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What Camera and Lenses to Take on an African Safari
2005 KenRockwell.com

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Introduction

Obviously you want a long lens, but less obviously you need something light and practical enough to carry all over Africa for the week you're there. A good safari company ought to get you close enough so a 300mm lens should be fine. Here are my suggestions to the many people taking a fun and expensive trip to Africa.

Whatever you choose, make sure to try out and practice with any new equipment at your local zoo before you go!

Problems

Bad Idea #1: Big film lenses are too big and expensive

You probably think you want a HUGE 400mm f/2.8 lens like the one on my home page, until you realize it's a foot and a half long and weighs 14 pounds without the required travel case. The newest AFS-II version here only weighs 10 pounds naked and still costs $8,000. You won't want to carry either in the Land Rover, much less have to figure out how to take it on a plane and through customs and outdoor campouts. Sure, if you have personal porters by all means bring it and the TC-20E and TC-14E converters and an F100 or F5 and a boatload of film and you'll get spectacular results, but you'll have to spend a lot of effort getting it from place to place. If you make your living at this (no one really does) by all means spend the time, money and effort, but in doing so you spoil the whole point of having a fun trip. Your huge lens will be your constant companion to the chagrin of your partner. You will have to keep your eyes on it at all times, unless of course you are bringing your own security detail.

If you want to shoot slide film then you are going to need an $8,000 f/2.8 or f/4 super telephoto to be satisfied. The 400mm zooms just are not fast enough or long enough to get consistent results at ISO 50 or 100, but are great at ISO 200, 400 or above.

Bad Idea #2: Reasonably priced film equipment not long and fast enough

This used to be the most practical idea up till 2003 when digital SLRs (below) became practical for normal people. Today film cameras are at a disadvantage because they require big, fast lenses as above, and the popular zooms like the 70-300 and 100-400 are too slow (f/5.6) to be able to stop enough motion with slow film and long lenses.

If you want to shoot slide film you really do want a huge lens and fast camera as in Bad Idea #1. Skip the temptation to shoot print film, more about that here. If you really don't want to get a digital SLR as I suggest below by all means get something like an N80 and 70-300 zoom or 80-400VR or the similar Canon gear, but with f/5.6 you'll have to wait for good light and get close. You could try the expensive ISO 400 Fuji Provia 400F for its speed, but remember you won't get the wild colors I love from Velvia 50 and it's twice the price of other slide film. More about all this at my film page.

Bad Idea #3: Compact digital cameras are too slow

Of course we're all tempted by compact digital cameras with long zooms like the Sony DSC-F828 or Nikon 5700 or 8700, but I don't suggest these either. The lens-attached compact digital cameras suffer from the same infuriating delays in taking a picture as other compact digital cameras. Also the picture quality and ISO speeds are much noisier (grainier) than real SLR digital cameras, so let's skip these.

Suggestions

Cameras

For most people I suggest a real digital SLR (the ones with interchangeable lenses), mostly because they work great at higher ISOs like 400 and 800 and therefore allow you to get great shots with reasonably sized and priced zoom lenses. These cameras now sell for about $900 - 1,500 each. Get a Nikon D100 or D70 or Canon 10D or Digital Rebel. (Actually, don't let me stop you from getting a D1X or D2H or 1Ds either, they just cost and weigh twice as much) and a long zoom like the Canon 100-400 IS or Nikon 80-400VR.

With a true digital SLR you can use the slower f/5.6 zooms quite well because the digital SLRs work great at ISO 200 and above. With the Canon system you can use a 1.4x Canon teleconverter with the 100-400; you should not try to use one on the Nikon 80-400. This is because the Nikon autofocus system won't be happy with the converter and the Canon will.

Digital SLRs have the additional advantage of smaller image sensors which effectively give you the effect of having a longer lens. A 400mm zoom on a lightweight digital SLR will give you the same angle of view as a 600mm lens on a film camera. You know you'll be tired of carrying the 600mm lens even before you make it through African customs, much less carrying it around for weeks.

Computers

Bring a real laptop computer into which to load, preview, edit and burn backup CDs of your images each evening. If you are as paranoid as I am you can mail the CDs home to yourself each day so if you, your equipment or your files meet with bad luck at least your images will be waiting for you at home. Obviously you can't do this with film. You can nuke CD-Rs with every airline X-ray scanner on the planet and even if they are still glowing or set off the Geiger counters you still have your images.

I don't suggest any of the silly handheld digital wallets or whatever because they have no ability to show you what you got, manage files or backup to CD. A real laptop is not much bigger or expensive and offers a world of utility in exchange. Heck, if you have satellite or telephone internet access you can post your photo galleries to the web each night.

Personally I use the least expensive Apple 12" G4 iBook laptop ($1,099) because it is a full-featured imaging workstation like many other high-end laptops, and also is extremely durable (case made of the same polycarbonate as my motorcycle helmets), lightweight (magnesium frame), rugged (rubber-mounted hard drive) and runs a long time on a charge. Mine runs 4 - 1/2 hours on each charge. Bring a spare battery, too.

Batteries and chargers

Bring at least one spare set of batteries each for your flash, camera, computer and anything else you will have out in the bush each day. This way you can pop in the new one as they run down out there. If you know you'll be running through several batteries, buy and bring several. Batteries for digital cameras are like film: you never have enough and a way to recognize a pro photographer is that he will always have several spares with him. Remember you need to run all day and will be taking more photos than you ever thought you would. Also be sure to bring at least as many memory cards as you will be filling up every day. You can never have too many, another sign of a pro.

Be sure that your chargers will work on the voltages that you'll have where you're going and that you have all the correct adapters to plug them all in at the same time each evening.

Lenses

With the digital SLR I suggest a long zoom like the Canon 100-400 IS or Nikon 80-400VR, each about $1,400. Get a camera-brand lens. Each maker also offers less expensive zooms, but since you're going for the $1,500 digital SLR you may as well get the longer VR / IS zoom you really want instead of trying to economize on a cheaper 70-300 zoom.

Personally I avoid discount lenses like Sigma who offer tempting specs and lesser build quality and price.

Forget the tempting inexpensive mirror (reflex) lenses. These 500mm f/8 lenses are too slow and too fuzzy for consistently good results.

Also forget the 80-200/2.8 AF-S and teleconverters. It does not work as well as the 80-400VR. I know, I own them all.

The new $6,000, 7 pound 200-400 VR is an idea if you have the money, but honestly if you are on a fun trip the the results will be about the same as the 80-400VR and the 200-400 is still a big lens to have to baby sit for a week. The advantages of the 200-400 VR are one stop in speed, which would allow you to use the TC-14E to get a 300 - 600mm f/5.6, and faster AF. The advantages of the 80-400 VR are the ability to zoom out to 80mm when you really get in close to the animals, as well as much smaller size, weight and one quarter the price. Even if they cost the same you might really prefer the 80-400VR after having to carry it around for a week. Remember Africa is not Switzerland; you will stick out over there.

I also prefer the 80 - 400 VR to the 300/4 AFS. You don't need the speed for digital, and the 80-400 zooms longs to 400MM and has VR, too.

DO NOT try to double the 80-400. You need at least f/5.6 with any lens/doubler combo, and the 80-400 is already there.

Avoid teleconverters unless you are starting with a lens of at least f/4 on Nikon and f/5.6 on Canon. The combination of lens and teleconverter combination needs to be at least f/8 for Canon and f/5.6 for Nikon to allow autofocus. Teleconverters are really only useful with the huge, fast film lenses that have the speed to spare.

With ordinary zooms you are asking for trouble from blurring vibration with converters. A 2x converter doubles the focal length and quadruples (two stops) the exposure time, thus you are EIGHT times as likely to get motion blur with a converter.

Many people want to try these, and they usually only work well with fast prime lenses. I have a whole page on this here. They give poor results with most zooms since they need a lens of about f/2.8 or faster to be useful.

Conclusion

I hope I've been helpful and explained all the compromises so you can make your best choice. The digital SLRs not only are more convenient than hauling a ton of film over there, but also offer better quality than film for the application of having to shoot long, slow zoom lenses in mixed light. Film is king if you have an f/2.8 super telephoto, but you won't have one over there.

Have a great trip and do remember to try all this out at your local zoo before you go.

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