The Best Photo Safari Gear Plus Planning Tips
A photo safari takes more planning than almost any other type of vacation. You have much more than just gear to worry about and sometimes conditions are not ideal. Safaris include a lot of time in a vehicle and sharing shooting space with other photographers. You will likely see animals only surrounded by other tour vehicles. It’s dusty, bumpy, and sometimes muddy. Your vehicle might be a closed-sided, open-top style where monopods and tripods are difficult to use but allow for window resting with your super telephoto lens. Or they might be open-sided, which are roomier but don’t have anywhere you can rest your arms. Here you’ll find the best photo safari gear and advice that considers these conditions.
Some vehicles have tent tops, which affect visibility but will protect you from random bouts of rain or from sun exposure. These are all things you have to consider when venturing out on your first safari photography vacation.
Prepare for Your Photo Safari Mission
You need to start with a checklist so that you can pack only the most efficient equipment for your photo safari goals. Here are some important questions to ask:
• Will I be shooting just along the way during safari or making photography the primary goal of my safari? The former allows for a shorter trip with more varied days and activities. The latter requires patience and timing to get the kind of game scenes you’re hoping for.
• Will I share a car with other photographers or just game tourists? Photographers and tourists have different motivations and different tolerances for how long they want to stay out in the field in one location. You may also want to consider springing for a private tour if you have a special species interest.
• Do I want to rely on myself or use a porter? This will help determine how much gear you can bring. Porters can usually be hired by the day and will help you with loading equipment.
• Do I have access to a reliable power source? Some accommodations have capped power that can only be used for a certain number of hours a day. Find out if yours is one of these places. It will help you decide how much spare power to bring for your camera bodies.
• Am I photographing animals exclusively or do I also want to do some street photography and landscapes? If you’re not interested in anything but game shots, you are able to limit your load to super telephotos and maybe 1 wide for those moments when animals walk up to your car. If you’re interested in vistas on a level more serious than a casual phone photo, then you’ll want to consider other lenses and support gear to use in the mornings and evenings outside the car.
What to Take on Your Photo Safari
Filters are an oft-forgotten essential tool that weigh nothing and can greatly improve the quality of your shot. They’re an easy way to darken overly bright conditions, saturate colors, or fight reflective surfaces. There are many kinds of filters but the two kinds you’ll want to consider are:
A) Circular Polarizing Filters
B) Neutral Density Filters
Circular polarizers reduce glare and reflections from water surfaces and other shiny environments as well as help to define clouds and skies. While polarizers help saturate the colors of your scene, you also lose about 3 stops of light – great for bright conditions but worth keeping in mind when adjusting for exposure in the mornings and evenings.
ND filters absorb light that comes in through the lens so they, in short, will darken your overall scene. This is especially useful when wanting to shoot at very wide apertures in the bright sunlight and it’s also ideal for slowing your shutter down to blur water or express motion without overexposing.
Most filters screw onto the front of your lens but super telephoto lenses have front elements with diameters that are much too large for that. They instead use “drop-in” filters (here’s an example of one) that slide into a slot at the back of the lens.
#2: LCD Viewfinder Loupes
Reviewing images in the bright sun can be an act of suffering. Screen covers, sun shades, or loops help you better see what you’re working with. They are often just a simple tube that can be placed over your screen, like the snap-on Hoodman or the mountable Z-Finder Pro 2.5x. They are easy to pack and make reviewing images more comfortable.
#3: Fast Cameras and Big Cards
Use a camera that shoots at least 4 frames per second, ideally 6 or above. Shoot in AI-Servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon) modes so that your autofocus is constantly tracking your subject. Also, set your shooting drive to “continuous” so that you can get a lot of shots in 1 shutter press hold. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have these shooting drive features.
Fast cameras to consider (as of this writing – anything over 7 frames per second is suitable for wildlife):
Canon 7D Mark II – Up to 10 FPS
Nikon D500 – Up to 10 FPS
Olympus OM-D E-M5 II – Up to 10 FPS
Sony Alpha a77II – Up to 12 FPS
Nikon D5 – Up to 14 FPS
Canon 1D X Mark II – Up to 16 FPS
Sony a9 II – Up to 20 FPS
See more fast cameras on our special High FPS Cameras page.
Anything that shoots over 4 frames per second is going to eat up memory fast. Be sure to pack several cards with high-speed classifications – Class 10 for SDXC or SDHC cards and UDMA 7 for CompactFlash cards. Pay attention to the write speed spec on your cards. Write speeds describe how fast images can be saved onto a card and is important when shooting fast-moving wildlife with a burst of images while in continuous shooting mode. High-speed cards will help you to squeeze in more shots in short succession and the absolute bare minimum write speed you’ll want is 10MB/s. Learn more about this in Memory Card Basics: Choosing the Right Memory Card for Video and Time-Lapse.
Remember, very fast cameras can take images faster than they can write them to your memory cards. There is an internal buffer that stores this data while you’re shooting and the faster your card is, the less of this buffer you have to rely on. Fast memory cards help reduce this delay between when your camera writes to memory and the next shot – you don’t want to miss any fleeting action!
#4: Smaller Aperture Telephotos and Extenders
Telephoto zooms are a must out on any photo safari. A popular lens in several brands is the 70-200mm f/2.8 but if you aren’t shooting wide open or in dark environments, you can save yourself a little back pain by going with the f/4 versions. You get the same reach and quality in a smaller package thanks to the smaller maximum aperture, which requires less glass in the build. Check out the Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS II or the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 VR if you want the reach but can’t carry too much weight.
Consider also lens extenders (or teleconverters), which can up to double the reach of compatible lenses. Keep in mind that extenders reduce your maximum aperture so they are more suitable for use in bright conditions. You can also spring for a super telephoto with its own built-in extender. The Canon 200-400mm f/4 IS becomes a 280-560mm with just the flip of a switch!
#5: Support Equipment
Most game drives don’t allow a lot of outside-of-car experiences so tripods won’t help you much. Monopods provide relief from handling super telephotos and are usually small enough to store next to you. Choose a monopod with the shortest possible folded height. For example, the Induro CM34 monopod goes down to about 20” but the Manfrotto Bogen 681 only goes down to about 26”. They both reach about 63” so you save a lot of space with the Induro without sacrificing a lot (if any) height. See all our monopods here.
For closed-sided vehicles, a bean bag cushion will help support you and your lens while smaller camera setups can get away with a Gorillapod, especially for an occasional long exposure shots with wide angle lenses.
Bring an international power strip with socket adapters. Most camera batteries will automatically switch from between 100V-250V, so as long as your power strip is no more than 125V your batteries will adapt to the source.
How Much is Too Much for a Photo Safari?
The checklist of questions to ask yourself at the beginning of this post will do a lot in helping you determine how much gear to bring. Here are three more things to consider:
#1: Bringing Multiple Cameras
You don’t want to switch out lenses in the field. It will bring dust into the rear element of your lens, into the body of your camera, and you’ll never switch out lenses quickly enough anyway to go from super telephoto to wide when an animal approaches the vehicle. Many photographers have their “long setup” and their “wide setup” and there are special straps for two-camera shooting.
#2: Taking an ISO-Sensitive Camera
The best light is in the early mornings and in the evenings but those times of day can take a hit on exposure latitude. You’ll need to consider camera bodies with high ISO capability so that you can still shoot with small apertures and high shutter speeds if you want to.
#3: Carrying Lenses in the Three Major Length Types
The typical focal lengths for each subject matter break down into the following major ranges:
• 200-500mm for animals, birds
• 24-105mm for people, candids, close encounters
• 11-35mm for landscapes, night sky, vistas
If you’re really interested in all of those things, then the bare minimum for you might be 3 lenses. Most people can get away with 1 telephoto and 1 wide/normal zoom but if this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip then you may want 3-4 lenses ranging between 11-500mms and beyond.
Go With Your Natural Instincts
You will exhaust yourself trying to create the perfect photo safari equipment pack. These tips will get you started on the right path but follow your gut in the end after gathering all of the facts about your trip.
• Bring filters and know whether or not your super telephoto uses drop-in filters.
• Consider smaller-aperture zooms for a lighter load.
• Choose a camera with high maximum ISO and FPS of 7 and above.
• Pack plenty of Class 10 SD and/or UDMA 7 (or higher) CF cards.
• Pack a lot of extra batteries with a strip at 125V.
• Bring 2 cameras to protect against dust – a “long set” and a “wide/normal set”.
• Consider a monopod instead of a tripod.
I hope you get the most out of your first safari photography vacation!