Looking for the best complete nature photography setup for each of the major camera systems (Canon, Sony, and Nikon)? We’ve got you covered in this article.
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘holy trinity’ mentioned during the discussion of camera lenses and systems. The ‘holy trinity’ simply refers to a group of three lenses that offer full coverage from the wide end to the telephoto end.
For instance, Nikon’s holy trinity is a 14-24mm, 24-70mm, an a 70-200mm.
In this article, I will layout the three ‘best’ lenses you can get for nature photography. I will deviate from each systems holy trinity in some cases, but I will be listing the lenses that will offer the best coverage and quality for nature photography – that means from shooting landscapes to songbirds.
I’ll list one camera and three lenses for each system. The three lenses will be categorized by ‘Wide’, ‘Mid-Range’, and ‘Telephoto’.
I will also be focusing only on the mirrorless options from the big three, as that seems to be where the industry is trending.
Camera: Canon R5
Wide: Canon RF 14-35mm f/4L
Mid-Range: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L
Telephoto: Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L
Total Cost: $9,396.00
The Canon R5 has quickly become one of the most popular cameras out there among nature photographers, and for good reason. It offers a high-resolution 45 MP sensor, it has great dynamic range and noise performance, it can burst up to 20 fps, and it has one of the best autofocus systems of any camera.
I really like how you can outfit the Canon mirrorless system. I think the newly released RF 14-35mm f/4 is going to be one of the best landscape lenses on the market. It offers 14mm on the wide spectrum (huge for landscape photography), has great range to 35mm, and it can take threaded filters. Did I mention it’s lightweight and portable too?! You can opt for the RF 15-35mm f/2.8 here, but I think having 14mm is more important than f/2.8.
The RF 24-105mm f/4 is possibly the best 24-105mm out there. I opt for it over the super-fast RF 24-70mm f/2.8 because of its additional coverage to 105mm and it’s smaller size.
Pair those two lenses with the RF 100-500mm and you have coverage from 14-500mm! The 100-500mm is excellent for wildlife photography. Having the flexibility to shoot between 100mm and 500mm is a huge benefit when in the field, and it opens up compositional possibilities. Some worry about its slow speed (f/4.5-f/7.1 vs. say a 600mm f/4), but it has proved to be an excellent lens with great bokeh across its aperture range. ISO performance is great so you can compensate for the lack of speed that way.
The downside of Canon is the price. Their lenses especially are relatively expensive, but you get what you pay for and Canon offers the best glass on the market.
Camera: Sony a1
Wide: Sony FE 12-24mm f/2.8 GM
Mid-Range: Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G
Telephoto: Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM
Total Cost: $13,092.00 ($9,592.00 w/ a7R IV)
Sony has paved the way for mirrorless and their Alpha series is the most established. Sony has the most mirrorless bodies and lens options available. I have listed the best rig you can buy, in my opinion, but they are many great options in the Sony ecosystem. Sony has opened their mount up to third-party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma, which has resulted in great, lower price options.
If you want the best though, you can’t argue against the Sony G-Master lens series.
Okay, let’s start with the Sony a1. It was released at the end of January 2021 and dropped everyone’s jaw to floor (of course the $6,500 price tag hit quickly thereafter). To be succinct, the Sony a1 is the best camera on the market. It sets the bar at every measured specification that’s important to nature photography. If it’s too expensive, look at the great Sony a7R IV.
The wide option from Sony is pretty amazing for landscapers. It’s a 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master. Now, Sony does make a f/4 version of this lens, but the f/2.8 has rave reviews and is one of the best wide-angles ever made. I said having 14mm is great for landscape, well having 12mm is even better. The con? The front element is bulbous so you’ll need a rear gel filter or attachment system to mount a polarizer or ND filter.
Like Canon, Sony’s mid-range 24-105mm is excellent. This is a range where we don’t really need that extra stop from f/4 to f/2.8 for nature photography (it makes a big difference to portrait photographers). So, I opt for the 24-105mm every time. It’s smaller, optically excellent, and gives you range up to 105mm.
Sony has two telephoto zoom options you can look into (100-400mm and the 200-600mm), you can also look at their pricey fixed telephoto primes. I opted for the 100-400mm G Master. It’s a great focal range for wildlife and landscape photography. It’s fast enough in terms of its aperture. It’s a G Master lens and it shows, image quality is on a different level and focusing is lightning fast.
Camera: Nikon Z7 II
Wide: Nikon NIKKOR Z 14-30mm f/4 S
Mid-Range: Nikon NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S
Telephoto: Nikon NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S
Total Cost: $9,288.00
Nikon is interesting. I use cameras from all of the major systems and I honestly think the Nikon Z7 II offers the best image quality out there, it’s also cheaper than cameras like the R5 and a1. It does fall short in some categories, like burst speed and autofocus, but it is an excellent all-around camera.
I also think the 14-30mm f/4 was one of the most unique lenses on the market, that is before Canon’s announcement of the 14-35mm f/4. The 14-30mm f/4 is so small and compact. And it offers excellent image quality. It has the same pros as the Canon – small size, 14mm on the wide-end, and takes filters.
I am guessing Canon’s new lenses will be better, but it is also priced $400 more.
Nikon is falling behind Canon and Sony because they have just not had the lens production to compete at this point. The Z7 II may be one of the best cameras, but lens choices are extremely limited. There is no 24-105mm option at this point. The best option is Nikon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 S. Now don’t get me wrong, this lens is super sharp and a pro-grade lenses in every sense. It’s just the only option you have, so if you want to save weight and go to the 24-105mm route, you can’t.
Same goes for the telephoto range. The only option right now is the excellent 70-200mm f/2.8 S. Wildlifers are surely not thrilled about the maximum 200mm reach. A 100-400mm is on Nikon’s lens roadmap, but we (I myself am a Nikon user) have been waiting for that lens for what feels like forever now. I have no doubt it will be excellent, but the wait has been tough.
I love my Nikon setup. You can’t beat the price performance, image quality, and size, but the lack of lens options has me considering Sony and Canon very seriously. This will be a crucial year for Nikon. If you’re not in a hurry, the 100-400mm will be released, as will a 24-105mm. And, I think you will be able to get a complete system covering 14mm-400mm for cheaper than Sony and Canon.
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