Reader Question: Which Camera For Wildlife And Family Candids With $1000?

Shot at 285mm at f/5.6 in low light. 1/100th of a second.

Today’s question deals with shooting wildlife with a budget. B asks:

Hi, Peter…just read the article on questions to ask before you buy a DSLR. Good stuff. I’d love to get your recommendation for my upcoming DSLR purchase. Some background…I am an avid amateur photographer. I think I have a great sense of composition, and know some of the basics about photography. I really want to push it further. I had a Canon Rebel SLR back in the mid-90’s, but mostly kept the settings on automatic.

I have wanted a DSLR ever since we switched to digital, because I loved that Canon. I’m currently using a Lumix LX5, and I try to take it off automatic settings most of the time. I use aperture priority a lot. I’ve played around with light painting and motion blur and tried to better understand how all of the settings affect the image. So I think a DSLR is the next logical step, but I haven’t wanted to spend the money up until now.

Now, my husband and I have purchase 4 acres of wooded property on a lake. It is loaded with wildlife: birds, deer, etc. I know I won’t be able to capture bird shots with my current camera…just not enough range. So I want to get wildlife shots, and also get candid family portraits. That will probably be the bulk of what I do. HD video would be a bonus. I’m considering spending around $1,000 or a little more, if needed. My current thinking is to get a Canon T3i and purchase a telephoto lens. I was thinking (mostly because of cost) that I could get the Canon 70-300 lens.

If I need more range than that, maybe I could get a 2x extender later? (Which one would you recommend.) Do you think this would suit my needs? I don’t think I need to step up as far as the pro-level Canons, because I don’t see myself ever doing this for money, just personal gratification. I have read so many different reviews and opinions, I’m not sure what to do, and haven’t been able to pull the trigger yet, because I don’t want to regret the decision and wish I had gotten something different. I’d love to hear your recommendation. (Sorry this was so verbose.)

Thanks, B


First, thank you for the thorough background information, that helps.

I tend to favor Canon and if you were happy with them in the past, it’s a sound idea to stick with the brand as the feel of the camera will be similar. For what you describe, the Canon T3i should fit the bill, especially with your eye toward video as the T3i can do full 1080p resolution. I would consider looking for a used until on eBay if that suits you. This camera has been around for a bit and you can possibly drop $100 from the price if you find someone looking to upgrade to the higher lines of Canon cameras.

I think the 70-300mm  f/4-5.6 IS USM lens you mentioned is a good start for what you mentioned. Just know that it is starting out fairly ‘dark’. Meaning the starting aperture if f/4 at 70mm and f/5.6 at 300mm. The T3i does have decent high ISO noise performance, but it’s not stellar. You will need a lot of light to freeze the action of wildlife and birds. So depending on how wooded the property is and which direction it faces, this may be an issue. With ample Spring/Summer/Fall lighting, you will do ok.

You will not be able to use the 2x extender with this lens. From Canon’s site: This lens is only compatible with fixed focal length L-series lenses 135mm and over, as well as the EF 70-200/2.8L, EF 70-200/2.8L IS, EF 70-200/4L, and EF 100-400/4.5-5.6L. Additionally, please see the lens and/or camera body manual for full compatibility information with the Extender EF 2X III.

That rules it out with your lens (what I have found is it will sometimes work on other lenses when zoomed out. The problem occurs when a lens is pulled back and the rear element of the lens hits the front element of the extender, because the front element of the extender actually extends into the body of the lens slightly). But that is ok, because it would make your zoomed f-stop become f/11 and then you need a spotlight to stop wildlife, just about. That’s an exaggeration, but you still need a lot of light.

Instead of spending money on the 2x Extender, consider getting a simple 50mm f/1.8 for the family portraits. You will love it for this as it has a nice depth of field and is sharp, plus it lets in a lot of light, making candids all the easier without the need for the flash.

The Canon T3i with the 70-300mm IS USM and a 50mm f/1.8 would be a nice start and will help you see where you are going with your shooting in order to pick future lenses without regret.

Please let me know if you have further questions.

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