Is it really About the gear?

11 year old Pentax K100D (a 6 megapixel camera from 2006) + Tamron 70-300

11 year old Pentax K100D (a 6 megapixel camera from 2006) + Tamron 70-300

Using Old Digital Cameras for Wildlife Photography

If you dial into most of the technical chatter on the internet about cameras for wildlife photography and distilled it into one or two words I am pretty sure you would come out with 'noise', 'sharpness' and 'reach' in the top 10.

Photographers, particularly wildlife photographers, bang on and on about these qualities all the time. Until recently, I used to hunt feverishly for the most impressive technical characteristics of each camera body or lens. Favouring, noise and sharpness over all the others.

Nowadays, I am not at all sure that these qualities are still important to 90% of photographers. My reasoning revolves mainly around one thing; most of our images are displayed online and not in print.

A proud Lechwe on the Busanga Plains, Zambia. Pentax K100D + Tamron 70-300 from a moving vehicle.

A proud Lechwe on the Busanga Plains, Zambia. Pentax K100D + Tamron 70-300 from a moving vehicle.

Even if we were printing, the really old digital models from a few years ago are more than capable of producing similar quality to the modern equivalents at sizes up to A3 (canvas could be bigger still).

So, if we share 90% of shots online and print just a few to A3, why on earth are we constantly measuring our equipment in terms of noise and sharpness? Particularly, as all that is necessary to mitigate noise is photographing a subject a little more conservatively!

I like to think of photographic equipment in terms of a performance envelope; a little like a World War II fighter pilot might have considered his aircraft. If he flew a Spitfire, he would find that he could make tighter turns, if a Hurricane, accept more damage, if a Messerschmitt, dive at greater speed. Each of these small advantages could be used effectively in their own way.

Pentax K100D + Tamron 70-300, Kafue Zambia

Pentax K100D + Tamron 70-300, Kafue Zambia

Camera equipment is much the same. A given body or lens will have a performance envelope; work within that envelope and the equipment is likely to give excellent results. Push the bounds, however, and the equipment is likely to trip you up.

Remembering that the limiting factor is often the required output and that these days, this is likely (at most) a 2048 px image, there isn't a modern camera made that will fail at this task.

Pentax K100D + 18-55 kit lens. Dunes on the Kunene river, Namibia/Angola border

Pentax K100D + 18-55 kit lens. Dunes on the Kunene river, Namibia/Angola border

The failures occur because the photographer fails to recognise the camera's performance envelope.

For example, if I shoot using my 2006 Pentax K100D, a 6mp camera with a 3008 x 2008 pixel crop sensor, I know that while I must expose carefully and photograph in acceptable light, I can confidently rely on exceptional levels of sharpness.

My venerable Pentax a great camera in 2006 and still great today - I use it wherever there is risk of theft or damage. This camera sells for R450 second-hand

My venerable Pentax a great camera in 2006 and still great today - I use it wherever there is risk of theft or damage. This camera sells for R450 second-hand

On the other hand, if I shoot my modern Canon 7D mark ii, I know that I can shoot in less light than the Pentax but that I must take exceptional care not to introduce pixel-level blur due to movement or shake.

Either of these bodies is perfectly capable of producing an exceptional quality image if their performance envelope is respected.

So what is actually important with regard to selecting a camera and lens? To my mind, there are much more significant factors than image noise and sharpness. Some of the most valuable of these for wildlife, are:

  • Autofocus capability
  • Usability
  • Build quality and service support
  • Lens ecosystem
  • Second-hand value
Pumping boats Vic Falls, Pentax Optio point and shoot (R170 second-hand)

Pumping boats Vic Falls, Pentax Optio point and shoot (R170 second-hand)

In addition to this, I would consider lens characteristics like maximum aperture, constant aperture, portability and moderate rather than excessive, reach as significant factors in successful wildlife photography.

There is a good reason that I put reach, another photographic buzzword, at the bottom of the list. It's because I don't believe that the purpose of a long lens is to photograph distant objects. Instead, I choose to believe that a long lens is best employed to photograph smaller objects that are close-by.

Vic Falls, Pentax Optio point and shoot

Vic Falls, Pentax Optio point and shoot