With their interchangeable lenses, Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs) are the most versatile option for wildlife photography. Digital technology is evolving at such a rate, however, that choosing the right camera can quickly lead to jargon-overload. Cut through the techno-babble by focusing on a few key features.
Making sense of sensors
There are two things you need to know. Firstly, more megapixels means better quality images. Secondly, sensors come in different sizes. Full-frame sensors cover the same area as a piece of 35mm film and have no effect on the focal length of lenses. Many DSLRs, however, have smaller sensors which typically crop the picture area by a factor of 1.6, multiplying the focal length of lenses by the same amount. A 300mm lens, therefore, becomes a 480mm lens – great news for animal snappers!
Ready for action
Wildlife rarely poses for the camera, so maximize your chances of capturing fleeting moments by selecting a DSLR that has quick and responsive autofocus (including servo AF which tracks moving subjects) and a good rate of fire – ideally a minimum of five frames per second.
A depth of field preview button allows you to assess the zone of focus and adjust the aperture accordingly. Reviewing your pictures for correct exposure, meanwhile, is made much easier if the LCD screen on the back of the camera includes a histogram display. Basically, this shows, at a glance, whether an image is over exposed, under exposed or spot on. Additional features worth adding to your wish list include robust build, dust and moisture resistant buttons and switches, and a built-in sensor cleaning device.
It just feels right
Don’t rush out and buy a new camera the day before you leave. The best camera to use is the one you know so well you can adjust any control without taking your eye from the viewfinder. It feels right in your hands and you’re not afraid of getting it scratched.
The Canon EOS 7D MkII has an 20.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor (with a 1.6x focal length crop), fast autofocus and up to 10 frames per second continuous shooting, making it perfect for high-speed telephoto action.
Through the looking glass
A DSLR has all the fancy buttons, light-up screens and gadget appeal, but it’s lenses that wildlife photographers ultimately rely on. If you’re on a limited budget, invest in the best lenses you can afford, rather than splurging out on a flashy camera body.
Zoom lenses are a flexible option for wildlife trips where fast-changing situations call for rapid shifts in focal length. They also help to minimize lens changes – a boon for digital users who need to keep dust away from delicate sensors. An ideal zoom for general wildlife photography is a 70-300mm or 100-400mm. Features to consider when buying lenses are maximum aperture (lenses with large maximum apertures – or smaller f-stop number – let in more light, but are heavy and expensive) and image stabilisation (very useful for hand-holding telephoto lenses or shooting in low light).
A 500mm f4 lens has the kind of pulling power that’s often needed for bird photography. An extender boosts lens focal length by 1.4x or 2x. A 100mm macro lens allows you to get close-ups of insects without having to get too close, while a wideangle zoom lens (such as a 16-35mm) can be used for landscapes, unusual close-ups and for showing wildlife in its natural habitat.
Carrying it off
Don’t skimp on the camera bag. Saving a few pounds may prove to be a false economy. There are several excellent ranges for wildlife photography, including photo-backpacks, waist pouches and hybrid backpacks where you can store personal belongings above a dedicated camera compartment. An ideal bag should have comfortable shoulder straps and waist belt, ease-of access, good quality zips and seams as well as a slip-on waterproof cover. Steer clear of traditional shoulder bags – they’re cumbersome and pull you off balance.