Choosing the Right Camera for Nature Photography

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There are a lot of reasons people take pictures of nature: to document a rare bird, identify a wildflower, share a beautiful landscape- the list goes on and on. For most things in life, the cameras on our phones do an amazing job. But when it comes to photographing nature- especially wildlife- our phone cameras don’t always do the trick. Getting a camera can definitely be a worthwhile investment- but where do you even start? There’s so many options and specs out there, it can be almost impossible to know what to choose.

In this post, I break down the pros and cons of 3 camera types for nature photography: phones, DSLRs, and point-and-shoot cameras.

Where I’ve Been

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: I broke the #1 rule of blogging, and haven’t done a great job keeping up with this blog over the last few months.

There are several factors which have contributed to this: managing my dissertation, prepping my thesis manuscript for publication, planning my wedding reception, etc. have taken up most of my mental bandwidth.

I go into more detail in this Instagram post:

My Experience with Nature Photography

I want to be clear: I am by no means a professional photographer. However, I do love nature and taking pictures of it. Photography has been an important part of both my professional ventures/research and also recreation. This post is based on my experiences and opinions regarding cameras, which other people may or may not agree with.

Note: If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know that I like to edit my photos using Adobe Lightroom. Because I really wanted to highlight the functionality of each camera type, the images I’ve included in this post are not edited in any way.

My Favorite Types of Cameras

Again- I am not a professional. The goal of this post is not to break down every type of camera that exists. I’m going to focus on 3- smartphone, DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras- which I’ve found to be especially useful for nature photography.

Smartphone Cameras

If you have a smartphone, I probably don’t have to tell you that it has a camera. The quality of cameras on smartphones has come a long way over the years.

Pros: Convenience

Most likely, you probably already have a smartphone with a decent camera in your pocket (which is super convenient, but also means you don’t have to spend money on a separate camera!)

Depending on what you’re trying to photograph, phones nowadays can take some really impressive pictures. I rely VERY heavily on my phone when it comes to taking pictures for my research. Here are a handful of pictures I’ve taken with my current phone (Samsung Galaxy S8 Active) through the years:

Cons: Zoom

Phone cameras have been steadily improving over time, but most still struggle when it comes to zooming in on things. I find phone cameras tend to work best on things you can get up close and personal with- like flowers, certain insects, tracks, etc.- or things that you can hold in your hand. Otherwise, you may want to consider getting a dedicated camera. In my experience, phones can also have a difficult time photographing fast-moving or flying animals and insects.

Tip: if you *must* zoom in using your phone, try taking a picture far away, then cropping the image. It usually yields a better quality picture than zooming with the camera.

DSLR Cameras

DSLR stands for Digital single-lens reflex camera. I’m not going to go into detail about how they work, because it’s honestly not that important for the purposes of this blog post.

Pros: Artistry & Image Quality

The main advantage of DSLRs is they give you a lot of control over things like aperture, depth of field, exposure, focus, etc. This is one of the main appeals of DSLRs (and why so many professional photographers use them).

In general, DSLRs tend to have better image quality, shutter speeds, and light sensitivity than point-and-shoot cameras. When using DLSRs, you also have the ability to change lenses, add external light sources, and make other modifications to the camera.

Cons: Lenses

One of the defining features of DSLR cameras is their lenses. Rather than being built in, you can switch between lenses with different focal lengths which are designed to work at different distances. When it comes to nature photography, this can create challenges. To zoom in on something which is far away with a DSLR, you may need a very large (EXPENSIVE) lens. Lenses can often cost more than the camera itself. Depending on what you’re doing, hauling around a gigantic lens may not be very practical either.

To use a DSLR well, you’ll also need to spend some time figuring out how they work. In honesty, there’s a lot of great resources on the internet that can teach you the basics of a DSLR. It took me a couple of days to start to get a handle on mine.

My Camera

Personally, I’ve been using a Canon EOS Rebel T5 DSLR camera for several years now. (Note: there are newer models available, like the Rebel T7). I find the Canon Rebel line of DSLR cameras to be very beginner-friendly, and it definitely gets the job done.

I own two lenses- a 18-55mm lens (which it usually comes with) and a 75-300mm lens (which runs about $200). There are certainly better lenses out there, but I find these two lenses to be a good balance of size, utility, and cost. It can be very tempting to try and buy off-brand (more affordable) lenses- but keep in mind that the quality of a lens can have a HUGE impact on the quality of images you can take with a DSLR camera.

Through the years, this camera has been a reliable staple for my research and recreation. I’ve been able to take some wonderful pictures, but it has its limits. In particular, I tend to have a hard time getting good pictures of small, far away animals. However, I find that it works very well at moderate distances and for macro photography.

Here are some of my favorite pictures I’ve taken with my DSLR:

Another advantage of DSLR cameras is cost (sort of). They aren’t necessarily cheap, but buying the lenses separately can potentially let you spread the costs out over time. I had my Canon for about a year before I decided to get the 300mm lens. By contrast, you have to pay all of the cost of a point-and-shoot camera up front (for comparison, my husband’s camera costs close to $600).

Point-And-Shoot Cameras

Unlike DSLRs, the lenses on point-and-shoot cameras are built in to the device itself. These cameras can vary wildly in size, cost, and quality.

Pros: Zoom & Ease of Use

In my experience, (certain) point-and shoot-cameras tend to be well-suited for taking pictures requiring a lot of zoom (which can be really handy when photographing wildlife). They also can be a little more straightforward to use than DSLR cameras are. As the name suggests- you just point and shoot. You don’t necessarily have to think a lot about constantly adjusting your settings.

Depending on what you choose, a point-and-shoot can be a more affordable and portable option than a DSLR (but this is not always the case). A high-quality point-and-shoot camera can be comparable to some DSLRs in cost and size. For reference, here’s a side by side of my husband’s point-and-shoot Nikon and my DSLR Canon:

While point-and-shoot cameras can be much smaller and cheaper than DSLRs, this is not always the case. My husband’s point-and-shoot (left) is comparable in size and cost to my DSLR (right), but has a more powerful zoom.


Since some features are more automated than a DSLR, you don’t usually have as much control over things like focus, depth of field, etc. Sometimes it can also be difficult to focus on a specific object without a manual focus like my DSLR has. You also don’t have the flexibility of changing lenses or light sources.

That being said, these cameras can still take really good pictures. An old Sony point-and-shoot I had while studying abroad in 2015 yielded me these pictures:

My Husband’s Camera

Tom uses a point-and-shoot camera- specifically the Nikon COOLPIX P900. This camera is really popular among certain types of wildlife enthusiasts for one key reason: the zoom on this camera is INSANE. It has the equivalent of a 2000mm focal length.

Here are some of Tom’s favorite pictures he’s taken with it:

Considerations When Choosing a Camera

There a couple of things that I find very helpful to think about when choosing a camera for nature photography:

What are you trying to take pictures of?

A lot of times, the type of camera you need varies based on a) how big it is and b) how close you can get to it. Both of those things determine how strong of a zoom you will or won’t need from a camera.

If you don’t need to zoom in, a phone may work just fine. I find my phone works very well for things like wildflowers, plants, animal tracks, and things I can hold in my hand.

If you need to zoom in a little bit, a DSLR will probably work. I really like my DSLR for macro shots of insects and larger animals that I can get somewhat close to. Because of their faster shutter speeds, DSLRs also tend to be better for fast-moving objects.

If you need a REALLY POWERFUL zoom, a good point-and-shoot camera like Tom has is probably your best bet. My husband’s camera tends to be very popular among turtle enthusiasts and birders- animals that are relatively small and hard to get close to. If I wanted my DSLR to compete with the Nikon COOLPIX P900, I would need a MUCH larger lens.

Why are you taking pictures?

In my experience, there are two main kinds of nature photography: 1) identification images and 2) artistic expression.

In some cases, you might want to take a picture to a) figure out what something is or b) prove you saw a rare species. In this case, phones and point-and-shoot cameras work extremely well for this. I use my phone a lot when trying to identify things using iNaturalist. For things that move quickly or are further away, a point-and-shoot works very well.

However, if you’re really wanting to focus on taking the most beautiful picture you can, you might want to think about a DSLR. My husband and I have found that I typically have more control over focus, aperture, depth of field, etc. than he does. In particular, I tend to have a much easier time taking macro shots than he does.

Sadly, I don’t have a good side-by-side comparison of this (since Tom tends to delete photos that don’t turn out on the spot).

Final Thoughts

I want to be very clear about something: dropping a lot of money on a fancy camera does not guarantee you will take amazing pictures. A talented photographer can do a lot with a mediocre camera, and a sub-par photographer probably won’t utilize high-quality equipment to its fullest potential. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources on the internet nowadays that can show you how to make the most of any camera- whether it’s your phone, a DSLR, or a point-and-shoot.

Something else you may want to consider is size and portability. My husband’s Nikon is about the same size as my Canon, but this may not be the case depending on what cameras or lenses you want to use. Some point-and-shoot cameras can be much more compact than DSLRs, but may not yield the same image quality.

If you’re interested in dabbling in nature photography, I would recommend starting with your phone. My phone’s camera has a “Pro” mode, which lets me manipulate ISO, aperture, white balance, etc. Playing around with that is a good way to dabble in photography without dropping a lot of money on a camera. If you find that you really like doing that over time, it may be worth investing in a camera.

Recreating 7 Pinterest Outfits Using Items I Already Own

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I don’t know about y’all, but I often struggle with impulse shopping…especially when it comes to clothes and shoes. At this point, I *know* I have more than enough clothes, and I can’t really afford to keep adding to my wardrobe. In the past, I’ve often looked to Pinterest as a source of inspiration for items I want, but this week I turned to Pinterest to help me make the most of items I already have. Over the course of the week, I re-created 7 outfits from Pinterest using clothing items I already had.

Initially, I wasn’t planning to write a blog post about this. I ended up changing my mind for a couple of reasons: 1) my science-oriented content takes me a while to research. I’m currently working on several posts (including accutane, teeth whitening products, hormonal IUDs vs “the pill”, and more), but I wanted to post something in the meantime. 2) This challenge ended up being a surprising amount of fun, but also helped me grow a bit as a person (so I wanted to take some time to reflect on it).

My Style & Wardrobe

Up until last year, my wardrobe was pretty simple and unsophisticated (lots of t-shirts, v necks, and leggings). Since I was going to be teaching a college course (and wanted to dress the part), I made a very deliberate effort to rebuild and rebrand my wardrobe.

Generally, I like to ask myself 2 questions before adding any new item to my wardrobe:

  • Is this significantly different from something I already own?
  • Can I picture at least 3 different outfits this item could be a part of?

If I could answer “yes” to both questions, then I would consider buying it. Based on that, my wardrobe is dominated by a lot of versatile staples and neutral colors- things which are mutually compatible with one another. More or less I have a capsule wardrobe, just with a lot more items than you might see in a “traditional” capsule wardrobe. I would say my style is pretty minimalist and casual or chic (depending on the day), and I tend to avoid bold colors and prints.

Here’s a good example of what I might wear on a typical day:

Given the nature of 2020, I ordered most of these items online over the past year. The key to ordering stuff online (in my opinion) is having accurate measurements (in other words, get a tape measure! it will save you a lot of headaches). When possible, also make sure that you read the reviews to see what the material is like, whether it might be see-through, etc.

I’m also a graduate student, which means I don’t make very much money. Inevitably, that means I try and stick to affordable pieces as well. Almost everything I wear costs less than $50 (typically I try to stick below $30, if possible). Occasionally I am willing to splurge on high-quality staples that I know will last me a while, and I’ve had a lot of luck getting those types of items on sale.

The Challenge

Knowing that I have a pretty well-established wardrobe at this point, I wanted to create a challenge for myself: recreate 7 outfits from my Pinterest over the course of 7 days, using items I already own. As an additional challenge, I also wanted to try my best to recreate the images themselves. In other words, for each outfit I had to recreate the outfit, find a similar location/background, and recreate the pose/image as best I could.

The Outfits

For all comparison images, I have the original pin on the left and my recreation on the right. Due to the nature of Pinterest, I’m not sure who the original creators are for many of these pins. If you happen to know, please let me know and I’ll link to their profile/blog. When possible, I’ve tried to include links for the items I used. I’ve also included the particular colors and sizes that I’m wearing. For reference, I typically wear a size 4/S on top, 6/8/M on bottom, and W 9.5 in shoes.

Day 1

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve probably pinned this outfit at least 10 times, so it seemed like a good place to start. I went with a top that I got on clearance a few years ago at Target, Levi’s mile high super skinny in “on the house” (the stretch on these is pretty forgiving, so I wear a size 4), and this belt from Amazon.

Something you may notice rather quickly is that I’m wearing pretty much the same jewelry in every outfit. There’s a reason for this: long story short, I’m doing a separate challenge where I wanted to test the durability of Ana Luisa jewelry for everyday wear. If you’ve read my blog post about rose gold, you’ll know that I’ve had some issues with the durability of gold-plated jewelry from other brands in the past. Check out the caption on this Instagram post for more details about my Ana Luisa wear test:

In this outfit, I’m wearing the onyx layered necklaces set, double hoop earrings (Scarlett), and the “rope slim” Gold twist ring (I wear size 7 for my middle and index finger). I also have the coin necklace set which you’ll see in some of the other outfits in this series.

Day 2

With this outfit, I’m wearing WearMe Pro women’s oversized full mirrored sunglasses in tortoise/black, A New Day women’s elbow sleeve high neck rib t-shirt in black (size: S), Levi’s women’s 721 high rise skinny jeans in “soft clean white” (size: 28/US 6), and A New Day women’s Rebecca ballet flats in cognac (size 9). If you’re in the market for white jeans, I highly recommend these. They’re closer to true denim than jeggings and in my experience are not see-through. I wear a larger size because they don’t have as much give as the mile-high super skinny jeans I have from Levi’s (which are more like jeggings). As for the rest of the outfit, I’m holding my A New Day women’s bi-stretch twill blazer in black (size 4), my Ello 16 oz ceramic Aspen travel mug in white, and my Universal Thread zip closure crossbody bag in cognac.

Day 3

With this outfit I wanted to go for something a little comfier and cozier. I’m wearing a hat my mother-in-law made for me, my “Scientist” sweatshirt from StemBabe (I’m wearing a size M but could have gotten a S), Amazon Essential Women’s mid-weight puffer vest in black (size S), these high-waisted leggings in black (size S), and these canvas sneakers from Target in white (size 10). I’ll note that these shoes don’t have a lot of arch support, so I usually wear them with insoles.

Day 4

I really liked this outfit. I’ve had this turtleneck literally since I was in high school, so I honestly couldn’t tell you where I got it. I’m wearing Levi’s mile high super skinny jeans (in “new moon”) and these women’s Bessie wedge bootie from Target in black (size 10). The coat was a gift from my mother-in-law, so I’m not *exactly* sure where she got it. I know that it’s Calvin Klein, and it looks similar to this Cashmere wool blend coat on Amazon. (Side note, I’ve decided that the Minnesotans show love by trying to keep you warm, since she gave me a hat, scarf, and coat for Christmas this year.)

Day 5

This was *probably* my favorite outfit. Both my blazer and shirt are from Target, but I was really disappointed to learn they’d been discontinued. I’m wearing Levi’s mile high super skinny jeans in “Quebec Storm” and these sunglasses in gold frame/grey lens. The shoes are Nine West women’s flax dress pump (size 9.5). These are my favorite pair of heels I own- aside from being cute, they’re surprisingly comfortable. I’m also wearing the Ana Luisa coin layered necklace in this photo (whereas most of my other outfits feature the onyx necklace set).

Day 6

This outfit has a few repeats from previous days, so I’ll just highlight the new items: this hat in color A-khaki and these Nine West women’s loafer flats (in size 9.5). Yes, I have multiple pairs of snakeskin shoes- remember that I study lizards (so I get pretty excited about anything related to reptiles).

Day 7

Like the outfit on day 6, there are several elements of this outfit that are repeated from previous days. The new pieces here are my Levi’s womens Original Trucker Jacket in “Jeanie” (size M) and Jockey women’s cowl neck sweatshirt in “heather oatmeal” (size M). If you’re looking for an outfit that is both comfy and cute- this is the one for you.

Bonus Outfit

When I initially planned out my week, I chose 8 outfits instead of 7. Apparently I can’t count, but I still wanted to recreate the image anyways.

I’ve had most of these items for a while. I’m wearing a tunic top I got several years ago from Old Navy (this is probably the most similar item they carry now). The SiiZU shawl was part of my Winter Causebox a couple of years ago, and you already know the details of the jeans and jewelry. I just liked the picture and thought it would be fun to share!

Takeaways & Reflections

There’s several things that I noticed over the course of the week:

  1. Almost every Pinterest outfit features a coffee cup and/or sunglasses. Don’t believe me? Go to Pinterest and check.
  2. My wardrobe has definitely grown and evolved a lot over the last year, and this challenge helped me look at a lot of my wardrobe staples with new eyes. In a couple of cases, I rediscovered clothing items I had completely forgotten about.
  3. I ACHIEVED MY GOAL. Forcing myself to wear clothes I already had helped me realize the massive potential my wardrobe already has, and I’m no longer finding myself obsessively wanting new clothing items.
  4. This challenge was a lot of fun, but it also helped push me out of my comfort zone. I have no previous experience doing any kind of modelling, so going and taking pictures of myself with a tripod in public is not something I felt terribly comfortable doing. I had to work through my anxieties about what people would think about me or if they would judge me for what I was doing. At a certain point, I had to accept the reality that it didn’t really matter what those people might think.
  5. Recreating pictures like this is NOT easy. I didn’t have anyone taking photos of me, so there was no one to tell me where to put my hands, where to look, what to do with my hair, etc. Recreating these photos involved a lot of running back and forth to my phone, but the payoff was sooooo worth it.
  6. I was absolutely blown away by the amount of support I got throughout this series. I honestly had *no* idea if people would be interested in this content. I just figured since I was doing it, I might as well generate content from it. I received SO MANY comments and messages on Instagram from people saying how much they loved the series (so you can guarantee it will be back sometime in the spring or summer).

What did y’all think? Are there any specific outfits you’d like to see me recreate in the future? Drop a comment, send me an email, or shoot me a message on Instagram at @missalenius_science!


35+ Gift Ideas for your Favorite Science Nerd

I get commissions for purchases made through Amazon affiliate links in this post.

With the holidays rapidly approaching, many of us are likely asking ourselves what we plan to gift our loved ones. Whether they’re treats for yourself or gifts for other people, these are some of my favorite science-related gifts. Most of these gift ideas are targeted for adults- let me know if you would like a dedicated list for kids!

Charty Party ($24.99). I recently discovered this game and I am OBSESSED with it. It’s basically cards against humanity, but with graphs. I promise it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

Cognitive surplus Whiskey chemistry rocks glass set ($29.95) They also have a similar “beer chemistry” pint glass set ($29.95)

Cognitive surplus graphic tees ($24.95) This is just one of the many field-specific science t-shirts made by Cognitive Surplus. I got the green bird graphic tee for my husband a few years ago and he loves it. They run a little small- I would order a size up unless you’re looking for a fitted t-shirt.

Cognitive surplus “the hypothesis” hardcover notebook ($19.95). If you can’t tell by now, I *love* this company. They have so many different disciplines to choose from- I currently use their “Bee hardcover dot grid” notebook as my bullet journal.

Cognitive surplus also makes tote bags in many of the same fields as their t-shirts and notebooks, including a Great Women of Science tote bag ($19.95)

Periodic Tablewear Laboratory Shot Glasses ($19.98). I got these for a gift exchange last year and they were definitely a hit amongst my fellow scientist friends.

Dinosaur skeleton necklace ($7.99) This necklace is definitely a statement. Not a fan of silver? It comes in 4 colors!

For a more subtle piece of science jewelry, consider this Rose gold Serotonin molecule necklace ($20.99), which also comes in silver.

Oh Chemistree Periodic Table Longsleeved shirt ($17.95) is great for someone who likes to be both festive and rep their love of chemistry during the holiday season.

If you know someone who is into gardening or geeks out about native pollinators, consider getting them a Crown Bees bee house kit (prices vary). I will definitely have a post in the future about bee houses. Long story short, not all bee houses are created equal, and Crown Bees is a company that makes very well designed ones. These are not for keeping honeybees- they are designed for local, solitary bees. These bees (such as mason and leafcutter bees) are extremely important pollinator species. Kits come both with bee cocoons or without them (so you can attract the local bees in your area).

For someone who enjoys looking at the small things in life, consider this wireless digital microscope ($41.99). This is also a good option for any especially inquisitive kids you know.

Any math teachers, mathematicians, or math appreciators in your life may appreciate this clock ($24.95).

For your friend who appreciates some good periodic table mugs, consider one of these Periodically mugs ($18.00)

Alternatively, this “A woman’s place is in the lab” campfire mug ($22.99) makes a great gift for your favorite woman in STEM.

For someone who likes a good science-themed fashion statement, this science infinity scarf ($19.99) is a good option.

Similarly, any chemist you know that appreciates ties will probably enjoy this chemistry equations tie ($18.95)

I can guarantee that these hexagonal graph paper ($10.99) and organic chemistry stencil ($11.99) will definitely be appreciated by anyone you know who is taking organic chemistry, biochemistry, or is otherwise an organic chemist. (I know I wish I had these when I took O chem)

I don’t know about you, but this Solar system necklace ($58.00) definitely exudes Ms. Frizzle to me.

For your doctor, nurse, or loved one who otherwise loves anatomy, consider one of these wooden anatomy Christmas Ornaments ($24.00)

For someone who needs some science-themed art in their home or office, consider these vintage science chemistry patent poster prints ($16.99).

If you know an aerospace engineer, they might like this “principles of flight” tie ($28.00)

This Erlenmeyer mug ($15.99) is a solid staple for any scientist.

This science sticker pack ($6.99) is perfect for decorating water bottles, laptops, notebooks, and more!

Waterlust tiger shark leggings ($69)- these leggings are UPF 50+ and proceeds help support the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the University of Miami. How cool is that?

This book helps celebrate the often underappreciated contributions of 50 women in science ($14.47). Written for ages 10 and up.

You can’t go wrong with this soy-based beaker candle set ($24.00). There are 14 different scents to choose from!

This plush glow-in-the-dark constellation blanket ($29.99) is perfect for anyone you know wo loves being comfy but also gets excited about space.

For your friend who is also into plants, consider this air plant beaker terrarium set ($32.00). Not gonna lie, y’all- I really want this for myself.

Help your loved one show off their love of science with this science face mask ($10.99)

For the computer programmer in your life, consider one of these circuit board ties ($40.00+).

If you know a scientist, I can promise you they can relate to this “Y’all need science” mug ($21.55) this year.

You can’t really go wrong with this set of 5 pair of men’s science dress socks ($22.99)

Science lab socks ($9.00)- perfect for someone who also appreciates puns.

For kids

I hope to expand on this section in the future, but here are a few ideas for the young science enthusiasts in your life:

Cognitive surplus is back at it again with an array of youth-sized science shirts ($21.95)

Little patient anatomy plush toy ($55.00) is a fun way to familiarize kids with human anatomy.

I’ve always loved these GIANT microbes plush toys ($20.95), which show what many bacteria and viruses would look like if you supersized them, then made them adorable and fuzzy.

Entomologist Barbie Doll ($29.99) In collaboration with National Geographic, Mattel has recently produced an amazing line of science-themed Barbies, including a marine biologist ($14.45), astrophysicist ($13.10), robotics engineer ($24.99), wildlife conservationist ($15.99), and wildlife photographer ($14.99).

This kid’s beginner microscope kit ($54.99) is great for helping encourage curiosity. My brother and I definitely had a microscope kit like this as kids and I thought it was *the coolest thing*

Help encourage the kids in your life to feel more like a scientist with this science experiment and lab coat dress up set ($18.99)