What’s the Best Camera for Wildlife Photography?

best camera for wildlife photography

If you’re looking to take up wildlife photography, you’ve probably wondered what the best camera is. Digital SLRs are numerous now, with plenty of options on the market. However, wildlife photography is notoriously difficult – especially to those new to the field – as you can’t direct animals and tell them what to do! Your camera needs to deal with fast movement, low light, and other tough conditions in the outdoors.

There are a number of things you need to think about when looking for the best camera for wildlife photography. This guide will help you make that decision and get the right camera for your needs.

Crop Sensor or Full Frame?

DSLRs come in two forms: cropped of full frame sensors. The latter is more expensive, offering advantages such as better image quality and ISO capabilities (meaning they can shoot well in lower light conditions – a great thing for wildlife photography). Cropped sensors are cheaper, but they also offer increased reach for your lens (so the image will appear more ‘zoomed in’ at a given focal length than it would on a full frame sensor).

Further Reading: The Difference Between Full Frame & Crop Sensors

what's the best camera for wildlife photography?
Photo: shutterstock.com

If I were buying my first DSLR camera for wildlife photography specifically, I would strongly recommend you chose a crop sensor camera. The extra reach opens you up to more opportunities for photos. It’s incredibly frustrating to find that you can’t get close to wildlife, and until your field craft skills are particularly good the extra reach will be a major advantage. The cost is also a major plus point. In fact, even though I have been shooting with full frame cameras for a number of years now, I’ve been strongly considering buying a Nikon D500 (read our review here) – it’s a crop sensor camera that performs extremely well for wildlife.

Autofocus Points

The best camera for being aimed at moving animals will have a great autofocus system. You basically have no chance of achieving a sharp photo if you’re manually focusing, so 99.9% of the time you’ll find yourself using autofocus with wildlife. Consequently, your camera needs to be good at doing just that: focusing.

Autofocus needs to be accurate and fast. This comes with an increased number of autofocus points in the camera’s AF system. A higher number of points means a camera has a better ability to be accurate when choosing the area it focuses on, and it also means you will be able to track moving wildlife more successfully.

Further Reading: Understanding Autofocus Points and Modes

wildlife photography camera choosing
Always pay attention to the number of autofocus points when choosing the best camera for wildlife photography.

When choosing a camera, look at the number of AF points available to you. You can’t see a specific rating for them, but a higher number the better. Budget cameras will, of course, have less than more expensive options.

Low Light Capabilities

Wildlife tends to come out of the shadows at dawn and dusk. Most animals aren’t that active in the middle of the day – they’re more likely to be predated. The bigger predators will then spend less time moving around as they’ll have successful hunts at dawn and dusk. This doesn’t run true for every animal, but in general this is a pattern seen in nature.

low light wildlife photography camera
Low light capabilities are essential when choosing a camera for wildlife photos. (Photo: Garrett Parker)

What does this mean for you as a wildlife photographer? You need to be active yourself at dawn and dusk. That may be easy for you, but your camera needs to perform well too. As the light drops and animals start to emerge, your camera will perform less well. You’ll find yourself needing to increase the ISO speed to make the sensor more sensitive to light and brighten your exposure. This brings with it digital noise and, whilst this can be removed in post production, there is only so far you can go until you ruin your photo.

The best cameras for wildlife photography tend to have good ISO capabilities. That may mean looking at a full frame camera, but you’ll be paying more for it. To determine how good a camera is with handling higher ISO speeds, take a look at comparison images on the internet and keep your eye out for at which level digital noise tends to increase dramatically. However, don’t panic. There are ways you can photograph wildlife in low light without paying through the nose for full frame cameras.

Further Reading: How to Photograph Wildlife in Low Light

Shooting Speeds

Finally, a faster shooting speed (the number of frames per second the camera takes) is handy for wildlife photography. If your camera is slow, shooting around 3 frames per second, you’re more likely to miss the perfect shot that happens in the gaps between each time the shutter fires. Shooting in burst mode is highly recommended for wildlife photography.

Top DSLR cameras will shoot 12 frames per second and beyond, which is crazy fast. You don’t necessarily need anything like this – but it definitely helps. You can still take good wildlife photos a even 1 frame per second, but you need to be quicker at reacting to each moment.

The number of frames per second is something to be aware of, but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all when making a choice of which camera to buy.

Camera Recommendations for Wildlife Photography

We’ve covered the things you need to be aware of when choosing a camera, so now here are some recommendations for the best cameras available at the moment for wildlife photography.

Nikon D500Best Wildlife Photography Cameras - Nikon D500

A very popular choice amongst wildlife photographers recently, the Nikon D500 exploded on to the scene boasting huge capabilities for a crop sensor camera. With the same autofocus system as Nikon’s flagship DSLR, the D500 is the best choice for photography birds in flight and other fast-moving wildlife. It has a 21 megapixel sensor, with great ISO capabilities and offers you that extra reach signatory of a crop sensor camera.

Canon 7D Mark II

A fantastic crop sensor option for Canon users, the 7d Mark II offers 10 frames per second shooting speed with a 20 megapixel sensor. With a high number of AF focus points, this is a great camera for staying on target and focused.

Canon 5D Mark IV

But, actually, a much better choice is the Canon 5D Mark IV if you can stretch your budget (massively). It’s got a 30 megapixel sensor and shoots 7 frames per second. This is the camera I shoot with now, and it’s very popular amongst wildlife photographers. The increased resolution gives you more flexibility, and the camera handles really well.

Nikon D5

If money isn’t an issue, then the D5 is definitely the best choice you can make from the Nikon brand. The D5 is the flagship DSLR camera they offer: with a 20 megapixel full-frame sensor and shooting speed of 12 frames per second, you can’t go wrong here. The camera has incredible ISO capabilities, meaning you can shoot fantastic images in very low light. You can even record 4K video at 30fps! It’s the dream for wildlife photographers.

Canon 1DX Mark IIbest wildlife photography camera choice - canon 1dx

Similarly, the Canon flagship is the 1DX series. The Mark II offers a huge 14 frames per second shooting speed with a 20 megapixel full-frame sensor. It also has great ISO capabilities, and boasts 4K video recording. Again, just like the D5 from Nikon, there’s a fantastic AF system onboard so you will be able to track fast-moving wildlife at all times.

Nikon D750

A slightly cheaper option from Nikon, the D750 offers a 24 megapixel sensor with a shooting speed of 6.5 frames per second. It has good ISO capabilities and is robust for life in the outdoors. It offers full HD video recording and is a popular choice amongst action photographers from all genres of photography.

Canon 80D

A step down from the 7D, the 80D offers a 24 megapixel sensor with 7 frames per second shooting speed. There’s full HD video recording at 60fps, and good ISO capabilities.

On a Budget?

If you are looking for cheaper cameras, then I recommend reading our article The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography on a Budget. You don’t need to pay big bucks to be a wildlife photographer!

If you’re looking for a new lens, then I recommend reading our article ‘What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?‘.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Myer

    I have the Nikon D500 and it is my go to camera for wildlife/nature photography

    • It’s a great camera, that’s for sure!

    • terrym

      At the present time the combination of the D500 and 200mm-500mm can’t be beat

      • Myer

        right on

      • I’d agree that’s a pretty good combination. I tested the 200-500mm Nikon lens and was very impressed. I like the D500 too!

      • Matthijs

        Just received my X-T2 w/ XF100-400, will let you know 😉

  • chris froome

    Might want to look at the Olympus omd mkii, with 300mm f4 (600mm equivalent) superb IQ, fast af, pin sharp lenses, weatherproofed, and light. Super in body stabilisation. Using one right now

    • waxart

      Nice to read someone else has heard of cropped mirrorless cameras! I’m a Panasonic shooter with the 100-400mm lens, which has superb reach for wildlife. I never see Panasonic mentioned on this forum.

  • terrym

    It is a big mistake, made by most advanced photographers, to say a full frame has better image quality for wildlife. Yes it has better ISO but not IQ. The reason is to get the same field of view the full frame MUST be cropped and at that field of view the crop sensor has a lot more pixels on the frame. Nikon D500 has a greater pixel density than the D5. There is a noticeable different in depth of field with the full frame because you have to be closer to the subject. A f/4 600mm lens on a full frame would have better bokeh the a f/5.6 400 mm on a crop sensor with about the same field of view.

  • Jack

    Im trying to start of but dont have a big budget. Any ideas??

  • KENNETH POWELL

    just remember you take the picture. you decide on light angle composition shutter apeture cameras are just a way of recording what you see.

  • Aashi

    Which one is good camera between Canon 700d and Canon 1300d ? Please suggest.

  • nmoens

    I am still a bit confused with the cropped sensor versus full frame… I just came back from a South African trip and I had the chance to take picture with a D4 and a 600 f4 but my guide had a D500 wit a 200-500 and I have to admit that I became envious of his set up due to his increased reach, versatility and incredible sharpness (that and the fact that he had way more experience than me 🙂 ) A very unfortunate sea water incident annihilated my D4 (RIP) and I was almost certain to buy a D500 as replacement… but then came the D850…
    Here is my understanding of the D500 benefits.. (for image quality) please correct me if I am mistaking
    The D500 has more reach because it has a smaller DX sensor…therefore the image is magnified when displayed full size. The camera performed so well compared to several current FX cameras because its sensor despite being smaller had better resolution.
    But what if you have a Full frame with double the resolution of the D500??? (ie D850) Wouldn’t you actually get more reach with the D850 than the D500 because you can crop your image further (in post processing)with the D850 and still have plenty of pixels? Is this really just a pixel number game or is there another optical reason unknown to me as to why the DX would still beat the FX for wildlife???
    Obviously I am not ignoring all other aspects of the camera but I know I won’t be lugging around a 600 f4..therefore reach with a smaller lens is important to me…
    thank you for your input

    • DX doesn’t necessarily beat FX for wildlife. I shoot exclusively on FX cameras. There’s other factors too, such as low light performance, to think about. But, if reach is more important to you, then a crop sensor would be a good choice. Also, cropping a 40 megapixel image to 20 megapixels doesn’t actually double the reach, because of the loss of pixels on both edges. The D500 is a great camera, I’d recommend going for that. Check our review: https://www.naturettl.com/nikon-d500-review-in-the-hands-of-a-wildlife-photographer/

    • Hi nMoens,

      Put it another way, think of this: in all of the realms of photography where “sticking with” a crop sensor is a good idea, …wildlife photography is one of the best areas where that is a good idea, especially if you shoot a lot during decent daylight hours. The D500 offers stunning results up to 3200, 6400, or even 12800 depending on your own personal standards for noise and sharpness.

      Since the D850 is *about* 20 megapixels in DX crop mode, both the D850 and the D500 will give you the same equivalent “reaching power” from the same focal length lens. The D850 will, of course, give you the *option* to use the full-frame sensor and get much, much more resolution whenever cropping is not necessary.

      However, if you plan to spend a lot of time in 1.5x crop mode, and if you’re OK with the 20 megapixel resolution number for much of your work, …then the D500 will offer superior overall speed and buffer depth compared to the D850, which may be an even bigger benefit depending on what type of wildlife you shoot.

      If I were more into wildlife photography, and less into landscapes, I’d go for the D500. However I am also really into landscape photography and nightscape photography, where both resolution and high ISO performance are highly desirable, …so personally the D850 would be a better camera for me.

      • nmoens

        Thanks to both for the replies.
        when you say “if you plan to spend a lot of time in 1.5x crop mode”…
        What would be the advantage of using Crop mode on the D850 (with a FX lens) versus cropping in the post processing? Is it image size and speed of buffering the smaller image by the camera? To me it seems that using the crop mode on a FX sensor just reduces the flexibility of re composing the image because it artificially cuts the image off…

        • You’ll see the benefit when you have days that you come home with thousands of photos. It adds up at the end of the month. Also, yes, while shooting it will increase your buffer depth by quite a significant amount.

          If you don’t shoot many high-volume days or extended burststhen it’s not worth it to bother with DX mode, but sometimes it’s helpful to get the shot, or to come home with a couple / few hundred gigabytes less of memory card space consumed…

          • nmoens

            Thanks, that makes sense. Thanks for your input

  • Reg Oakley

    I cant help but think this topic needs to take account of the huge strides made by mirrorless cameras. DSLRs are not the only wildlife option these days.