tree at sunset

Choosing the right lenses for your safari. Updated

Way back in 2018 we put up a post entitled “Choosing the right lenses for your safari”

Even now, after 5 years and some amazing advances in camera technology, it is still the post that draws the most comments so we thought that it would be a good idea to revisit this subject.

Probably one of the most frequent questions we get asked by clients is “What lenses should I take on safari?”

This question is not limited to first timers either; because the equipment you need to take depends very much on where you are going and what the conditions will be like. Photographing lions on the plains of Masai Mara requires a different approach to photographing gorillas in the rainforests of Congo or Uganda, and photographing birds is very different to photographing elephants.
So how do you make the right selection?

Of course there is an assumption being made here; that you have a variety of equipment to choose from. The dilemma of having more equipment that you need or want to carry on any one safari is perhaps one that applies only to those DSLR users with a selection of lenses and accessories.
If you’re an enthusiast who prefers the convenience of a bridge camera then life is much simpler

Bridge Cameras

Let me say right away that there is no intention here to heap scorn on bridge cameras. The convenience of having a zoom lens that covers the range from 24mm to 1400mm cannot be overstated.
How many times have those of us lugging a 15kg backpack full of gear looked enviously at compact cameras that have it all covered.

The 2 standout bridge cameras at the moment are the Sony RX10iv and the Nikon Coolpix P950 or P1000. Both can shoot RAW.

The Sony has a range from 28-600mm, the Nikon P950 covers 24-2000mm and the P1000 24-3000mm. If you want the ultimate on longe range shooting then one of the Nikon Coolpix is hard to beat. If you are happy with a more modest zoom range but want the best image quality a bridge camera can offer, then it has to be the Sony.

Of course bridge cameras do have some limitations:

  • a smaller sensor size means that the performance in poor light conditions is, for the most part, not outstanding

  • because every function is battery operated, battery life can be short so you’ll need to carry several spares.

But in good sunny conditions almost all modern bridge cameras are capable of producing fine images and if the images are going to be used mainly for posting online, the quality is absolutely fine.

Cape Robin Chat - Sony RX10iv

DSLR & Mirrorless

But, for all the convenience of a bridge camera, most serious photographers prefer the versatility of a DSLR. (Digital Single Lens Reflex). In recent years many photographers are choosing to use Mirrorless cameras rather than DSLRs.

Both DSLR and Mirrorless cameras use interchangeable lenses, in many cases they can use the same lenses, but there are significant differences. This article will help you understand them.

For the purposes of this post, as it is mainly lenses we’re talking about, we’ll not spend time arguing the merits of one versus the other; they do the same job.

lappet faced vulture
Lappet-faced Vulture

Why DSLR or mirrorless?
Versatility and image quality. Simple as that.
The ability to pick the lens that is right for the task in hand is a big plus. Although the lens on a bridge camera covers a huge focal range, there are inevitably some trade-offs to achieve that.

Their compact size usually means a smaller sensor which impacts on the camera’s ability to perform in poor light conditions and on your ability to maximise your image size.

Using a DSLR you are looking through the actual lens at your subject; bridge and compact cameras use an electronic viewfinder (EVF). They used to be pretty awful, but now they are very good indeed, however it does mean that you are not seeing the true image. Mirrorless cameras also use an EVF, but they are exceptionally good and have one advantage over the Through The Lens view of a DSLR that many people love.

Although with a DSLR you can see exactly what you are shooting, you do not know, without checking the display, whether or not you have the right exposure. You can see the settings you have applied, but not how they affect your shot. With the EVF on a Mirrorless camera the image you see takes all your settings into account and shows you how the final image will look. With a Mirrorless it is almost impossible to over or underexpose your shot.

leopard

So, on the assumption that you’re using a DSLR or Mirrorless and want to cover all eventualities, what should you take?

In practical terms, you should be able to manage with 3 lenses, maybe just 2. Any more than that and not only does weight become an issue but you’ll waste too much time faffing about changing lenses or deciding which one to use.

If you can cover focal lengths from about 20mm to 400mm you won’t miss out on much. If you like photographing birds then you may want to stretch out that longer length to 500mm or 600mm.

Cheetah in a tree

70-200mm zoom

One of the most popular lenses, for both professionals and enthusiasts is a 70-200mm zoom. The 70-200mm lens is a flagship lens for companies like Nikon and Canon; consequently they are very well built and capable of terrific results.
No disrespect intended to users of Sony, Fujifilm or OM System; I am sure they are able to offer lenses of comparable focal lengths to those I am suggesting.

So, this is the lens we’d put at the heart of our selection and one that will probably be on your camera for a large part of your safari.

A lot of people think that shooting wildlife requires really long lenses; usually it doesn’t. What is does require is flexible lenses, and the 70-200mm is one of the most flexible.

A lot of people are surprised by just how close you can get to large animals like lions, leopards and elephants.

Far better to use a slightly shorter focal length than you need and then crop, than have too long a focal length and not be able to get your whole subject in the frame. Think ahead, don’t find yourself needing to change lenses when you should be taking photographs.

The other big advantage of the 70-200mm lens is that it is relatively fast; either f2.8 or f4. That is a big help in situations where the light is poor. A lot of animals only become active in the late afternoon and with the sun going down fast, the light deteriorates quickly. If you want to keep shooting, you’ll need to be able to open up the aperture and increase the ISO just to allow you a reasonably fast shutter speed. In areas where there are a lot of trees or dense bush, your subject may not be out in the open. A good example of this is mountain gorillas. In the rainforest there is likely to be a lot of shade and it could be raining; even with a wide aperture you will probably still need an ISO setting of 1600 or more. In fact, if you are trekking to photograph gorillas we’d recommend a shorter zoom, perhaps 28-120mm; most people are able to get much closer than they expected.

OK, so we’ve got one lens sorted, but 70mm is not wide enough for a lot of situations and 200mm is not long enough for subjects like birds.

black rhino

Wider

One of the things that makes Africa such a special place for photography is its size. For many, one of the iconic images of Africa is the plains of the Masai Mara teeming with animals. To capture this kind of scene you need to be able to shoot wide. It’s not a close up of one animal you’re after, but the sheer spectacle of animals as far as the eye can see.

Having a good wide angle lens is also invaluable when the action is really close, or if you can’t get enough distance from your subject.

Once again a zoom lens works well. Something like a 24-70mm fits neatly with the 70-200mm.

For a bit more versatility you could opt for an 28-120mm lens. This gives you a bit of overlap and means that you won’t need to change lenses quite so often.

Either one of these will serve you well when you are close to the big mammals; whether it is gorillas in the forest or elephants at a waterhole.

lionesses & cubs

Longer

One of the favourite lenses for professional wildlife photographers is the 400mm. But buying one of these beauties is expensive and out of the reach of many amateurs and enthusiasts. Fear not though, there are other ways of getting this focal length.

One of the simplest is to use an 100-400mm zoom lens. These lenses are also highly rated and cover a very useful range. In fact, if you have one of these, you could leave the 70-200mm at home.
The big drawback of this lens though, is its weight. It weighs over 1.5kg. Not a problem if you’re able to support it somehow, but it becomes heavy quite quickly if you’re hand holding.

Nikon offer a 18-300mm lens for around £650. It is not the most robust construction but it is light, easy to use and delivers excellent images.

An alternative, but less flexible, option is to take a 300mm lens and a tele-converter or multiplier.
The advantage of a 300mm prime lens is that it is very light and easy to hand hold. The addition of a 1.4x or 2x tele-converter will turn it into a 420mm or 600mm lens, for very little extra weight. It does mean a bit of faffing around though, usually at a time when you really don’t want to be faffing around.

Super zoom

If weight is not an issue, then there are some very good ‘super zoom’ lenses available, with a focal length of 150-600mm. Third party lens makers Tamron and Sigma both have highly rated 150-600mm lenses. They are light enough (around 2kg) to hand hold for short periods, have built in vibration reduction and come in just under £1,000.

Sigma even have a 60-600mm zoom that would cover just about every situation you might come across for around £1,700 and Tamron have a 18-400mm for around £700.


Nikon users may prefer to stick with the brand and choose their 200-500mm zoom, which is just over £1,000 and delivers incredible images for the price.
If bird photography is your thing, then these are well worth considering, but make sure you get plenty of practice before you go the longer the lens the more vulnerable it is to camera shake, resulting in unsharp images.

secretary bird head shot

Summary

Please note, that these are just suggestions for a selection of lenses that will cover most situations; take these lenses and you won’t miss out on many shots. They are not by any means the only options and specific situations may benefit from different choices.

If you take just 2 lenses and are also able to take 2 bodies, then you can go through your whole safari without needing to change lens.

With 3 lenses you should put the lens you will use the most on the body you like best with the second most used lens on the other body. You will only need to change to the 3rd lens in exceptional situations

Think carefully before you buy new lenses

Don’t feel that you must rush out to buy a new lens just for your safari. Think about your ongoing photography needs; how much will you use it when your safari is over? Far better to buy lenses that you’ll use on an everyday basis; even with a relatively short zoom lens, like an 28-120mm, you’ll still get plenty of great shots on safari.

It is also worth mentioning that you can get some excellent lenses at terrific prices by buying second hand.  You should always buy the best lens you can afford; if you buy a cheap lens it is quite probably you won’t like the results and will want to upgrade it before too long.

Buying a lens online at the cheapest price sounds appealing but you won’t know what you’re getting until it arrives. Wherever possible we recommend that you visit your nearest photographic dealer and try the lens on your camera body to see how it feels. Take a few sample shots as well.

What else?

Well, 2 bodies are better than 1. Just the ability to have 2 lenses of different focal lengths mounted and ready to go is a big help. It also means that in the unlikely event of camera failure, you have backup.

Peripherals

Some kind of support is useful to have. Whether it is a tripod, monopod or something as simple as a bean bag, anything that helps keep your camera steady will make it easier to get sharper images.

Don’t forget spare batteries and memory cards.

14 Comments

    1. Hi Jesus,

      If you want to stick with Nikon Z lenses then the choice – for me at least – is an easy one if this safari is the only consideration.

      I would take 2 lenses:
      Nikon Z 24-120mm f4 S
      Nikon Z 180-600mm f5.6-6.3 VR

      These 2 lenses will cover just about every possible situation.

      cheers
      Martin

      1. I’m going to Volcanoes National Park to see the gorillas, I’m going to the Masai Mara and Okavango Delta. I would also like to use these glasses for my next trips to any city or adventure. Do you think that those two lenses you suggest are still the best option? Or would you recommend something else?

        Thank you.

        1. Hello,

          For your visit to Volcanoes NP you will probably mostly use the 24-120mm lens. You will be in forest, often with low light, and will be close to the gorillas.
          In Masai Mara & Okavango you will find that lens is ideal for shooting herds of animals or large mammals like elephants or giraffe and other mammals when you are close.
          The 180-600mm lens will be great for shots of more distant animals and also for birds.

          Looking ahead, these lenses will serve you well for just about any wildlife adventure.
          For other trips and visits to cities or cultural sites the 24-120mm should cover most eventualities.

          Over time, if you find that there are shots you are missing because you don’t have the right focal length or if you find yourself using one particular focal length most of the time you can consider buying a fixed focal length (prime) lens of the appropriate length.

          Martin

  1. Hi,

    Great Article. I’m planning to visit Masai Mara, Lake Naivasha & Amboseli National Park. I own Sony A7III plus 24-105 lens. I was thinking about renting a 100-400 or 200-600. But 200-600 seems to be very heavy. I’ll be able to carry only one lens. In that case which one should I choose for this trip – 24-105, 100-400 or 200-600?

    Kris

    1. Hi Kris,

      Just being able to carry 1 lens is a bit of a dilemma, however I think your best option will be to take the equipment you already own.
      I have done safaris with just a compact camera (24-120mm lens) and got plenty of great shots. You may be surprised just how close you can get to the wildlife. There are also loads of people who take just their cell phone.

      In Amboseli you will probably want to take some landscape shots with Mt Kilimanjaro is the background, so your 24-150mm lens would be ideal. Amboseli is also famous for its elephants, once again your 24-105mm will be ideal. When you encounter big cats, as I am sure you will, if your guide is any good you should be able to get pretty close, so no need for a really long lens.

      You didn’t say when you’ll be travelling, but if you are visiting Masai Mara for the wildebeest migration then you’ll be taking lots of shots of herds, 24-105mm again.

      Lake Naivasha is the place where you would benefit most from a longer lens as the wildlife there is mostly birds & hippos; no problem for the hippos but 105mm is a bit short for birds.
      However, I assume that you can crop your sensor – most full frame cameras can do this – in which case you will increase your focal length to just over 155mm.

      Another possibility would be to rent the 100-400 lens and use your cellphone for the wider shots, although you may prefer not to do this.

      cheers

      Martin

  2. I’m upgrading from a canon 80d 18-135 & 55-250 to a (planned) sony a7rv or a7cr for my once in a lifetime safari to Kenya/Tanzania.
    The lens I’m planning to pick are 24-70 gm2 and 70-200 gm2. Is it worth saving for/or replacing a lens for 200-600? I’ll probably only carry 1 body due to customs and weights limitation. The 12-24 gm seems a tad bit expensive and the 18-35 gm2 is a bit redundant and a direct competition to the 24-70.

    1. Hi Ankit,

      It really comes down to what you want to take photographs of and what you will be shooting most in years ahead.
      If I assume you have decided to go for the G Master lenses ( Sony’ most expensive) rather than the significantly cheaper models, personally I would rather have the FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 OSS G Master in place of the 70-200mm. Combined with the 24-70mm lens it will cover almost all of your needs and 100-400mm is a very useable length for day to day use, even when not on safari.
      I do like the 200-600mm but it leave quite a gap between the 70mm of your shorter lens and the 200mm starting focal length of the longer one.

      Martin

  3. I have a Nikon Z8 and Zf. I don’t have the best lenses, but I have good lenses. 14-30 f4, 24-200, 100-400 (and 1.4 tc), 28-400, and 180-600. I plan to take the 24-200 on my Zf, and 180-600 on my Z8. But I’m struggling with a few decisions. First, Do I take the 180-600 or the 100-400? I’ve used the 100-400 and find it very manageable. Just got the 180-600, and I wonder if the extra reach is worth the larger size and weight. The other question is evening shots. None of these lenses are fast. Should I consider getting and bringing a faster lens just for evening? I have the 40mm f2. That would be 3 lenses to carry. Finally, is 24mm wide enough for the migration? Or should I bring the 14-30 as well – 4 lenses.

    I’m doing 4 short safaris in Kenya, 14 days, Masai Mara, Amboseli, and Tsavo east and west. Still working on dates. Maybe June, or September.

    1. Hey Will,

      It looks like you have quite a selection of lenses. My first thought is that the 180-600mm lens is an ideal lens for safari. What prompted you to buy it if you weren’t going to take it on safari?
      Yes, the 100-400mm lens is a super safari lens as well, but it does not have the reach of the 180-600mm.
      From what you’ve got my selection would be to take the 24-200mm and the 180-600mm – with these 2 you will have pretty much every possibility covered. Yes, 24mm is wide enough for the migration.
      The only caveat to that is whether or not you are interested in birds. If you are, then definitely the 180-600mm, if you are not going to be shooting birds then the 100-400mm will be fine for almost all mammals.
      As for evening shots; there is very little twilight in East Africa, the sun sets pretty quickly so taking an extra lens for evening shots may not be worth it. Both your cameras handle low light well and stabilisation means you can work with slower shutter speeds to help keep the ISO manageable.
      have a great trip
      Martin

  4. Hi Martin,

    Excellent article! I’m going on a trip to Mana Pools in November and will be bringing my Canon R5 and 5D Mark IV. I’m planning to rent an RF 400mm f/2.8 lens to use alongside my 70-200mm lens. However, I’m undecided on whether to bring my 24-105mm lens or rent an ultra-wide 15-35mm lens. The lodges I’m staying at have an underground hide, and there are walking safaris with opportunities to see elephants up close.

    What would you suggest?

    Thanks,
    Subi

    1. Hi Subi,

      Mana Pools, fabulous.

      If I were in your shoes and was going to rent a lens for my safari I would not go for a 400mm. Instead I would prefer the RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1L IS USM lens as it gives you much more flexibility. Yes it is not as fast but that should not be an issue.
      In November you should get some good sunny days but it is the start of the rainy season so there will be overcast days as well and probably rain too. If the rains have not yet arrived it will be very dusty so if you can avoid changing lenses that would be a bonus.
      At the wider end, 24mm on a full frame body should be wide enough so you could potentially travel with just 2 lenses, your 24-105mm and the rented 100-500mm.

      have a great safari

      Martin

  5. Excellent article on lenses!

    I am off on Sunday for a 2 week trip around Namibia, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund and ending up for a couple of days in Etosha doing game drives.
    As for camera equipment I intend to take a Leica Q2 28mm 1.7 for the dunes, street photography, low light etc.
    Problem I have is which camera to take for the game drives, choice of Leica CL with 18-56mm and Panasonic 70-300mm (105 – 450mm equiv) or Nikon with Z6ii and a 24-200mm (300mm in DX mode)
    CL was bought purely because of the weight saving then realised that most of the shots in the game drives will be from a truck so weight not an issue!!
    I have no idea how close the animals will be but gather that the guides know their stuff and that we could end up fairly close.
    Your thoughts on which kit to take would be much appreciated?

    1. Hi Frank,

      Lucky you. Namibia is a great destination.

      My first thought was that it would make sense to take an ‘all Leica’ bag of kit, simply so you have maximum flexibility with lenses etc and a fallback if one of your bodies has problems. Then I realised that the Q2 does not have interchangeable lenses. Doh!

      The Z6ii would be a good choice for wildlife as the animal detection works well, although as it is only 24.6 megapixels at full frame I would not be too happy cropping down to half that in DX mode.

      You have a better selection of lenses available for your Leica CL and that is already a crop sensor with 24 megapixels so that would almost certainly be my choice.

      The rainy season should be long finished by now and Etosha will be very dry and dusty. The majority of your animal sightings are likely to be around the waterholes so although you will see a lot of them, they will not be always be up close. As you drive through the park you will certainly find other animals away from the waterholes and how close you can get to them depends entirely on how close they are to the road – you are not allowed to leave the roads in Etosha.
      My suggestion would be to have the 70-300mm lens on your CL as standard as it will cover most of what you encounter.

      As mentioned, Etosha will be very dusty, in fact it is likely to be dusty everywhere so avoid changing lenses while you are on the move and only change in the vehicle if you are confident that it is dust free.

      enjoy
      Martin

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