outdoor equipment
The Rebel XSi (courtesy, Canon)
Gear Guy

What’s the best lightweight camera for nature photography?

I am looking for a lightweight camera for nature photography. I would like a good zoom so I can capture wildlife from a distance, and want to carry it on backpacking trips along with other gear. I recently graduated with a degree in media production, so I am still mostly just a beginner, but I am looking for something that I won't be disappointed in as the years pass. — Benjamin Kent, OH

outdoor equipment

Well, for starters, you’re looking at a digital SLR, not a point-and-shoot—not even one of the more expensive and feature-rich point-and-shoots. You need the lens flexibility of an SLR, not to mention the better imaging and photo-handling options they offer. And prices are coming down on these cameras. You can get Canon’s excellent Rebel XSi 12.2-megapixel camera for $650. True, it comes with a crap short-zoom 18-55 lens, but that’s still a good buy. Body only is $50 less, so maybe for that small tariff the extra lens is OK. Nikon’s D3000 is $550 for the body, and has similar specs.

You can pay more for a body, and you get more—better resolution, more features, more rugged construction. But these budget SLRs are pretty good, and leave you more $$ for decent lenses.

outdoor equipment

outdoor equipment The Rebel XSi

The main thing is, you’re going to need a lens with a lot of “pull.” A good example is Sigma’s 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO zoom. Auto-focus, of course, and optical stabilization for low light. That 500mm outer range will really bring wildlife in close. And it’s not a huge lens—ten inches long and about four pounds. At $1,400, it’s not unreasonably priced given all it does. Tokina makes a somewhat lesser 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 lens that sells for about $500 and still offers good versatility.

I wish you could get a decent fixed-focal-length tele, but these days those are pretty exotic items. Canon’s own EF 400mm F5.6 lens ($1,200) is one of the better ones. Match that with a Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 ($2,400) and a Canon 28mm F1.8 wide-angle ($450) and you’ve got just about every combination covered. I really like the 70-200mm despite its steep price because it’s a super-versatile selection of focal lengths, plus very fast.

If you really want just one lens to do as much as possible, Sigma’s 18-300mm F3.5-5.6 zoom ($500 street price) is really pretty remarkable. Not perfect, but with an 18:1 zoom ratio and compact size, it sure covers the bases. Or, Canon’s 70-300mm F4.5/5.6 ($1,250 street price) plus a wide-angle lens would give you better quality with plenty of versatility. That would likely have my vote for most shooting options for lowest cost, without sacrificing much quality.

Lot of choices. Hope this helps!

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: courtesy, Canon