There are few places in the world that compare to Africa. Going there to specifically photograph wildlife is a dream on anyone's bucket list. Taking time to put together your equipment before you go is a daunting but necessary task so that you are well prepared for the task at hand. Here are some recommendations for a general packing list to get you started.
DLSR or a Mirrorless body is a must for an African safari. It is not necessary to have the best and newest camera on the market to take great photos, you should pick a camera system you are comfortable with within your individual budget. Having a second body will also be extremely useful for a couple of reasons. One being a back up system in case the first body fails to mechanical malfunction or is damaged in some way. The second body is it's a great place to attach a secondary lens for varied shooting. I generally have my super telephoto on my main body and then place a 70 - 200mm or a 24 - 120mm lens on the secondary body. The big reason for this is it's dusty and dirty out on game drive, you definitely don't want to switching lenses frequently as dirt and dust will no doubt find its way to your camera sensor. Another good reason for the two body set up is speed in changing your perspective on subjects. You can go for a closeup portrait and then a more of an environmental image very quickly.
There are probably three or four types of lenses I try to bring with me on safari. The first is a good telephoto, somewhere in the range of at least 300mm, but of course bigger is always better, so if you can bring a nice 400mm or 600mm is even better right? Primes vs zooms, I'm a bit old school and a fanatic on sharpness, plus the fact you usually get a wider aperture opening for lower light usage, which is why I prefer prime lenses, but that is not to say that there isn't some very good zooms on the market. Primes are generally heavier and you are stuck with that focal length. Zooms give you lots of options for focal lengths and getting varied perspectives, plus they are generally lighter in weight. So one could go with a 200-500mm range and really cover a lot of ground. For those not wanting to purchase a super telephoto, rentals are always an option. There are several companies that rent lenses and cameras in the US or South Africa such as borrowlenses.com in the US or lensrental.co.za in South Africa
A mid range zoom is another must have, say in the range a 70 - 200mm. This is an excellent choice on game drives for showing environment with your subject. Another good mid range is a 24 - 85mm, great for portraits of some of the locals you meet.
Last is a good wide lens for the amazing landscapes Africa has to offer, especially in places like Masai Mara. They are also very useful in photographing stars at night when the sky is ablaze with stars like you've never seen. I like a 14 - 24mm lens which gives me a very wide field of view on a full sensor camera. In regards to crop sensor cameras the focal length size will vary from full frame, please refer to your camera and sensor size for the equivalents of above mentioned focal lengths.
Another addition to your lens choice is a macro lens or at least some macro close up filters for those small detail shots. Tiffen makes a convenient kit which comes with +1, +2, and +4 diopter strengths and comes with a storage pouch.
I typically don't use flash for most of my wildlife images, but I always bring one as they are very useful for fill flash or for portraits of locals. If you are keen on bird photographs, they do add color to your subjects by highlighting the brightly colored feathers.
Batteries...bring extra! I bring at least 4 extra batteries, you will be shooting a lot! With the batteries, you will also need battery chargers and I would say at least two. Depending on your lodge, some vehicles will have a charging station on board you can connect your chargers and others you will have to charge in your tent or a common area with power. Here's a tip I use...Once a battery is charged I place a small piece of masking tape over the contacts to let me know that battery is charged. I peel if off or back when in use, that way when I reach into my bag for a battery I have a visual clue whether that battery is charged.
Another item you will want to bring extra. One piece of advice, do not skimp on memory cards by buying cheap ones, you've invested a lot into your trip after all. Purchase good quality cards by reputable companies, I prefer SanDisk or Lexar cards. Nothing worse than to see your card has become corrupted and you cannot retrieve your images after a great day on game drive. On size I would recommend anywhere from 32gb to 128gb range. A great memory card holder is also essential in keeping your cards together.
You will want to download your images each night to a separate storage and for backup. The last thing you want to "lose" your images. You can either bring an external drive and your laptop for redundant storage to the internal and external drives. The LaCie 1TB Rugged Mini Portable External Hard Drive is a good choice for its shock resistance and durability. If you don't want to take a laptop then the LaCie 1TB Rugged BOSS USB 3.1 Type-C External SSD is an excellent choice to back up images without the need for a laptop. It has a SD card slot plus USB to connect card reader for CF or XQD cards. It is also doubles as a power bank for charging. You can connect your phone or tablet to view your images.
At the very least I would suggest using UV filters over you lenses and mainly I would suggest that because they help protect your lens itself from getting scratched or damaged. Other filters I would suggest is a polarizer for the sky to deepen the blues and bring out the clouds, or maybe a gradated filter. Check out these Luminesque UV and polarizer filter combo kits.
An absolute must! A bulb type air blower is invaluable out in the bush for cleaning those dusty sensors such as the Giottos Rocket Blaster Dust-Removal Tool . For cleaning those dirty lenses try the LensPen and a good lens cloth. Last but not least, a good camel hair brush is a great addition to your cleaning kit.
Tripods aren't very conducive inside of safari vehicles as they are pretty cumbersome to use, however for those starry night photos they are very useful. I would suggest one that is small but sturdy and lightweight, carbon fiber is good for this. My personal suggestion for one that won't break the bank is the MeFOTO RoadTrip S Travel Tripod with a detachable leg for monopod. It is carbon fiber so it is lightweight. Speaking of monopods, it is possible to use a monopod in some of the open sided safari vehicles. Bean bag support, probably the most common way of supporting long lenses out on game drive. Some lodges will place bean bags in the vehicle for their guests. If you bring your own, bring it empty to save on weight and have the lodge fill it with beans or rice.
There are just some items you can't do without. I would highly suggest bringing a power outlet for charging multiple devices. Travel plug adapter for the power outlet to host country's outlet type. A good flashlight or torch and a headlamp is also much needed for when the camp generators shut down at night. Some sort of multitool such as a Leatherman or such for loose screws. A small roll of duct tape or electrical tape is sure handy to keep as well. A thick shower cap is good for placing on the end of your super telephotos to protect against dust. You can also use a lightweight travel towel or shemagh to drape over your cameras while driving down dusty roads. One last item I would suggest is some sort of cord management storage for all your electronic devices.
Lastly a good camera bag or backpack is essential for transporting and protecting your equipment. Over the years I have accumulated a number of expensive bags for my equipment. Whatever you choose, make sure it's comfortable, durable, and can accommodate all your equipment. I have been using the f-stop Tilopa bag for the last couple of years and I have to say it has really grown on me. What I really like about the bag is the Internal Camera Unit or ICU. This is a removable padded case with dividers that fits inside the backpack. This feature comes in handy with travel on small in country flights with limited overhead space. When I was flying from Johannesburg, SA to Botwana, the commuter flight had very small carryon sized overheads and my backpack would not fit. I just pulled out the ICU and placed it in the overhead and folded up the back pack and placed next to...as there was no way I was going to check my camera gear!
I hope the above information gives you an idea on things to pack for your next photo safari. Remember these are just a general suggestions, the area where you are going and the type subject matter you are photographing will also affect how you pack. One more thing, take a small notebook and write down your sightings, some of the animals may have names the guides have given them and you'll want to include such things in your captions. Just take notes to remember your day to day for reference later. Lastly don't forget to just enjoy your surroundings and don't get lost in your camera the whole time. If you have any awesome tips you would like to share, please leave them in the comments section below.
My name is Randall Ball and I am a professional photographer and instructor based in Houston, TX. I lead photographic tours and workshops to Africa and beyond. I would like to invite you to come along and experience the beauty of Africa where you can get personalized instruction to elevate your photography to the next level. I have 20 years instructing experience and over 35 years as a photographer. Please check out my Photography Tours page for ongoing safari listings.