What telephoto lens should I bring to use on your Big 5 Safari?

This is one of the most common questions I get from people interested in joining this amazing wildlife safari. There are a few options open to you and I suppose it depends on just how big your budget is and also what camera system you use.

Fast Primes 

[singlepic id=290 w=320 h=240 float=right]Most of the time the best wildlife photos are obtained with the use of a fast prime lens, something like a 300mm f/2.8 or a 400mm f/2.8. These lenses offer the best possible image quality, mainly because the light they capture passes through fewer glass elements than a zoom lens, so what you get at the business end of the sensor is light that is “purer” in a sense. You also get superb subject isolation at the widest apertures and the bokeh (out of focus background highlights) is as good as it gets with a telephoto prime lens. If you’re going to bring a prime lens I would recommend a 300/2.8 with a couple of teleconverters. This will give you some good options for range. The 400/2.8 would be good too, but I think it will be more difficult to travel with than the 300mm.

Fast Telephoto Zooms

A drawback to using fast primes at a place like Sabi Sabi though is that sometimes you might find yourself too close to the action for your chosen focal length to provide effective framing options. For this reason exotic fast zoom lenses like the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR or the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS are ideal. They both offer a very useful zoom range as well as very acceptable bokeh. Most of our Big 5 safari guests who shoot Nikon have brought out this lens and none have been disappointed with it. On our last trip in 2012 I used the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS almost exclusively and was very happy with the results. You can read my full review of the lens (kindly supplied by Tudortech) here. The one good thing about the Sigma is that it is available in all the major manufacturer mounts, including Canon, Sony and Sigma’s own proprietary mount.

Canon have been threatening to bring out their own 200-400mm f/4 lens for quite some time. I believe it is still in pre-production, so Canon shooters might see that one some time this year. Interestingly it has a built in 2x teleconverter, which will provide an optional 400-800mm f/8 zoom range.

Another option, one that I have tried myself, is to use a 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter. Yes, you will lose a couple of stops of light, as well as some autofocus performance, but this is a pretty decent way to go about shooting on a game drive as it gives you some options for low light, as well as reach in brighter situations. There will be times on the drives where you are so close to the animals that even 200mm will be too close. Last year we had a leopard walk past our vehicle so close that I could literally have reached out and touched its back!

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Cheaper Zooms

The lenses I’ve mentioned already are generally at the upper end of most amateur’s budgets, but there are other options, most notably from Sigma who produce a 150-500mm f/5-6.3 OS for just over US$1000. This is actually a very useful lens and on our first Big 5 safari in 2010 one of our Safarians produced some outstanding images using his with a Nikon D3. I also reviewed this lens for Nikongear.com a few years ago and found it pretty good value for money. There is also a Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 OS which I haven’t tried, but if its anything like the slightly longer one, it should be worth looking into too.

Another lens that is definitely worth a look is the very cheap Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR. The very first trip we went on in 2009 saw me using this lens as my telephoto solution. Most of the images from that year’s album here on photographers.travel were taken with that one, including this fish eagle in flight (uncropped) that I took handheld from a boat on the St. Lucia estuary.

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Other Lenses

Our trips to Sabi Sabi aren’t all about needing long lenses though. We often get off the vehicles at night and do some star photography, as well as sometimes during the day we will stop and photograph the smaller things too. Dung beetles make for some interesting macro subjects! Here’s a shot I got in 2012 using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 with the Lumix/Leica 45/2.8 Elmarit-Macro.

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Support Systems

Another question I get a lot is from people asking what the best support system for their lenses on game drives would be. At Sabi Sabi they have very kindly fitted out several of their vehicles with swivelling brackets onto which you can clamp a video head or even a Wimberley head. Bean bags don’t really work on these types of vehicles, unless you’re sitting down in the shotgun seat, so you’re better off with a monopod if you don’t want to clamp your head to the swing arm.

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If you would like any other advice on what to bring on the Big 5 Safari please feel free to drop me an e-mail.