Last Updated on June 25, 2021
Wildlife photography is a thrilling style that requires skill and the right gear. So to achieve the best images possible you will want the top wildlife photography camera.
I’ve reviewed the most popular cameras and after reading this article you will know my recommended models.
Top Cropped Sensor Cameras
Wildlife photography is one of the few photography styles where cropped sensor cameras can provide similar image quality to that offered with a full frame sensor.
This is because the crop sensor lets you use lighter and less expensive telephoto lenses while achieving the same framing.
You will find the recommended APS-C camera models below.
The Nikon D500 is the top crop sensor camera for shooting wildlife. It offers exceptional performance and all the features you will need. It is a well built camera that feels great while shooting with an excellent grip. The build quality is high quality making it a durable camera made to last. Operation is simple once you get the hang of it. The buttons and touchscreen make adjusting setting simple. The autofocus system works well with 99 cross type points for superb subject tracking and a quick and accurate focus. With an ISO that reaches 1 638 400 it performs almost at the level of the D5. This camera offers dual card slots and a burst of 10fps.
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
The Canon EOS 7D Mark II has been around for a while now but it is still one of the top performing crop sensor models on the market. This DSLR is an excellent option for shooting wild life. It offers a durable weatherproof body perfect for taking into the field. The autofocus system works fast and accurately with 65 cross type points. This camera offers great subject tracking making it ideal for following moving subjects. It offers slots for CF and SD cards as well as an excellent ergonomic design.
Canon EOS 90D
The Canon EOS 90D is the update to the popular 80D. This model offers impressive performance with improved resolution for even better image quality than the previous generation. It has a good design providing a good feel in the hands. The settings are simple to adjust as well. The Live View and Dual Pixel autofocus are awesome features. It provides 45 cross type points on the viewfinder. I particularly like using this model for shooting 4k video.
I primarily shoot with my Canons and Nikons so I was initially skeptical of the Pentax KP but it proved to be a great option for shooting wildlife photos. It offers a great build quality featuring a weatherproof body and a good ergonomic design. The setting controls are fairly straight forward as well. It provides you with excellent features including built in wifi and sensor stabilization. The autofocus, while not as fast as the above picks, was adequate with 27 point. It also offers great ISO performance for an all around solid camera option. While not quite a pro level model, this is an excellent amateur model.
Canon EOS 7D
The Canon EOS 7D has been around for a number of years now and it still offers exceptional performance at a great price. The APS-C sensor is still a top performer in it’s class. The autofocus system is fast and accurate making this a great semi pro option. You can capture great video and still shots. The weatherproof body is well designed and durable. The subject tracking focus works well and it features a bright high quality viewfinder. While it is not produced anymore, if you find a used model in good condition it makes for a great option.
Top Full frame Cameras
While a crop sensor model will offer a longer reach, a full frame sensor is ideal for those seeking better image quality. Find the recommended full frame models below.
Sony Alpha A7 III
The Sony Alpha A7 III has quickly become one of my favorite cameras when shooting a number of styles, and that includes wildlife photos. This mirrorless camera offers some of the best performance on the market. Like most mirrorless models, this one is lightweight yet packed with pro level features. The small body size can make it feel a little unbalanced when using a telephoto lens but I think the performance more than makes up for it. The only additional note that is important is that if you have very large hands it may offer a poor grip when shooting with a large lens. But using a battery grip can improve this significantly. So on the positive side there is a lot to mention. It shoots at a continuous 10fps, has two SD card slots, the autofocus works exceptionally fast and accurate. The subject tracking is awesome and it features Sony’s eye autofocus.
So the Nikon D850 was not designed with wildlife photographers in mind, but nonetheless it performs with the best of them. It offers an exceptional 45.7 MP sensor. By not utilizing an anti aliasing filter it achieves very sharp images. The D850 offers a dynamic range with 15 stops which is incredibly impressive. The autofocus is very fast and accurate when using a XQD or UHS-II card. The best part is you get all this performance at a very good price point.
Canon EOS 1DX Mark II
The giant Canon EOS 1DX Mark II is an incredible performer. And it is one of the top performing wild life cameras you can get. The large body design is heavy and provides exceptional durability. You get the best autofocus, that is both fast and highly accurate. The framerate is equally impressive and you can shoot 4k video at 60fps. This camera offers some exceptional performance at a great overall value.
Sony Alpha A9
Now we are getting into some truly jaw dropping performance with the Sony Alpha A9. This limit pushing camera is a real joy to shoot with. The 20fps full resolution burst offers continuous autofocus. It features an epic 693 phase detection focusing points that are spread throughout the entire frame. This provides you with 95% coverage. The only negative to this camera is a pretty big one. It is not weatherproof. If you intend to shoot in rain or snow this camera is not the one for you. But if that is not a factor you won’t find a better performing option.
The Nikon D5 is my number one choice when I shoot wildlife photography. It is a beast of a performer and really leaves nothing to be desired. This is Nikon’s premier DSLR. It provides the best autofocus performance on the market and even outperforms Canons top models. The burst shooting is not quite as robust as the Canon but it is no slouch at 200 raw images shot at 12fps. The ISO goes to 3.276.800 which is well beyond what you will need out in the field. The single most impressive spec is the battery life. This model will provide you with up to 3780 shots on a single charge. This is one crazy good full frame camera.
Using Crop Sensor of Full Frame Sensor Cameras
Wildlife photography is on of the few styles where a crop frame sensor may be superior to a full frame camera. This comes from the fact that wildlife photographers frequently use telephoto lenses and when using a crop sensor camera, the magnification factor increases the effective range of your telephoto lens when shooting with a crop sensor camera.
That is because the range of the lens is multiplied by 1.x/1.6x which increases the lenses functional focal length. For example a 400mm lens put on a crop sensor camera will have a focal length of 600mm. For more on how this works read the focal length guide. The key to remember here is that if reach is your primary concern, then shooting with a crop sensor camera may be the way to go.
While non of these models made the top list for top performing wild life cameras, it is important to note that micro four thirds sensors provide an even larger magnification factor. These sensors will increase your lens’s focal length by 2x. The primary advantage to using these cameras stems from their compact size and light weight. One of these cameras end up being a great option when packing space for camera gear is hard to come by.
Autofocus Performance Considerations
In this field of photography autofocus performance is one of the most important factors. Autofocus systems vary in performance not only from brand to brand but also between models within the same maker.
Generally speaking, camera price correlates with autofocus performance. That means the best autofocus systems tend to come on the most expensive cameras, with few exceptions. This is where complications come in. While crop sensors often offer better range, full frame cameras nearly universally offer higher quality autofocus systems.
Subject tracking focus is an incredibly important consideration as a majority of your subjects may be moving. And a fast and accurate autofocus system will allow you to maintain focus on a moving subject.
A higher number of points and cross type points means a higher quality autofocus system. How the points are positioned is also an important thing to consider. Spread points throughout the frame generally perform better than the alternative. More to the point, a multi point autofocus is great when your subject is framed in front of a scene with fewer background elements. If there is a busy background it may be better to shoot with the autofocus point activated that is at the subjects eye.
Some newer and exciting technology I love is AI based subject recognition. The Sony above offers this technology. And it recognizes eyes in the frame and automatically autofocuses on it. This is a pretty cool feature.
While autofocus can help you capture great images, remember that you should always be able to shoot in manual focus. No autofocus system is fail safe and to be certain you do not miss a shot, you need to be able to revert to manual focus mode to get those shots autofocus cannot handle.
Another important thing to understand is that your lens plays a significant role in how your autofocus performs. A lens can limit the amount of cross type points you can use. Lenses with an autofocus motor do not all perform at the same level. It stands to reason that a professional lens will perform better than a lower prices model. Lenses are another area where performance correlates with price.
Frames Per Second and Max Burst Requirements
Wildlife photographers do not require the fastest frames per second burst shooting but it is recommended that you can shoot at least 8 fps.
Shooting in a continuous burst will increase the likelihood that you will capture a great image. All the top recommended cameras on this list provide at least this shooting speed.
Keep in mind that the lens you decide to shoot with will effect your frames per second. Also be certain to use the fastest rated memory card supported by your camera as this effects the number of shots that can be stored in a single burst.
Because wildlife photographers are often shooting in low light conditions it is important that your camera performs well at higher ISO settings. The general rule in wild life shooting is that the wider the ISO range your camera offers the better it will perform. While a higher ISO will always lead to more image noise, a higher end camera will likely be able to shoot at a higher ISO without as much noise as a lower quality camera will be able to do.
For more wildlife photography guides check out these articles