“I bet a really expensive camera was used to take that shot”
Although it is true to say that top of the range camera equipment does play a significant part in the making of certain types of wildlife images, once you get above the basic, enthusiasts' level of photographic equipment (which is excellent these days), camera gear is not the crucial factor.
The most important factor is access.
And what I mean by that is location and field craft.
The right location will put you in the vicinity of the deer, and good field craft will put in right position to make the image; field craft is by far the most important element to master.
Nonetheless, when people ask me about deer photography, they nearly always what to know about equipment I recommend.
I'm not in the business of recommending any particular photographic equipment, but for what it's worth here is my general advice.
The two most important features of a camera that you need to be concerned about are the sensor and the auto-focus system.
Ideally, you’re going to want a camera that’s got a resolution of at least 20 mega pixels.
Then, you want the sensor to have the ability to record images with the least amount of noise for a given ISO.
Since deer are most active around twilight and are likely to be moving about, the camera should be able to take photographs up to at least around 25,000 ISO.
I understand that to some, 25000 is an astronomically high ISO, however modern camera bodies can, and do, deliver quite acceptable image quality up, and beyond, this level. But, of course, this is subjective. Personally, I don’t worry too much about noise levels in a photograph; as long as the photograph basically looks the way I wanted it to look, that’s good enough.
With regard to the auto-focus system, it needs to be fast, accurate and have the ability to function reliably in low light. The focusing ability of a camera depends on the camera body and the lens. So, you need to make sure the lenses you use, are fast and responsive, too.
As well as all the usual functions that you will find on any decent high spec enthusiasts’ level of camera, you also want a body that shoots at least 7 frames per second, particularly if you want to capture action.
Finally, think about weather sealing. Deer are not the type of photographic subject that tends to be ideally suited to working from a hide. I’m aware that successful wildlife photographers can and do capture great deer images by using a hide, but in my experience, a more active approach to your photography will normally yield a greater variety of shots, and on a more consistent basis.
So, if you want make images in all weather conditions, the camera system you should use needs to a have a reasonable degree of sealing to prevent ingress of moisture. You can get ‘waterproof’ camera covers, but some moisture always seems to find its way in, especially during heavy rain or snow. So, don’t rely on camera covers; just use them to protect your body and lens against the full force of the weather.
This is the part of the camera system that probably requires the most thought, and, unfortunately, the most amount of money; long, fast and weather sealed lenses are expensive, even good, second-hand telephoto lenses are not cheap.
The things you may like to consider are:
What type of images do you want to make?
If you mainly want to produce intimate, portrait, type of images, you will need a long lens (at least 500 mm) and an aperture of least f/5.6. If you want to maximise the ability to create blurred background, an aperture of f/4 would be a better choice.
Wider, more inclusive photographs, showing the deer in its habitat do not need such long focal lengths, 200 to 300 mm could be enough to get you what you want.
Do you want the subject to appear large in the frame?
Linked to the above, high magnification lenses are needed to make the deer appear large in the photograph.
Even if you are able to get physically close the subject, keeping a respectable distance and using a long lens is preferable to trying to get too near to them. If you persist in trying to get closer and closer, you will scare the deer, which is obviously no good for them or you.
Again, if you want this type of photo, I would suggest a focal length of at least 500 mm.
Are you going to be shooting in low light?
If you are going to concentrate your efforts at dawn and dusk, which are the best times to capture non-resting behaviour, a fast aperture lens is particularly helpful, say f/4 or f/2.8. Other than that, coupled with a good camera body, f/5.6 will be fast enough in normal light conditions.
Are you going to be using the lens during wet weather conditions?
If this is the case, weather sealing is important.
The lenses with the highest build quality are those that are internally focusing, meaning there is no part of the lens that will move back and forth, when the focal length is changed – this only applies to zoom lenses.
So, if you do use a zoom lens where some part moves in and out of the lens barrel, you must be aware that during wet weather conditions, ingress of water into the lens system is more likely than when using an internally focusing lens. On the plus side though, non-internally focusing lenses tend to be less expensive.
Are you able to carry a relatively heavy camera and lens combination?
Long (500 mm and above) and fast (f/4) lenses can be heavy, and coupled with the camera body and battery, the camera system could easily weigh 4 kg or more, so carrying that set-up around (along with all the other paraphernalia such as a tripod, spare batteries, etc…) could be a problem.
But the good news is that if you’re happy to shoot at f/5.6, you can get a good 500 mm lens that weighs just 1.5 kg.
So, when it comes to shooting in low light, a fast aperture lens is the ideal tool, but it does carry a significant weight penalty.
What is more important to you – absolute, technical image quality, or the flexibility to change composition, without altering camera position?
This is a very important question.
Many photographers express a preference for fixed focal length lenses, saying that they tend to produce technically superior results to those from zoom lenses.
In principle, I agree. But in the last few years, the technical gap between the two types of lenses has narrowed, to such a degree that the difference is only becoming visible if you to examine the very fine, pixel level detail.
In my view, zoom lenses are preferable because they allow you to change the photographic composition, without having to physically change the position of the camera. And when photographing skittish deer, unnecessarily getting up moving around will increase the likelihood of disturbance, which is clearly undesirable, and detrimental to your photography.
The problem is that once you're in position, a fixed focal length lens tends to ‘force’ the composition. On the plus side though, these types of lenses tend to be faster than zoom lenses, meaning you can achieve better subject isolation and they let in more light into the camera, making focusing easier, more reliable and enabling lower image ISO, compared to using a narrower aperture lens.
Another item that are worth considering is a good, heavy tripod, for camera stability. And like many other things in photography, you get what you pay for. Saving a few pounds to buy a cheap tripod could be costly in the long run, if the camera topples because of an inferior tripod.
It also worth having a range of teleconverters at your disposal, too, to extend your optical 'reach' in certain situations.
What Equipment Do I Use?
At the moment, DSLRs, cropped and full frame.
Lens wise, I use fixed focal length and zoom lenses, and coupled with teleconverters, using focal lengths up to 800 mm.
However, there are some excellent light-weight mirrorless systems to choose from these days, which are considerably lighter and more 'manoeuvrable' than the heavy, clunky equipment I currently use!
If you're starting from scratch, one thing to bear in mind is that a mirrorless system has probably got more potential for future innovation.
When it comes to which manufacturer I use, I will use whatever tools are needed to get the job done - who makes equipment is not my main concern.