Africa – African Wildlife Photography
By: Greg du Toit
African Wildlife Photography
Being a seasoned African traveler and not always having the luxury of booking an extra seat, I have learnt to pack as sensibly as possible. Besides, I feel that having too much equipment can stifle creativity; instead of working on creative techniques, you are constantly fumbling with equipment! (As a side note, remember that most safari camps will wash your clothes for you so you only need two changes, and because the climate is moderate, you can pack very lightly.)
Below is a list of equipment that I recommend for an African safari. Please note that the list is intended only to simplify matters and therefore I am not going into detail about which lens is best or which camera body outperforms another. The Internet is full of such information (http://www.dpreview.com). The list below is intended to give you a quick guide in terms of what equipment is needed to capture potentially award-winning imagery on your safari of a lifetime. It is intended to be just a guideline and not everything on the list is mandatory, nor is the list an exhaustive guide to equipment needed for wildlife photography. Rather, it is a practical guide and one that I have compiled after leading and hosting hundreds of African safaris and workshops. It is a general guide purposed to find solutions for all kinds of photographers traveling on all kinds of safaris in any African country.
- One long focal length lens of at least 400mm or longer is highly recommended.
Nikon’s 200–400mm F4 is a great safari lens as it is light, versatile, and sufficiently sharp. But, make no mistake, it will also leave you short at times and I have found the performance of this lens coupled with ANY converter to be substandard. This lens is a compromise but a good one at that!
Canon or Nikon’s 500mm F4 is an excellent option for a safari lens. A 600 F4 is also excellent although a bit too heavy for my liking (but if you have one BRING it). These prime lenses give you the necessary reach needed for wildlife photography; they are also fast lenses allowing you to photograph in low light. They offer the ultimate in sharpness and focusing speed.
For those of you not wanting to break the bank account, Canon’s 100 – 400mm or Nikon’s 80 – 400mmm lenses both offer good all-round compromises. These lenses, however, are slower focusing, battle in low light and are not as sharp as the prime or fixed focal length lenses, but they are small and incredibly versatile, allowing you to shoot wide and then zoom in. They are very practical lenses for African travel and still produce publishable results.
After that, a 70 – 300mm F5.6 lens is your next best option for large mammals and predators. Make sure you have the VR (Nikon) or IS (Canon) versions. Most birds will be out of your reach though!
- A mid-range zoom for close-up action or portraits is also highly recommended. A 70 -200mm F2.8 is a legendary lens, and indeed the benchmark for this type of work. If you have the money available, just buy one! This lens is pin sharp, fast and maneuverable. This is the lens you will use when we are on top of the action as well as to shoot your cultural portraits.
Canon shooters can check out the 200mm F4 lens for a more cost effective option; although lacking in IS, this lens is small and light. Another option here is to use a macro lens to double up as a portrait lens like the 105mm; this might leave you frustratingly short at times but it is a decent compromise.
- A wide-angle lens of sorts for landscapes and to show your subjects in their environment is essential! These lenses are also small and light. The lens you buy here will depend on whether your camera is a full frame sensor or not. For cameras that are not full-frame, you want to be able to go as wide as 12mm to get that wonderful wide-angle perspective. For full-frame sensor bodies, you want to be able to go as wide as 16mm; any wider and you start bending lines. I advocate a wide-angle lens with zoom functionality as these lenses are sharp enough and you cannot value their zoom functionality enough, especially when dealing with wild subjects that are often just out of reach.
- A 1, 4 tele-converter is also recommended. I am not a fan of tele-converters but sometimes the action is just that little bit out of reach. A 2x converter is too much of a compromise in quality for my liking (and focusing speed). Make sure your lens is of course compatible with a converter and that both focusing and image stabilization works.
Two camera bodies are preferable, one with good ISO performance and a high frame rate (action cameras like the Canon 1DMk4 or Nikon D3S). The other camera body should offer exceptional full-frame image quality (landscape or fashion cameras such as the Canon 5dMk2 or Nikon D3x). If you have two bodies, you can avoid changing lenses and missing the action. Also, you can avoid dust getting in and onto your sensor, which is a concern in Africa.
If you are only interested in wildlife action, as apposed to any type of landscape work, then bring two identical bodies that offer high frame rates and good ISO performance. Two identical bodies will allow you to switch seamlessly between lenses and in the middle of the action.
- Camera support is a constant challenge when on safari as each safari camp’s vehicles will be configured slightly differently. Your biggest ally in this regard is the humble monopod. Purchase a monopod that can collapse short enough to be propped on the seat between your legs and then regardless of the vehicle configuration, you will always be ok. Monopods are small, light and easy to pack.
If you are a landscaper then a tripod is a must. Due to weight restrictions, the carbon fiber tripods are the way to go. Gitzo’s are excellent tripods and Benro’s offer a similar product but are more affordable.
- Then, you will need a decent head to screw onto your monopod or tripod. There are dozens of heads out there and here, again, weight becomes a critical factor (I really like the Kirk ball heads). Due to this, large fluid heads are generally not recommended. A medium-size ball head can do the trick for both your landscape and wildlife work. When shopping for a ball head, make sure that it can take the weight of your heaviest lens. It is very important that you test your longest lens on the head of your choice and please test your rigging before the safari. Depending on your brand of head, you will need matching lens plates attached to your lenses’ feet. When ordering or purchasing a head, ask them to send the relevant plates for as many lenses as you will want to attach to the head, and attach these before the safari to avoid having missing screws and needing allan keys out in the field.
If you have a large prime lens (500mm or longer), then the Wimberly gimbal heads are excellent but a bit heavy – so you will need to compromise somewhere else. These screw onto your monopod or tripod and allow you to pan effortlessly. Perhaps the best solution for wildlife photography is the Mongoose tripod head. This product is difficult to find outside of the USA but it is similar to a Wimberly gimbal, but HALF the weight! Again, the Mongoose has its own lens plate design, so be sure to order those as well.
A Manfrotto super clamp is a very handy device if you are shooting from a vehicle that has pop hatches as is found in East Africa. If the vehicle has a railing around the top, you can attach the super camp and then attach your head to that. If you bring a super clamp, make sure you have the studs and again check the rigging at home.
Lastly, the humble beanbag can often save the day. Bring an empty beanbag and, if needed, you can fill it when on safari. With a beanbag, monopod and a tripod/monopod head you can always make a plan in any vehicle or on any surface.
- A flash is small and light; I always recommend packing it. A flash comes in very handy when light conditions are less than favorable. When buying a flash, just purchase the latest professional flash from Canon or Nikon. They are not expensive when compared to cameras and as wildlife photographers we need all the functionality of the latest models. Flashes are durable and last for a long time so don’t withhold by buying cheaper or 3rd party flashes. If you want to photograph wildlife in very low light then an off camera flash bracket is essential to avoid getting green eyes (you can correct this in post production).
- Extra camera batteries are a must; as in Africa, faulty generators are a reality. Good rechargeable batteries are needed for your flash.
- Card reader, to download your memory cards.
- Storage device (laptop or other) and back up device (passport hard-drive or other.). I like to back up onto my laptop and then again onto a small passport hard drive. When traveling, keep your hard drive and laptop separate!
- Raincoat for camera or at least plastic bags.
- Sufficient memory cards! I favor large cards 16 gigs and up; I download every day. If you run out of memory on your laptop, memory cards can save the day!
- If you are into landscapes then don’t forget Lee or Singh Ray Split ND filters, Polarizer and cable release.
- A Headlamp in your camera bag WILL come in handy.
If you do not have all the equipment on the above list, then by all means still join us on safari! As a professional photographer, I live by the rule, ‘Do what you can with what you got’!