every time you need something contained therein. Of course, it depends on what you need on a particular shoot. Some bird specialists go out with camera and lens on a neckstrap, spare batteries and memory cards in their pockets, and that’s it. That said, always carry spare batteries and memory cards when afield, as well as a lens-cleaning kit, a small flashlight and a hat (David Morgan makes good ones).
There are some drawbacks, though. For one thing, teleconverters make the lens slower—a 1.4X by one stop, a 2X by two stops. Attach a 1.4X converter to a 300mm ƒ/4 lens, and it becomes a 420mm ƒ/5.6; attach a 2X, and the 300mm ƒ/4 becomes a 600mm ƒ/8. Many DSLRs won’t autofocus with lens/converter combos slower than ƒ/5.6, and AF performance slows even with those that will. Also, a teleconverter will reduce image quality. A good converter used with a lens for which it’s designed can deliver very good results (many wildlife pros use converters with their pro lenses), but converters generally don’t provide good results with consumer-level zooms.
ENTRY-LEVEL BUDGET KIT
All budgets are limited, some just more so than others. An entry-level wildlife kit would include an entry-level DSLR and a 70-300mm zoom (but not a bottom-end one; those are just too slow in AF performance to do action, although they can deliver nice wildlife portraits). Canon‘s EOS Rebel T5i or EOS 60D are good choices, with effective 9-point AF systems, 18 megapixels and a 1.6X focal-length factor (a 300mm lens on these cameras frames like a 480mm on a full-frame DSLR or 35mm film camera). Nikon‘s D3300 and D5300 feature EXPEED 4 processors like the high-end Nikon DSLRs, and 11-point AF systems like the one in the D90, which we used successfully for birds-in-flight shots when we tested it when it came out back in 2008. The Pentax K-50 and new K-S1 feature essentially the same AF system as the original K-5, which our resident bird buff actually bought for its results and weatherproofing (the K-50 and K-S1 also have weatherproofing, albeit not quite in the K-5’s class). These cameras can shoot bursts at 5 to 6 fps, with AF for each frame.
For a budget wildlife lens, you’re most likely looking at a 70-300mm zoom. Good ones include Canon‘s EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM, Nikon‘s AF-S VR 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G IF-ED, Pentax‘s HD DA 55-300mm ƒ/4-5.8 ED WR (which complements the camera bodies’ weather resistance) and Sony‘s 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G SSM (either the original version or II version, although now you’re getting up over $1,000). Tamron‘s SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD, like the Canon and Nikon 70-300s, has built-in image stabilization, and is available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sony DSLRs. (Pentax and Sony DSLRs have in-camera sensor-shift stabilization, so you get stabilization with any lens attached to these cameras.) Around the $1,000 mark, you even can get a big zoom range: Sigma‘s 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM and 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM and Tamron‘s recent SP 150-600mm ƒ/5-6.3 Di VC USD all feature built-in stabilization and lots of reach, and surprisingly good performance for the price. Note that these big guns weigh around four pounds, not as huge as the pro superteles, but they’re no lightweights.
These zooms are all slower at their longest focal length than at their shortest. This “variable-aperture” design keeps costs down and makes for more compact lenses, but means the lens gets slower as it gets longer, a drawback if shooting in dimmer light.
A good tripod is beyond an entry-level budget, so you can either work handheld and make do with the lens or camera stabilization, or get a good monopod. The Sirui P-S photo/video monopod features three fold-down feet for added stability, 360° panning head, and can tilt 20° in any direction with adjustable drag. It’savailable in aluminum and carbon-fiber; the latter costs $100 more, but is lighter and more rugged (and more comfortable to grip when very cold or hot).
As far as a bag and accessories, as this is low budget, you can make do with just your camera body and long lens, and a support. You may want to splurge on a shoulder strap like the BlackRapid Kick, rather than use the neckstrap that came with the camera; it’s more comfortable than the neckstrap with a heavy lens. If you carry your camera with long lens using a neckstrap, support the lens with a hand as you walk; letting the unit hang as you walk can stress the camera mount. And, if you use a shoulder strap that has the camera hang upside down, attach it to the lens’ tripod mount, which is generally pretty rugged, rather than the camera’s tripod mount, which wasn’t designed to support the weights of a hanging camera and heavy lens. Filters aren’t as important for wildlife as for landscapes, but a spare battery and memory card or two are always a good idea when in the field, as is an air blower and lens-cleaning kit like Hoodman‘s Lens Cleanse.
Here, we have some excellent wildlife cameras and lenses. Canon’s EOS 7D Mark II (and even the original EOS 7D, which sells for about half the Mark II’s price these days), Nikon‘s D7100 (and semi-discontinued-but-still-available D300S) and Pentax‘s K-3 deliver image quality and performance. The newish 20.2-megapixel EOS 7D Mark II is Canon’s top APS-C DSLR. The APS-C Pentax K-3 has 24.3 megapixels, and the Nikon D7100 has 24.1 megapixels. The D7100 features essentially an APS-C version of the 51-point AF system in Nikon’s flagship D4, and the Pentax K-3 has a 27-point system that’s a bit slower, but can still handle birds in flight; the EOS 7D Mark II features the best AF system ever in a Canon DSLR. Sony‘s 24.3-megapixel SLT-A77 Mark II can shoot 12 fps with phase-detection AF for each frame (albeit with no live view in the EVF at that speed) and provides continuous phase-detection AF with eye-level viewing for video—the best choice for birds-in-flight videos. The Nikon D7100 can shoot up to 6 fps, the original Canon EOS 7D, 8, the Pentax K-3, 8.3, and the new Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 10 fps—all with AF for each frame. Sigma‘s SD1 Merrill isn’t as quick as these DSLRs, but offers the unique Foveon X3 image sensor, and can deliver excellent detailed animal portraits.
In the intermediate category, there are some wildlife-suitable mirrorless cameras. The Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus OM-D E-M1, Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4, Samsung NX1 and Sony a7 series look like small DSLRs—and deliver DSLR image quality. Their drawbacks are lack of long native lenses and AF performance (mainly noticed in birds-in-flight work). Of course, due to their short flange-back distances, these cameras can use a wide variety of non-native lenses via adapter. You lose AF when doing that, but you can greatly expand your pool of usable focal lengths. Sony makes adapters that enable you to use Sony A-mount and legacy Konica Minolta Maxxum DSLR lenses on their mirrorless cameras, with phase-detection AF (a PDAF system much like that in their SLT DSLRs is built into the adapter).
With an intermediate budget, you can get lenses that autofocus noticeably faster than the entry-level ones. Canon, Nikon and Pentax offer excellent 300mm ƒ/4s. Nikon introduced a VR (stabilized) 300mm ƒ/4. Canon‘s EF 400mm ƒ/5.6 IS USM is a great good-light birds-in-flight lens. It’s a bit slow at ƒ/5.6 and lacks a stabilizer, meaning you need light, but it autofocuses quickly and accurately, and no one else offers a 400mm prime lens near its price. In zooms, choose among Canon‘s EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM, original or new II, Sony‘s 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G, original or II (in both cases, the II version is better and costs more), and Nikon‘s original AF 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D (the new AF-S version has much better AF and optical performance, but costs $2,700).
On a moderate budget, you can buy a good tripod. Carbon-fiber units are light, yet sturdy. Adorama, Gitzo, Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff, Slik and others offer a selection of good carbon-fiber tripods. Check them out online, then try the ones that appeal to you at your local camera shop—usability is a big consideration with a tripod, and you can’t determine that online.
If you plan to do mainly animal portraits, a ballhead is ideal, as it lets you position the camera as desired, then lock it there with the twist of a single knob. If you do birds in flight, a gimbal head lets you track the bird while providing good support (and also will lock down for stationary portrait shots).
On an intermediate budget, you can afford faster memory cards—a good choice, as the recommended DSLRs feature 18 to 24 megapixels and quick shooting capability. Consider camouflage coverings for your lenses such as those from LensCoat. While animals probably will know you’re there, they look cool, and more importantly, provide some ding protection, and the RainCoat 2, rain protection.
Now you have the best of the best: pro full-frame DSLRs. Canon‘s 18.1-megapixel EOS-1D X and Nikon‘s 16.2-megapixel D4S are the companies’ flagship models, able to shoot long bursts at over 10 fps with excellent AF, terrific high-ISO performance, very rugged bodies and long battery life. Most serious bird photographers with big budgets use them. Less costly, but still excellent alternatives include Canon‘s EOS 5D Mark III (22.3 megapixels and essentially the same AF system as the EOS-1D X, but “only” 6 fps) and Nikon‘s D810 (36.3 megapixels and essentially the same AF system as the D4S, including the excellent Group Area AF and 5 fps) and D750 (24.3 megapixels, more “reach” than the D4S and essentially the same AF system and 6.5 fps at a far lower price).
With a high budget, you can buy the pro “big-gun” lenses: 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4, 600mm ƒ/4, 800mm ƒ/5.6 and pro 200-400mm ƒ/4 zoom. These are the lenses used by most wildlife pros, and with good reason: They offer the best optical quality, the best AF performance, and the most rugged construction. They’re also really bulky and difficult to handhold successfully despite their built-in stabilization (although we know photographers who do it). Canon and Nikon offer all of the above-cited focal lengths, while Sony offers a 300mm ƒ/2.8 and 500mm ƒ/4, and Pentax, a 560mm ƒ/5.6. Sigma offers a 500mm ƒ/4.5, an 800mm ƒ/5.6 and a 300-800mm ƒ/5.6 supertele zoom, all three available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sigma DSLRs (and the 500mm in mounts for Pentax and Sony, as well). Canon’s and Nikon’s “big guns” are the only ones with built-in stabilization; Sony’s current SLT cameras have sensor-shift stabilization in the camera body.
A high budget lets you buy a top tripod. The Gitzo Ocean Systematic Series 5 can handle extreme conditions, and Gitzo‘s GT55422S is popular with long-lens bird photographers. Other good high-end tripods are available from Manfrotto, Really Right Stuff and Slik. Of course, you don’t have to buy the most expensive tripod; get one that’s sturdy and stable enough to support your camera and long lens(es), but light enough to carry where you’ll want it. Acratech, Arca-Swiss, Kirk and Really Right Stuff offer excellent ballheads, while top gimbal heads (ideal for birds in flight) are available from Induro, Jobu, Kirk, Manfrotto, Mongoose, Sirui and Wimberley. Note that gimbal heads require lens-mounting plates; you’ll need one for each of your lens(es).
You can buy a top photo backpack with a high budget. Good ones are offered by Gura Gear (Bataflae 322), Lowepro (Pro Trekker 650 AW) and Think Tank Photo (Shape Shifter), among others.