Canon 5D vs 7D for Birds in Flight

| March 21, 2013

sand hill crane 5d vs 7d bird photography

Sand Hill Crane – 5D Mark III, 420mm (300mm 2.8 II + 1.4X II TC), f/7.1, 1/500 sec.

Although I primarily consider myself a travel photographer, I love the challenge of capturing wildlife in motion. There are so many variables that need to come together to create compelling wildlife images. Finding wildlife in the first place can be a real challenge, not to mention weather conditions, light quality, camera capabilities, and good old technique and experience. For instance, some have said bird photography is 90% disappointment and 10% ecstasy, which points to why it can be so gratifying when you make a great bird photograph.

This post highlights my recent visit to Colorado’s Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge to photograph Sand Hill Cranes. Twice a year, upwards of 20,000 Sand Hill Cranes stop in Colorado to refuel during their seasonal migrations to the north and south. It is quite a sight…and a ripe opportunity for some challenging bird photography.

sand hill crane flying

Sand Hill Crane in Flight – Canon 7D, 300mm 2.8 II, f/7.1, 1/800 sec.

My camera equipment

As you can see on my camera gear page, I own a Canon 5D Mark III (5D3), a Canon 7D, and an assortment of high quality lenses. The 5D3 is my primary camera and the 7D is my backup camera. Although there are some key differences between the two camera bodies including the price tag, they are both excellent cameras that can create stunning images of wildlife in motion.

canada geese monte vista colorado

Canada Geese at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge – 7D, 420mm

I own two camera bodies so I can have two lens configurations ready to go at all times. Imagine being on safari with one camera and 600mm prime lens. As the jeep rounds a bend, you see an elephant and her babies 100 feet away. Instead of attempting a change to a shorter focal length in a dusty environment, I can simply reach for another camera that is already equipped with a wider lens to make the photograph. Although I could use a 50mm to 500mm zoom to cover the range, I find that my image quality is higher when I use prime (non zoom) lenses at the longer focal lengths.

sand hill crane dance 5D mark III

Mating dance – 5D Mark III, 420mm (300mm 2.8 II + 1.4x TC, f/7.1, 1/320 sec.

Canon 5D vs 7D – Focus Systems and Frame Rates

Both the 5D3 and 7D have focus systems and frame capture rates that can keep up with wildlife in motion. The 5D3 has an upgraded focus system much like the top of the line Canon 1Dx. With 61 focus points and multiple focus tracking modes, the 5D3 not only makes for a great landscape camera, it is up to the challenge of serious wildlife photography. The 5D3 also has an improved capture rate of six frames per second. I know this pales in comparison to the 14 frames per second of the 1Dx, but at about half the price with a much smaller form factor, I am willing opt for the 5D3 and forgo the eight extra frames.

sand hill crane flying 5D mark III

Sand Hill Cranes in Flight – 5D Mark III, 300mm 2.8 II, f/8.0, 1/500 sec.

Now turning to the 7D. Frankly, it’s the perfect companion for my 5D3. Why? The 7D controls are basically in the same place as the 5D3. As I switch from one camera to the other, my fingers already know where to go, which helps me get the shot I want at a moments notice. Plus, the 7D delivers eight frames per second and has an excellent 19-point focus system with extremely capable tracking performance.

During my shooting sessions in Monte Vista, I did not feel that either camera was holding me back, and that’s a good feeling. If anything, the 7D was saying, “I am ready to go! Pull it together already!”

canada geese canon 7d

Canada Geese – Canon 7D, 420mm (300mm 2.8 II + 1.4x TC), f/7.1/ 1/500 sec.

Canon 5D vs 7D – Image Quality

As the images I have posted here will verify, both cameras deliver excellent image quality when equipped with good lenses. One caveat is the difference in ISO noise performance. When shooting with the 7D, I need to set the ISO lower if I want to try and match the 5D3’s low noise levels. I have not done a technical analysis, but I sense that I need to be at half of the 5D3’s ISO setting to get similar results on the 7D. I imagine this has more to do with the 7D’s relatively smaller sensor than anything else. That said, there are a number of ways to clean up noise in post processing that can make up for the difference between the two bodies. The idea is to not go too crazy cranking up the 7D’s ISO setting because as some point the detail will be compromised to a level that will be tough to recover satisfactorily in post.

sand hill cranes monte vista colorado

Sand Hill Cranes migrating via Monte Vista, Colorado

Beyond the camera body itself, my personal opinion is that the technical quality of an image is primarily influenced by the optical quality and stabilizing capability of the lens. From there you need a camera that can focus quickly and accurately. Ultimately you, as the photographer, need to pull all the capabilities of the equipment together to create a compelling image.

So, if you are interested in capturing the best wildlife images you can, buy the best quality lenses you can afford. In my experience, the cost of the lenses will make the camera body purchase insignificant. If I was on a budget, I would definitely opt for a $1250 Canon 7D and put the $2000 I save over a 5D3 toward the best lenses I can find. Once you have the equipment in place the fun begins, which is continually practicing and gaining the experience you need to capture great images.

Additional considerations

What else should you consider when using the 5D vs the 7D? The differences in depth of field. Because of the 7D’s smaller imaging sensor, the depth of field at a given f number is shallower than the 5D3 will produce. For example, using the online calculator at DOF Master, lets compare the depth of field (or focus) for the 7D and 5D3 at 420mm and f/8.0 with a distance to subject of 100 feet.



As you can see from the results above, at the same distance, f number, and focal length, the 7D will have 5.18 feet in focus compared to 8.19 feet in focus on the 5D. This could make the difference in getting your full subject in focus or not. This is not a big deal, it just means that when using the 7D you need to use a higher f number to get the same amount of focus as you would on the 5D3.

sand hill crane 5D mark III monte vista

Sand Hill Crane Landing – 5D Mark III, 300mm 2.8 II, f/8, 1/500 sec.

At the end of the day, I am equally satisfied with the image quality and performance of both systems, which means I shoot both cameras without reservations. I feel that the cameras and lenses deliver everything I need and the best way to improve my images is to practice and focus on improving my own capabilities.

About the Sand Hill Crane

The Sand Hill Crane’s fossil records date back about 2.5 million years and they can live to be 30 years old. Unlike the whooping crane, which was nearly driven to extinction by illegal hunting and the destruction of habitat, the Sand Hill Cranes are in the least concern category from a conservation perspective. Compared to the more than 20,000 Sand Hill Cranes that migrate through Colorado alone, there are only about 440 Whooping Cranes in the wild. The Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge signifies the compromise that must be made to allow land for agricultural use to coexist with the habitats that our wildlife needs to survive.

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Category: Bird Photography, Photo Gear Reviews, Photography