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I am interested about shooting animals (including, but not limited to, birds and in general animals that can move fast). So far, I would say I know the basic concepts of camera but I have never practiced before.

Could anyone share his/her thoughts about some good combination of digital camera and lenses for this specific purpose?

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Can you say something about your price range? –  khedron Feb 4 '12 at 21:08

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

From personal experience, I recommend the following camera body: The Canon EOS 7D.

I say this for four main reasons:

  1. It is an APS-C crop sensor camera, which in Canon terms gives you an automatic 1.6x multiplier, allowing you to get closer to your subjects.
  2. 19-point advanced Auto Focus system.
  3. Fast 8fps burst rate, even with RAW.
  4. New (at the time it was introduced) 63-zone iFCL metering

So with the crop, you can stay where you are normally but your lenses will all have the 1.6 multiplication factor applied. For animal and bird photography - you want the extra reach the crop gives you over full frame.

Secondly, the AF system on the Canon 7D is ridiculously good. I took this photo was achieved with the spot AF mode, but it also has a 'zone' AF which is like full-auto except you restrict it to one part of the frame. There is also a single-point expansion mode which is like single point but allows the AF to be a little intelligent regarding what's in the range of the AF points immediately adjacent to the one selected so if your subject moves just an inch the AF still sees it and locks on. Then you have the standard sort of full-auto, single point modes etc. The other good thing about the Canon 7D's AF system is its tracking abilities. In AI Servo mode you select your starting AF point and it locks on. If the subject moves within the frame, the AF automatically tracks it. The 7D is HIGHLY flexible in the way its AF works and there are options to select say, the sensitivity of it to subjects that may get in the way. For example, if you are following a bird, and it flies behind a telephone pole, or power line, or so forth, you can tell the AF to be 'slow' in its responsiveness to this kind of thing so it doesn't go out of focus immediately. Likewise if you were shooting something else you may wish it to react quickly to such 'interruptions'. This is all totally configurable on the 7D.

Thirdly, the burst rate. You will never achieve perfect shots 100% of the time. It just wont happen. Blurries and missed shots are an inevitability of shooting fast moving subjects whether they be birds or other animals. With 8fps sustained burst rate, you can follow your subject with the tracking AF as described above, with your finger pressed firmly on the shutter button and capture many many images all very quickly. You can then decide later which ones to keep and which ones to throw away. With animals, too much choice is better than not enough! Note that the 7D also gives you configurability when it comes to the trade-off between autofocusing and shutter speed.

I will admit, the 7D has some detractors regarding the AF system, because they don't necessarily get the shots they expect. But it is a highly customisable system, and I really recommend reading and understanding the manual because once you understand it and set it the way you want it, it will reward your efforts.

Lastly, the metering. The 7D has a new metering system and this comes in very handy if you are shooting against the sky. You will want to use spot metering if you are following a bird across the sky. It performs really well.

With regards to the lens, it is difficult to make such a recommendation because it is entirely subjective. Some would advocate the EF 70-200 f/2.8L II IS USM, whereas some would advocate the f/4 version. Some would tender that if budget is no option then go for a 300/400/600/800mm f/4 or f/5.6 telephoto. Whilst these are all GREAT lenses, they are out of the reach financially of many. And to be honest, any good lenses are going to be expensive. You are not going to achieve great shots with a £170 75-300 f/4.5-5.6! However I can tell you what I use which I think is a good tradeoff between price, quality, and reach.

That lens is the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. New, it retails for somewhere in the region of £1250, but I got mine on eBay second hand for around £820. A bargain really considering what you can pay for prime telephotos!

The 100-400 is in Canon's "L" series lineup, and really is a great quality lens, and I am very pleased with it. It's big, and gets even bigger when you zoom to its full reach, thanks to the slightly odd 'push-pull' zoom mechanism. Some people find this weird, but from my experience, you get used to it VERY quickly.

It's a slow-ish lens, so not great for low-light or night shooting unless tripod mounted (it takes GREAT moon photos!). But for daytime shooting, it has zero issues, and the IS really helps to maintain steadiness too which helps especially at the longer end of the zoom range. 100 to 400, which on the 7D is equivalent to 160mm to 640mm so gives you a nice range with which to work. It has a focus limit switch on it which restricts the MFD to 6.5 metres (I think?) which makes the AF much faster when shooting things at a distance as it wont even attempt to 'hunt' below this distance.

Anyway, that's enough talking. To demonstrate my points above, here are some example photos that I took, with the combo of the 7D, and 100-400. A couple of birds, and a couple of planes. (one could argue they are birds too!):

Gull

Another Gull

Duck landing on water

Hawker Hurricane

F18-A Super Hornet

I hope that helps you out...

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A very thorough answer. Even if Canon is not the preferred brand, it's still possible to understand which qualities you need to look for in the camera and lens. –  Håkon K. Olafsen Feb 3 '12 at 12:35
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A crop sensor doesnt get you closer, it just crops the edges off of the frame. –  Graeme Hutchison Feb 3 '12 at 12:58
    
@GraemeHutchison Indeed a crop sensor does not get you closer, I did not indend to imply that (although I acknowledge that is what I said). By 'close' I meant what you see through the viewfinder appears closer ;-) –  Mike Feb 3 '12 at 13:42
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Technically speaking, on a normalized resolution basis, a cropped sensor DOES get you "closer". Take an 18mp FF and 18mp APS-C. For the same output resolution, the APS-C definitely "gets you closer". No, its not physically getting you closer, but it certainly extends your "reach" with any given lens. Thats not just fancy words, it actually has meaning in the context of reality. You would need a 46.7mp FF sensor to have the same resolution, and thus ability to crop identically, as an 18mp APS-C...thats not something to shake a stick at...and its more than just "cutting off the edges". –  jrista Feb 4 '12 at 19:23
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@Mike: I couldn't agree more with your assessment, on both the camera body (7D) and lens (100-400mm). I use both myself for wildlife and birds...and they are SUPERB for the price! The only real step up is the Canon 1D line and one of their $10k+ supertelephotos....a $17,000-$20,000 package deal most of the time....well beyond the range of most "normal" humans. ;) The value of the 100-400 is incredible as well, given that it is the only easily affordable 400mm focal length WITH IS. –  jrista Feb 4 '12 at 19:25

If you're a canon shooter, I'll second the 7D. I use it for most of my work, and it's great. I've also shot extensively with the 100-400, and Mike's note on it does a good job of explaining why it's a good answer for you.

Having said that, I've retired my 100-400 and I'm now shooting a different set of lenses, and depending on what your kit already looks like, you might want to go in another direction.

My go-to animal/bird lens is now the Canon 300 F4 + 1.4x teleconverter. I use it instead of the 100-400 because it is sharper (@ 400mm) and has faster and more accurate autofocus. The cost of a new 300 F4 + a new 1.4x is about the same as a 100-400 (maybe a bit more), but my experience is I get better images out of it.

Whether you go with the 300+1.4x or the 100-400 depends on the rest of your kit. If you have good lens coverage at 200mm and wider, then I don't think the 100-400 is the right lens for you. I carry the 24-104F4, the 70-200F2.8, and having upgraded my kit to include them, 99% of my shooting on the 100-400 was at 400mm, and in that case, that's not the best lens. If you're just building a kit and you plan on a lens that covers all of your telephoto needs, then the 100-400 may be the better option (the 24-104, 100-400 would be an interesting setup, for instance). Be aware the 100-400 softens above 300mm, but it's a very good lens. the 300F4+1.4x is noticably sharper to me, plus the faster AF helps in moving thing scenarios.

Which way you go depends on the rest of your kit. IMHO, if you need a dedicated wildlife/bird lens, I much prefer the 300+1.4 to the 100-400; if you need a lens that covers a wider range of images and is more of an extended telephoto, the 100-400 is the choice, but with some of the typical tradeoffs of a zoom. But if you have a good lens in the 70-200 range, then the 100-400 is overlapping that in a big way and probably overkill.

Especially since these are all big, heavy lenses that you need to carry around. I definitely did not want a backpack with a 70-200F2.8, 100-400 AND a 300F4. God help me when I upgrade and buy that 500mm, I'll need a forklift. Keep weight and size and luggability in mind when making these decisions, too.

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Do you still prefer the 300mm + 1.4x? I ask because I read a different take from the "The Digital Picture" guy: "If 400mm is your goal, the 100-400 will give you better results than the 300 f/4 and 1.4x combo." the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/… –  khedron Feb 25 '13 at 15:41
    
it's complicated. the 100-400 is less sharp, but the zoom may make it a better option. The 300F4+1.4 is sharper with better AF, but the lack of zoom meant I was carrying a 2nd body and lens with me most of the time. If weight/flexibility is most important, go 100-400. If sharpness is, go 300. Both are usable and good options. I ended up going to 70-200F2.8LISII and a 2.0XIII. Sharper than both AND with a zoom, but a lot more expensive. But for me, it made sense. –  chuqui Feb 25 '13 at 19:45
    
more on my current thinking on my blog, in way more detail than I can fit here.. chuqui.com/2013/01/… -- FWIW, the 100-400 and 300+1.4x combos both cost about $1400US. The 70-200F2.8LISII+2.0x is closer to $2500. Not an easy cost to justify... –  chuqui Feb 25 '13 at 19:47
    
Thanks for the update! While I don't think I can rationalize the cost anytime in the near future (i.e., until my 2-yr-old graduates college ;-) ), I will say that your pictures are fantastic. –  khedron Feb 26 '13 at 16:05
    
Thank you! the best way to justify a cost like that is to realize it saves you from having to buy a 500mm or 600mm lens at $5000-11,000. (grin). (seriously. with a good body, you can crop instead of buying even bigger, nastier lenses...) –  chuqui Feb 27 '13 at 0:43

The key to great shots is often to isolate your subjects, so that you can make the shot as much about them and really bring out details. With animals this often means using a long lens, particularly for birds which can be small, high-up and far. There are exceptions and cases where you can get really close to animals, like in the Galapagos islands, but more often than not you will be shooting from a distance.

On a full-frame DSLR, typical wildlife photography is done with at least a 400mm lens. You have to adjust for sensor size which is where smaller sensors really work for you. For example, on a typical APS-C DSLR, the most popular lens for birders is the Sigma 50-500mm lens which is equivalent to a 75-750mm lens on a full-frame. It is big and heavy compared to typical consumer lenses but smaller and cheaper than bright super-telephoto lenses which easy cost over $10K USD.

You can also go to a Micro Four-Thirds camera which gives you a multiplier of 2X. In this case you can get the Panasonic 100-300mm which is smaller and weighs 4X less than the previous one.

Anytime you decide on some gear you always have to consider its bulk. If you see TV shows about animal safaris you notice how heavy the gear is and realize why they are always shooting from a Jeep.

The last point is about the speed of animals. It's rare you will get a crisp photo of a fast moving animal. Most times it would be pure luck or the use of focus-traps which automatically snap photos of animals. What people do is follow animals stealthily for a while and shoot them at rest, when they are calmer.

Pretty much any modern DSLR - even a mid-level one - and high-end Micro Four-Thirds cameras would be suitable to for shooting animals. Choose the one to match the lenses you decide on. It always takes lots of practice and you will miss shots regardless how good your gear is!

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You haven't touched much on camera AF performance. While a solid lens is indeed essential, so too are the capabilities and speed of the AF unit in the camera itself. Better AF units, with high quality servo focus, specifically those with more cross-type points and cross-type points spread farther out from the center, are extremely important for nailing focus on moving wildlife and birds. Its also most certainly possible to get crisp, clear shots of moving animals and birds...however cheaper gear will make it much more difficult. –  jrista Feb 3 '12 at 3:35

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