What is the best lens for an African safari?

| January 11, 2014
lee brown photography elephants african safari

Elephants on the Masai Mara – 420mm, f/6.3

I admit that a question as broad as, “What is the best lens for an African safari,” is near impossible to answer. What I can do is tell you what worked for me so you can draw your own conclusions. Because photography is my business, I have the benefit of owning some glass that may be out of reach for some readers. Don’t worry about the exact lenses I used as much as what the focal lengths were and how I used them in the field. Buy the best lens you and afford and have a blast making photos on your safari.

First, let me give you a little background on our safari and the shooting conditions. Our safari was in Kenya on the Masai Mara at a camp called Kitchwa Tembo. We had a fantastic time at Kitchwa Tembo and I highly recommend the camp for a safari. Also, the logistics planning through andBeyond was flawless, which made great use of our time while we were there. You can find out more about our journey to Kitchwa Tembo in an earlier post here.

Although I did not have a private vehicle, I had a fair amount of room to move around to get my shots. The Rover, which was the same vehicle for our entire stay, was quite spacious and comfortable with four rows of seats. Our guides Meme and Leah sat up front, leaving three passenger rows for my friends Ric and Lisa, me and Donna, and a nice gentleman from Wales. So that was five people in a vehicle that could have held nine in addition to our guides.

safari vehicle and beyond kitchwa tembo

Our preferred open vehicle

If the vehicle had been at capacity, it would not have been as much fun. When shooting from the Rover, I found myself frequently moving from one side to another to get my shot. Had the Rover been full, it would have been quite a challenge to move around and I surely would have missed some opportunities.

I really enjoyed having an open vehicle as opposed to one that has a pop up roof. For me, the best part of having an open vehicle was feeling like I was a part of the environment. I could feel the wind, smell the rain, and get a real sense of my surroundings. I am pretty sure a closed vehicle would have compromised this experience to some degree.

safari vehicle pop up roof

A safari vehicle with a pop-up roof

My safari camera gear

Let me start by saying not everyone will want to carry as much gear as I did. My goal was to carry as much as I could and not have to check baggage. In the end, I had 46 pounds of carry on luggage, which was oppressively heavy. Although I was happy to have the gear with me, it did get heavy on the 20-hour journey to Africa.

I used f-stop’s excellent Tilopa camera backpack as my primary carry on along with a Think Tank Retrospective 10 for the balance of my gear. Getting the 46 pounds on the bigger airliners was easy. Getting it on the small safari plane to the Masai Mara was another deal. I was 11 pounds over on my weight allowance for the small plane! Fortunately my travel partners were under their weight allowance so I was able to take my extra weight without being charged.

lee a brown photography cheetah masai mara

Cheetah near the Tanzaniza border – 420mm, f/5.0

So, what did I put in my bags? Here is the list of primary equipment:

My primary strategy was to have two cameras with me at all times. One with the 300m, which could be teleconverted to 420mm or 600mm, and the other mounted with either the 24-70mm, or the 70-200mm. This allowed me to capture wildlife up close as well as capture broader landscapes or wildlife that was too close for the 300mm prime and telephoto converters. There were a few times that I had to switch lenses to get the right focal length, but quick swaps between the 24-70 and 70-200 were no problem. Only on a rare occasion did I have to remove the 1.4x telephoto converter from the 300mm, making it the winner for most of my shooting needs on safari.

lee a brown photography olive baboon

Olive Baboon – 420mm, f/6.3

I must say that having the broad focal length available for almost anything was great. Of course I could have come close to the same breadth of focal length with a 50-500 Sigma zoom, but I really enjoy the optical quality of the Canon 300mm f/2.8 along with its excellent four-stop image stabilization. Plus, the Canon 300mm teleconverts with very little loss in image quality. On the topic of image stabilization, although I had a monopod and tripod with me, I found myself shooting handheld most of the time. With sufficient practice, the 300mm with the 1.4x telephoto converter can be handheld with excellent results.

What focal length did I use the most? Of the 911 keepers that I shot in Africa, the focal lengths were:

  • 584 were shot at 420mm, which was my 300mm prime plus the 1.4x telephoto converter
  • 221 were shot from 24 to 69mm
  • 105 were shot from 70 to 200mm
  • 1 was shot at 600mm
lee a brown photography luch masai mara

Lunch on the Masai Mara – 24mm, f/6.3

Do I feel like I took the right gear on safari? Yes, I do, although I would probably lighten up the bags a little by leaving the 2.0x converter at home. Although the 300mm f/2.8 II weighs almost six pounds and is a bit bulky, it is awesome for its relative portability compared to super telephotos and its top-shelf image quality even when mounted to telephoto converters. The 300mm with telephoto converters is by far my go-to lens for wildlife adventures. I feel I could have done without the 70-200mm if I had worked with the guide to choose optimal viewing distances for the 300 to 420mm range. On the wider end, I do feel I would have missed the 24-70 if I had not taken it.

lee a brown photography Cape buffalo

Cape Buffalo – 59mm, f/4.0

I hope that you found this helpful for trying to decide what lenses to take on safari. No matter what you want to take, the most important decision is to book a safari in the first place. It is truly the experience of a lifetime!

Category: Africa, Photography, Travel