What photography kit do you actually need?
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 over 10 years and have garnered a great deal of experience, to say the least. I’ve penned down my advice below. 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 always recommend at least two camera bodies – one for a telephoto lens plus another as a grab camera/backup with 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 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 plains, rather than spending the first few days re-learning what you’ve forgotten from before.
REMEMBER THE 5 Ps!
Super-telephoto (300mm+) lenses are the lens of choice for most African safaris. For crop factor cameras, a 300mm lens is ok, but if you want to mix up the big game with birdlife, then the longer the better. A good option is something like the Canon 100-400 IS L or the Nikon 200-400 VR. Saying that, it is tempting to hire 800mm monsters, but make sure that if you’re hiring a lens, that it’s something you can physically handle. The latest 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.
Full-frame cameras will usually need lenses of 400m+ or a large enough sensor/file size, so you have the ability to crop into your images during processing. 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 300mm f/2.8 with teleconverters, 400mm f/2.8, or 500mm f/4. The Canon 200-400 f/4 with switchable teleconverter is another excellent choice. A quick note on lens hoods. Use them! They’re are essential for minimising lens flare, when the angle of the sun is low. However, once the sun has set (or before it has risen), remove the hood and gain up to one stop of light.
Much of the savannah wildlife is more active in the early morning and late afternoon/evening, when light levels are low. 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 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.
A short-zoom lens in the range of 20mm to 70mm (the 24-105mm, for example) is a great option for contextual wildlife and landscapes images. Personally, I prefer super-wide lenses like 16-35mm or 14-24mm. In essence, I shoot all the way in and all the way out, using the 600mm for close-up portraits and 16mm 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.
I only recommend two filters – a polariser and an ND filter. 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. Graduated neutral density filters help to correctly expose bright skies and preserve exposure for the ground/foreground. As an alternative, you can shoot multiple exposures (bracketing) and blend them in Photoshop later. I wouldn’t recommend this for wildlife when the subject is moving around.
Flash is permitted within the National Parks and Game Reserves, but night-time photography is rarely allowed for safety and ethical reasons. Flashguns are welcome and often recommended during the day for fill-in flash, to relieve contrast, or add punch in overcast conditions. You may 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 rarely be powerful enough to make any noticeable difference. Again, you can hire this additional kit. It’s recommended, but not essential. Personally, I rarely bother with flash as I don’t like effect or photographing in poor light.
As many of the vehicles in East Africa also travel on public roads, they must have fully functioning windows, doors, and a solid roof. This means you’ll be resting your lens on window frames, door sills (with window wound down), the roof and roof rails. Therefore, beanbags are highly recommended for support. They pack light (filled on arrival at your camp with rice or beans), can be moved about easily, stuffed on the door frames and draped over roof bars. Any quality photographic 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, so you can never have too many.
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 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 the 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, so this gave me eye-level support from a fixed seated position. It worked a treat!
For shooting from my 4×4 at home, I’ve invested in an Eckla Eagle door support system. This is a precision-engineered platform for mounting long lenses on a car door, ideal for wildlife photography. It is extremely well-built and rugged. I mount my gimbal and 600mm on this and it remains rock-solid and very stable. The only issue is the weight.
As much as I love the versatility of the trusty double beanbag (of which I have many), I’ve nearly lost my lens over the side too many times! With the Eckla, I can bolt it on and just turn the camera inline with the car door and drive on – no need to even remove the camera rig. Although not essential, a levelling base would be a wise accompaniment to this setup, to ensure a level ‘pan’ on uneven terrain.
For smoother panning from a vehicle, I also use a ball head or gimbal head attached to a Manfrotto™ SuperClamp. This can bolt on almost anything including the roof bars of safari vehicles. When I’m shooting on my own, I have several bolted around the vehicle. Products like the Ekla Eagle can be very useful, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to a single fixed mount as the wildlife is generally on the move and big cats in particular often approach very close – a beanbag can be easily picked up and thrown around the vehicle.
HOW ABOUT A POLAR SAFARI?
Image Storage & Backup
Most photogs opt for a 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 and a 1,000 per day is not uncommon for those with happy tigger fingers. If you don’t want to be swapping cards every hour, consider high-capacity cards of 32GB or more.
It’s a good idea to clearly number each card for when you wish to ‘keep it safe’ after a particularly amazing encounter, or 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, sorting the images when they get home, without the fear of having to ‘format’ a card whilst away.
Smartphone, quality binoculars, healthy batteries, chargers and power leads, connectivity cables for camera and laptop, lens cloths, sensor cleaning kit, puffer, small MagLite™ or head-torch, note pad and pen, personal medication, malaria medication, toiletries.
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, as driving along with all the windows down can be pretty chilly. Long sleeve shirts and trousers for night-time are a must, no matter what people say about the lack of mosquitos. There is no cure or 100% proof against malaria. FACT!
There is usually minimal walking, so light footwear is fine. A wide-brimmed hat and sun screen are 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. In areas with tsetse flies, avoid dark blue and blacks as those nasty little buggers are attracted to those colours.
Fitness and health
Traditional African photo safaris do not require a high level of fitness, but participants should nevertheless be in good general health. 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 prophylactic and ALWAYS have up-to-date travel insurance.
“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this gear guide for African photo safaris. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the form below. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”