Digital cameras for wildlife observations

What I photograph

These are notes from my personal history on experiences with capturing images as a tool for recording wildlife. My perspective is limited. I don’t take time to produce really stunning artistic photographs. I use my camera to record what I see as faithfully and as crisply as I can. My targets are usually insects and other invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles and smaller numbers of flowering plants and fungi.

My primary goals are to provide reference shots for myself and others to improve identification for less well-recorded species and to provide evidence for mapping and monitoring species distributions and populations.

Over the years, these basic goals have led me to try many different cameras to find one best suited to my needs and to maximising simplicity. Most of this post is a cursory examination of what has driven my choices at each stage and where I find myself today.

TL;DR - My needs seem to be well met by a combination including the Sony RX10 IV camera, the Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens, and a GODOX MF12 macro flash set.

I share my photographs in a few key places on the web, always under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence so that I can maximise the potential value others can gain from my images and so that there’s a way I can be contacted in cases of misidentifications:

  • Flickr – my primary destination for all my photos that are not of irretrievably low-quality.
  • iNaturalist – my primary channel for making these images useful for biodiversity research and monitoring (and to get identifications for organisms outside my expertise).
  • Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) – secondary channels, in that I rely on iNaturalist to pass them on, but these are in fact the main reason I take time to photograph wildlife.
  • Wikimedia Commons – secondary channel for long-term reuse, mainly from other Wikipedians taking the time to add my photos from Flickr.
  • Mastodon – cherry-picked photos I feel like talking about on a given day.

I also take a lot of photos under a microscope (mainly again insects and other invertebrates), but this piece is about field photography.

Before digital cameras

In the distant pre-digital past, I tried to photrograph birds with various largely unsuitable film cameras. Probably the only useful legacy from those efforts (aside from a few slides) is this photo of the only Little Auk I’ve ever seen, in Southwick (Sussex, UK) in 1995.

Photograph of choppy water in a marina with a tiny black and white bird occupying perhaps 0.25 percent of the image area.
Alle alle, Little Auk or Dovekie, Southwick, UK, 29 November 1995 (some long-forgotten film camera)

Around a year after that photo was taken, I began getting seriously interested in the UK’s moths, mostly with help from the only good guide readily available at the time, Bernard Skinner’s The Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles (1st edition). The only cameras I had lacked any macro capability, so I started my journey into entomology with a pack of coloured pencils and my appallingly limited artistic skills. The following drawings are sadly representative.

In 1999, we moved to New Zealand and purchased a video camera that wrote to magnetic tape (no idea what brand or model). With some care, it could capture and export still images, so my first insect photos are of relatively large moths attracted to our garden in Auckland, like this ghost moth, Aenetus virescens. These images were only 768 x 576 pixels in size.

Aenetus virescens, Mairangi Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, to MV light, 8/9 November 1999 (some video camera)

Coolpix 4500 and other bridge cameras

Canon PowerShot SX60 HS camera with Raynox DCR-250 macro lens and a collapsible flash diffuser
Canon PowerShot SX60 HS camera with Raynox DCR-250 macro lens and a collapsible flash diffuser

In 2002, as we returned to Europe (Denmark, during my first stint with GBIF), we bought a real digital camera. Internet discussion groups had identified the Nikon Coolpix 4500 as the camera of choice for reasonably inexpensive macro photography, boasting a 4 megapixel resolution (2272 x 1704 pixels) and the ability to focus as close as 2 cm without serious distortion, so that is what we got. The first insect I photographed with it was a many-plume moth, Alucita hexadactyla in August that year.

Alucita hexadactyla, to MV light, Hellerup, Denmark, 2 August 2002 (Nikon Coolpix 4500)

I went on to use it for thousands of images, mainly of moths I attracted to light but also other wildlife. It always took excellent photos, although it was completely unsuited to photographing birds or any animals at a distance.

Pogona barbata (Cuvier, 1829), Eastern Bearded Dragon, Aranda, ACT, 18 September 2009 (Nikon Coolpix 4500)

Somewhere around 2009, I was feeling constrained by the lack of zoom capability and tempted by the increasingly large sensors of newer cameras. Although though I continued to use the Coolpix 4500 for moths, I invested in a series of different bridge cameras to give more flexibility in the field. These included a Nikon Coolpix P6000, a Canon PowerShot SX40 HS, then a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS and finally a Canon PowerShot SX60 HS.

Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, Eastern Grey Kangaroo, female with joey, Aranda, ACT, 21 October 2009 (Nikon P6000)
Emmelina monodactyla (Linnaeus, 1758), to Robinson trap, Søborg, Denmark, 1/2 June 2014 (Canon PowerShot SX40 HS)
Notodryas vallata Meyrick, 1897, to actinic light, Blackheath, NSW, 8/9 November 2014 (Canon PowerShot SX50 HS)

I usually carried a Raynox DCR-150 or DCR-250 macro lens that I clipped in front of the camera lens when I needed true macro. With the PowerShot cameras, these lenses gave me the same versatility as the Coolpix 4500 but with larger image sizes and the ability to use the same camera for telephoto shots of birds.

This combination was very effective, but although it brought some improvements on the telephoto side, the PowerShot SX60 was less satisfactory than earlier models for macro use since images were heavily vignetted by the Raynox lens except at the very highest zoom levels. I was able to zoom in and take great pictures of the smallest insects, but I had to remove the lens, change camera settings and rely on non-macro zoom if the insect was larger than around 25 mm. Constantly switching backwards and forwards between Raynox macro and non-Raynox telephoto disrupted the experience of photographing moths at a light sheet (probably my most significant use for a camera).

Canon DSLRs

Canon EOS 7D camera with Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and Canon MT-24EX twin macro flash
Canon EOS 7D camera with Canon EF 100 mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and Canon MT-24EX twin macro flash

Eventually, because of my focus on macro imagery, I took the plunge and invested in a Canon EOS 7D DSLR with EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens and (ultimately) the MT-24EX twin macro flash unit. This is a fantastic and very flexible combination. The autofocus is great, and it’s easy to get good images. The flash unit is perfect for illuminating the area in front of the lens, although it can need to rest briefly to recycle. This delay has rarely been a problem for me, except when charge is very low.

So, for several years my standard field equipment has been a Canon DSLR for moths/macro and a bridge camera for other wildlife. The disparity between image quality for moths and birds caused me also to test a telephoto lens (Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 DG) and even to go into the field with two DSLR bodies (EOS 7D and EOS 6D) so I could switch more quickly between lenses.

Habrosyne pyritoides (Hufnagel, 1766), Buff Arches, to LepiLED and actinic light, Utterslev Mose, Søborg, Denmark, 15 June 2018 (Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 100 mm)
Chrysopilus cristatus (Fabricius 1775), female, Rude Skov, Denmark, 30 June 2018 (Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 100 mm)
Nucifraga columbiana (Wilson, 1811), Clark’s Nutcracker, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA, 21 September 2016 (Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600 mm)
Ochotona princeps (Richardson, 1828), American Pika, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA, 21 September 2016 (Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 150-600 mm)

I was always exceptionally happy with the results from Canon DSLRs, but the bulk and weight is troublesome when carrying or traveling with multiple lenses and bodies. Taking so much equipment was particularly problematic when camping.

So, in recent years, I’ve found myself rarely carrying anything bulkier than the PowerShot SX60 except when I am photographing moths at light. Because of the hassle of doing everything properly, I’ve found myself taking many fewer pictures than formerly.

Sony RX10 IV

Sony RX10 IV camera with Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens and GODOX MF12 macro flash set
Sony RX10 IV camera with Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens and GODOX MF12 macro flash set

I recently decided to do something about this. I’ve been testing a simpler solution and have been immensely pleased with the results.

The Sony RX10 IV is a bridge camera with a Zeiss 24-600 mm equivalent zoom lens. It covers my desire to photograph birds and mammals much better than my past equipment, including the Sigma lens.

Macropus giganteus Shaw, 1790, Eastern Grey Kangaroo (with cloud of flies), Black Mountain, Canberra, ACT, 22 February 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)

The native macro capability of the camera is good for quick images of flowers, etc., but a couple of additions makes it an astoundingly good camera for macro.

First, the Marumi DHG Achromat 330 (+3) macro lens (in the 72 mm size) plays the same role the Raynox DCR-150/DCR-250 lenses did with my older PowerShot cameras, but with virtually no vignetting throughout the zoom range. This means I can go from a field of view around 20 cm wide down to little more than 20 mm simply by zooming. Focusing the camera of course relies on moving backwards and forwards to find the correct distance. This is less optimal than the autofocus offered by the EF 100 mm lens, but the camera does manage to adjust focus within a narrow relevant range.

Secondly, a pair of GODOX MF12 macro flash units and a GODOX XPro II Trigger replace the Canon MT-24EX flash unit but with greater flexibility and an unbelievably short refresh interval. The ring that holds the twin (or up to six) flashes can be attached to the camera itself or to the Marumi lens using a 72 mm screw adaptor.

So far, I’ve attached the flash outside the Marumi lens. The flash ring does very slightly vignette the frame when the zoom is below around 34 mm. I suspect that with some extra step-up/step-down rings I could mount the ring further back or even behind the Marumi lens and avoid all obstruction.

The camera is now giving me macro images that are every bit as good as those I was taking with the Canon setup. The complete Sony combination weighs 1.70 kg compared to 2.25 kg for the Canon. Another advantage is the relatively low profile of the GODOX trigger compared with the very upright trigger component of the MT-24EX. In the past, if I wanted to add light to help locate an insect, I held a torch below the EF 100 mm lens. Now I can use a head torch directed at a slight downward angle. This is much easier. The GODOX flash units also have LED focusing lights that seem very good for this but that clearly place some drain on the flash batteries. It should be noted that the MF12 batteries are not removable. When drained, the flash unit itself must be recharged. With the MT-24EX flash unit, all power comes from AA batteries. Hence the longer recycle times, but that does allow the batteries easily to be switched in the field.

Strepsinoma foveata, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)
Stangeia xerodes, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)
Christinus marmoratus, to light, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 2/3 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV)


For now, it seems the Sony RX10 IV serves my needs exceptionally well. I am much more ready just to go out with the camera to see what wildlife I can find and photograph.

As a final comparison, here are two images of an ichneumon wasp taken with the Canon 7D and the Sony RX10 IV. I believe I could have done more to optimise each camera for these shots, so this should not be treated as a realistic comparative test, but these photos again show how well the Sony does in this macro configuration.

Lissonota macqueeni, sample from SLAM trap, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 17-24 February 2023, photographed 2 March 2024 (Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 100 mm, Canon MT-24EX)
Lissonota macqueeni, sample from SLAM trap, Aranda, ACT, Australia, 17-24 February 2023, photographed 2 March 2024 (Sony RX10 IV, Marumi DHG Achromat 330, twin GODOX MF12)

Memes and phenotypes: Re-evaluating the role of taxonomy

A contribution to Dawkins studies

I’m not going to waste time putting this somewhere else, so I thought I might as well put it here …

Taxonomy is normally positioned as a long-running international research effort to recognise and delimit unique evolutionary lineages, describe and name these as species, and organise species within a hierarchical framework of higher taxa. Scientific names are accordingly seen as tools to facilitate human understanding, use and management of biodiversity. However, evolutionary biology reveals the inadequacy of this reductive and overly anthropocentric perspective. Scientific names are better understood as part of the extended phenotype (Dawkins, 1982) of many biological organisms, serving as avatars for collectives of these organisms to form and manipulate symbioses with Homo sapiens. These symbioses are mediated through the ability of these organisms to establish and control memes (Dawkins, 1976) that infect and penetrate human culture. Scientific names are the binding points that allow these memes to become established.

The process by which scientific names infect human consciousness is not dissimilar to mechanisms used by many parasitic organisms to infect their hosts. Scientific names are established when organisms successfully attract the attention of a susceptible and suitable human host. Most humans have some initial susceptibility, provided that the organisms are capable of stimulating sufficient interest to become memorable to the infected individual. However, only a small subset of potential hosts is suitable as a vehicle for wider transmission of this interest. Taxonomists serve as the primary hosts and transmit the infection more widely through their activity in publishing species treatments and scientific names. A broader subset of humans, including naturalists and nature lovers, may serve as intermediate hosts that transmit interest in unrecognised organisms to a suitable taxonomist. The infection becomes established as a published scientific name is adopted and reused within the scientific community. In some cases, the infection reaches epidemic levels when the wider human population develops an interest in the species. Modern social media serve as the leading pathway for global infection.

The relationship between any scientific name and an evolutionary lineage is more or less coincidental. Multiple and even unrelated lineages may share characteristics that hamper human recognition and discrimination. This allows such organisms to form mimicry rings that may never or only belatedly be recognised as swarms of cryptic species. Over time, advances in human technology and scientific method have disrupted many of these mimicry rings, effectively modifying the environment within which organisms must maintain the memes associated with their scientific names. This changing environment drives evolution in the membership of the organism collectives that taxonomists recognise as species. This evolution has an epiphenomenal presentation to human observers as a proliferation of species concepts associated with each scientific name.

Scientific names vary in their efficiency and infectiousness as tools for meme propagation. Factors such as euphony and memorability (including the familiarity of name elements to humans) may affect the wider transmission and persistence of a name within the consciousness of the community. 

As part of the extended phenotype of the associated organisms, scientific names support a vast network of symbioses between the world’s species and the human race. Most significantly, the memes tied to each scientific name may increase the reproductive fitness of a species by promoting and facilitating its trade and cultivation by humans, for example via the pet and aquarium trade and in the context of agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry. In some cases, these memes can trigger the activation of human defence mechanisms, as for example when species are included in lists of undesirable pest or invasive organisms. However, some species may be successful in exploiting memes associated with their scientific names to avert human predation or exploitation (a form of aposematism) and even to elicit heightened human social responses (homologous to brood parasitism) and secure potentially significant assistance in the form of conservation or cultivation.

Some observers (e.g. Garnett and Christidis, 2017) have noted that certain organisms are disproportionately effective in propagating favourable memes and exploiting human responses. Those organisms that appear most charismatic to humans are most successful in parasitising human energy to support their conservation. In extreme cases, the heightened stimuli that these organism collectives present to taxonomists and the wider public trigger the splitting of an existing named collective into multiple named species. Each additional scientific name serves as a new avatar for the organisms to secure additional support and funding. Garnett and Christidis are concerned that such organisms have gamed human interest to a disproportionate extent and divert global resources from other species or components of the environment.

We should recognise that some scientific names are “sock puppets” that serve to deceive humans and subvert the perceived goals of the taxonomic community, conservation organisations and other stakeholders. Better governance mechanisms are required to inoculate the taxonomic community against super-charismatic taxa and protect the wider community from exploitation by these organisms.


Parental investment and edited volumes

A random piece I found I wrote back in 2009 …

A few years ago I picked up a few volumes from the Oxford Series in Ecology and Evolution in a book sale. One of these was The Evolution of Sibling Rivalry by Douglas W. Mock and Geoffrey A. Parker. (Another excellent volume was Biological Invasions: Theory and Practice by Nanako Shigesada and Kohkichi Kawasaki – even if the title suggests a how-to manual for bioterrorists.)

Mock and Parker cover their subject in great detail and in a highly readable fashion. One area in particular struck me as having wider application. One of the conclusions summarised in chapter 10 reads:

Where PI (parental investment) is contributed by both parents, most taxa should exhibit ‘sexual conflict’ over how much each contributes. ESS (evolutionary stable strategy) models of biparental care make the paradoxical prediction of less PI per offspring than under uniparental care (or an idealized ‘true monogamy’, wherein partners mate for life). In a biparental situation, if one mate unilaterally lowers its share of the load, its partner should compensate partially (thereby buffering the offspring from the full force of the uniparental deprivation), but not fully (i.e. not so as to make up for the total cut-back), unless there is true monogamy. The implications for sibling rivalry are clear. Selfish games between the care-givers can shrink the ‘cake’ on which the offspring depend, thereby accentuating their own incentives for selfishness. Some recent field studies of European songbirds provide some support for these and related predictions.

The Evolution of Sibling Rivalry, p.231

This seems to apply very nicely to my experience in reading a range of volumes from individual authors (or small numbers of co-authors) and comparing them with edited volumes each with many authors. In nearly all cases, the overall quality of a book and the benefit derived from reading it (and often more mundane aspects such as the quality of the proof-reading) seems proportional to the number of authors. Of course there are likely to be several contributing factors. A single author has the ability to develop arguments and draw connections between different topics in ways which are much harder for multiple authors. Nevertheless I suspect that authors arrive at a very similar stable strategy to that realised by European songbirds. To rephrase one of the sentences above:

In a multi-author situation, if one author unilaterally lowers its share of the load, the co-authors should compensate partially (thereby buffering the volume from the full force of the author’s dereliction), but not fully (i.e. not so as to make up for the total cut-back), unless there is a (stable, long-term) partnership between the authors.

Certainly not an earth-shattering insight, but one that is, I am sure, applicable in many areas of work and life.