While most people are talking about the latest and greatest new Nikon D6, in this video, we will try to figure out which of the Nikon bodies is more suited for wildlife and why.
When I talk of wildlife, I include birding, macros (insects), as also mammals (large and small).
In general, the gear you use would depend largely on your usage and budget. In my case, I share images on the web and also print some. Personally, I like to have details in the subjects that one would not see via the naked eye which presents the beauty of nature from a different perspective.
Before we move on, all my image reference numbers are based on my Nikon 200-500mm at the full 500mm regardless of which body I use it on as also the fact that I like to fill the frame where practically possible.
Now, I also put some images on stock sites occasionally and most such sites, if not all, require at least 3000 px on the long edge.
Now that we have all this talk done, let us look at what the two most discussed features of any new camera:
1. The AF or the Auto-Focus system
2. The low light performance or ISO response range
Yes, there is the frame rate or FPS as well, but, that part I have already discussed in an earlier video.
Let us take these one-by-one and see how they impact wildlife photography.
The ISO or low light performance first. This definitely impacts the image quality in low light and there is no doubt on that part.
Unfortunately, this improved ISO performance comes at a cost. The cost is generally the resolution of the sensor. This is also reflected in the latest Sony A7 III which is a 12 MP sensor as also in the top end Canon bodies. The most often used term in this regard is the larger “pixel” size. There are details on the sensors available on the internet for those who might want to know more about this.
Once again, your gear depends on your purpose/usage and budget.
Now, let us look at the AF part. The AF is not relevant for macros or super macros (1:1 or higher). That leaves us with action shots of birds and mammals.
Most mammals are large enough so one could easily use just a single focus point. The same applies to large birds. I would say the size of crows and larger.
Most of the issues we look at the AF system is when we are dealing with smaller mammals (squirrels and the likes) and small to tiny birds.
Now, there are actually two issues here…First, these subjects are small and unless you can get close to them, you will not really get any detail. Second, when you get close enough to these small ones, every AF, as also you, would be hard-pressed to track/pan them.
Getting close to a subject can be achieved in two ways.
1. Getting physically closer, or
2. Using a longer lens
Let me talk of a couple of specific examples. If you have ever tried to shoot a running squirrel around a 10-meter distance, you already know what happens when you try to pan the camera with it. The same applies to a tiny sunbird or tailorbird. Although you might get a squirrel running across a wall or the ground, the birds would be even faster and more erratic.
If you cannot move the camera fast enough to track, the AF cannot do much since the subject is not within the AF range. The 10-meter distance that I mentioned is just about good enough to get some detail on these subjects even though you will have only a quarter of less of your frame with the subject.
Before we look at some images to figure out the above-mentioned points, let us look at some of the Nikon bodies and their image resolutions…
D5200, D5300, D7200 – 6000 x 4000 (Approx. 24 MP)
D7500, D500, D5, D6 – 5568 x 3712 (Approx. 20 MP)
D850 – 8256 x 5504 (Approx. 45 MP)
Excepting for the D500, D5 and of course, D6, I have owned all the other bodies and used them for years. My current gear is a couple of D850s, a D7500 with a Nikkor 200-500mm as my long lens and a Tamron 90mm as my macro lens besides some others.
Let us now look at some of my shots to see what becomes more relevant for wildlife and why.
I will use ON1 Photo Raw 2020 for this purpose for two reasons.
1. It shows the subject distance as seen by the camera
2. I have not processed the images in any way in this application
To summarise what we just saw…
The resolution is perhaps the most important part for wildlife photographers. The AF, regardless of how good it is, cannot do much unless you can pan the camera and keep the subject in the frame. For long shots, the AF would not really make a difference in practice as also for larger subjects.
The sensor resolution detail would be limited by the lenses you use, so, keeping a reasonable balance between the resolution, lens and your budget might be a prudent choice. Getting the highest-resolution sensor around might not be the best choice.
In my case, I try to figure out the maximum ISO at which the image quality is acceptable to me at given distances for every camera body. I do not shoot if I have to go beyond that excepting in some cases or to test.
Ultimately, it is your choice as to what is more important to you as a wildlife photographer. Of course, there is also a possibility that all this would change in the future as technology moves ahead…