As we got ready for our first safari, figuring out the photography equipment was a real challenge. With no previous safari experience, how do you know what to bring? If you forget something or break or lose something, there’s no nearby camera store.
Here are my thoughts, the equipment we took, and what we used and didn’t use.
Regarding camera gear, it’s highly individual.
- The best camera is the one you have and that you know how to use. If you buy a new camera or lens for the safari, practice at home so you know how to use it. Animals and sunlight won’t hold still for you to read the manual. For some of our most interesting photos (running cheetah, mating lions), I only had time to compose and shoot one photo, so you need enough practice to be able to work quickly.
- The best camera/lens depends on the individual. After your safari, a photo acts as a memento or souvenir to better recall memories and experiences of the safari. How vivid or detailed does the photo have to be for you to do this?
- How much interest and experience in photography do you have or want to have? Cameras can get expensive and complicated, so you’ll need money, interest, and time to learn how to use the camera and lens. Be realistic, and let this moderate your expectations of how good photos have to be.
- If you take a long telephoto lens, take a second body or another camera with a normal lens. Sometimes there isn’t time to change lenses. Also, you want a backup in case one camera is lost or damaged.
As for my situation, I like photography and want to improve, and there’s certainly a budget. A safari is expensive. We didn’t know if we’d go on another safari. I had a 4-year-old DSLR Canon 40D with lenses that top out at 200 mm. I used the 40D camera body and purchased a longer telephoto zoom lens.
Here’s the equipment I took and what I used.
- Canon 40D DSLR. I know how to use my 40D, an advantage. On the other hand, there were shots with low light when I needed the more sensitive sensor of a more recent model. I decided to use the 40D for the safari and wait to purchase the new model replacing the 7D.
- Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. I took this general-purpose lens but used it for less than 10% of the photos. Most useful for photographing people.
- Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens. A very popular lens for serious wildlife. Used this lens almost all the time. Unless the animal is close to your safari vehicle, most photos were at 300 – 400 mm, so buying a 400 mm telephoto lens was right. With the APS-C camera body, the effective focal length tops out at 640 mm. I bought the telephoto lens for the safari, and I was pleased with the safari photos. Before the safari, I practiced in my backyard. It took several rounds of taking pictures and examining the photos to figure out how to take a picture that’s reasonably sharp and in focus. This lens is slow, so a camera body with a faster ISO than the 40D would have helped for the low light of dawn and dusk.
- Canon EF 1.4x II Extender. I had this and brought it. I used it twice, for distant stationary animals — tree-climbing lions and shy klipspringers that usually ran away. It worked for the lions but not the klipspringers. For the klipspringer photos, the autofocus didn’t function (light was too low, apparently), and those photos weren’t in focus. 😦 It’s small so I’d bring it again, practicing with low light first.
- Monopod and monopod head. Purchased for riding in open vehicles on safari or for bush walks, I didn’t use them. The camera and telephoto lens are heavy, about 5 pounds, but I was able to support the lens on the vehicle or hand-hold it on bush walks.
- Canon S100 camera. A point and shoot that we purchased a month before the safari. We learned how to use it in a few scene settings. Better performance in low light that the 40D. This worked best for landscapes, low light, or animals close to the vehicle. The GPS tells you where you were. Taking a video using these small cameras is very difficult — you have to hold the camera steady for as long as you’re taking the video.
- Charger and spare batteries for cameras. Used all the time.
- Laptop with Lightroom and memory card reader. I downloaded photos to the laptop daily, to make a second copy of the photos and to review the photos. My laptop is old and heavy, but I felt better taking an old laptop on a safari than a brand new one. With Lightroom you can select and reject photos, zoom in to check the sharpness of a photo, and rate photos. Other software packages do this too. I bring a laptop on all long trips.
In summary, I’d bring everything again, except for the monopod and head. In the future, I plan to replace the camera body and laptop with newer models. The more sensitive sensor on the newer camera body will help mitigate the slower speed of the zoom lens, and this would be good enough for me.