Safari Strategy:  Equipment Selection 2015

Safari Strategy: Equipment Selection 2015

by Mark Alberhasky, September 20, 2015

MTA_081112_3073-3An African wildlife safari is one of the most exciting and rewarding photo ops you’ll ever undertake. So it’s well worth investing time (and money) in planning for images that will bring a smile to your face for the rest of your life. Let’s jump in…


While rules are meant to be broken, there’s one safari rule that should never be ignored: one camera is not enough. No way, no how. Don’t make this mistake. If you’re asking why, the simplest answer is backup. You’re spending thousands of dollars just to get to this place which you may never visit again. Hardware fails, accidents happen. You NEED a second camera if for no other reason than the ability to keep shooting if your primary camera stops for whatever reason. Now that we agree, YOU’RE BRINGING AT LEAST A SECOND CAMERA, let’s build on that assumption and sort out the ramifications.

Wildlife moves. This is not the zoo. That Nikon 200-500 everyone is curious about is useless as soon as the lion you’ve been shooting at 30 feet decides it’s time to scratch his back along the side of the vehicle 3 feet below the sunroof through which you’re standing. This is why you keep a wide angle lens (18-200 f/3.5-5.6 or 28-300 f/3.5-5.6) on your backup body laying on the seat next to you. You pick it up and in seconds you’re shooting out the open window at eye level with a lion a yard away. From inside the vehicle you’re totally safe but how many times will you ever look eye-to-eye with a male lion 30 inches away? No second body… No wide angle zoom… No pictures… Don’t be the shooter with a story about how the photo of the trip walked by under his/her nose but it’s only a memory because the shot couldn’t be taken.

Okay, which camera should be the second camera. Or for that matter which should be the first camera. I’d suggest you don’t think in terms of first or second but instead bring cameras with strengths that become the best tool for the situation. Bright sun, non-action? Shoot that full frame DSLR with a zillion pixels of resolution but only 5 FPS. Phenomenal subject just out of range with that 200-400 or 200-500? (Yes, there will be times when every mm of focal length from your super telephoto still isn’t close enough). Take off that super megapixel full frame sensor and put your DX body on getting a 1.5x focal length boost to get extra impact in your frame. IMHO it’s better to shoot on your DX body than reach for a 1.4X teleconverter that costs you shutter speeds and ever so slightly degrades the critical sharpness of your original lens. So, the first equipment strategy is to pair an FX full frame body with a DX (APS-C) body, opening up additional focal lengths even before your reach for a teleconverter. (Yes, I still do use teleconverters sometimes).

In years past this is where the body discussion ended. You’d bring two DSLR bodies and a teleconverter (or two). In 2015 there is still another option some may wish to consider: the mirrorless body. For a Nikon shooter, System 1 bodies used with an FT-1 adaptor allow those super telephoto lenses to go ballistic, creating previously unheard of focal lengths. With a 2.7X conversion factor, their CX sensor will give a 300mm lens an 810mm focal length. A 400 becomes a 1080mm and a 600mm delivers an out-of-this world 1620mm, with no loss of original lens speed or degradation of optical path because shooting with the System 1 body doesn’t add any more glass to the equation. A System 1 body and the FT-1 adaptor hardly add any more bulk or weight to your overall kit but opens a lot of doors. The System 1 camera can also do double duty as the trip documentary camera. When you’re walking around in camp or between destinations. You’ll enjoy having a small compact camera to capture those spontaneous moment photos. Even if you pass on the System 1 option, I do recommend having a small pocket camera because there will be grab shots when your DSLR just isn’t at hand.

Now let’s talk lenses. You can bring everything you own if you want but I won’t, because I know that on safari 90% of what I’ll shoot will be with a long super telephoto lens. This means a focal length well beyond what you likely own. Most people think of their 70-200 as their long lens. No way this is long enough if you want to be making Nat Geo quality photos with spellbinding wildlife in your viewfinder. I know that’s what I’m gunning for when I travel halfway around the world and you should be too. A 300mm lens is nice for close subjects, but stunning images live in the 400-600mm range, so let’s talk the ins and outs of glass in that rarefied space (I have seen people shoot the incredible Nikon 300 f/2.8 lens most of the time and pair it with the third generation TC-20 III teleconverter for longer focal length and do quite well).

The basic decision here is zoom vs prime: zooms give compositional flexibility and primes give pristine clarity and critical sharpness. Variable aperture zooms are seductive with lower prices, lighter weight and physically smaller size. But their sharpness is not as critical as a constant aperture lens. This is not necessarily because the variable aperture mechanism is totally inferior but because the overall objective of lens design at markedly lower cost means compromises by definition. Variable aperture zooms often also struggle with autofocus at maximal zoom where the slower aperture fails to provide optimal light to the autofocus system. I recommend opting for a constant aperture zoom if electing to use a zoom lens (I know some people will be shooting the Nikon 80-400 f/4.5-5.6, just make sure it’s the second generation 80-400 as the original was not a good performer).

There is a lot of buzz right now about the recently announced Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E lens. It sounds great on paper though I have to see results before I’m convinced. There are few times in life where you get more than you pay for. The $1400 price point is almost unbelievable for a lens of this focal range if critically sharp images are expected. Maybe I’ll be happily surprised but when the legendary 200-400 f/4 is a $7,000 lens I find it hard to believe a 200-500 f/5.6 for $1,400 can be superior. I’m also less than excited about f/5.6 as the fastest aperture.

Since I’m sharing my experience with wildlife photography, here is my opinion. RENT. No matter what you decide to do regarding a super telephoto lens, rent it for the safari. The Nikon 200-500 is already advertised as a $125 rental for 12 days. For $500-700 you can rent a lens costing $7,000-10,000, the performance of which will bring a big smile to your face. The size of these professional lenses does mean a physical commitment, but the only really hard part is lugging them through the airport and taking them to the land cruiser each morning. Once you’re in the vehicle taking them from the seat to the roof to shoot isn’t that big a deal and the shots you’ll be getting will make it worth the effort. If the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 turns out to be the holy grail super telephoto, so be it. I’ll use it too, but I’m skeptical it can go toe to toe with the Nikon 500mm f/4, a legendary lens on which world class professionals rely. Although I’ve made great shots with the 200-400mm f/4, the 500mm f/4 is my favorite wildlife lens. I shot the 600mm on one safari but it was just too big and there were enough times where it was too tight a composition for my taste.

Having laid all this out for your consideration, here’s how it sorts out in my mind…

All trekkers are interested in good photos by definition, but it’s only realistic to understand that even passion can be defined as a spectrum. Some will want to travel lighter, less expensively and accept some compromises along the way. In that light:

Level 1 Shooter

compact point and shoot camera
DX DSLR body
18-200 f/3.5-5.6 zoom
18-300 f/3.5-5.6 zoom

Level 2 Shooter
compact point and shoot camera
FX and DX DSLR bodies
80-400 f/4.5-5.6 zoom
28-300 f/3.5-5.6 zoom
200-500 f/5.6 zoom
28-300 f/3.5-5.6 zoom

Level 2.5 Shooter
Nikon System 1 V2 or V3 body w FT-1 adapter
FX and DX DSLR bodies
200-400 f/4 zoom and 1.4x teleconverter
200-500 f/5.6 zoom
28-300 f/3.5-5.6 zoom
Level 3 Shooter
Nikon System 1 V2 or V3 body w FT-1 adapter
FX and DX DSLR bodies
400mm f/2.8, or 500mm f/4, or 600 f/4 prime lens
300mm f/2.8 or 300mm f/4
28-300 f/3.5-5.6 zoom
1.4x teleconverter and 2x teleconverter
Speed light and Better Beamer accessory*

D800/D810 shooters out there can rent a DX body 12 days for about $100 (Nikon D7200). If you’re a level 3 shooter intent on capturing action you want high frames per second. A D810’s 5FPS doesn’t really do moving wildlife justice (catching that lilac breasted roller as it takes off from the limb will just be luck at 5FPS). This is why sports and serious wildlife shooters turn to D3s, D4 and D4s where 11FPS fill in those gaps. You have to make a philosophical choice though: high resolution vs action capture, because all the super fast frame rate cameras compromise a bit on megapixels. Not that 16MP in a D4 is anything to lose sleep over, in fact it’s superior for high ISO situations (and safaris do include high ISO work). Renting a D4 for 12 days will run about $450.

These are only suggestions and obviously there can be some choice blurring among levels, depending on personal preferences and willingness to absorb additional cost and weight of equipment. Renting takes a lot of the sting out of deciding to shoot Nat Geo level gear.

I would be remiss to advise you to rent super telephoto glass and not point out one caveat. Since most photographers have never used this narrow and angle of view before, finding your subject in the viewfinder (aiming the lens) is an acquired skill. If at all possible I recommend renting the lens you’re considering for a day or two and shooting with it before the trip to gain some initial familiarity. Physical hands on exposure will prove useful on day one when a great shot presents itself and you’ve already got some muscle memory with your equipment. I took some participants from a previous safari of mine to the zoo here in Atlanta to have them shoot wildlife with unfamiliar big lenses. We called it “zoofari” and it was a fun and educational day where some basic issues got sorted out without impacting the big trip. One person who had sworn she was going to shoot the safari only with her iPhone, made the quantum realization that a real camera was going to be necessary.

*There’s still one more piece to the equipment equation, probably more for level 2-3 shooters: flash photography. There are always instances where either weather or dawn/dusk shooting in low ambient light benefits from a flash. But I don’t mean just remembering to bring your Speedlight. A native Speedlight isn’t meant to do a good job on a subject 50-100’ away. Throwing light up into trees or deep shadows takes an accessory to concentrate the light your Speedlight pumps out. That accessory is known to wildlife photographers as The Better Beamer (just google it). In essence the device is a couple of simple metal brackets, held on to your Speedlight by velcro straps, which position a flexible plastic fresnel lens about 5 inches in front of your flash. A fresnel lens is like the lens in lighthouse, and gathers the rays from the source (in this case your flash head) aligning them into more parallel beams of greater concentrated energy. This means the flash can effectively throw light significant distances and literally create opportunities that didn’t exist. The Better Beamer itself folds down next to nothing in size and weight but it means you need to lug along a Speedlight and batteries, something for which not everyone will want to sign up.

This is how I approach safari equipment strategy. I hope it sheds new light on the subject for those that haven’t been and perhaps a fresh perspective for those who have. The next discussion, for another day, is how to transport it all through airports and end up safari vehicle ready.


Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks,

and leads destination photo tours for PhotoZoneTours.com.

Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning