When it comes to selecting dslr lens for wildlife photography, the first thing most photographers look for is focal length—a long lens that can reach out and cover great distances, bringing animals in for close-ups—but other features are also incredibly useful. Vibration reduction makes lenses more easily handholdable, especially in low light, and a large maximum aperture, such as ƒ/2.8, is also helpful for shooting in low light and at fast shutter speeds. Alternatively, if size is a consideration—and extreme telephoto lenses are big—variable maximum apertures, which change with the focal length, make lenses compact, lighter and more affordable. Here’s a rundown of the best camera for wildlife photography and wildlife photography lenses for beginners
dslr lens for wildlife photography
Wildlife photographers regularly encounter nasty weather, not to mention the normal wear and tear and dust and dirt that accompany working outdoors. Canon L-series lenses feature improved weather sealing and rugged build quality to withstand the rigors of professional sports and wildlife photography. The Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is an L lens that manages to cover the telephoto spectrum while remaining fairly compact and light thanks to the variable ƒ/4.5-5.6 maximum aperture. At $2,100, it’s also a relatively affordable way to reach long telephoto lengths.
The Canon EF-M 55-200mm ƒ/4.5-6.3 IS STM is a telephoto zoom for the EOS M compact mirrorless camera system. Built-in optical image stabilization provides 3.5 stops of stability, meaning, in theory, you should be able to handhold this compact lens—which offers a full-frame-sensor equivalent of 88-320mm—at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 sec., even at the full telephoto end of the zoom range. The estimated retail price is $350.
Serious wildlife shooters will go crazy for this extreme telephoto zoom lens from Canon. It’s the EF 200-400mm ƒ/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, and along with being a fixed ƒ/4, it’s the first ever to sport a built-in 1.4x tele-extender. With the flick of a switch, this 200-400mm lens converts to a zoom range of 280-560mm, with the loss of one stop of light. The lens also offers four stops of vibration reduction thanks to built-in optical image stabilization. The biggest obstacle is the price, at over $10,000, but when you’re getting a fast, sharp, relatively compact and versatile lens with a focal-range extender built in, it’s a premium serious sports and wildlife shooters are willing to pay.
Canon EF 600mm F4L IS II USM
Canon shooters who want the longest and fastest lenses available will look to the EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM and EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM primes. The focal lengths offer extreme reach for photographing big game on safari or when access to animals is limited and an extreme focal length can fill the frame for an animal portrait even from a hundred yards away. In some national parks, regulations limit how close photographers can get to wildlife like bears and wolves. Having the ability to reach out across that 100-yard gap can be the difference between getting the shot and missing it. This reach, of course, comes with a price: nearly $12,000 for the 600mm and $13,000 for the super-long 800mm glass.
Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
wildlife photography lenses for beginners
Fujifilm has announced the Fujinon XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, a super-telephoto zoom for the X series of compact mirrorless cameras, which covers a tremendous focal range equivalent to 152-609mm. Five ED elements and one Super ED element fight refraction and chromatic aberration. Designed for outdoor use and handholding, the lens features five stops of optical image stabilization and a special fluorine coating on the front element to repel dust and moisture. The estimated retail price is $1,900.
What’s better than a fairly typical 80-200mm or 80-300mm zoom lens? It’s the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR from Nikon, of course. This variable maximum aperture ƒ/4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom reaches 30% farther than an 80-300mm zoom would—bringing you significantly closer to the wildlife you’re watching. The lens features four ED, extra low-dispersion elements and one “super ED” element with Nikon’s nano-crystal coating designed to minimize chromatic aberration, especially when used at 80mm. The optical vibration-reduction system provides four stops of handholdability. The estimated retail price is $2,300.
For telephoto reach in a compact package, Nikon DX camera users should consider the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3G ED VR superzoom. It’s an ideal one-stop shop of a lens, perfect for traveling photographers who want to maintain small, light kits. The variable maximum aperture keeps it compact, and it covers a whopping 35mm-equivalent range of 27-450mm, making it possible to shoot everything from wide-angle landscapes to wildlife close-ups. The estimated retail price is $700.
This lens may have a familiar focal range of 70-300mm, but it’s not for full-frame DSLRs. It’s the NIKKOR VR 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 for the Nikon 1 system. Its equivalent focal range is so large, at 190-810mm, it just may inspire wildlife photographers to switch to the compact mirrorless Nikon 1 line of cameras. Small and light for such a long zoom, the lens retails for about $1,000.
AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
One of Nikon’s newest lenses is a super-telephoto zoom that covers a whopping range that’s perfect for wildlife photographers, even on the short end. The AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR has built-in optical vibration reduction, delivering 4.5 stops of additional handholdability, yet the lens remains fairly compact thanks to the ƒ/5.6 maximum aperture, which is constant across the zoom range. The VR’s “sport mode” is perfect for panning with a fast-moving subject—such as a bird in flight or a sprinting cheetah. The nine-bladed aperture helps to create pleasing bokeh in the out-of-focus area of an image, too.
For photographers with deep pockets who want tremendous telephoto reach, this pair of Nikon prime telephotos is perfect for wildlife photography. The AF-S NIKKOR 500mm and 600mm ƒ/4E FL ED VR primes offer powerful vibration reduction up to four stops, they have fast ƒ/4 maximum apertures, they utilize Nikon’s Electromagnetic Diaphragm to ensure consistent exposures from frame to frame during burst shooting, and while they won’t be confused for compact primes, they utilize fluorite elements that not only reduce weight, but improve the optical quality of the glass. The magnesium frame is particularly durable for serious outdoor expeditions—which is especially important given the high cost of this prime glass. The 500mm lens retails for about $11,000, and the 600mm lens is more than $12,000.
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-150mm ƒ/4-5.6 II fits Micro Four Thirds camera mounts and provides an equivalent zoom range of 28-300mm, making it a compact superzoom that can do a little bit of everything. An updated version of an earlier lens, this model features the new ZERO (Zuiko Extra-low Reflection Optical) coating on the surface of the lens to eliminate scratches and reduce flare. At 3.27 inches and 10 ounces, it’s a compact, go-everywhere, all-in-one traveling companion. The estimated retail price is $400.
The newest lens in the M.Zuiko lineup is the 300mm ƒ/4 IS PRO. This compact super-telephoto lens fits Micro Four Thirds mounts and provides an equivalent focal length of 600mm. It may not be tiny, but it’s significantly smaller than the typical 600mm equivalent. The lens is designed to resist the intrusion of dirt and water—essential when working outdoors for any length of time—and features ZERO optical coating and built-in image stabilization that can work with the sensor stabilization of the OM-D E-M1 and E-M5 Mark II cameras to provide a whopping six stops of steadying power. Even without in-camera stabilization, the lens alone provides four stops of stabilization. The estimated street price is $2,500.
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm F4.8-6.7 II
An updated 150-600mm equivalent, the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm ƒ/4.8-6.7 II is a compact super-telephoto at a low price. A variable maximum aperture of ƒ/4.8-6.7 keeps the lens small, while updated ZERO optical coating helps fight lens flare and ghosting. MSC technology makes focusing faster and quieter when used in movie mode. The estimated retail price is $550.
Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm F4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.
A strong telephoto zoom for the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, the Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. delivers a full-frame-equivalent 200-600mm focal range. Seventeen elements in 12 groups include an extra-low dispersion element to fight flare, and a seven-bladed aperture provides a pleasing shape to out-of-focus image areas. Optical image stabilization makes handholding this compact lens easier. The estimated street price is $550.
Panasonic’s partnership with Leica has produced an even more powerful telephoto zoom option for the Micro Four Thirds system. It’s the Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm ƒ/4.0-6.3 ASPH super-telephoto zoom, equivalent to a massive 200-800mm range on a full-frame sensor. Power O.I.S. steadies the lens for handholding, which is crucial at such long focal lengths, and weather-resistant construction helps fight dust and moisture intrusion. Also, the 240 fps autofocus motor is fast and quiet, which, along with the optical quality of the lens, makes it perfect for capturing 4K video. The estimated retail price is $1,800.
The Pentax HD D FA 150-450mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 ED DC AW from Ricoh has a name that’s almost as long as its tremendous focal length. Designed to fit the Pentax K mount, this lens features three extra-low dispersion glass elements and one super-low dispersion glass element to fight chromatic aberration. The weather-resistant construction makes this long zoom ideal for wildlife photographers who shoot year-round. The variable ƒ/4.5-5.6 maximum aperture helps keep the cost and weight down, too. It retails for about $1,800.
If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit of zoom reach in favor of faster glass, you may want to wait for the Pentax D FA* 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED DC AW telephoto zoom for K-mount cameras. It has a fast, constant maximum aperture, great for low-light shooting at fast shutter speeds necessary to photograph active wildlife. And, as part of the high-quality Pentax Star series, the lens features revamped optics including four extra-low dispersion elements and two super-low dispersion elements to minimize aberration and maximize sharpness across the frame, as well as Aero Bright Coating II on the elements for minimizing reflections and ghosting. Improved autofocus is faster and quieter, too. The estimated street price is $2,300.
Pentax HD D FA150-450mm F4.5-5.6 ED DC AW
The Pentax HD DA 560mm ƒ/5.6 ED AW is a massive super-telephoto prime with a constant ƒ/5.6 maximum aperture and a long 560mm focal length. As if 560mm weren’t already enough, this lens becomes a whopping 859mm equivalent when used on APS-C K-mount cameras. HD and SP lens coatings improve clarity and maximize sharpness while minimizing flare and ghosting. The lens includes a drop-in circular polarizer, perfect for deepening blue-sky backgrounds and seeing past glare to let the true colors of a scene come through. The estimated street price is $5,000.
Designed for use with APS-C cameras from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sigma and Sony, the Sigma 18-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC Macro OS HSM Contemporary lens is an all-in-one extreme zoom with an equivalent 27-450mm focal range. Built with four FLD glass elements and one SLD glass element, the lens minimizes chromatic aberration, particularly when used at the telephoto end of its range. Optical stabilization helps with handholding. The estimated street price is $579 (OS/Optical Stabilizer not available on Pentax/Sony mount).
For a strong telephoto zoom range and a fast and constant maximum aperture, Canon, Nikon and Sigma camera owners should check out the Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 DG OS HSM Sports super-telephoto zoom. The original lens built for Sigma’s Sports category, it features optical stabilization, internal focusing and a Hyper Sonic Motor for fast and quiet autofocus. The build quality is high on this lens to fight the dust and moisture wildlife shooters encounter. The lens is also highly customizable through Sigma’s USB dock. The estimated street price is $3,599.
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM
Sigma offers Contemporary and Sports versions of its 150-600mm ƒ/5-6.3 DG OS HSM super-telephoto zoom. Wildlife photographers may prefer the Sports model, which is slightly larger, but features more rugged construction and more elements than the Contemporary model—two FLD and three SLD elements, as opposed to one and three, respectively. The built-in optical image stabilization uses an accelerometer for improved panning, both horizontally and vertically. Enhanced autofocus and a Hyper Sonic Motor ensure fast and quiet focusing, while a manual override switch provides maximum control. The lens is available for Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts, and is customizable via the Sigma USB Dock. The estimated street prices are $989 (Contemporary version) and $1,799 (Sports version).
The Sony FE 24-240mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 OSS superzoom for full-frame E-mount cameras provides a huge 10X zoom range, making it an ideal travel partner for photographers who traded in large DSLRs for Sony’s compact a7 line. Capable of everything from wide to telephoto, the 24-240mm packs a lot of versatility into a fairly compact lens—it weighs 1.72 pounds and is just shy of 4.7 inches in length. Used on an APS-C camera, its equivalent focal range is 36-360mm. Optical Steady Shot vibration reduction, or OSS, makes it easier to handhold this lens when zoomed to 240mm or when working in low light. Its estimated street price is $1,000.
Wildlife photographers who use Sony A-mount cameras will be interested in the 70-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 G SSM II telephoto zoom. An upgraded version of a previous model, the lens features improved coatings for fighting flare and minimizing ghosting, plus faster autofocus performance. When used on an APS-C camera, the lens turns into a powerful 105-600mm zoom. Its estimated retail price is $2,200.
Sony 70-400mm F4-5.6 G SSM II
Dedicated wildlife and sports photographers want fast telephoto primes like the Sony 300mm ƒ/2.8 G SSM II for A-mount cameras. The challenge with fast glass is that it can be big, because large elements let in lots of light, but with its constant ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture, this lens makes up for its size when it comes to low-light and fast shutter speed performance. Used on an APS-C camera, it turns into a whopping 450mm equivalent. Sony’s ultrasonic SSM focus motor is fast and silent, so it won’t scare skittish subjects. The estimated retail price is $5,300.
Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD
Users of APS-C cameras from Canon, Nikon and Sony have a great option for an all-in-one extreme zoom lens that’s also great for wildlife. It’s the 16-300mm Di II VC PZD Macro zoom from Tamron. Equivalent to a focal range of about 25-480mm, this lens is fairly compact, especially given its equivalent telephoto power and optical stabilization. It’s a do-it-all lens, with even macro capability, and it’s great for the traveling photographer on a budget. The estimated retail price is $650.
A great value for full-frame Canon, Nikon and Sony shooters, the Tamron SP 150-600mm Di VC USD super-telephoto zoom provides a versatile range at an accessible price. Vibration compensation helps steady shots when working at the long end of the focal range, and the variable maximum aperture helps to keep the lens compact—at least by 600mm telephoto standards—and to keep the cost down, too. The estimated retail price is $1,100.
Basics of photography
Every camera, from the tiny webcam embedded in your laptop to the full-frame pro cameras built by Nikon and Canon, operates under the same set of basic principles. They come from the very name of photography, the roots of which are the Greek photos, meaning light, and graph, meaning to draw or record — ergo, a photograph is essentially a map of light. When you take a picture of your favorite cityscape, you’re not actually documenting the streets, or the skyscrapers, or the milling crowds — you’re drawing up a recording of the light reflecting off of them.
The most common technique for making this recording is by channelling light through a lens onto a photosensitive material that soaks it up and turns it into an image. That light-absorbing canvas was once film, which has since been replaced by electronic sensors in modern digital shooters. In either case, initiating the light capture is done by opening a shutter in front of the photosensitive surface. By adjusting how long that shutter stays open (shutter speed), the sensitivity of the digital sensor (ISO), and how much light passes through the lens (aperture), you can control exactly how your image appears.
Since light is the only information your camera collects, it should come as no surprise that well-lit scenes typically come out looking sharper and nicer than dark and moody shots illuminated only by a streetlight — more light just gives you more information to work with. When shooting in the dark, the camera must work either harder (with higher ISO) or longer (with a slower shutter speed) to properly recreate the image in front of it. That’s where the flash comes in, a strobe of white light synchronized with the opening of the shutter. It comes with tradeoffs of its own, though: the strength of the flash can wash out fine detail in nearby subjects or lead to the infamous red-eye effect. Tripods are also invaluable in counteracting the blur caused by shaky hands. Unfortunately, they can do nothing about motion within your composition, and they aren’t exactly portable.
Ultimately, the number one lesson in photography is that there are always tradeoffs. If you want the best possible image quality, you’ll need specialized, expensive, bulky equipment. Should portability be your highest priority, you’ll have to accept that some photos and creative ideas will be beyond your reach. There are a number of other considerations to take into account when composing an image — and, consequently, choosing the best camera for the job — which we’ve detailed below. Once you’ve wrapped your head around what they will mean for your intended photography adventure, you should have a good idea of the kind of camera that will best suit your needs.
The key settings
If you’re new to digital photography, the three things you should acquaint yourself with first are the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The three work in concert, and if you can manipulate and control them all, you’ll take fabulous photos without even touching the rest of your camera. Together, they’re known as the Exposure Triangle, because they control how much light you’re exposing the camera to (aperture), how sensitive the camera is to that light (ISO), and how long your exposure lasts (shutter speed).
For some help calculating the depth of field for your chosen camera, aperture setting, and focusing distance, you can use Simple DoF on iOS or DoF Calculator for Android.
Coming from the International Organization for Standardization, ISO (it’s not an acronym) describes the light sensitivity of your camera’s sensor set against a common standard. It was originally known as “film speed,” as it was a static measure of the amount of light a given type of film could absorb, but in modern digital cameras ISO can be adjusted up and down. Higher ISO means a brighter image, which is achieved by digitally amplifying the information collected during exposure. It’s an imperfect process that generates errors, which become apparent in your pictures as discoloration and noise — the unattractive speckling effect you usually see in low-light photos.
The quality of your camera’s sensor and noise-reduction processing will affect the maximum ISO at which you can produce images that are still worth using. From among the cameras we’ve tested ourselves, Canon’s 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D4 are the best in that respect. They can shoot at ISO 12,800 the way most cameras perform at ISO 1000, allowing you to keep shooting in significantly lower light.
AS BRUCE DICKINSON MIGHT SAY, I’VE GOTTA HAVE MORE LIGHT!
Measured using the horribly confusing f-number scale, the aperture is another dead-simple setting saddled with obtuse nomenclature. Basically, most lenses have the ability to constrict the light that passes through them using an internal element (called a diaphragm), which can be extended and retracted using controls on the camera. If you want more light in your image, you pull that diaphragm back as far as it goes, or if you need less, you extend it and limit the incoming rays to a narrower, more focused hole. Aperture, therefore, is just a relative measure for the diameter of your lens opening. Lower f-numbers indicate a wider aperture, with f/2.8 and below being the extremes, while higher ones signify that more light is being blocked.
One side effect of a wide-open lens is that it lets in a lot of unfocused light rays. The result is a shallow depth of field, meaning anything in front of or behind the area on which you’re focusing will appear blurry. Wide aperture settings tend to constrict the in-focus area to a razor-thin sliver, particularly on nearby subjects, giving you the much-desired soft background “bokeh” effect.
When you want a larger focus, the obvious countermeasure is to tighten up the aperture to f/8 or narrower — it bundles up the incoming light into a more focused beam, which will result in greater depth to your focus area. The most extreme depth of field effects are the exclusive preserve of large-sensor cameras; you simply can’t achieve the same defocusing effect with smaller sensors, which retain a generous in-focus depth even at f/1.4.
Shutter speed controls how long the camera spends collecting light, as opposed to ISO and aperture, which direct how much light is absorbed at once. It’s measured in fractions of a second, so a shutter speed of 1/125 means the shutter is open for one 125th of a second. Higher shutter speeds mean the camera captures a shorter period of time, which is key for getting blur-free action shots, while lower speeds allow you to soak up more light, albeit at the risk of blurry results if your camera and subject aren’t still.
Of course, you don’t always have to fear motion blur. Strap your camera to a tripod and you can exploit the blur to your advantage — that’s how the pros create those pictures of highways decorated by streaks of light or waterfalls that look like they’re composed of cascading wisps of smoke instead of frozen drops of water. Most of the time, you’ll want to match your settings to your circumstances, but it’s also good fun to sometimes start with a given set of attributes and rearrange your scene to match them.
Other features that matter
The trifecta above represents the most important controls on your camera, but there are other attributes you need to be mindful of in the pursuit of the best image quality.
You can tweak your settings as much as you like, but without a truly sharp piece of glass to filter light through, your pictures will never look their best. The distinction between sharpness and softness in imaging is one of detail: sharp photos retain a clear separation between edges and colors right down to a pixel level.
Unfortunately, nobody has yet invented an easy metric for quantifying lens quality, so you won’t be able to simply walk into a store and order up the Superlative Edition of your favored lens. Part of the problem is that lens performance varies both with aperture and zoom level. The sharpest lenses at f/4 are typically f/1.8 or f/1.4 lenses that have been pulled back from their highest setting. Similarly, lenses start to exhibit distortion at the extreme wide (16mm and lower) and telephoto (135mm and above) ends of their zoom range, which some cameras are able to automatically correct for with software.
LENSES ARE LIKE SUNSCREEN: ALL-IMPORTANT
There are a couple of easy guiding principles that can steer you in the right direction. First: construction materials matter. Canon’s L series of lenses and the higher end of Nikon’s Nikkor line are both built out of real glass on the inside and extremely robust materials on the outside. The kit lenses bundled with DSLRs and the non-removable lenses on cheaper cameras are made from plastic both on the inside and out, which makes them less reliable in the long term and less impressive when you come to review your results. That’s not a universal rule — there are some exceptionally good lenses with plastic optics — but generally, you’ll be able to tell a good lens by its considerable weight and durable feel.
The second point to remember is that prime lenses — those without a zoom function, whose focal length is fixed — tend to perform better than zoom lenses thanks to their simpler construction. For the absolute best results, you’ll want a camera capable of exchanging lenses, along with wide-aperture lenses at each of the most common focal lengths: 24mm, 50mm, 80mm, 100mm, and 200mm, for instance. That’s more than a backpack’s worth of gear to heave around with you (and quality glass weighs quite a bit anyway), so do it only if you’re unwilling to compromise a little sharpness for a lot more flexibility.
A common misconception is that shutter lag actually has anything to do with the shutter. Sure, there’s a minuscule delay between the instruction to open and the shutter actually opening, but the lion’s share of lag actually comes from the automated focusing and metering systems. Metering is where the camera judges how long it needs to expose the image for, while autofocus is a little more self-explanatory. Cameraphone makers have gotten wise to the fact that people want to see the picture taken the moment they press a button, so we now have phones that continuously refocus and re-meter the scene so as to be ready at a moment’s notice. Samsung even features a “Best Shot” feature on the GS4, which takes a dozen photos while you’re focusing and firing and then chooses the best one automatically.
Every phone and camera maker is trying to dodge the problem of focusing speed, but the only true solution is more focusing points on your camera combined with a faster focusing motor for the lens. The reliability and speed of autofocus, particularly in low light, is one of the ways in which professional cameras still stand head and shoulders above the rest. Canon’s EOS 1D-X packs in a whopping 61 AF points, 41 of them of the more precise cross-type variety. Stick a fast-focusing lens on that camera and you can bid adieu to shutter lag.
STRAYING BEYOND 8 MEGAPIXELS IS OVERKILL FOR ALL BUT THE PROS
WHETHER OPTICAL OR ELECTRONIC, A GOOD VIEWFINDER IS WELL WORTH HAVING
If there’s one rule to follow in photography, it’s that bigger sensors mean better photos. That’s a generalization, of course, but it’s based on a very basic empirical truth: the bigger the photosensitive surface area, the more light is taken in at a time. Practical evidence for this is abundant, from the Nikon 1 series that disappointed everyone with its undersized CX sensor, to the Nokia Lumia 1020, the best cameraphone on the market largely thanks to its enormous 1/1.5-inch sensor.
Full-frame cameras derive their name from the size of their sensors, which match the “full frame” of 35mm film, and are predictably the professional’s favorite option. With a full-frame camera, a 24mm lens gives you exactly that focal length, whereas with smaller sensors, you’re subject to a crop factor that tends to turn everything into a slightly more zoomed-in version of itself (i.e. if the sensor is 1.5 times smaller than full-frame, as with Nikon’s popular DX format, you get 1.5 times the focal length; with a 24mm lens; that’d mean an effective focal length of 36mm).
Alas, price and sensor sizes scale rather proportionally, so medium format and full-frame cameras are usually outside the reach of most enthusiasts, which is why the most popular digital SLRs like the Canon Rebel T4i today feature the APS-C format. It’s a happy compromise.
Strictly speaking, a megapixel contains 1 million pixels, but it’s somewhat meaningless to know that your camera shoots 10 million pixels at a time. What you want to know, and what the megapixel count truly tells you, is how big you can make your image without having to enlarge it digitally (and suffer the resultant degradation in image quality). A 3-megapixel photo is more than dense enough to be printed out at the US standard 6- by 4-inch size at 300ppi, while 9 megapixels get you closer to a regular sheet of paper at the same density. Compromise a little on the pixel density, say down to 200ppi, and you’ll get massive printouts from a humble old 12-megapixel shooter. Now, there are no guarantees that the actual photo would look good — megapixel numbers only measure the number of data points recorded by the camera — but at least you’ll be able to do it.
Practically speaking, however, you’re not likely to need such huge images. Most digital imaging ends up being consumed on computer screens, and if all you need are new profile shots for Facebook even a solitary megapixel will suffice. If you’re shooting for billboards, murals, or other enormous photo sizes, you should get all the megapixels you can (like the whopping 36 from the Nikon D800) but for the average photographer, other specs matter far more.
VIEWFINDER / LCD
Optical viewfinders are a funny thing. Until you use one, you wonder why everyone bothers with the effort, then you get your first DSLR and suddenly you can’t live without one. Mirrors in SLR cameras reflect the exact image that will be imprinted onto the sensor through a sort of porthole atop the camera: that’s your viewfinder. Once again, the more expensive models offer a more luxurious experience, with the Canon 7D and Nikon D700 featuring bigger, more comfortable viewfinders than entry-level DSLRs. Electronic viewfinders (EVF) are getting much better and starting to compete, particularly in Sony’s line of single-lens translucent (SLT) cameras like the A77, and they offer helpful guides and more information to make your shot better anyway. It’s features vs. accuracy, and while the purists tend to stick with optical viewfinders, the electronic variety is catching up quickly.
If your camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, then you’d better make damn sure it’s equipped with a good LCD. You’ll be using it to both frame and review photos, so any shortcomings in terms of color fidelity or resolution can force you into a guessing game you don’t want to play. LCD resolution is measured in dots, with 230,000, 460,000, and 920,000 being the typical values. The more dots the better, obviously, but do take a moment to check out the quality of the screen as well. Sony and Samsung are using OLED displays in some of their latest cameras, which look fantastic. Touchscreens are finally starting to get good, too, from the tap-to-focus features on the Olympus PEN E-P5 to the completely touch-friendly Canon T4i — they’re not essential yet, but are increasingly a great thing to have.
Like a big-name actor who’s too important to sit in the middle of the cast list but not so crucial as to headline the show, the camera’s white balance (WB) gets a dedicated slot at the end. This is the function that everyone leaves on auto, which is why the majority of indoor pics on Facebook look yellow. In simple terms, cameras are a bit dumb. If you don’t tell them that you’re under incandescent lights (which cast a yellow hue), they won’t account for it and will try to balance the colors before them based on their presets. All modern cameras have a WB preset for artificial lighting, but only the more professionally inclined ones give you granular control over white balance and the ability to easily tweak it on the fly.
The best solution we’ve found for overcoming unnatural color tinging is to feed your camera a sample image. The majority of DSLRs now have the option to set WB by taking an image of something that you know is white under the particular lighting conditions you intend to shoot in. Thus, when the camera snaps a nice white sheet of paper under the lurid orange and violet lights of a trade show floor, it’ll calibrate itself to know that white looks a little different at that spot.
It was only a few years ago that video recording was considered a novelty in still cameras, but today HD video is a standard, and assumed, feature. Still, there are pitfalls to beware, such as a selection of cameras that will lock the focus and zoom when video recording starts (for example, the otherwise excellent Canon S95), significantly limiting your options. Reliable autofocus, in the cameras that are capable of it, remains a mirage. You’ll do well to learn to love manual focus if you want your videos to be free of the irritating focus jumps that cameras do when they get confused as to what you’re trying to film.
Cameras with larger sensors make capturing video a harder process compared to simpler point-and-shoots, owing to their greater sensitivity, bulkier bodies, and typically mechanical zoom and focus mechanisms. They give you more to worry about, as lens operation noises are often picked up by the integrated microphone. However they also provide access to a range of cinematic effects that smaller cams can’t touch. Want to start your movie masterpiece with a gorgeously circular bokeh that gradually comes into focus on your leading man? You’ll need something in the class of a Canon 60D with a wide-aperture lens to match.
FIGMENTS OF MARKETING IMAGINATION: DIGITAL ZOOM AND DIGITAL IMAGE STABILIZATION
Zoom is a simple concept — it’s how close you can get to whatever you’re shooting without having to physically move closer — but it’s not always obvious what you’re really getting. The actual x-multiple of your zoom is much less important than the angle measurements at the widest and closest settings, which measure how much you can fit into your photo. A camera that starts at 28mm and has 10x zoom will ultimately get closer (280mm) than one that begins at 24mm (240mm when zoomed in), though the tradeoff is a slightly smaller field of view when you’re zoomed out. If you want to be as close as possible to your subject, the most important number is the telephoto angle — more so than the x-multiple.
But be warned: cameras with huge zoom tend to be hard to hold steady when zoomed in, so getting sharp photos might be tough even with the best image stabilization. Additionally, as we’ve mentioned, great zoom comes with image quality dropoffs — lens makers have to compromise on something, so if you’re going after a massive zoom range, it won’t deliver sublime images the way a fixed focal length might.
When it comes to zoom operation, fixed-lens cameras have the upper hand. They usually have powered zoom mechanisms, allowing you smooth control at the press of a button. Interchangeable lenses are more fiddly for the newcomer, as their zoom is usually (but not always) controlled mechanically with a ring around the body of the lens. That gives more granular control to those who want it, but can be off-putting to the casual user.
Finally, do yourself a favor and ignore the very idea of a “digital zoom.” It’s done either by enlarging the picture (and reducing its quality) or cropping down to a smaller area of the sensor, both of which you can do much better with dedicated post-processing software on your computer — a few phones like the Lumia 1020 offer clever ways to zoom and re-process on your device, but they can’t match Photoshop or even your average desktop viewer.
As with digital zoom, digital image stabilization (IS) is more of a marketing ploy than a useful feature. The optical stuff, however, is a whole other story. Lenses with optical IS are equipped with internal elements that move in the opposite direction of any small movements you make, steadying the image that arrives onto the sensor. Nikon’s “Vibration Reduction” is particularly effective, allowing you to shoot at two or three steps slower shutter speed than you usually would be able to without motion blur. For example, if 1/40 shutter speed is your floor before you start seeing blurring on a regular lens, its VR version will move that down to 1/25. Canon’s version of this is called the “Optical Image Stabilizer,” Panasonic’s is “MegaOIS,” and virtually every other camera and lens maker has its own variety too.
Sony and Olympus have made a habit of building image stabilization right into the body of their DSLRs, simplifying lens design and reassuring users that all of their lenses will be stabilized. Ultimately, whichever system you choose, each serves the purpose of reducing the deleterious effects of unintended motion and should be considered highly desirable in a camera. If you’re going after a shooter with a long telephoto zoom, optical IS should be the first thing you look for.