This is a question that is asked constantly on forums around the web, what gear do I bring with me on an African safari?
I'm heading back to Kenya tomorrow for the great migration across the Masai Mara, which is the type of safari most people seem to do their first time to Africa. Shooting conditions are very similar between Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana.
If you're going to Rwanda or Uganda for gorillas and chimpanzees, you'll definitely be taking different gear than you would be on the Serengeti.
So what gear do I bring?
I'm finding that I'm taking less and less gear with me each time I return to Africa. Part of this is likely due to the fact that I'm now going for specific images and I'm not trying to capture everything.
A good thing that has come out of multiple safaris, is I've used pretty much every big white lens from Canon and I know the strengths, weaknesses, and trade-offs for each.
Gear I'm bringing to Kenya this time and why:
This is the best and most robust camera in the Canon lineup for still photography, it's a no-brainer. I don't have to worry about drops, bangs, water, dust and the vibrations that come with this style of shooting. The camera will just work.
I used to rent a second EOS-1D X Mark II as a backup, but I'm skipping that this time. I've found in the past I only used one camera body 90% of the time and any place I can save some weight on my back, I take it.
It's lightweight and has image quality that works for me. This isn't the body I'd be using to shoot anything action or in low light, unless the big guy dies.
This will be a solid backup and I may use it for video from time to time.
I consider this lens to be the most versatile big white lens out there. Yes, even more versatile than the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS 1.4x.
The 400mm f/2.8 will give you the opportunities for a unique look over all of the other big white lenses for animal portrait work, which is what I'm going for this time. For people that worry about weight, I'd say go with the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM, but if you can handle its bigger brother, go for it.
I will be bringing both of Canon's teleconverters with me, which will give me basically two more high performing lenses.
- EF 560mm f/4L IS
- EF 800mm f/5.6L IS
Using teleconverters may not be as convenient as rotating the zoom ring, or flicking the teleconverter switch on the EF 200-400mm f/4L IS 1.4x, but I'd argue that having both a faster 560mm lens and the opportunity for great optical quality at 800mm is well worth the work of using teleconverters. I have brought an EF 800mm f/5.6L IS on safari previously and there were times I used it and achieved great results.
Always bring the longest lens that you can handle and/or afford.
As I mentioned above, these teleconverters are the perfect companion for an EF 300 f/2.8L IS II or EF 400 f/2.8L IS II.
What? No Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS?
I have used the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 VC in both Rwanda and Uganda in poor weather jungle conditions and it never let me down. The performance has been spot on every single time I've pulled it out. It costs 50% as much as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS and I think performs 90% as well.
I won't be using this lens very often, but I will pull it out if certain situations present themselves.
This is my favourite camera ever made. It's small, light and produces wonderful images. I honestly believe Leica has created the perfect camera body as far as form and function. It's so simple to use.
The Leica Q comes with a fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7, which is my favourite focal length for a lot of situations.
This will basically be my wide angle lens and I'll use it as such when situations present themselves.
Always bring binoculars with you on safari. There may be moments where there are no photographic opportunities, but there will be observation opportunities. Animals can do some very neat things in their day-to-day lives and to miss out on at least viewing these behaviours might be something you'd regret.
I used to use Gura Gear Kiboko and Bataflae backpacks, but those went away after the company went away (though it looks like they may be returning).
For now, I use a Think Tank Airport Accelerator, which is very good, but I'd put it a tier below the Gura Gear Bataflae as far as design, comfort and fit and finish go.
I don't need a roller bag, and much prefer having a backpack.
Why no Canon EOS 5D Mark IV?
It's a great camera body no doubt, but there are no advantages that make it worthwhile for me over the EOS 6D Mark II. That will definitely not be the same for everyone.
If you don't have an EOS-1D series body, then the EOS 5D Mark III or Mark IV should definitely be your main camera.
I'll add that an EOS 7D series camera would work just fine as well as your main camera as well.
Why no telephoto zoom like a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II?
I usually bring an EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS with me. I love the compact design and how it fits nicely into a camera backpack.
Unfortunately, mine broke this week and I was unable to find a replacement in time.
I've brought both of the IS version of the EF 70-200mm lenses in the past, and I've found they take up too much bag space once I consider how many times I've actually used them.
I've never been a fan of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II or its predecessor, so they've never even been considered.
What lenses not to bring?
This might get me in some trouble, but avoid bringing the Sigma 150-600 or Tamron 150-600.
I have multiple times witnessed photographers struggling to get desired results from either of these lenses in Africa. The AF performance at 600mm seems to always cause a lot of issues for people. This has been true for both Nikon and Canon shooters.
Obviously, people have produced great results with both the Tamron and Sigma lenses, but there is a lot of people out there that probably wish they had brought something else.
While I've never personally been a fan of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II, it is definitely going to give you better results more consistently than the supertelepho zooms from Sigma and Tamron. I would sacrifice reach for reliability and performance every-single-time.
If you can't afford to purchase more lenses, renting them is a great option.
Any issues with Carry-on?
The other question that constantly comes up is in regards to carry-on restrictions with airlines.
I'll be honest, I only fly business class on long-haul flights, so there's never an issue with what I carry onto the plane. Though, I've never truly tested what I can get away with.
If you're flying economy, just be nice and don't look like you're struggling to carry all of that gear and you'll likely be fine. I've noticed they care more about what your second bag is (if it's allowed) than the bigger one.
Tripods, flashes and other accessories?
I don't bring anything else outside of a laptop and hard drive to back-up to. Bean bags are usually provided for most photographic groups, and that has always been good enough for me.
I've only used a tripod once in my previous half dozen trips to Africa (excluding Namibia). I've never used a flash, though some birders may be inclined to bring one, though that's not something I tend to shoot a lot of in Africa.
There you have it, the one-millionth opinion on the subject.