Update: In conjunction with this article on camera gear, I’ve also penned a 4-part series – The Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris. Over time, both these articles will be edited and refreshed, so bookmark them [⌘+D] so you can refer to them when you prepare for your own photo safaris. Any major changes are announced to subscribers.
What camera gear do you actually need?
[Updated for 2018] I’m frequently asked for my advice and recommendations for what camera gear to take on African photo safaris. I’ve been travelling there for my private work and leading groups for over a decade and have garnered a great deal of experience, to say the least.
Below, you’ll find key nuggets of advice regarding c camera gear – not the detritus that many photogs collect in their camera bags. It’s by no means definitive and some will argue different kit to the ‘nth degree, but this is my blog and this is my guide. I’ll be following this up with some more golden nuggets of advice for techniques and skill-sets every photographer should have in their arsenal. Why not subscribe? Then you won’t miss a thing.
Camera Gear: Digital SLRs
I always recommend at least two camera bodies – one for a telephoto lens plus another as a grab camera/backup with either a mid-zoom or a wide-angle lens – for when the wildlife gets VERY close or you want to shoot with context.
Having a second body means that you can grab fleeting landscapes and contextual images without the need for swapping lenses. Changing lenses takes time and increases the risk of damage to your contacts and dust on your sensor – an ever-present risk on African photo safaris.
It does not matter whether it is a crop-sensor or full-frame camera, as there are pros and cons with both. Not everybody can afford state-of-the-art flagship Nikons and Canons that shoot 12+fps and have a 4 billion ISO sensitivity rating. What is essential is that you know your camera like the back of your hand and put the practice in before you reach the airport.
Even if it’s only the weekend before, get down to the park and re-familiarise yourself with the controls – photograph dogs running about, moving traffic, your own kids running about. If you’re familiar with your camera, you can hit the ground running when you arrive on the savannah, rather than spending the first few days re-learning what you’ve probably forgotten from before.
Camera Gear: Lenses
Super-telephoto (300mm+) lenses are the lens of choice for most African safaris. For ‘crop’ sensor cameras, with a 1.4x, 1.5x, or 1.6x crop factor, a 300mm lens is spot on for the big game. I recently used a Nikon D500 with the Nikkor 300mm f/4 Pf and it was a superb combination. If you want to mix things up with birdlife, then the longer the better.
A good option is something like the Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6L IS or the Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR. It may be tempting to hire 800mm monsters, but make sure that if you’re hiring a lens, that it’s something you can physically handle. Many clients hire ‘big glass’ without never having used it before and find these heavy lenses too unwieldy.
The latest Canon and Nikon lenses are much lighter than their weighty descendants, but the length can be just as unwieldy, especially in the confines of a safari Landcruiser. The view through a 500mm+ lens also takes some getting used to and if you’re not accustomed to it, you actually might find it surprisingly limiting – remember these are prime lenses without a zoom.
Full-frame cameras will need lenses of 400mm+. During my last safari with David Lloyd, we had a discussion over lunch about what lens you would bring, if you could only bring one. The conclusion was a 400mm f/2.8 with teleconverters, as this gives you three lenses in one: A 400mm f/2.8, a 600mm f/5.6, an 800mm f/6.3.
Remember, you can also crop into your images, if you have a large enough image size. When I say ‘crop’ I mean 20% max. Maybe 30%, if it’s something exceptional. Please don’t be one of these photographers than crops down to a thumbnail!
If you do not own a telephoto lens, you can hire them from LensesForHire and Fixation (both in the UK). If you’re hiring, consider the following options: 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, 400mm f/2.8, or 500mm f/4. The Canon 200-400 f/4 with switchable teleconverter is another excellent choice.
I’m now working with my friend and fellow wildlife photographer, David Lloyd, co-leading his migration safaris. David has 400mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/2.8 Canon and Nikon lenses for hire on location, saving you the need to hire them where you live and travelling long-haul with these expensive lenses. Please be aware, that when travelling to airports such as Nairobi, that these airports are not secure and thefts are commonplace. Always carry-on your telephotos and camera bodies – do not check them in, even with a Pelicase (as these just shout “Expensive items inside! Please steal me!”)
A quick note on lens hoods. Use them! They’re essential for minimising lens flare, when the angle of the sun is low – think Golden Hour. They also do a fantastic job of protecting your end element from scratches and knocks. Once the sun has set (or before it has risen), remove the hood and you can gain up to one stop of light. Just make sure you put the hood back on before you start moving again.
Much of the savannah wildlife is more active in the early morning and late afternoon/evening, when light levels are lower. A fast lens, like the f/2.8, is a fantastic choice, giving you that critical larger aperture, allowing more light into the camera, so allowing a faster shutter speed.
It’s a luxury. Certainly. The viable alternative is to increase your ISO setting on your camera and just accept you will have a bit more noise in your images – something that is easily rectified in RAW processing and practically vanishes during printing, so please don’t worry about cranking up your ISO.
A short-zoom lens in the range of 24-70mm or the 24-105mm, is a great option for contextual wildlife and landscapes images. If I can get close enough, I prefer super-wide lenses like 16-35mm or 14-24mm.
With my medium format system, I have a 90mm equivalent and a 24-50mm equivalent. It’s the 90mm that I use most, as it’s rare to get close enough with the super wide without the subject appearing to be a mile away.
Another option is to shoot a ‘stitched panoramic’ with the short end of a 70-200mm. This way, you can capture the vista but maintain the closer perspective.
In essence, I shoot “All the way in. All the way out”, using a 400mm or 600mm for close-up portraits and details and the short zoom for context and living landscapes.
Opportunities for macro work are limited but still possible and very much dependent on your location. Some camps and lodges have a wealth of flora and micro-fauna to entertain macro-photographers.
Camera Gear: Filters
I only recommend two types of filter – a circular polariser and ND filters. Polarising filters reduce glare and saturate colours, as well as deepening blue skies. As they minimise glare, you can over-expose with a polariser and retain a wider tonal range in the shadows. Contrast can then be finely tuned during RAW processing.
The downside to using a polariser is that you lose 2-stops of light, slowing your shutter speed. And, one could argue, that if you need to use a polariser, then the light is too harsh and you shouldn’t really bother with photography. Easier said, by those who frequent the plains several time a year, not so easy if this is your one and only trip of a lifetime.
Graduated neutral density filters help to correctly expose bright skies and preserve exposure for the ground/foreground. The typical setup is with using square 100mm filters in a slot-in holder by Cokin (cheap and good) or Lee Filters (expensive but better).
As an alternative, you can shoot multiple exposures (bracketing) and blend them in Photoshop using the HDR feature. I wouldn’t recommend this for wildlife when the subject is moving around and you won’t be able to submit these composite HDR images to competitions.
Screw-in non-grad ND filters are a great option when you want to slow the shutter-speed to capture motion. If you want to capture a slow motion pan of a running animal in bright daylight without a filter, you’d need to drop the ISO to its expanded minimum (L.03) and close the aperture right down to f/22.
Consequently, you’ll capture every single dust spot on your sensor and because of the fine horizontal lines, cloning-out all the dust spots is massively time-intensive and a total pain in the butt.
A 6-stop ND filter is just sheer enough to see through and compose your photograph, while dropping the shutter speed 6-stops. As a result, you don’t need to close the aperture down, saving you from the plague of dust spots. A 10-stop ND is practically opaque and not recommended for this application.
Screw-in filters come in a range of sizes to suit the filter thread at the end of your lens and work especially well with the ‘nice and bright’ 70-200mm f/2.8. Obviously, the faster the lens, the brighter the viewfinder, the more you’ll see through a 6-stop filter.
Camera Gear: Flashguns & Speedlites
Flashguns can be used to relieve contrast, or add punch in overcast conditions. You will need a booster with a fresnel lens to reach the same distance as your telephoto. The inbuilt flash you may have in your camera body will not make any noticeable difference. Again, you can hire this additional kit.
A word of caution with flash: If you are sharing a vehicle with other guests, you’ll find yourself very unpopular if your flash is ruins the exposure of your fellow photographers.
Personally, I rarely bother with flash as I don’t like effect. It’s been years since I’ve even brought a flashgun on safari. If it’s twilight, I want to capture that blue light and darkly moody atmosphere. If the light is poor with overcast skies, I shoot high key against a white sky or drag the shutter and shoot motion blurs.
I do not feel comfortable with the use of flash on nocturnal animals or in twilight/crepuscular hours. Life is tough enough on the savannah, without blinding the animals.
Camera Gear: Support
In short, you’ll be resting your lens on window frames, door sills (with window wound down), the roof and roof rails. Therefore, beanbags are quite simply the best and most practical support solution.
They pack light (fill them on arrival at your camp with rice or beans), can be moved about easily, stuffed on the door frames and draped over roof bars.
The double ‘molar’ style beanbags are extremely secure and provide a solid platform for your kit. Any quality photo safari operator will provide these for you, but it’s always worth double-checking. At some point you’ll probably find yourself kneeling on them or even standing on them. You can never have too many.
The only drawback to beanbags is the tendency for the camera to ‘roll over’ when you’re panning. Here, I advise handholding and generating a smooth supported pan, elbows tucked into your ribcage, slowly and smoothly rotating your torso from the hip. Or, you can buy a panning plate that acts a smooth surface between lens and beanbag, enabling smooth lateral movement.
Neither practical nor advisable within the confines of a safari vehicle, unless you have exclusive use and are on your own. However, there may be opportunities for tripods outside the vehicles for landscapes, around the camps, and at specific picnic or viewpoint locations. Please just consider your gear options and baggage weight allowance before you pack the scaffolding.
Good photo-safari vehicles will have shelves or bars bolted to the door frames to support a beanbag. However, there are occasions where you may find yourself in a vehicle without them.
Here, is where the monopod shines. You can adjust the height and the better ones have a large supporting foot – for greater stability.
I’ve recently bought the Gitzo Carbon Monopod Series 4 6S. I needed something to support my 600mm, while guiding in the small Gypsy Suzuki jeeps in India. If I’m guiding, I can’t just throw my beanbag wherever I want. The Gitzo monopod gave me eye-level support from a fixed seated position. It worked a treat! The Gitzo Carbon Monopod Series 4 6S has a maximum working-height of 154cm and a maximum load capacity of 30kg. This monopod packs small with a minimum length of 44cm, nice and light (670g), strong, with a large stabilising foot.
An alternative to the beanbag is the Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp. It’ll bolt on to almost anything. With one or two in place, you can screw-on your favourite panning head and leave it in position.
For less than £20, you have a solid, mobile tripod-head. With its large lever, you can detach it and move it around the vehicle. They sound good, but the significant downside is that they are slow to move. I would always use them in conjunction with beanbags that can just be thrown about.
HOW ABOUT A POLAR SAFARI?
Camera Gear: Image Storage & Backup
Most photographers take a laptop/notebook with portable hard drive or a downloader for storing and reviewing images. For example, I work on a 15” MacBook Pro™ and always travel with two card readers and LaCie “Rugged” 1Tb drives that mirror/backup each other’s content. You always have to consider weight when travelling to these destinations.
You may shoot more than 300 images during one sighting alone. Even 1,000 per day is not uncommon, for those with a happy trigger finger. If you don’t want to be swapping cards every hour, consider high-capacity cards of 32GB or more.
One word of caution: Large capacity cards can store hundreds, if not thousands of images. This is a huge amount to lose if the card is corrupted. I have been lucky with my SanDisk cards and rely on them exclusively. Everybody has their own history and preferred brand.
It’s a good idea to clearly number each card for when you wish to ‘keep it safe’. I do this after a particularly amazing encounter. It’s also useful if you accidentally erase the images (software is available that can retrieve accidentally deleted files).
If you do not have a ‘downloader’ bring a memory card reader to connect to your computer. Some of my clients bring dozens of memory cards and cache them like film. Then, they edit the images when they get home, without the fear of having to ‘format’ and reuse a card.
Camera Gear: Miscellaneous
- Smartphone for quick ‘behind the scenes’ Instagram snaps and video clips;
- Quality binoculars as you are just likely to spot something as we are;
- Healthy batteries, chargers and power leads;
- Connectivity cables for camera and laptop;
- Lens cloths, alcohol wipes, sensor cleaning kit, puffer;
- Small MagLite™ or head-torch.
Zip-off trousers and T-shirts are great for daytime, as long as you are diligent with the sun-screen. A shirt with long sleeves and a collar will protect your arms and neck under the fierce equatorial sun.
A windproof jacket/fleece is recommended for the cool mornings. Driving along with all the windows down can be pretty chilly. Rain is certainly a possibility. You might want to consider a light shell jacket that can protect you from the odd shower.
Long sleeve shirts and trousers for night-time are a must. Although I rarely see mosquitos in the Masai Mara, it only takes one bite to contract malaria. There is no cure or 100% proof against malaria. FACT!
There is usually minimal walking, so light footwear is fine. I spend my time very comfortably in light waking boots or trainers. A wide-brimmed hat and sun screen are another essential, especially if you are out for an all day safari. Baseball caps do not protect your ears!
There’s no need to wear head-to-toe khaki or camouflage, but do try avoid very bright colours and whites. In areas with tsetse flies, avoid dark blue and blacks as those nasty little buggers are attracted to those colours.
Fitness & Health
Traditional African photo safaris do not require a high level of fitness. Nevertheless, participants should be in good general health. Rattling around inside a vehicle for a week can be quite punishing.
For most safaris, you will be in remote locations, well away from modern medical facilities. Kenya and Tanzania are malaria risk areas, so please consult your doctor about the right medication. Always ensure your travel insurance is up to date and caters to your needs. Some travel insurance policies list ‘African safaris’ as an additional cover and not as standard.
“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this gear guide for African photo safaris. I will be co-leading photo safaris to the Masai Mara with the exceptional David Lloyd in 2018 and onwards. I’ll post all my photo safaris here and on Instagram.”
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