After our around the world trip, we have been to Africa a few times now. That’s a few more times than most people so we know a thing or two. We’ve been on a guided safari in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. We have also driven on our own self-guided safari in Tanzania where we visited the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. Our most surprising safari was a guided one-day trip in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park. We probably saw as many animals in Sri Lanka as we have on all our Africa trips combined. If you haven’t considered Sri Lanka, you should. It’s an amazing country that offers much more than just the safari experience.
My camera gear back in the day was significantly different from what I’m shooting now. Back then, money was tighter, I wasn’t doing photography as a full-time professional and image quality wasn’t my primary concern. Size and weight were much more important. Today, I have significantly more experience and I’m using more of my images to make money so quality is more important to me now. Aside from the first camera I ever had, I’ve always shot with Nikon gear since starting my photography journey. Back in 2019, I made the switch to a mirrorless system and over the last few years, I’ve been slowly changing all my glass over to the new system. I’ve also invested more into video gear and various lighting that I use for my profession. However, most of that isn’t really necessary for a safari in Africa.
Back in the day when I went on safari, I brought the following equipment:
- Nikon D800
- Nikon D7200
- Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR AF-S
- Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 DX
- Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 DX
- Sirui T-025X Carbon Fiber Tripod
If I were to go on a safari today, my equipment would be much better, but also heavier. Here’s what my gear would consist of and why:
- Nikon Z8
This would be the mainstay of my photos. I love the higher pixel count and faster processing speed. It’s a significant upgrade from the 36 megapixels of the D800. The Z8 is smaller and lighter (only slightly) than the Z9 yet offers much of the same features. For moving subjects, the fast accurate focus and high frame rates almost guarantees at least one good shot. And the video capabilities are pretty spectacular too making it a highly versatile camera.
- Nikon Z7 II
Safaris are mostly off-road trips in a dry and dusty environment. It’s not someplace where you’d want to swap lenses on a mirrorless body. Even with the sensor shutter on the Z8, the fine road dust manages to get everywhere. Even when I was shooting a DSLR that had a shutter protecting the sensor, that sensor got dirty quickly. Having a second body means I don’t have to worry about dust reaching the sensor or the time lost changing lenses. I can keep my wide-tele lens on the Z7 II and keep my long telephoto on the Z8. The Z7 II also has the same image size as my Z8 so I don’t have to sacrifice pixels when using it. For closer or more stationary subjects, the focusing and frame rates are usually fast enough.
- Nikkor Z 24-120 f/4 S
If you’re on safari in South Africa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how close you’ll get to wild animals, sometimes disturbingly close. When that happens, your long telephoto lens won’t be of much use. I found that this focal range is great for wildlife close to your vehicle and for establishing shots in videos. It also has enough reach and overlap with my long lens to not have to switch back and forth as often.
- Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S or Nikkor Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3
I have both these lenses and deciding which one to bring is a difficult choice. Both are zoom telephotos with about 5.5 stops of vibration reduction. The 100-400mm is an “S” lens, which means it has better image quality because of higher quality optics and dual focusing motors for faster focusing speed. It’s also lighter and easier to pack and the 1/3 to 2/3-stop brighter aperture could mean the difference between a keeper or a blurry photo. On the other hand, the 180-600mm has a longer reach with tighter cropping. If you’re a birder or stuck in the back of a crowd of tourists on the Serengeti, you’ll appreciate this lens. The 180-600mm is also an internal zoom, which means that on a dusty safari, it won’t change size and suck in dust as you zoom. However, this lens is about 1.8 lb. (about 800 grams) heavier than the 100-400mm and is also longer. That could be an issue in a crowded safari vehicle. The 180-600mm also doesn’t have some of the useful features of the shorter telephoto, such as an extra function button for focus recall. It’s also not an “S” lens and the focusing isn’t as fast. If you’re going to South Africa where safaris are mostly on private land and a bit more intimate, the 100-400mm is more than adequate for large mammals. If you’re going to the Serengeti or Sri Lanka where your vehicle will be jockeying for position in a crowd, you’ll want the extra reach of the 180-600mm.
- Nikkor Z 14-30mm f/4 S or Nikkor Z 20mm f/1.8 S
Out at a safari lodge, in the middle of nowhere, the sky at night is incredible. Depending on the time of the year, the Milky Way is also visible in the southern hemisphere. The 20mm would be perfect for those Milky Way shots without having to carry a star tracker. The 14-30mm is probably too slow for night sky photography, but it’s a bit more versatile and Africa offers lots of opportunities for landscape photos and creative use of foreground elements. Whenever I don’t bring a superwide lens, I regret it.
- Nikkor Z TC2.0
Adding a 2X teleconverter makes your already slow telephoto zoom lens even slower. You might extend your reach, but at the risk of blurred or extremely noisy images. Sometimes though, you might just need that tighter crop and having that option can be what makes a great photo. It takes a little bit of advanced planning to know when you might need it. Someplace like the Ngorongoro Crater is where it would come in handy. You can often see wildlife in the distance, but there isn’t a road that will get you close enough.
- Sirui T-025X Carbon Fiber Tripod
In the past, I have brought a monopod. I used it for one day and the rest of the time, it sat in our room. In the vehicles used for the safari drives, you’re usually packed in the Landcruiser or Land Rover like sardines. Trying to use one in a vehicle isn’t practical. There isn’t much room to move and even less room to swing a camera and long lens with an attached monopod. Nowadays, with good vibration reduction on our lenses, the need for a monopod or tripod is nearly all but eliminated. Most shots can be handheld and good safari guides will switch the engine off so you can use the vehicle to brace your camera without vibrations. There are often nighttime opportunities to take longer exposures, or where animals are involved, slower shutter speeds that even VR won’t help. These usually aren’t in a vehicle and then a tripod can be useful. And then there’s always the obligatory group shot. You could hope one of the guides can take a good photo or frame the shot yourself on a tripod. The Sirui tripod is small and lightweight, making it easy to include in my kit, and it’s surprisingly sturdy for its size.
- DJI Mavic 2 Pro
On our African safari, we splurged for helicopter flights over the Okavango Delta. It’s an unforgettable experience that I would recommend. However, it is expensive and you’re never guaranteed a window seat. The drone makes it possible to do your own aerial safari without the expense of a helicopter. Just make sure you are allowed to fly in the airspace where you’ll be.
- Lowepro ProTactic BP 450 AW II Camera Backpack
In the past, most of my gear was in a hard case for these kind of trips. While the equipment is well-protected, the case wasn’t always the easiest to carry around. It also drew a lot of unwanted attention to the fact that I had expensive camera gear. The Lowepro is a little more discreet, and easier to maneuver when there isn’t pavement.
In addition to these essential pieces, I often bring a bag of filters and holders, cleaning accessories, and extra batteries. With the mirrorless systems I have, I need a minimum of 4 extra higher mAh batteries, such as the EN-EL15c. And since I usually have two camera bodies with me, I carry them on a BlackRapid double camera harness.