Everyone who wants to go on a photo safari will ask themselves this question before they leave, what is the best camera gear for a safari? How can I make the perfect safari picture, you know the one of the cheetah or leopard against the light on a tree – the one of the herds of zebras or wildebeest with Kilimanjaro in the background, in short the kind of travel pictures that will blow your mind!? For many of us, it is a dream to make this kind of trip and it is out of the question during a photo trip in Tanzania, a safari in Kenya or in the Kalahari to miss the beauty offered by this wildlife. So bringing back great images of these wild animals is on all of our minds. In this article the latter will be explained with the elements below.
This article will cover almost only digital photography with a DSLR. Indeed, for this type of trip that is in difficult conditions (sun, dust, movements, distant animals), I strongly recommend the use of a DSLR with a telephoto lens. So, yes, it is possible to shoot safari pictures with a bridge, a mirrorless camera, or even a compact camera, but in my opinion, you will not match (for this type of trip) the DSLR performance. If you are interested in making beautiful pictures on your safari, I invite you to read the article on the essential photo accessories for a safari!
Before talking about choosing your safari photography equipment, I wanted to mention two elements that I think should be taken into account, which work together: the budget and your usual and upcoming photography practice.
Because in reality, it will be difficult to consider all possible situations. Some will be beginners and will have very little financial means, others will be beginners but will have a much larger budget to afford great lenses and so on.
- The budget : this is surely the main element to take into account for many people when choosing their camera equipment for a safari. Try to keep in mind a price range. How much are you actually willing to pay for your photography equipment. Indeed, it is important to know that taking beautiful pictures on safari can be expensive if you invest in a good camera, a couple of lenses and other accessories. The budget can quickly escalate! I’m not even going into if you have to invest in post-processing software.
If you don’t have the budget to afford good quality lenses to capture wildlife, there is always the possibility of renting (or borrowing) them. Clearly, not many people can afford a 600mm, so renting it is much more economical. On the contrary, if you have the budget to enjoy yourself, you will have the choice, in all brands, for very good bodies and lenses.
In addition to your budget, you have to consider your photography practice. Concretely, will you use the equipment after the safari? Would you like to learn photography afterwards? Do you want to understand the notions of framing, ultra wide angle, or other barbaric terms in photography?
- Your photography practice : Buying good equipment is fine, but if you never use it again after the safari, it would be a shame to go broke for nothing. My advice is to think carefully about whether you will use your equipment afterwards or not. If you like photography and traveling, it’s a good bet that a 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom will come in handy during your travels (if you haven’t already bought it!). If you think you’re going to get involved in photography in the near future, it’s probably worth the investment! Buying a camera is something you should think about.
Take some time to think about this: your current and future photography practice.
Here is my more technical advice on how to choose your safari gear. I’m talking about DSLR cameras and lenses. I deliberately left aside mirrorless cameras, expert compact cameras and all the associated lenses. I illustrate the precise items according to the different brands in the following paragraph.
On safari, you’re going to be in “pretty extreme” conditions and believe me when I say you’re going to be eating dust all day long. Whether you are on safari in Tanzania, Zambia or in the southern African countries (Namibia, Botswana or South Africa), the humidity level is very high. After all, it is the tropics.
I therefore advise you, if you can afford to go for tropicalized cameras and lenses, which will often mean switching to the “Pro” range from Canon or Nikon for example.
Some cameras are protected with gaskets against dust and humidity. Be sure to check before buying, but a good DSLR camera will already be a good start.
That’s what everyone agrees on when it comes to a safari in national parks. A 300mm will allow you to take a large majority of the scenes on safari, except for birds, where a 400mm to 500mm is recommended as a minimum. It all depends then on the type of body you have and the distance the wildlife are from your lens. If you see an elephant that is less than 10m away, you won’t need to get close and you’ll be fine with a 300mm! We’ll talk about it more below.
Again, it’s not a universal reality, but it’s better to choose a zoom lens rather than a prime, knowing that you don’t normally get out of your car and that you mostly take pictures from your vehicle’s sunroof. So you’ll have no way to get closer to the beast except to zoom in and out (or wait for them to get closer which doesn’t always happen). Although, sometimes, at camp, you will be able to get very close to the animals.
The optical quality of fixed lenses is most often better than zooms. However, if you choose to leave with a fixed lens, it will be necessary to have several of them to be able to capture a variety of shots. With only one fixed lens, you will be dependent on the animal and the distance to the car.
If you are interested in a safari, but also in photography in general, the article explaining how to choose your camera lens will surely be useful.
If you don’t know what aperture is, it is the small number that is indicated on your lens after the letter “f”. In concrete terms, the aperture is the aperture of the diaphragm of your lens. The smaller the number is, the brighter your lens is said to be (e.g. f/1.4 is brighter than f/1.8). Don’t hesitate to read the basics of photography on my website.
So why should you choose a lens with a large aperture? The aperture has a direct influence on the shutter speed and on the depth of field. This is not a teaching lesson here (but photography tips…) but to make it simple, the brighter your lens will be (f/ smaller number), the faster you can take pictures (in terms of shutter speed) and the more you can blur your background. How do you think the superb close-up photos of lionesses, hyenas and others in the bush are made?
This is particularly important on a safari where, in most cases, you will want to have blurred backgrounds and sharp images. This point is also to be considered with the choice of the camera body according to its ISO sensitivity (see below).
There are two main types of DSLR cameras: Full Frame and APS-C. I won’t talk here about the difference between the two in detail, as this could be the subject of an entire article. To summarize, the Full Frame is the equivalent of the 24 x 36 mm and has a large sensor, larger than an APS-C body, which has a medium size sensor, and has a multiplying coefficient x 1.6.
To make it simple and in relation to what we are interested in when choosing our safari gear, the size of the sensor is important to take into account since it directly influences the quality of the pictures (less noise and better light capture on a Full Frame camera).
However, APS-C formats have a multiplying coefficient of x 1.6 (at Canon for example). In concrete terms, if you buy a 70-200 mm lens and place it on an APS-C body, you get the equivalent of a 320 mm (24×36 format).
So an APS-C can be a very good solution for a safari since you will be looking (usually) for zoomed shots. On a Full Frame camera, you will need longer (and therefore more expensive) lenses to zoom at the same level as an APS-C camera.
The AF points are the “little squares” you see when you look through the viewfinder of your DSLR! So you’re going to tell me why think about these kinds of detail?
In reality, these AF points are there to focus on your subject correctly. Obviously, the more autofocus points you have, the more possibilities you will have to easily capture your subject and compose your picture the way you want it to be.
I won’t go into details, but be aware that the number of autofocus points vary greatly dependent on the camera, and the quality of those too (understand their capacity in low light to focus on your subject).
For example, my 6D has only 11 autofocus points. They are also too centered for my taste, which limits the possibilities of composition, especially for wildlife photography (even if the central focus point is very good in low light). My images would have been sometimes better with better-placed focus points.
Before choosing your camera, make sure to check the number of AF point and the quality of those. This is a very important aspect, especially for wildlife photographers, as you will need a fast auto-focus that will lock onto your subject quickly.
The new 7D Mark II camera has 65 AF points spread over almost the entire screen! A big advantage for composing the way you want to and lock onto your subjects more easily!
Very often on safari, wildlife will be on the move (and yes an animal moves in the wild!). If you want to capture beautiful scenes of hunting for example, it will be necessary to take pictures quickly. What better than a high performance burst mode on your camera for that? I am referring in particular to antelopes, buffalo and gazelles.
Try to use a camera with a fast burst mode. For example, the 6D provides 4.5 frames per second, which is still low compared to the 10 frames per second of the 7 D Mark II.
Last technical advice, if you have the money, consider using a body that manages high ISO well. Indeed, the better your camera will manage the noise, the more you will be able to raise the ISO, and thus shoot faster, without having to sacrifice the quality of the image. The 6D is perfect for that, with the possibility to take beautiful pictures at ISO 6400, which are still good qualities!
I try in this paragraph to summarize my recommendations for the choice of your equipment according to your level of photography and your budget too! I focus here mainly on telephoto lenses above 200/300mm. I also give some recommendations for the choice of a lens for landscape photography on safari. Depending on the location of your safari, imagine taking a herd in the bush, an isolated tree in the middle of the savannah or the Victoria Falls!
This information is current as of September 2017. I will try to update the list of recommended lenses when new ones are released.
If you’re a beginner in photography, and you don’t yet perfectly handle your camera, I advise you to stick to entry-level or mid-range cameras, mainly APS-C (which will remain cheaper overall). Here are my recommendations for the 2 main brands (Canon and Nikon), in order from the cheapest to the most expensive.
- At Canon : 4000 D (Beginner), 800 D or 77 D (Amateur). If you have a larger budget: 90 D (Expert)
- At Nikon : D 3500, D 5600 or D 7500 (Expert).
These bodies are all entry-level or mid-range. Once you’ve chosen a camera, you’ll have to choose a lens (or several) to place on it.
If you’re new to photography or don’t have an expandable budget, I recommend you look at small aperture telephoto lenses. Unfortunately, you may be limited by the small amount of light in some situations or by the rapidity of animals, and you will have to quickly raise the ISO to avoid blurry pictures. Very often, these lenses have small apertures, in the range of f/4-5.6 or even up to f/6.3. To get large aperture lenses (e.g. f/2.8), you will have to pay a lot more money and look at the table below.
However, here are a few selected recommendations to help you choose the right equipment for your safari (not everything is there on purpose).
Nikonists will be able to choose between two 70-300mm type lenses. One has a maximum aperture of f/6.3 (the cheapest) and the other has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, which explains the price difference. Tamron’s alternative could also be interesting being at a lower price (and stabilized).
If you are a beginner, but have a rather large budget, you can look for the camera bodies and lenses of experienced photographers (see below).
Lenses for landscape photography
On safari you won’t just take pictures of wildlife either. For small budgets (<500 €), I therefore recommend the following lenses.
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Best price|
|Canon||10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS||APS-C||f/4.5-5.6||67mm||YES||240g||Amazon|
|Nikon||10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G VR||APS-C||f/4.5-5.6||72mm||YES||231g||Amazon|
|Sigma||10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC||APS-C||f/3.5||82mm||NO||520g||Amazon|
|Tokina||11-16mm f/2.8 PRO DX-II||APS-C||f/2.8||77mm||NO||550g||Amazon|
|Tamron||10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II VC||APS-C||f/3.5-4.5||77mm||YES||440g||Amazon|
For a personal opinion on the matter, at Canon you have two possibilities of wide-angle lenses useful for landscape photography in safari. These two lenses will be helpful in everyday life anyway for landscape, architecture or street photography.
Both Canon lenses are almost similar, but I especially recommend the Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5 USM that has a larger aperture (f/3.5) and is really well known. At Nikon, this lens remains a reference in wide angle for APS-C sensor.
Finally, both Canonists and Nikonists should also, in my opinion, consider looking at two quality third-party brands: Sigma and Tokina. I owned the Tokina wide-angle lens mentioned in the table above, which is superb in every way and also has a very large f/2.8 aperture, which is rare in this price range. The Sigma remains a very good reference also with a large aperture, very often better than the Canon and Nikon. If you compare the prices, the Tokina remains in my opinion THE best reference of the table.
For more experienced photographers and/or for those with a larger budget, here are my recommended camera body and lenses, both telephoto (wildlife) and wide angle lenses (landscape photography for savannah for example).
For bodies, if you can stay on a high-end APS-C format and you have the budget, I recommend the excellent 7D Mark II with eyes closed. You can take advantage of the Canon crop x1.6 and a 300mm on this body will “become” a 450mm equivalent (24×36 format). For those who are looking for excellent ISO management on full frame, you can upgrade to the 6D Mark II or 5D Mark IV (at Canon). At Nikon, the D850 or D500 remains a reference as well.
Concerning telephoto lenses, here are a few that stand out and that will clearly be perfect for safari photography. It will cost a lot for most of them, but these are clearly quality photo lenses that you will keep for years anyway and will be able to use them in everyday life as well.
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Best price|
|Canon||70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS||FF / APS-C||f/4-5.6||67mm||YES||1,05Kg||Amazon|
|Canon||100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II||FF / APS-C||f/4.5-5.6||77mm||YES||1,64Kg||Amazon|
|Nikon||200-500mm f/5.6 AF-S VR||FF/APS-C||f/5.6||95mm||YES||2,3Kg||Amazon|
|Sigma||100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG OS||FF/APS-C||f/5-6.3||67mm||YES||1,36g||Amazon|
|Sigma||150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS||FF/APS-C||f/5-6.3||95mm||YES||1,93g||Amazon|
|Tamron||150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC G2||FF/APS-C||f/5-6.3||95mm||YES||2,01Kg||Amazon|
|Tamron||100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC||FF/APS-C||f/4.5-6.3||67mm||OUI||1,14Kg||Amazon|
Regarding the choice, you will have to decide whether to stay with Canon/Nikon or go with third party brands. I own and have personally shot during my safari with my Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM, which is perfect in my opinion. The 100-400 (last generation) is however much more expensive to reach the famous “400mm”. At Nikon, the 200-500mm remains in my opinion a very good lens for a safari, even if some may complain about a fixed f/5.6 aperture.
Third party brands also have some nice lenses that are perfect for a safari. I am thinking in particular of the Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM, particularly well known, or the Tamron 150-600mm also quite well known. This way you get a 600mm at “lower cost” compared to what you would have to pay for a native brand. On an APS-C sensor, these telephoto lenses will be impressive, offering access to very long focal lengths. Because of the lack of light, you will often have to raise the ISO at sunrise/sunset, and the importance of having a body that manages high ISOs will then be important.
Lenses for landscape photography
For landscape photography, there is also a choice. I personally had the Tokina 11-16mm at the time being in APS-C. So be careful with your body (FF or APS-C). The lenses recommended below are for FF cameras. For a nice APS-C lens, check the table above (Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 or Canon 10-22 mm f/3.5-4.5).
|Brand||Model||Body||Max. aperture||Filter||Stab.||Weight||Best price|
|Canon||17-40mm f/4||FF / APS-C||f/4||77m||NO||475g||Amazon|
|Canon||16-35mm f/2.8L III||FF / APS-C||f/2.8||82mm||NON||790g||Amazon|
|Canon||16-35mm f/4L IS||FF / APS-C||f/4||77mm||YES||615g||Amazon|
|Canon||24mm f/2.8 IS USM||FF / APS-C||f/2.8||58mm||YES||280g||Amazon|
|Tamron||15-30mm f/2.8 G2||FF / APS-C||f/2.8||77mm||YES||1110g||Amazon|
|Nikon||14-24mm f/2.8G||FF / APS-C||f/2.8||77mm||NO||1000g||Amazon|
|Nikon||16-35mm f/4G VR||FF / APS-C||f/4||77mm||YES||680g||Amazon|
|Nikon||20mm f/1.8G||FF / APS-C||f/1.8||77mm||NO||355g||Amazon|
|Sigma||14-24mm f/2.8 DG||FF / APS-C||f/2.8||-||NO||1150g||Amazon|
|Sigma||14mm f/1.8 DG||FF / APS-C||f/1.8||-||NO||1170g||Amazon|
To tell you a few words about it, it is essentially about quality lenses, both in native brands (Canon/Nikon) and third party brands (Sigma/Tamron). Please note in the table that some of these lenses can’t accommodate conventional screw-on filters, because of their curved front element. I personally bought the Canon 16-35mm f/4 during the summer 2019, which I find perfect and which allows the use of standard filters. The equivalent at Nikon (16-35mm f/4G VR) remains in the same idea, a nice lens with a wide viewing angle, relatively “light” and which allows the use of a simple CPL filter for example.
You’re wondering what equipment I used on my safari? Below is the list of my partner’s and my own photography equipment.
For your information, the results at almost identical (APS-C with a 200 mm equal (more or less) to Full Frame at 300 mm.
I didn’t write a specific article on safari equipment, but I could consider it. At the very least, ask yourself the question if it is relevant for you to bring:
- A pair of binoculars (to see wildlife),
- Lightweight shirts and long-sleeved shirt for the evening (it can get chilly in the evening),
- Mosquito repellent,
- A good pair of sunglasses.
Here, I hope this article on how to choose your safari gear will help you. In any case, don’t hesitate to leave me comments at the bottom of the article if you have specific questions! Do you want to know which camera to choose to travel?
If you liked the article or if you know someone going on safari soon, don’t hesitate to share it on your social media! Do you feel ready to bring back the most beautiful pictures of the group! My pictures may not be perfect and may not be as good as those of a professional photographer. The most important thing is also to enjoy and try to immortalize your trip in the best possible way.
To learn more on the subject, I invite you to read my guide/advice to choose your lens for wildlife photography.
See you soon,