Gear Guy

Q:

What camera will take great wildlife photos?

I'm headed to the Okavango Delta in Botswana for six months through a job with Conservation International. I not a very experienced photographer, so can you recommend a reasonably priced camera that'll take great wildlife photos? Todd Baltimore, Maryland

A:Any sort of wildlife photography requires one thing: a telephoto lens. The bigger the better. So right away you can dismiss just about any "point-and-shoot" camera—even the ones with lenses that stick out like aBwell, never mind. So you're going to want to commit to a single-lens reflex, or SLR, and probably a pair of lenses. One lens will be a general-purpose zoom, the other a big chunk of telephoto glass to bring the action close to you.

But don't stress too much. I am constantly astonished at how camera-phobic the average American is, but I'm sure you can get a grip on what's required to get those big-money shots. Besides, today's cameras do so much of the work for you it's almost laughable.

For the camera body, I'd go with one of several models. Ideally, you could swing for a semi-pro camera such as Canon's estimable Elan 7E (street price around $420; www.canoneos.com). An excellent camera: well-balanced, full-featured, with a superb auto-exposure system AND Canon's other-worldly eye-control focus (where you look, it focuses). Nikon's N75 ($200; www.nikonusa.com) is a more affordable but still very capable camera. Auto-exposure and autofocus, of course, and like the Canon, it also has automatic film advance.

For your basic lens, you could go with one of the mediocre 35-100mm lenses offered in "kits" with both the Elan and the N75. It's a cheap and sort of serviceable alternative. Better, though, to go with a higher-quality zoom such as the Sigma 24-135mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens. Much faster (better in low light) and better glass than the inexpensive kit lenses.

Then, for your real wildlife photography, get a 400mm lens. At the very least. Sigma makes a decent zoom—a 135-400mm f/4.5-5.6—that sells for $500 or so. Or, go for the really heavy artillery and get a Canon 500mm f/4.0 with image-stabilizing technology. Of course—wait for it—that costs $5,000.

So, short of encouraging you to rob a bank, get yourself the Sigma zoom, either the Canon or the Nikon, and a decent tripod—the Bogen 3001BN ($110; www.bogenphoto.com) is nifty.

Happy shooting!

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