ARTICLE

Into the wild: Jonathan and Angela Scott reveal the best Canon kit for pro-level wildlife photography

This candid portrait of a lioness yawning exemplifies the intimacy and image quality that master wildlife photographers Angela and Jonathan Scott are known for, down to the pin-sharp tufts of fur. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/4 and ISO250. © Jonathan & Angela Scott

Jonathan and Angela Scott became known to a wider audience as presenters of wildlife TV series Big Cat Tales and its predecessor Big Cat Diaries, but they have decades of experience working in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya as wildlife photographers. They are both Canon Ambassadors and, uniquely, have each won Wildlife Photographer of the Year individually as well as numerous other awards.

All of this means they're ideally qualified to advise on the best Canon kit for pro-level wildlife photography. So let's see the key Canon cameras and lenses that are in their kitbags.

A spotted hyena shakes water from its coat, with another out of focus behind it.
Focus, lighting and aperture are all impeccable in this portrait of a spotted hyena shaking the water from its coat after feasting in a pool of water in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5 and ISO640. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Canon's flagship pro DSLR. 20.2-megapixel full-frame sensor. 61-point AF system. Up to 14fps. ISO to 409,600.

1. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

Best camera for action wildlife photography

"The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is by far my preference for action wildlife stills photography," says Angela unequivocally. "It's rock-solid, heavy duty, and has a high burst-speed frame rate when shooting in RAW format, which we do all the time."

Thanks to its blazing-fast dual DIGIC 6+ image processors and its advanced mirror drive system, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II can shoot up to 14 frames per second (fps) with full AE/AF tracking, or up to a staggering 16fps in Live View. Used with a CFast 2.0 memory card, the camera can deliver a continuous burst of up to 170 uncompressed 14-bit RAW images, meaning Jonathan and Angela never have to miss the action as it unfolds.

"When I'm shooting fast-moving wildlife, such as an adult cheetah running at 120km/h or perhaps a cub rolling around quickly, then I need the extra-fast burst rate of a full-frame Canon camera such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II," says Angela.

Five young male cheetahs struggling to bring down a wildebeest calf.
Jonathan and Angela rely on the full-frame sensor, burst rate and blazing autofocus speed of their Canon EOS-1D X Mark II to capture action such as this pack of five male cheetahs struggling to subdue a wildebeest calf. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO1000. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
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At the same time, the camera's fast autofocus capabilities ensure that it captures the action, no matter how fast-moving. "With the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II you can shoot almost blindfolded," Angela says. "For example, animals will just jump out of nowhere and often, miracle of miracles, the reaction time of the autofocus saves the day and captures the shot."

Jonathan and Angela both firmly believe that nothing compares to the full-frame sensor in a DSLR such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II when it comes to capturing the detail in even a flurry of action. Jonathan adds that sometimes "the action's even too fast for the naked eye to see, but the camera captures it all. It's incredible how much more detail can be revealed after the fact," he says.

A family herd of eight elephants, adults and young, make their way along a dusty track at sunrise.
An elephant family herd at dawn, photographed in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. For this shot, Jonathan and Angela had time to set up their equipment and wait for the elephants to come to a favourite salt lick at first light. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO250. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder.

2. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Best camera for wildlife portraits

The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is Angela and Jonathan's staple workhorse, particularly for fast action photography, but they also make room for the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV in their kitbag. It's considerably lighter to carry than the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and, with its 30.4MP sensor, Angela prefers to use it when there's time for a more considered wildlife portrait. She values the fuller touchscreen functionality on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – "for example," she says, "you can use your finger to scroll through and review your photographs, or use touch-and-drag AF for video.

"It's a great camera to have in the back of our car to set up for videography. It has some fantastic features. We even play with the built-in time lapse function when time allows."

With the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV's built-in wireless connectivity, it's possible to control the camera remotely from a smartphone, which can be a great help when staying steady is absolutely critical to get the shot.

Jonathan and Angela Scott's wildlife photography kitbag, with Canon cameras and lenses.
Angela says that the Canon EOS 5DS R is great for both spontaneous wildlife shots, and for more considered compositions, because its 50.6MP sensor captures fantastic amounts of detail. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
Canon EOS 5DS R.

Canon EOS 5DS R

Designed to deliver the ultimate in DSLR image quality, with 50.6-megapixel resolution and a low-pass cancellation filter that maximises the sharpness of the camera’s sensor.

3. Canon EOS 5DS R

Best camera for detailed wildlife work

Jonathan also likes to use the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV for "street photography" (or at least the wildlife equivalent), but Angela prefers the Canon EOS 5DS R for spontaneous work because its exceptional resolution enables her to capture revealing details. "When I take that extra time, I control composition in macro photographs and focus on the details, rather than shooting the big picture," she says, "although it's good for landscapes as well because of the resolution."

The Canon EOS 5DS R has a whopping 50.6-megapixel image sensor that produces dizzyingly detailed images, with enhanced clarity thanks to its low-pass cancellation filter, making it perfectly suited for close-up photography and macro work. Some photographers use this extra resolution to crop in on subjects that are a little farther away, and while that is definitely an option, Angela doesn't like to work that way.

"Even though the camera has such a high resolution, I wouldn't use it to shoot the long shots and then crop in," she explains. "Of the two of us, I do all the processing, so I'm staring at the screen for a long time, and when you're the one behind the computer you realise quickly which images work and which don't. It's such a beautiful thing when you see something that's got beautiful light quality and the resolution detail to match."

A young male lion in tall grass silhouetted against an early dawn sky.
In this shot of a male lion at sunrise, Jonathan and Angela zoomed in all the way to 400mm to isolate the lion against the warm, orange tones of sunrise. By shooting at such a long focal length they maintained a medium aperture of f/7.1, which provides enough depth of field to get the whole animal sharp, as well as the grass that surrounds it. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/7, ISO250. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens.

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

A professional L-series sports and wildlife zoom with Image Stabilizer and ASC coating for superb sharpness.

4. Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

Best all-round lens for wildlife photography

"As much as we love prime lenses," says Jonathan, "we use an awful lot of zooms because they're so good now, optically. Some photographers swear by the wide-open apertures that come with the prime lenses, but we're happy shooting zooms with aperture range changes because the bodies are equally good, so you can bump up the ISO without any worry."

Angela agrees with Jonathan to a point. "When you're dealing with the big cats and anything to do with fur, noise from a high-ISO shot completely kills it because you lose all of those beautiful hairs and detail in the eyes. It doesn't matter if I run all the top-end noise reduction programs, it just goes smudgy. With the improved technology of image sensors we can now use higher ISOs, but we never go above our threshold for acceptable noise – ours is around ISO 2000 depending on the body in use."

Their favourite Canon zoom lens is the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. It's rugged, relatively portable, and versatile, with a zoom range ideal for wildlife photography. It produces beautifully sharp images thanks to its quality optics, advanced lens technologies, and its 4-stop Image Stabilizer, which is very effective at reducing the effects of camera shake even at the greatest zoom distance. A particularly useful feature is the Zoom Touch Adjustment ring, which makes it possible to vary the resistance in the zoom ring – a light touch can be ideal when shooting fast-paced action such as a lion hunt, for example, while it can be a benefit to stiffen the mechanism or even lock it entirely to prevent inadvertently altering the focal length when this might be a problem.

Jonathan in particular also enjoys using the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x. "It has a great minimum focusing distance, and is pin-sharp when autofocusing," he says. However, it's more than 2kg heavier than the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, which means the latter is an easier lens to use and to pack for long-distance travel.

A watchful young male leopard surrounded by lush green leaves in the early morning.
Using the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens – now replaced in Canon's range by the updated Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM – Jonathan and Angela were able to get in close for an intimate portrait of a watchful young male leopard surrounded by lush green leaves in the early morning. They filled the frame with the animal and shot wide open at f/4 to provide a shallow depth of field. The leaves in front of the leopard and behind it fall into soft focus, creating this romantic-looking portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Jonathan & Angela Scott
Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

An exceptionally light 600mm f/4 lens, perfect for professional wildlife, sports and news photographers. A five-stop Image Stabilizer lets you shoot handheld, letting you react more quickly.

5. Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

Best lens for wildlife portraits

For close-up portraits, Angela and Jonathan's lens of choice has been the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM, now replaced in Canon's range by the updated Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM. Because of the long focal length, there's a large amount of perspective compression, which they use to create a sense of intimacy in their animal portraits.

"The 600mm lens is brilliant for behavioural work, because it gets you right up close with the animals," says Angela. She and Jonathan are looking forward to trying the lighter weight Mark III lens in the near future.

This lens too is equipped with Canon's respected Image Stabilizer (IS) technology, meaning that Jonathan and Angela can use shutter speeds up to four stops slower than normal without the shots exhibiting issues caused by camera shake. "The IS is so good that, even with the big telephotos, we don't even pack tripods," Jonathan says.

"Tripods are just so cumbersome on a plane," he continues, "and when we're in our car, we have mounts on a rail on the side of the vehicle. We'll just shoot handheld."

Five lionesses, some dirtied with mud or gore, jostle while feeding.
A placid family group? Far from it. The scene looks sedate only because the Scotts' skill and their equipment's speed and stability have frozen the action. In fact, these lions are feasting in a shallow pool of water at sunrise. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5 and ISO500. © Jonathan & Angela Scott

Practical packing

For her part, Angela also has her own secret weapon for added stability: "a beanbag is worth its weight in gold if you plan on travelling around," she says. "Find one that you can empty so you can pack it flat in the kitbag and fill it when you get to the location."

Because they're always on the move, Jonathan and Angela often have to choose their kit with one eye on portability. Sometimes, particularly when journeying further afield, they'll pack for maximum versatility within the constraints of aircraft weight limitations.

A young male lion lies in green grass with his head up. Another lion is just visible behind him, lying flat, and giraffes roam behind them both.

Photographing big cats with the EOS-1D X Mark II

Wildlife photographers and TV presenters Jonathan and Angela Scott share more about their kitbag favourites and discuss their TV show Big Cat Tales.

"When flying, we often have to take several different planes to get to our chosen location," Jonathan explains. "Often all or part of that journey is on small aircraft, especially when flying to places like Namibia or locations in South Africa. These planes allow a maximum of 15kg carry-on luggage."

Angela adds that they almost never put their kit in hold luggage any more after a few security issues and damage occurred. "You only have to stand at the check-in desk and see some guys slinging your case down the chute to realise what they go through when placed in the hold," she says. "Now we carry on all of our kit."

Angela notes that this means they have to be efficient when packing their camera gear. "We'll typically take a single rucksack containing the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, which I'll carry," she says. "Then Jonathan's bag will take two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II bodies, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV if there's room, plus a selection of other lenses depending on the type of shoot."

Σύνταξη Jason Parnell-Brookes


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