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Essential Kit For an African Safari

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An African safari is a dream for many photographers, but the idea of needing a big lens is a nightmare most amateur's face. The truth is that you can get good pictures on a safari with a 300mm. We tell you how and also show the kit you need for a trip to Africa.

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You've chosen your destination from the various National Parks and Game Reserves in Africa and are set to go. But what to pack for the trip? Remember you'll probably be flying on a small plane to the destination field, so your baggage allowance is limited. Pack lightly by choosing what you take wisely. If you're based in a big city you'll return to when the safari ends, you can always leave your more civilized stuff behind.


Two Bodies And a Couple of Zooms

If you can, the best option for a safari if to have two camera bodies. It helps to keep dust away from sensors and makes it easy to change according to the action around you. Pack one camera with a telephoto or long lens zoom and the other with a wide-angle, for landscapes and when the animals get close to your vehicle.

It is a good idea to have two things in your vest pocket to use regularly: a powerful blower and a microfiber cloth to wipe dust from the front element of your lenses. For obvious reasons, it is advisable to use protective filters on all your lenses. It makes cleaning easy and replacement cheaper if you scratch the glass.


Is a 300mm Long Enough?

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While professional photographers use 500mm, 800mm, and even longer lenses, you'll probably do fine with a zoom. Something like a 70-300mm will do. Big pro zoom are expensive and insanely heavy, they're also not the easiest things to use.

American photographer George Lepp defends that a lens like the the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM might be the most useful lens for a nature photographer. Either with a full frame sensor or using the crop from an APS-C camera, George Lepp states that this zoom lens is the “most important Canon lens in any serious nature photographer’s arsenal.”

Although my kit lens is a 100-400mm lens, which I use for everything from flowers to birds, landscapes to airplanes, the pictures published with this article show that it is possible to photograph an African safari with just a 300mm. I used two lenses: a Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 L IS USM and Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, each on its own camera body.


Whole Image, Not a Crop

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In two of the images used here, I show the relation in size between the original photoe and the small image used to illustrate the article. I do this so you understand I did not use a small section of the image to get a proper picture for the web, as so many photographers do these days. The cheetah picture shows how close I was with a normal 300mm. I have others with the animals so close to the jeep I needed to use the wide-angle.

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The landscape picture also shows the relation between the original and the image used in this article. As a final reference for you, the original files have 3456 x 2304 pixels, that’s a 8MB sensor from Canon EOS 350D I was testing in Kenya under invitation from Canon, when the camera was launched.

With birds you might have some trouble with a 300mm lens, but even in that department I felt I could bring home some good images because some of the birds you find during an African safari are rather big, and some of the smaller birds come so close to the jeep that you have no trouble to get excellent pictures of them.


Teleconverters

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Many people with normal consumer lenses think that a telephoto converter, that can extend the focal length of their zoom, is a good option. Many will look at a 2x converter which can change a 70-300mm zoom into a 140-600mm. It is not a good idea.

If you're going the teleconverter route, you must use a good quality converter and lens. These can be pretty expensive, but if you compromise, the results will be less than exciting.

If you have the money to buy the new Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 with built in 1.4x converter, so becoming a 280-560mm f/5.6, that's even a better choice than a regular converter.

If you do choose to use a teleconverter, stick within the brand camera you own. Usually the 1.4x extenders are advised, and they work best with fixed focal lenses. Remember that converters always degrade image quality, are slower to focus, and reduce the maximum aperture by one or two stops.


Filters for a Safari

Keep protective filters on all your lenses, but if you want to take creative filters, opt for two: a polarizer and a neutral density filter. The polarizer can be good to saturate colours and cut reflections.

Considering the options available today with digital cameras, I do believe the ND filter can be skipped. You can do two or three exposures, even handheld, and blend them later in Photoshop.

If you intend to do landscapes intensively and are accustomed to using ND filters, then take one. They don't add much weight. But remember, they can be a bit tedious to use on a moving jeep, so auto-bracketing might work better.


Tripod and Beanbag

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If you want to do some landscape photography and know you'll have the time and conditions for it, do take a tripod with you. Most of the time, especially while moving around in a jeep with people, a tripod best left at home. A monopod with a ball head can be your best friend to help steady a long lens, and save your arms from fatigue.

A beanbag that can be placed on the door frame, on the roof bars of a vehicle, or any other place is one viable support option for long lenses. Beans can obviously be problematic and heavy. Due to that, lately I've used an ultralight cushion I can fill with air. It does not offer the same stability the beanbag does, but emptied and folded it fits into a vest pocket.


Flash and Fresnel

A flash can be used during the day for fill-in purposes, but it is not the piece of gear that you'll use the most, during a safari. Count on using a higher ISO sometimes, something that is not difficult with the modern digital cameras.

Still, if you intend to use flash, there are things you can use to modify the way it works. The best I've found is to use a fresnel lens flash-extender, so you're able to throw the light much further.

Another way to incorporate flash is to use a radio system or cable to let you have the flash moved a bit to the side of the camera, so you're not pointing the light directly at the animal eyes. Obviously, this is all much easier if you're stationary for period of time.


Your Group

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Being able to choose your companions on safari is crucial. If you want to stay in the field while everybody else wants to go have some cool drinks, you risk spoiling the voyage of a lifetime.

Be sure to book a safari with a company that cares for photographers needs. Ask for an open-topped jeep, if available, and always ask how many people will be with you in the vehicle. A guide that understands what photographers want and can take you close to the animals is a major asset, and it will make your 300mm lens be more than enough.


Memory and Energy

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Bring enough memory cards with you. After all, a safari is not your usual day in the park, and you should go home with enough images to remember it. You'll find that you can easily shoot hundreds of images during a whole day, sometimes more than one thousand.

Use high-capacity cards, the fastest your camera can use, and also define how you want to save them later in the day. A notebook with a card reader is a good option, so you can have the cards empty for the following day. Just make sure you have the images properly saved.

Batteries are essential. Lots of them, so you are not caught without energy when something important happens in front of you. Also, remember to take chargers for all your battery types.

Always keep a fresh battery on a vest or shirt pocket, as well as a memory card. Keep the rest in your photo bag, close to you.


Some Little Things to Throw in the Bag

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Binoculars are an optional piece of equipment. A small lamp or head-torch for walking at night at the tent camp or lodge grounds are welcome. Sun screen, insect repellent and anti-malarial tablets along with any medication you need, should not be forgotten. Check with your travel agent if there are any special circumstances happening in the part of Africa you're traveling to.


Clothing

A photographer's vest, with lots of pockets for small things, is a good choice. Light-colored clothes, but not bright colours, to reflect the sunlight are best. Always use shirts with long sleeves and trousers at night time (or the whole day long so you don't forget) because of mosquitos. A hat and a fleece are good for early morning and late night. Finally, a windbreaker and comfortable footwear can complete the list.


The Last Few Tips

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  • Only drink bottled water.
  • Follow the instructions of your guide.
  • Never leave the jeep unless told it is safe.
  • Take pictures, lots of pictures.
  • Remember this may be your only safari.
  • Make every minute count!
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