The New Frontier of Wildlife Photography

The New Frontier of Wildlife Photography

Once it was a privileged genre occupied by wealthy hobbyists and paid professionals with science degrees. Now, wildlife photography is more accessible and inexpensive than ever.

Inexpensive Telephoto Lenses

They’re not the fastest nor the sharpest nor the most rugged, but they get people in the door to experience wildlife photography firsthand. It creates the spark. Seeing an animal that you don’t normally get to see close up through the viewfinder of a camera, and then capturing that moment can quite literally be a life-changing event for some. After that first time, you just want to go out and do it again and again.

Many of the super-telephoto lenses that exist today — the 100-400s, 150-600s, and now even some primes — are finally economical and can feed that feeling without breaking the bank. Down the line, perhaps years later and after a great deal of saving up, these photographers will advance to something top of the line. Before, that kind of dedication towards ownership of a $5,000–$12,000 lens may have never been tested without this bridge in between.

Camera Advacements

Within the past few years especially, better and better camera specs for wildlife photography are making their way to non-flagship models. Image sensors are growing in megapixels while also getting better at handling high ISOs and low light shooting. The new dynamic range capabilities means less clipping and greater depth for the extreme exposure difference often seen with white feathers or fur against dark body parts or backgrounds. Continuous shooting is faster than ever with deeper buffers to capture all the fleeting action. Even animal detection for autofocus is becoming a more popular feature to ensure more accurate focus and more creative compositions. You don’t need the best gear in the world to make high-quality wildlife images anymore.

Yesterday’s Pro Gear for Affordable Prices

The above sections talk about new advancements in the camera industry for budget-conscious photographers, but that’s not the only route. You actually can buy flagship gear on a budget. It’s just not this year’s flagship gear.

The difference between yesterday’s flagship cameras and today’s brand new budget cameras is a little bit of a mixed bag. On one side, the image quality is usually the same or better with the newer cameras. On the other hand, the core principals and needs in which each were developed are completely different, and I personally feel that yesterday’s pro cameras are almost always going to be a better photography experience than today’s non-flagship cameras. For that reason, consider buying older pro cameras if you can find them at the right price in good condition (I highly recommend the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV which can be found for around $600-$800).

The same idea goes for lenses, however note that good lenses will retain their value for far longer than cameras. For example, the Canon 500mm f/4 IS USM is an awesome lens that came out in 1999 and still costs around $3,000 on the used market. It’s going to be more expensive than the new lenses I talked about above, but it’s also a flagship lens of days past and has the sharpness, build quality, and speed to back that up even today.

YouTube University and Instagram

Even if you did own the latest and greatest wildlife photography gear, it won’t mean a thing if you don’t have the field skills to use it. So as fun as it is to talk about the inclusiveness that today’s camera gear market offers, we also need to talk about these other serious advancements for wildlife photography.

First, YouTube has changed the way we learn photography skills. We can now search out and watch free tutorials on just about everything, photography related or not. The trial-and-error process has been squashed, and beginners accepting this assistance can become nearly experts in no time if there’s the desire.

Second, there’s the Instagram push. Whether you like it or not, Instagram is the one place that almost every photographer shares images. With that, there’s direct access to so many incredible photos being shared every single day, not to mention many professionals that share their behind-the-scenes methods that go into a shot. It’s overwhelming, but to a point it’s also helpful in both learning how to shoot as well as fueling improvement of your own work just to be able to hang with it all. That feeling of wanting to prove yourself can push you to work harder with what you have, learning a lot in the process.

If the idea of being a wildlife photographer took a backseat years ago for more practical endeaveours, I highly suggest taking another look at the gear and resources available today.

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JR Kelsey's picture

The usual pro Canon propaganda.....

Leo McKillop's picture

He shoots Sony

Tom Reichner's picture

What Canon propaganda? Ryan does not use Canon gear ...... at all. He just used Canon as an example of old, used gear that can be had for dimes on the dollar.

John Xantoro's picture

Let's be real: How many photos of birds with blown-out backgrounds does the world need?

Jay Turner's picture

Better those than yet more lame ‘street photography’ B&Ws of randos just standing around/walking/sitting.

Tom Reichner's picture

A lot more. There are still many species that have not been captured in all of their behaviors, and there are a lot of bird species / plant species relationships that have not been properly captured yet. And of course these behavioral and environmental images look best when the backgrounds are free of any distractions. When it comes to birds, there is still so much to be captured that has not been captured yet ..... so very much!

Fristen Lasten's picture

As many as I can get my eyes on.

Michael Krueger's picture

So your suggesting someone shouldn't do something they enjoy because others have done it?

N A's picture

Trillions. The more people outside taking photos of birds, landscapes & wildlife, the less people inside contributing to the toxic social media wasteland.

Remember our parents telling to go play outside? Well, adults, get your camera and go play outside. Pick up a field guide and you might learn a thing or two about plants, birds, insects and animals.

One of the great things about bird photography is there are a couple of forums that are genuinely welcoming and encourage sharing. You don't need a $10k lens to take great bird photos. Use whatever you got. Just get out there and do it.

Michael Krueger's picture

I'm sure some of the pros here will laugh at me but right now my Lumix DC-ZS70 is my favorite camera for wild life photography. Cost me $250, fits in my pocket while hiking, has a 720mm equivalent focal length, RAW capture, tilt screen, EVF(tiny but still useful at times), AF is better than I expected, and it's got a control ring around the lens that allows for easy functionality like adjusting shutter/aperture or can be used for manual focus.

Image quality won't match my D750, but I don't have a FF lens with reach beyond 200mm and the D750 is far less enjoyable to hike state parks with. I hiked 12 miles a couple weeks ago, don't care to do that with a DSLR and multiple lenses on my back.

Malcolm Wright's picture

I had a choice between adding a 150-600mm lens to my Canon kit for around £800-£900 or getting an Olympus OMD E-M10 kit with 2 lenses plus a 100-300mm zoom (FF equivalent 200-600mm) for the same money.
Thr Olympus won due to weight. Then I discovered it has an inbuilt 2x teleconverter, happy days.

Cart Shay's picture

My first camera was a Lumix FZ300 and I only remember it as amazing for wildlife. It was a 24-600mm at F2.8 throughout the range and I could photograph whatever I wanted however I wanted. It was dangerous to go above ISO 200, but the stabilization was so good it didn't matter. The only real issue was the softness when photographing subjects a dozen yards or so away.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

For birds a compelling reason to go APS-C is equivalent reach.
For beginners willing to invest in tool mastery a cheap and powerful entry rig is a 2nd hand Nikon D500 & 200-500mm lens. There is a Canon equivalent.
This gives you up to 750mm FE which helps turn that distant bird into a potential picture.

stuartcarver's picture

The D7500 works pretty much the same as the D500 and is even cheaper too, obviously budget not being an issue the D500 is the better all round option though.

Jay Turner's picture

I thought this too and bought a d7500 for wildlife. Few weeks later I sold it and got a D500. It’s much better suited due to the AF alone.

stuartcarver's picture

That’s a fair point but you can get a great condition used D7500 for about £500 so it’s definitely an option for those on a budget. D500 is amazing though.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

Birds in flight requires the best AF available. Saving money loses shots.

Márcio Rodrigues's picture

I agree with Ziggy Stardust. I would go with a APS-C camera as a starting point. If you can afford something like a 500mm F4 (used) go for it and then go full frame but if you can't then go APS-C. I've only used canon so ill limit myself to that.
A very good choice to start with would be a 7dMKII with a canon 300F4+1.4TC, 400 F5.6 (no image stablization) or 100-400 MKII if you can afford that.
If you also want to do macro (as i do) then i would point towards 80d or the 90d due to the tilt screen that is so useful when shooting macro on odd angles using a tripod.
Can't help with nikon or sony, used once a nikon D500 and loved the camera.
To sum up (canon only):

Used camera:
7DMKII or 80D, depending on your budget and other uses. The image quality on the 80D is better and it has the usefull (for macro) tilting screen. The 7d is more rugged, faster and has better autofocus for birds in flight.

300 F4+1.4 TC (II or III)
400 F5.6

Again, if you like macro then the Canon 100-400 II, although not technically macro is the butterfly master lens with its close focus.

You can also consider the 90D if you want a new camera (MFG warranty and all) or can't get a used camera on a decent price. Its a big improvement over the 80d.

If you want full frame then get something that can focus at F8 like the 5dIV and a 100-400 II +TC.

What i don't recomend:
100-400 MKI - its a good lens but same price as the 300 F4 and more expensive than the 400 F5.6 and those are way sharper.
Sigma, Tamron 100-600 if you want to do birds in flight. If not they are great. (i know ill get flak for this. I also know so many good Photographers who can get incredible images of birds in flight with tem but, i think they are too slow to focus compared to the other options listed. They are fine.
Full frame, you will miss the reach of the APSC combo. Of course, if you can afford (and carry) a used 500 F4 or 300 2.8 +TC then go for it, its the best money can buy.

Finally, the most important:
Consider leaving some of your budget to go to somewhere birds are plentiful, you won't regret that decision.