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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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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).
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:
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).
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.