Tip #83: Tools (Part #1: Camera for a Nature Photographer)

Misty Morning (Cygnus buccinator) - Minnesota
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS

The Camara
Like many experienced photographers, I have become the Google™ search engine for all things photography. When my non-photog colleagues, friends and family solicit input prior to making their purchase, I always respond with the same two questions:
  • What are your goals?
  • How much can you spend?
As a reader of this blog, I’ll assume that your photographic goals include travel and nature. While I make no assumptions about your budget, I’d like to suggest 5 key features to consider prior to making your purchase. The absence of one or more feature should not inhibit the pursuit of your art, however I have found that each of my suggestions have been invaluable in my own photography. 
Statue (Cygnus buccinator) - Minnesota
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS
First and foremost, I am brand agnostic. I am not a “fanboy” for any one manufacturer and often ponder a move between systems. Were it not for my costly investment in expensive optics, it is likely that I would have switched brands many times throughout the past 25 years. Furthermore, my own brand complacency has facilitated a type of mechanical memory. Years of use with the same basic cameras now make the movement of switches and dials automatic, and allows me to capture images that I would have otherwise lost. 
Each of the features I suggest can be found in a variety of Canon, Nikon, and Sony cameras. Please note, I have purposely omitted Fuji, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic and Pentax from my list. While each of these manufacturers produce compelling cameras at a variety of price points, they do not support the needs of wildlife photographers. If you plan to restrict yourself to landscape, macro or travel, then all of the major manufacturers will meet your needs. However, if you plan to photograph wildlife and hope to acquire a long fast telephoto lens in the future, then it would be best for you to stick with Canon, Nikon or Sony. 
Take Off (Cygnus buccinator) - Minnesota
Canon 7D + Canon 300mm f2.8L IS
Five Essential Features in a Camera for the Nature Generalist:
Single Lens Reflex (SLR)
  • Nikon and Canon produce single lens reflex cameras with a reflex mirror that allows you to see the image as the lens “sees” it. Light traveling through the lens is reflected to the photographer via a reflex mirror and glass prism. This traditional design enables you to see how the light is focused and magnified by your optics. In contrast to Nikon and Canon, Sony makes SLR-like cameras have an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Light traveling through the lens strikes a sensor, producing an electronic image that is viewed through an eyepiece. The new EVF technology facilitates fast autofocus and high frame rates, but the need to electronically refresh the image produces a slight delay between what you see and reality. While the Sony cameras are fast and well suited for wildlife subjects, I have not adapted to the “TV-type” viewing experience. 
Complete System Approach
  • Purchase a camera that is supported by a broad system of lenses and flashes. While you may not want or be able to afford a 500mm f4 lens today, you may find that this is an essential focal length the future. Good cameras are supported by good systems that include fisheye lenses, fast zooms, ultra-telephoto optics, and tools for macro photography. Before selecting your camera, make certain that you check out the supporting cast.
Four or more frames per second (fps)
  • Wildlife moves fast and you will want to capture the decisive moment, flit of a wing, or strike of a predator. I have found that four frames per second will produce a burst that is just fast enough to nail the unpredictable moment. When considering the frame rate, also consider the size of the camera’s buffer. There is no point in buying a camera that can shoot 10 frames per second when the buffer can only hold 20 pictures... if you’ve made 20 shots in two seconds and must wait a minute for the buffer to clear, then you might as well be shooting at 1 frame per second!
Live View
  • When LiveView was initially introduced, I could not predict how it might influence my photography. The Canon 1D mark iii was my first body with LiveView. Lacking the ability to magnify the electronic image, I errantly disregarded this feature as little more than a novelty. Lack of foresight now makes me seem ignorant, as the current iteration of cameras include LiveView technologies that I could not imagine. When using LiveView an electronic image is projected on your LCD screen. This “Live” scene allows you to magnify the image ten times (10x) and permits accurate manual focus. Today, I use LiveView for 90% of my landscape and macro subjects. The ability to magnify the image, focus carefully and study the whole composition, helps me to “slow time” and produce more compelling images.
Mirror Lock Up
  • I have written about mirror lock-up on multiple occasions in this blog. To me, using this feature is the simplest way to maximize the quality of your optics. By manually moving the reflex mirror into the up position, you are free to trigger the shutter without introducing additional vibration. When accompanied with a tripod and cable release, it is easy to make vibration-free images with 30 second or longer exposures. Mirror lock-up is not a feature that you will find in any current (2012) Sony camera. This feature is not necessary because Sony uses a partially translucent mirror that allows light to travel through the lens and “reflex” mirror. As a result, there is no need for the mirror to move and thus no additional vibration... Advantage Sony!
(5 + 1) Weather Sealing
  • I know I said 5 key features, but I feel compelled to add one more to your wish list. A weather sealed camera will allow you to be less inhibited with your gear. Nature happens in the rain, snow, heat and cold. If fear of failure or damage inhibits your pursuit, then add weather sealing to your must-have list. I have found that even the least expensive SLR’s can survive some pretty rough weather. Try not to treat your gear as if it were something precious. See it for what it is... a conduit for sharing your vision.

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