DSLR Cameras are the top choice among professionals for wildlife photography. Capturing animals in their natural habitat and behaving naturally requires fast auto focus, long telephoto lenses, great low light performance and a durable camera you can carry into any environment.
Similar to sports photography, wildlife photography is one of the most demanding from a camera's technical perspective. You want speed, accuracy, and performance.
Assuming you aren't already attached to a particular camera company's system and invested in a huge collection of telephoto lenses, you need to find the right fit for you. There are two behemoths in this category, Nikon, and Canon, but other companies are putting out strong contenders for wildlife photographers every year.
Getting the shot requires planning, preparation, work, and the right equipment... You need the best DSLR cameras for wildlife photography (that fit in your price range).
That's why we've put together this list. Not only are we going to feature the best options, we're going to organize the digital SLR's based on high-end, mid-range, and entry-level. First, we'll look at a quick roundup then we'll go over some more basic information to help you make an informed purchase and to choose the camera that'll suit you the best.
Quick Winner Roundup: 3 Best DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
**Further below, you'll find our detailed reviews, but you can also click the links above to quickly check the prices of the category winners.
Table of Contents
- DSLR Features for Wildlife Photography
- The Art of Wildlife Photography
- Review: The Best High End DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
- Canon EOS 1D X Mark II
- Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
- Nikon D5
- Sony Alpha a99 II
- WINNER of the Best High End DSLR Cameras
- Review: The Best Mid Range DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
- Sony SLT-A77 II
- Canon EOS 80D
- Canon EOS 7D Mark ii
- Nikon D810
- Nikon D750
- Nikon D500
- Pentax K-1
- Fujifilm X-T2
- WINNER of the Best Mid Range DSLR Cameras
- Review: The Best Entry Level DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
- Nikon D7200
- Canon EOS 70D
- Sony Alpha a6300 Mirrorless
- Olympus OM-D E-M1
- Pentax K-3 II
- Canon EOS Rebel T6s
- Nikon D5500
- WINNER of the Best Entry Level DSLR Cameras
DSLR Features for Wildlife Photography
Do you need a DSLR? Yes. Mirrorless cameras are on the rise, but DSLRs continue to reign supreme. Ultimately, what you want is an interchangeable lens camera system. While mirrorless cameras do sometimes qualify and appear on our list, they cannot usurp DSLRs for wildlife photography. DSLRs simply offer too many advantages to photographers like superior auto-focus systems, more lens options, and superior battery life.
When shooting wildlife effectively you'll find you rely on fast, accurate auto-focus, good low light capability, quick burst rate, durability, weatherproofing and most importantly telephoto lenses.
Auto-focus is an important feature. Nature moves, no matter how still it may seem you will miss some of the absolute best shots if you have a slow auto-focus. You'll find the more expensive professional DSLR cameras generally have more auto-focus sensor points, use phase detection and rely on faster processors and more refined algorithms to find focus quickly.
DSLR technology as a whole wins hands down in the auto-focus realm as it uses a technology called phase detection. You’ll find lower end cameras, camera phones and micro four thirds cameras are forced to use significantly slower contrast-based systems.
Generally speaking, it's better to have more autofocus points than less. More areas you can tell the sensor to pay attention to, more areas in which the processor can track your subject. The number of points isn't the entire story, so don't be deterred if your camera choice happens to have a few less than another.
Newer bodies often have faster processors and more refinements in the AF system, providing faster more accurate results. It's important to look at the AF system as a whole, including your lens pairing.
Low Light and ISO
FYI: ISO was developed by the International Organization for Standardization and originally quantified the “speed” or sensitivity of camera film but now also applies to solid-state image sensors found in DSLRs.
Everyone expects low light in wedding photography or while photographing stage performances, but you'd be surprised how often you are shooting in shaded groves off a hiking trail or catching an animal out eating in the early morning, or after sunset. Those are some of the moments where you can capture the most brilliant shots, but only if you're equipped to do so.
The boundaries of high ISO performance are pushed further with every new camera body on the market. This allows you more flexibility to shoot in lower light without sacrificing aperture or shutter speed. Basically, ISO numbers reflect how sensitive the sensor is to light before the noise makes it unusable.
A note about extended ISO: Once you've pushed the physical sensitivity of the sensor to it's maximum, manufacturers will add 'extended ISO'. This uses the software in the camera to brighten the image even further, this is the same as adding exposure in post processing. It's a number mostly for marketing purposes, as manufacturers can claim your mid range camera has an extended ISO of 102,400 (which is, in practice, useless.)
Low light is also where the Full frame vs. Crop or APS sensor begins. You'll find that a larger sensor captures a wider field of view, has more surface area for light to hit and so will generally outperform a crop sensor for low light purposes. The debate does not end there as we'll see when we talk about full frame vs APS or crop.
Frame Rate and Burst
Anticipating a lion leaping for prey is one thing, capturing its lightning quick movement is another. Sports and wildlife are the two types of photography that most rely on burst or continuous high-speed shooting modes.
Camera specs list MAX FPS or maximum frames per second and maximum burst rate. MAX FPS tells you how many shots, given perfect circumstances, your camera is capable of taking in a single second long hold of the shutter.
Maximum burst lets you know how long you can keep holding the shutter before your camera's buffer is full and your frames per second drop off considerably. Large file sizes take longer to process and record to your memory card so some photographers will shoot JPEG instead of raw to maximize their burst. It's also crucial to pair your camera with a high-speed memory card. Sites like this one will test different cards with different cameras to find the best pairings for best results.
Full Frame or crop / APS-C
Sensor size is always a great debate when purchasing a new camera body. So let's start by throwing ego out, and remembering the camera that gets you the results you want is the right camera for you!
Full frame sensors cost more money and are usually the standard for higher end professionals. Usually, they are housed in larger, heavier bodies which typically have more weatherproof considerations. The physical sensor is larger which, of course, costs more to produce but provides more surface area to absorb light, provides a wider field of view, and some will say a “better quality of pixel”.
Crop sensors are often less expensive, smaller, lighter weight and provide you a magnified image using the same lens. This magnified view can mean a crop sensor camera lets you frame a long distance shot without using lens teleconverters. The 'quality of pixel debate' is ongoing. Often you'll find a newer crop sensor outperforms an older full frame once you 'crop' it to the same size in megapixels, and may provide better burst rates.
At the end of the day, if you are buying in the newer current generation, a full frame image can be cropped and is more versatile but more expensive. You also sacrifice a certain level of portability with full frame but you might find that a fair trade off.
The Art of Wildlife Photography
Watch this brief video on the art of wildlife photography which gives some additional tips and examples:
Review: The Best High End DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
This is the high-end range of DSLR cameras, where the company flagships sit. While there are other bodies that cost even more out there, none are really suited to wildlife photography where fast autofocus and burst rate are more important than medium format sensor sizes.
In this price range, you’ll find the top of the line DSLR cameras. Each uses top tier technology from each company for the professional market before it’s made it’s way to the mid-range arena. If you want the absolute best of the best DSLR, this is where you look.
WINNER of the Best High End DSLR Cameras
Winner: Nikon D5
Our "high end DSLR cameras " category has only a few truly great wildlife cameras. In this price range, you are buying some of the best DSLRs on the market. We declare the winner for wildlife photography - The Nikon D5.
While the Canon 1DX Mark ii edges the Nikon out slightly on frame rate, the Nikon D5 pulls ahead for an important feature we didn't even list – battery life.
The Nikon D5 battery life is rated for 3780 shots compared to only 1210 from the Canon. This is crucial for a wildlife photographer, as you never want to miss a shot due to a dead battery. Plus you'll save money buying fewer spare battery packs and lugging around fewer battery packs in your wildlife kit.
Review: The Best Mid Range DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
The mid-range category contains more DSLRs suited to wildlife photography than any other. It's a crowded space, where the major companies are all putting some of their best value propositions on the table.
This category is where high-end prosumer meets entry level professional. While the high-end category had the 'best of the best' in terms of frame rates and low light performance, the savvy wildlife photographer will notice some impressive flagship features trickle down into newer mid-range models.
The competition is fierce, and while different brands will try and woo you it’s important to keep your eye on the stats that are crucial to the type of photography you intend to do.
WINNER of the Best Mid Range DSLR Cameras
Winner: Nikon D500
Feeling like it was designed specifically for wildlife photography, the Nikon D500 is our winner. While the Canon 7D Mark 2 feels like a direct competitor, the 153 point AF system in the Nikon combined with its EXPEED processor are too compelling for the wildlife or sports photographer.
The D500 offers a superior buffer for more continuous shooting, excellent image quality, excellent low light performance, and once again - Nikon battery life is simply better.
It's good to see Fuji making a play for this market with their mirrorless entry, but in this price range, the D500 feels like a perfect camera. While there are other excellent Nikon's in this category, when looking for the best DSLR for wildlife photography the D500 feels like a clear winner.
Review: The Best Entry Level DSLR Cameras for Wildlife Photography
Wildlife photography is much like sports photography in that you're often capturing fast moving subjects from a distance. The best AF systems and low light performance don't come cheap, but they do trickle down, and great camera bodies may decrease in price after even a year on the market, so you can sometimes find the one-time best, that's now an entry level DSLR for wildlife photography, at a price that may fit within your budget.
WINNER of the Best Entry Level DSLR Cameras
Winner: Nikon D7200
It stands to reason that it's in the top tier of price in this category, we have to give it to the Nikon D7200. The Nikon d7200 is an enthusiast camera that inherited a lot from its full frame bigger brothers, including a fantastic AF system.
The controls on the D7200 will feel more familiar if you upgrade to a pro-level camera. Battery life, and dual memory card slots make it more versatile than other options. While not necessarily as flexible as some, the Nikon D7200 has the technical specs to make it one of the best wildlife DSLR cameras for its price point.
Wrapping things up in our search for the best wildlife DSLRs in different price brackets, Nikon seems to have prevailed in every level bracket. Here's a quick recap of the winners:
As one of the two major contenders within this space, both Nikon and Canon go back and forth year to year with new features and developments.
In the current market state, Canon offer compelling multimedia features for videographers, but Nikon edge them out on technical areas specific to wildlife photography - especially battery life!
Mirrorless technology is developing increasingly solid entries into this space and is exciting to watch as they could bring insanely fast frame rates to lower priced bodies. However, they have not as of yet caught up to DSLRs.
Remember the best DSLR for you, is always the one you will carry with you and feel comfortable using. If you have any questions or comments about our selections post them below in the comment section or email us directly on our contact page.