Which camera to take on Safari?
May 19, 2016 1:21 PM   Subscribe

Help me decide on the camera gear I'm going to take on safari.

I have a digital rebel xt with a kit lens that I take on holidays and mostly leave on the shelf other than that. I'm going on safari in Eastern Africa in July that I'm thinking I need to update my kit for. Googling this specific issue brings up a dizzying quantity of advise, much of it focused on spending big bucks. I'm a very casual photographer who 'kind of' understands how to use an SLR, so I don't want to spends many thousands on new kit.

1. I'm thinking it's worth it to upgrade the body since it's over 10 years old at this point? Should I make the switch to Nikon? The Wirecutter recommends the D3300 and blasts the T5 and T6. I would be most inclined to get the T6i but it's significantly more expensive than the other options I've listed. Are the T5 and T6 that bad? Conversely, is it worth it to bite the bullet and go for the T6i? I am not opposed to buying a Nikon but the lens options seem fewer and more expensive for similar quality glass?

2. I'm thinking I should get a 35mm/50mm lens with a low f-stop, and a zoom lens (something like 50-200mm). Does this make sense? Any recommendations on glass to buy?

I'm also open to totally different suggestions such as: keep your current kit, keep the body and just get some nice glass, go for a mirrorless, get a nice point and shoot with superzoom, just take your smartphone (I have an iPhone 6s). Would prefer advice from folks who have taken their gear on Safari. Keep in mind that I bought my current camera on super sale for $400 over ten years ago and have been (mostly) happy with it so far. My wife also needs an upgrade I think (she's currently rocking a 2010 model Canon super zoom) so suggestions for her are most welcome too.
posted by sid to Technology (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Glass is more important than a body, so upgrade the body only if you are unhappy with the performance, resolution or features of your current body. Remember that more lenses means more weight and more stuff to keep track of - you may find a wide-zoom that covers the whole range the you want to use, like an 18-200 would get you probably what you need without having to carry two or more lenses at the expense of a stop or two on the wider side.

I'm a Nikon shooter and I've been very pleased with the Nikon 18-200 f3.5 as my "all purpose" lens.
posted by chocolate_butch at 1:32 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Absolutely get a new body. I tried using a Rebel XT last year and realized that 10 years is a looooong time for digital cameras. The good news is that just about any decent new camera is going to be way better, so you won't have to spend a lot to get something much better than you're used to. If it's going to be mainly for this trip, consider an entry level newish DSLR and save your money for a good zoom.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:49 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

For a safari, you want the best/longest zoom lens you can get your hands on. Also think about stabilization options. Tripods may not be convenient, and you should look into the more flexible stands (e.g., GorillaPods) that allow you to affix your camera to sturdy objects on the go.
posted by benbenson at 1:58 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kinda depends on what kind of photography you want to do, you know? I do agree that assuming your plan is to stick with an interchangeable-lens camera of some kind (probably still your best bet if you want good performance and don't mind some bulk) this question becomes more about lenses than about backs. Also, a lot of this kind of stuff is really personal. There are lots of totally valid ways to get good pictures, and what you choose to do depends greatly on how you like to shoot.

Are you planning to do a lot of daytime wildlife photography in a savannah setting? Get as much telephoto as you can afford. The kind of megafauna that people generally think of when they think "safari photos" is unlikely to want to let you get anywhere near it, and you'll be in an environment with lots of open space and long sight-lines. If you've not done much wildlife photography in that mode, you will be surprised by how much telephoto you need to get as close as you want—the human brain and eye are very good at making you feel like something is closer than it is, whereas the camera is totally unforgiving in that regard. Unless you have a lot of telephoto (I'd say 200mm in 35mm equivalent would be a bare minimum) you're going to be frustrated by how small and far away the animals look in your photos. Don't bother with a zoom here, get a prime lens and crop as necessary to frame your photos the way you want them. That might be an argument for upgrading your camera back; having some extra megapixels to play around with means you can crop more aggressively without losing an unacceptable amount of resolution.

Do you expect you'll be doing a lot of street and portrait photography of the people you meet and places you go along the way? For that, I'd say that a zoom lens is in order, something with a 35mm-equivalent range of maybe 35-75mm or so. If you plan to do a lot of indoor photography you might want to be able to go wider than that. A lot of kit lenses will get you into this range, so if you have a decent kit lens you might be fine here. Going prime is also a totally valid option too; you'll have less flexibility, but it's also one less thing to think about and sometimes when we impose constraints on ourselves it can paradoxically help enable creativity.

One thing I haven't heard you mention is macro photography. If you have any interest in this, I'd highly recommend it. My main setup when I was in Cameroon was a 70mm-equivalent f/2.8 macro lens with a ring flash, and some of my personal favorite photos ever came out of that. I was doing a lot of night work in forests which lent itself naturally to close-up photos with artificial lighting, but the beauty of macro photography is that if you have an eye for it you can take stunning pictures almost anywhere. And the right macro lens can also double as your walking-around snapshot lens, though you will probably find yourself with a prime lens of some kind, as macros are generally not also zoom lenses.

Those are my thoughts on the matter, anyway, but I'm hardly an expert and this is a subject that people have literally written entire books about. Whatever you bring you'll be sure to have the opportunity to take good pictures. If I had to give you one final piece of advice, it's this: get super familiar with your rig before you go. You are always going to be constrained by the limits of your equipment, no matter how good it is, and you want to know where those limits are so that you can work effectively within them and avoid the frustration of trying to take pictures that your setup just isn't capable of getting. Also, in both wildlife and street photography, the opportunity for a great picture often comes and goes in an instant. You don't want to be fussing with your settings for minutes on end before every shot; ideally, when your camera is out you want to have a pretty good idea of the kind of pictures you're going to take and have things pre-configured for that kind of photo, but inevitably you'll find yourself having to change settings and possibly lenses to capture some serendipitous moment, and you want to be able to get there quickly before the moment is gone.

Oh, and bring some kind of tripod or monopod. Particularly for long-range stuff (and also in low light) it'll really help you get things sharp and clear. How much tripod you want to carry around is up to you, but you should have the option.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:10 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would stay with Canon, but upgrade from the Rebel XT. The noise at higher ISO has gotten SO MUCH BETTER over the last 10 years.

You don't need to split hairs over which camera to buy. All of the SLRs from Canon made in the last few years compared to the Rebel XT are amazing.

You might look at the 50mm f/1.8. It's really cheap and reasonably fast. If you want to splurge, you could get one of the 70-200mm f/2.8s. If you want to spend fewer dollars, for more zoom, but a much smaller aperture the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 might be a good option.
posted by gregr at 2:15 PM on May 19, 2016

OK so I lived in East Africa and did a ton of safari with a similar level of camera expertise as yourself, it seems. Here's what I did.

At the time, I got a Canon 40D and an 18-250 Sigma lens just to get me a wee more zoom than the 200 would. I'm very glad I did that - there were a number of situations where I wouldn't have gotten a decent picture without it.

Now, it's not your giant bazooka lens that you see professional photos or uber-rich amateurs out there with, but in most situations save for the really skittish animals like rhinos or serval cats, I don't think you need that. Your safari driver is going to be able to get you pretty surprisingly close to most of the game that there is out there to see.

We recently upgraded to a Canon 70D with an 18-135 but we don't safari much anymore. Plenty happy with it so far. I would say it's an almost completely different camera body from what I had in the 40D 9 years ago.

Stabilization is important, but you're likely best off with a bean-bag that you can rest the lens/body on. The vehicle ride will be too bumpy to affix the camera to and leave it there while moving, and you are very rarely going to be shooting outside of the vehicle, if at all.

2 things not to forget for safari - a sun hood for the lens (you'll do most of your shooting in the early mornings and early evenings, when the animals are most active), and a cleaning kit, because it gun be dusty as fug. I also got a neoprene sleeve case for my camera and was super glad I had that - kept it protected when not in the case but I could still draw the camera quickly to get shots when I needed to with scarce moments to get the shot.

Whatever you do, do not take just your iphone. You're going to the other side of the world to see wildlife that in some cases (lions / rhinos) you likely would not be able to take your grandchildren to see. Invest!
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:17 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

And yeah, I didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't upgrade your body. Pretty much any modern digital camera back is going to be vastly more capable than your existing one, and you should seriously consider upgrading. The good news is, whatever you get is going to be a big upgrade, so don't obsess too much about what any given reviewer says. If you have some half-decent Canon glass to go with your existing camera back, stick with Canon and just get as much camera as you're willing to pay for. Don't buy all new glass unless you have to.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:18 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am going to advocate for point-and-shoot with superzoom. I went on safari in South Africa a few years ago, and absolutely loved my Fujifilm FinePix S1 with a Gorilla Grip for mounting in the Land Rover. I was with a group of 8 people, some with expensive binoculars and SLR cameras. You know who spotted the most wildlife at distance? Me with the superzoom. You know who could keep their camera out in the pouring rain? Me with the weather resistant superzoom. You know who got amazing snaps when rhinos started fighting under a rainbow, with no futzing with the camera? Me with the superzoom. Wildlife is...well...wild. By nature they're unpredictable and great shots are going to happen all around you in seconds. Using a superzoom felt like just the right combination of control over my camera
posted by TungstenChef at 2:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Consider renting rather than buying. There's rental kits with bodies and lenses that will better suit getting wildlife shots than what you are likely to want to spend on buying gear that will rarely be used.

I'm a very casual photographer

If you are a very casual photographer traveling with your wife, I would encourage to you consider what you want to get out of the trip. Serious photography, particularly stuff with long zoom lenses pulls you out of the environment and interacting with each other. I am the type that will sit for 10s of minutes staring down a lens with my finger on the button waiting for the perfect moment to get a shot. And while I get some great photos, it means I miss a lot of other things I could be seeing and don't interact with my significant other while I'm doing photography.

If you are there to *see* Africa and wildlife as your primary focus, I'd suggest that getting a high end point and shoot (the Sony RX 100 line is popular, if they ship before your trip the new Nikons are promising) and get some great wide shots of the landscape and each other but not worry that much about zoomed in shots of wildlife. Unless you have a strong urge to take shots of lions or whatever, there are many quality photos of animals out there taken by pros with more equipment and patience than you will want to have - the photos that are likely to have meaningful resonance to you a decade down the line will be the ones of you and your wife experiencing the trip together.
posted by Candleman at 2:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [10 favorites]

My friends that went on safari checked into renting super expensive zoom lenses; I can't remember if they rented camera bodies as well, or if they brought their own. Depending on where you're headed, it may be worth checking to see if it's an option, because it seems to me like the big zoom helps a lot when looking for good shots.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:40 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

The first time I went to Africa I took an apsc camera and a300mm zoom, the second time I traded to a micro four thirds camera, which effectively turns that 300mm lens into 600mm.

However if you are a casual photographer, I would look carefully at many of the one-inch sensor zoom models available. The tech has come a long way, the performance, size aperture and zoom range are very impressive and might suit you more than lugging a big kit about.

Have a great time, I still dream of Africa, those trips are incredible for me.
posted by smoke at 3:24 PM on May 19, 2016

Another vote for superzoom cameras. Yeah, the optics ain't all that and they can be cheap, plasticy pieces of crap, but my parents took one to Africa and got a few pictures of a leopard lounging in a tree from 100 yards off. It's a fine picture, optics be damned.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2016

If you're going to want to be taking more unobtrusive pictures of people on cities and villages, I would suggest having a small point and shoot that you can just stick in your pocket as well, so you don't have to worry about having something expensive and attractive for stealing. I also feel less awkward taking pictures of people with slightly lower key equipment; ymmv.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:52 PM on May 19, 2016

Check out https://www.lensrentals.com - great place to rent virtually any lens (or body) you can imagine, which will probably be a better use of resources for a longer lens you might want on safari but not use again.
posted by rollo tomassi at 5:12 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a ton of fun on safari with a superzoom -- the Canon PowerShot SX50, which has a 24-1200mm equivalent lens. Here's the Flickr album from the trip if you want to see image quality in different conditions. Many of these were taken at full zoom, because that's the most fun (why shoot the whole lion if you can just take a picture of a giant mouth?). Example full zoom (from like 100 feet away). Example full wide.

What's great about this is you can go from full zoom to full wide in a couple of seconds. So you can just be hanging out with a lightweight camera around your neck, and think, "oh, it would be great to grab a photo of just that bird in that tree way over there," zoom in and grab it. And then, "oh, it would be great to grab a photo of that whole landscape over there," zoom out and grab it. There's minimal futzing to have exactly what you want.

This worked out as a good level of distraction for us -- it's like a game to see if you really can nail just that bird before it flies away, and it's good to have a little something to do during hours of "ooh look at that totally amazing thing," but it's not so technical that it's distracting from the experience.

Safari is also, like, the most fun you'll ever get to have with your superzoom, if you like superzooms, because there's so much awesome, far-away stuff and it's so bright -- you can mostly keep the shutter speed way up where the superzoom wants it.

It definitely loses some resolution, which I found annoying when editing. You can judge for yourself whether the smearing in my photos would be a dealbreaker for you. But National Geographic wasn't going to want my photos anyway, and I can't imagine a camera that would have been more fun.
posted by john hadron collider at 6:41 PM on May 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I went on an African safari right before DSLRs became big -- I had a film Canon Rebel. For that trip I decided to bring an L series 70-200 4L, plus the 50mm 1.8 and mid zoom (28-135 I think?). Took some amazing pictures! Since then I have owned several DSLRs (currently I have a 7D) and still think about the photography lessons I learned on that trip. I would agree with people to spend money on the lens rather than the body, but you probably want to upgrade the body. Some thoughts on things that will make you happier in terms of photography on this trip:

* if your main concern is animal pics, get a zoom with a pretty long end. Don't worry about a shorter prime like the 50mm 1.8, or any prime at all -- a zoom will be most useful to you. I definitely used the 70-200 the most. 200mm was good, though there were plenty of times I would have liked more. That said, I appreciated having the 4.0 at 200mm, and I'm not sure I would have traded extra focal length for it. A fast zoom is nice, because big apertures are useful in lower light situations (like when going out really early in the morning or being out as dusk falls). It does get expensive, though. Renting might be a good option. Note that you may find a lens like a 70-200 2.8L to be too big and heavy.

* along those lines, and given that shooting wide open is not always the shot you want to get in low light conditions anyway, try to get a body that has good high ISO performance.

* also along those lines, more megapixels would be helpful - even with a decently long zoom, you will likely want to crop the resulting picture, and sometimes crop quite a lot. The better the zoom, the easier it will be to essentially trade off length if you have the megapixels.

* many of the animals you will look for aren't going to be doing a lot of fast continuous moving, so a big frame buffer and high frames per second aren't that important. If you catch them hunting/chasing/fleeing, I suggest just looking up from the camera - you don't want to miss it and you likely won't get a good shot anyway!

* I don't think a tripod will be helpful. You won't be taking a ton of pics that benefit from a tripod. I took some landscapes, but the wildlife was far more interesting. Some method of stabilization will definitely be helpful especially in the lower light situations, but most of the shots will be from a vehicle, so you will have something to lean against. A gorilla pod or a monopod could be helpful.

* candleman's point about experience is well taken, but I found that I and all of us on the trip would fall completely silent when we found wildlife, sort of retreating into ourselves in the moment, whether or not we were taking pictures. The experience was always unique and felt solitary, even while obviously being common to everyone in the same vehicle. After each viewing we were always surprised to hear how each of us saw or focused on sometimes very different things. At the same time, it was so gratifying to have experienced it together.

* print your best shots when you get home! Print them big! You will be so happy with them.

Have a blast! My safari trip was one of the best experiences I've ever had. I have promised my wife and kids that we'll go as a family someday I hope that relatively soon.
posted by odin53 at 7:36 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a semi experienced amateur I don't think you should be renting a lense unless you plan to rent it for the next couple months. I say that because you need practice. Practice with a particular focal length; practice with what ever camera you attach it to; practice with a particular lens. Honestly the worst time to be acquiring any new photgraphy hardware is immediately before a once in a life time trip. So whatever you do end up with I suggest getting it as soon as possible and then spending a lot of time with it between acquisition and leaving for your trip. I'd be trying for at least 5-10 hours a week spread out over at least a three days until July split maybe 75/25 taking pictures/editing results.

A super zoom would be a good choice if you don't need to print large sizes. Their big drawback however is how slow the lens' tend to be. On the other hand you don't miss shots because you are switching lens which on vacation I see as a big plus. And they are a lot cheaper than a dSLR+lens or two which I consider a win when on vacation (less worry about lost/stolen equipment). Wirecutter likes the Nikon P610 which has a redonkculous 83X zoom but also weighs as much as a dSLR with kit telephoto. It also has built in GPS (the only super zoom with that feature I think) which I consider to be a must have feature on a camera system.

Having never been on Safari I don;t know how much of a bother a regular tripod would be (and would probably skip it) but I'd take my little tabletop tripod and a string tripod with me. Both are light and cheap. The table top tripod is 50% of the way to a full size if you can find something to set it on (table, truck hood, fencepost, large rock).
posted by Mitheral at 7:53 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

My dad is an amateur bird photographer and has discovered that there is one thing even more important than quality when it comes to glass, and that's weight. When shopping for new lenses he frequently rents the lens he's interested in and carries it around for his standard type of shoot. He's used some amazing lenses but often ends up not purchasing them due to weight and/or size. What seems reasonable when you first affix it to a camera body can suddenly feel extremely unreasonable after three hours of trekking through a swamp or a savannah.
posted by xyzzy at 1:01 AM on May 20, 2016

I'm on safari right now, actually, and you would be surprised at how VERY CLOSE some animals will come to you. People with huge zoom lenses cannot catch the elephant or the lion as it wanders within a few inches or feet, and they have been depending on the people with them to get those shots.

(I'm the "eh, this point & click camera is good enough" person depending on someone with a better camera.)
posted by jeather at 5:30 AM on May 20, 2016

When I went on safari (sadly nigh on ten years ago!) I took a film SLR camera and a new 400mm zoom lens. I saw that to emphasize everyone above who is telling you to practice if you go that route, because while I got lots of good shots, I also got lots of blurry crap because I wasn't used to that long lens. Meanwhile, my wife with an old 4x Kodak point-and-shoot got some amazing shots because she could just, well, point and shoot.

Also, the additional challenge level for bigger lenses is getting enough light at dawn and dusk. A lot of your safaris will start before the sun rises or finish as the last light of day is fading and you'll want to get some awesome shots. I can't recommend what sort of camera body would help that and I know that digital sensors are super fast these days, so it might be less of an issue, but you want to bear that in mind. Also, in my experience on safari, while we got quite close to some animals, there were lots of situations where I wanted lots of zoom power.

So, I would say super zoom with the maximum number of megapixels you can get.
posted by dellsolace at 12:49 PM on May 20, 2016

You want a 1" sensor superzoom.

I would say the Sony RX10 mkiii, but that thing is backordered and $1300.

The Panasonic FZ1000 is amazing as is the Canon G3X. Both have ridiculous range lenses. The Panasonic is 24-400mm, the Canon 25-600mm. Unless you're doing big prints you won't notice a quality difference between them and a mid-range SLR. You can grab either open-box at Best Buy for around $500-600.
posted by lattiboy at 2:14 PM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I never went on a safari, but I know of some pros who did, and if you go long, long lens, rather than a tripod, a bean bag draped over a rolled down vehicle window might be worthwhile. Amazon has tons. I used to fill mine with rice or beans rather than the poly styrene pellets.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:56 PM on May 20, 2016

Here are my safari pictures taken with my superzoom. My heart lies in Africa.
posted by TungstenChef at 7:19 PM on May 20, 2016

Thanks for all the amazing answers. For posterity, this is what we ended up with:

Me: Nikon D3300 with Sigma 18-250mm lens
Her: Canon SX60 superzoom
posted by sid at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's a bit of a post-trip report:
- We were in Tanzania, where there's no off-roading in the parks, and while some animals got up real close, having a 63x zoom was a big help. Definitely a case of more-zoom-is-better.
- The price-to-zoom ratio of superzoom cameras is unbelievable. My wife was able to get shots that were impossible with my setup.
- The SLR takes noticeably better pictures. One of our objectives was getting a few standout shots that we could blow up and hang on our walls, and I'm glad we had the SLR for this purpose as the image quality does make a difference. The 18-250 zoom was the perfect lens for me as a beginner, enough zoom to get some closeup shots but also able to take very good landscape shots. I saw folks with huge zoom lenses that I'm sure got them some amazing shots, but I'm glad I didn't have to deal with lugging around gear like that on safari, not to mention the cost.
posted by sid at 5:11 AM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

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