female lions prowl around a safari vehicle in Botswana

What’s in the Bag – Africa Photo Safari

It doesn’t get much better than a quintessential African safari for wildlife photography.  Whether it’s iconic East African places like Kenya’s Masai Mara or Tanzania’s grand Serengeti National Park, or lesser known treasures like Botswana’s Okavango Delta or Namibia’s great sand dune sea, you’re in for a treat.  If you’re headed to any of these places, or others in Sub Saharan Africa, be sure to take your choice camera gear with you, as it’s going to be the photo adventure of a lifetime.

Please note, photographic styles vary, as do conditions on the ground.  While this is meant to be a guide for choosing your camera gear, you should consider your own photographic interests first and foremost.

a photo of orange soil where safari vehicles drive in Kenya

Ultra wide angle vs. wide angle

You’ve got to bring a wide angle with you, but exactly how wide, and what sort of zoom range is subject to interpretation.

To me, I want to have something that’s decently wide, but also able to zoom in for those times when I may just not need my big telephoto.  This may be helpful to compose the shot I’m seeing in my mind, or simply just to magnify the landscape or wildlife I’m focusing on.  My go to is a 24-105mm full frame equivalent.  If you’re shooting on a crop frame camera (e.g., Canon Rebels or Nikon’s 5000 or 7000 series), I stick with a trusty 18-55mm.

This is my “walking around lens” as it is usually what I start each day with, as I’m leaving my safari tent, heading to the vehicles for game drives.

However, there is indeed virtue in considering those lenses that are even wider than this, in the 16-35mm (full frame) or 10-22mm (crop frame) range.  While these have their limitations with zoom, they can yield some really interesting perspectives when in tighter shots, like those inside safari vehicles, or inside your tent or camp communal areas.  I don’t prioritize these lenses for classic wildlife shots, but they are superb for landscape and travel photography.

At the end of the day, I typically bring BOTH of these lenses, a general wide angle and a more specialized ultra wide angle, because of the amount of landscape and travel photography I’m personally into.  And as you’ll see in the rest of the list, I really only bring one other lens (a big zoom telephoto) so my kit is still pared down quite nicely.

Zoom telephoto

Without a doubt, this is the most important lens to have with you on an African wildlife photo safari.  This is what’s going to get the job done for the majority of your wildlife photos.  I’m talking here about your classic 70-300mm and 100-400mm lenses (or 40-150mm and 300mm prime for mirrorless lenses).

I would say you’re likely to have this on your camera about 60%+ of the time.

a wild dog poses in green grass in botswana's okavango delta

There is a newly emerging range of lenses, made by some of the top camera and lens manufacturers in the 150-600mm and 200-500mm ranges.  To me, these are excellent choices, as you almost never have “enough” telephoto power when on a proper nature and wildlife safari.  There will always be those shots and those times when you wish for a bit more.  Thus, having a lens that can get you to the 500mm and 600mm distances without it looking like a bazooka or requiring a second mortgage is a godsend.  The only downside of these is that you are usually stuck with an aperture in the f/6.3 range at the most telephoto, which isn’t all that stellar.  However, because the open landscapes of Africa usually have a decent amount of light, it’s not as concerning as, say, using it in the deep jungles of Borneo or the Amazon rain forest.

Personally, I stick with my trusty 100-400mm, but am considering upping the ante to a 200-500mm one of these times.

Super telephoto

This is when we get into true “pro level” lenses, and indeed those that are bazooka-esque in shape and size.  I’m talking here about your big fixed/prime lenses that give you both superior telephoto range, and extraordinary apertures.  These are your 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm lenses that give you f/2.8, or f/4.  This means that you can shoot FAST and in lower light than other lens options.

a small cheetah cub peers through the vegetation of the kalahari

However, these do have the downside of being big, heavy, and expensive.

If you don’t own one of these, I recommend you do a little homework on whether you think you want to carry around something this large, and perhaps considering renting one for your trip.  While their price tags usually are in the high four figures, or sometimes even over $10,000 per lens, you can rent one for 2-3 weeks for about $800 to $1,000.  Although this means you don’t get to keep the lens forever, you do get to keep the stunning photos it produces forever.

Simply put, these are typically the highest quality, best lenses you can bring on an African safari, but unless someone asks me specifically about these, I don’t recommend them right off the bat, as they are indeed pro-level.

A second camera body?

If this is shocking to you–to see me recommend a second camera body–don’t over think it, one camera body is fine.  It’s not necessary.  However, if you’re the kind of person already asking this question in your head—yep, I’ll recommend you go through with it and bring that second body.

The advantages are simple…you can now use two different lenses without having to spend the time changing, and therefore have more time to take more shots.  It also gives you more ability to take spur of the moment, opportunistic, fleeting photos.  For the wildlife photographer, this is a golden opportunity.  And finally, it keeps your camera sensors cleaner, because you aren’t needing to change lenses as often, opening your camera sensor up to the ever-present dust while on safari.

a large male lion walks past a safari jeep in botswana's kalahari

As with all things, there are costs to this.  For one, it’s one more thing you have to pack and account for in your size and weight restrictions, of which there are usually some while on safari.  It could mean that you have to bring one less lens, or maybe one less outfit (I typically opt for sacrificing extra clothes).

Again, though, if you don’t have a second camera body, or just plain can’t wrap your head around bringing a second one, this may not be for you.

X-factor lenses

My choice “x-factor” lens while on safari is a constantly revolving one.  At times I may recommend a “nifty fifty,” which is a 50mm f/1.4 (or similar) that gives you a unique ULTRA wide aperture for captivating travel photography.  Other times I may recommend a macro lens to use during down time at camp (flowers, small reptiles scurrying about, etc.).

However, for today, I really like the idea of the classic 70-200mm f/2.8 as my x-factor lens.  Because this is not a critical lens, I can’t quite justify it in my go-to kit.  It’s just got a semi-awkward focal range for classic wildlife safaris in Africa.  However, when you can use it (e.g., close wildlife), a 200mm focal range with f/2.8 can make for truly sensational photos.  It gives you that awesome blurred background, aka bokeh, that so many professional photos inherently have.  It also gives you the flexibility to photograph in low light conditions—dawn and dusk.

a photographer gets a close look at wild dogs in botswana

It’s a bigger lens, so it’s a costly x-factor lens to bring, but there are some considerable merits to having a telephoto with f/2.8 capabilities anytime you’re photographing wildlife.

Flash

I don’t personally recommend bringing a flash, as there just aren’t that many times you’ll use it.  You won’t want to use it on wildlife game drives, as it can startle wildlife.  Thus, it’s primarily for camp photography and people photography, and personally I ALWAYS go for natural light when I can.

Tripods or camera support systems

I get this question a lot.  Should I bring something to brace my lens on, or stabilize my camera while in a safari vehicle?   It makes sense, as you are indeed using bigger lenses and in vehicles that can be quite bouncy.  Plus, there are MANY products on the market aimed to convince you that you need one of these.  To me, however, they’re not really that necessary.

I personally find that anything attached to my camera, especially some sort of retractable arm, or tripod leg, is just one more thing to get in the way.  I aim to go hand held as much as possible.  At times, I’ll wrap a bandana or t-shirt around my lens so I can rest it on a metal seat post or cushion head rest, but that’s about it.  I’ve seen folks use a simple monopod just to provide a bit of support when using a BIG lens all day, but that’s about all I’d recommend.  These fancy gadgets like retractable spring-loaded arms that connect to safari doors, or fancy gimbal heads with base platforms just seem to be overkill, and likely will get in the way of a perfect shot or two over the course of your trip.

However, if you have a favorite technique, please do share in the comments below!

Other accessories

It goes without saying that you ought to pack a couple spare batteries and a couple extra memory cards.  Some camps will require that you charge batteries overnight in a communal area, so having extras is nice.  And do plan on shooting 500+ photos a day, so plan to bring many gigabytes of memory.

lighting is perfect on two species of african plains game in kenya

You also may consider bringing some camera protection, especially if you are traveling to Africa in the dry months of June through October.  There tends to be a bit more dust in the air.  My go-to is a simple storm shield, which is like a rain jacket  for your camera.  Not only do these help shield your camera from dust, but if  it’s really pouring rain, and you plan on shooting in those conditions, you’ve got yourself some nice water and weather protection, too.

If you’re headed to Africa on a photo safari, lucky you!  If you are dreaming of going one day, it’s never to early to start doing your homework on the best outfitters, as the choice companies often fill up a year or two in advance.  Plus, you just have all that more extra time to look forward to the trip of an absolute lifetime!

Cheers, and enjoy,

Court Whelan Signature

Court