Camera equipment buying tips for nature photographers, from smartphones through to high-end cameras and lenses.

When you know what you want to capture it’s easier to decide on the gear you need. Don’t discount your smartphone; it’s the camera you’re most likely to carry with you all the time and it can work well for certain types of nature photography.

The main limitations of smartphones lie in their very small sensors and lenses – although sophisticated AI (artificial intelligence) image processing has gone a long way towards overcoming them. Most pictures from the latest camera-phones can look great on TV screens and many are ‘good’ enough to tolerate post-capture editing and printing at A3+ size.

Smartphone cameras can be good for capturing close-ups, as shown in the top picture. However, they seldom provide the same selective focusing capabilities as an appropriate lens on an interchangeable-lens camera with a larger sensor, as shown in the image below.

Most smartphone cameras can focus very close – close enough to provide life-size reproduction (or very close to it). However they seldom capture a shallow depth of focus to blur out distracting backgrounds in the same way as cameras with much larger sensors.

In addition, your ‘auto-everything’ smartphone won’t teach you much about how to take pictures or record movies with a ‘proper’ camera. If you want photography to be a satisfying pastime (or provide potential for professional work) you need a camera with a full range of adjustable controls and functions.

Choosing your equipment

It’s easy to come up with a basic kit for a photographic generalist – or someone who hasn’t decided to specialise (yet). A camera with a 24-200mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens – or something similar – can cover subjects as diverse as landscapes, family and pets, cities and travel. It also lets you take occasional close-ups and shots of birds and animals in zoos and wildlife reserves.

Compact cameras range in size from the pocketable Panasonic TZ series (top) to the SLR-like models with extended zoom ranges of 30 times or more from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony, such as the Nikon Coolpix P100 shown above. (Images sourced from Panasonic and Nikon.)

Compact cameras can meet these requirements. Your choices range from pocketable models like those in Panasonic’s TZ (Travel Zoom) series, through to SLR-like models with zoom ranges of 30 times or more from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony.

Different models have different degrees of sophistication but all include full auto modes for stress-free shooting. Most can also record 4K video for playing on your TV set.

This compact twin-lens camera kit from Fujifilm covers a wide range of nature photography subjects from landscapes and wildlife through to modest close-ups and night photography. (Source: Camera House.)

Interchangeable-lens cameras are generally more versatile. Even entry-level models provide P, A, S and M settings for controlling exposures, along with menu adjustments for managing the sensitivity of the recording system, focusing and how colour is recorded under different types of lighting. You can also choose appropriate lenses for different types of subjects.

Most camera manufacturers are transitioning from traditional DSLR models to more compact mirrorless cameras. Your selection depends upon your budget; while DSLR kits are currently cheaper, very few new models have been released in the last few years, so they are slowly vanishing from retailers’ shelves. If you see photography as a long-term pursuit, mirrorless cameras have more potential for future development, making them a better investment.

Outdoor photographers are best served by ‘weatherproof’ cameras, which can withstand limited exposure to moisture and dust. (Source: Nikon.)

If you enjoy hiking, bushwalking and outdoor activities, try to choose a weather-resistant model. But check how weatherproof it actually is, since there are varying degrees of protective sealing.

Few manufacturers provide details of just how weather resistant their cameras and lenses actually are, although most current ‘weather resistant’ equipment has basic IPX1 weatherproofing. This standard specifies some degree of protection against ‘vertically falling droplets, such as condensation, sufficient that no damage or interrupted functioning of components will be incurred when an item is upright’.

IPX1-rated cameras and lenses should be able to withstand an occasional light shower of rain and should exclude most dust – as long as they’re carefully cleaned shortly after exposure. Droplets of water can be wiped off cameras and lenses with a lint-free absorbent cloth. Dust should be removed with a soft brush or blower-brush tool. Don’t remove the lens until you have completed each process.

Only one camera manufacturer, OM Digital Solutions, has cameras and lenses with IP53 rated weatherproofing which keeps out dust and water. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

To date only one manufacturer, OM Digital Solutions, has cameras and lenses with IP53 rated weatherproofing, which provides: 1) Partial protection against dust and other particulates, such that any ingress will not damage or impede the satisfactory performance of internal components; and 2) Protection against direct moisture spray at angles up to 60° off vertical. This is what you should look for if you plan to take photos and record videos in wilderness environments, particularly in places like Tasmania and the Wet Tropics.

Beware of misleading marketing

Your cameras and lenses are, by design, the ‘tools’ you use for taking pictures. Don’t be led astray by advertising that suggests anything else. While full-frame cameras are attractive and persuasively marketed, they may not be the best choice for some people due to:

1. In most cases, the larger the image sensor the bigger and heavier the camera body and the lenses you can fit to it. That means more weight for you to carry. Note also that more solidly constructed camera bodies can be relatively heavy for their sensor size.

2. The closer you are to retirement age, the more important the weight of your equipment becomes. Be prepared to compromise as you age if you wish to remain an active photographer.

3. Fast lenses are great for achieving very shallow planes of focus and blurring out backgrounds when shooting close-ups, but they’re often heavy. Slower and lighter lenses are more affordable, easier to carry, and they can deliver excellent performance at optimal aperture settings.

Fast, super-telephoto lenses are usually too heavy to use hand-held; but if they have been designed for cameras with smaller sensors, like the OM-1 shown in this illustration, they are substantially smaller and lighter than lenses with similar focal lengths designed for cameras with full-frame sensors. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

4. You can make excellent A2 sized prints of images from cameras with Micro Four Thirds (17.3 x 13.0 mm) sensors and you don’t need more than 20-megapixel resolution unless you plan to crop the image frame.

5. If you want to shoot videos, sensor resolution is less important than other recording capabilities. Many professional videographers use cameras with 12-megapixel resolution and obtain cinema-quality results.

Buying new equipment

When buying new equipment, ask yourself:
– What’s your level of photographic expertise – novice, experienced, expert?
– What kinds of photos do you want to take?
– What’s your budget?
How important is video recording?

Novice photographers fall into two categories: point-and-press snapshooters who mostly use their camera’s fully automatic settings and those who want a camera that encourages them to learn skills and improve their picture-taking.

If you’re looking for better quality and greater versatility than your smartphone, you’ll probably be considering a compact camera with an extended-range zoom lens or a specialised waterproof camera for underwater use. Light weight, simple controls, versatility and an affordable price tag are the main factors to consider.

OM System Tough cameras provide all the features needed for adventure photography, including raw file capture, underwater white balance modes, microscope modes for close-ups and an 8x digital teleconverter in lightweight bodies weighing just over 250 grams. (Source: OM Digital Solutions.)

If you want a camera that provides a stepping stone to a deeper involvement in photography, the best choice is an interchangeable-lens camera. A camera body with a bundled, general-purpose kit lens is a good place to start since you can add more specialised lenses as your competence grows and you discover your main areas of interest.

A visit to your local camera shop is the best place to begin your search. As well as expert staff who can explain the advantages and disadvantages of different cameras and lenses, the store should be able to provide hands-on time for you with a wide range of different brands and camera and lens types.

Hands-on experience is essential. It allows you to gauge the weight of the equipment and assess whether it will be comfortable to carry. You’ll also be able to see whether the key controls are easy to reach and operate.

Don’t buy any piece of equipment that doesn’t feel comfortable in your hands; it’ll only end up being left in a cupboard. Keep the weight of your kit relatively low; heavy gear becomes tiring very quickly, particularly when you’re hiking or walking through a busy city. Exhausted photographers seldom take good photos.

Discounts for travellers

Many people purchase a new camera and/or lens when they’re going on a trip – often taking advantage of tax-exempt savings available through ‘duty-free’ stores at our international airports. Australia also has a tourist refund scheme (TRS) that allows travellers to claim a refund of the GST on eligible purchases bought from a single business within 60 days of departure from Australia. Details can be found here:

If you’re relying on the new equipment for your picture-taking, the TRS option is a prudent choice since it allows you to make sure the equipment is still operating properly and gives you time to learn how to use it effectively before you leave. Last-minute purchases are risky – to say the least.

When buying a new camera, make sure you obtain an ‘advanced’ camera manual for it. Most camera manufacturers provide downloadable user manuals on their websites free of charge. Install the manual on your laptop and/or smart device so it’s readily available whenever you’re using the camera.

Useful links

Choosing a lens kit

Beginner’s lens guide

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Nature Photography pocket guide

Pocket guide Partner: Camera House