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There’s no doubt that booking and planning for an Africa photo safari is an exciting time, especially if it’s your very first venture. As a photo safari tour leader, I’m used to the process. Nevertheless, I still behave very much like a child in anticipation of what Christmas brings. As your departure date draws nearer, your thoughts move to packing for your trip. Although the appropriate clothing is essential, these trips are 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!
Before I dive in, I would like to state that this article represents my tips for maximizing your experience while on an Africa photo safari. It’s a guide with a mix of opinion and facts based on my 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 always recommend photography enthusiasts choose a safari designed explicitly with photographers in mind. General ‘tourist’ safaris have their place, but they’re much more likely to be governed by a species timetable. Lion, check. Move on. Buffalo, check. Move on. You get the picture. On a dedicated Africa photo safari trip, not only will you share a vehicle (often customized for photographers) with liked minded people, you’ll also benefit from being able to spend much more time with an individual animal or group of animals. You’ll be able to witness unusual behaviors and explore different angles and lighting situations. Explicit and invaluable guidance and advice are also on tap.
Thirdly, you’ll notice that I’ve included my camera settings below a number of the images. These settings worked for me in those particular situations, under certain conditions to produce the type of image I was after. I suggest you use these posted settings as a guide only. Instead, think about how these images might look if you were to adjust the shutter speed, aperture or ISO. Then, take that information into the field with you. The relationship between these elements can create widely different outcomes and also help you to define your style.
Notice I have stated ‘cameras’ in the title and not ‘camera.’ I recommend you take at least two camera bodies with you. On the surface, this may seem like overkill or even a touch extravagant, but there are valid reasons why.
Firstly, it’s peace of mind. Imagine the heart-sinking moment if your camera fails. That emotion is tenfold if it happens on day one of a two-week photo safari! Whether you take two DSLRs, two mirrorless cameras, a combination of both, or an alternative solution, possessing a backup prevents any unnecessary anxiety. Before I purchased a second camera body, I used to hire one for my Africa trips. I still do this on occasion. It’s a great way of testing and trialing gear in the field beforehand and working out what works best for you.
Secondly, Africa is an extraordinarily harsh and dusty environment. Sand and dust particles are the enemies of sensitive camera sensors. Consequently, eliminating the need to swap lenses while on location can be a huge plus.
Furthermore, having two cameras armed with different lenses (for example a telephoto lens and a mid-range zoom), you’ll find it easy to switch between them. Switching between them is useful when wildlife comes too close, or if you are pulling away for a wide shot of wildlife in context of its habitat. Being able to adapt to shifting conditions can mean the difference between capturing, or not capturing the shot.
Not everyone is in a position to take two cameras. It also doesn’t matter whether your camera is full-frame, crop-sensor or another type, as there are pros and cons to all. 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 adjust to conditions that unfold in front of you with confidence.
Super-telephoto lenses with a focal length of 300mm plus are the staple for most Africa photo safaris. For crop-sensor cameras, 300mm should be ideal. If you intend to photograph birds as well as large game, the longer the focal length, the better. Full-frame cameras usually need lenses of 400m+.
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 a degree of varying sizes and distances that a good lens option would be something like the 100-400mm.
A short-zoom lens in the range of 24-70mm is also a great option as it provides the flexibility to pull away to present wildlife within its environment, adding real context to an image. Because I’m also a landscape photographer, I also favor super-wide lenses in the range of 16-35mm or 14-24mm.
Much of Africa’s wildlife is active in the early mornings and late evenings meaning you’ll be battling low levels of light. Lenses with larger apertures, such as f/2.8, allow more available light into 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. Doing so most certainly increases noise, but most photographers would rather have a sharp shot with an acceptable amount of noise than an out of focus shot with no noise. In many cases, you can eradicate most noise in post-production.
I often use filters when composing landscape images, and on an Africa photo safari there are most certainly circumstances when the use of a filter is advantageous. For filters that reduce glare, saturate colors 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.
Bean bags are my go-to support, especially in East Africa. They are a simple, yet extremely effective support for your camera. Bean bags can be used to rest your lens on a vehicle’s doorsills, window frames, roof rails and the actual roof itself. Also, wildlife is often on the move, so you’re not limited to one position within the vehicle. Many reputable Africa photo safari tour operators provide beanbags. However, that said, it is always worthwhile double-checking beforehand. Bean bags can pack light and get filled with rice or beans on arrival. Some photographers prefer to fill their beanbags with lightweight polystyrene balls before they leave. It’s bulkier but a lightweight alternative. I’ve been using a couple of Kinesis SafariSacks 4.2™ for a while. As well as being a great support, the quick release straps secure the bags in place, so you never lose them in the bush.
Unfortunately, bean bags are 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 nothing on which to rest the beanbag. In Namibia, both open Land Rovers and closed vehicles are in common use.
If a bean bag is not an option, a monopod offers a lightweight and more practical alternative to use within the confines of a safari vehicle. Especially in Southern Africa. You don’t need to extend it entirely, and it takes the strain from your arms and shoulders while seated. It’s surprising how effective it can be. I have tested many 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 that makes the process of taking lenses on and off the monopod very fast.
A tripod is useful or even an essential piece of kit for evening photography, longer exposures or for around the camp. Although, the wide-spread tripod legs make 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. To avoid badly damaging your camera from vehicle shake, always remove your camera from the tripod while on the move.
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. If it’s going in the hold, it can take up more of your baggage weight allowance.
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 tiny 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.
You could easily take 300-500 images a day. Trigger-happy photographers may even have over 1,000, so a small laptop with external hard drives are useful for securely backing up your photographs. If weight restrictions allow, two hard drives that mirror each other is a great solution. Remember to pack essential items such as connecting cables, chargers and memory card readers.
An alternative solution to external hard drives is to bring extra memory cards. You can file these away at the end of each day. That way, you are safe in the knowledge that your data remains untouched until you arrive home. If you don’t like the idea of 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 favor of one larger one.
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 camera body, and that’s always been more than adequate for my purposes.
Remember lens cleaning cloths. I would also recommend a camera and lens cover that helps protect your camera in the event of a rain shower and for protecting your gear against the dust mentioned above.
Don’t forget your smartphone, binoculars, head torch, notepad and pen, personal medication, malaria medication, toiletries, money, your passport, and visa.
For detailed, up-to-date information on vaccinations and more, you are best to consult an official website.
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 you charge your items, as airport security often requires you to demonstrate that laptops and cameras are all in full working order. A simple rule of thumb 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. You may be required to unpack large cameras, lenses, and laptops. If you can, avoid placing smaller accessories on top of larger items that you may need to take out repeatedly and re-pack. 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 your bag 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.
An Africa Photo Safari is an incredible experience. For many, it is a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity both to experience incredible scenery and wildlife and to take 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. If you are booked on a photographer-specific tour, you can request support from your guides and or Africa safari tour facilitator. They have the experience and knowledge to help you make it the through this process with as little stress as possible.
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