The Audubon Guide to Cameras
When it comes to nature photography, your equipment is everything. We give you the keys to getting that money shot.
A quality pair of binoculars or a spotting scope will give you a closer view of an animal in the wild, but you can’t share it with your friends back home. A good camera and lens combination, on the other hand, will help make your memories last forever, whether you’re observing alligators in a bayou or watching condors from a mountaintop.
Even an entry-level digital camera can produce a great image (at least when there is a lot of light). More expensive models add features like faster focusing, superior image quality in low light, better metering, and weatherproofing. (A non-weatherized digital camera in a downpour quickly becomes a very expensive paperweight.)
As with spotting scopes and binoculars, it’s the lens that makes or breaks an image, and that’s why most advanced shooters and pros opt for single lens reflex (or SLR) cameras. The ability to switch lenses on an SLR means that it’s possible to alter the way a scene is captured as conditions or subjects change. The lens needed to photograph a caterpillar from a few inches away is different from one designed to get the shot of a distant eagle perched in a treetop.
That’s not to say there’s no place in nature photography for a “compact digital” model (often called a point-and-shoot camera). Their light weight and transportability make them the perfect companion for the backpacker or camper, and most pros carry one as a backup.
Click on the thumbnail images below for a downloadable PDF of the camera guide.
Here’s a sampling of tried-and-true gear that will virtually guarantee you both appreciate nature and document it.
Surveying the Field
There are three main categories of cameras—SLR, compact, and hybrid—though these are not official designations like “mid-sized” or “sedan” are for cars. The SLR camera evolved from the film camera, so the size and shape still evoke a “traditional” feel. Yet inside these are marvels of technology. Able to capture multiple frames per second while auto-metering, autofocusing, and (on some models) performing face detection, these cameras are incredibly sophisticated.
Even an entry-level digital SLR can create stunning photos. As cameras move up the price scale, they largely offer superior performance in low light, more frames per second (sometimes), a larger resolution sensor (see below), more accurate and faster autofocus, metering that is better able to decipher a complicated mix of lighting, enhanced waterproofing, and more sophisticated flash controls.
The drawback to SLR cameras is that they can be big and cumbersome, and their myriad buttons, dials, and switches may be confusing to novice photographers. (Heck, sometimes the interfaces on new cameras even confuse me, and I’ve been reviewing them for 20 years.)
A compact digital is often called a point and shoot (after the film-based compact cameras that offered almost no manual controls—you had to just “point and shoot” to take a photo). The term compact digital is more accurate because some of these small cameras are incredibly feature-rich, offering a full array of manual and auto controls. As a result, they’re landing in the hands of more and more photographers.
The downside of compact digital cameras is that many models produce inferior images (especially in low light) because their components are optimized for size rather than quality. Low-end models have slow and sluggish autofocus and inaccurate metering, while even the higher-end models are forever coupled to the lenses integrated in the small chassis.
A new category of “compact” digital camera arrived recently, thanks to a cutting-edge standard promoted by Olympus. These cameras pair the size of the largest all-in-one compact digitals with interchangeable lenses and manual controls, effectively making them miniature SLRs.
The awkward combination of a small body and a larger, nonremovable zoom lens makes the hybrid digital the camera world’s platypus. Marketed to the photographer who wants more image control than is available with most compact digital cameras without the large size of a standard SLR, hybrid cameras instead inherit the deficiencies of both platforms. As a result, we don’t offer any hybrids among our recommendations.
When taking nature photographs you want a camera with sufficient enough resolution to capture all of your subjects’ details. Elements like the individual feathers on a parrot or the whiskers on a jackrabbit can bring an image to life.
A digital camera’s resolution, measured in millions of pixels (or megapixels), is an often- misunderstood and overmarketed specification. It would seem that more pixels would equal a higher-quality image; in fact, that’s not always the case. At a certain point, increasing pixels can actually decrease an image’s caliber, especially in low light.
The problem: To bump up resolution, the manufacturers add more pixels to the camera’s sensor, which means that the pixels have to get smaller and/or crowd closer together. A smaller pixel doesn’t detect light as well as a larger one, and pixels that are too close can accidentally pick up their neighbors’ electrical signals and report them as light coming in. The result is a “noisy” photo that exhibits splotch patterns of pixels in a low-light area.
Digital camera sensors generally come in one of three sizes. The “full-frame” sensors found in pro and advanced amateur cameras are the same size as a piece of 35mm film. Entry-level and hobbyist SLR cameras use the slightly smaller APS-sized sensor based on a film format that was introduced with the advent of digital photography. Compact digital cameras use sensors that are smaller than both.
After a period in which companies competed to come out with increasingly higher-resolution cameras each year, they have now started to focus on features and performance instead. The takeaway to all this is that before you buy, look at resolution numbers, and don’t jump to new models simply because they have more megapixels. Today’s digitals range from around 10 to 24 megapixels; a camera with 12 to 14 megapixels should produce a quality image that won’t suffer too much in low light.
The excellent website dpreview.com does in-depth reviews of just about every digital camera ever released, including sample images and interpretations of the cameras’ abilities.
Another consideration arising from the use of different-sized sensors in varying camera models is focal length magnification, a term that describes how a lens behaves when attached to cameras with sensors of different sizes than the lenses for which they were designed.
Skipping a physics lesson, here is the issue in a nutshell. Since digital cameras descend from film cameras, their lenses were developed to line up with a piece of 35mm film. When one of these lenses is attached to a camera with an APS-sized sensor, the smaller imaging area has the effect of magnifying the image, because it’s gathering light only from a condensed part of the lens.
Camera companies make lenses that are designed for full-frame sensors or the smaller APS-sized sensors. A full-frame lens will work on an APS-sized sensor, but not the other way around. Canon, Nikon, Sony, and others make lenses for both full-frame cameras and APS-sized models. There are different names for each of these systems. For example, Canon lists its lenses as they would function on a 35mm-sensor camera. An 85mm lens is 85mm on the full-frame Canon 5D Mark II. On the new 60D, which has a 1.6x multiplier effect, it behaves like a 136mm lens.
Nikon, on the other hand, calls any full-frame system an “FX system” and any APS-based camera a “DX.” The FX lens behaves normally on FX systems (85mm is 85mm) but has to be multiplied if placed on a DX camera. Conversely, a DX lens behaves as listed on a DX camera, while it won’t work on an FX camera.
For nature and wildlife shooters, there are a number of must-have lenses. Each of these is listed in its actual focal length (in other words, its 35mm equivalent).
Landscape The wider the better for the landscape photographer, so lenses ranging from 14mm to about 35mm are essential. On the Canon platform that means something like the 16mm–35mm f/2.8, and for Nikon cameras, the 14–24mm f/2.8.
Portrait Many nature photographers overlook the benefit of having what’s called a “standard” lens that falls somewhere between 35mm and 50mm. These lenses are extremely versatile, small, and lightweight. I’ve spent many a happy day wandering a botanical garden with nothing more than a 50mm f/1.2 lens.
Telephoto Most beginner wildlife photographers carry lenses that reach out to around 200mm, and that can be sufficient for shooting animals in close proximity—think safari or zoo. Pro wildlife photographers carry lenses much longer, from 200mm to 600mm and more. A subject really doesn’t look impressive unless it’s filling the frame, and for that you need either a very close subject or a very long lens.
Macro and Close-up Many people confuse close-up lenses and macro lenses. A close-up lens is a zoom for small objects. It allows you to focus on tiny items (bugs, flowers, etc.) without filling the frame with them. A macro lens requires you to get very close to your subjects; at the same time it presents them at a 1:1 ratio or greater, reproducing or enhancing their actual size and detail.
The sensors in digital cameras are the same design as those in videocameras (by contrast, professional video-cameras use three sensors, while digital cameras use a single one). A few years ago camera companies started to capitalize on this in order to enable HD video recording.
The ability to instantly switch between still image recording and video recording is phenomenal. The latest advances in digital SLRs seem to be concentrated on their video abilities. This is especially true in full-frame SLRs, where the sensors are actually larger than those in all but the most expensive videocameras, enabling photographers to shoot with a “look” that’s much more like motion picture footage than a kid’s birthday party video. When an episode of the TV show House was shot entirely on the Canon 5D Mark II, it signaled the true arrival of digital video in SLR cameras.
A Few Recommendations
While it’s almost impossible to buy a “bad” camera these days, the cameras listed here are either tried-and-true models or the newest versions of cameras already favored by photographers. Prices are given at average retail price.
Professional ($2,500 to $7,000)
These cameras are used by the professionals, and they’re designed to survive the most demanding environments and shooting conditions, from Antarctica to Zambia.
- Canon 1D Mark IV $5,000
- Nikon D3S $5,200
- Sony DSLR-A900 $2,700
- Leica M9 $7,000
Advanced Amateur ($1,400 to $2,500)
If you want to capture an image like a pro would, these will do the trick, even if they don’t do it as fast or with the same cachet as the higher-end models. (In fact, most of the people who show up to classes I’ve taught carrying the top-of-the-line models have bought them more for their professional appearance than for their specific features.) And with price tags of less than $2,500, they’re not just lighter in the camera bag, they’re lighter on the wallet, too.
- Nikon D700 $2,400 (Nikon fans everywhere are hoping to see a revamped D700 with new video features soon.)
- Canon 7D $1,520
Enthusiast ($400 to $1,200)
If you want to spend less than a couple thousand dollars on a camera without sacrificing a killer shot and awesome features, these models deliver.
- Nikon D3100 $700
- Canon 60D $1,100
- Olympus E-620 $600
- Canon EOS Rebel T2i $900
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 $700
Compact Cameras ($400 to $1,000)
Most compact digital cameras fail to provide enough manual control for the serious photographer, but these models make the grade. The recently released Micro 4/3 standard of the Olympus PEN (and other similar cameras) creates a new category: the super-small camera with interchangeable lenses.
- Olympus E-P1 $500
- Canon Powershot G11 $450
- Leica D-LUX 4 $800
David Schloss is the director of the Mac Create Network and the Aperture Users Network, as well as a professional photographer, writer, editor, and educator specializing in adventure sports, travel, and lifestyle.
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