Getting the most out of a photographic safari requires some pre-trip research and planning when determining the most appropriate gear to bring on your once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Embarking on an African safari is the dream of many a photographer. One that brings to mind immediate justification for the purchase of big, expensive lenses. After all, explaining to your significant other, 'But I need that 400mm 2.8 lens,' carries more weight if you're talking about capturing dramatic shots in the Serengeti of the 'Big 5' rather than the pigeons at your local park.

Yet once you have the green light to drop some cash at your favorite photography retailer, it's crucial that you tailor your gear to where you’re going and the type of operator that will be guiding you. African safaris exist across a range of options and locales, each of which may lend itself to a different set of gear requirements.

Lens support

Stability for your telephoto lenses is the first thing to look into. If you’re going to East Africa to explore the Serengeti, you’re most likely going to find yourself in a covered vehicle with a roof that pops open, allowing you to stand up on your seat and shoot out of the top of the vehicle. This allows for the use of a beanbag as a stabilizer, but forget about tripods and monopods. They are just not going to be much help inside these types of vehicles due to space limitations. Optical stabilization (either in-body or lens-based) are your friends. It's also worth noting  two downsides to this type of vehicle. They can make some people feel claustrophobic and your view is seriously impeded with the roof above you.

In some private reserves, particularly in South Africa, the standard vehicle used by safari operators is an open Land Rover/Cruiser with three rows of elevated seating behind the driver (see below). A big advantage of the open-top vehicle is that you really do feel like you’re out in the wild and of course you’ve got a much better view.

A roof-less vehicle not only provides more varied shooting opportunities... ...but also provides bars and/or support arms on which to clamp lens supports.

Be aware that with these open-topped vehicles, beanbags are of little use, as there isn’t really any surface on which to rest them. These vehicles do, however, have a bar in front of each row of seats onto which you can G-clamp a monopod with a Wimberley head (shown below). Alternately, if you’re alone in the row of seats, you can sit in the middle one and prop the monopod up from the base of the seat next to you. Another possibility here is to set up a small tripod on one side of you, keeping a short leg on the seat and two extended legs on the floor of the vehicle, although you may find this setup a bit clumsy to re-arrange should the action switch to the other side of the vehicle. Generally speaking, a monopod with a decent head is your best bet for this type of vehicle.

The Wimberley Head's gimbal-style
design attaches the lens collar to
either a monopod or tripod allowing
for fast, easy rotation around
the lens' center of gravity.
The Wimberley Sidekick offers the
same functionality in a smaller, lighter
and less expensive unit that can be
attached to an existing ball head.

If you’re embarking on a self-driven trip in the national reserves and you’re in a rental sedan you should consider investing in some form of window clamp. There are several makes available, some of which allow you to even attach a Wimberley Sidekick (see image above). A beanbag is a good alternative here, and if you decide to use one, here's a simple tip that will make your traveling easier. Buy a beanbag that zips open and fly to your destination with it empty, saving weight and bulk. Once you are in country, simply fill it with rice or beans and you're all set.

Lens choices

As I mentioned at the outset, lens choice is largely dependent on where you’re traveling. In most of the National parks of Southern and Eastern Africa you are not allowed to drive off road at all. So if there is a lion kill happening 100 meters in from the side of the road, you’re stuck where you are will need some reach from your telephoto lens if you want to get in closer. This is particularly true of places like the Serengeti and Kruger National Park.

My advice for these trips is to bring along something like a 400mm f/2.8 with perhaps 1.4x and/or 2.0x tele-converters. Obviously not everyone can afford to own a 400mm f/2.8, but you are trekking halfway around the world with the express purpose of photographing animals. Renting a lens can be a more economical means of bringing the gear you need. Whatever you do, don’t forget the main reason that you're on the safari in the first place; to take great photos.

A fast telephoto lens with a reach of 400mm at its long end is standard gear on a safari... ...since you will often be photographing animals from distances of 100 meters or more.

If you’re shooting on an APS-C format DSLR, a 400mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and 2.0x tele-converters will give you a fair amount of reach options. Bring along a full-frame camera with a 200mm f/2 and 2x converter and you have some serious versatility in a shorter package too.

There's another safari option to consider - going to a private reserve. This  opens up all sorts of possibilities. By far the biggest advantage you’ll have (weather permitting) is that your ranger will be allowed to drive you right up next to those aforementioned lions feasting on some prey. At such a close distance you can switch to using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and get some amazing shots. In fact, unless you’re really into birding, you can easily get away with doing a private reserve safari using only a 70-200mm f/2.8 with a full frame sensor and a 2x converter. On our group trip to Sabi Sabi last year this was my most-used combination. I also had with me the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8, but found that I was getting shots of better quality with the other combo. It was lighter and had image stabilsation, which allowed me to shoot without a beanbag or monopod.

Protecting your gear

Something to consider when bringing large lenses, together with a bunch of other (likely expensive) gear, is keeping them safe when you’re flying. On the international flights you can usually get away with bringing your photo gear into the cabin as carry-on. On short haul connecting flights within Africa, though, you are generally restricted to only 8kgs of carry-on in economy class.

An effective solution is to invest in a photographer’s vest. Some of these vests have pockets big enough to swallow up lenses as big as a 70-200mm 2.8, not to mention just about everything else you could fit into a reasonable sized camera bag. By putting everything that would normally be in your camera bag into your vest you can easily carry-on an actual bag that falls within the 8kg limit. Of course, you may get some strange looks from fellow passengers and airline security, but so what? You’re on safari – you’re allowed to look a bit odd.

Photo vests come in a range of styles and while we think of them as providing easy access to gear while shooting... ...they can be invaluable on short-haul flights, as you can 'wear' a couple of camera bodies and lenses, reducing the size and weight of your carry-on bag.

On my trip last year I had the following in my 20 liter backpack:

  • Nikon D700
  • Sigma 12-24mm
  • Sigma 70-200mm 2.8
  • Sigma 120-300mm 2.8
  • Sigma 2x tele-converter
  • Sigma 150mm 2.8 Macro
  • Apple 13" MacBook (w/power supply, card reader & mouse)
  • 5 x CF cards of varying sizes
  • Sony Camcorder + 5 miniDV tapes

That bag weighed in at about 14 or 15 kilos. However, I was able to put everything except the laptop and 120-300mm into my photographer’s vest, with space to spare. This brought down the weight of the bag to well under 8kgs.

Should you decide to use a vest to carry your gear like this, you should also look at getting individual lens bags or protective wrappers made out of neoprene. They will give you just that extra bit of protection for your kit, both when flying and then also when you’re on a game drive. It goes without saying that you don’t want two unprotected lenses rubbing against each other, potentially damaging the tools that will see heavy action on your once in a lifetime safari adventure.

Dallas Dahms is professional photographer based in Durban, South Africa who leads both group and custom itinerary African safaris at Product images courtesy Wimberley, Inc.