Bob Atkins Photography

A Beginner's Guide to Buying Equipment

For someone who wants to get into nature photography for the first time there is a bewildering amount of equipment available. Which body, lenses and accessories to chose is the question most heard from beginners. This page will attempt to answer those questions: 

First of all though, read the Nature Photography Guide for a broad overview. I'm going to try not to recommend any particular brand names (but I will fail in that attempt). Whether "A" or "B" is "better" frequently turns out to be a subject for endless (and often pointless) debate. 

I'm assuming that a beginner isn't going to want to spend many thousands of dollars to get started. The suggestions made here assume a budget of around $1000, which I think is the minimum amount (if you are buying new equipment) needed to get started on the right track. You can do it for less, but unless you really had to, you wouldn't want to. 

Camera Body

You need a body which allows full manual override of any automatic function. You must be able to use manual focus, even if it's an autofocus camera. You must be able to set exactly what shutter speed and aperture you want, even if it differs from what the camera's built in light meter says. You also really need some kind of provision for a mechanical or electronic remote release. 

It's very nice to have a depth of field preview function, mirror lock-up, an auto-winder, a viewfinder display that shows exposure information, multiple exposure capability, manually setable film ISO, exposure compensation and so on. These are not absolutely essential, but if you can get them, take them. You don't have to use all the functions, but if you need one and it isn't there, you'll miss it. 

You can probably find all the essentials on the mid range models of most camera manufacturers. The extras are available on some mid-range models, but not on others, so check the camera features carefully. Canon tend to provide more features on their mid and low end models than other manufacturers do. You don't need the top-of-the-line body, but you should probably avoid the bottom-of-the-line model too. Your budget will decide which exact model, but as long as it has the basic functions mentioned above, it will be just fine. For a current AF camera, the cost will probably be in the $300-$500 range. 

If you ever intend to get really serious about photography, you should probably think hard about going with either Nikon of Canon. Though other camera makers make excellent products, the Nikon and Canon systems are probably best tuned to the needs of the serious nature photographer. If you are "just an amateur" and think you'll stay that way, owning a single camera body and a couple of lenses, almost any major camera brand will be fine as long as it has the features you need.


For someone starting out who wants the best "bang for the buck", I'd recommend two lenses. A wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. The wide angle should start at 28mm and go to somewhere between 70mm and 105mm. It need not be too fast (= expensive). A typical lens would be a 28-105/3.5-4.5 or something similar. 28mm is wide enough to be a real wide angle (35mm isn't). The second lens would be a telephoto zoom, starting out between 70mm and 100mm and going out to 300mm. Again, this will not be a fast lens, probably something like f4 or f4.5 at the short and and f5.6 at 300mm. 300mm is just long enough for wildlife work, but don't expect the ultimate in sharpness from a mid range zoom like this. The total cost of this pair of lenses will probably be in the $400-$600 range. If you can find two lenses that have the same filter size (58mm would be typical), it will make life easier for you. 

I would not recommend starting out with a 28-200 zoom. Though such a lens covers a lot of ground, it has a number of problems. First, 200mm isn't really long enough for wildlife work. Second, it probably won't focus very close at 28mm (you need this feature for those "everything in focus" landscape shots). Third, the optical quality of such zooms isn't that great. 

I would also recommend sticking with the camera manufacturer's lenses rather than buying cheaper 3rd party lenses. They will hold their value better and probably function better (especially on complex, all electronic cameras like the Canon EOS system). There are, no doubt, exceptions to this. Some 3rd party lenses are quite good - just be careful. 


You will need a tripod. If you don't have one you might as well not bother trying to do any high quality work. Most of your images will not be sharp, and since you don't have premium optics to begin with you can't afford to lose any sharpness at all. You might say that some great photographers never used a tripod. Quite true, but they weren't trying to do nature photography. 

With a basic lightweight body and zoom lens outfit like this, you can get away with a fairly light tripod (say 3 or 4 lbs). I'll break my "no brand name" rule here and suggest looking at Bogen and Gitzo tripods and the small Bogen ball heads. With Bogen this should cost about $100, with Gitzo probably $200+. Be aware that if you get really serious, you will be buying another, bigger, heavier, more expensive tripod and head. You can buy it now, if you think you will be prepared to carry it


  • A copy of John Shaw's book "The Nature Photographer's Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques". This is #1 on the list for a reason! 
  • A high quality, two element, close-up diopter to fit the telephoto zoom for macro work 
  • A remote release for the camera 
  • A polarizing filter (a circular polarizer for all AF and some MF cameras) 
  • A warming filter - 81A, 81B or 812 
  •  A UV filter (maybe - you can probably use the warming filter instead) 
  •  Lens hoods for each lenses 
  •  A bag to carry it all in 

You will now have spent something like $1000+ to get a good basic outfit that should be capable of excellent images if you use it right. 

Specific recommendations

I know, people just hate generalizations. They want to be told what's best. Here then is my own personal pick of items for a quality low cost introductory camera system. I chose Canon cameras and lenses because they're what I own and they're what I know. If you want to go the Nikon (or other) route, you'll need opinions from someone else.

  • Camera Body - Canon EOS Elan II - best "bang for the buck" in my opinion. 
  • Wide-to-Normal Zoom - Canon EF28-105 USM or EF24-80 USM 
  • Telephoto Zoom - Canon EF100-300 USM, or EF75-300USM depending on your budget. Optically there is nothing to chose between them. The 100-300 USM is nicer to use and has a non-rotating front element. 
  • Tripod - Bogen 3001 or 3021, depending on how much weight you are prepared to carry and how tall you are. 
  • Tripod head - Bogen 3226 or 3055 Ball Head. Both are cheap ($40 or so), both work fairly well, neither is great - but you don't get a great ball head for $40! 
  • Filters - Tiffen and Hoya are fine. Multicoated filters are desirable and not that much more expensive than uncoated filters. Coated polarizers are hard to find though. 
  • Where to buy it all - I like B&H Photo. They are not perfect, but they are less likely to try to screw you than any of the other mail order discount stores I've ever dealt with and they have decent prices. 

Alternate Views

There is a certain school of thought along the lines that all "consumer grade" lenses are inferior, and you might as well start out by buying the "pro grade" lenses from the start. There is some truth here, but not so much as to make this line of thought "the one true way". John Shaw (and many others I assume) have pointed out that an average lens used with excellent technique can produce remarkable (and marketable) images, while the best lenses used with sloppy technique just waste film. So sure, if you have lots of spare cash and don't mind the weight, buy the really expensive 28-70 and 70-200 f2.8 APO lenses. It will increase the basic system price though, from around $1000 to maybe $2500-$3000 (if you stick with manufacturer's lenses). 

You can also, of course, buy used equipment. This can either be current AF bodies and lenses, or older, manual focus equipment. If you plan on expanding your system then it's probably wise to stick with current equipment systems (e.g. Canon EOS) or a system that allows use of older, MF, lenses on current bodies - basically this means Nikon. Used equipment typically sells for between 65% and 80% of the current discount price (i.e. the price B&H Photo advertise) depending on age, condition and desirability. The downside is that you don't get warranty protection. The upside is it costs less, and will probably hold 100% of its value (it may even increase in value if it's a high quality item) should you ever sell it. 

Looking to the future - what comes next?

What comes after this outfit? Well, most wildlife photographers would want to add a longer lens. If you are still looking for the cheapest (but still decent) way to go, that's probably a 400/5.6 APO lens from one of the 3rd party lens manufacturers. This will cost somewhere in the region of $600. Know that if you get really serious about wildlife work, you won't be happy with this lens and you will want a longer and/or faster and/or sharper and (but not or) much more expensive lens to replace it. Note that it's actually cheaper to buy it now than first buy the lower cost lens, then sell it at a loss, then buy the lens you really wanted in the first place! 

If you are a landscape photographer you might want to add a really wide angle lens, which, on a budget, probably either means a 20mm f2.8 lens or something like a 20-35mm f3.5-4.5 zoom. Expect to pay $300-$500 for either one. The fixed 20mm will probably be faster, have less flare, be smaller, lighter and take smaller (=cheaper) filters. The zoom will give you more flexibility. Your choice. 

If you get hooked on macro photography, you might want a macro lens that focuses down to 1:1 (life size image on film) without adding a close-up lens. A 100mm macro is a good choice since it allows more working distance than a 50mm macro. Expect to pay from $200 to $500 for a decent macro lens. 

If you get really hooked, you will want to start collecting "pro" series lenses. Big, fast, expensive glass. Be warned that photography can become a large bottomless pit you shovel money into if you reach this terminal stage!

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