C  H  O  O  S  I  N  G    Y  O  U  R   C  A  M  E  R  A    G  E  A  R    
 
Don't let rambunctious meerkats get you down.  Be ready for your next wildlife expedition by knowing both your subject and your camera gear.

SINGLE LENS REFLEX CAMERAS

For maximum flexibility, consider a digital SLR.  You can choose from ultra wide fisheye lenses to long telephotos. And DSLRs generally beat digicams when it comes to both low light performance and speed.

CROP FACTOR

DiSLR's have sensors of varying sizes.  Full frame DSLR sensors have the same or very similar dimensions to the 24mm x 36mm frame size of 35mm film cameras and excel in low light, in capturing detail and in allowing for shallow depth of field.  But DSLRs with smaller sensors can prove beneficial in wildlife photography - particularly if you don't have thousands of dollars to spend on fast 500mm or 600mm telephoto lenses or simply want a smaller and lighter camera kit.  That's because the smaller camera sensor results in an in-camera crop.  If you use a DSLR with a 1.5x crop factor, for example, a 300mm lens will have an effective focal length of 450mm.  A 2x crop will give you an effective focal length of 600mm using the same 300mm lens.


CROP FACTORS OF SELECTED MODELS

Nikon D300, D200, D90, D5000, D60, D40x and earlier models
1.5x
Nikon D3, D3x, Nikon D700
FF
Fuji S5 Pro and earlier models.
1.5x
Canon 50D, 40D, 30D, 20D and Rebel series
1.6x
Canon EOS -1D Mark III
1.3x
Canon EOS 5D 12 mp; 5D Mark II 21.1 mp,  EOS-1Ds Mark III 21.1 mp
FF
Olympus E3, E620, E520, E420, E-30  and earlier models 2x
Panasonic G1 (micro 4/3 -
electronic viewfinder interchangeable lens camera)
2x
Pentax K-7, K-20d, K200d, K2000, K-10d and earlier models (also true of Samsung models)
1.5x
Sigma DSLRs
1.7x
Sony a200, a300, a350, a700 and earlier models
1.5x
Sony a900 24.6 mp

FF


U S E F U L   F E A T U R E S

DEPTH OF FIELD PREVIEW

Most DSLRs now offer depth of field preview, and it's a feature well worth having.  Do you want both the eyes and nose of a frog in focus?  Depth of field preview lets you know if you've accomplished your goal.  If you haven't, you can try a smaller f-stop.

MANUAL METERING/ FOCUS OPTION

You'll also want to be able to manually overide exposure and focus.  A camera's meter, no matter how sophisticated, still sees the world differently than the human eye.  In some situations, you will need to adjust your exposure to avoid blown-out highlights or loss of shadow detail.  Manual overrides also allow you to be more creative: there may be times when you deliberately want to underexpose or overexpose an image for effect or to use long exposure times.

Spot metering is another useful feature to have, and I personally prefer a camera that allows me to automatically bracket exposures in difficult lighting situations.

ADJUSTMENTS TO WHITE BALANCE,  SHARPNESS, CONTRAST AND SATURATION

Most digital SLRs will let you make some adjustments to white balance and to sharpness, contrast and saturation presets.

MIRROR LOCKUP

This isn't required but can be useful, especially when you are using moderately slow shutter speeds on a tripod. 

LIVE VIEW

Olympus initiated live view on DSLRs,  and all other major DSLR camera makers are now following suit.  This can be a helpful feature, especially with macro photography.  I personally don't use live view often - though I'm more inspired to do so when I'm using a camera that has a free angle or tilting LCD screen.  The ease of using live view also varies between manufacturers.

CAMERAS WITH LIVE VIEW

D300, D3, D700, D90
LV
Nikon D5000
LV
Free Angle

Canon Rebel XSi,
Canon 40D, 50D
EOS 1D-Mark 111
LV
Olympus E-520, E-510
(several earlier models also offer live view.)
LV
Olympus E-3, E-30, E-620
LV
Free Angle
Pentax k20d, K-7
LV
Samsung  GX-20
LV
Sony a300, a350
LV
Tilting
Panasonic Lumix
DMC-L10, G-1
LV
Free Angle
 


IMAGE STABILIZATION


Camera manufacturers take different approaches to image stabilization.  Sony, Pentax, Samsung and Olympus offer in-body image stabilization. 
If you use Nikon. Fuji or Canon camera
bodies, you'll need to purchase lenses marked either IS (Canon) or VR (Nikon) to gain the advantage of reduced camera shake.

ACTION PHOTOGRAPHY

You can take beautiful portraits of wildlife, up-close images of insects or environmental landscapes without ever desiring autofocus, but if you're interested in action photography, a DSLR with fast and effective autofocus and focus tracking and/or predictive autofocus is a big plus.  You'll also want to consider frames per second if capturing fast action is your goal. 

Frames per Second - Fastest DSLRs
               
Canon 40D,
EOS 50D
6.5 fps     
6.3 fps
Canon EOS 1D Mark III
10 fps
Nikon D90
4.5 fps
Nikon D200
5 fps
Nikon D300
6 fps
8 fps with
optional  battery grip
Nikon D3
9 fps
(11 fps DX crop)
Nikon D700 5 fps (8 fps with battery pack)
Pentax K-7
5.2 fps
Olympus E-30 5 fps
Olympus E3
5 fps
Sony a700, a900
5 fps

Most entry level DSLRs average 3 fps - which is certainly fast enough to record action.  But their buffers are often smaller (meaning that you can't take as many images before the camera insists on a rest to complete image processing), and their autofocus systems are often less robust.  Regardless of the frame rate, you'll miss action shots if you are depending on autofocus and your camera is unable to quickly lock on the correct focus point.  So if capturing action is your goal, check reviews before purchasing a camera. And, if possible, try out the camera with your selected lenses before making your final decision.

Is autofocus absolutely necessary for action photography?  No.  Wonderful images were created before autofocus was invented.  But it can certainly increase the odds of getting the shot.

LENS CHOICE

Before buying a camera, look at the manufacturer's selection of lenses.  Do they make the lenses you need, or do third party manufacturers produce acceptable substitutes?

Both Nikon and Canon have a wide range of lens choices - ranging from extreme wide angles to fast, beautiful, long telephotos.  Almost all third party lenses (Sigma, Tamron, Tokina) are also available in Canon or Nikon mounts, and Nikon and Canon lenses are the most easily rented.
 
But Olympus also offers a range of lenses well suited to wildlife photography. With the 2x crop factor of its cameras, Olympus's excellent zooms have effective focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 600mm.  Panasonic/Leica also produce lenses for the four-thirds mount.  Due to the 2x crop factor, an Olympus kit can be significantly smaller and lighter than a kit covering similar focal lengths from other manufacturers.  The smaller sensor size of Olympus DSLRs, however, makes noise somewhat more apparent in image files when shooting at higher ISOs.

Pentax offers very good value for the money and makes some excellent prime lenses.  The company recently released a 60-250mm zoom and has an updated 300mm f4 (450mm equivalent focal length) but does not yet manufacture readily accessible lenses in the 400mm to 600mm range.

Sony has also been lacking in lenses in the 400mm to 600mm range, but its newly released 70-400mm f4-5.6 G SSM lens (105-600mm focal length equivalent on cropped sensor cameras) received the 2009 TIPA award for best expert lens.

Third party lens manufactuers do make some longer telephoto lenses for both Pentax and Sony camera mounts.


                     


DECIDING ON A CAMERA


If possible, try out different cameras before making your decision.  Some cameras are small and light; others will help develop your biceps.  If you're planning to buy big glass, a heavier body is often desirable. But if you hike into remote areas, have smaller hands or prefer stalking wildlife to sitting in blinds, a lighter, more portable system may suit you well.

If you intend to use manual focus, make sure that you can see through the camera's viewfinder well enough to
finely adjust focus.  And spend some time playing with camera controls. Can you easily access the controls that you will use most frequently?  Check how quickly the camera focuses with your chosen lens
.

As DSLRs get better and better, digital noise is becoming less of an issue.  But If you will frequently be shooting at higher ISOs, test how well the camera performs at ISO 800, 1600 or above or compare image samples at dpreview.com and imaging resource.com.  You may want to choose a camera that allows you to determine whether or not to apply noise reduction since some cameras are programmed to take a heavy handed approach to noise and sacrifice too much image detail in the process.

ON A BUDGET

Beautiful images can be made with any of the DSLRs currently on the market.  Entry level DSLRs don't have the speed, durability, viewfinders or weather proofing of their bigger brothers, but they are much less expensive and several allow you to have significant creative control over your final image.  If you're on a limited budget, it's better to spend your money on a better lens than to immediately purchase a camera which may be far more than you will initially need or desire.

Another option, particularly if you're interested in action photography, is to look for used or refurbished mid-level DSLRs. 

CAMERA REVIEWS

There are several sites that can assist you in your choice of a camera.  Dpjournal.com provides summaries of camera reviews, while Dpreview.com offers its own detailed camera reviews with galleries of sample images.  Dpreview also hosts forums, allowing you to obtain advice from scores of photographers.  Just be forewarned that some photographers are so loyal to their own camera brand that they are unable to acknowledge that others should make a different choice.

At Imaging Resource, you can directly compare images of the same subject taken with different cameras at various ISO settings.

To inspire you, here are the links to a
few wildlife and nature photographers.  Frans Lanting, John Shaw and Moose Peterson use Nikon equipment.  Art Wolfe, Tim Fitzharris and Arthur Morris use Canon cameras, and Mitsuaki Iwago and John Isaac use Olympus gear.  Images made with Pentax cameras can be viewed at the Pentax Photo Gallery.  And here are some examples from Sony.


KNOW YOUR CAMERA

Once you decide on a camera, spend time getting to know it.  You'll be able to be more creative when you photograph and will also be more likely to obtain the results you are after in the field.

Mating Terns, copyright Steven Holt/stockpix.com




LINKS TO SELECTED CAMERA MANUFACTURERS

CANON

FUJI

LEICA

NIKON

OLYMPUS

PENTAX

SIGMA

SONY
Featured Photographer:  Art Wolfe - Travels to the Edge

    
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