Contributed by Safari & Photography Addict, Chris Petersen
Ok, you booked your safari. You’ve poured over your prime species to hunt. You’ve already been sorting out your hunting gear and packing list. A camera is probably also on that packing list. Almost everyone packs some kind of camera on their safari. But this is your “trip of a lifetime”, so what kind of camera is best to capture those special moments and memories? And if you are going along as an Observer, your camera will most certainly be one of the most important items you should plan for in advance.
When people see my photos after a safari, they want to buy a camera just like mine. Not so fast. Just as there are many calibers of rifles and styles of scopes, there are many types of cameras and lenses. You probably can rule out a film camera these days given the convenience and quality of digital. But choosing the “best” digital camera for your safari will depend upon your style, passion and budget.
Safari photos should not exclusively focus on just the “big stuff” … One of my best safari shots is this tiny Sunbird, which it barely 4 inches long and weighs just ¼ oz.
We can’t begin to cover all the details in just one post. To keep things manageable, we’ll just focus on taking digital pictures for print or viewing on your computer screen (video is a topic for another post someday). Your major options to consider when choosing a digital camera for safari pictures include:
- Cell phone or smartphone camera
- “Point & Shoot” pocket camera
- Mid-level “Super Zoom” digital cameras
- Mirrorless Digital with changeable lenses
- Digital SLR cameras with changeable lenses
Let’s just say that I’m “serious” about photography and take at least two cameras on every safari. As we run through the camera options you’ll quickly see why. If nothing else, having two cameras along always provides you with a backup. In the case of my Giraffe safari, the camera in my pocket did not survive the chase that ensued.
Yes! Take your phone with a camera … even if you won’t make phone calls
International calling plans can be a bit expensive, but chances are you’ll be taking your cell phone with to talk and text when you are in your home country’s airports. Even if you don’t make any phone calls while travelling, there is simply no better or faster way than to use your phone to send photos to family or friends when arriving back home. Everyone wants to hear about your safari and see your trophies. Snap photos along the way, and you can quickly send a couple when you reach home.
You don’t have to have a new smartphone to take photos. Almost all cell phones today have pretty decent cameras for snapshots. The added bonus is that most phones also shoot video clips. Ideally you want a phone with at least a 4 megapixel camera, having 6 or 8 is even better. Going on safari may be the perfect excuse to upgrade your current cell phone to one with a better camera.
Pros: You already have a cell phone which is very small and lightweight. It will take simple snapshot photos in good light that are easy to upload. Best part is that it makes it very easy to send photos or video clips to friends and family when you are back home.
Cons: Slow shutter speed, limited telephoto capability for wildlife, photo quality is often poor in low light on early morning or late afternoon game drives.
Today’s phone cameras and the pocket point & shoots do a great job of capturing scenery and where you hunted like the one above. Photos can be easily sent from your phone.
Tablets … especially iPads can be used for photos!
When first writing this post about taking a camera along on your safari, we never even thought about including your iPad or tablet. If any of you already have a tablet, you know how great it is to take with on trips. You can use it to read books, watch movies or play games on the flight to and from Africa. And the best part is that the latest tablets have built-in cameras that take pretty amazing photos!
Starting with the iPad version II, Apple started putting cameras on the back of their tablets. Many other tablet makers have followed suit. These cameras can take pretty amazing snapshots, video clips and even panoramic views of the landscape. The quality of the photos is similar to a cell phone, and the photos are pretty good if you have good light. While you certainly wouldn’t want to carry a tablet around in the field while hunting, it could be very handy to take some photos around camp or on a “sundowner”.
The best part about a tablet is that you get an app so that you can quickly edit and sort your photos. You don’t want to waste valuable time editing photos while on safari, but it is a great way to relive your safari on the flight home. And the best part about having your photos on a tablet is that it becomes the perfect slide show for family and friends. Of course, you can use your tablet to email your photos on Wi-Fi when you get back home, or when you find a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Pros: If you already have an iPad or tablet, it is the perfect trip companion entertainment, and it probably already has a camera built right in. It will take pretty good snapshot photos in good light that are already loaded for viewing or editing. Video clips are also easy on tablets. The best part is that a tablet makes it very easy to share photos with your group right in camp. Plus you’ll be ready to send photos or video clips to friends and family when you are back home.
Cons: Slow shutter speed, somewhat limited telephoto capability for wildlife. The size of most tablets is too large to carry out in the field. Photo quality is often less than desired in low light on early morning or late afternoon game drives.
Point & Shoot – Pocket style digital cameras
You probably already have a pocket style digital camera, or maybe several collected over the years. They get their name from their small size and being able to literally slip into your pocket. They are extremely handy to carry with you everywhere on safari. Although I would not recommend your front pocket as the best place based on me cracking my pocket camera in a front pocket while chasing my Giraffe!
If you own a pocket style digital camera by all means take it with you! If you are looking to buy a new one, it is amazing what the new pocket cameras can do. Most are very affordable ranging in price from $100 to $400 US. As usual, you get what you pay for … the higher priced cameras have better quality lenses, and better sensors for higher quality photos.
The power of the “zoom” lens is important for better wildlife photos. You want to look for a pocket camera with an optical zoom of at least 6X to 10X. Some of the better more expensive pocket style cameras now have optical zooms as large as 20X. For wildlife photos, bigger is better for optical zoom numbers. (Ignore anything about “digital zoom” power because a digital zoom merely “enlarges” your pixels and degrades quality of your photos.)
Point & Shoot Pocket cameras do a great job of capturing your trophy photos. A very basic camera captured this memorable photo of my very first African trophy.
In photography, like shooting, you have to learn and understand the capabilities of your equipment. Point and shoot pocket style cameras are intended for all-round photography. They are great for taking photos of camp, activities, scenery, and your trophies! Some of the best photos of safari trophies are taken with pocket cameras, so by all means take yours on hunts.
Pocket style cameras can be effective for many wildlife photos, especially the larger plains game species. The shutter on pocket style camera typically has a delay factor, which can cause camera “shake” or “motion blur”. And pocket style cameras typically are limited to 4-12X telephoto zoom. While that is good enough for Elephants or nearby Zebras on a game drive, small animals like Springbok will look like “dots” in a big field.
What are those animals way out there? You can’t see from this pocket camera photo with 4X zoom that they are in fact Bontebok, not the more common Blesbok.
Pros: The big advantages of these pocket style cameras are obvious: 1) they are so easy you literally point and shoot, 2) they are so small and light you can carry them in a shirt pocket. The newer ones can also take HD videos. If you are going to purchase a new pocket style camera for your safari, get one with at least a 10X optical zoom, 20X is better if you can find a model that has that in your price range.
Cons: Most pocket style cameras have limited telephoto capability for distant wildlife. Photo quality can be blurry and speckled, especially in low light. All pocket style camera have a “delayed shutter” which requires some practice to take sharp photos.
Digital “Super Zoom” all in one Cameras
A new category of cameras emerged over the past couple years which is perfect for an African Safari! Whereas pocket style cameras typically have telephoto zooms of 4 to 8X power, the new “super zooms” have a telephoto lens with 20X, to 30X power. The newest models are even up to 50X optical zoom. Just think of this like a rifle scope. A 4X scope doesn’t give you much magnification … but a 20X scope really brings wildlife “up close and personal”.
Even the big Hippos can look very small when shot with a pocket point and shoot camera on a game drive – Look below to see what a super zoom will enable you to shoot.
WOWSER … Now we’re talking great photos … this is what you can shoot when you use one of the digital super zooms with 20 to 30X zoom factor.
I can’t say enough good things about the new digital super zooms. They take much better photos than the smaller point & shoots because they have longer telephoto lenses, and they have better quality digital sensors. They have automatic settings and flash, which makes them just as easy to use as any point and shoot camera. There is no hassle of changing lenses. And WOW, that zoom factor captures everything from close-ups to very distant wildlife.
When asked what camera to buy for a safari, the “super zoom” is the style of camera I most recommend. I’ve never had someone come back from their safari disappointed in their photos from one of these cameras. All the major brands like Canon, Nikon or Sony make one of these in the $350 to $500 US price range, which is a very good investment for your safari. And you can use this camera for taking pictures of all kinds of things at home, especially your kids in sporting events.
Pros: Affordable, compact all in one camera with a great telephoto lens that gets great photos of even distant wildlife. While the camera won’t fit into your pocket, it easily fits in your purse/bag. Almost all of them have a built-in flash. They have automatic settings for beginners and most have adjustable settings for advanced users. These style cameras can literally capture great photos of everything from a Dung beetle, to the distant tiny Klipspringer perched way up high in the rocks.
Cons: Not many drawbacks other than bigger than a pocket camera. It still has a “delayed shutter lag” and won’t stop the action like the fast shutter speed of a digital SLR which is described at the end.
Mirrorless Digital 4/3 Camera with changeable lenses
The best quality digital cameras are the “SLRs”, and we’ll get to those in a minute. Since digital SLRs and their lenses are heavy, the latest trend by Olympus, Sony, Canon, Nikon (and others) is to build a very small camera body the size of pocket camera, but enable you attach and change lenses. The lenses look huge because the camera body is so small and compact.
A “mirrorless” camera from Sony. Very small thin body, but it can accept big, quality lenses. For me, why carry this when you can have a full SLR in Africa!
This style is often called a “4/3” camera due to the size and format of the sensor. In simple English, the sensors are larger than pocket cameras, so they tend to take better quality photos. They also have faster shutters so you can stop action much better. They are “mirrorless” since you don’t look through the lens like you do on a SLR.
While they are “cute”, light, and a sexy trend in cameras, I do NOT like them for safaris. They are small, but not small enough to carry in your pocket. And, they are a bit fragile if not protected. They are also not “cheap”. The body alone costs $500 to over $1200 US, and then you can double or triple that buying the required lenses, sold separately. If you are looking to move up in quality, have the patience to learn settings, and want to try different lenses, this could be the style of camera for you.
The biggest drawback is that this style of camera is that they typically don’t come with lenses that have enough zoom power to take good photos of wildlife. If you want truly great photos and changeable lenses, then my recommendation would be to step up to buy a digital SLR, which starts out at about the same price for a kit.
Pros: Smaller and lighter than a digital camera SLR. They have better quality sensors with higher resolution. They also have more rapid shutters, with the ability to use better quality glass lenses that can be changed to match shooting conditions.
Cons: Relatively expensive, somewhat fragile for a safari. The lenses that come in a kit with these cameras typically don’t have enough zoom power for wildlife. The reality is that you don’t save that much in size or weight over the newer digital SLR cameras.
Digital SLR Cameras – Big, Heavier, but the Best Quality!
This is not a technical blog, but everyone always asks: “What does SLR stand for?” SLR is shorthand for “Single Lens Reflex”. In English what that means is that the camera has a built-in mirror that actually lets you see through the lens when you look through the viewfinder. You do not have to look at the back of the camera to see what photo you’ll take. What you see is what you’ll get for a photo.
Digital SLR systems come with a “body” and an array of interchangeable lenses that can be adapted to shooting conditions. The choices of bodies and the number of lenses can almost be overwhelming as seen by the photo below.
With an SLR it’s like looking through a rifle scope and “pulling the trigger”. If you are serious about “digital hunting”, then a SLR camera is your best choice. SLR’s have very fast shutter speeds, and the top cameras can shoot as many as 8 to 10 frames per second! These kinds of shutter speeds on SLRs will literally stop birds in flight.
Fast shutter speeds and rapid frames per second on a Digital SLR literally froze this Secretary bird in flight, creating a dramatic photo.
With a digital SLR system, you buy a camera body and lenses separately. However, most SLRs are sold as a kit, with a camera and one or more lenses. Top brands like Canon, Nikon and Sony are sold by Best Buy, Amazon and even Walmart in the US.
The camera body is basically the computer that records. You can get a good quality one for about $400 to $800 US. It is more important to spend money on the “glass” or the lenses. In addition to an inexpensive zoom for taking all around photos, you’ll need a telephoto lens for wildlife.
A SLR with even a modest telephoto lens can take great photos even in low light … and has the ability to “blur” the background and foreground to create interest.
The zoom factor for SLR lenses is measured in mm length of the lens. You’ll need at least a 300mm lens, 400mm is better. A good quality zoom for a SLR can be had for about $500, but prices range well into the thousands. The bottom line is that you can get started with a good SLR system for about $1000 – $1500. If you are familiar and comfortable with eBay and purchasing used equipment, you can get some great deals on digital SLRs as photographers sell their older equipment to trade up.
African safari photos are not always of animals. Notice the great blurred background in this photo taken before sunrise with a digital SLR.
Pros: Takes absolute best quality photos especially in low light. The ability to use fast shutter stops action, and reduce camera shake. Digital SLRs much more durable, with the flexibility of a variety of lenses
Cons: More expensive, especially for the good long telephoto lenses. SLR cameras are bigger and heavier. You must also have at least a couple of lenses and the mindset to change them. You will definitely need a telephoto lens for wildlife.
So what’s in my camera bag for safari?
I take my smartphone everywhere, so I will snap some quick pictures to email from it. I also will take an iPad for entertainment, so I will try some camp photos with it. I have a small pocket camera that I always take in the field while hunting and will use it for trophy photos.
But oh baby, there is nothing like my big digital SLR on safari! You just can’t get those dramatic, close-up animal photos with the “blurred background” unless you shoot a SLR! (And don’t even ask my wife what I’ve spent on telephoto lenses J). You can just never have enough cameras to capture your safari experience of a lifetime.
My favorite photo of Gemsbok was taken after the sun went down. Only a SLR can capture this kind of photo in low light, with a great blurred background.
Here’s what you need to do next …
Do NOT buy a new camera right before you go on safari. It would be like trying to shoot a new gun without sighting it in or practicing. The first thing you need to do is go to stores and try out different cameras. Pick them up. See how they feel in your hands. Test them, and see if you feel comfortable shooting with them.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! You can’t learn to shoot a gun in one session. Good photos come from practicing – take a lot of pictures of different subjects. Buy your camera early, and then practice taking photos around the home. More importantly, go outside and shoot photos of animals … your running dog, cows in a field, and some deer or birds if you can find them.
One of my “practice” photos of a great Canada goose. Our favorite thing to do in the frigid winter of Nebraska is hunt geese and plan next year’s safari.
Photography should not be a “chore” … but part of your journey that starts before safari, and creates memories for years to come.
If you still have questions …
Sorry for the long post. We tried to cover as many camera areas as possible. But, you may still have questions. Please feel free to post a comment or question to this blog, or our Facebook page, and we will try to answer it before you go on your safari.
For more information on our hunts and current updates about John X Safaris; follow us on Twitter, connect with us on Facebook and visit our website!