Best Photography Equipment for an Africa Safari

 
 Young female Leopard in Timbavati, South Africa | Handheld Canon 1Dx | Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (at f/2.8 and at 105mm) | ISO 400 | 1/125th sec | Image © Andrew Sproule Photography

Young female Leopard in Timbavati, South Africa | Handheld Canon 1Dx | Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 (at f/2.8 and at 105mm) | ISO 400 | 1/125th sec | Image © Andrew Sproule Photography

It’s an exciting process booking and planning an Africa photography safari, especially if it’s your very first venture. As your departure date draws closer your thoughts will turn to packing and although the appropriate clothing is essential, this trip is really about amazing wildlife encounters, shared experiences and capturing memories. It’s time to think about your photography equipment, your gear. It's time to pack your camera bag!


Best Camera Equipment for an Africa Safari

Before I dive in I would like to state that this post represents my tips for maximising your experience while on an African photo safari. It’s a guide with a mix of opinion and facts based on my personal on-location in the field experience. It’s a summary, an introduction and not a laboratory review and therefore should be treated as such. 

Secondly, I would like to mention that I always recommend that photography enthusiasts choose a safari that’s specifically designed with photographers in mind. General ‘tourist’ safaris definitely have their place, but they’re much more likely to be governed by a species timetable. Lion, check, move on, buffalo, check, move on and so on. On a dedicated African safari tour not only will you share a vehicle (often itself customised for photographers) with liked minded people, you’ll also benefit from being able to spend a lot of time with an individual animal or group of animals witnessing unusual behaviours and exploring different angles and lighting situations. Explicit and invaluable guidance and advice will also be on tap.

And thirdly, you'll notice that I've included my camera settings below a couple of the images on this post. These settings worked for me in a particular situation, under certain conditions to produce the type of image I was after at that time. I suggest you use these posted settings as a guide only and instead think about how these images might look if you were to adjust the shutter speed, aperture or ISO etc and take that information in to the field with you. The relationship between these elements can create widely different outcomes and also help you to define your own style.  


Best Camera for an Africa Safari

I would recommend two Digital SLR camera bodies. At first hand this may seem like overkill or even a tad extravagant but there are valid reasons. First of all imagine the heart-sinking moment if your camera fails. That emotion will be tenfold if it happens on day one of a 10-day safari! That’s reason enough right there, however being able to adapt to shifting conditions can mean the difference between capturing the shot and not. With two cameras armed with different lenses, one with a telephoto lens and one with a mid-range zoom for example, you’ll find it easy to switch when wildlife comes too close or you’re going for a wider shot of wildlife in the context of its habitat. Furthermore, Africa is an extremely dusty environment that’s not very kind to sensitive camera sensors, consequently, eliminating the need to swap lenses whilst on location is a huge plus.

 

Clearly, not everyone will be in a position to be able to take two cameras and it doesn’t really matter whether your camera is full frame, crop sensor or other as there are pros and cons to both. What is fundamental is that you know your camera intimately. Practice on your dog, your cat or deer in a local park. Whatever you can. The more familiar you are with your camera’s features the quicker you’ll be able to confidently adjust to conditions that unfold in front of you.


Best Lenses for an Africa Safari

Super-telephoto lenses with a focal length of 300mm plus are the staple for most African safaris and for crop sensor cameras 300mm should be ideal. If you’re intending photograph birds as well as big game then the longer the better. Full-frame cameras will usually need lenses of 400m+.

 Male Giraffe in Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Africa | Canon 1Dx | Canon 500mm f/4 on Gitzo Monopod | f/5.6 | ISO 200 | 1/1000th sec | Image © Andrew Sproule Photography

Male Giraffe in Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Africa | Canon 1Dx | Canon 500mm f/4 on Gitzo Monopod | f/5.6 | ISO 200 | 1/1000th sec | Image © Andrew Sproule Photography

Although my go to lens is a 500mm, I believe the versatility of zoom lenses make them ideal for African safaris. There’s such a wide variety of birds and mammals of such varying sizes and distances that a good option would be something like the Canon 100-400 IS L or the Nikon 200-400 VR.

A short-zoom lens in the range of 24mm to 70mm is also a great option as it provides the opportunity to present wildlife in its environment adding real context to an image. Because I’m also a landscape photographer I also favour super-wide lenses like 16-35mm or 14-24mm.

Much of Africa’s wildlife is active in the early mornings and late evenings and this means you’ll be battling low levels of light. Lenses with larger apertures, such as f/2.8, allow more of the available light in to the camera so you’ll be able to use a reasonably high shutter speed for much longer. These lenses are a luxury item though, so an alternative solution is to increase the ISO. This will most certainly result in an increase in noise, but most photographers would rather have a sharp shot with an acceptable amount of noise then an out of focus shot with no noise. And, in most cases, noise can be eradicated in post-production.

Best Filters for an Africa Safari

I use filters often when composing landscape images and on an African safari there will be most certainly be circumstances when the use of a filter is advantageous. For reducing glare and to help saturate colours and darken skies I recommend using a polariser filter. If you need help to correctly expose bright skies while preserving exposure detail in the foreground, then I recommend an ND filter.


Best Camera Support On An Africa Safari

BEAN BAG
Beans bags are my go to support, especially in East Africa. They are a simple, yet extremely effective support that can be used to rest your lens on door sills, window frames, roof rails and the actual roof itself. And, because wildlife is often on the move you’re not limited to one position within the vehicle. Most reputable Africa photo safari tour operators will provide bean bags, that said it’s always worthwhile double-checking beforehand. Bean bags can pack light and be filled with rice or beans on arrival. Some photographers prefer to fill their beanbags with lightweight polystyrene balls before they leave. It’s slightly more bulky but a lightweight alternative. Personally, I use a couple of Kinesis SafariSacks™ because as well as being a great support their quick release straps secure the bags in place so you’ll never loose them in the bush.

 A typical East Africa Safari Vehicle | Image © Governors Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya

A typical East Africa Safari Vehicle | Image © Governors Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya

Beanbags are unfortunately not a universal solution, contrary to what you may have read in certain books or magazine articles. Although they're a fantastic solution in East Africa, they're not as useful in Southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The reason is that the vehicles there are radically different. Safaris in Southern Africa use open Land Rovers and Land Cruisers with no sides at all—often there isn’t even a windshield! So there is literally nothing to rest the beanbag on for nearly any camera angle. In Namibia, both open Land Rovers and closed vehicles are in common use.

 A typical Southern Africa Safari Vehicle | Image © Motswari Private Game Reserve, Timbavati

A typical Southern Africa Safari Vehicle | Image © Motswari Private Game Reserve, Timbavati

MONOPOD
If a  bean bag is not an option then a monopod can be a pretty lightweight and more practical alternative to use within the confines of a safari vehicle, especially in Southern Africa. It doesn’t have to be fully extended and it takes the strain from your arms and shoulders while seated. It’s surprising how effective it can be. I have tested a number of monopods over the years and have found that Gitzo Monopods best suit my needs. I also use a Really Right Stuff lever-style quick release which makes the process of taking lenses on and off the monopod very fast.

TRIPOD
A tripod can be useful or even an essential piece of kit for evening photography and longer exposures or around the camp, however, the wide spread of a tripod’s legs makes them impractical and ill-advised for most safari vehicles. However, if you're in an open vehicle on your own, or perhaps with one other, a tripod can be rigged to provide an excellent platform for larger lenses. Always remove your camera from the tripod while on the move though or risk your equipment literally get shaken to pieces.

Some airlines take a dim view of tripods and you may find it difficult to persuade them to let you take it in the cabin as part of your hand luggage and if it’s going in the hold it will be taking up more of your baggage weight allowance.

CLAMP
I often use a ball head or gimbal head on a Manfrotto® Superclamp that can be bolted almost anywhere including a vehicle’s roof bars. If I'm on my own or part of a very small group, I may even have several of these clamps placed in strategic points around the vehicle making it extremely easy to switch from side to side and back to front.


Storing Images On An Africa Safari

LAPTOP COMPUTER
You could easily have 300-500 images a day and trigger-happy photographers may even have in excess of 1,000, so a small laptop with external hard drives can be useful for securely backing up photographs while on an Africa safari. If weight restrictions allow, two hard drives that mirror each other is a great solution. Remember to pack connecting cables, chargers and memory card reader/s etc.

MEMORY CARDS
An alternative solution to external hard drives is to bring enough spare memory cards that you file them away at the end of each day safe in the knowledge that your data will remain untouched until you get home. If you don’t like the idea swapping out memory cards too often, go for larger capacity ones such as 32GB. That said, I don’t like to put all my eggs in one basket and therefore I opt for 2 or 3 smaller cards in favour of one larger one.


Best Accessories For An Africa Safari

Get to know what you can expect out of your camera with regards to battery life and take enough spares to get you through each day. Cold is a battery’s nemesis, so make sure they’re not getting too cold overnight. I have two spare batteries for each body and that’s always been more then adequate for my purposes.

Remember lens cleaning cloths etc and would I also recommend a camera and lens cover that will help protect your camera in the event of a rain shower and also extremely useful for protecting your gear against the aforementioned dust.

Don’t forget your smartphone, binoculars, head torch and obviously your passport, visa, money, note pad and pen, personal medication, malaria medication and toiletries. 

For information on vaccinations etc you're best to consult and official website.


Best Clothing For An Africa Safari

The sun, especially in East Africa, is fierce, so it’s essential to make sure you’re being diligent with sun-screen particularly if you have zip-off trousers and t-shirt. A shirt with long sleeves and a collar will provide better protection for your arms and neck. A windproof jacket or warm fleece is recommended for those cool mornings and evenings, as it can get pretty chilly in an open vehicle or in a vehicle with all the windows open.

If you are out for an all-day safari, then a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of sun-screen are essential. Baseball caps are fine in the mornings and evenings but offer no sun protection for your ears during the day. Despite tradition there’s no need to wear the customary khaki or camouflage, however it’s best to avoid very bright colours. It’s also believed that tsetse flies are attracted to blacks and dark blues.

In the evenings and at night I always wear long sleeve shirts and trousers and that’s even in low or no risk mosquito regions. I’m just not prepared to take the chance.


Packing For An Africa Safari

I recommend packing high value items like cameras, lenses and laptops in your hand luggage. Some airline safety requirements require you to pack batteries in your hand luggage, so ensure items are charged, as airport security often require you to demonstrate laptops and cameras are all in full working order. A simple rule of thumb to consider is to pack items essential to your photography, travel and health in your hand luggage.

Pack your gear very carefully with disruption in mind. Some Africa photo tours can consist of two or three successive flights to get to various destinations in Africa. There may be two or even three layers of airport security on each of these flights which may require you to unpack large cameras, lenses and laptops. If you can, avoid placing smaller accessories on top of larger items which you may need to take out and re-pack repeatedly. Pack cables and batteries together in small pouches rather than loose in your bag.

Your camera bag should be large enough for your gear but small and light enough for all cabin limits. When packed you should be able to safely lift in and out of the overhead lockers without assistance. Check the maximum sizes and weights for all the airlines and be aware that different flights often have different rules.

For small internal charter flights within Africa, total baggage allowance (hand luggage plus hold luggage) can be as little as 20kg and bags must be soft and pliable, for obvious reasons.

 Typical Southern Africa internal charter flight | Image © Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Africa

Typical Southern Africa internal charter flight | Image © Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, Africa


Final Thoughts About An Africa Safari

An African Safari is an incredible experience that, for many, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity both to experience incredible scenery and wildlife and to make some amazing photographs.

There's no doubt that it can be a daunting experience packing expensive and essential photography equipment for a safari, even for seasoned photographers. Just remember to seek out advice and if you are booked on a photographer specific tour you can request support from your guides and or Africa safari tour operator, as they have the experience and knowledge to help you make it the through this process with as little stress as possible. 

Note: If you're an Africa photo safari virgin, beware the Safari bug. It afflicts those that have travelled to, and photographed in, Africa. There's no known cure, only one remedy : )  Read more.


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