Good camera equipment for nature photography?
December 18, 2007 8:57 AM   Subscribe

What sort of setup do I need for decent nature photography?

I might be attending a meetup to take pictures of birds and nature. I've been considering getting a digital SLR anyway, so what are good choices, both in terms of specs and brands, for a body and lenses to take decent photos of birds and the like for a reasonable price?
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Depends on your definition of reasonable. If you're just going for something at the low end of cost, but with decent quality, I'd recommend getting a Canon Rebel XT or Nikon D80 with a long zoom lens. A 70-300 with macro would be good. That way you can catch those shots of birds far off, as well as get close up macros of flowers and insects. Personally I prefer the long macro like that because I often don't want to get *really* close to certain subjects (like bees) and this allows me to get a great macro shot without getting stung.

For some examples, here is one long shot and one macro. Both were shot with the Nikon D50 and the Sigma 70-300mm 4-5.6 macro lens.

You can click the images for a slightly larger size.

In most cases you will be able to get either of those bodies plus the 70-300 for pretty cheap, anywhere from $600 to $900, depending on where you look. If this seems like too much, you can get a point and shoot camera with a decent zoom for around $300, but the quality will generally be lower and you won't have as many shooting options. It all depends on your spending limits. If you have more to spend than that, it may make sense to get a dedicated macro lens, such as the 85mm 2.8 macro, but that will set you back a great deal more. You sound like you're just getting your feet wet and probably don't need top of the line equipment yet, so that may be a bit much.
posted by rez at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Oops, for those image links:

Long shot.

posted by rez at 9:14 AM on December 18, 2007

I've been shooting birds with my Canon 30D for the last year or so. I generally use a (cheapish $180) stock 75mm-300mm lens, which I've had some luck with.

The body is kinda pricey, but I really like the feel of the magnesium casing and that was worth the extra cash for me. My next big upgrade will probably be in getting a higher quality telephoto, but for learning, the inexpensive, basic glass works fine.
posted by quin at 9:26 AM on December 18, 2007

When you say "nature photography" you are covering a lot of ground. For birds most people say the longer the better as far as lenses; you might consider teleconverters but they do come at a price in terms of image quality (usually only a slight decrease) and f number. If you are interested in macro, landscapes, or panoramas your needs will be quite different. It is pricy and about due for replacement by a newer version, but I love my Canon 5D, not least for its great high ISO performance but also because it has the same field of view as a 35mm slr which is nice when using wide angle lenses. Finally, you might want to consider other accessories. A circular polarizing filter, one or more graduated neutral density filters, and a good tripod can all come in handy for nature photography. For many of these, though, you may want to wait and look at what other people at the meetup are using; they may even let you try some of their gear out.
posted by TedW at 9:34 AM on December 18, 2007

I bought a Canon XTi and a 28-135mm IS USM lens about two weeks ago and it has not been out of my sight since. I absolutely love it. I'm not doing extensive nature photography yet, but I've definitely heard that the USM (UltraSonic Motor) is key to focusing adjustments without alerting animals to your presence. Of course, you would want a lens with a longer range (70-300 was said earlier and is a good suggestion).

Amazon had the XTi (body-only) for as low as $529 last week.
posted by Mr. Banana Grabber at 9:38 AM on December 18, 2007

If you're looking for the absolute basic, then I think rez nailed it. The Xti/D80 are the low-end dSLRs from Canon and Nikon, and are the cheapest, so if you're a beginner at photography (or with SLRs), or are looking to spend as little as possible to get a passable setup, this is the way to go.

I've found that the XT/XTi body feels very small and cheap to me, though. It is plastic, and it is somewhat small, so you might want to check out the body before buying to make sure it's comfortable in your hands. I have a 30D (in the line which is a step up from the XTi/D80; Nikon's cameras in this market are the D200/D300, I think), which is heavier but feels a lot more solid and is larger, so it fits better in my hands.

In any case, a 70-300 or 75-300 lens should be "good enough" while not breaking the bank. I read a photography board with a nature forum, and lots of people on that have >$3000 lens that they use. It's also useful for non-bird photography when you need a telephoto lens, as long as it's fairly bright.

I haven't done much in the way of bird photography (other than taking photos of birds while waiting for something else), but I've recently been bitten with the bug and I'm jealous of you west-coasters and your fancy meetups!
posted by Godbert at 9:40 AM on December 18, 2007

For outdoor shooting, especially of birds, a good body and a fast telephoto are a must. Zooms lose too much in aperture options, for my taste, and you can definitely benefit from the superior build quality of the 30D/40D over the Rebel if you are looking at Canons. The weather is variable here, and you don't want to be fretting about your camera. (You can also get little anoraks for cameras, but I have never used one myself.)

For birds, I use a predecessor in the 40D line or the EOS 3 + a 100mm or 200mm prime lens. I only really enjoy handheld shooting, so I live with the relatively limited range that gives me.
posted by caitlinb at 10:30 AM on December 18, 2007

Another trick that is exceptionally useful when attempting bird photography, is to use psychology: the reason longer lenses are useful is that birds get spooked easily and will make a break for it before you can get close enough to get a good shot. But most birds in urban areas are trained to ignore certain things, like cars. They are around cars so often that they no longer view them as a direct threat, and will pay it no attention unless the car is doing something unpredictable.

You can often get right up next to birds on the side of the road if you ease up to them in an automobile and shoot out of your window. Knowing this, you can use far smaller and less expensive lenses to get good shots.
posted by quin at 10:44 AM on December 18, 2007

You're in San Francisco. Have you considered renting equipment?

As everyone else has said, go for a long lens, and a monopod or tripod. Shooting handheld at 300mm aint the easiest thing, especially if you're not familiar with the gear.

It looks like Calumet rents in SF. Might check them out.

Calumet Store locations
posted by fnord at 11:02 AM on December 18, 2007

I would suggest the Pentax K10D, because you can put a long, used telephoto lens on it and have stabilization. Pentax K or M42 mount long lenses are really quite reasonable on the used market, and you'd have to be nuts (or a Luddite) to use a long lens without stabilization in this day and age.

Oh, and don't expect to get great results even with a X-300mm zoom lens. They are generally pretty slow (aperture) at the long end, which means slow shutter speeds. 300 f/4 is considered the 'entry lens' for wildlife photography.
posted by Sukiari at 12:45 PM on December 18, 2007

This artist’s wonderful work prompts me to recommend her equipment list and processing advice.
posted by dpcoffin at 6:47 PM on December 18, 2007

I'd chime in with TedW -- "nature photography" could mean a lot of things, though your mention of birds probably hints at something closer to "wildlife" than "landscape".

As far as gear goes, always remember that a good camera does not a good picture make. Someone I know purchased a Nikon D200 with all the fixin's and takes snapshotty pictures that a D70/D80/D40 would do just fine, only with about $2,000 more in your pocket.

So, depending on your skill level and your commitment, the gear varies. Zoom lenses are good for wildlife pictures, if you can't get any closer. I'd recommend against a teleconverter at the start because it will decrease the minimum aperture that you can shoot at and you'll have to work harder to isolate your subject. And you can always buy one later if you find your lens isn't long enough!

I realize that's probably not a very satisfactory answer, since you probably want specific model numbers and lens types. I'd rather not evoke the Canon vs. Nikon holy war, but in my humblest opinion (former photography editor) Nikon has better entry-level stuff (like the D100, D70--I'm not really impressed with the D80, though I guess finding a D70 would be difficult these days) and Canon has slightly better prosumer merchandise (20D, 30D). If you want to sell your pictures or double as a wedding photographer, Canon is a fine choice, and your nature pictures would be better, too. But why waste your money otherwise?

For lenses, the best value at the least amount of cash, again in my opinion, would be the lower-end stuff made by whichever camera body you've purchased. Nikon and Canon both make good, affordable lenses in the 70-200mm range (I'd say $300 to $400 new, and you could probably get a steal on an older model lens for under that). Nikon SLRs also can use all old Nikon glass, which, if you're cheap and slightly old-school like me, is fantastic. 300mm lenses are not cheap; though I've never rented one, I can't see a downside to doing so if you can't get close enough.

If you like taking pictures of bugs or things on a branch etc., you'll need a lens with the ability to finely focus (macro lens). These can get pricey, which is why I would score a used one for cheap and only pull it out when necessary.

Finally, to finish my old school rant, I frankly think, for your purposes, the features of Image Stabilization are absolutely not worth their price. If you're shooting in low-light or extremely sensitive conditions, you may want to shell out an extra grand for a nicer lens. Cheaper lenses don't come with IS (or in Nikon terms, VR). That's part of the reason why they're cheap. Oh, and for anything not moving, a tripod is a really, really good idea. Using a tripod is what I call image stabilization.

Some parting advice:
"If your pictures are not good enough, you're not close enough." - Robert Capa

Whether you're shooting D-Day or birds in a tree, I think ever photographer should take this advice to heart.
posted by BenzeneChile at 8:40 AM on December 19, 2007

If your interest in birding is anything more than a passing phase, then the setup I strongly recommend is this: a Canon 40D (or 20D/30D depending on availability and budget) and a Canon 400mm f/5.6. The camera body is a strong workhorse with good-enough autofocus for birding (as long as you have enough light), but the real magic is in the lens: there's no such thing as "long enough or close enough" when it comes to birding, and there's no competition at all in any other system for this lens when you factor in reach, lightning-fast autofocus speed, pure image quality, and price. Yes, price: the lens sounds ludicrously expensive at ~$1k, but this is a lens that is absolutely on par quality-wise with >$3k birding lenses, virtually every serious birder in the Canon system owns this lens, huge numbers of images in prestigious nature publications have been taken (and continue to be taken) with this lens, and it's a lens that's impossible to outgrow -- only supplement with bigger and heavier lenses when needed (and it's funny how those bigger guns are "needed" more often as one gets more serious about birding). Don't take my word for it -- most pro birders like Arthur Morris consider the 400/5.6 the best bird-in-flight lens bar none, and until you get into more equipment-demanding situations like dawn/dusk shooting, it's the backbone birding lens for all the birders I know. Until they get the itch for something really huge, that is.

By the way, Canon is the best system for birding. (Someone above mentioned Pentax -- don't. As a Pentax owner I can tell you that autofocus with long lenses is terrible under the Pentax system.) Other systems have a huge gap between the poor-focusing 70/80 to 300/400 zooms and the hugely expensive 400/500/600 professional primes. In addition to the 400/5.6 for birding, Canon also offers a similarly good (though slightly less sharp) 300/4 IS for more general wildlife photography, and a wonderful and affordable 200/2.8 if you're lucky to be shooting more tame animals (as is often the case in urban enviroments).

One last general pointer: go with primes, not zooms for: fast apertures, fast autofocus speed, and maximal sharpness, especially when it comes to long focal lengths. There's a reason why all the top-end super telephotos in both the Canon and Nikon lineups are primes.
posted by DaShiv at 3:00 PM on December 22, 2007

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