Safari Photo Gear

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.

A pair of green bee eaters. Note the insect in ones mouth.

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.
Toque Macaque Monkey mom and baby. Indigenous to Sri Lanka.
  • 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.

Quick Tip: Don’t bother with a Kenya e-Visa

We knew that we needed a visa to enter Kenya, so I figured that I would make it easy and use the e-Visa website. That assumption was so wrong. First of all, the form asks a lot of very personal questions; questions that could be used to steal your identity if it fell into the wrong hands. After all, Kenya isn’t too far from Nigeria, where all those phishing emails originate. Next, the application process is extremely convoluted. To apply for both Sheri and me, required creating separate accounts on their website. Payments weren’t straightforward, requiring several acknowledgment steps along with a third-party payment step. Finally, after all that work, it doesn’t seem to actually work. My username/password didn’t work, requiring me to reset the password a couple of times. After payment, their system just shows the application as pending and never acknowledges that a payment was made. Checking with the credit card company confirms that a payment was made, but still no visa.

On the other hand getting a visa on arrival is a much more straightforward process and, depending on the number of people on the flight, doesn’t take nearly as long as the online process. There are fewer questions on the form, and the cost is the same. I would suggest skipping the e-Visa and just applying for one on arrival. Be aware that visa on arrival is only available at major airports and not for overland border crossings.

Our Tanzania Self-drive Safari

We decided to do a self-drive safari of Tanzania after I read all the reviews and blogs of other people’s self-drive experience. I figured that it wouldn’t be as difficult as many people have made it out to be, however, I was basing that on just the driving experience. If you haven’t already read my other post, Should I Do a Self-Drive Safari, you should read about the actual driving experience. What I didn’t take into account were the many other factors that come into play when dealing with a third-world country.

Vehicle Rental

imageWhenever we told any of the locals that we planned to drive ourselves to the Serengeti, we received surprised looks, followed by concern. A couple of people said we weren’t allowed to go into the national parks without a guide or driver. Don’t believe them. A couple of places where we inquired about renting a 4-wheel drive, quoted us a much higher price, up to 50% more, for self-driving than with a driver. Even many of the people commenting on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet warn against driving yourself. These are all scare tactics meant to encourage using tour operators. You can rent a vehicle and you can enter the park without a guide. It will cost you quite a bit for the 4WD rental, especially with places that don’t specialize in it.

We went with Arusha Fortes, because they have been renting self-drive vehicles for over 30 years. They were very good at explaining a lot of the complexities of entering the national parks. Their vehicles were well equipped with two spare tires, a high-lift jack, and pop-up rooftop tent. For our convenience, they let us use their Ngorongoro Park card, for a $20 convenience fee, preloaded with enough to cover our costs. The vehicle was tough and we drove it like the locals. Everything on the vehicle survived the journey, but some things were a little worse for the wear. The parking brake cable seemed to stretch out, the brakes squeaked something awful for a while after sitting in the mud for 3+ hours. All the bumpy roads also took their toll. The high-lift jack lost a very essential pivot pin, making it almost unusable. And a metal door alignment stop simply sheered off. Continue reading

Should I Do a Self-drive Safari?

Our self-drive safari was an incredibly unique and rewarding experience, though a bit frightening at times and not without a few challenges. Depending on why you want to self-drive, it may be worth doing, but it’s a lot of work and definitely not for everybody. Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

The road out of the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the few paved roads inside the park.

The road out of the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the few paved roads inside the park.

If you have already been on an African safari and seen most of the animals but felt like you wanted to be more in control, then you might enjoy the self-drive experience. You can determine your own route and what you’d like to see. You can delight in the freedom of not being on anyone else’s schedule. Leave anytime you want in the morning and return to camp whenever you wish. If you’re a photographer, you can stop at any time for photos, move to just the right position that you want, spend as much or as little time watching animals. If you wish, you can follow the crowds, or you can go to places less traveled to just enjoy the view. And while you’re waiting, the animals may just come to you. And finally, you can have the rewarding experience of being self-sufficient. Continue reading

A Warning to Trekkers

Initially, I wasn’t going to write about our trekking experience in Nepal. I wasn’t happy about many aspects of our porter, but I was willing to chalk it up to the luck of the draw when hiring a someone without references upon landing in Lukla. That is until our porter, Karma Sherpa, sent Sheri a particularly nasty message on Facebook. It was difficult to understand because his English is atrocious, but we managed to get the gist of it. In it he makes some reference to the Japanese trekker who died just days after we started our trek, further saying that the Japanese and Chinese are not strong and that Sherpas in the mountains are strong. He goes on to say he doesn’t like Chinese or Japanese and he didn’t think we were good tourists because he says we didn’t tip him. He also included a graphic of a person with a fish head which is a derogatory depiction for Japanese, because they eat a lot of fish. In response to his rather racist message to us, I’m posting his Facebook page and photo here so that others don’t make the mistake of hiring him upon arrival to Lukla. Continue reading

Riding the Rails Through Asia

Our shared second class (hard sleeper) cabin with six bunks.

Our shared second class (hard sleeper) cabin with six bunks.

The bunk was about a meter wide, and true to its name it was a hard sleeper with very little padding. My head hurt from the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau and my back was aching from sleeping so much, but I was  also fighting a cold and there wasn’t much else to do for 48 hours. The scenery did little to help pass the time. Hills became mountains and the vegetation grew sparse and brown. The occasional town or scenic lake could distract us from our misery for a minute, but eventually seeing our own reflection staring back at us in the window quickly reminded us of where we were for the next day and a half: a cramped little bunk in a rolling tin can. There were six of these bunks in our little shared compartment. The uppermost bunk required gymnastics to reach and later dismount. The top and middle bunks didn’t have enough headroom for me to sit up without hunching over. Even Sheri couldn’t sit up straight. Never have I felt more like cattle packed into a livestock car. Continue reading

Outback Adventure: State Route 19

When we left the coast of Queensland, I had no idea that we would be going on the most memorable part of our road trip in Australia. You might want to read about the driving challenges we faced, as that would be a good preface to this story. Our road trip was fairly uneventful until we left Townsville after returning from Magnetic Island. Google maps had been taking us on scenic routes, often taking us on circuitous secondary or residential streets when a more direct route existed. More often than not, this resulted in more traffic congestion and longer travel times. Sometimes, it would be costly when Google would direct me onto a tollway. Continue reading

Choose Your Camper Van Rental Carefully

Traveling around the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand by camper van is becoming increasingly popular. We just spent three weeks driving 8,164 kilometers around Australia by camper van. I found that the company you select for your vehicle can really make or break your self-driving adventure. There are lots of companies in Australia that rent camper vans and what I failed to do was read some reviews on the company I selected. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have used the place we did. We rented from Hippie and received an Apollo camper van. Apollo is just one of several brands from the same company, including, Star, Cheapa Cheapa, Hippie and their manufacturing and sales brand Talvor. All of these companies have received more complaints than good reviews on web various sites except their own. It began with the whole process of picking up the camper. Continue reading