What photography equipment should you take on a safari to Africa?

30 May 2018

There’s no easy answer to the question, “What is the best camera to take on safari?” Simply put, we’re always in favour of experiencing wildlife first hand rather than through the camera lens. However, we understand how important it is to have some great pictures of your safari. That’s why we’ve asked renowned photographers Will Burrard-Lucas and Marc Muench for their advice on which equipment to take on an African safari.

Below, along with YZ co-founder Julian Carter-Manning, Will and Marc talk through their recommendations and offer a few tricks on how to snap that perfect safari photograph:

What is your favourite type of camera?

Will Burrard-Lucas: “I use a DSLR, but also I am increasingly using mirrorless cameras in my work. Historically DSLRs have boasted the broadest selection of lenses and the highest performance in terms of autofocus speed and image quality. However, in the last year or so, the latest mirrorless cameras from Sony have started to match the performance of the top-end DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. Sony is also rapidly launching new lenses, and so my reasons for still shooting with a DSLR are shrinking. The advantages of mirrorless are that they are smaller, quieter, and in the future will be faster than DSLRs.”

Marc Muench: “I use Nikon DSLR equipment for all my safari photography. I have used a GoPro on occasion for very specific shots.”

Julian Carter-Manning: “I’m a big fan of lightweight cameras, something that I can use on safari easily but also use as a city camera for weekend breaks. The mirrorless cameras work well for me, but I’d also be the first to admit I am an amateur photographer, with far fewer skills and knowledge than the professionals on this blog! I would, however, also urge clients to take their iPhone with them, as the new iPhone X has phenomenal picture quality for such a small, easy-to-use camera.”

What is your preferred camera make?

WBL: “I use both Canon and Sony. I shoot with Canon rather than Nikon only because I am invested in their lens system, really, though both brands are very good. Whatever I am shooting with, I like to shoot with a full frame sensor and so Sony are the natural choice for my mirrorless system.”

MM: “My preferred camera make is Nikon.”

JCM: “Sony Mirrorless cameras are superb. Before I turned to Sony, I was a Canon man.”

Which lens should no photographer on an African safari forget?

WBL: “The lens I recommend most frequently is the Canon 100-400 version II or the new Sony 100-400 for the FE mount. If you are shooting Nikon then I hear the 200-500 is good. For me, a focal length of 400mm is perfect for safari. I personally shoot with a 400mm f/2.8 prime lens, which offers superb image quality and low light performance but is not very flexible. For that reason, I usually have a second camera body with a 70-200mm on hand as well.”

MM: “Every safari photographer should have a telephoto zoom lens, such as 100-400mm or 200-500mm. These focal lengths are critical to capture the action that occurs within a certain range from the vehicles. There are times the wildlife is further away, but the majority of the action is within 200-400mm away.”

JCM: “Again, I'm a Sony fan, so the FE 4/70-200 is perfect for me, but anything with a long lens (300 or even a 400) is as good as it gets.”

Which one camera would you recommend a YZ client take on safari?

WBL: “This depends on budget and how much you want to carry around. If you don’t want the hassle of interchangeable lenses then I would recommend the Sony Cyber-Shot RX10 IV. If you want a DSLR (particularly if you already have a selection of Canon or Nikon lenses) then I would recommend either the Canon 7D mk ii or the Nikon D500. If you want to get ultimate performance then I would go for the Canon 1dx mk ii or the Nikon d850. If you want a mirrorless system then I would get the new Sony A7 iii or the Sony A9 if your budget permits.”

MM: “This really depends on their desire for image quality. The most efficient camera systems for safari are the micro 4/3 format camera systems such as the Olympus and Panasonic. However, the best image quality systems are the full frame sensor DSLR systems. The biggest difference between the two systems is the size and weight. The micro 4/3 systems can be more than half the weight of a DSLR, especially when considering the smaller size and weight of the telephoto zoom lenses.”

JCM: “The Sony A7 Mirrorless. It’s fantastic, easy to use, and with a good lens takes very good photos as well as superb video footage.”

The YZ Top 10 Photography Tips

  1. Don’t forget the basics - make sure that your battery is charged, your memory cards have sufficient space, and that you have a spare of each. It may sound silly, but many great shots have been lost because of these simple mistakes!
  2. Pay attention to composition - cut your frame into nine equal parts with imaginary lines both horizontally and vertically. You should place the focal point of the picture on one of the four points where these lines cross over. Make sure also that there is space in the image for your subject to look into, rather than away from.
  3. Use a beanbag - it will keep you stable enough under low light conditions but will also allow you to pick the camera up to capture flying birds and other action shots.
  4. Get down low - get as close to eye level with your subject as you can, or sometimes even lower. It reduces the amount of background distraction, which makes your subject pop. Secondly, it creates an interesting angle that we normally don’t see from, and this naturally pulls the viewer in.
  5. Don’t fear space - this can be hard to resist when you have a massive zoom at your disposal, but try to capture some of the animals’ habitat as well.
  6. Keep your finger on the trigger - many potentially award-winning photos have been missed because of cameras on laps or in backpacks!
  7. Be on the lookout for interesting behaviour - the truly great images are those that capture interesting behaviours and interactions. First prize goes to those that capture more than one species doing something interesting.
  8. Don’t cut off your subjects’ body parts - be careful of cutting off feet that are hidden in grass or the tips of horns and ears. This common mistake can also happen when animals are moving quickly and you are trying to pan along with them.
  9. Great silhouettes - when you are trying to capture a subject in silhouette, drop your exposure to –1 or –2. This will make your subject black and bring out any rich colour in the sky, creating a perfect contrast. 
  10. Spend as much money as you can on your lens - with lenses, you get what you pay for. If you want crisp, sharp images then spend as much as you can on your lens. You will feel guilty at first, but once you see your photos you will forget this horrible emotion!

At Yellow Zebra, we’ve partnered with Africa Photographic Services so that you can rent photography equipment stress free in destinations like South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana. So if you don’t own a decent camera or don’t have space for all your gear, you can enjoy this service by contacting our experts on +44 (0) 20 8547 2305 or sending us an email at [email protected]