Which Camera For Wildlife Photography

Someone asked me for a camera recommendation recently, 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, starting with the overall choices, which are an SLR, a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, or a Bridge 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.

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 that are like looking down the end of a small tunnel and it’s difficult to see what is in focus.

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. So, sticking with those that have digital viewfinders only, 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 the are digital. 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 covered in an array of micro lenses. Their job is to capture light delivered by the lens and convert it into a signal. There can be anywhere from, say, six million to 50 million or more micro-lenses sandwiched on a sensor.

Sensors and the cameras that go with them have names. Here are the main ones and as you will see, sensors are not big. It’s pretty mind blowing to realise that there are millions of micro-lenses stuck on the surfaces of these sensors.

  • The full-frame sensor in a full-frame camera is 36x24mm.
  • The crop APS-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.

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.

There is a sweet spot for the amount of light coming into the camera that delivers the cleanest signal to the sensor. You can increase the sensitivity (called the ISO) with a little dial on the camera for low light situations, but that brings more noise along with the signal.

All other things being equal, bigger sensor cameras do better at high ISO compared to small sensor cameras. You might not see a huge difference between say APS-C and Micro Four Thirds. You will definitely see a difference between APS-C and a one-inch sensor.

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 in daylight in Africa means that you don’t have to shoot at high ISOs, so the problem is moot. If you are shooting early in the morning or in the failing light of late afternoon, it is a different matter.

But there is more to the equation than just the size of the sensor. There is also how far the diaphragm on the lens can open. The more open, the more light it can capture.

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 group of people 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 closest distance that the lens will photograph.

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 helps to hold the lens steady.

Of course, that slow shutter speed isn’t going to work if the animal is moving. Then you need to make sure you are shooting at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze its movement.

There is another factor, which is that with a long focal length lens where 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?

The Sweet Spot

There is no universal sweet spot. A big person in good condition might find a full frame camera with a 500mm lens comfortable to shoot with all day, whereas a small person might find that camera exhausting to haul around.

For the person who sought my advice – full-frame was out (too heavy). Smaller, cheaper SLRs have small viewfinders, so they were out. That left mirrorless, and for the colour rendition that meant Fuji (which have APS-C sensors) or Olympus which have micro-four-thirds sensors. I am not fond of the colours on Panasonic, so I disregarded 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 recommended that she go with that brand.

For me, for wildlife – APS-C is the right balance of weight and usability in cameras with a good range of fast lenses. But then in the back of my mind is the cost. If cost was not an issue then I would look at full frame and bigger, faster, longer lenses – and put up with the weight for the chance of taking winning shots.