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What’s the best camera for filming wildlife?

There is of course no perfect camera – and no one answer to the above question – however there are a number of factors that might make one camera more suitable than another for filming wildlife, and it is these that should be considered when choosing the right kit for the task at hand.

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Format Size

Probably the first thing to think about when choosing a camera is the format size – the physical size of the sensor. Of any technical spec, this arguably has the greatest effect on your ability to capture wildlife on camera.

For many types of filmmaking, larger formats tend to be desirable. The main reason people give is that it looks more ‘cinematic’ and less like TV. What they actually mean is that it has a thinner depth of field – which, due to our exposure to a century of cinema, has become subconsciously synonymous with high production value and aesthetic quality.

As a quick aside – it’s important to note that the sensor itself has no effect on the depth of field. It’s the larger format lenses that bigger formats necessitate that produce a thinner depth of field for any given field of view.

Natural history filmmaking however is one of the notable genres that a smaller format may well be preferable, and this is for a number of reasons – all of which are related to the optics.

Depth of Field

Imagine looking through a dense forest in search of an elusive animal. Because we see in three dimensions, our eyes are very good at pulling focus between branches and our brains are excellent at focus stacking (a photography technique where multiple images with different focal points are layered to increase the depth of field) without us even noticing. In addition to this, the human eye produces a comparatively deep depth of field – our eyes are a fairly small format size. All of this means it’s easy for us to spot something with our eyes, regardless of how many branches are in front or behind the subject.

Now imagine trying to film that same subject. Your camera produces a two dimensional image, and you’ll need to focus back and forth through layers of branches. With a large sensor camera, everything in front and behind the focal point will be significantly out of focus: you probably won’t see that animal, even if you’re pointing right at it. Target acquisition can be very challenging with a thin depth of field.

Lenses

When filming wildlife, unless we’re doing macro work (filming insects for example), it’s safe to say we want the longest lenses we can get our hands on. With format size in mind, this has a number of implications. The larger the sensor, the longer the focal length you’ll need to reach any given field of view: with a sensor twice as large, you’ll need a lens twice as long to get the same ‘magnification’.

The longer the lens, the larger, heavier and slower it becomes – there’s no way around it, that’s just physics. It’s quite typical for lenses under 100mm to reach f/1.4 or even faster; for longer lenses, f/2.8 is considered fast, with many telephoto lenses only being f/4 or f/5.6.

Even when comparing the same focal lengths with comparable aperture and features, the one designed for the smaller format will be physically smaller, lighter, cheaper and will have longer reach.

Lenses are just as important to think about as cameras when filming wildlife
Not to scale: The Canon 100-400 (right) covers full frame and so is significantly larger, heavier and more expensive than the Leica 100-400 (left) which is designed for micro-four-thirds.

Low light

Whilst bigger sensors mean bigger lenses and bigger costs, they do have one huge advantage: low light sensitivity. If filming wildlife at dawn and dusk (or even at night) is a priority for you, then full frame cameras should be at the top of your list.

A larger sensor means either larger pixels or more pixels, either method producing a cleaner image. The bigger the pixel, the more photons it can capture – literally collecting more light. The higher the resolution, the smaller the resulting noise or grain when displayed at the same size compared to the image from a smaller sensor.

Of course, do be aware that the above caveats regarding lenses and depth of field still apply – and are probably more extreme – when you’re wanting to shoot in the darkest possible environment. The fastest lenses for full frame are very large, heavy and expensive – and the resulting depth of field is very thin.

Slow motion

Like thin depth of field, slow motion is a visual cue that we’ve become to associate with high production value. Only unlike thin depth of field, a high maximum frame rate is a highly desirable feature for natural history. Many animals are fast – being able to capture it slower than reality enables us to analyse and appreciate their rapid behaviour at a pace easier for viewers to digest.

The additional benefit of shooting high speed is that you may only get a fleeting glimpse at the animal – this effectively extends the usable duration your footage, and looks super slick at the same time too. Slow motion can also help to dampen shaky footage – shooting from a moving boat for example is greatly smoothed when slow motion is utilised. There is of course no substitute for a tripod and a steady image to begin with, but it’s a useful side effect that comes in handy now and again.

Maximum frame rate is one factor that sensor size is independent from. It is however tied to resolution – and as we’ve discussed above, larger sensors tend to have higher resolutions, but their lower maximum frame rate is due to the this higher pixel count. Often, larger sensor cameras can shoot higher frame rates in a lower resolution mode.

Therefore, without looking at the specs, there’s no real way to tell how fast a camera can shoot just by its sensor size – some full frame cameras are capable of shooting high frame rates whereas other smaller sensor cameras can’t. Similarly, the conclusion can’t be drawn that two cameras with the same sensor size will have the same slow motion capability.

As with all good things, there are drawbacks. Shooting high frame rates means consuming data at a proportionally higher rate. Double the frame rate, double the data – make sure to pack lots of extra memory cards. Some cameras however reduce the data rate during high speed capture. This has the advantage of reducing the rate at which cards will be filled up (it’ll still be more than shooting regular speed), with the tradeoff being the image won’t be as robust. Also worth bearing in mind is that some cameras at their highest frame rates often produce softer, mushy looking footage compared to slower speeds and may not be adequate for the quality you’re after.

Finally, shooting in slow motion means that any mistakes you make – a buzzed focus pull or a badly framed image – are played out in slow motion too. They’ll seem to drag on for ages – you’ll be yelling at the screen to ‘sharp up’ or ‘move the camera’! Playing back clips can also be a drag – you’ll find yourself scrubbing through many minutes of footage just to find that five seconds of gold.

Most cameras these days at least offer 2x slow motion (ie 50fps), with many offering higher. Even when filming wildlife which is slow moving, shooting them at half speed is often a good idea. Watching clips of them in real-speed can often look sped up and their movements jerky by comparison – like a vintage film from the early days of cinema. Half speed is usually not slow enough to notice and adds a gracefulness to the animal’s movements that accentuates their natural beauty and wonder.

bonus features

Whilst the above are main points to consider when choosing a camera for filming wildlife, there are a number of other secondary factors that, depending on your needs, may be a priority.

Pre-rec is a feature whereby the camera is always recording to a temporary buffer, so that when you hit record, it’s already captured the previous few seconds. Do be aware that the higher the resolution and/or bitrate, the shorter this buffer duration, and often pre-rec can’t be used in conjunction with slow motion.

Power consumption can be a critical factor when deciding on the right kit. If you plan on being out in the wild for days or weeks at a time, you might not have the ability to charge up your batteries. The longer a camera can last on each battery the better – you can either continue filming for longer, or you could shed some weight and not need to take as many batteries.

Similarly, the size and weight of the complete camera package should be of significant consideration. Carrying kit into remote locations is often necessary; generally speaking, you’ll want the lightest kit you can get away with, without sacrificing functionality or quality. Don’t forget about the weight limits for baggage if flying too.

Recommendations

So which is the best camera for filming wildlife? Well, that of course depends on your needs and priorities. Do you need the longest possible reach from a given camera and lens system? The best in low light? The smallest or lightest kit? Most likely, a combination of the above. The other main consideration of course is your budget. With that in mind, we’ve outlined a few of our suggested picks for the best cameras in different price brackets. Whilst the rest of the article will remain relevant, we’ll update these suggestions from time to time as new cameras are released.

High budget

Canon C300mkIII

The Canon C300 MkIII is an excellent choice for filming wildlife with if you have the budget to buy one

The Canon C300 mkIII is our top wildlife camera if price isn’t a problem. Its predecessors have always been dependable, high quality cameras, and this newest iteration is packed with features. Its rugged body includes all of the functionality you’d expect from a ‘full size’ camera such as NDs and XLRs, though also boasts internal raw, 120fps slow motion and excellent low light capabilities. It sports a Super 35 sensor which is a good middle ground for format size, offering the best of both worlds when it comes to depth of field, low light and lens reach.

Mid budget

Sony FX3

The Sony FX3 is the perfect option for filming wildlife in very low light

With the exception of ultra specialist (and expensive) cameras such as the Canon ME 20F-SH, Sony have always been the king when it comes to low light. The Sony FX3 is an A7Siii in a more rugged body with inbuilt active cooling. Its full frame sensor allows you to film literally by moonlight, and is even capable of 120fps slow motion. Its size and weight is also ideal for when you need to pack light.

Low budget

Canon XA40

The Canon XA40 is a great budget option to choose for filming wildlife

Whilst not as popular as they perhaps once were (due only to the rise in popularity of large sensor, interchangeable lens cameras), camcorders are ideal for natural history. Their integrated lenses and small sensors deliver an unbeatable range of focal lengths in a low-power, compact and lightweight package – and still whilst delivering impressive image quality. The Canon XA40 boasts 20x optical zoom, plus all the connectors you’d expect on a professional camera that costs much more.

Also consider

Sony FS7

The Sony FS7 was the most popular camera for many years for all sorts of filmmaking - including filming wildlife. Buying one second hand is a great way to step up the quality of your films without breaking the bank

Shopping second hand is a great way to get high quality kit at more affordable prices. What was being using a couple of years ago was considered state of the art – cameras don’t get any worse with age and are just as good today as they were back then. Whilst there are countless great cameras of the past, we’d highly recommend the Sony FS7. It’s the most popular Super 35 camera ever made – and for good reason. Upon release, it boasted the quality and features of cameras twice the price. As owners upgrade to the newer generation of cameras, the market is saturated with comprehensive bundles at competitive prices.

Do you even need to buy a camera?

A common misconception of budding filmmakers is that you must own all of your kit in order to be a filmmaker. In reality, high quality gear suitable for filming wildlife will cost you a small fortune. For those on a limited budget, the best option is often hiring the gear you need as and when you actually need it – this is how most large productions work and many will simply hire a camera for you to use rather than using one you already own. Hiring kit also enables you to become familiar with many different cameras at different price points, enabling you to keep up with the latest cameras and understand how these are best used for filming wildlife in particular.

If you need super specialist items, which you’ll probably find you will do when filming wildlife, hiring is almost certainly the way you’ll need to go. It might be a little tricky to find places to hire these items as they aren’t as widely used as more mainstream cameras or lenses, but you’ll often find that the companies hiring them have a wealth of knowledge that you can learn from about these bits of kit. Take our thermal and full spectrum cameras for instance – we’ve learned their limitations and best uses already and written a guide on how to film in thermal and infrared spectrums, so you have a head start on how to use the kit to your advantage.

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