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Best Nikon Camera for Wildlife

I took a look at the 16 DSLR and 8 mirrorless options by Nikon currently available and tested many of them out in the field and came to the conclusion that the Nikon Z6II is the best Nikon camera for wildlife photography. The balance of performance, versatility, and price is the sweet spot in the Nikon lineup for most wildlife photographers out there.

Top Pick

Nikon Z6II

All around great performer.

The second version of the Z6 has improved focusing, an exceptional sensor, and dual card slots while the Z mount means you’ll have some of the best lenses on the market available to you. It also has a price tag that won’t break the bank.

24.5 MP | Full Frame (FX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 51,200 | 14 Frames/sec | Nikon Z Mount | Weight: 21.7 oz. (615 g)

The Nikon Z6II is Nikon’s improvement on an already great camera in the Z6. The 24 Megapixels may be less than the more expensive Nikon Z7II or the Z9 (more about this one below) but the Z6II hits all the important specs that you’ll need for wildlife photography.

With an increased buffer depth (meaning you can take more shots in continuous mode before the camera needs to stop) and faster continuous shooting rate, up to 14 fps with single-point AF or 12 fps shooting in other focusing modes. So this camera has plenty of speed.

Where the Z6II really shines is with its low-light performance. Often when shooting wildlife, you’ll find yourself shooting at sunset or sunrise when the animals are most active, so in order to get the higher shutter speeds necessary for freezing the action, you’ll need to use higher ISO settings. The Z6II will deliver clean-looking images even at quite high ISO settings.

Budget Pick

Nikon D3500

Excellent starting point for new photographers.

Even though it’s an entry-level camera, it still has all the pedigree of a Nikon camera which means you’re getting a lot of quality for the price.

24.2 MP | Crop (DX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 25,600 | 5 Frames/sec | Nikon F Mount | Weight: 12.9 oz.(365 g)

Nikon does a great job at producing high-quality entry-level cameras. The Nikon D3500 lacks some pro-level features and specs, but for the photographer that’s just getting started with wildlife shooting or wants to be a little budget-conscious, it is an excellent option.

Nikon DSLRs are all well built and ergonomically exceptional, and even their entry-level cameras are no exception. While it doesn’t have the front dial that other models have, you can program the exposure compensation button so that the back dial controls shutter speed on its own and controls aperture when the button is pressed. With that small tweak, you’ll have quick control of the two most important settings.

While not as exceptional as the Z6II in low light, for a lower-priced crop sensor camera, the D3500 does perform pretty well in low light. You can get pretty clean shots up to 800/1600 ISO with some noise becoming noticeable at 3200 ISO. But with a little post-processing, you can easily get good quality images shooting at 3200 ISO.

At the budget price point, you’ll have to sacrifice something and the 5 frames per second continuous shooting is the most noticeable aspect where this camera falls short of Nikon’s more expensive models.

However, you would be surprised how infrequently you use continuous shooting mode for wildlife and how often your best shots will be when they are standing still. So this is an area in which I wouldn’t be worried about compromising.

Another thing to keep in mind is that this is a DSLR camera, not a mirrorless, and uses Nikon’s F Mount rather than the newer Z mount. While Nikon continues to develop new lenses and DSLR cameras using the F mount…the Z mount will be where you’ll see all the most exciting innovations. If you can squeeze a little more out of your budget, I would recommend going for the Nikon Zfc instead (check out my description below) so that you can get started in the Z mount system from the beginning.

High-Resolution Option

Nikon Z7II

Similar to the Z6II but with 45.7 Megapixels.

The Nikon Z7II is a favorite of landscape and wildlife photographers that insist on maximum megapixels for big prints.

45.7 MP | Full Frame (FX) Sensor | ISO 64 – 25,600 | 10 Frames/sec | Nikon F Mount | Weight: 21.7 oz.(615 g)

If maximum resolution is on your must-have list then I highly recommend the Nikon Z7II. It is a very popular camera for landscape and nature photographers that want to print big and need every bit of the 45.7 megapixels.

The major competitor to this camera is the Sony Alpha 7R IV. At 61 megapixels, the Sony has considerably more resolution, but the Nikon does outperform it in some important categories that wildlife photographers will find important.

The Nikon Z7II is slightly larger and feels more solid and durable. I think the Nikon tends to feel better in your hand and wins the ease of use battle. The larger grip makes it easier to control and getting the shot when you’re out in the field seems easier.

I also would favor the Nikon when it comes to dynamic range. While an extra 15 megapixels sounds nice on paper, it is a bit overkill for wildlife photography. Low light performance and dynamic range, however, are essential and the Nikon comes out slightly on top in those categories.

The biggest downside to the Z7II for shooting wildlife is the buffer. If you are shooting continuously, you probably won’t get more than about 20 shots before you need to wait for the buffer to clear. If you stick to short bursts, this can be managed, but for those epic moments of action when you want a lot of shots, this can be a problem.

With this camera, you are essentially choosing resolution over speed, which may not be a great choice. If you are shooting a lot of wildlife, then you would probably be better served with the Nikon Z6II or, if budget isn’t a concern, put in a pre-order for this next camera on the list…

High-End Option

Nikon Z9

Possibly the best camera on the market today.

Nikon has thrown everything into this camera making it the ultimate machine for action as well as producing extremely high-quality RAW files.

45.7 MP | Full Frame (FX) Sensor | ISO 64 – 25,600 | 20 Frames/sec RAW and 30 Frames/sec JPEG | Nikon F Mount | Weight: 47.3 oz. (1340 g)

This is Nikon’s first mirrorless flagship camera body and they did not disappoint. While it’s not even out for sale to the public yet, the Nikon Z9 looks to be the option for a photographer that wants the best of the best. I expect it to be a strong contender for the best camera of the year in 2022.

Let’s get the price out of the way first…it’s not cheap. This is a camera designed for professionals that are willing and able to buy the best tool for the job. And that’s exactly what the Z9 is…hands down the best tool for wildlife photography.

As for shooting speeds, even with a 45.7 MP sensor, you can still get 20 frames per second shooting RAW files. If you need more speed, you can switch to JPEG for 30 frames per second and if you switch to 11 megapixel JPEG images, you’ll get an insane 120 frames per second.

In addition to all this speed, the Z9 includes a newly designed 45.7 megapixel backside-illuminated stacked CMOS sensor. I know that’s a lot of tech jargon to throw at you but here is what that means in simple terms…

This sensor will deliver exceptionally good dynamic range and low light performance while also being one of the fastest and most accurate autofocusing mirrorless cameras on the market. It also delivers 8k video internally for those of you that like to shoot video as well.

It also has a blackout free viewfinder, which is essential when shooting moving wildlife so you can continue to track the animal while shooting.

There are some drawbacks other than price though. Combining industry-best speed, autofocus, and quality requires extra horsepower and that means a bigger and heavier body. At 47.3 oz. (1340 g), this is the heaviest camera on this list. So if you like to hike into remote locations with your camera, then consider one of the other cameras on this list.

So with all this awesomeness, why didn’t the Z9 make the top pick? Well…the price point makes it a camera that few will be willing to pay for and it hasn’t been released yet. Early reviews look incredible, but I can’t in good conscience put it at the top of the list until I personally put the camera through some testing.

Best Crop-Sensor

Nikon Zfc

Classic look with cutting-edge technology.

Don’t be deceived by the classic old-school styling of the Zfc. The controls built into the body make it easy to make fast changes to your settings.

20.9 MP | Crop (DX) Sensor | ISO 100 – 51,200 | 11 Frames/sec | Nikon Z Mount | Weight: 14.0 oz. (390 g)

If you want a smaller camera with a great look and style that also performs exceptionally, this might be for you. The Nikon Zfc is essentially the same as its predecessor, the Nikon Z50 as far as specs and internal functionality. Nikon gave it a redesigned retro styling that I personally love but kept all the great qualities of the Z50 intact.

This is the second least expensive camera on this list, so if you are somewhat budget conscious but want to get into the highly-touted Nikon Z mount system, then this is a great option.

The specs and performance of this camera fall somewhere above the D3500 and below the Z6II and it is priced accordingly for that range.

But the real beauty and benefit to this camera (or the Z50 for that matter) is the versatility and the Z mount system. You can use this as a relatively compact walk-around camera by putting a smaller lens on it or you can use a longer lens and get exceptional performance for wildlife photography. You even have access to the massive F mount lineup with the FTZ adapter.

I highly recommend this camera to beginners because of its versatility. Because Nikon uses the exact same Z mount on its full-frame and crop sensor cameras, you can use this camera as an entry point and slowly build up a nice collection of Z mount lenses before investing in a full-frame body. In fact, you may never even feel the need to jump to full-frame.

This is a camera that I personally use on a regular basis. If I am going somewhere and want to get high-quality images but don’t want to carry around a bigger camera, the Zfc is my go-to. But I can also throw on a bigger lens and easily get professional-looking images.

Why You Should Trust Me

As an active professional photographer and owner of Photography Goals, I get the opportunity to use many different cameras. When I’m not shooting portraits for clients, I love to get out in nature to shoot as well. So I know which features are important when choosing a camera for getting great wildlife photos.

Top Factors For Choosing A Nikon Camera for Wildlife

Dynamic Range and Low Light Performance

Most people associate wildlife photography with high-speed continuous shooting, and while that may sometimes come in handy, more often it’s dynamic range and low light performance that is the key factor in getting the best image in a given situation.

Wildlife is typically most active during dusk and dawn so that’s when you want to be out shooting. But that also means lower light conditions than the middle of the day. Add to this the fact that most long focal length lenses are not as fast as their shorter counterparts. So, in order to expose the image properly, you’re going to need to crank up that ISO setting.

Having a camera that can get you sharp and relatively noise-free images even at higher ISOs is essential to shooting wildlife.

In addition, when you shoot wildlife, you may not always have the opportunity to get the exposure settings exactly right. But the better dynamic range your camera can give you, the more you can recover underexposed and overexposed images while editing after the fact.

Continuous Shooting Speed

While you might be surprised how often you’ll get the best shots while the animals are standing still, continuous shooting speed can be important while shooting wildlife.

If you like to capture animals in action like running, playing, or hunting down their prey, having the ability to fire off a series of shots in quick succession can make the difference between nailing the perfect shot and missing it.

But I want to offer two items of caution about continuous shooting. First, don’t rely on it too heavily when shooting. You should still be looking for that perfect moment to take the picture and use short bursts rather than 50 shots in a row. Second, don’t make your camera decision on continuous shooting speed alone. Look at some of these other factors as well.

Ease of Use

When you’re out in the field shooting, you want to be able to get the right settings on your camera quickly so you can get the shot. A good camera will be intuitive to use and “get out of your way” rather than require a lot of hunting through menus to get the shot.

The good news is that Nikon is probably the best when it comes to ergonomics and ease of use. They’ve been making professional-level cameras for many decades and all that research and development has filtered down from the flagship models to the entry-level models.

Every camera on this list was a pleasure to use and the button layouts were quite intuitive. The more expensive models have more dials and buttons which means faster changes to settings. So that may be something to keep in mind when making your choice.

Resolution

Image resolution is important for wildlife photography because you can’t always get as close as you want, even with long lenses. So you may have to crop in on the image after the fact to get the best composition.

If your camera has more resolution (ie. megapixels) then you can crop in more without losing much in terms of image quality.

Lens Selection

When choosing a camera, you’re also choosing the lens lineup that will work with that camera. The good news when it comes to Nikon cameras is that their lenses are exceptional and you’ll have a great selection of options for just about any purpose.

If it is within your budget, I recommend going with a Nikon mirrorless camera to take advantage of the new Z Mount. In addition to having access to all Nikon F Mount lenses with an adapter, the Nikon Z Mount is quite revolutionary in its large design and short flange distance.

This gives them the freedom to develop lenses with cutting-edge technology and specs. Nikon is still building out the Z lineup but new lenses are coming out on a regular basis. In my opinion, the Z lenses are going to be the industry leaders for quite some time.

Ruggedness and Durability

Shooting wildlife means a lot of time outdoors. With that comes rain, dust, sand, and even sometimes dropping the camera

DSLR or Mirrorless For Wildlife?

If you don’t already have a collection of DSLR lenses, then go with a mirrorless camera. The bottom line is that mirrorless cameras for all the major brands are where the majority of new and innovative technology will be showing up. DSLRs will stick around for a while, but they will eventually become outdated so it is a smart decision at this time to invest in one of the mirrorless systems (and the corresponding library of lenses) rather than DSLR.

Is Nikon Z Mount Good For Wildlife?

The Nikon Z Mount is an excellent choice for wildlife photography. Even though it is still a relatively new system and doesn’t have the full complement of lenses that other mounts might have, the design of the Z mount allows Nikon more flexibility for developing lenses with cutting-edge technology and incredible sharpness. You can also get access to Nikon’s extensive collection of F mount lenses with the F to Z adapter.

Is the Nikon D750 Good For Wildlife?

Yes, the Nikon D750 is an excellent camera for shooting wildlife. Even though it was released in 2014, its image quality, dynamic range, autofocus speed, and low light performance hold up against some of today’s top cameras.

However, if you are looking to purchase a new camera body for wildlife, you may not want to spend your money on an 8-year-old camera and look at the Nikon Z6II instead.

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.

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