Safari Photography: The Essential Gear Guide

safari photography equipment

An African safari photography trip is both a thrilling adventure and an unparalleled opportunity to capture memorable wildlife images.

It’s important to choose the right camera equipment to maximise the potential of such a trip. In fact, ‘What gear should I bring?’ is the question we hear more than any other.

safari photography gear

When packing your kit, the key things to bear in mind should be practicality and versatility. You can never cover every, but with thought, you can be prepared for most scenarios, and you won’t need to hire a private jet to carry your baggage.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when considering what to take:

What am I allowed to bring?

Unless you’re hiring that private jet, and given you’ll want everything valuable and vital with you, airline hand baggage allowances as low as 7kg can be a restriction.

We favor carriers with generous allowances, such as the 12kg of KLM and Air France, or the two bags of 23kg each on British Airways.

In practice, most international airlines tend to be forgiving if your camera gear goes a little over the allowance, provided your bags conform to their physical dimension limits.

Internal flights in Africa are another matter, with strict weight limits often rigidly enforced. A small plane flight into the Masai Mara may only allow you a measly 15kg all in – that’s your clothes, your kit, everything.

safari photography gear

A specialist photo tour operator should buy freight seats, increasing each guest’s allowance to something more reasonable, say 40kg. If you’re flying independently, you may need to do the same.

Check what’s allowed on your tour, and pack accordingly, or you may face punitive charges or even be bumped from a flight.

Try to avoid using a roller-type camera backpack – they use up more of your weight allowance, and these are also the bags we’ve found are targeted first by air stewards looking to move hand baggage into the hold on busy flights.

Overhead compartments on smaller planes can be quite narrow, so a low-profile (flatter) bag will be easier to fit in (though if you are carrying a large-diameter lens, a deeper bag may be unavoidable).

Even with generous baggage allowances, remember you’re going to be lugging kit around airports, on and off vehicles, and in and out of your room or tent.

Read more: How to Fly with Cameras and Batteries

How much space will you have on the vehicle?

A quality safari that gives you a row of seats on a game vehicle to yourself allows room for more kit than a budget safari with nine guests squashed into three rows.

Even with a whole row on the vehicle, trying to corral a bunch of lenses and cameras when you’re bouncing through the bush is a recipe for disaster. Think minimalist rather than maximalist.

Read more: The Best Camera for Wildlife Photography

What about equipment backup?

You do need to balance this minimalism against having some degree of redundancy. Safaris can be brutal: off-road driving, dust, water, all things that sensitive electronics hate.

We’d strongly recommend carrying two camera bodies, in case one packs up. This also saves valuable time changing lenses, meaning you’re less likely to miss fleeting opportunities, disturb fellow photographers, and suffer dust on your sensor.

safari photography equipment

Even a cheap second-hand body as a fallback can be a lifesaver.

Lens backup is trickier. A teleconverter (1.4x or 1.5x) is small and compact, and if your biggest lens stops working, it will give a compatible shorter lens a bit more reach. Even if nothing goes wrong, it’ll still come in handy on your biggest lens, for small birds and distant animals.

If your main body is a full-frame camera and your second body has a smaller sensor, putting your longest surviving lens on the crop-factor lens will maximize your pulling power.

How will you steady your camera gear?

Image stabilizing lenses and cameras have made handheld shots a more realistic option in many situations, but on safari, you’ll often be shooting in low light and handholding a heavy rig for any time quickly becomes exhausting.

Here’s where you need to know the type of vehicle you’ll be using and how it’s adapted for photography before packing your photo bag.

safari photography gear

On low-budget general safaris in East Africa, for example, you may be in a minivan with a pop-up roof and elbow-to-elbow with impatient non-photographers. Here, a bean bag is the most flexible option for supporting your lens, but you might get away with a monopod.

It’ll need to be sturdy enough to use at full extension (when you are standing on a seat) and with a decent head that allows rapid tilting and quick release.

Dedicated photographic safaris generally use large Land Cruisers or Land Rovers, either completely open or with large windows and an open roof. A number are photo-adapted with built-in window trays for bean bags.

Check ahead if bean bags are provided, or you need to bring your own, and if so, will the tour operator provide rice or beans (polystyrene pellets make a super-lightweight alternative if you need to take your own filling).

Small bean bags are of limited use; a large one with spreadable ‘legs’ or with two internal bags is your best option.

Monopods can work well on open game viewers, which often have limited places to rest a bean bag. A monopod may, on occasion, be used held upside down over the side of a vehicle for shooting from a low angle where guides allow this.

safari photography gear

Tripods are tricky to use effectively on safari vehicles, so we don’t recommend them. But you might want to pack a small travel tripod for use around camp, for birds, or astrophotography. Check first if your photo host has one you can borrow to save space in your bag.

Specialist window mounts are available, with fittings for gimbal heads, but few photo tour operators use them, as they fall off and break regularly. You could take your own, but we don’t recommend them as they may not fit the vehicle and can rattle loose with dire consequences.

If you’ll be shooting from hides or specialized photo boats, good-quality tripods and/or bean bags should be provided by your operator – but always check. If you’re emotionally attached to your tripod head, you could take it to replace the one provided. Gimbals usually work best.

Figuring out how you’ll support your camera/lens combo will, in part, determine what lenses you pack. There’s no point in taking a heavy 600mm f/4 lens if you’ll be shooting handheld on a game viewer with no supports and too many fellow guests.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife on Safari in Africa

What lenses to pack – how flexible will you need to be?

A typical vehicle-based photo safari tends to concentrate on mammals and birds, at ranges of anything from two meters to the horizon. You could be photographing a small bird on a twig one moment, a cheetah chasing an impala the next.

The focal length you’ll need is constantly changing.

The classic solution is to use two cameras, one with your longest lens, the second with a mid-range zoom. If your long lens is a fast prime, say a 500mm f/4 lens or 400mm f2.8 lens, then a 70-200mm zoom would be a good companion lens.

safari photography gear

If your long lens is a zoom that also covers the mid-range, say 100-400mm or 100-500mm, then a wider short zoom, say a 24-105mm, would be ideal.

Bear in mind how much reach you need depends on where you’re going.

In the Masai Mara or Serengeti, where you mostly can’t legally drive off-road, you’ll have more occasions when you’re at some distance from your subject.

in contrast, say in South Africa on private reserves, where off-road driving is permitted, you can to get within a few meters of many subjects.

Increasingly, photo safaris offer more than just conventional game drives. Low-level hides (blinds) are being developed in a growing number of locations and may offer wide-angle opportunities you rarely get on a vehicle, often in very low light, or even at night, with LED or spotlights.

A fast f/2.8 70-200mm will cover some eventualities, but you’ll almost certainly need a lens as wide as 24mm, maybe even wider. Specialist photo boats too can offer similar close-up opportunities with relaxed big game: check with your photo guide what they recommend.

We’re talking full-frame focal lengths here; if you’re using cameras with smaller sensors, then you’ll need to account for the crop factor, and go even wider. If you’re lucky enough to have aerial opportunities on your safari, then big glass won’t work.

safari photography

Hot air balloons are popular, and a great way to get a different perspective on the wildlife, but they tend to be cramped and tricky for photography. Something like a 24-105mm or 24-70mm on a single body is probably your best bet – or take a compact camera or decent smartphone.

Doors-off helicopters flights are much more conducive to photography, and you could take a couple of cameras (securely strapped around your neck!) with a wide and a mid-range zoom.

If your safari also includes a significant amount of non-wildlife subjects – landscapes or people – then you’ll definitely need a short zoom.

Macro opportunities tend to be rare on game drives, but there’ll be insects, reptiles, and flowers around your lodge to tempt you between activities.

Unless you are super-keen on macro, leave your heavy macro lens at home like we do and instead pack an extension tube, so you can convert your standard zoom into a close-up lens if needed.

Read More: Safari Photography – How to Photograph Predators

What lenses to pack – how fast will you need to be?

Focal length is only part of the equation when choosing lenses. Speed is also pretty key for most safari photography.

With static subjects, you’re generally going to want to shoot at 1/500th second or faster to minimize camera shake and subject movement, and with action shots, you’ll be looking at 1/2000th second and faster.

That’s all fine at mid-day, but that isn’t when most subjects are active.

On a photo safari, you’ll be going out before dawn, trying to locate predators on the move in time for the best light, and staying out till after dark, when crepuscular creatures once again become active.

safari photography equipment

So much of your most exciting photography will be in very low light conditions, occasionally under a spotlight after dark or artificial light set-ups at nocturnal hides.

Ideally, you want a camera that produces minimal noise at high ISOs. We shoot a lot in low light, and in some situations often bump our ISO up to 3200 or even 6400, occasionally higher. Our preference is for full-frame DSLRs, which maximize image quality and minimize noise.

Of course, that means we don’t have a crop factor.

The good news is noise control is excellent on modern cameras, so even those with a significant crop factor should still work well at the higher ISOs needed for faster shutter speeds.

Test your camera thoroughly at home before you set off on safari, shooting at higher ISOs in low light, to see just how far you can push it. Yes, noise reduction programs can achieve remarkable results, but nothing beats getting as much right in camera to start with as you can.

Clearly, faster lenses are ideal for low light shooting, but again there’s a balance to be struck in terms of size and portability. We love shooting with a 500mm f/4; it produces a lovely shallow depth of field, creamy backgrounds, and gives us plenty of speed.

safari photography equipment

But in many safari situations, it’s too big and unwieldy, and we’ll stick with our 100-500mm zooms. Our Canon zooms are only f7.1 at full extension, but that’s the price we pay for flexibility and practicality.

We certainly wouldn’t advise against bringing a big fast lens on safari if you’re lucky enough to own one – many photographers do their best work with a 400mm f2.8 or 500mm f4. Just make sure you’ll be able to use it on the trip you’ve booked bearing in mind all the factors we’ve outlined above.

If you’re keen to use a fast prime lens, but don’t own one, consider rental. In South Africa, for example, you can rent a Canon 400mm f2.8 for less than £30 a day and you won’t have to drag it out and back on your long-haul flight.

You’ll need to arrange a pick-up and return, but for some trips, it could be worth it.

Can I go Micro Four Thirds?

A small but significant number of our safari guests use Micro 4/3 systems and get some great results.

These systems have the obvious advantage of being very compact and lightweight, and with a crop factor of x2 compared with a traditional 35mm sensor, they offer a lot of reach for your money.

safari photography equipment

Those small sensors are never going to match a full frame for absolute quality, but for most practical purposes are more than adequate, and we have guests who have done very well in wildlife competitions with them.

If you are already using a Micro 4/3 system and are happy with it or are thinking of downsizing to something more portable and lightweight, then this is certainly a viable option for safari.

What batteries and backup should I bring?

You can shoot an awful lot of frames on a single game drive in Africa, so make sure you have at least one spare battery per camera – more if you intend to shoot video.

We recommend keeping batteries topped up at every opportunity. Your accommodation will have charging points, make sure you bring a country-appropriate adaptor.

Tented accommodation sometimes only has a single power socket, so if you have multiple devices it can be worth bringing a power strip. Choose one without surge protection, which can cause issues, and with built-in USB charging ports.

Using a power strip means you only need a single plug adaptor and can charge several devices with their original cables and plugs.

safari photography

We strongly recommend traveling with a laptop plus an external hard drive (at least 1Tb) and backing up your shots at least daily to both. If you have plenty of memory cards, you could just use each once only and do your back up when you get home.

But you will need a lot of cards – we’ve had guests take 40,000 images in ten days! Having a laptop allows you to review your shots, to identify where you can improve, post shots to social media, and ask your photo guide for feedback.

Some lodges have desktop PCs available for guests, but you may be fighting over these with other photographers.

Make sure your software is up to date, as bandwidth is generally very limited in the bush. And have recovery software installed, just in case you accidentally format a memory card before you’ve downloaded its content.

We use fairly large cards (128GB or more). In our experience, cards rarely get corrupted, and we’d rather not be constantly changing cards in the field – too much risk of losing them or missing a crucial shot.

What other things do you recommend?

Digital photography involves a seemingly endless amount of ‘stuff’: chargers, cables, card readers, etc. Keep a checklist so you don’t forget anything when packing.

If you’re going to be using tripods supplied by the operator, it’s worth taking quick-release lens plates for each lens. Supplied plates may be very basic, and you may only be offered one.

Keeping cameras and lenses clean is a constant challenge on safaris; dust can be great for mood but a killer for kit. A slightly damp cloth is good for wiping down your camera after game activities, and a lens cloth and blower are essentials for keeping optics clean.

safari photography

Dry bags, readily available online and from outdoor stores, are a handy way of keeping a camera and lens dry and dust-free on safari without having to put them away in your bag between every photo opportunity.

If your camera pack doesn’t come with a raincoat, then a large black bin bag is worth packing in case of sudden showers.

If you’re anticipating rain (and even dry season safaris these days are no longer guaranteed to be completely dry thanks to climate change), a specialist raincoat for your camera and lens is also worth considering, albeit pricey.

It’s a shame not to photograph in the rain, as it can yield interesting shots. Again, you can improvise with a plastic bag and big elastic bands.

A small head torch is very useful on safari, especially one with a red light option. We always travel with a multitool (Leatherman), a couple of jeweller’s screwdrivers, small scissors, superglue, and gaffer tape, for impromptu repairs.

Make sure you put any sharp items in your hold baggage for flights; it’s easy to forget to take them out of your camera bag and then get them confiscated at security.

We almost never use filters, but some photographers carry a circular polarizer to reduce reflections from water and wet vegetation. If you’re shooting video, a variable ND filter will enable you to shoot at wider apertures in bright light.

We carry a small digital audio recorder and a shotgun mic for recording ambient sound as backing tracks for video clips and slideshows.

Most safaris will have bird and mammal guidebooks available, but you might want to download the excellent and free Merlin Bird ID app, with the relevant geographical pack. It’s also very useful when you get home and can’t remember the names of birds you photographed.

Safaris can be tough on kit, so make sure your camera insurance is up-to-date and covers all your valuable items for all likely claims. Watch out for exclusions, such as gear carried in a plane’s hold.

Last but not least, some important words of warning. If you buy any expensive new kit for a trip, always familiarize yourself with it before you head off.

Magical moments on safari can be many, but they tend to be fleeting so if you’re not used to the workings of a new camera you risk missing that award-winning shot.

In conclusion

Don’t get too uptight about it all.

There’s always going to be the odd situation where you wish you had a different lens, or access to the stuff you have back home, but the sheer abundance and variety of Africa’s wildlife means you’ll have plenty of great opportunities with the lenses and gear you do have. 

Good guides will always try to position for subjects according to what lenses and equipment their guests are shooting with, so for the most part once you’re there you can stop fretting about your gear and get on with enjoying the breath-taking wildlife and photography.  

Visit Ann and Steve's website

Steve and Ann Toon are award-winning professional photographers with more than 20 years’ experience photographing Africa’s wildlife and wild places. Their work is published extensively across the globe and they have authored a number of books on photography and wildlife. They also lead specialist photographic safaris to a range of leading destinations in southern and east Africa.

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