Updated on: November 1st, 2018
Wildlife photography is a genre that DSLR cameras have dominated for decades. Their robust design and reliable autofocus system, in addition to the vast lens selection, are just a few of the many characteristics amateurs or experienced photographers require in order to capture animals in their natural habitat.
In the last two years however, mirrorless cameras have reached a new level of maturity, making them an interesting alternative for this challenging genre. With their compact design, improved performance, unique array of features and increasing number of telephoto lenses, wildlife photographers now have a fresh new set of tools to work with.
With this in mind, a number of questions naturally arise:
- How good are mirrorless cameras for wildlife photography?
- What concrete benefits do they bring and are there limitations to be aware of?
- Last but not least, which systems or cameras perform best?
Two years ago, I started to practice this genre for several of my camera and lens reviews, analysing key aspects such as lens quality and autofocus performance. Now that I’ve gathered ample experience, I feel it is a good time to put this article out.
Important note: the article is “dynamic” meaning that it will receive updates after testing new equipment. If a newly announced camera fits the requirements, we will include useful information about it and update the article once we get our hands on it.
Ethics statement: All opinions expressed in this article are our own and based on real world experiences with each camera. We were not asked to write anything about these products, nor were we provided any compensation of any kind. Within the article, there are affiliate links. If you decided to buy something after clicking the link, we will receive a small commission. To know more about our ethics, you can visit our full disclosure page. Thank you!
Table of contents
- 1 Article updates
- 2 Preface I: what makes a mirrorless camera good for wildlife photography
- 3 Preface II: Nikon D500, the one to beat for birds in flight
- 4 Choice #1: Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II
- 5 Choice #2: Sony A9
- 6 Choice #3: Fujifilm X-T3
- 7 Choice #4: Sony a6300/a6500
- 8 Choice #5: Panasonic G9
- 9 Promising new releases
- 10 About other mirrorless cameras
- 11 Conclusion
- November 2018: replaced X-H1 with X-T3 in position #3
- July 2018: replaced X-T2 with X-H1 in position #3 following our experience with the flagship Fuji camera. Added extra lens information in the A9 section. X-T2 and A7 III added to Other Mirrorless Cameras section.
- March 2018: added shooting experience with the Panasonic G9 and put it in position #5. GH5 has been moved to Other Mirrorless Cameras section, A7r III has replaced A7r II
- December 2017: I added my shooting experience with the Sony A9 and put it in position #2.
Preface I: what makes a mirrorless camera good for wildlife photography
Before beginning, let’s have a quick run through the various features I analysed in order to compile this list.
- Autofocus: you can have the best camera in the world but if the AF lets you down while photographing a fast-moving animal, you will be disappointed. Single AF needs to be spot on, continuous AF needs to be reliable and we want additional useful settings as well.
- Continuous shooting speed: the faster the burst rate, the higher the chance you’ll capture the animal in the perfect position. Good buffer capabilities are a must as well.
- EVF and Live View: electronic viewfinders offer many advantages but introduce short delays and lag time. In burst mode, some of them display the last picture taken while others keep a live view activated, which can make a big difference when following a fast subject.
- Build quality and grip: a robust design with weather-sealing is important, as is a large grip to make the camera comfortable to use with longer lenses.
- Battery life: swapping batteries takes a matter of seconds but when working in the wild, perhaps in not-so-great weather conditions, it is helpful to have a battery with a longer lifespan. An optional battery grip can be welcome too.
- Lenses: one of the most, if not the most important topic. Because mirrorless systems are relatively new, there isn’t as much choice as with DSLRs but some brands have more to offer than others.
I won’t go in-depth about sensor and image quality as I believe that all the cameras I’ve mention here give you good enough results for this genre. Certainly the old rule applies – a body with a larger sensor can give you better dynamic range or high ISO performance – but I can safely say that I got good results with all the models listed here.
I will also mention video capabilities where applicable as this is a feature that can be interesting for photographers seeking a hybrid solution or curious to start doing some video in their favourite wildlife location.
Preface II: Nikon D500, the one to beat for birds in flight
When I started to work on this article, I realised that the only way to make it truly fair was to include my experience with one of the best DSLRs designed for this genre. So I picked the flagship APS-C Nikon D500 with the recent Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 to see how much better the performance was in comparison to today’s flagship mirrorless cameras.
I mainly concentrated on birds in flight, which is perhaps one of the most difficult subjects for your camera. I have no doubt that most mirrorless cameras can do just fine if the subject is static or moving slowly but a fast bird of prey is another story entirely.
First we have the continuous autofocus performance. My first set was rather disappointing: I used the 153 Points Dynamic Area and I got an average keeper rate of 56% (or 69% if I don’t count the slightly soft images). Switching to 3D Tracking raised the result to 80% (95% if I include the slightly soft photos). This is the best result I got at my beloved testing ground, the red kite feeding station in Bwlch Nant yr Arian near Aberystwyth.
One of the main differences in comparison to most of the mirrorless cameras mentioned here is the low number of out-of-focus shots I got. I wound up with some soft results but very few images where the AF went completely wrong.
The second aspect is the optical viewfinder. I admit I had an easier time following the birds because of the zero lag between what was happening and what I was seeing.
The D500 has other interesting specifications that I appreciated but they don’t necessarily bring an advantage over the mirrorless products I will analyse below:
- Excellent ergonomics and ease of use
- Dual memory card slot
- 10fps continuous shooting with AE/AF tracking
- Good buffer capabilities
- Good image quality with the 20MP DX sensor.
I chose the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 because it is a recent lens and gives you an excellent range to work with (300-750mm equivalent). Of course the main advantage of the DSLR system is the vast choice of lenses at your disposal, not only from Nikon but also Sigma and Tamron. (The same thing can be said for Canon users.) To give you a few numbers, more than 24 telephoto lenses (300mm or longer) are available for the D500 and that is without counting kit lenses, all-purpose lenses and teleconverter options. The kit I tested would cost you around $3200 / £2790 / €3700 but you can find both cheaper and more expensive combinations.
The only real disadvantage of the Nikon gear is the extra size and weight. The D500 and 200-500mm kit remains reasonable and I worked hand-held the whole time but I definitely felt the difference in comparison to mirrorless combos.
Choice #1: Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II
Micro four thirds system – 20MP sensor – 60fps (S-AF) and 18fps (C-AF)
There are many reasons I picked the OM-D E-M1 II as my number one choice. There are very interesting specifcations to talk about but above all, it is a question of feeling.
Of all the flagship mirrorless cameras we’ve tested, the E-M1 II definitely feels the most like a camera designed for wildlife photography.
There is certainly room for improvement in a few areas but if we consider the overall performance and features it has to offer, it ticks all the right boxes.
First we have the compactness of Micro Four Thirds. Here, weight and size make a relevant difference, more than any other system. Add to this the stunning 5-axis sensor shift and Sync IS (sensor + optical stabilisation working at the same time with select Olympus IS lenses) and you have a camera that can be used hand-held 99% of the time.
The E-M1 II also features impressive continuous shooting speeds. For static subjects or scenes where you can pre-focus, you can shoot up to 15fps with the mechanical shutter or 60fps with the electronic shutter (focus is locked on the first frame). If you want continuous autofocus, the performance goes down to 10fps or 18fps respectively.
Thanks to the fast sensor readout, rolling shutter is minimal and wasn’t a concern most of the time when using the electronic shutter. The Pro Capture mode lets you save up to 35 frames before fully pressing the shutter release button, which can help you to catch the perfect moment. The buffer is excellent and with an SD UHS-II card you can shoot at 15fps with RAW without losing any speed.
Then we have the electronic viewfinder that offers a fast refresh rate of 120fps, a good resolution of 2.36M dots and a very short lag time of 0.006s. The camera maintains live view up to 18fps with short blackouts.
Finally the E-M1 II features all the most important details a wildlife photographer can appreciate: full weather-sealing (including freeze-proofing), a dual SD card slot (the first is UHS-II compatible), lots of customisation and a large battery that is almost as good as a high-end DSLR. An official battery grip that houses two batteries is also available. The camera can record 4K video with good quality at low ISOs and the image stabilisation system does wonders for video too.
An example of how good the IS system is: below you can watch a video taken hand-held with the original E-M1, the 300mm Pro and the TC 1.4x teleconverter. The E-M1 II has an improved stabilisation system which means that you can get even better results than the already impressive footage below.
Is it the perfect choice then? Mostly, and the only thing that prompts me to write “excellent” rather than “perfect” is the autofocus system. Don’t get me wrong – the new phase detection area with 121 cross-type points is an excellent step forward in comparison to the original E-M1. Indeed, it is currently the best AF you can find within the Micro Four Thirds range. However it isn’t the best I’ve tested on a mirrorless camera. My keeper rate for birds in flight averages between 55% and 70% which means it is good enough.
I also wish Olympus could add more AF-Target groups to work with: as of now you can only choose between All, 9 or 5 points but something in between would be of help. AF+Tracking works when the bird is in the sky but can become confused with a busier background. The good news is that the brand is committed to improving the camera’s performance via firmware updates and according to them, the recent firmware 2.0 should improve the reliability.
Concerning the lens selection, there are currently seven telephoto lenses that can suit the genre very well and with different price points to satisfy different budgets:
- Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro (600mm equivalent, 840mm f/5.6 with MC-14 1.4x teleconverter, compatible with Sync IS)
- Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro (80-300mm, 112-420mm with the teleconverter)
- Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 O.I.S. (200-800mm)
- Panasonic Leica DG 200mm f/2.8 O.I.S. (400mm equivalent, 560mm f/4 with DMW TC 1.4x or 800mm f/5.6 with DMW TC 2x)
- Lumix G 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 II O.I.S. (200-600mm)
- Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II (150-600mm)
- Lumix G 45-200mm f4-5.6 II O.I.S. (90-400mm)
Note: the Olympus 75-300mm is not weather-sealed. Pro Capture is limited to the H mode with Panasonic lenses. Sync IS (sensor + optical stabilisation) works with Olympus lenses only.
One of my favourite lenses is the Pana-Leica 100-400mm for its extreme versatility and excellent optical quality. However to take full advantage of some features like Sync IS and Pro Capture, the 300mm f/4 PRO is the best choice, also because it provides the fastest aperture at that focal length.
Olympus users have the possibility to adapt Four Thirds lenses as well (a DSLR product that is now discontinued). The AF remains good but won’t be as fast as with native lenses and some features like Pro Capture aren’t available.
Why the E-M1 II can be an interesting choice for wildlife and bird photography:
- the Micro Four Thirds system is smaller and lighter
- more than one lens to choose from in the Olympus and Panasonic catalogue (more to come)
- stunning continuous shooting speeds up to 60fps and 18fps
- the Pro Capture mode lets you save images before fully pressing the shutter release button
- good 4K video quality
- EVF with live view and short blackouts up to 18fps
- state of the art image stabilisation for stills and video
- excellent ergonomics and grip
- weather sealing, dual SD card slot, excellent battery life, optional battery grip
- Good AF performance overall but not the best amongst mirrorless cameras
- the 20MP sensor is excellent but can generate a little more noise at high ISOs
- Pro Capture works with Panasonic lenses in H mode only
- Best overall kit: E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm Pro, 300mm Pro and MC-14 ($6250 / £5530 / €6240)
- Best kit with 1 lens: E-M1 II, M.Zuiko 300mm Pro and MC-14 ($4850 / £4330 / €4890)
- Versatile kit with 1 lens: E-M1 II and Leica DG 100-400mm ($3800 / £3150 / €3520)
- Affordable kit to begin with: E-M1 II and M.Zuiko 75-300mm II ($2450 / £2240 / €2490)
Note: you could replace the M.Zuiko 75-300mm with the Lumix G 100-300mm II for the affordable kit.
Choice #2: Sony A9
E-mount system – 24MP 35mm sensor – 20fps with C-AF, live view and no blackouts
If it was just a question of sensor quality and AF performance, the Sony A9 would be my first choice. It has the best autofocus system of any mirrorless camera we’ve tried to date and in fact, is the only one on the list that matches the performance of the Nikon D500 in terms of AF speed and accuracy. With a keeper rate of 80%/95%, its phase detection system with 693 points closes the gap for good. But that’s not all.
If a DSLR gives you the advantage of zero lag thanks to its optical viewfinder, the Sony A9 goes a step further with its electronic shutter and live view with zero blackouts.
Thanks to its complex stacked sensor that includes an integral memory, the camera can process a huge amount of data simultaneously, bringing the electronic shutter performance to a whole new level. The super fast sensor readout allows you to shoot up to 20fps with AF/AE tracking without any distortion (rolling shutter effect). More importantly, it can do this while maintaining a live view feed in the EVF or LCD screen. Since we’re talking about an electronic shutter (so no mechanical curtains closing and opening in front of the sensor), you can shoot at 20fps with live view and no blackouts.
To fully understand the advantage and experience the potential of this technology, you really need to try it with a fast moving subject. Birds in flight are ideal for this and tracking them has never been so easy.
When you start to follow the bird and capture a series of images, the live view in your EVF is maintained without any lag, interruption or delay whatsoever. In fact, in a moment of distraction, you might mistakenly start to record images were it not for the counter in the top left corner of the screen. This is why Sony gives you the option to activate a fake shutter sound and a blinking marker on the screen to remind you that the camera is shooting. Stunning buffer capabilities (even when shooting RAW) and a state of the art EVF (3686k dots, 0.78x magnification and 120fps refresh rate) further improve the experience.
Another relevant feature to highlight is the full frame/35mm format sensor with 24MP that gives you excellent dynamic range and high ISO performance. There is also 5-axis stabilisation which works with OSS lenses too (3 axes on the sensor + OSS) but the performance is inferior to that of the E-M1 II. The camera has a dual SD card slot (no.1 is UHS-II compatible), a precise AF joystick, weather sealing and an outstanding level of customisation. The menu system is much improved over previous Sony cameras as well. Finally, the battery is larger and improves the lifespan significantly, putting it close to DSLR territory despite the huge processing power employed by the camera.
Now, having praised the A9 so highly, you may wonder why I didn’t put it at the top of the list. Here are my reasons.
First there is the price: the A9 is the most expensive camera on this list with a body price of $4500 (more than twice the price of an E-M1 II or GH5). There is a technological achievement to justify it, for sure, but many amateurs looking for a mirrorless solution are probably hoping to spend less. The counter argument is: if you want the best quality, it comes at a price.
Second, there is a flaw in the camera design. After three days of shooting with the 100-400mm G Master, I found that the native grip of the camera caused my index finger to feel a bit achy. There isn’t enough space for the entire hand and when you deal with lenses of a certain size, it can become quite uncomfortable. Now of course an easy fix is to buy the battery grip, the smaller GP-X1EM grip or possible third party solutions. But this means adding extra costs, while a camera like the E-M1 II is just perfect on its own. It could be worth considering a monopod but at the same time, I didn’t need one for the Nikon D500/200-500mm, which was bigger and heavier yet far more comfortable to work with hand-held.
Finally we have the lenses which is a more complex topic to deal with. If we look at the native FE selection first, there are two lenses to consider: the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 G Master and the new 400mm f/2.8 G Master. Both are compatible with the TC 1.4x and TC 2.0x teleconverters. The 100-400mm is excellent in terms of sharpness and autofocus speed (even with the TC on) but isn’t cheap. Although I haven’t tested the 400mm yet, it looks very promising but keep in mind that it costs over $10k.
Here are all the native lenses to consider, as of now:
- Sony FE 400mm f2.8 GM (600mm f/4 with TC 1.4x, 800mm f/5.6 with TC 2.0x)
- Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS (150-600mm f/6.3-8 with TC 1.4x, 200-800 f/9-11 with TC 2.0x)
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 OSS GM (98-280mm f/4 with TC 1.4x, 140-400mm f/5.6 with TC 2.0x)
- Sony FE G 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 OSS
Because the A9 has a versatile phase detection system, you can also consider using DSLR lenses via compatible adapters. The AF performance remains good but the continuous shooting speed drops to a maximum of 10fps. Still it means the entire Canon, Sigma, Tamron and Sony A-mount catalogue is at your disposal. The question is: is it worth it?
You still have the blackout-free advantage in the EVF but you have to deal with large lenses designed for larger cameras than the Sony. Also note that the performance can vary depending on which lenses and adapters you use. My take is that if you already own DSLR telephoto lenses and want to start migrating to the Sony system, it’s worth considering and you can complete the switch when there is a more interesting selection of native lenses. Otherwise it could be worth waiting a little longer, unless you feel the blackout free experience is worth the trouble.
Why the Sony A9 can be an interesting choice for wildlife and bird photography:
- the only mirrorless camera to truly match the AF performance of a high end DSLR
- the only mirrorless camera with a live view system that surpasses the performance of an optical viewfinder
- up to 20fps with AE/AF tracking and no blackouts, the best for tracking birds in flight
- great level of customisation
- great battery life
- weather sealing, dual SD card slot
- an optional landscape or battery grip is needed to improve comfort with large lenses
- the most expensive camera in the list
- limited choice of native lenses for the genre, but there’s the option of adapting DSLR lenses with good AF performance
- not the best solution if you are interested in 4K video as it lacks picture profiles and log gammas, which is a shame given the price.
- Best kit: A9, 400mm f2.8 GM, FE TC 1.4x and 2.0x ($17000 / £15800)
- Second choice: A9, 100-400mm GM, FE TC 1.4x ($7550 / £7450 / €8540)
Choice #3: Fujifilm X-T3
X-mount system – 26MP APS-C X-Trans IV sensor – 20 or 30fps (C-AF), live view and no blackouts
I’m replacing the X-H1 with the X-T3 knowing that I’ll probably have to update this article again fairly soon. Anyone familiar with Fujifilm knows that they like to use the same hardware for multiple products. The X-H1 uses the third generation sensor and image processor, which it shares with no fewer than five other models. The X-T3 inaugurates the fourth generation of X-series cameras and it is plausible that the same specifications will be passed on to future iterations. Ideally, an X-H1 successor with the same technology as the X-T3 (plus image stabilisation) would climb to the top of this list. But for now, we have to focus on what’s available, and while the X-T3 is not as comfortable to use as the X-H1 straight out of the box, it offers features that can’t be ignored for wildlife photography.
First of all, the X-T3 introduces a more advanced autofocus system with 117 points (425 available in certain modes). More important, the phase detection points cover the entire width of the sensor rather than just the central portion. This means that when following a difficult subject that temporarily moves to the left or right side of the frame, there is a higher chance the camera will be able to continue tracking effectively. Focus acquisition and the camera’s ability to lock onto difficult subjects have both improved and the camera reacts more quickly and accurately when birds unexpectedly veer towards to you. The AF-C Custom Settings allow you to fine-tune the performance.
Second, we have the continuous shooting speeds. Not only can the X-T3 shoot up to 11fps with the mechanical shutter without the need for an optional battery grip, but it can also reach speeds of 20fps or 30fps with the electronic shutter. At 30fps there is a catch: the sensor is cropped by 1.25x and in my tests I found that in crop mode the camera occasionally fails to write the files correctly, so it is better to avoid this mode until Fujifilm releases a firmware fix.
Still, you can shoot at 20fps with the full width of the sensor, and even better, all these speeds are available with live view and no blackouts, just like the Sony A9. It makes following a fast and unpredictable bird much easier than with the mechanical shutter which only shows the last image taken instead. There is also a mode called Pre-Shoot, which like Capture Pro on the E-M1 II, allows you to save pictures before fully pressing the shutter release button. I haven’t noticed any distortion when photographing birds, so I would say it is quite contained.
The 26.1MP BSI X-Trans IV sensor doesn’t provide a substantial increase in image quality over the X-H1 or X-T2, but it remains excellent nonetheless with good dynamic range and high ISO performance. The 4K video quality on the other hand is a big step forward and includes 4K video recording up to 60fps in 10-bit, as well as a maximum of 120fps in 1080p.
The design is more compact than the other cameras mentioned here, especially concerning the front grip. With a large telephoto lens, you’ll feel the need to add a grip extender, the optional battery pack or at the very least, a thumb rest. The camera itself is very comfortable to use thanks to the many dials, AF joystick, touch screen, user-friendly menu system and the possibility to customise the camera to your liking. I just wish some of the buttons on the rear could be larger (for back-focusing for example). The viewfinder has more resolution and comes with a maximum frame rate of 100fps in Boost mode.
The battery remains the same as the previous generation of X-series cameras, so when used to its full potential, you’ll need some spares. You can take 700 to 900 frames on a single charge, which isn’t terrible, and there is a battery grip available that houses two extra batteries.
Then we have another important aspect which is the lens selection:
- Fujinon XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (150-600mm equivalent, 210-840mm f/7.1-8 with TC 1.4x, 300-1200mm f/10-11 with TC 2.0x)
- Fujinon XF 200mm f2 (300mm equivalent, 420mm f2.8 with TC 1.4x, 600mm f/4 with TC 2x)
- Fujinon XF 50-140mm f/2.8 (70-200mm equivalent, 105-294mm f/4 with TC 1.4x, 150-420mm f/5.6 with TC 2.0x)
- Fujinon XF 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 (82-300mm)
The most popular lens designed for wildlife is the XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. It provides excellent sharpness, autofocus speed and optical stabilisation. There are two teleconverters that also work with the XF 50-140mm f/2.8 but to get the most reach, you need to use the TC 2.0x which decreases the fastest aperture to f/5.6. At that point, the 100-400mm becomes the better solution. The 55-200mm f3.5-4.8 is a decent lens but can feel a little short. Plus it doesn’t have the fastest AF motor and lacks weather-sealing.
If you want a faster option, there is the new 200mm f/2 but it costs more. It comes with a newly designed 1.4x f2 teleconverter. The older TC 1.4 and 2x are not designed for lenses faster than f2.8 and Fujifilm warns that the optical quality won’t be as good if you use one of those older versions on the 200mm. I hope they will release a new TC 2x f2 as well because it would give photographers better reach for wildlife. As of now, I’m not sure it is worth spending all that money unless the type of subject you photograph requires more reach than 400mm (equivalent).
Another thing worth mentioning is that while the camera is definitely lighter than a DSLR, the XF 100-400mm isn’t any smaller than the Canon equivalent. So if you are considering switching over to Fujifilm to reduce the weight of your gear, keep in mind that there isn’t a huge advantage when using certain telephoto lenses.
Why the Fujifilm X-T3 can be an interesting choice for wildlife and bird photography:
- AF performance amongst the best
- excellent image quality and high ISO performance
- up to 20fps, or 30fps in crop mode, with live view and no blackouts
- easy to use thanks to the various buttons, dials and touch screen LCD
- robust build quality, full weather-sealing and dual SD card slot
- the flagship X-H1 has better ergonomics but inferior performance in terms of AF and burst speeds
- excellent 4K video quality with more generous settings
- the lens choice is limited and on the expensive side if you want the best optical quality
- Best kit: X-T3, XF 100-400mm ($4250 / £3570 / €3950)
- Expensive kit: X-T3, XF 200mm f2 with new TC 1.4x ($7500 / £6750 / €7500)
- Affordable kit to begin with: X-T3 and XF 55-200mm ($2600 / £2260 / €2580)
Used Fujifilm gear on MPB UK
Choice #4: Sony a6300/a6500
E-mount system – 24MP APS-C sensor – 11fps (C-AF)
The Sony a6000 series isn’t my favourite as far as ergonomics and ease of use are concerned. Certainly the size can be an advantage for other genres but when using larger lenses, you inevitably feel a lack of balance and wish for a larger grip, in addition to more buttons and dials to control the most important settings.
That said, there are advantages worth considering. First is the price: the a6300 can be found for around $1000 which is the cheapest option available on this list.
Then we have the autofocus system which, with its 425 phase detection points, is on the same level of the Fujifilm X-T2 in terms of performance. My average keeper rate for BIF is around 75%-85%. The cameras offer useful settings for the AF areas, as well as effective 3D tracking (Lock-On AF).
The continuous shooting speeds go up to 11fps or 8fps if you want live view in the EVF. Though the viewfinder is smaller than those of the other cameras listed here, it makes up for it with good clarity and a fast refresh rate (120fps). The 4K video quality is excellent and there are lots of useful settings for advanced video makers but rolling shutter can be severe when panning quickly.
The a6300 and a6500 are very similar in most respects including the excellent 24MP APS-C sensor but there are a few differences worth mentioning. First the grip on the a6500 is slightly more prominent. Second the buffer capabilities of the latter are much better than the a6300. Finally the a6500 features in-body 5-axis stabilisation but in our tests we found no concrete benefit when using OSS lenses.
Amongst the negative things to point out, there is the short battery life and the lack of an official battery grip, although some third-party manufacturers such as Meike provide one. The cameras offer resistance against dust and moisture but aren’t freeze proof.
Finally we have the lenses. Sony hasn’t released any new lenses for the E-mount APS-C system for three years now: the best option is probably the E 55-210mm which is also the cheapest lens but it doesn’t offer the best optical quality nor the longest reach. The good news is that Sony has been putting lots of effort into creating new lenses for its full-frame mirrorless system. Because the mount is the same, you can benefit from the 1.5x crop factor. Here is the selection thus far:
- FE 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 (105-450mm equivalent)
- FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM (150-600mm, 210-840mm f/7.1-8 with TC 1.4x, 300-1200mm f/10-11 with TC 2.0x)
- FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM (105-300mm, 147-420mm f/4 with TC 1.4x, 210-600mm f/5.6 with TC 2.0x)
- FE 70-200mm f/4 (105-300mm)
- E 55-210mm F4.5-6.3 OSS (82.5–315mm)
Here the best choice is the new 100-400mm G Master but like most Sony lenses, it comes at a rather expensive price in comparison to other offerings which cancels out the advantage of a cheaper camera body. I used the FE 70-300mm with good results but it can feel short in some situations.
Thanks to its phase detection system, the cameras work with Sony A-mount and Canon EF-mount lenses when paired with a compatible adapter. The AF performance is good but not as fast as with native E-mount lenses. I performed different tests but in my opinion, this is not a solution worth considering if wildlife is your main interest. The cameras becomes unbalanced when used with large and heavy lenses and at this point it makes more sense to consider a native DSLR system instead. There are a few exceptions such as the new Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 which looks quite compact but I haven’t tested it yet.
Why the Sony a6300 or a6500 can be an interesting choice for wildlife and bird photography:
- great autofocus performance
- excellent image quality
- continuous live view up to 8fps
- burst speed up to 11fps with AE/AF Tracking
- both the a6300 and a6500 are the cheapest options on the list
- excellent video capabilities
- ergonomics and ease of use are not their strongest points
- battery life is short but you can find third-party battery grips
- Sony lenses are more expensive in comparison to competitor brands
- AF is good with adapted lenses (A-mount, EF-mount) but the combo feels unbalanced with most lenses
- Best kit: a6300, FE 100-400mm GM and TC 1.4x ($3950 / £3900 / €4400)
- Affordable kit to begin with: a6300 and FE 70-300mm ($2000/£2050 / €2300)
Note: add $400, £550 or €590 for the a6500.
Choice #5: Panasonic G9
Micro four thirds system – 20MP sensor – 60fps (S-AF), 20fps (C-AF)
The Lumix G9 is as close as you’re going to come to a DSLR in terms of design and ergonomics. It is the largest and heaviest on the list and comes with a robust grip that feels like a natural extension of your hand. The body is very well-built and is completely weather-sealed. The shutter release button is a little too sensitive for my taste but others may prefer it that way.
There is a rich range of physical controls including 19 function buttons and an AF Joystick on the rear (although I wish the latter weren’t so close to the EVF). The top LCD screen is very handy as a way of checking settings on the fly and the electronic viewfinder is excellent thanks to the high resolution of 3.68M dots, 120fps refresh rate and variable magnification (the highest being 0.83x). There are also dual SD card slots with UHS-II compatibility, and the battery life is very good.
The continuous shooting speeds go up to 12fps or 9fps with continuous AF when using the mechanical shutter. Switch to the electronic version and you can increase these speeds to 20fps (with AF/AE Tracking) or 60fps just like the E-M1 II. And just like the Olympus, you can use a mode similar to Pro Capture (called Pre-Burst) to save up to 15 images before fully depressing the shutter button. Bear in mind though that there is still some distortion due to rolling shutter. It is less noticeable for birds in flight but slightly worse than the sensor readout of the E-M1 II.
Up to 9fps, the G9 shows you a live view with blackouts. At higher speeds, it’s the last image taken that is shown instead. Although this results in a delay between what you see and what is actually happening, shooting at 20fps does help you to track fast moving subject more effectively because the frame rate is really smooth.
The buffer capabilities are not particularly good when shooting at these high bursts, but one alternative is to take advantage of the 6K/4K Photo mode, where you can record 6K/4K videos at 30fps and save any frame you want as an 18MP or 8MP JPG. And since the camera is in fact recording a video, there aren’t any buffer limitations besides the usual 30 minute allowance per clip.
The G9 features in-body stabilisation with 5 axes on the sensor and Dual IS (sensor + optical stabilisation). It’s the best Panasonic has ever designed in the Lumix range and comes close to the performance of the E-M1 II for both stills and video. The image quality is similar to the E-M1 II but the Lumix has an excellent JPG engine (better noise reduction and sharpness, warmer colours) if you like straight out-of-camera results.
Despite not being as advanced as the GH5 for video, the G9 still has some nice features on offer if you are interested in this genre for wildlife. It can record 4K up to 50/60p and offers slow motion capabilities up to 180fps in 1080p, although unfortunately you can’t control the exposure manually. The quality is excellent thanks to the many colour profile improvements.
In many ways, I would have loved to see this camera at the top of the list. It ticks all the boxes but does have one limitation that can’t be overlooked: the autofocus.
The AF of the G9 excels in almost every way and in our in-depth comparison with the E-M1 II, we found it to be better in most situations except for birds in flight, or more precisely, birds flying against a busy background. There the DfD contrast detection technology still struggles more than phase detection. The performance decreases even more if you shoot at 20fps with the electronic shutter, unlike the Olympus. This is why we put other cameras in front – their autofocus systems are simply better equipped for the most difficult of moving subjects. However, if BIF is not your main interest, the G9 could be exactly what you’re looking for.
One thing I also prefer about this camera is the better variety of AF area options, as well as the control you have over autofocus responsiveness.
The lens list is the same as that of the E-M1 II:
- Leica DG 100-400mm f/4-6.3 (200-800mm)
- Leica DG 200mm f2.8 (400mm equivalent, 560mm f/4 with TC 1.4x, 800mm equivalent with TC 2.0x)
- Lumix G 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6 II (200-600mm)
- Olympus 300mm f/4 Pro (600mm equivalent, 840mm with TC 1.4x teleconverter)
- Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro (80-300mm, 112-420mm with teleconverter)
- Lumix G 45-200mm f4-5.6 II (90-400mm)
- Olympus 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II (150-600mm)
Please note that the performance may not be as good with Olympus lenses because the DfD system is officially only compatible with Lumix/Leica lenses. In my personal experience with the G9, I found that the performance mainly decreased for birds in flight, whereas in many other situations, it performed much better. Another thing to keep in mind is that Dual IS is not compatible with Olympus lenses so you’ll have to choose between sensor or optical stabilisation.
Why the Panasonic G9 can be an interesting choice for wildlife and bird photography:
- up to 60fps or 20fps with continuous AF, 9fps with live view/blackouts
- 6K/4K Photo gives you 30fps/60fps without any buffer limitation
- very good image stabilisation
- complete weather-sealing, excellent build, good battery life, dual SD card slot and optional battery grip
- Micro Four Thirds gives you the best selection of lenses
- excellent video quality with slow motion options
- the autofocus struggles more for birds in flight or when shooting at 20fps with the electronic shutter
- 6K/4K Photo only gives you a JPG file
- Best kit overall: G9 and Leica DG 200mm + TC 1.4x which is included ($4700 / £4200 / €4700)
- Most affordable kit: G9 and 100-300mm II ($2350 / £2000 / €2350)
Promising new releases
Nothing at this time.
About other mirrorless cameras
Before wrapping up, I’d like to mention a few other cameras I’ve used for wildlife photography. I don’t consider them the very best for the genre but some of them are less expensive and others offer other advantages.
Sony A7 III
The A7 mark III is the latest addition to Sony’s full-frame series. Its autofocus system is based on that of the Sony A9 (693 phase detection points) and in our tests we found the performance quite close to the flagship camera. It doesn’t feature the blackout-free live view nor the 20fps speed, but it has an excellent 24MP BSI sensor, decent 10fps burst shooting, and the same long-lasting battery and design. It is half the price of the A9 and this is why it deserves a mention here.
Sony A7r III
The 42MP full-frame sensor of the A7r III not only gives you stunning dynamic range but also more room for cropping thanks to the higher resolution. The hybrid AF system is improved and while it doesn’t reach the same level as the A9, it is close. The maximum speed of 10fps (or 8fps with live view) and increased buffer make it a better option that its predecessor, the A7r II.
The X-H1 offers a larger grip and better ergonomics than other Fuji models which makes the camera more comfortable to use with large lenses such as XF 100-400mm. It has everything you need including two SD card slots. The continuous shooting speeds go up to 8fps, or 11fps with the optional battery grip. The AF system isn’t the latest generation but it remains more than valid for wildlife and birds in flight. I got very good results with it and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the camera. There is however the X-T3 which costs less and is even faster. If Fujifilm decides to release an X-H1 successor with the same technology as the X-T3, it could become a killer camera for this genre.
I got very good results with the X-Pro2 since its AF system is the same as the one found on the X-T2. Furthermore, the optical viewfinder and its display options proved a good ally for BIF, mimicking the use of a red dot sight (more info here). I wouldn’t recommend the camera for this genre primarily but if you are interested in Fuji gear, perhaps it could be an interesting back-up option.
Olympus OM-D E-M1
I started to get more serious about wildlife and BIF while using the original E-M1 and testing the 300mm Pro lens. The AF doesn’t lock as fast as the E-M1 II and is more inconsistent but if you aren’t interested in fast moving subjects, it remains an interesting solution for those on a budget. It can shoot up to 9fps with live view, has excellent image stabilisation and is fully weather-sealed. Note that the camera is soon to be discontinued but you may still find deals online or on the second-hand market.
Before we had the chance to test the G9, the GH5 was on the main list. It doesn’t reach the same level of performance with the electronic shutter but the camera remains an interesting alternative thanks its superior video capabilities. More than any other camera mentioned in this article, it is definitely the one I would choose for wildlife video work.
Panasonic GX8 and G85
I had the chance to take wildlife pictures with various Panasonic cameras. They offer good stabilisation and have a robust build quality but the main limitation is the DfD AF system with BIF and fast subjects. It simply isn’t as good as other cameras but for more static situations, they work well and you can take advantage of extra features like 4K Photo and the good video capabilities.
The truth is that DSLRs still rule if you are looking for the best autofocus performance and a wider selection of camera bodies and lenses for every need and budget. However it isn’t the only camera system that can give you excellent results in this field these days.
Products like the Sony A9 have already closed the gap in terms of AF performance and are reaching new heights when it comes to continuous shooting speeds, the electronic viewfinder and the shutter mechanism. In fact, all four mirrorless brands are working hard to push the boundaries further than ever before. They may not yet have a complete offering for wildlife photographers but it’s only a question of time.
Whether you already invested in a DSLR or are new to the genre, I feel that Micro Four Thirds remains the most interesting solution because of the reduced weight and size, wider selection of lenses and additional choice for people on a budget.
Although Sony provides the best products when it comes to quality and speed, they are still lacking a little in terms of ergonomics and ease of use in comparison to the competition. The flagship A9 is also more expensive than any other mirrorless camera for this genre. The lens selection isn’t bad but they can be pricey too.
As for Fujifilm, the brand offers excellent autofocus capabilities and image quality but we still need more lenses for the system to be complete.
You may also like:
- The Complete Guide To The Best Mirrorless Cameras
- Panasonic G9 vs Olympus OM-D E-M1 II – The complete comparison
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 II vs Fujifilm X-T2 – The complete comparison
- Sony a6500 vs Fujifilm X-T2 – The complete comparison
- Sony A7 III vs Fujifilm X-H1 – The complete comparison