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Going Wild: Point-and-Shoot Cameras for Wildlife - 2019 Reviews

Sorry, your iPhone camera isn’t good enough. I don’t care what the besotted tech writers at The New York Times or Wired say about the cameras on our gadgets. You want good wildlife photos? Get a real camera.

But choosing a point-and-shoot is like anything else here in the kingdom of privilege: too many choices and most of them more than what you need. So if you’re a birdwatcher or butterflyer or wildlife biologist looking for answers, I’ll make this simple: get yourself a “bridge camera” with at least a 30x optical zoom. (Birders will do better at 40x to 60x, even higher.)

Karner Blue

Will your wildlife photos land on the cover of nature magazines and win you awards and riches? Nope, probably not. My own published bird and insect photography and most images on this website (except in this very blog post) come from a Canon 7D camera body and an arsenal of heavy, expensive lenses. But if you’re mostly looking to share images online or in presentations — and not to print and frame anything much bigger than 10×12 or so (maybe larger) — you’ll do well with one of these point-and-shoots.

Want proof? Look no further than the Burrowing Owl or Dickcissel above, each photographed with a point-and-shoot, or this federally endangered butterfly, the Karner Blue. I shot this bejeweled butterfly in 2003 with an “antique” — a 4-megapixel, Nikon Coolpix E4500 with a 4x zoom. Not only that, I mistakenly had the Nikon set to take low-resolution photos, about 1.2 mega-pixels. (Shame on me.) Today’s point-and-shoot cameras are 25- to 40-times higher in resolution.

Which brings us to Dirty Little Digital Secret No. 1: Photos can look good online, even a 1-megapixel shot, particularly after some photo editing. Today’s cameras, without any help from their owners, produce some damned good photos. The lousy shots usually come from people who don’t know how to use their cameras. (I offer workshops.)

So, if you want to shoot nature not quite like a pro, but still good enough to print a nice photo now and then, your point-and-shoot bridge camera options begin in two categories: “compact” (which fits into your pocket) or “bulky” (shaped more like a traditional SLR camera). One nice thing about the pocket cameras, besides their portability, is that the lens retracts into the camera behind a trap door — nice protection during field work. All things being equal (and they rarely are), however, the “bulkies” will probably give you better images.

Before we get to my recommendations, you need to know about camera sensors. Besides size, the big split in these point-and-shoots comes down to the sensor: either 1-inch or the standard 1/2.3-inch. (Don’t try to make sense of those numbers: the 1-inch sensor, for example, doesn’t measure an inch in any aspect — not even close.) Just know that a 1-inch sensor has four-times more area than a 1/2.3-inch sensor; the 1-inch sensor will therefore produce higher-quality images. Which brings me to Dirty Little Digital Secret No. 2: Sensor size matters. Even more so than megapixels, particularly in low light (like in the tropics or even in temperate woods). One potential problem with these 1-inch sensors, as you’ll see below, is that they can add $500 or more to the price of the camera. More later on whether it’s worth the extra dough.

You can now head to my 2019 Review List (in the gray box below), read on for more wisdom about point-and-shoot nature photography or view some sample images.

Background: The Nature of Nature Photography

My workspace at McConnell Pond

When outdoors in the company of plants and animals, we’re basically looking for three kinds of photos: landscapes, macro images of little things like insects and flowers, and telephoto shots of distant wildlife. Landscapes are easy, even on your iPhone. (That’s an iPhone 6s panoramic shot above from one of my days at work here in Vermont.)

Good macro shots of plants and other tiny things are actually easy on virtually any point-and-shoot digital camera (and not quite as easy on your iPhone). Yet many people have no clue how to take a macro image, which is why I teach digital photography and why you might want to sign up for my newsletter to get a jump on the coveted spots in my next digital workshop. Don’t get me wrong about smart-phone cameras — they can indeed take beautiful photos,[2] but not of skittish insects, birds and other distant wildlife, at least not without a lot of frustration.

The best way to get a macro photo from any digital camera is, among other things, to bring the camera close to your little object. But butterflies, dragonflies and other insects often won’t oblige your close approach. No matter. Stand back and “mega-zoom-in” to get the shot. The standard 4x zooms you’ll find on many point-and-shoot cameras isn’t good enough. So go big (30x or more, even 60x or more for birds) or go home. You wont always get an ideal shot, or a genuine macro photograph, but the image will be fine for online sharing, as documentation to identify the insect later, or even for a print now and then.

Your greatest challenge is to get photos of small wildlife far away. If you’re out on safari with elephants, yeah, even your iPhone might be good enough. But for many birders without trust funds to buy big lenses and expensive cameras, these super-zoom point-and-shoots are the way to go.[3] Again, using these cameras won’t always get you razor-sharp images. They’re fuzzy at edges, even in macro mode and close to the subject, particularly the pocket models. But if you know what you’re doing, these cameras will capture some wonderful photos, which you’ll see below, and which brings me to Dirty Little Digital Secret No. 3:

Light is Your Friend

Intelligence is an endangered species here today in the United States. So, sorry, the AUTO (dummy) mode setting on your camera isn’t good enough. You’ll want to know how to meter and focus and set shutter speeds and aperture. You’ll need patience and general knowledge of wildlife behavior. I’ve been at this wildlife and photography game for more than three decades; your results may vary.

But perhaps more than anything, you’ll need light. With the compromised small sensors in these point-and-shoots, even those with a 1-inch sensor, light is your friend. If you’ve got sun (not the high, harsh noon sun, but filtered or low sun), these sensors will perform at their best. (It’s one reason you should not judge a camera solely by the sunny images it produces.) This here Pepto-Bismol-colored dragonfly from Costa Rica (from my Panasonic Lumix) is proof of how well a pocket super-zoom can perform in good light.

Image quality declines rapidly with declining light; the smaller sensors simply cannot distinguish detail, reflected in pixels, as well. Low light also requires longer exposures, which further reduces image quality if you’re hand-holding these super-zooms (despite their image stabilization). Same goes for increasing the ISO setting on the camera to compensate for lower light, which adds “noise” (speckling and fuzziness) to your image. You can’t get something for nothing. These cameras are by their very nature compromises. If you want the best possible images, spend thousands on SLRs and lenses.

Other Wonderful “Complications”

My prime concern here is to get you the right camera with the best possible image quality for you and wildlife. Complicating your choice is whether these models have various accouterments, including: RAW image capture, touch screens, WiFi image transfer, GPS capability, flash hot-shoes, and convenient menu and button options. You’ll find answers to all that stuff in other, more detailed reviews (I recommend Digital Photography Review.) But do note a few things:

  • Make sure your super-zoom has a viewfinder.
  • If you’re big into iNaturalist, for example, or want to geo-reference your images all the time, get a camera with a built-in GPS (even though it can suck battery life).
  • Finally, check button and dial options: my personal favorites include a dial for or one-button access to exposure compensation, ISO and metering. And I haven’t even mentioned the new wave of mirrorless cameras, which I’m assuming are too expensive for most general nature geeks.

All of which brings me to Dirty Little Digital Secret No. 4: There are no easy answers, no ideal camera for wildlife. Your choice mostly depends on your finances and, well, who you want to be.

Conclusion: Who Are You? And my Top Camera Picks

No matter what your camera choice, you have some fine images your future. Even so, one problem with bringing cameras into nature is that they can distract you from nature and change the way you are outdoors — sometimes for the worse. It comes down to who you you want to be on the long, green path with your camera:

  • General Nature Geek – If you’re not specifically going for shots of birds, insects or other things that fly away from you, most any point-and-shoot will do; you won’t need one of these super-zooms. Your phone might be fine. Botanists, for example, don’t need super-zooms. I haven’t reviewed your options here.
  • Birder or Insect Naturalist – You’re looking for at least a 40x zoom, and your camera most likely lies somewhere in this review. And if you, like me, already own SLR gear for wildlife but want a portable alternative or backup, your camera is also here, but you’ll have to accept lower quality — sometimes heartbreakingly lower — compared to your big gear.

Undescribed Amberwing species (Perithemis) / © Pierre Deviche

The big question for all of us is whether the 1-inch sensor is worth the extra $400 to $500 on these cameras, not to mention the additional expense of big-name lenses from Zeiss (Sony) or Leica (Panasonic). Again, no easy answers. If you’re already an SLR owner who shoots wildlife, I suspect you’ll be disappointed, even with the 1-inch sensors, perhaps even with that top-of-the-line Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV with the Zeiss glass. This will be particularly true in low light.

That’s why my personal pick is the Nikon Coolpix B700, which, unfortunately, you’ll have to search for now that it’s been discontinued. Lots of the images below come from my B700. If my benefactor ever materializes (or if Sony wants to oblige), the choice is a no-brainer: the Sony Cyber-shot RX10 IV. I want that camera.

But if you’ve never shot with SLR gear and big lenses, and you mostly share your photos online, in scientific papers or in public presentations, you’ll be fine with the lower-priced super-zooms I mention with their standard 1/2.3-inch sensors. After all, consider the classic (bygone) Canon Powershot SX50 HS — formerly the go-to super-zoom. During a trip to Costa Rica in the spring of 2015, a dragonfly colleague of mine, Pierre Deviche, took some shockingly beautiful images with his SX50 under low, lousy light in the rain forest. Included among them was this dragonfly, which had yet to be described to science. Many of us lugging our big gear were astonished (and somewhat embarrassed).

Sample Images

Now, at long last, some wildlife photos to illustrate my arguments above. Read the captions carefully. In some cases, you’ll see image pairs from one of my point-and-shoots: first an unedited JPG exported from Adobe Lightroom (at 1440 pixels wide) and the same image cropped and worked over with standard editing in PhotoShop. Your best bet is to click and open these images for an uncropped view.

Footnotes

[1] Disclaimers: I haven’t used all these cameras. My reviews come from my own experience and a lot of time reading websites I trust. As for conflict of interest, I pay full prices for my camera gear, although I’d welcome PAC money, Super PAC money, Cub Scout pack money, a MacArthur Fellowship, a trust fund, or a Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM lens.

[2] No doubt that phones now have amazing cameras that capture beautiful, high-resolution images, including scenes and critters from nature. But birders, entomologists, herpetologists and even botanists who want premium zoomed or macro photos won’t get them as readily with their phones. If you want a standard “record shot,” simply to prove the presence of an organism, sure, use the phone. I do all the time. So do lots of other folks on iNaturalist. It’s great. But if you want bird or insect “art,” as I said at the outset: get a real camera.

[3] I was never a fan of these cameras until I discovered that one of my favorite field biologists on the planet, Dennis Paulson, sometimes leaves behind his heavy SLR gear and uses a Canon PowerShot SX50. I did the same and took my Lumix backpacking to Scandinavia. A birding friend and colleague, Brian Willson, uses a similar Canon Powershot SX50 with incredible success. The SX50 is a classic, responsible for many great wildlife images. But the SX50 and its successor, the SX60, have been surpassed by these other super-zooms.

Resources

Product Review Specialists

  • Digital Photography Review (dpreview) – Probably the most comprehensive testing and reporting resource out there.
  • The Wirecutter – Now owned by The New York Times, here’s the latest and best online version of Consumer Reports.
  • Cameral Decision – I’ve just discovered this site, so I can’t fully voucher for it. But one great feature is that it allows side-by-side comparisons of cameras.
  • Techradar – An article on the top bridge cameras in 2017.

Sensor Stuff