Here it is, as promised, the wildlife edition of the best cameras you can buy in 2021.
I think one of the most important differences between wildlife and landscape photography is recognizing what specifications are most important.
While autofocus and burst rate are life or death for a wildlife camera, they don’t matter much for a landscape camera.
Thus, the list of best cameras for wildlife will be different, although you’ll notice some repeats from the landscape edition. That’s a good thing though, we are beginning to see powerhouse hybrid cameras, like the Canon R5 and a1. They do everything from wildlife to landscape to professional video. And, that’s great for us consumers because I want the next camera I buy to do it all.
But, you’ll notice some specialized cameras on this list too, ones that you might not touch for landscapes, but compete at the top in the wildlife realm.
So, without further ado, enjoy.
What’s most important for a ‘wildlife’ camera?
Autofocus is king for wildlife. Fast moving, erratic, unpredictable subjects mean you need an elite autofocus system. Because after all, if you don’t have focus, well what do you have…right?!
Burst Rate & Buffer
In line with autofocus, when animals or birds are moving quickly, firing off enough shots in a short period of time can mean you either get the shot or you don’t. And not only should a camera be able to shoot fast, but it should be able to clear its buffer, and allow you to still shoot while clearing.
Sensor Size & Resolution
Sensor size and resolution are important, but in different ways versus a landscape camera. A higher resolution sensor is great because you have extra cropping ability. Taking a shot at 400mm with a 60MP sensor is great because you can crop into a 600mm view. But, a smaller sensor can also be nice because of the noise performance. A lower resolution full-frame sensor should be cleaner at higher ISOs than high resolution counterparts.
Ergonomics & Build
This is important, just like with landscapes. A camera should feel great in the hands, be easy to use and shoot with, and have great build. Things like a quality weather sealing are very important when shooting in harsh conditions…which can happen a lot as a landscape photographer.
You could list a whole other slew of features, but this is what’s most important in my experience.
These are the best full-frame cameras for landscape photography that you can buy today:
The Sony a1 is a do-it-all camera, and a do-it-all-the-best as well. The a1 is the best camera you can buy today for landscape and wildlife.
What makes it stand out for wildlife work? Well, a few things.
It features the best autofocus system in any camera today. I mean, the a1 even has a bird Eye-AF tracking mode. From tracking to the various Eye-AF modes to just overall reliability – the a1 has set the bar for autofocus.
What’s even better, is you can shoot up to 30 fps blackout free. Honestly, 30 fps makes a HUGE difference – it means that you are more likely and better equipped to capture that special wildlife moment that might only last a millisecond.
And this is a 50 MP full-frame camera, usually you only see features like this in lower resolution bodies. At 50 MP, you have great detail and the ability to crop. Noise performance and dynamic range are excellent at all.
The Sony a1 is simply the best camera available.
Canon EOS-1D X Mark III
Finally! A non-mirrorless option. The 1D X Mark III is one of those legendary cameras. The 1D X line has been Canon’s flagship for wildlife and sports for a long time. Today in 2021, although we are shifting to mirrorless, this camera is still excellent.
And although, the specs of a camera like the A1 might match it or be superior…there is reason to opt for a 1D X Mark III or a Nikon D6 (further down).
The big things to me are – ergonomics, battery life, and potentially durability. There is no doubt the main weakness of Sony is ergonomics, and I think even of all mirrorless cameras. I love my Z7, but man did the D850 just feel amazingly comfortable in the hands.
Ergonomics can mean a lot for wildlife photography, it might allow you to compose faster, have more control over camera shake, and just be more comfortable shooting. The battery life is nice too, especially when a lot of our wildlife trips are to remote areas.
The 1D X is no slouch either. Noise performance is at the highest level, it’s fast at 20 fps, has a huge buffer, and it shoots great video too.
It is only a 20.1 MP sensor, but that small sensor allows for great noise handling and some of the other features.
The Canon R5, another amazing camera. Just like the Sony a1, it enters that arena of being just good for everything.
It is actually very similar to the a1, and you can see it’s priced almost $3,000 less.
Canon has managed to introduce a autofocus system that is competing at the top with Sony. The R5 also sports tracking modes that can track the eyes of animals, even birds, with 100% frame coverage.
The burst of the R5 is capable of 20 fps with the electronic shutter, a little slower than the a1 at 30 fps. While 20 fps doesn’t seem like much, having the extra 10 fps can make a difference for fast moving scenes and wildlife.
The R5 does sport a high-resolution sensor at 45 MP. I think the larger sensor is so great for wildlife work. Especially when you can pair the R5 with an excellent 100-500mm lens…if you need a longer reach, you don’t have to be afraid to crop.
Other highlights of the R5 are the amazing Canon colors, one of the best handling mirrorless cameras available, and excellent video specs.
It is one of the best cameras available, and if we’re talking about best camera for the price, the R5 could be it.
Sony a9 II
When the Sony a9 first came out in 2017, everyone was like, uh, wait wha…It revolutionized the mirrorless system and showed that mirrorless cameras could in fact be elite systems for wildlife photography.
The a9 set the bar with autofocus, it just didn’t miss and handled complex moments like tracking birds in flight seamlessly…or at least better than anything we’d seen before bar maybe the 1 DX II and D5.
The a9 II kept that trend alive. It is (or was with the a1 now) Sony’s flagship wildlife camera. Autofocus has somehow improved and it’s a similar system to that of the a1.
The burst rate is similar to the R5 at 20 fps, but it is a 24.2 MP sensor. The benefit is insane noise performance, it handles noise so well and you can easily shoot at ISO 6400…or beyond really with some noise reduction.
The downside, well you might not have as much cropping or zooming in leeway as with the a1 or R5.
The battery life is much better than the R5. Blackout shooting is better. And the AF system is still just a bit better than the R5s, mainly when it comes to real-time tracking, for say birds in flight.
The a9 II is a dedicated wildlife beast though, that’s its focus and it does it well.
Last on the list is Nikon’s flagship Dx model, the latest D6. Just to note, although the Z system is excellent. I can’t recommend it for wildlife…yet. The native lens options just are not there, and while Nikon might exceed or match Sony/Canon in terms of dynamic range, noise, and color, they are not yet there with the autofocus system. Canon and Sony simply perform better when it comes to fast moving subjects and low-light.
With that said, the Nikon D6 does not struggle with either of those things and brings Nikons excellent noise performance and dynamic range along as well.
The D6 is very similar to the 1D X Mark III. A 20.8 MP full-frame camera focused on action and wildlife. The D6 lags behind the rest with a max burst rate of 14 fps, a little disappointed compared to the rest. Where it excels though is its autofocus system, which is right there with Canon and Sony, and insane noise performance. I have seen usable shots at ISO 51,200, which is just crazy.
It also has an amazing build and some of the best ergonomics out of any flagship system, mirrorless or DSLR.
If you are a Nikon shooter, keep your eyes peeled for the Nikon Z9. It will be Nikon’s flagship mirrorless and I expect it to perform as well or better than the Sony a1. The downside right now is lack of lenses..
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Image Review: Wildlife
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, October 12th, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time