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When I go on safari, what’s in my camera bag?

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:

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

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.

Canon EOS 6D Mark II

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.

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM

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.

Canon Extender EF 1.4x IIICanon Extender EF 2x III

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.

Tamron SP 85mm F/1.8 Di VC USD

What? No Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS?

Nope.

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.

Leica Q

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.

Leica Ultravid 8×42

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.

Think Tank Airport Accelerator

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.

Jun 3, 2016
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#2
I have been on three safaris to Southern Africa, the last one private, and all with the same guide, who is phenomenal. I have had six of my images published by Nat Geo. My recommendation IS the 200-400 with built in 1.4X for ONE simple reason: DUST. Prior to leaving, I mount one lens on one body, and they are not taken apart until I return home. Our next trip will be in October of 2019, and I will repeat most of what I took in 2016.
Canon 1Dx MK II with 200-400 mounted
Canon 1Dx with 70-200 2.8 mounted
Leica SL with 16-35 mounted
Gitzo Carbon monopod with Really Right Stuff head
Batteries, chargers, lens cleaning, table top tripod, yadda yadda: all fits into a Think Tank Airport 2 bag.
If you have not been, DUST is everywhere, worst above all in Namibia.
 
Likes: Daner

Canon Rumors Guy

EOS-1D X Mark II
Jul 20, 2010
6,824
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Canada
www.canonrumors.com
#3
There's definitely a ton of dust, but you're usually in a dust cloud as vehicles are moving, which is not a good time to swap. If you have good technique when changing lenses, the dust has never really caused me any issues. YMMV
 
Apr 1, 2016
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#4
Cool! Can see why you like the 400.
I frequently visit the Mara and my bag is a TT Airport commuter and it has 2x 5D IV, one 100-400II, a 500mm II, 1.4 converter and one small wider angle lens.
Praying for the photo gods I can add a mirrorless ff from Canon sometime ;)
Have a wonderful trip; I'm up in November and again in February!
 
Feb 10, 2016
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#5
Wife and I have done a number of safaris. Don't have the funds for the 400m f/2.8 L II sadly, but might rent one next time.
Our go-to kit (for 2 shooters):
5D4 - primary camera with 100-400 II L (wife likes the close-up work)
5D3 - primary camera 70-200 f/2.8 II L (mine for more animal-in-context)
77D - lightweight, strong IQ at low ISO, generally mounted with a 16-35mm f/2.8 L for landscapes.

The body & lens combos let us cover most requirement, little-to-no on-road lens swapping. Add in some Lee grad filters, and the all important circular polariser and that's about it.

Long-haul transport in a Peli1510 (with Trekpak inserts) and a large Lowepro messenger bag (which will hold the three bodies with mounted lens when in the jeep.

Best single recommendation I can give is - Zeiss lens-wipes. Easy to carry lots etc etc.
 
Jun 3, 2016
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#6
I just did a trip to Kruger and took two 5DMK4 bodies, 200-400, 70-200, 24-70 and a 16-35. I almost solely used the 200-400. For the most part it had enough reach, there were a few times I wish I had more lens. I’m not sure if I would rather have a longer lens or a 7DMK2 which would put you at 896mm. It was my first time using the 200-400 and I loved it. Having the versatility of a zoom definitely increased my hit rate. I think if I was shooting a prime TC combination I would have missed more shots. I don’t think there is a right or wrong combination and obviously the 400 2.8 is a great lens, it just is more time consuming to get to the right focal length.
 

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#7
I have been on three safaris to Southern Africa, the last one private, and all with the same guide, who is phenomenal. I have had six of my images published by Nat Geo. My recommendation IS the 200-400 with built in 1.4X for ONE simple reason: DUST. Prior to leaving, I mount one lens on one body, and they are not taken apart until I return home. Our next trip will be in October of 2019, and I will repeat most of what I took in 2016.
Canon 1Dx MK II with 200-400 mounted
Canon 1Dx with 70-200 2.8 mounted
Leica SL with 16-35 mounted
Gitzo Carbon monopod with Really Right Stuff head
Batteries, chargers, lens cleaning, table top tripod, yadda yadda: all fits into a Think Tank Airport 2 bag.
If you have not been, DUST is everywhere, worst above all in Namibia.

Tom,
Wondering, why add in a Leica SL and not have another Canon in the mix?
Thank you in advance
 
Jun 3, 2016
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#8
As much as I am a Canon fan, I have 3 Leicas, as the quality of the glass is incredible. My SL 16-35 was the 1st one sold in the US, and I use it extensively for landscape work, hand held only. My HDR tripod mounted cameras are a 5D MKIV and the Canon 5Ds. Actually the SL has not been to Africa yet. Last trip took an M240 with 35mm 1.4 attached, and a M240 with a 12mm Voigtlander attached (which got used very little).

Further note: due to flying many small bush planes, our weight limit (all luggage, clothes, cameras, etc) was 44 lb per person. Since the loaded Think Tank weighed in at 39 lb, I paid for an extra seat on these planes for the gear.
 
Mar 18, 2014
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#11
Are your images (particularly safari stuff) viewable online anywhere canon rumors guy? You have some interesting lens choices but proof is in the pudding so to speak...
 
Aug 8, 2018
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#13
My first trip to Africa, I took two bags (Gura Gear 32L & 26L ) full of equipment. I was on a photo tour and the organizer said to "bring it all" since we were staying in 3 camps in Botswana and using private charters with ample baggage allowance. Below is the bag I took on my 18 day 2017 trip to Botswana, Rwanda & Tanzania.
  • Canon EOS 1dx II and 5dIV all this in a Gura Gear 32L
  • 100-400 f4.5 -5.6 L IS II (for gorillas)
  • 200-400 f4 L IS w/1.4x TC
  • 24-70 f2.8 L II
  • 1.4x & 2x TC III's
  • Swarovski 10x30 compact Binoculars
  • Batteries, chargers, etc
I am working on 2 more Africa trips and will probably swap the 100-400 II for a 70-200 f4 L IS II for future trips. I might also swap the 5d IV for a 7d III should such an animal be released before my next trip. The 200-400 stayed on the 1dx II (majority of shots) and the 100-400 was on the 5dIV. I was close enough to the gorillas with a 24-70 f2.8 L II (got a love shove from a female) but a 70-200 would have been preferred. Did;n't use the wide angle a lot, so lens changes were not an issue or I changed before we left camp. I absolutely understand about the IQ benefits of the 400 f2.8, but prefer the versatility of the 200-400 f4 L IS w/ TC. I had the original 600mm which was about the same weight as the 400 f2.8 II and was a beast when I was 17 years younger. I am contemplating a 400 DO II with TC for the lighter combination w/ 14.x & 2x TC III's, but will probably stick with the 200-400. The 200-400 can also be used with a 2x tC without the internal 1.4x engaged. Tradeoffs.
2017-10-06 01.27.40.jpg
 
Feb 14, 2018
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#16
Interesting and impressive selection of the gear, I only wonder why take 6DMkII instead if 5DMkIV while you have both. 5DMkIV is roughly the same size, weather-sealed, dual-card, better DR etc.
 
#17
You had me until you said you weren't a fan of the 100-400! haha I would like to know your reason behind your not liking the lens. I have been nothing but satisfied and impressed with this lens - and that includes using a 300 f/2.8 and 400 f/2.8. Everyone has their personal needs and tastes, but I don't know why someone wouldn't be a fan of that lens after using it.
 

justaCanonuser

Grab your camera, go out and shoot!
Feb 12, 2014
173
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Frankfurt, Germany
#18
Tom, many thanks for the great tips! I am focused more on the North and birds (and hope for a trip to the Antarctic region during the next years). But whenever I'll go for the Big Ones to Africa I'll keep it in mind - friends have been recently in Kenia.

I personally like your fast prime approach to photography much! Zooms make you lazy, primes force you to a much more creative framing. If you get too close for a total coverage, you make a portrait of an animal or even a detail of a portrait and you get a much more interesting image. Recently I made a trip with both a 500 mm prime and a 150-600 mm zoom, a Tamron G2. This lens is quite nice, but using it I realized that I started to tend to those boring "always complete animal" shots I thought I left behind me many years ago. So I fixed a focal length and worked with that to release more creativity.
 
Mar 15, 2015
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Torino ITALY
#19
For birds, animals, macro and landscape...

CANON 7DMKII (with battery grip)
CANON 6D
CANON 24-70 F4 L IS (or 24-105 STM)
CANON 100-400 L IS MKII (or CANON 70-300 4-5.6 L IS)
CANON 500 F4 L IS
SAMYANG 14MM (or MEIKE 8mm fisheye)
SIGMA 8-16 (or CANON 100MACRO L IS)
1,4X III
 

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