Someone recently asked me for a camera recommendation, a camera for taking photos of wildlife in Africa.
This is someone who has spent a lot of time in Africa and is well acquainted with animals in her work and as a keen observer of wildlife.
She is prepared to sacrifice being able to photograph things in the far distance if it means not having to lug a heavy beast of a camera around.
This is what I recommended and why.
SLR, Mirrorless, or Fixed Zoom Lens
The choices are an SLR or a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, or a camera with a fixed zoom lens.
SLR is ‘single lens reflex’. You put your eye to the viewfinder. It is like looking through a periscope in a submarine, except it is a tiny periscope that’s about half an inch or so above the lens.
The light from the subject comes directly through the lens and is reflected up into the viewfinder via a series of little mirrors and prisms.
There are no parallax errors. You see what the camera lens sees and you have a true optical view down through the prisms and out directly through the lens.
SLRs are called ‘reflex’ cameras because the mirror flips up out of the way when you take a shot and then it flips back down again. That’s the reflex.
It has to flip out of the way because in its rest position it covers the sensor, so it has to flip out of the way when you shoot and then flip back again.
Although camera manufacturers are good at damping the shock when the mirror flips up and down again, there is some small vibration.
Mirrorless cameras don’t have this mirror arrangement or any movement at all, so there is no mirror slap (score one for mirrorless).
SLRs viewfinders are not all created equal. Cheaper ones have smaller viewfinders, so it’s like looking down the end of a small tunnel. The result is that it’s difficult to see what is in focus.
Mirrorless cameras have digital viewfinders*. They are like the LCD on the back of a compact camera but moved up into the viewfinder.
And those viewfinders can be pleasingly big and they make it easy to see what is in focus. (score one for mirrorless)
The only downside is that they are digital: You are looking at a digital representation of reality, not an optical view through glass.
Some people prefer the optical viewfinders in SLRs. Personally, I resisted digital viewfinders for years because I didn’t like looking at what is basically another screen. I wanted to look at the thing itself. Now I am comfortable with them.
All other things being equal, cameras with bigger sensors (that is sensors with a physically bigger area) capture better quality images.
A sensor is a rectangle of micro-lenses. The job of those micro-lenses is to capture light delivered by the lens and convert it into a signal. There can be anywhere from, say, six million to 20 million or more micro-lenses sandwiched on a sensor.
Sensors and the cameras that go with them have names to describe the size of the sensor. Here are the main ones and as you will see, sensors are not big. So it’s pretty mind blowing to realise that there are many millions of micro-lenses stuck on the surfaces of these sensors.
- The full-frame sensor in a full-frame camera is 36x24mm.
- The crop AP-C sensor on a crop-sensor camera is around 16x24mm.
- The micro-four-thirds sensor in a micro-four-thirds camera is around 17x13mm.
- That leaves cameras with one-inch sensors, which are around 13x9mm.
Film and ISO
In the days of film, each type of film was made with a specific sensitivity. If you knew you were going to shoot outdoors on a sunny day, you would go for the least sensitive film , the one that needed the most light to activate the chemical in the film.
If you knew you were going to shoot indoors, you would go for a more sensitive film.
Sensitivity is measured by a standardised unit called ISO. With film you could overexpose a less-sensitive film a bit to fool it into exposing for a poorly lit scene. But basically, the ISO was baked into the film. So for outdoors you might use an ISO 100 film and for indoors you would use an ISO 400 or ISO 800 film.
Digital Cameras and ISO
It’s different with digital cameras. You can change the ISO by spinning a dial or changing a setting in the menus.
But there is always a penalty to pay for increased speed, and that is increased noise. Lower ISO gives a cleaner signal with less noise. Increasing the ISO increases the noise-to-signal ratio.
The bottom line is that bigger sensors capture better quality noiseless images at higher ISO than small sensor cameras do.
That said image sensor capability is a function of linear length, not area, so the real difference between micro four thirds and full frame is less than you might think from the raw numbers.
Modern cameras are so good, however, that even smaller sensors are good enough for most people. A professional will pay the penalty of a heavier camera so that he/she can produce images to compete with the best – but even small sensor cameras can produce high quality images.
Shooting wildlife in daylight in Africa means that you don’t have to shoot at high ISOs, so the problem is moot. (Score one for smaller sensors.)
Big Sensor, Big Lens
Imagine a lens with a small diameter of glass sending light onto a big sensor. If the diameter of the glass in the lens is too small it will simply not send light to the edges of the sensor. That means bigger sensors need lenses with bigger diameter glass.
Lenses can have ten or more pieces of glass in them, so bigger sensors means bigger and heavier lenses.
The lens arrangement in longer focal length lenses gives a narrow angle of view and so they ‘reach’ further.
Longer focal length lenses that ‘reach’ further into the distance are physically longer and have more glass and are heavier than short focal length lenses you would use for, say, photographing a dog standing nearby.
Long focal length lenses are great if the animal is far away, but you don’t want to be caught with a long lens in a situation where the animal is ‘too near’ for the lens.
So you need a zoom lens with a range that will cover from near to further away. The ‘near’ end is easy to recommend – maybe 35mm or 28mm. The far end is not so easy to recommend. Ideally you want 600mm – but that may mean too big and heavy a lens to be comfortable with.
In order to hold a camera steady enough to avoid a blurry shot, you need to have a fast enough shutter speed.
That is more important with longer focal length lenses because they are physically longer and they cover a small subject area. So the far end wavers about more, which is why you need a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement.
Some modern lenses and some camera bodies have image stabilisation built in to them. It is then possible to shoot at slower shutter speeds because the camera and or the lens (or both) have mechanisms inside that help you to hold the lens steady.
When you are ‘reaching’ out into the distance, a long zoom on a small sensor on a lighter weight camera might easily compensate for a larger sensor with a shorter focal length lens that doesn’t reach as far.
For me the important things are a big clear viewfinder, quick focusing, and not too much weight. Noise-free images at higher ISOs, and knobs and dials that are easy and quick to use are a bonus.
I could talk about speed of focusing, but most cameras now are good enough.
So where are we?
Full-frame is out (too heavy), smaller, cheaper SLRs have small viewfinders, so they are out. That leaves mirrorless Fuji (which have AP-C sensors) or Olympus which have micro-four-thirds sensors. I am not fond of the colours on Panasonic, so I am going to disregard them.
There are various models of Olympus micro-four-thirds cameras, there is a good selection of longer lenses and zooms, and the bodies have image stabilisation, so I would go with that brand. That’s what I recommended to the person who asked me.
If I wanted to take a step up to larger AP-C sensors, I would go with Fuji with their image-stabilised lenses.
Mirrorless cameras have digital viewfinders*. Some models have optical viewfinders as well, but their design is such that they do not work well with long lenses.