Canon Versus Nikon: Which Is Best for Wildlife Photographers?

Wildlife photography is one of the more expensive kinds of photography, with some popular lenses costing over $10,000. For many photographers, trying to get close enough to the subject may require longer 600mm lenses, but when you consider the price for each of them, a little research can definitely go a long way. The Canon 600mm F/4L II is a little cheaper than the Nikon 600mm F4E; however, sometimes the price isn't a major factor when deciding which to buy.

In a recent video, Tony and Chelsea Northrup compare the "best" systems available from both Canon and Nikon to hopefully help you decide which is going to work best for you. Comparing the Canon 5DS R and the Nikon D850 with their respective 600mm lenses, they demonstrate results from each system. When it comes to sheer detail and clarity it seems both lenses, perform at a very high level and their differences are minimal at best. Northrup concludes that based on the lenses themselves, neither are going to disappoint and therefore it comes down to the camera bodies instead. The 5DS R does boast higher resolution; however, it lacks the better focusing system, dynamic range, and frames per second that the D850 has. Due to this, currently, it may seem that Nikon is the way to go for the best wildlife photography gear. Northrup does go on to discuss how both manufacturers tend to play cat and mouse and the update to the Canon 5DS R may address many of the missing features in the current model. 

Check out the video to see the full comparison. 

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Danette Chappell's picture

I'll be interested to see if Canon does address any missing features in their next update to the 5DS R. Good video!

Usman Dawood's picture

I have a strong feeling they'll just about enough and nothing more lol.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

The problem is with the comparison is in the conclusion. Neither the D850 nor the 5DSR are meant for wildlife purpose. Obviously it is great to have a high resolution image, but that is almost secondary compared to the precise AF and for some the fast frame rate. So instead of those cameras they should have picked the 1DXII and the D5.

Felix Wu's picture

And most importantly cleaner image in high/extreme high iso settings!

Spy Black's picture

The D850 certainly has an advantage however. It's been defined as the Swiss Army Knife of cameras, and for good reason. So like a jack of all trades, it's not a master of them all, but does most of them surprisingly well. AF and DR are just two areas it's very good at.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

Was it Matt Granger, who demonstrated back then that while the D850 has the same AF system as the D5, it does not focus that good as the flagship counterpart. Also the 7fps is lot less than 12...

Spy Black's picture

Possibly, but it's inconsequential. It's still better than the D810. Nikon isn't stupid, if you want their best, they want you to spring for the D5. They still give great value for the dollar down the entire line however.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

Depends on the photog's needs. In case the value is sharp, perfectly timed moment then the extra fps, and the better AF would worth the extra dollars...

Usman Dawood's picture

The D5 and 1DX II are amazing cameras however sometimes you just can't get close enough and that's why it seems many wildlife photographers use high-resolution cameras too. The D850 is a great balance between high resolution and speed.

Tamas Nemeth's picture

The balance depends on one's need. If someone is focused on high speed action, then maybe a D500 (if (s)he is a Nikon shooter), or a 7D mark II is still a better option, than the D850 or the 5DSR.
(I don't know too much about the Nikon stuff, as I rarely shoot 'em (and only for landscape), but I used the listed Canon cameras on my Sigma 500/4.5 and Canon 100-400II many times... :)

For example this one I'm sure I wouldn't been able to take with the 5DSR:

Stas F's picture

"Silly and dangerous. You can't see my fingers" lmao

Ralph Hightower's picture

I like a woman who can hold her own (600mm lens, liquor, etc.); okay, I'm hoping that readers will find that funny.
It looks like the Northrups are a divided family with Canon versus Nikon, much like football rivalries.
The Canon 5DS R is not geared for action photos. You won't find this camera on the sidelines of NFL games. I saw a video from Canon's Rudy Winston where he introduced the 5DS R and the shutter mechanism is dampened to allow for the higher resolution; that slows down the frames per second. My 5D III has a slightly higher frame rate, as does my Canon A-1 and New F-1 with their respective motor drives, all of which shoot at 6 FPS.

Spy Black's picture

She tells you you shouldn't hold a large lens by the camera body, but she does just that with the 200-500 LOL!

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Don't even think of doing it - the manufacturers put the clamp to attach these lenses on the barrel of the lens, for a reason. If you hang these lenses off the camera body (instead of the other way round), you can wreck the lens mount on the front of the camera body, and it may even cost you a new replacement camera body.

Spy Black's picture

Actually the mounts are designed to break off easily to minimize damage. Just make sure you catch the lens LOL! It's easy to replace the entire front mounting panel.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I wasn't speaking from experience - just made that comment because I read an article once where the author claimed he HAD had to replace his camera. No matter - your comment is far more sensible.

Spy Black's picture

May have been back in the film days when mounts were really strong, and if a lens warped the front, you were indeed screwed. Probably both the lens and cameras were badly damaged.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Don't hold it by the camera body lolol

Usman Dawood's picture

I made that mistake once when using the 85mm art on the Canon 100D, The creaking sound wasn't very pleasant lol.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Unfortunately, like several other 'togs I know, $15K glass is a bit beyond my reach. Much as I love bird photography, I mostly have to "capture" captive birds, using shorter (and less expensive) lenses.
Maybe that's why I love bird photography so much - the photos are rarely snaps by amateurs, they are almost always wonderful photographs taken with top quality gear by dedicated & really serious amateurs, or experienced professionals.
In this case - professionals. The sound track was a dead give away - to be able to tell us all that, and be down to the wire from one end of the clip to the other, they'd HAVE to be pros!
I think they're on the nail, saying the main advantage the D850 has is its video & buffer rating, but Canon will produce something that matches or beats it, soon enough.
The pixel stuff is starting to become more difficult. These cameras, and these lenses, are edging all the while closer & closer to "perfect". Once they hit that target, how can they possibly make yet another new camera body or lens that is "better"?
The same goes for post processing software - with a proviso, that "enough is enough" and there's no point to any more. To be asked (as I was recently) to pay for an "upgrade" which was nearly half the price of the software I'd only just purchased a couple of months earlier left me yawning. What new features? - why is it "better"? - why should I even think of spending all that money upgrading what I'd only just bought? - what's in it for me? All valid questions, since I don't have any trouble getting my photos to the standard I demand, in post processing.
Why I'm using your post, Usman, to make those comments is quite simple. Fstoppers caters for amateurs as well as pros. And while I can readily see why a pro "must" get the best possible gear, that is in part due to the fact pros produce very large prints for very demanding customers - and if they can't, the customers shop elsewhere. But out there amongst the amateurs, I am told that over 99% of all photos being taken around the world today never make it to a print - they just live, circulate and die in the wonderful world of computers, tablets, smartphones, and associated screens.
So - while a camera may have 36MP - or 42MP - or 46MP, the largest video screen on which you can view the photos is yet to be released (the release date is coming up shortly), and it has only 33MP. Oh - and BTW, it's an 88 inch screen, so there's no way you can use it to view your photos on your desk or in your lap on the train or bus, going to work.
Sigh! - and people don't understand why I print my photos!

Spy Black's picture

I'd love to see these lenses compared to something like the G2 Tamron 150-600. Let's see how much of a different there is there ay?

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I doubt whether you'll find a serious one - which would be a "must" for lense in this price range. I tried DxO, but they have no rating for two out of the three, so no comparison was possible.

Spy Black's picture

Well, I meant a comparison more like this where you see the images side-by-side.

Usman Dawood's picture

I think you make some very good and interesting points because you're right, how good is good enough. Personally, I think it's one of the great things about technology, there's no such thing as good enough in many areas. We consistently strive to make things better and what we consider to be limited today may just be another opportunity tomorrow.

In a few years, we may consider gigapixel sensors as the norm. We may even get consumer grade sensors with dynamic range beyond that of the human eye.

Also, I think you should definitely continue printing your photos :).

Anette Mossbacher's picture

Jean Pierre just short note on your sentence: "Once they hit that target, how can they possibly make yet another new camera body or lens that is "better".
Go over here in fstoppers to this article and get your en-lightning how the two "black brands" can make their new models even better:
So well written, it hits the nail on its head!
I really love your comment, so well said. Keep always in mind: It is NOT the violin which makes the music, it is the musician!! Means you can even take cracking images with a cheap camera, if all sits in composition...etc. You are the one doing creating the images and not the most expensive gear on the market!! Of course you need to have a certain quality on outcome for prints. I must say, FujiFilm X-T2 does a wonderful job :D
However, in these days people also love to have something heavy dangling around! :D

Have a fantastic evening
Ciao Anette

Murry Cave's picture

Not sure of the logic of using a Canon5DS R as a wildlife camera as that's not it's purpose. I've used one as a landscape camera but I've never contemplate using it for wildlife. I use 2x Canon 7DMkII and the Canon 1DX Mk II would be a good choice for those happy with full frame, and either of those would be a more logical choice. This test seems to burden the Canon lens with a big handicap

Corné van Oosterhout's picture

I.m.o. if you would like to compare such lenses, you should at least shoot from a tripod, especially with such camera's. Furthermore it is also a matter of taste, I used to shoot Canon for over 15 years when I switched to Nikon a few years ago. When I look in my archive I immediately what was shot with the Canon (5Dmk2) by the brownish color cast. I like the Nikon much more for the more natural colors. I shoot (small) kingfishers with just a 200-400mm most of the time wihtout cropping and i.m.o. a good preparation/hide/patience/subject knowledge can save you a fortune too :-)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

You just need to profile your colors once (ok, for perfect result - many times), so no brownish or blueish photos appear and you have nice start to tweak your photos.

Anette Mossbacher's picture

Interesting video about lenses and cameras. Yes, why not comparing, it's always great food out there, the two "big" brands. The bodies itself for wildlife...

As an Ex-Canon shooter I only can complain about the prices, the firmware updates, the weight, their CPS Service and few things more. The only firmware update you get sometimes for a body you own, which is maybe 1 year old, is minimal, the proper firmware update with a few new wishful 'thingies' you badly want, you always see in new bodies a few updates to make it interesting to drop old and buy new!

Of course, they need to be sold as well! More about that you will find in this article here in fstoppers:
It hits the nail on its head. Also, in my opinion, Jean Pierre Guaron wrote a great comment in this post!

I said Good-Bye to Canon, switched to FujiFilm X-T2 and must say, I never look back or regret that I sold all Canon gear I had. I drag all to the Arctic, as well down here in Africa to the desert, to South America, Asia you name it. What I noticed so far: When at the check in counter, at the airport, they ask most of the time to put my carry on on the weight scale! I did not have to say one single time with my FujiFilm gear: "Sorry I have heavy bricks in my bag, they are worth 30.000$!!" With my sold Canon gear, geeeeez what hassle sometimes.... pffffffffff

However, was nice to watch, nothing which would have convinced me to go back to either of these two brands!

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Usman, before I filed my copy of your article, I re-read it and was startled by the suggestion that the Canon 5DS R boasts higher resolution. Somewhere I'd seen an article on the D850, suggesting its sensor was somehow larger - so I checked and sure enough, the Canon has the larger sensor and the higher pixel count. So I then checked with DxO's tests, and they said the opposite. Here's the URL:
They gave the D850 sensor their first score of 100 - and the Canon on 86.
Now I am completely confused.
Not that I'm thinking of buying either - my D850 is only a couple of years old, I'm not a pro (just a serious amateur), I don't produce prints the size of a bed sheet, and it would be perfectly ridiculous to junk such a high quality camera when I've only taken about 10,000 shots with it.
Frankly, at this level, I think the greatest "leveller" is in the quality of the glass you attach to the lens mount - and in the person holding the camera body. Most of the top end cameras will produce results with remarkably similar quality, except for variables in those two areas.
Unless you want more detail in the highlights - then you need to go MF and this discussion becomes irrelevant. But I shudder to think what sort of lens you'd need on an MF cam to go on a wildlife shoot - 900mm? - does it come with porters, to help you carry it?

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