Top DSLRs For Wildlife
|A ring-billed gull doing some fishing.|
Landscape photographers are concerned primarily with low-ISO image quality—the ability to record fine details, wide dynamic range and accurate (or as-envisioned) colors, while shooting stationary subjects from a tripod. While wildlife photographers certainly appreciate good image quality, key criteria also include AF speed, high ISO performance and system ruggedness. AF performance is especially important to bird photographers because birds in flight present the ultimate wildlife action challenge to both camera and photographer.
Multi-point AF systems (the 51-point Nikon system simulated here) can yield excellent results if the background isn't busy. If you do have a cluttered background and a fast-moving subject, single-point AF will result in more sharp photos.
That's why pros (and higher-budget amateurs) pay the $6,799 (EOS-1D X) and $5,999 (D4) prices for them. Both are full-frame cameras with 18.1- and 16.2-megapixel sensors, respectively. Because they're full-frame models at those resolutions, the EOS-1D X and the D4 really require lenses of at least 500mm for birds and other wildlife. Those lenses will add another $10,000 or so to the cost of entry. Such systems are also very bulky, hard to carry into the field and are best used on a tripod with a gimbal head. So, while these are the best systems, and preferred by most wildlife pros, they're certainly not for everyone.
A competent wildlife photographer can get good shots with any DSLR, but will get more "keepers" with a camera and lens that are better suited to the specific challenges that wildlife presents. Of course, a better camera won't make up for a lack of skill, but it will give you the best opportunity to get sharp, well-exposed images. Wildlife photography covers a lot of territory, photographically speaking. The ultimate wildlife tests for a DSLR are birds in flight. They're tough subjects, and even the experts miss more shots than they get. It takes lots of practice to become a good bird photographer (I'm still working on it after more than 20 years!). Because birds in flight represent such a challenge, we're holding them up as a real-world benchmark in this article.
If you're shooting wildlife action, especially birds in flight, then AF speed and accuracy, and the ability to track a subject for several frames, are prime considerations. There aren't any numerical scores for AF performance in the field, but as a general rule, the higher-end DSLRs have better AF performance than entry-level ones, and newer models with the most up-to-date AF technology refinements are better than their predecessors in a given category.
For wildlife photographers whose budgets don't allow for pro DSLR bodies, the Canon EOS 7D and Nikon D300S have been popular for the past few years. AF performance is excellent, and almost every bird photographer I know who doesn't have an all-out pro DSLR uses one of these rugged "semi-pro" models. Their main drawback is that, while excellent, their image sensors are four years old and have since been surpassed in overall image quality by 16- and 24-megapixel sensors in newer APS-C cameras. The newer DSLRs have DxOMark.com sensor scores of 80-84 vs. 66-70 for the EOS 7D and the D300S. Nikon's D7100 and D7000 use these newer sensors, and provide very good AF performance on birds in flight. The Pentax K-5 series (the original, and the newer K-5II and K-5IIs) features sensors similar to the D7000's, good AF performance on birds in flight and weather sealing.
Different DSLR models have varying numbers and arrangements of AF points. In theory, more points are better, but not all cameras have powerful enough processors to deal with all AF points quickly enough for really difficult subjects like birds in flight. Also, busy backgrounds, such as foliage, can confuse multi-point AF and cause it to focus on something other than the desired subject. The number of AF points is only part of the story. The entire AF system needs to be considered. More up-to-date AF systems with fewer AF points and more powerful internal processors can outperform older systems with more AF points. I use multi-point AF only when a bird is flying against a plain background like a clear sky, and just the center AF point otherwise. For portraits of stationary wildlife, you can activate the AF point over the eye nearest the camera. Experiment with your camera's different AF-point options to see which work best for you and your gear.
The lens plays a big part in AF performance, too, of course. The pro supertelephotos—300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4, 600mm ƒ/4 and 800mm ƒ/5.6—have better focusing motors and AF algorithms, as well as better optics than lower-end lenses. They're more rugged, with better sealing against weather and dust. They also cost a lot more, and are much bulkier than lesser lenses, but they're really that much better.
Many photographers are unaware that their AF systems operate with the lens wide open at its maximum aperture. As the shutter button is pressed, the lens iris closes down to the chosen ƒ-stop an instant before the shutter opens and the exposure is made. Most AF systems can only operate at ƒ/5.6 and greater apertures. Because many wildlife photographers use teleconverters to extend their focal lengths, a DSLR with an AF system that works down to ƒ/8 is preferable.
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.
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.
Frames Per Second
Birds-in-flight photographers like to shoot at high frame rates to capture exactly the right wing position. Today's highest-rated DSLRs for frames per second (fps) are Canon's EOS-1D X (12 fps at full resolution with AF for each frame) and Nikon's D4 (10 fps at full resolution with AF for each frame). One reason why these cameras have "only" 18 and 16 megapixels is to obtain these frame rates—affordable technology doesn't currently exist to process 36-megapixel images at 10 per second. There are also limits on how quickly a DSLR can raise and lower the mirror.
Mid-range and entry-level full-frame DSLRs are slower: 4-6 fps. In APS-C, Sony's SLT-A77, with a fixed mirror, can do 12 fps with continuous AF—but it has an electronic viewfinder that isn't ideal for birds in flight, but fine for a lot of other wildlife photography (see the "EVF DSLRs For Wildlife" sidebar). Canon's 18-megapixel EOS 7D can do 8 fps, Nikon's 12.3-megapixel D300S and the 16.2-megapixel Pentax K-5 series, 7 fps. Nikon's 24.1-megapixel D7100 can do 7 fps in 15.3-megapixel 1.3X DX crop mode, in which a 300mm lens frames like a 600mm on a full-frame camera.
Besides fps, you also should consider buffer capacity. When you shoot a series of images, the camera stores them in its buffer as it writes them to the memory card. When the buffer fills, either the camera stops shooting until buffer space becomes available or the shooting rate decreases drastically. The higher-end cameras have bigger buffers, allowing you to shoot more frames before filling them. The lower-end cameras have much smaller buffers—in some cases, a few RAW files will fill the buffer. With these, you'll either have to settle for brief bursts or shoot JPEGs. The Nikon D4's buffer can hold 92 12-bit lossless compressed RAW files or 170 Large Fine JPEGs, while the D800's can hold 21 of the former or 56 of the latter, and the D7100's buffer, just 7 12-bit losslessly compressed RAW files or 73 Large Fine JPEGs—another reason why Nikon pro action shooters go with the D4. Bear in mind that the lower-end DSLRs aren't likely to be able to maintain focus on a flying bird for more than a few frames, so longer bursts aren't really needed.
High-ISO Image Quality
Digital cameras deliver their best image quality at lower ISO settings because lower ISO settings call for more exposure (i.e., a longer shutter speed and/or wider aperture), which means more photons hit the sensor. Photon noise (which accounts for much of the noise in normal photos) increases as the square root of the photon count. In simple terms, if 4 photons hit the sensor, you get 2 photons of noise, a 2:1 signal-to-noise ratio. If 100 photons hit the sensor, you get 10 photons of noise, for a 10:1 S/N ratio. If 10,000 photons hit the sensor, you get 100 photons of noise, for a 100:1 photonic S/N ratio. This largely is why higher ISOs are "noisier" than lower ISOs with DSLRs. When you set a higher ISO, the meter calls for a faster shutter speed and/or a smaller aperture, which means less light reaches the sensor and thus the S/N ratio goes down.
Pixel size also comes into consideration. Higher pixel counts provide the ability to crop into images more and can deliver finer details in fur and feathers, assuming the image is sharply focused and not blurred by camera shake or subject motion—or details lost to noise. But the more pixels you have on a given-size sensor, the smaller they will be. And smaller pixels are less effective at collecting light than larger ones. So, the best high-ISO performance for a given generation of technology is found in full-frame sensors with big pixels (i.e., lower megapixel counts). The all-time (so far) high-ISO champ on DxOMark.com's sensor ratings is the discontinued 12.3-megapixel, full-frame Nikon D3S, with a score of 3253. (The score is the highest ISO setting that meets specified signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic-range and color bit-depth criteria.) But the 36.3-megapixel, full-frame D800 (with much smaller pixels) isn't far behind, with a score of 2853 (the 16.2-megapixel, full-frame D4 scored 2965). And when all of DxOMark.com's image-quality criteria are considered, the D800E and D800 are the two highest-scoring cameras overall. So pixel size matters less than sensor size; the highest-scoring APS-C sensor is the 24-megapixel unit in the Nikon D5200, at ISO 1284—23rd place overall. (You can find good data on dynamic range, color and noise for many DSLRs and other cameras at DxOMark.com.)
Bottom line: If you want the best image quality, especially in lower light levels such as at dusk and dawn, you'll get it from a full-frame DSLR vs. an APS-C DSLR (assuming equal generations of technology). If you want maximum reach, you'll get that from a high-megapixel smaller sensor. Pro wildlife photographers make great photos with both full-frame and APS-C DSLRs. You just have to consider your personal priority—low-light image quality or reach (as well as budget, of course)—and choose your camera accordingly.
If you're going to shoot in harsh conditions, you want a camera that can deal with them. The pro models are the most rugged, but many mid-level models are generally rugged enough for most wildlife/bird photography (the Pentax K-5 series and K-30 are even weather-sealed, as are some of their lenses, including the DA* 300mm ƒ/4). Entry-level models are less rugged and not good choices for harsh conditions.
Higher-end cameras also have better shutters. Those of the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4 have been tested to 400,000 cycles. Mid-range DSLRs have shutters tested to 100,000-200,000 cycles or so. Entry-level cameras have less sturdy shutters; many manufacturers don't provide shutter-life estimates for these cameras.
|Lenses For Wildlife|
For the budget-minded, yet performance-conscious wildlife-action photographer, there are good alternatives to the pro "big guns." Canon's EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM, EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L USM (no built-in Image Stabilizer) and EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM retail for well under $2,000, yet offer very good AF performance and optical quality. The same goes for Nikon's AF-S 300mm ƒ/4D (but no Vibration Reduction). Nikon's original AF VR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D zoom also sells for well under $2,000. (Note that none of these lenses is weather-sealed.) Nikon's all-new AF-S 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G VR zoom features a quick AF-S motor, a new optical formula, Vibration Reduction and weather sealing, but costs $2,700—nearly twice as much as its still-available slower-focusing predecessor. Pentax's DA* 300mm ƒ/4 SDM costs around $1,400 and is weather-sealed (no built-in stabilization, but Pentax DSLRs have built-in sensor-shift stabilization that works with all lenses). Sony's new 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G2 zoom focuses down to 5 feet and sells for $2,199.
The 70-300mm or 75-300mm zooms in the $400-$600 range have slower autofocusing than the aforementioned lenses, and aren't quite as good optically, but they still can deliver very good results and are great choices for wildlife fans on a tight budget. My archer friend Marlo got many amazing flight shots with a 70-300mm zoom before moving up to the AF-S 300mm ƒ/4. Don't go for the really cheap 70-300 zooms, though, the ones costing $200 or so. They're too slow for birds in flight. Besides AF speed, you want a lens that lets you adjust focus manually while in AF mode, so you can "ballpark"-focus on the bird before activating the AF system, and so you can quickly return focus to the bird if the AF system loses it and runs down to minimum focusing distance. Some cheaper lenses don't allow you to adjust focus manually while in AF mode.
Sigma offers 120-400mm and 150-500mm zooms for around $1,000 that offer built-in OS optical stabilization and good performance. Tamron's 200-500mm zoom is also in this category, but without a stabilizer. If you want a lot of reach for minimal dollars, consider these lenses; I know several bird photographers who do quite well with them. Sigma also offers some pro wildlife lenses: the 120-300mm ƒ/2.8, 300-800mm ƒ/5.6, 800mm ƒ/5.6 and the world's fastest 500mm, the 200-500mm ƒ/2.8 (which comes with a teleconverter that turns it into a 400-1000mm ƒ/5.6), for those who want even better performance and have higher budgets.
Long-Lens Tip: It's hard to "find" a small moving subject with a long lens, especially when you first start out. A telephoto zoom lets you use the wide end to find the bird, then zoom in on it, and thus is a better starter lens for birds in flight than a fixed-focal-length supertelephoto.