The affordability of computers and a plethora of mobile devices along with the growing use of email and the internet for communication and dissemination of images has led to a boom in home, educational and professional use of digital cameras. Nonetheless, for serious nature photographers, this is terrific because our choices have expanded, and along with competition between manufacturers, and advances in technology, prices have dropped providing us all with a much more affordable range of choices.
My experience with the DSLR camera makes and models over fifty-five years is really quite limited, especially considering the hundreds of makes and models that are available. What I can speak to with some authority, however, is choosing cameras based on ‘capture technique’ and ‘digital file application’, which are the only two factors that should govern make and model selection.
Most manufacturer’s target one or more markets, with each model segment targeting buyer needs and budgets; pretty much as most products from fridges to motor cars and marketed. Understandably the more sophisticated the features – and to a certain extent how ‘sexy’ the brand is – the higher the price. Popular features include automation, frames rates, multiple setting options, and pixel size and many other features. During the 50 years and more I have made pictures I have either owned or used over 30 different makes and models. I continuously use the results on my publishing work and many are on this website. It is only when I am either in the field confronted with choosing a capture technique and or in the processing phase, that the actual brand and its features matter. In the digital age, especially with the software’s available for processing, for most people the brand and model is far less relevant; especially when you consider the greater majority of images made are used online if indeed they are used at all!
It is natural to assume that the more you pay for a camera, the better the pictures will be. This is not the case. People take pictures, cameras do not. Higher-priced cameras may have extra features that offer a wide range of creative alternatives. However, a simple approach to nature photography may be just as effective. I would advise amateurs starting out, or anyone wishing to upgrade, to assess their favoured ‘capture techniques’ and favoured ‘file applications’ ; when making choices based on longer term creative objectives.
Links to choosing a DSLR camera based on ‘capture techniques’ and ‘file applications’
Remember that fear of technology is nothing more than a mind story, a story that you tell yourself. You may tell yourself you cannot afford the money, or you have not got the ability to learn new technologies. Today, primary school children are creating and publishing web pages that include text, photographs and art, and streaming digital video sequences on school websites. I have had children on my workshops as young as seven doing layered montages in photoshop! Ok, I can hear you say that “The kids of today have grown up with technology, it was different my day”. That may be true, but consider that maybe kids don’t apply ‘mind stories’ quite as much as we adults. They do not care about costs, they have mum and dad to worry about that. Having no history they also have far less, if not no fear at all, of trying new things. I have witnessed this so often as I move from photo classes for kids, across to adults.
You can forgive yourself for walking into a camera store, or connecting with an online store, and feeling overwhelmed. “Just where do I start!” The choice can be overwhelming, even when you know what you want. So where do you turn for advice? Do you trust the store owner, or search the internet, or wade through the thousands of reviews in camera magazines about brands, models, lenses, and accessories? Just what is the best formulae for making the right decision? Well, I am working on helping, I want you out there promoting nature not feeling overwhelmed with camera and lenses choices and feeling drowned with technological bombardment.
Let us proceed to try and unravel what is right for you …
First step in making a decision as to what brand and model of a camera we want, is to establish the type of camera you need to achieve your goals . Here we need to first establish that we are buying a DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex camera) and not a rangefinder or compact style camera. The reason for buying a DSLR is that we want to be able to see through the lens exactly what our composition, focus (sharpness) is before we make our picture. More importantly, we want to take control of the outcomes and not let the camera make our decisions for us. This does not mean that range finder style cameras cannot be used in certain situations, I used the Mamiya rangefinder medium format film cameras for years to great effect, but only on scenes, not close ups and action wildlife photography where focus and composition need fine turning. Those were the film days, today we have so much more we can achieve with digital cameras.
Above: If you want to shoot RAW files (as opposed to compressed JPEGS processed by the camera), you will also be a need additional funds and skills to purchase a computer, back up hard drives and software to process your images. You will also need to develop a whole new set of skills. Don’t let that put you off, these challenges are easily overcome and will bring you rewards way beyond your comprehension. Nonetheless, you do not have to start with this equipment and the skills to drive it, JPEGS processed by the camera can be fine while you bed in your new found passion. Even better if you still want to shoot JPEGS and have no computer, you may consider capturing a JPEG and a RAW file at the same time, most cameras enable this feature.
Another element that is important to consider when making your decision is how far you want to take the processing of your digital files. While most models and brands can be set up in the camera’s menu to process the digital files internally, as JPEGS , if you wish to develop your own post-production skill, therefore enabling far greater creative control, then some consideration will be needed when making your decision on make and model of camera. This is simple. Ask this question, will the brand and model produce raw unprocessed files; appreciating that RAW files require more file space on the memory card. RAW file photography is another subject, however, I would say that if you are serious about your nature photography then shooting in camera RAW is essential. You need not start immediately, higher end camera models enable you to shoot RAW on one memory card and JPEG on another. So, it is possible, to store the RAW files until you are ready for them. I am constantly going back to RAW images I took years ago and processing them.
For the greater majority of photographers file types and sizes are rarely considered. However, if you wish to develop as a creative digital nature photographer and fully explore this world then it is essential that you make considerations that will enable your to develop creatively well into the future. If you make failed today that have ‘light and dark’ (dynamic range) and sharp and soft’ elements fully considered at capture, and that those files are made in RAW non-destructive file formats then these files will remain ‘explorable’ way, way into the future.
Pointers to assist in making a camera choice right for you
Armed with answers to these questions, you will still need to exercise self-control when you go to the camera store. Just because friends have cameras with all the bells and whistles does not mean you have to follow suit. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted outside your plan.
- How much money can I afford to spend? You should not sell the family home, although I know a highly successful photographer who did! Remember you may also need to upgrade computers, hard drives, and other technology.
- What are the capture techniques that I like to make? Examples are seen on the following pages. Do you wish to photograph stationary subjects—landscapes, flowers, and still life subjects—or high action—birds in flight or animal behaviour; also remember to take weight and portability into account. Maybe you even wish to take your camera underwater, in which case you will need to check if an underwater housing is available for the make and model of camera you have selected before you buy.
- What do you wish to do with the photographs that you take? Do you want to use them commercially, where they may be enlarged and cropped for publications, or share them with friends online where only low-resolution files would be used? Remember what you consider today may not be the case in the future, in fact, it rarely is. The world of photo storytelling is changing daily.
- Most importantly, how would you rate yourself as someone with the perseverance to take on technological challenge along with the physical and intellectual challenges of nature photography in general? There are many folks who go and invest thousands in a camera kit and then lose interest, only to find that the resale value is considerably less than they originally paid. Remember also that digital capture can require investment in post production equipment and software. Are you prepared for the further investment of your money and time?
- Finally, can I make a long-term plan? Or should I keep my investment minimal and see how I go, upgrading further down the track? When I started out I knew I was hooked for life so I made every effort to buy the best cameras and especially the highest quality lenses. This has been of enormous benefit because even my earliest work is, by today’s standards, of excellent quality and commercially valuable, even though some of my images are over forty years old.
- How much money can I afford to spend? You should not sell the family home, although I know a highly successful photographer who did! Remember you may also need to upgrade computers, hard drives, and other technology.
Read on, we have only just begun.
What brand and model should I choose?
Remember that the camera industry is kept alive by developing and marketing new models on a continuous basis. You do not need to keep up with the very latest model of the brand unless of course, new models offer benefits in your work. After all, photography is not just about equipment, it is about how you see and feel and your skill-set in interpreting your creative ideas into images. You will find lots on that topic on this website.
I am frequently asked to recommend what brand and model of camera system should be purchased. There is no simple answer, as so much depends on your skills, your overall ambitions and, most importantly, your budget. Further down this article, I have chosen to suggest the brands Nikon and Canon be explored. Several reasons for that. firstly I use both, secondly, these are by far the most commonly used brands among nature photographers due mainly to their enormous range of accessories, especially lenses.
A brand is a name under which a company markets its product. Most brands target a wide range of markets, and the markets are usually defined as certain people grouped according to the applications the camera will be applied to (family snaps or action pro sports) and of course the retail price they consider those markets are prepared to pay. The price people will pay is influenced by the results they aim for. In turn, that target price affects the number and sophistication of the features the equipment offers – the VW will get you to the shops, but the Ferrari will win the big races and maybe impress your friends!.
If you are in a club and or shoot with a group of friends it can be a good idea to use the same models and brands as they do so that you can share each other’s lenses and accessories.
I am not affiliated with a brand and I have a very open mind when it comes to equipment.
STAGE ONE: Uncertain, just starting out
You would like to start with a low investment and see how things progress; perhaps a camera under $500 to $600A. You may even consider purchasing a second-hand camera. For example, the Nikon D3 has now been replaced with first the Nikon D3s and now the D4 and more recently the D4s and D5 models. The D3 can be purchased second hand a fraction of the price of a new D5 (around one-third of the cost). This is similar to Canon models, you simply just have to do some research online and especially consider your ‘real needs’, based on capture techniques and file applications already discussed. The entry level DSLR cameras above, a Nikon D500 and a Lumix FZ150 or 250, are both superseded and can be purchased through eBay for a few hundred dollars.
Photo projects can drive you forward…
“Projects provide purpose, without purpose, there is no creative life.” Steve Parish
Starting out and or upgrading can be a great time to consider developing and expanding into photo projects. Why? The greater major of people who enter stage one (above) do not continue. Why? No purpose! Read on….
“I have just purchased a DSLR camera and a serious of lenses, do you think I will be still using my new camera in one year?” An odd question but yes, a very relevant one, and judging by the number of boxed ‘hardly used’ adverts on eBay, not uncommon. The questioner was an ABC interviewer during a workshop promotion. My answer was simple: “If you do not have a reason, a passion for a project, then No! You will probably revert to your Mobile Phone camera.” The DSLR, when chosen for creative purposes—including subsequent post production equipment investment and associated learning curve—must be driven by passion. If there’s no passion, there’ll definitely be no progress. The whole photographic process, if done properly, is not a ‘walk in the park’. However, when the passion for an outcome is involved that journey becomes pleasurable because whatever you saw and felt during that walk can now be shared with the whole world. This is where our projects come in: projects = purpose. It’s as simple as that!
1 Create a goal driven project list
- Community newsletter
- Wildflower home decor project?
- An illustrated talk for your local club
- A conservation supports project
- A project for children
- Wildlife in my backyard project
2 Take the first steps to intuitively develop project ideas
Create a ‘vision card’ (maybe on a powerpoint and or keynote file) and keep your plans alive and evolving. I built my publishing business doing just that and it evolved into a multi-million dollar business.
- PURPOSE: Why do I want to do this project?
- VALUES: What is important to me about the project?
- SMALL STEPS: Break the project into achievable steps.
As time progresses you will find that your projects also create pointers as to what equipment you need.
STAGE TWO: A photography-smitten amateur
Your interests have expanded and you now find yourself much more active, a photographer and wish to utilise a wider range of lenses and maybe even upgrade your camera model with one that has more features. Of course, you may have been truly smitten with this wonderful pastime and want to go all the way to stage three. Funds available is usually what holds people back. I have certainly gone without many, many things over the years so that I can fund my passion. In fact, I gave up alcohol and partying when I was 23 years old for that very reason! Based on, shall we say, $5,000 per annum on partying that is a saving of $245K! Bottom line is that if you have the passion you will find a way. My idea of celebration is a pin sharp full frame of a breaching whale!
Here’s a checklist for your needs, – add to your vision card!
- More online tutorials, more workshops, maybe some tours, join a club.
- Time to upgrade to and or invest in a desktop computer
- Target more specific photographic subjects, small or distant subjects requiring specialised lenses like the macro for frogs, reptiles, insects and flowers, and telephoto for birds.
- Play with photo stitching, HDR and creative post production software.
- Maybe it is time for a drone and or multimedia diversion?
- Take up underwater photography!
- Better print quality and enlargements for publication in newsletters and brochures, or large prints for home display.
STAGE THREE: Total commitment
‘Love your calling with passion, it is the meaning of your life’ Sculptor Auguste Rodin
You have established that you would like to progress and become serious about your work, possibly exhibiting or selling images to publishers of newspapers, magazines or books at a later date. You may even aim to submit your work for sale through photographic libraries, or even start you own library or small commercial operation.
Your target? A top-of-the-range DSLR camera system of a well-known brand, such as Canon, Nikon or Sony, is your objective. In these circumstances, you will need to look at the comparison charts and see which features you think you need. Models offering operational functions like high-speed motor drives, automatic focus systems, variable sensor sizes and even the cameras weight might need to be considered, especially if you are travelling and or walking long distances Maybe it is time for a second camera body?
I deal with lenses in another article here
When you get into the top level camera models you will need to consider that if you want to shoot RAW files (as opposed to compressed JPEGS generated by the camera), that there will also be a need for additional funds to purchase a computer, back up hard drives and software to process your images. When buying a digital camera and wishing to edit and print your own images from the outset, be willing to develop your computer skills. You can have your digital files processed by the camera or choose to take a greater creative control making creative adjustments in your computer; if you are new to imaging I would suggest that the post production side is left until you are confident with camera generated results. While post-production (the digital darkroom world) is a lot of fun, it can be overwhelming for a beginner. That is another subject we will deal with in another article. I would say here that today I see post production and the actual capture of the image in the field as entirely one single process, joined at the hip if you like. When I compose and expose an image I am always thinking post production.
Here’s a checklist for your needs, add your own vision
- All of the above listings, and much more like high action wildlife photography or finely detailed landscape images for enlargement
- Quality pictures for books or magazines of high commercial standard
- Advanced artistic photographs for sale and possible exhibitions
- Submission of work to photographic libraries
- Maybe join a camera club and compete with other keen photographers in competitions
- Attend photography classes to learn new skills
- Maybe do some public presentations within your community (highly recommended being a terrific way to get feedback).
- Create photo books
- Consider a small commercial operation selling your work at regional fetes and fairs.
I recommend either Canon and Nikon, simply because at this time both brands offer much the same features; although operational functions are quite different I find neither offers a benefit above the other. That, however, could change tomorrow. Advances in camera technologies have opened up the opportunities for nature photographers way, way beyond what could be achieved eight to ten years ago when film cameras ruled. Especially when shooting wildlife in low light, which of course when animals are active.
These are the current top of the range Nikon and Canon cameras, the Nikon D5 and the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II. Both these cameras, and there will be other brands like Sony that may offer similar features, have enormous ranges of lenses and more importantly their exposure, ISO ranges and focus systems are simply stunning for wildlife action photography. They are also capable of producing images in very low light with high ISO settings that produce very little in the way of noise (digital artefacts like grain in film). If the costs are prohibitive remember that all models have predecessors. For example, Nikon D5 has D4s, D4, D3s, D3 and so on. The further you go back the cheaper they are. I recently shot albatross on the wing with both a Nikon D3s and a Canon EOS 1DX. The results, both outstanding! Cost variation is around $5,000. Sure there are other fundamental differences between the two, but $5k is $5k, right?
For a lighter camera, and at a lower price, yet with a higher resolution for greater file enlargement capabilities, the Canon EOS 5D and the Nikon D800/D800E would be my suggestion. Of course, there may be other brands that offer similar model features, you simply have to compare them. I use the Nikon D800 extensively and have used the canon EOS 5D as well, both are excellent cameras. Both are also good for low light, however, one has to be far more careful with the higher ISO’s simply because higher resolution (megapixel) settings beyond say 1000 ISO do produce much more noise. Another often overlooked value for these cameras is the ability to crop the files, which is often a necessary in publishing.
It is very rare that I don’t work with two or three cameras at the same time. This is not so much because of the benefits of a brand or model over another, but simply because as a travelling photographer when I am working I need to be ready for every opportunity that comes my way. For example, all these images were taken at Fog Dam in the Northern Territory. If you time your visit to this place the water bird photography opportunities abound. I would always have my long lens attached to a tripod, this not only helps with keeping the camera steady, but it also enables me to turn my full attention to another subject, perhaps closer, than the long lens enables. I have inserted this story to establish that mixing brands (not models within a brand) can be a risky business simply because the lenses will not interchange. If a camera fails you, or you have it stolen and or drop it in a billabong (all have happened to me) then you may not be able to interchange and still use all your kit.
Feedback very welcome.
Article Photography and text © Steve Parish Nature Connect
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