Sophie Brown, one of our wildlife photographers in the Greater Kruger, shares her advice on what to pack for a photo safari in Africa.
Despite traveling to Africa for several years now, I still remember vividly the excitement I felt the moment I booked my first photo safari here. However, once that initial excitement wore off, my question was…
What do I even pack for a photographic safari!?
What type of camera should I take? What lens do I need? Do I need more than one? What accessories will I need? My questions felt endless and once I began researching these questions, it became even more daunting.
There is so much to read up on!
So, in memory of that feeling, here is part one of my personal breakdown on what equipment you may need for your photo safari in Africa.
There is a lot to discuss, so to make life a little easier I have broken this up into two parts. With information on accessories and packing lists contained in part two, in this part one article I will be discussing cameras and lenses, the backbone of your trip.
Also see: Pietro Baroni, a volunteer on our Wildlife Photography and Conservation project in the Greater Kruger, made a video about A Day in the Life of a Volunteer Photographer in South Africa
Yes, unsurprisingly you need one. But which camera will be best for a photo safari?
This will vary from person to person.
The market is vast —from bridge cameras and small point and shoots to mirrorless and DSLR cameras. Bridge cameras, with their long zooms, can do the job, but for most will be too restrictive. The detail lost at long focal ranges will make them insufficient for their purposes on a photo safari.
For most wildlife photographers, they will want a mirrorless or DSLR camera body.
I cannot stress enough that the brand of camera body you choose is not the be-all and end-all.
Lots of people get hung up on brands. I use Canon, but that isn’t because I think it is better than Nikon, Sony, Fuji, etc. It is simply the first camera I bought, and I’ve stuck with it because I’ve subsequently gathered a library of lenses and accessories specifically for Canon, thus making it difficult to switch.
DSLR vs Mirrorless: Which is Better for a Wildlife Photo Safari?
As I have mentioned, most people will buy either a mirrorless or a DSLR camera body. But what’s the difference? Well, the difference between these two types of cameras is actually in the name.
DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, meaning it uses mirrors to bounce light coming in from the lens to your viewfinder. This, albeit very traditional and reliable, makes a DSLR quite big and weighty.
A mirrorless, on the other hand, is devoid of mirrors and is purely electronic. The viewfinder shows an electronic representation of what the sensor is capturing with the light hitting it through the lens. Due to the lack of mirrors, these cameras are substantially smaller and lighter and are becoming more and more popular for that very reason.
There is much more to them than just mirrors, so here are the main pros and cons of each type:
- Robust bodies with, typically, better weather sealing against dust and rain
- Fantastic battery life, allowing you to photograph all day on one battery
- Great image quality
- Typically, more reliable, with a long working life
- Being slightly bigger and heavier, they can feel more balanced when used in conjunction with heavy lenses
- Bigger and heavier than mirrorless bodies as they have more internal mechanics
- Slightly slower auto-focusing systems compared to mirrorless (although this is not overly noticeable to most and DSLRs still have fast auto-focusing systems)
- Smaller and lighter, making them a great choice for travel
- Electronic system displays the final image on the back of your camera, reducing the chance of under or overexposing your image
- Incredibly fast, giving more of a chance of capturing the action
- Quieter when shooting compared to DSLR
- Combined with heavy lenses, the system can feel unbalanced
- Electronic system chews through battery life, meaning lots of spares are required and you will change them regularly in the field
- Electronic system often lags and can malfunction, making their usability sometimes a little clunky and not as fast as they initially appear
- Weather sealing not as efficient, sensors often need cleaning more regularly
For me, DSLRs still have the edge when it comes to shooting wildlife, purely for their ruggedness, durability, and battery life. However, these aspects are improving all the time with mirrorless technology, so I expect they will be the way forward in the future.
Regardless of whether you choose DSLR or mirrorless, below are a few features that I always look for and consider when choosing a body:
Frames Per Second
The first thing I always look for is the frames per second (FPS). For wildlife photography, everything can change in an instance and a fast FPS rate will allow you the best possibility of capturing the action or that split second when an animal may “perform” for the camera.
A fast FPS can be the difference between capturing that National Geographic moment or missing the moment altogether.
I look to have an FPS rate of at least 10, but remember, a higher rate often means a higher cost.
Aside from this, there are two things to consider.
Firstly, it will use up your battery life quicker and will likely cause you to take a LOT more photographs. And this will chew through your memory cards quickly, meaning your need for large capacity memory cards increases.
For me though, these slight disadvantages do not outweigh the increased chances of getting the shot.
Naturally, I look for a battery life that will last me all day. There will be times when you might be out all day or even overnight with no way of recharging batteries.
This isn’t much of a concern with DSLR cameras, but with mirrorless it is something to consider. While they are improving quickly, due to the systems being completely electronic, they tend to chew through battery life.
Although this isn’t a deal-breaker, it does mean you will need several spares. And remember, if you are using a fast FPS, your battery life will also be affected negatively as a result. Which is why it’s even more important to have good battery life, or at the very least, some spares with you when out in the field.
Full-Frame vs Crop Sensor
Sensors are the part of the camera body where your image is recorded. Full-frame and crop are the two most commonly used terms when it comes to sensor sizes.
Full frame simply means that the sensor has the same dimensions as the 35mm film format, whereas cropped means exactly that, a smaller sensor that gives a cropped in field of view.
Field of view is a key thing to consider when thinking about sensors.
Many wildlife photographers prefer a crop sensor as it is effectively cropping out the edges of the frame, increasing the focal length of your lenses.
For example: if you have a crop factor of 1.5 and a lens with a focal length of 100-400mm, you are actually working with a focal range of 150-600mm. That extra reach is essential to many wildlife photographers.
However, full-frame sensors do have their advantages. Because of their large sizes, full-frame sensors are able to capture more light, leading to better performance during low light conditions.
Generally, full-frame sensors also capture better dynamic ranges and will produce better quality images than their crop sensor counterparts.
They also have shallower depths of field, allowing for increased bokeh and aesthetic qualities.
Despite these clear advantages, for me personally, the slightly increased image quality of a full-frame sensor does not outweigh the benefit of the extra reach that crop sensors offer, so I favor cropped sensors over full-frame sensors for wildlife photography.
However, if you’re looking to use your camera for other types of photography aside from just wildlife (such as portraiture and landscape), then the full-frame will deliver better results.
People can get extremely hung up on megapixels and I regularly hear people boasting amount the number of megapixels their camera has without actually knowing what this means.
Pixels are small squares that fit together like a puzzle to create images.
The resolution of an image will, for the most part, be determined by how many millions of these (megapixels) are packed together in a small space.
This is why people automatically think that more megapixels mean better quality images.
However, more resolution and detail can also mean noise becomes evident far quicker and change how you use your images in post-processing. The usefulness of your extra pixels is also determined by your sensor efficiency technology, sensor size, and lens quality.
I would say I look for a minimum of a 20-megapixel sensor, but anything above that I weigh up with the other benefits of the camera and how the camera handles noise.
That being said, more megapixels will produce larger files (more memory cards / hard drives), which, if you are planning to print your images, especially on a large scale, will be extremely valuable and will help retain detail and quality when printing, particularly when used in conjunction with a good quality lens.
Choosing the Right Lenses for Your Photo Safari
Lenses are one of the most vital, most thought about elements of camera kits. They control how zoomed in you are to your subject and how much light comes into the camera.
So the natural instinct when it comes to wildlife photography and lenses is to go for the lens with the longest focal length possible — meaning most people will want a telephoto zoom lens.
While yes, you ideally do need a decent focal length to photograph most wildlife, the location you are photographing from also comes into consideration.
For example: a 600mm lens might be fantastic for the vast open plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, but for places like the Lowveld, which is full of dense areas of bush, a 600mm lens will make your life more difficult in most cases.
In general, you need a lens with a reach of 300-400mm for it to be sufficient for most situations.
In terms of aperture, the wider (smaller f-stop) your lens can reach, the better for wildlife photography.
However, it is important to note that once you reach lenses with the capabilities of f/2.8 and lower, you will be paying some serious money for this level of quality.
You will also be testing your focusing skills as you will have less leeway to get the focus right when using such a wide aperture and narrow depth of field. But if that is in your means then go for it.
I typically look for a lens with a minimum aperture of at least f/5.6.
This will still allow lots of light into your camera, allowing for better settings in general when out in the field.
Now, it is important to note, telephoto lenses are not cheap, and if this is your first safari, or you are not sure how often you will use the lens in the future, this can be a little (or very) daunting.
If you do not want to commit to spending lots of money on main brand lenses, both Sigma and Tamron make fantastic lenses that are compatible with most of the big-name brands.
In the majority of cases, they are a fair bit cheaper than their main brand rivals, but they will often lack the sharpness or quality when using them at their maximum focal ranges.
This is why it is important to do your research before committing to a lens.
The internet is packed with reviews and videos of people using nearly all photography equipment available for purchase. It’s always a good idea to heavily invest in research before you commit to a purchase or rental.
Do I Need Multiple Cameras and Lenses for a Photo Safari?
In short, no. But there are benefits to having more than one of each. As a standard base, I take my main camera, a Canon 90D body and Canon 100-400mm lens, on every wildlife trip I take.
However, there will be circumstances when you will want other lenses.
Whether it be because an animal is too close to your vehicle or you want to focus on a landscape, the time will arise when you wish you had a shorter focal length lens.
I would recommend an extra lens with a shorter focal length. I use a canon 24-105mm in these instances.
But remember, the lower the end number, the less you will be able to zoom in, and the wider the scene you will be able to capture. This is where an extra camera body can be useful.
Instead of having to spend potentially valuable seconds changing lenses, you simply have a lens attached to each body you can quickly pick up as and when needed.
Another benefit is that you are reducing the amount of dust and dirt that can potentially reach the inside of your lens or sensor while you are changing it.
This can be very difficult to clean and could cause damage if you’re not sure what you are doing.
If you leave the dirt, you will start to see little dots appear on your images.
This is why I have my wide-angle lens on a secondary body.It does mean that I am carrying extra weight, but it is not too much of an issue on a photo safari in a vehicle.
You might find that extra weight somewhat tiring or restrictive if you will be walking or traveling a lot.
The process of choosing your camera equipment largely comes down to thinking about what type of photography you are going to do.
Just keep these things in mind when considering your camera body and lens:
- What is the battery life and ruggedness like of the camera body I am taking?
- What is the FPS of the camera body I am taking?
- Will I benefit more from a crop or full-frame sensor?
- Will I benefit from more than one body and lens?
- Will I be strong enough to hand-hold a long telephoto lens?
- What type of photography will I be doing? Will I be in a vehicle or on foot?
- How important is the weight of my equipment?
Once you have answered these questions, a whole new world opens up, the world of accessories.
This can easily feel like a quagmire all on its own, but in Packing for a Photo Safari (Part 2) I discuss some of the accessories available on the market and why they may or may not be useful on your next photo safari!
Check out our wildlife photography volunteer programs for inspiration for your next photo safari!
Want a closer look into our wildlife photography projects?