What Lens Should I Take on Safari?

So, you’ve booked your first African Safari?

Hurrah! You’re about to experience wildlife in a way few people do.

Now you’re wondering which safari suits to pack and if you’re at all into photography, you’re about to ask the question every photographer has pondered before their first safari – what lens should I take?

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Whatever lens you take, make sure it’s a good one! Okavango Delta, Botswana

Professional photographers or gear hounds can stop reading right now – I’m not about to launch into in-depth lens reviews or tell you what you ‘should’ already be able to do with your camera, any photographer will be able to do their own research on that front.

What I will do is pose some Q&A based on my own safari experiences which will hopefully start pointing you in the right direction to make decisions that will suit YOU. Warning, this is wordy!

What lenses do you already have?

If your longest lens is 200mm or less, I can tell you straight out you’re going to need a bigger boat lens.

Even on crop sensor cameras, 200mm will just not be enough.  While it’s true you will (hopefully!) see some wildlife right by your truck, there will also be a LOT of action that happens further out, or hidden up a tree and on these occasions you’ll be wanting something with good reach.  I travelled with a Canon 100-400mm II on a Canon 70D (crop factor 1.6x) and there were times I wish I had longer.

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Taken at 400mm and still cropped some more! Lake Manyara, Tanzania

But what happens when there’s a close encounter?

Firstly, result! This is what we all hope for! But chances are you’ve just been shooting something in the distance and you’ve still got your long lens on.  You have several options:

  1. Take 2 camera bodies: one for the long lens, the other for the wide/short lens.
  2. Change your lens.
  3. Rip out your phone.
  4. Take extreme close ups.
  5. Enjoy an amazing wildlife experience.

They all seem pretty obvious and simple, right?  They are, but choosing which of these options is right for you does present you with a few potential issues so let’s discuss each of them.

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Landscape shot taken at 100mm. Central Serengeti, Tanzania

Take 2 camera bodies.

This is the favourite piece of advice offered up when this question arises but whether it’s going to suit your circumstances is an entirely different matter.  Here are some questions to ask yourself..

  • Do you actually have 2 bodies available to you?
  • Are you familiar with the 2nd body or will you need to borrow one you’ve never used before?  You’ll need to ensure you’re fluid with settings before you get on the truck.
  • Will you have enough personal space to juggle 2 cameras? (See my comments on safari vehicles below)
  • Do you actually want to juggle 2 bodies all the time?
  • Are you happy to carry 2 bodies once you’ve finished the safari and you’re onto other parts of your holiday?
  • Do you have a camera bag big enough for 2 bodies and lenses?
  • Will this fit on your safari vehicle?
  • Are you taking any internal flights that have baggage limitations?

If none of those present an issue for you, then happy days, you will be well armed to capture every moment as it arises – just make sure you don’t drop anything!

Change your lens

If you only have one camera body, this is your only choice aside from the camera in your phone if you don’t want extreme close ups. But there are few things to be mindful of before you head down this path.

Firstly consider time, this is probably the most important factor.  How long does it take you to change lenses?  In that time, whatever is happening might have stopped or moved on and you might have missed seeing it altogether, let alone taken a shot.  Of course, depending on the nature of what is happening, you may have enough time to comfortably change lenses and still fire off some shots. Remember to keep an eye on what’s happening and if something looks like it might start kicking off close by, start getting prepared.

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Those people are so interested in gazelles they haven’t noticed the lion coming up behind them! Pay attention to what is happening around and behind you – get ready! Madikwe, South Africa

Secondly, consider your environment. Depending on the time of year, you may have variable conditions. It can get really dry and dusty on safari, and the dust gets everywhere. Everywhere! This is where seasoned vets will say you should learn to safely change lenses in any conditions and failing that, travel with the tools to clean your sensor every night. Yes, that’s ideal, but is that a situation you’re comfortable with? On safari is definitely not the time to learn this.

And last of all, your environment actually includes the truck and the people you’re travelling with. Consider how many laps/hands/bags/surfaces come into play when you change lenses. I’ve seen some absolute guns who seem able to remove caps, juggle lenses and bodies, and have everything safely squared away in the blink of an eye. And then I’ve seen people who need an assistant or a spare seat to hold lenses, bags or caps and fumble around forever. Be realistic about your abilities.

A landscape lens is a must on safari as you will see some incredible beauty, and changing your lens is also absolutely possible while actually on the truck game viewing, you just need to be aware of the risks, of your abilities and be prepared.

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You’ll want to crack out the wide angle lens for this sunset! Okavango Delta, Botswana

Rip out your phone

Phone cameras have made huge leaps in capability and quality over the last couple of years, not to mention being extremely convenient. You are no doubt going to have your phone right there in your pocket anyway so you may as well put it to good use. Invest in one of those rings you stick on the back to put your finger through – you do not want to drop your phone out of the truck!

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iPhone only in this truck. Bet they still have some great memories! Ndutu, Tanzania

Of course, the quality is still not going to be anywhere near the quality of a DSLR…but does it need to be?

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Quick shot out the back of the truck using my iPhone while driving. Central Serengeti, Tanzania

Take extreme close ups

Some really interesting wildlife photography I’ve seen is of an eyelash, or a nose, or a whisker.  Get creative.

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No time to change my lens! You can see our truck in his eyes. Ndutu, Tanzania

Enjoy an amazing wildlife experience

Don’t forget the reason you’re here – it’s about the wildlife first and foremost.  Well for me it is anyway, and only you can make that call for yourself. Make sure you have some moments where you put the camera down, and just take it all in.  Eyeball a lion, listen to an elephants tummy rumble, laugh at baboon antics…this is Africa.

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Eyeball a lion. Chills… Central Serengeti, Tanzania

How do I know which of these options is best for me?

If the above thought provokers still haven’t clarified it for you, now start thinking about the purpose of your safari.

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Still shot grabbed while taking an iPhone video at Tarangire – elephants and baobabs are what this place is all about. Tanzania

Are you on safari to enable you to expand your portfolio for future commercial use, or is it for a current assignment? If so then perhaps you need to seriously consider taking 2 bodies to maximise your chances of high quality images.

Are you there primarily to enjoy seeing unique animals in their natural habitat?  If this is you then choose whichever option is not going to get in the way of you having some magical wildlife experiences. You do not want to be fumbling around with gear when something amazing is happening in front of you. I will choose actually experiencing something amazing over getting the shot every time.

 

What kind of safari vehicle will you have?

Now that you’re close to choosing the gear you’re going to take with you, spare a moment to consider the actual vehicle you’ll be in.

I’ve travelled with large groups in overland safari trucks, with small groups in minivans, joined scheduled game drives at safari lodges and also had the pleasure of travelling in private safari trucks with just 2 other people.  There is a Big. Difference.

Group tours in overland trucks can be crowded with no spare seats.  That means there could be some people who don’t get a window seat and when something amazing comes along, they’re going to want access to a window. That could be you. How’re you going to go with 2 cameras, or changing lenses if you will not have much spare room around you? Of course you could be lucky and have an entire overland truck between 5 people – that’s also happened to me, happy days!

Smaller groups in minivans can present the same problem – not much room for large bags you might need readily to hand, and perhaps no window seat guarantee. Also the windows can be a bit restrictive in minivans and they’re lower than the trucks – this isn’t really ideal.

Scheduled game drives at safari lodges are generally not private. You will be in with other guests and if it’s a busy time of year, you will not have a spare seat.  You may not even have a side seat depending on how luxe the lodge the is – I’ve seen safari trucks seating people 4 abreast.  Your camera equipment does not give you special privileges here, it’s every man for himself.

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Private Safari truck, every seat’s a window and only 3 of us!

Private safaris – bliss!  I’ve been lucky enough to have a 7 seater safari truck with a pop out roof for just myself and 2 others (in addition to the guide

That means loads of room for bulky camera gear, spare back seat pockets to keep your gear on hand and loads of room to move around (and up!) to get the perfect angle.

 

The key here is to know what to expect from your safari in terms of the vehicle, and group size.

 

But even more important is, ENJOY!  Don’t go armed with a list of photos you want to get, that will only end in disappointment.  Just make the most of whatever you do see, it’s all amazing!

Oh, and don’t forget lots of spare batteries and SD cards!

Happy travels!

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Zebras fighting wasn’t exactly on my bucket list of shots, but I’m so thrilled to have seen it! Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
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