Wildlife Photography Camera Tips – Part 1

There are more camera choices than ever since the begin of digital photography around 2000 and we by far have not reached the end of that evolution. The ever-increasing number of smartphones has its fair part in camera manufacturers steadily seeking new niches, which again accelerates the introduction of new camera systems and cameras. In Part 1 about Camera Tips I will discuss the evolution from analogue to digital photography as well as digital sensor sizes and their advantages and disadvantages.

Photography Developed as Analogue

I am one of the photographers who grew up with analogue cameras, my first serious camera being a Minolta SRT-101, a SLR (Single Lens Reflex) using a mirror to show exactly the picture as the lens was projecting on the focusing screen via this mirror. For taking the photo the mirror had to go out of the way, the shutter had to open and then the light could be projected by the lens onto a film surface for a certain amount of time (determined by the shutter speed), imposing the picture seen through the lens and finally using chemical reactions to produce the picture either as negative or positive on this film.


While discussing that simple principle of analogue photography it is worth mentioning the other 2 parameters determining the final picture and its right exposure. This were and still are today in the digital age the aperture of the lens (wide open, low aperture value means more light as opposed to closed down, high aperture value means less light) and the sensitivity of film, usually measured in ISO, where low ISO means less sensitivity as opposed to high ISO means high sensitivity.


Analogue cameras already offered several possibilities to automatically control shutter speed (called A for aperture priority mode because you preselect the aperture value), automatically control aperture (called S for shutter priority mode because you preselect the shutter speed) or control both automatically (called P for program mode).

There is of course another parameter of photography that needs to be controlled and this is the focus of the lens. In the mid 1980’s camera vendors started to implement autofocus mechanisms and these have improved over the last 4 decades significantly. Especially for the dynamic requirements you often find in wildlife photography it is very helpful to chose a camera system that supports reliable and exact autofocus even when photographing fast moving animals. We will discuss autofocus and autofocus settings later in a separate post.


Basically analogue cameras offered most of the features we know from today’s digital cameras. The big disruption in photography started to happen, when digital sensors replaced film. Film had different formats, the majority of film used was 36mm x 24mm (today often referred to as full frame or FF) that became famous some 100 years ago when Oskar Barnack developed the first Leica using cinema film. Over time also smaller formats (APSC: 23.6mm x 15.5mm) and larger formats often called medium format  (MF 6×6: 60mm x 60mm or MF 645: 60mm x 45mm) evolved and there still exist some even larger film formats.



Digital Photography and Different Sensor Formats

It took some time before digital sensors increased to FF size, the first incarnations in serious cameras around 2000 were using APSC size sensors, followed by four-third sensors (4/3: 17.3mm x 13.0mm) or even smaller 1-inch sensors (1”: 12.8mm x 9.6mm). When the digital sensors are installed in an SLR this is called now DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Actually everything stays the same as in an SLR, but now instead of film the sensor surface is used to cerate the final picture.

One major change of modern digital cameras is that now we also can choose a different  sensitivity (ISO value) for every exposure if we decide so that was not possible when using film, as you had to replace film to get to a different sensitivity. Today all modern cameras allow not only changing ISO sensitivity on the fly, but also offer automatic ISO, that means the camera would automatically choose a proper sensitivity as necessary. Or in other words we can now give the camera the freedom of automatically adjusting sensitivity if we desire so that can be quite handsome in certain situations, but should always be used with care.


Why should we care? Well usually increasing sensitivity means also more noise in the final picture that can be what we want in some situations (for artificial effects) but in general lower noise images are preferable. Sensor size of course has some other major impacts on cameras and camera systems. First a larger sensor area allows for larger pixels, that is good for low noise and second larger sensors allow putting more of these pixels on the sensor surface and hence increase resolution or also called megapixel (MP)-count.


Let me make the story short, today at the end of 2016 even 1” sensors with 20MP are already capable of producing low noise images up to ISO6400 and sometimes even ISO12800, whereas FF-sensors can achieve up to 50MP with excellent ISO6400 and above. In between you find all different kind of great digital camera system solutions from all the different vendors.


The conclusion from these ramblings so far is that you hardly can go wrong choosing a modern digital camera of any sensor size with regards to the final image quality and possibility of using high ISO if needed.

Learn more about cameras and wildlife photography with our Specialist Safaris.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa



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