Choosing the right lenses for your safari

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.

Nikon B700 & Canon SX60 HS
A camera backpack loaded with bodies & lenses, approx 12-15kg
Luckily it fits in the overhead locker on most planes.

Bridge Cameras

Let me say right away that there is no intention 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 those compact cameras that have it all covered.

If you think a bridge camera might be right for you, then the Canon Powershot SX60 HS and the Nikon Coolpix B700 are two good ones. Of course there are lots of others but these two go pretty much head to head on features. You can read more about them by checking out some of the reviews here:

Even with a bag full of lenses most DSLR users will not be carrying a lens that reaches to 1400mm. The sheer weight of such a collection of lenses makes it impractical.

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 great
  • ISO is often limited to a maximum of 3200
  • on a lot of them the smallest aperture is restricted to f8
  • because every function is battery operated, battery life can be short

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.


But, for all the convenience of a bridge camera, most serious photographers prefer the versatility of a DSLR. (Digital Single Lens Reflex)

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 (see below) which impacts on the camera’s ability to perform in poor light conditions.

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.

So, on the assumption that you’re using a DSLR 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.

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.

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.

This shot was taken with a 70-200mm lens at 145mm.
Taken with 70-200mm lens at 80mm

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.

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.

Taken with 18-140mm lens at 50mm

Wide angle

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.

Taken with 18-140mm lens at 34mm

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 an 18-70mm fits neatly with the 70-200mm.

For a bit more versatility you could opt for an 18-140mm lens. This gives you a bit of overlap and means that you won’t need to change lenses quite so often.

Don’t forget that if you are using a crop sensor camera, your 18mm is actually 27mm.  For really wide angle shots, like sky at night photos, or landscapes you may wish to take a dedicated wide angle lens.


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 80-400mm or 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.

Costing over £1,200, the 80-400mm lens is still not cheap, but it is a fraction of price of the 400mm prime lens which comes in at a whopping £10,000.

300mm telephoto
300mm telephoto + 1.4x tc

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.

A lighter, 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.

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.
Nikon users may prefer to stick with the brand and choose their 200-500mm zoom, which is just over £1,000.
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.

3 lenses

  • 18-70mm or 18-140mm
  • 70-200mm
  • 100-400mm or 300mm + tele-converters

2 lenses

  • 18-140mm
  • 100-400mm or 150-600mm

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 18-140mm, 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.

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.


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.

Full Frame vs. Crop Frame

This is a whole subject on it’s own, but it does have a direct bearing on how the lenses you choose will perform, so it’s worth going into briefly. 

DSLR manufacturers like Nikon and Canon manufacture cameras with different sized sensors.
At the top of their ranges are the cameras that have a full frame sensor, this means the sensor if 35mm x 24mm, the same proportions as a 35mm film camera. Crop frame cameras have a smaller sensor.

In very simplistic terms, the focal length of a lens refers to its focal length when attached to a full frame camera. A 200mm lens on a full frame DSLR will have the same reach as a 200mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

When the lens is attached to a crop frame DSLR, the focal length is multiplied by 1.5x. So a 200mm lens effectively becomes a 300mm lens.
To put it another way; For a full frame DSLR to achieve the same reach as a crop frame camera fitted with a 200mm lens, you would need to attach a 300mm lens.

For this reason, lot of wildlife photographers like to work with crop frame cameras. Even though, in theory, their resolution is not as good as a full frame camera they can get more reach from their lenses and have less weight to carry.

The down side of this is that, at the wide angle end, the lenses are not as wide; and an 18mm lens becomes a 27mm lens.

Further reading….

If you want to know more detail about sensor sizes then this is a good article to read

If you want more information on the differences between full frame and crop frame cameras, then this article is good.

If you want to know which are the best full frame DSLRs currently available this might be useful

and if you just want a list of some of the best DSLR cameras available at the moment – full and crop frame, then this might help


  1. Nice article Martin with some good advice. One thing you don’t mention though is heat haze and the effects on an image . On safari trips in particularly it must often come in to play and a long telephoto lens or big zoom is of no advantage whatsoever. You need to get as close to the subject as possible to minimise the distortion.

  2. Too true Dave. There is no substitute for getting up close.
    The heat haze you mention is at its worst during the dry season when there is a lot of dust in the air. Trying to get a clean crisp image can be a challenge.
    The long lenses do still have their uses though, in particular when photographing birds, which can be quite close in distance but still small in the viewfinder.

  3. This is a very good review. One factor that I am pondering as I plan a September safari to Kenya and Tanzania, however, is dust, which can easily get into zoom lenses as one zooms out and back in repeatedly. Some lenses, such as the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. zoom, are pretty well dust-sealed, whereas a lens that is its equal optically, the Nikon 200-500mm, is not. I am wondering how important it is to consider weather and dust sealing in considering what lens(es) to bring.

    1. A very good point Douglas.
      I have not worked with the Sigma 150-600mm lens, although I have got an older Sigma lens, 120-400mm which continues to perform very well.
      I bought my Nikkor 200-500mm lens in Feb 2018 for a trip to Ladakh as I needed a bit more focal length.
      Since then I have used it in India, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe in some pretty dusty conditions and, so far, I have encountered no issues due to dust.
      If conditions are dusty I will generally cover my camera and lens with a scarf while it is sitting on my lap and then, when I am back in camp, I wipe them down with a slightly damp cloth to remove as much dust as possible.

      I have found the Nikkor 200-500mm lens to be superb and it is rarely off my camera these days.
      One thing to consider if you are choosing between the Nikkor and the Sigma is that the zoom ring on the Sigma works in the opposite direction to the Nikkor. It is only a small thing, but I find it a bit of a pain.

  4. Any thought on the Tamron 18-400mm for a Tanzania safari? Would the image quality suffer compared to something like the Tamron 100-400mm? I love the focal range but worry that maybe the images won’t be sharp. I don’t have a huge budget and am trying to decide b/w the 2 above mentioned lenses. I have a crop sensor Canon 77d. I also own a 10-18mm canon lens a 50mm canon lens, and the 55-250mm canon.
    Any advice appreciated.

    1. Hi Mike,
      From the reviews I have read, the image quality from the Tamron 18-400 is not great.
      You mention that you are trying to decide between the 18-400 & the 100-400, yet you already have a Canon 55-250mm lens. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go for a lens that does not overlap so much with what you’ve already got?
      Both Tamron & Sigma make very good 150-600mm lenses. They are pretty much on a par with each other in terms of image quality but for ease of use the Sigma is more closely aligned to Canon as the zoom & focusing rings operate in the same direction.
      Price wise they are very reasonable. At the moment the Sigma costs just £100 more than the 18-400mm Tamron.

  5. I have a Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR. Any thoughts or recommendations?
    I was thinking of trading it for the 70-300mm at least (80-400mm is very expensive), but I am not sure it will be worth or if I should just use the one have (55-200) to take any descent picture during the safari.

    I will really appreciate any recommendation.

    1. Hi,

      It is certainly true that using a DX camera, the 70-300mm lens will add 150mm to your reach. The 70-300mm is fine lens and if I was starting from scratch, I would probably choose it in preference to the 55-200mm.

      I guess the most important thing to consider is exactly what you will be photographing. For most wildlife, other than birds, a 200mm lens is long enough to get good results. And, in truth, if you are hoping to photograph birds then you will probably want a longer lens than 300mm.

      Probably a more sensible option would be to try and find a lens that can be combined with your existing lens to give a much wider focal range, like a 100-400mm lens (like the Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD) or a 150-600mm (like the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C) lens.
      I appreciate that these are a more expensive option than the 70-300mm, but they will serve you better in the long run and you can probably find some great bargains if you are happy to buy a previously owned one.

      I hope this helps,


  6. I have a similar combination of 3 lenses I plan on to take on safari to use on a Nikon Z7, specifically 24-70mm F4, 70-200mm F4, and 200-500mm F5.6. In retrospect I feel like I probably should have gotten the 80-400mm F4-5.6. Now I think the only way I can be prepared is to have a second camera body otherwise I’m unlikely to have the right focal length at the right time. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Kenneth,
      Whilst it would definitely be advantageous to have a second body, it will not necessarily be a problem.
      The 70-200mm is likely to be adequate for the majority of your needs when it comes to photographing mammals. I find that I use the 200-500 almost exclusively for birds.
      Are your lenses dedicated lenses for the Nikon z (mirrorless) cameras, or can they be used with other Nikon DSLRs?
      If they can be used with standard DSLRs then it might be possible to pick up a second body petty cheaply. A second hand D7100 or similar is pretty affordable.

  7. Thanks for the post Martin – its really helpful.
    I am in some dilemma here. I own a 5dIV and 400 f4Do II lens (plus TCs) and17-40L). i am planning to get another body and lens.
    What do you suggest: Canon 100-400L II or 70-200 II


    1. Hi Subham,
      That is a difficult one to answer as I don’t know what you plan to photograph.
      Looking at what you already own, I would suggest that the 70-200 will probably be more useful as you already have a good 400mm lens. It will give you a much wider overall choice of focal lengths.


  8. Hi I am travelling to SA this summer. I have a Tamron 18-300, but am considering buying the Nikon 200-500. Do you think I will need this lens. It is very heavy so a bit worried about using in a safari vehicle. We are visiting a private reserve and Kruger.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      If your interest is mainly mammals then your existing lens will be fine. if you plan to photograph the magnificent bird-life in Kruger and elsewhere, then the 200-500 is ideal for that.
      As you said, it is heavy, but it is a great lens. In fact I take 90% of my photos with this lens.


  9. Very helpful. I’m going in December and was curious if Astro Photography is worth bringing something really wide?

    1. Steve,

      If you are going somewhere that will be free of light pollution at night then astro photography can be very rewarding. You’ll need a wide angle lens and a tripod.
      Also, although most people tend to think of telephoto lenses when they are going on safari, a wide angle lens can bring in some great shots, particularly if you are able to spend some time in a hide that is visited by elephants.

  10. Hi I’m off on safari in Kenya this May, covid permitting. I have a lumix g7 with several lenses the biggest being the 300mm. I also have a nikon d500 with a sigma 600mm contemporary and a smaller lens. I like to take 2 cameras. Would a converter on the lumix give a quality result as the 600mm sigma

    1. Hi Jacqui,

      To be honest, I have never used a Lumix G7, though I have heard very good reports.
      I assume you mean the Sigma 150mm – 600mm Contemporary.
      My immediate thought would be that the 300mm lens plus tc would not give the same quality as your Nikon D500 with the Sigma lens.


  11. Hi great write up. V Informative , so here we have it… another tech gear Q for this thread, Tanzania safari booked Sept 2021, Canon eos 70D…. but no telephoto yet but considering Canon EF 100-400 USM IS II , maybe with a 1.5 converter , 4 general shots, elephants, big cats etc What’s your thoughts? Ty! So many zoom lenses on the market!!!

    1. Lawrence,

      It is not unusual to think that you’re going to need a long lens for a wildlife safari. They are certainly great to bring with you, but often great shots are possible with a much shorter focal length.

      For a wildlife safari the lens that gets used the most is either a 55-250 (like the (Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM) or a 70 -300mm (Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM) neither of these are the fastest with a maximum aperture of f4.5, but they are both excellent lenses at VERY reasonable prices.
      Another super lens is the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM. This one is a bit more expensive, but does have a maximum aperture of f2.8.

      Unless one of your primary subjects is birds, you will find that 300mm is plenty.
      The EF100-400 EF is a super lens and would also cover most of your needs on a wildlife safari; most but not all. There will still be occasions when you need a wider angle than 100mm. One of the most memorable things about a wildlife safari in East Africa is the vast expanses of grassland teeming with animals.

      It is also important to bear in mind what sort of subjects you’ll be photographing when you re not on safari. If you are just carrying your camera around looking for general subjects then you might find the 100-400 starts to get a bit heavy.

      One of the most popular lenses for day to day use is the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM. This is a great little lens for street photography and indoor use.

      If you are set on the EF100-400 EF then perhaps the best pairing would be the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS.


    2. Lawrence – What did you decide to take? I’m off to the Serengeti next month and wanted to bring the right lense.

  12. Hi Martin,

    Major camera novice here! I really enjoyed your post, but am still unsure where to start.

    I have a Nikon D5000 with a 55-200 and 18-55 (both standard that came with it) and now I also have the Sony Alpha 6000 with only the 16-50 that came with it. I’m leaning towards taking my Sony on the safari over the Nikon, but I’m not sure what the one (or two) must-have lenses would be. I’ll be doing a lot of game drives and am mostly interested in mammals over birds.

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      I confess that I am not familiar with the Sony Alpha 6000, although from what I have read it is a fine camera.

      Both the Sony and the Nikon D5000 are fairly old models as far as digital cameras go so I would not rush out to buy new lenses for either of them unless you know that you will be continuing to use them for some time.
      If you have any plans to upgrade your equipment I would first look at what lenses might be compatible with the cameras you have now AND whatever you upgrade to. No point investing in a new lens that you will soon no longer need.

      An ideal lens, that would work well alongside your Nikon 18-55mm lens is the AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR. These 2 lenses would be pretty much all you need for a safari where you are not after birds.
      This lens has been around for quite a while now and is very reasonably priced. The downside of buying this lens is that there is considerable overlap between this and your existing 55-200mm lens.

      I’m curious, if you already owned the Nikon D5000, what prompted you to buy the Sony A 6000?

  13. Thank you for the article. Wondering if you have any new suggestions for the Serengeti in June with a Canon DSLR. Thanks.

    1. Kristin,

      Thanks for making contact.
      I think the advice I gave to Lawrence probably applies just as well to your safari.
      At the 2 ends of the lens spectrum; if you are keen on bird photography – an Serengeti is a great place for that – then a 500mm lens is good. Alternatively if you have already invested in the 100-400mm zoom it will do just fine. You might consider adding a 1.4x extender / teleconverter for a bit of extra reach.
      At the other end of the scale, the Serengeti is a vast space and a wide angle lens allows you to capture that. You’ll also need one for a decent photo of Ngorongoro Crater or if you manage to get close to elephants.

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