Are High Frame Rates All That Important?

Sandhill Cranes during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado. Nikon D810 with 200-500mm VR

I’ve been spending a lot of time this winter organizing my photography catalogs. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on my sandhill crane catalog as I’m about to make my annual trip to photograph the migration in Monte Vista. While perusing my images, I noticed something in Lightroom while filtering my image views between cameras.

Here is the screen capture from my Lightroom catalog showing my sandhill crane stock photos.

Sandhill Crane Catalog filtered by camera.

I’ve used 8 different camera bodies on my many sandhill crane photos over the years. I’ve made 23,759 images with those 8 different bodies. I wanted to see which body was producing the most stock images for me, so I filtered down to images I’ve selected and submitted to the stock agencies. Out of 23,759 total images, I’ve produced 281 sandhill crane stock photos. Not a high hit rate when you look at it on the surface, but when you factor in the fact that many of those images were made while shooting continuous bursts, sometime up to 25-30 frames, where only one or two images from those bursts will be selected as the most desirable.

When I look for the camera that has the most stock photos associated with it, I notice the Nikon D500 leads the pack with 98 of the 281 total photos. Of all the cameras I’ve used to photograph sandhill cranes over the years, the Nikon D500 has the highest frame rate at 10 frames per second. So, on the surface, one may think that the high frame rate is a benefit when shooting these moving objects. But wait a minute, lets look at the bigger picture (no pun intended)

Here are some more numbers…

Out of all the photos I’ve made, here are the total counts from each camera vs total images selected for stock.

Canon EOS 7D: 3,217 total photos, 17 selected.  Hit rate .52 percent.

Canon EOS 50D: 631 total photos, 5 selected. Hit rate .79 percent.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mk II: 822 total photos, 5 selected. Hit rate .61 percent.

Nikon D500: 8132 total photos, 98 selected. Hit rate 1.2 percent.

Nikon D750: 2967 total photos, 42 selected. Hit rate 1.42 percent.

Nikon D810: 3751 total photos, 62 selected. Hit rate 1.65 percent.

Nikon D850: 2017 total photos, 20 selected. Hit rate .99 percent.

Nikon D7200: 2222 total photos, 32 selected. Hit rate 1.44 percent.

Hit rate is the percentage of selected photos divided by the total photos made for that camera.

The frame rates for the different cameras vary, some are rather slow compared to others. For example, the Canon 7D would shoot up to 8 frames per second, The 1Ds Mk II would only shoot up to 4.5 frames per second. the Nikon D810 is good for about 5 frames per second. The D850 can shoot up to 7 frames per second, the D7200 and D750 are good for about 7 frames per second.

Also note that I don’t always shoot at maximum frames per second on any given camera. But when you look at the highest hit rate of my cameras on average, you’ll see that the Nikon D810 shooting at 5 fps max has the highest hit rate at 1.65 percent. The Nikon D500 isn’t even in the top 3 and it has the highest frame rate at 10 fps. There are of course other factors, but I am working on the assumption that my composition and scene selection skills haven’t changed that much from camera to camera. Other variables would also tend to average out. The one variable that doesn’t average out is the accuracy of the autofocus system in each camera.

From my experience photographing birds in flight, the best camera isn’t the camera with the highest frame rate, it’s the camera with the best autofocus system, and almost the second lowest frame rate.

The Nikon D810 is proving to be my best birds in flight camera with a maximum frame rate of 5 frames per second. It’s obvious that shooting at 10 frames per second on the Nikon D500 didn’t provide me with a higher keeper rate. All it does is fill up memory card and hard drive with a lot of images I can’t use. The highly acclaimed Nikon D850 is not very good at all for birds in flight with a keeper rate of almost half of the D810.

I’ve kind of already figured this all out over time though just by usage and experience. But reviewing the numbers just validates my mental observations, and those mental observations have led me to use the Nikon D810 as my primary wildlife camera. The old and unimproved D810 is in fact a bad ass camera even if it only shoots at a maximum of 5 frames per second. It delivers sharp images all the time and the autofocus system is damn good. Better than the more expensive upgrade to the Nikon D850.

So, when you’re looking at buying or selecting a camera for wildlife and/or birds in flight, don’t fall into the high frames per second trap. It’s mostly marketing and rationalizing, but the truth is you don’t need a high frames per second ability to photograph wildlife and in particular birds. 5 frames per second can get the job done just fine, and your best results are going to depend on how well your cameras autofocus works.

The other lesson here is that Adobe Lightroom has some great tools for analyzing your photography.

Knowledge is power.