Choosing a Canon DSLR for nature photography

Which Canon DSLR is right for nature photography. There is no simply answer. It depends, among other things, on what you want to photograph and how much you want to spend on your camera. Here is an overview of the current Canon DSLR lineup:

Canon EOS 1000D (Rebel XS)

This is Canon's cheapest DSLR at the moment. It has about 10 MP (megapixels) which is enough for most photographers. The EOS 1000D is a nice camera with a very good image quality, but I don’t recommend it for serious wildlife and bird photography. The AF is not the best and it doesn’t provide the frame rate needed for action photography.

Canon EOS 450D (Rebel XSi)

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, the EOS 450D is not bad. It offers about 12 MP and has a very good image quality. It is a good camera for beginners or as a backup if you already own anther camera. It will also make a great camera for macro and close-up photography as for that type of photography you won't need a very fast AF or a high frame rate. If you shoot birds or wildlife, I do not recommend this camera. If you can afford it, get an EOS 50D or better an EOS 7D. The 450D (as well as the 500D and 550D) are not as robust as the 50D or 7D.

Canon EOS 500D (Rebel T1i)

This camera is a step up from the 450D with a higher resolution, a better LCD display and video mode. Still, this is an entry level camera and as with the 450D, I recommend getting a EOS 7D for bird and wildlife photography.

Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T2i)

The EOS 550D is Canon's latest entry level DSLR. For an entry level DSLR, it has many good features like the high 18 MP resolution, better video than the 500D (full HD) and it can shoot at 3.7 frames per second.
If you want a high resolution DSLR but have a limited budget, the 550D might be a good option for you. But as with all entry level DSLRs, I do not recommend it due to the slow AF compared to more expensive models, the low number of framers per second and the not very robust body. If possible get a 7D for bird and wildlife photography or a 5D Mark II for landscape photography.

Canon EOS 40D

The camera I used before I bought my EOS 7D. The 40D is no longer available in all shops but if you find a good used one, you can get a very good camera for a very attractive price.
For the price I think the EOS 40D was one of the best cameras on the market. The autofocus is fast and quite good (but no match for the EOS 7D), at least with a fast lens like the Canon EF 4/500L. The frame rate of 6.5 frames per second is good for many situations. The camera is lighter and smaller than an EOS 1D body which is great when you travel or hike long distances.
Today, after having used the EOS 7D for a while, I highly recommend getting an EOS 7D if you can afford it and photograph a lot of birds and wildlife.

Canon EOS 50D

The 50D is a good camera with some small improvements over the EOS 40D (like AF micro adjustments) and a huge increase in resolution from 10 megapixels to 15 megapixels. A while ago, I recommended the 50D for Canon photographers who wanted a powerful DSLR but did not want to spend the money or an EOS 1D body. The 6.3 fps, the pretty good AF and the robust body make it a great tool for bird and wildlife photographers. The 15 MP allow for some cropping without loosing too much image quality (very useful when photographing distant and shy animals).
Today I do no longer recommend the 50D. Go for the EOS 7D. It is a little more expensive, but a better camera in every way (including a much improved AF, a higher frame rate of 8 fps and a more robust body).

Canon EOS 7D

Currently my main camera. I absolutely love it. The AF is very fast and accurate (a huge step from my EOS 40D). The 8 frames per second are fantastic for action scenes like birds in flight. The 7D has many custom functions that allow you to configure the camera the way you want.
The 7D is not a direct replacement for the 50D but a camera placed above the 50D in Canon's DSLR line-up. It has a much more powerful AF than the 50D, a higher frame rate, a 100% viewfinder (a really useful feature) and it can control external flash units like the Speedlite 580EX II with the build-in flash. The EOS 7D can record video in full HD and has a very robust body with full environmental sealing.
The only thing that many photographers don’t like is the fact that AF only works up to f5.6. That means with a 4/500 or 4/300 lens, you won’t have AF with a 2x extender. With Canon cameras, AF up to f8 only works with the EOS 1D bodies.
For the given price, the EOS 7D is by far the best camera for bird and wildlife photographers Canon has ever built so far. It will also make a great 2nd camera if you already own a 1D Mark IV. If you shoot mostly landscapes, think about getting the 5D Mark II instead. The full frame sensor allows you to you very wide lenses without the need to use the EF-S 10-22mm lens. The image quality is also slightly better due to the larger sensor. But except for that, the EOS 7D is a better camera in every way.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

The successor to the popular EOS 5D. The 5D Mark II can shoot only 3.9 fps which does not make it very useful for action photography (use the EOS 7D or 1D Mark IV for that). It also has a lower pixel density than a EOS 7D, which means that you get less pixels per subject than with a 7D. But the image quality of the 5D Mark II is a little better than the 7D, especially at higher ISO settings. If you don’t need the crop factor of the 7D and 3.9 fps are enough for you, the EOS 5D Mark II might be a good but more expensive alternative to the 7D. If you also shoot a lot of landscapes, the EOS 5D Mark II might be a better choice. If you can afford it, go for two bodies. The 7D for wildlife and the 5D Mark II for landscapes. This is a wonderful combination.

Canon EOS 1D Mark IV

This is the successor to the EOS 1D Mark III, which has gotten a lot of bad press because of problems with it’s autofocus system. But with the new EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon seems to have fixed all problems and the camera has received many great reviews and many professional photographers have reported that the AF is excellent.
The EOS 1D Mark IV is the best DSLR Canon has built so far and a dream for bird and wildlife photographers if you can afford the high price. It will also make a great camera for macro work.
The high resolution allows a lot of cropping when necessary (for example when photographing distant animals) and still maintain enough resolution for big prints. The 1D Mark IV will also be great for landscape photographers who want to make large prints as 16 MP can resolve a lot of fine detail in landscapes. The drawback is the 1.3 crop factor when you want to use really wide lenses in landscape photography. It is very likely, that Canon will soon introduce a Canon 1Ds Mark IV (so 1Ds Mark III described below is already a while on the market). For birds and wildlife, the 1.3 crop factor is very welcome.
The EOS 1D Mark IV delivers great results even a high ISO. The results are clearly better than with the EOS 7D which has even more pixels but a smaller sensor. If you photography mostly birds and wildlife, the EOS 1D Mark IV will be a fantastic camera, especially when you shoot a lot of action scenes (like birds in flight) or under low light situations.
The EOS 7D will give you more pixels per birds as it has 2 MP more and a higher pixel density than the EOS 1D Mark IV (due to the 1.6 crop factor of the 7D compared to only 1.3 in the 1D Mark IV).
The EOS 1D Mark IV has a higher frame rate (10 fps), a more robust body, even more custom functions and an even better AF than the 7D.
It is not easy to choose between the EOS 1D Mark IV and the EOS 7D. It depends on you personal shooting style, on the subjects you photograph and of course on the money you want to spend. For the money you save when you only get a 7D, you can already pay half of the price of a Canon EF 4/500L IS.
Many photographers use both cameras and if you can afford it, this will be a great combination.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III

This is the big sister of the 1D Mark III. It has 21 megapixels of resolution, but can only shoot at 5 fps. If you want a full frame camera and the 5fps are enough, the 1D has everything you need. But I would advice to really look at the 5D Mark II if you want a full frame camera. It has the same resolution. The AF is slower and the 5D Mark II isn’t as robust as the EOS 1Ds Mark III, but it is a lot cheaper. In my opinion, for most photographers it would be better to get the 5D Mark II and invest the money saved in good lenses. I expect that Canon will soon announce a EOS 1Ds Mark IV which will probably have an even higher resolution and the same AF as the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. So you might want to wait until the EOS 1Ds Mark IV is announced (probably in 2010).

Conclusion

I don’t recommend getting one of the entry-level DSLRs (EOS 1000D, 450D, 500D, 550D). They are good cameras for the money but they have too many limitations for serious bird and wildlife photography. If 10 megapixels are enough, a used EOS 40D might be an option. I’ve been using this camera myself since it became available and I still use it as a 2nd body in addition to my EOS 7D. Sometimes when photographing birds, I use both cameras, one with the 4/300L, the other with the 4/500L.
If you can afford it and shoot mostly wildlife and birds, I highly recommend the wonderful EOS 7D. I've been using this camera since January 2010 and love it. The AF is way better than in the 40D. The higher frame rate, the 100% viewfinder and many other small improvements make the 7D a much better camera than the EOS 40D and EOS 50D.

The EOS 1D Mark IV is a more professional camera and I highly recommend it for professional bird and wildlife photographers. If you don’t need the features of the EOS 1D Mark IV the EOS 7D will be a good choice. The EOS 7D will also make a great backup camera if you own a EOS 1D Mark IV. Many photographers use that combination.

The full frame cameras EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 1Ds Mark III are great for landscape photography and if you need a lot of resolution. If you don't need the features of the EOS 1Ds Mark III, go for the 5D Mark II. You will save a lot of money which you can invest in high quality lenses.
If you can afford it, it might be good to get two cameras. Sometimes having two cameras ready can be very helpful. And you have a backup on vacation if one model stops working or gets stolen. A good combination would be to get an EOS 7D and a EOS 5D Mark II. Professionals sometimes use a EOS 1D Mark IV for birds and wildlife and the EOS 1Ds Mark VI for landscapes. This is a great combination but also very expensive.

The lens is more important than the Camera! It’s better to have a EOS 7D with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM than a EOS 1D Mark IV with just a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM when you want to photograph birds or other wildlife. The 300mm is just too short for most situations but would make a great addition to the 500mm lens.

Further information

See the amazon links on the left for some interesting books on bird and nature photography.

All the cameras mentioned above can be bought at amazon.com: