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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."