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Choosing a Camera for Wildlife - the Superzoom Option

When choosing a digital camera for wildlife photography, there are a number of factors to consider, not least of which is the price.

Lion showing teeth Using a wildlife camera But there are also other important considerations. Wild animals in general are wary of people, while many are dangerous, so in most cases you'll need to photograph them from a distance. That way you'll also have more chance of staying alive!

The net result is that you'll need a telephoto lens that will enlarge the subject and bring it closer. A small, budget compact digital camera with a 3x zoom lens (roughly equivalent to a 35-105mm lens on a 35mm camera) won't cut it for wildlife photography as the zoom is simply not powerful enough.

This leaves two options:

1. A fixed-lens digital camera (also called a "point-and-shoot") fitted with a powerful zoom lens, ideally 24x or more optical zoom (roughly equivalent to a 25-500mm zoom on a 35mm camera).

2. A digital single lens reflex camera body (Digital SLR) that allows you to change lenses, fitted with a fixed focal length telephoto lens (like a 300mm F/4 lens) or a tele zoom (like a 70-200mm or 100-400mm zoom lens). See Wildlife Cameras - the Digital SLR Option for more.

In this article we'll look at Option 1 in more detail.

For wildlife photography, the main advantage of a fixed-lens digital camera fitted with a "super-zoom" is the cost. Although these cameras don't fall in the budget category because of their sophisticated lenses and other features, they are still substantially cheaper than a digtal SLR plus one or more telephoto lenses.

Another advantage of the superzooms is their size and weight. They are lighter and more compact than an SLR fitted with a tele lens, so are easier to transport, store, and carry around. When travelling by air, and when photographing from a vehicle or on foot, size and weight do make a difference.

If you're on a wildlife safari, chances are you'll be photographing from a game drive vehicle where it's more convenient shooting wildlife with a camera that will cover from wide-angle to long telephoto without changing lenses.

There'll be times when you want to capture scenic shots - like a herd of antelope with thorn trees and a blue sky in the background - and that's when the wide angle comes into play. The person carrying an SLR with a telephoto lens won't be able to get the same shot without changing to a shorter lens.

Canon's SX50 HS superzoom, for example, has a monster 50x zoom lens, covering from very wide (24mm) to very long (1200mm). Imagine how many lenses you'd need in your bag to cover that range with a digital SLR!

Certainly in Africa, dust is a problem and a fixed-lens camera is much less susceptible to dust than an SLR, where you expose the camera's light-sensitive chip to dust each time you remove and replace lenses.

Some people will also find a smaller, lighter camera easier to hold steady than an SLR camera with a big, heavy lens attached.

The Downside

So what's the downside of a superzoom point-and-shoot camera for wildlife photography?

The biggest disadvantage is the size of the sensor chip. Typically these cameras have a chip that's very small (about the size of the nail on your "pinky" finger) when compared to a digital SLR's chip (about the size of a postage stamp). Camera manufacturers cram as many tiny, light-sensitive cells as possible on the chip so they can market their products as having 12, 16 or even 18 "megapixels".

But the more tightly these minute cells are jammed on the chip, the more "noise" or tiny electrical charges they generate. In digital photography, "noise" manifests itself as random dots, similar to the grain on film. This noise becomes more visible with higher ISO settings, typically from 400 ISO and above.

If you're photographing in bright sunlight that allows you to set your ISO to 100, noise is not a major issue. But with wildlife photography, the best images are captured in the soft light of early morning and late afternoon, which is also when the animals are most active.

Most the time when photographing wildlife you'll need a shutter speed of around 1/250th or faster to freeze the subject and eliminate camera movement. This is based on the rule of thumb that your shutter speed should be at least equivalent to "one-over" your lens focal length - thus a 300mm lens requires a minimum shutter speed of 1/300th; a 500mm lens requires 1/500th and so on.

To achieve this in the low light of early morning, late afternoon or under cloud, you'll have to increase the camera's sensitivity to light by selecting a higher ISO.

From my experience, you'll need an ISO or "light sensitivity" of at least 400 for those morning or afternoon shots when the light is soft, angled and warm (see pic below). Leopard in late afternoon light Elephant Plains Game Lodge, South Africa, 4.30pm. Canon EOS 400D, 1/500th at F/5.6; ISO 400

Unfortunately, cameras with tiny chips simply can't produce images of very top quality at 400 ISO or more because of the noise.

To compensate, many cameras have built-in noise reduction, but all this does is soften or slightly blur the image. You'll certainly get a very acceptable print of postcard size, possibly even 6" x 8", but once you go bigger than this, you'll start seeing a definite loss in quality.

Remember: more megapixels are not necessarily better. I'd rather have an 8-megapixel camera that produced images with acceptable noise at ISO 400 than an 18-megapixel camera that generates more noise, but the latest superzooms are invariably in the 12 or more megapixel range, as you'll see below.

Image Stabilized Lens

A desirable - some would say essential - feature on any camera used for wildlife is image-stabilization, also called vibration reduction. Because you're using a telephoto lens that magnifies the subject, you're also magnifying camera movement.

Nothing causes more wildlife images to be blurred - and hence useless - than camera movement. Unless you're using a tripod (which is virtually impossible from a vehicle or when walking), it's a constant challenge keeping the camera steady. Even with an image-stabilized camera, try to use a support like a beanbag whenever possible.

Although it's tempting to use the camera's monitor or LCD to compose your images, you'll be better off holding the camera firmly against your face and using the optical viewfinder. It's simply not possible to keep a camera steady when holding it out in front of you.

In any event, a camera that has an optical image stabilizer will allow shooting at slower shutter speeds and help reduce camera movement, producing more "keepers" than will a camera with no image stabilizer. Definitely select a camera with this feature if at all possible.

So, although point-and-shoot digital cameras fitted with superzoom lenses do have their downside, they nevertheless make excellent widlife cameras, particularly if you're going to be shooting in good light or if your don't envisage making very large prints from your digital images.

Below are some of the more popular point-and-shoot digital cameras suitable for wildlife and safari photography. Please do note that manufacturers regularly update and upgrade their cameras, so it's likely there are newer versions now available.

See also our article, Top Superzoom Cameras for Wildlife Pictures where we discuss our top three and make some recommendations.

Canon SX50 HS 12.1MP Digital Camera
* 50x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom lens
* 24 - 1200mm equivalent.
* Awarded 4.5 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers
* Scores 72% from DP Review.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Nikon COOLPIX P510 16.1 MP CMOS Digital Camera
* 42x Zoom NIKKOR ED Glass Lens.
* 24 - 1000mm equivalent.
* Awarded 4.6 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers
* Scores 75% from DP Review.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200 12.1 MP Digital Camera
* 24x Optical Zoom, f/2.8 Leica Lens
* 25 - 600mm equivalent
* Awarded 4.5 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers
* Scores 80% (Gold) from DP Review.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX200V 18.2 MP CMOS Digital Camera
* 30x Optical Zoom Lens.
* 27 – 810mm equivalent.
* Awarded 4.4 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers
* Scores 72% from DP Review.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Fujifilm FinePix HS30EXR 16MP Digital Camera
* Fujinon 30x Optical Zoom lens.
* 24 – 720mm equivalent.
* Awarded 4.3 out of 5 stars by Amazon customers.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Olympus SP-820UZ 14 MP Digital Camera
* 40x Ultra Wide-Angle Optical Zoom Lens.
* 22.4 - 896mm equivalent.
* Awarded 4.5 out of 5 stars from Amazon customers.

Click Here for Amazon.co.uk prices.

Article by Scotch Macaskill ©

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