Overview for Nature Photography Camera Bodies
Nature photography is a broad category that can range from landscapes to seascapes, or from wildlife to flowers and bugs. With such a broad range of subjects, the required camera equipment is equally broad. Your exact setup will depend on your style of photography, as well as the type of nature photography you intend to pursue.
This guide is intended to serve as a continually updated guide that is based on both the latest camera bodies available, as well as some of the best values in previous camera generations. We will focus this article primarily on general nature & landscape photography; and we may create additional articles in the future to include more specialized recommendations for things like wildlife photography.
Consideration: Full Frame VS Crop-Sensor
In our opinion, landscape photography is one of the primary areas of photography where both full-frame and crop-sensor cameras can truly shine. Why? To explain this we must consider the two main reasons why people “upgrade” to full-frame:
- First, most people upgrade to full-frame for the image quality. Full-frame sensors will always be a little better than crop-sensors within the same generation. However this difference is far more pronounced at higher ISOs than lower ISOs, and of course many traditional nature photographers might find that they spend 75-90% of their time at their base ISO! At ISO 100 or so, the latest 1-2 generations of crop-sensor cameras have incredible image quality, even for professional applications.
- Second, many people appreciate the DOF (depth-of-field) and focal length options that a full-frame sensor gives them. On a crop-sensor camera your options are quite limited for achieving shallow DOF at medium and wide-angle focal lengths. This can be a problem for crop sensor shooters who are interested in portraiture or other fine-art subjects, however most landscape photographers are going in the opposite direction- they need MORE depth, not less! To put it simply, a 16mm lens at f/5.6 on a crop sensor is going to give a lot more depth than a 24mm lens at f/5.6 on a full-frame sensor. (16mm and 24mm being approximate equivalents depending on which crop sensor you use. Camera nerds can debate the exact details all they want, but this is a safe general rule.)
Thus, although full-frame sensors are always going to be slightly superior, especially when pushing the envelopes of low-light and shallow depth, crop sensors are a force to be reckoned with in the world of general outdoor photography. If you are mainly a nature / landscape photographer and a complete collection of high-end full-frame lenses just isn’t in your budget, rejoice! The decision between crop and full-frame is not going to make or break your body of work, or your career.
Even if budget is not an issue, if you simply prefer to carry a lighter, smaller set of equipment then crop sensor systems may be the best choice. Especially for things like telephoto wildlife photography, or high-magnification macro photography, having a crop sensor might be a good idea.
In short, your choice of body has more to do with the overall functionality of the camera body itself, and the base ISO image quality, than anything else. Always make your decisions based on personal experience and preference, not numbers on paper!
It is with all of these things in mind that we make our recommendations for camera bodies. Enjoy! ;-)
All-Around Value Winners
Although this camera isn’t the most expensive, exotic DSLR body on the market it is hands-down the best value when you consider all factors- price, image quality, and technology. The D7100 is an outdoor photographers’ dream camera at just $1199, with it’s 24 megapixel sensor that lacks an AA filter and benefits from the same ground-breaking advances in dynamic range and resolution that Nikon has also put into the more expensive D600 and D800. (Click HERE to read our D7100 review!)
The Canon 6D is another outdoor photography dream, being the lightest full-frame camera around, with great all-around image quality coming from it’s newly designed 20 megapixel sensor. The built-in GPS, wifi connectivity, and pro-grade weather sealing will make any adventure photographer very happy, and any star timelapse / nightscape photographer will also love the stunning high ISO performance. (Click HERE to read our 6D review and check out a sample timelapse video made at ISO12800!)
Of course if you do shoot a lot more action, maybe wildlife or outdoor sports, then consider the Canon 5D Mk3 which offers better autofocus and more versatile shutter / sync capabilities. Most traditional landscape / nature photographers will be thrilled with a 6D, though!
In our opinion Sony has indeed joined “the big two” with this new 24 megapixel full-frame sensor. Combine incredible image quality with a body that has numerous innovative features that no other camera offers, and any nature / landscape photographer who has yet to make a significant investment should consider this Sony option. Heck, even if you’re already quite invested in another brand, if you want to access some of the cutting edge features that Sony is offering you might want to consider a switch!
Sheer Performance & Image Quality Champions
If you have an unlimited budget or the absolute highest standards, the best DSLR for nature photography is definitely currently the D800, and it’s sibling-on-steroids, the D800E. Currently the highest resolution DSLRs on the market, with by far the best overall image quality. (especially dynamic range!) Simply put, you can’t go wrong if these factors are your primary concerns; the D800‘s image quality is the current reigning champion. Its array of additional features, such as built-in bracketing / HDR, and built-in intervalometer / timelapse, make it a great nature photography tool. The full compatibility with Nikon’s entire line of classic F-mount lenses is the icing on the cake. The only down side? It is considerably more sluggish at shooting high-speed action, compared to its predecessor the D700 which could hit a flagship-grade 8 FPS when used with a vertical grip.
Currently the highest-resolution DSLR camera body available in the Canon mount, ~22.3 megapixels is definitely more than enough for any landscape or nature photographer. Also, despite the current “Canon VS Nikon” buzz regarding dynamic range, the Canon 5D Mk3 delivers great dynamic range and overall image quality. While the Nikon does offer more resolution and better dynamic range, if you already own Canon you would have to be a truly obsessed pixel-peeper to “jump ship”… One aspect where the 5D mk3 definitely beats the D800 is in speed. The 5D mk3 boasts a superior frame rate and a flagship AF system that has cross-type focus points spread out around the viewfinder much better than Nikon’s current AF system. So if your nature photography interests include wildlife or extreme sports, the 5D mk3 is your current champion.
Honorable Mentions – Full-Frame
Great resolution and overall image quality that rivals the Nikon D800, the little brother to the D800 is one of the lightest full-frame bodies available. Heck, it’s one of the lightest “advanced amateur” DSLRs, period! However it is missing just a couple minor functions that make its value tough to determine from one photographer to another. Its price, portability and features put it in an awkward position between the D7100 and D800. Our advice? If you’re an adventure / travel photographer on a budget, just stick with DX and get the fantastic D7100. Or if you’re a serious big-print photographer looking to do gallery exhibitions or something, just pony up and get the D800.
A better value than the 5D mk3 for any nature or landscape photographer who only needs the image quality of full-frame, and dosen’t really need the bells and whistles. The 5D mk2’s image quality is incredible, and in fact at your base ISO it is practically identical to the 5D mk3. Then again, if you’re on a budget you should also consider the 6D. Although it costs a little more than a used 5D mk2, it has many new functions that make it much more delightful to use.
Once the most prestigious DSLR on the market, (and the most expensive, with an initial price tag of $8,000) The Canon 1Ds Mk3 can now be found for about $3-4K. In our opinion a flagship-size DSLR body is going to be a bit overkill for most general outdoor photographers, but if you don’t mind the extra weight and need a camera body that is worthy of a war zone, this is your best bet!
Honorable Mentions – Crop-Sensor
This 16 megapixel crop-sensor camera might be seen as more of an amateur / beginner camera, however its sensor and image quality speak for itself. If you’re looking for a small, lightweight DSLR that you can add to your kit as a 2nd camera or a travel kit, this is one of the most affordable options with the best overall image quality. Like most of the other crop-sensor cameras of it’s age the high ISO performance is really only good up to 1600 or so, depending on your standards, but the dynamic range and overall image quality at your base ISO makes the camera a great value for anyone who pans to use it mostly for that purpose.
The 7D is one of the most versatile crop-sensor cameras on the market. It has a great 18 megapixel sensor that delivers amazing images especially at lower ISOs, a robust body with moderate weather sealing, and action-ready 19-point autofocus and 8 FPS shooting speed. If fast-action wildlife photography is your main focus then we recommend the 7D far higher than any other camera in its price range, including the Nikon D7100. (Note that as of July 2013, the 7D could be replaced soon, even within the next 1-6 months. Also consider the very new 70D, which was just announced but has not yet been widely tested or reviewed.)
Similar to Sony’s approach to the advanced-level DSLR market, the latest Pentax DSLRs offer more next-generation features such as built-in stabilization and articulated LCD screens. It’s sad to think, but Canon and Nikon will probably never pursue this particular market due to their existing technology. (In-lens stabilization, etc.) Fortunately, Pentax is a great choice if you value functionality, customizability, and overall features without breaking the bank. The Pentax K-5II and K-5IIs (without an AA filter) are a good choice if you want as many features as possible, but aren’t interested in sacrificing an optical viewfinder. In fact Pentax has always been an industry leader in delivering big, high-end optical viewfinders in their moderately priced camera bodies!
If you’re looking for other options with more of those next-generation features, Olympus is one of the best options out there for outdoor photographers who are looking for something portable, rugged, and cutting-edge. The Olympus OM-D E-M5 is basically a retro-looking successor to their legendary E-series lineup, which left off with the E-5 back in 2010. It sports some of the best weather sealing in the industry, a feature very un-common for a camera of such compact size. In our opinion it’s usually better to invest in something a little more well-rounded like the Nikon D7100 or Canon 7D, but hey, who says you have to own just one camera? The OM-D camera is one of those things you might want to add to your kit just for those special adventures when you want to keep things truly minimal.
Other Format Cameras
This article is obviously only geared towards the most common DSLR sensor sizes. Indeed, many dedicated landscape photographers may prefer to use medium format or large format cameras, and many adventure / travel photographers these days are probably exploring the new mirrorless “EVIL” options as well. However, those categories are so vast that they definitely deserve their own guides! Another day, perhaps.
We hope this gear guide has helped you get an idea of your options, and the current playing field!