What Features I look for in my Camera Equipment as a Wildlife Photographer

People ask me or I see posted on photography blogs “What camera and lens should I buy”? For some, the most obvious answer is whatever you can afford. However that may not be the best answer. Many people want to become a wildlife photographer for under a thousand dollars. If you talk to a wildlife photographer who made it big they will tell you they have thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. This is a dilemma that I also have struggled with over the years on my quest to capture quality photographs of wildlife, especially birds.

I have bought and sold more equipment than I would like to admit. I would buy a camera and or lens, then not like how it functioned. I would have problems getting a sharp picture, so I would sell it and take a loss and spend more money on a more expensive camera or lens and try that, the cycle would go on and on. I always wonder how much money I would have saved if I could have bought what I have now from the beginning (and not went through all of that). I have talked to a lot of other photographers throughout the years who have been down this same road.

On the other hand, lots of things have changed since I bought my first digital camera and lens, the technology is better than ever. However, I have learned a bunch since I first purchased my equipment and I want share with you what I like about the equipment I have now and why it is important to my photography. Maybe it will help you make better choices than I did with my first equipment purchase.

I do want to point out that I understand how much a person can afford to spend on equipment always dictates what a person buys. I’m just going to point out what features are important to me at this point in my photography. My hope is it will help you make better choices and save you from some of the hardship that I went through.

The most important thing to remember is that each person has to determine the type of photography they want to do. If you want to become a good wildlife photographer, then the cost may be higher than someone who wants to be a landscape photographer. Secondly, what you want to do with the pictures will define the quality of pictures you will need to produce. If you are happy with your photographs and they meet your needs, then that is all that matters.

My current cameras are (or were) considered professional cameras and I prefer these more expensive cameras because of the simplistic controls and features they have.

First, I am a Canon photographer now even though I started out with Nikon. I own two cameras, Canon EOS 1D Mark III (10.1 Megapixels) and the 1D Mark IV (16.1 megapixel). The Mark III, I bought used and the Mark IV was purchased new just before they quit producing them. I currently use the newer 1D mark IV as my primary camera since it is new.  The following is what I look for now when I decide to make a new investment in camera equipment.

 

About My Camera Setting

 

When shooting wildlife I set my cameras on aperture priority and meter the amount of light the sensor takes in based on many factors. This includes how much natural light is available on the subject, use of a flash, Shutter speed I need, the background, and or the color of the subject. All of the metering controls are at my thumb wheel and I can make changes quickly. The key is to allow as much light in without burning out your subject or sometimes even your background.

My ISO is usually set between 800 and 1000 when taking pictures of wildlife. This gives me more shutter speed to capture flight pictures and in low light situations like a forest canopy using a flash. If I’m taking flower pictures and landscapes with a tripod then I may lower the ISO.

 

Camera control consistencies

 

Since I spend the time and money to travel to get many of my photographs I always have two cameras so if one quits I have a backup. The problem with that in the past was, my second cameras was always less expensive than my prime camera and the controls were always a little different.

With my current two cameras the basic controls work the same, so no matter which camera I pick up I will have a smooth transition and not have to fumble because they work differently. This can be the difference of getting a good quality shot or not when seconds count.

Frames per second

 

With the 1D Mark IV, I get 10 frames per second which I believe is important when capturing birds. This is why, when a bird lands on a branch for only one or two seconds and it looks in my direction for maybe two or three frames, I should get at least one good picture (if everything else is working correctly). This has helped my photography by leaps and bounds especially in the forest with leaf canopy and slower shutter speeds.

Crop factor

 

I prefer a camera with a sensor that gives me a crop factor. Both my cameras have a 1.3 crop factor which makes my 600 mm lens more like a 780 mm. When taking pictures of small birds and other small creatures this is helpful. I’m not too concerned with not having a full frame camera for taking landscape pictures, I just take several overlapping portraits of the landscape and stitch them together. To learn more about how a crop factor works do a search on the web.

 

Lenses

 

When choosing a lens, think about what your overall goal is and where you want to end up. If you just want to take landscapes and portraits then spend your money on a quality lens. The camera and other features are not as important as the lens. If you want to do a wide range of photography then buy a prime lens that will be the most versatile. Then save your money and buy other lenses you want a little at a time. Besides by the time you save the money for your next lens you could change your mind or your goal. I now own a 24-70 mm, 70-200, 100-400 zoom, and a 600mm.  When I changed from Nikon to Canon, I bought the 600mm first since I knew I wanted to photograph birds. I talked to other photographers before I purchased to see what they used and why they use it.

You can also buy a 1.4 extender to help further your reach. I almost always have my 1.4 extender attached to my 600mm lens which makes it an 840 mm before the crop factor.

Whatever you decide, try to shorten your distance to where you are now and where you want to go. This will save you money in the long run.

 

Micro Adjustment

 

This is probably the most important tool that was developed in a camera. In the past, I had problems getting crisp pictures no matter how much time and or light I had on a subject. I would have to take lots of pictures of one subject and still I might only get one that I considered good. I was always disappointed by the quality of many of my pictures.

A few years ago Canon started producing some cameras that have this micro-adjustment and wow! what a difference. Instead of having one out of ten photographs maybe sharp I can get between eight or nine out of ten to be sharp in plenty of light. In lower light situations the percentage is lower, especially with birds in a canopy situation mainly because of the slower shutter speeds and movement on the birds part but with the 10 frames per second I get with my 1D Mark IV and my lenses being adjusted to the camera I can now get good quality pictures in the forest too.

Thanks to micro adjustment even if I only have time for two frames on a bird I have a better chance that at least one of them will be sharp. I hope they continue to offer this option in their new cameras because I would not spend that much money on a camera and not be able to make my own adjustments.

If you are not satisfied with your pictures I would bet this is your problem. Last year a buddy bought a used 600 mm and we tested it and we could not get a good quality picture until we did the micro adjustments to all of his lenses and now his pictures are great. If I had to guess almost every camera and lens needs some adjustment, so keep that in mind when spending money on camera equipment.

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