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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.