Lens suggestions for Africa trip

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by sl1200mk2, Feb 20, 2012.

  1. sl1200mk2 macrumors 6502

    Oct 17, 2006

    I'm looking for lens suggestions for a trip I'm taking to Africa in late May. I typically don't shoot wildlife and normal usage is landscape scenes and normal vacation type stuff. I need to go for versatility rather than something wildlife or action specific.

    I also need to stay (somewhat) reasonable in price as I'm already planning on adding a new body, Nikon D7000, while my wife takes our current D40 and its kit lens. Thankfully, I am going with an established nature photographer who'll have a selection of lenses, so there will be some opportunity to trade-out, but I can't rely on that all the time.

    My initial choice is:

    Nikon 18-200mm VR II

    I also considered the Nikon 70-300mm VR, but I'm not sure. Seems like 18-200 has more versatility for me.

    I'm a complete amateur and no aspirations otherwise. Simply want solid kit that will last for years (I tend to hang onto things for a very long time). I don't ever plan on having more than 2 or 3 lenses, so maximum versatility rather than outright specialty is key.


    Thanks -
  2. Bear macrumors G3

    Jul 23, 2002
    Sol III - Terra
    For the trip you're describing, the 70-300VR will be a bette than the 18-200.

    I also suggest the 18-55VR to complement the 70-300VR.
  3. allensobel macrumors newbie

    Aug 8, 2006
    I'm also going to Africa, in July.

    I'm taking the new nikon d800 body (just ordered) and the AF-S 28-300VR lens.

    In FX mode you get 28mm and in DX mode 450mm. One lens does it all.
    Assuming the low light capability is similar to the d700.
  4. jabbott macrumors 6502

    Nov 23, 2009
    Here is a photography guide I found a few months ago that is African safari centric, which I know may not exactly match what you are looking for... however it does cover lens selections as well as many other topics.
  5. dannyboy792 macrumors newbie

    Feb 20, 2012
    Woodbury, MN
    African Photography

    In part depends on where you will be in Africa. Some parks require that you stay on road which will mean you might need some reach to photograph the wildlife. In that case you will want at least 400mm. If you can go off road then you can get by with less.

    If budget is a consideration, you might be wise to rent a lens from either Borrowlenses.com or lensrentals.com. You don't want to miss out on special moments.
  6. mulo macrumors 68020


    Aug 22, 2010
    Behind you
    seeing as this is africa, and its the middle of the summer there right now you won't need anything light sensitive as you will be stopping down to f/8 or f/11 constantly anyway, so basically any lens that has the focal length you require. and perhaps a ND filter to two to shorten that debt of field (widen aperture)
  7. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    An established Nature photographer will want to be out during the "golden hours," so I'd seriously look at the 80-200/2,8. Probably with the appropriate 1.4x TC for the opportunity to shoot longer when necessary. Couple that with something in the 18-55 or 18-70 range to cover the wide end and you should be mostly covered.

  8. spacedcadet macrumors regular

    Mar 5, 2009
    70-300 and something else.

    The 70-300 on DX is a great lens, however, you will need another lens if you want to shoot landscapes on your trip. 70mm is 105mm equivalent on your D7000 so will limit you severely at the wide end of things eg: you have no wide end.

    The difference between 200 and 300 isn't actually that much when you get down to it, and 300 is where the 70-300 is weakest in performance.

    I say go with the 18-200.
  9. vancleef macrumors member

    Mar 11, 2011
    Since your wife will bring a D40 with kit lens, I suggest go for long range and use the D40 kit for landscapes.
    Good luck and have fun in Africa!
  10. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    The difference is _quite_ noticeable when shooting wildlife, however most wildlife is most active when the light is poor, so I'd take the extra light when shooting with the ability to crop a fair bit.

  11. firestarter macrumors 603


    Dec 31, 2002
    Green and pleasant land
    Where are you going?

    I've shot 300mm on full frame (film!) before in the Serengeti, Ngogongoro, Selous etc. found it was a good length for big game... so the 200 should be good.

    Depending on where you're going, dust can be a big problem on safari (especially the red coral rock dust of the rift valley). Good idea to not change lenses too often, and get yourself a good camera bag that's going to be pretty dust proof.

    Might be good to have a bean bag or something like that to support your lens on when shooting over the top of vehicle windows or camp walls. You could take an empty one and fill it up with rice/beans when you get there.
  12. equilibrium17 macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Heyyyy... look at that. Serendipity.

    Making a Africa trip myself coming up in August (locations: brief stop in Victoria Falls, then more extended Safari in Luangwa Park, Zambia and Mana Pools, Zimbabwe). I'm still pretty new to DSLR photography (just purchased the camera ~ 3 months ago). But I'm having a great time playing with my new toy, and since I really enjoy nature & wildlife tourism, I expect that wildlife & nature photography will be something I continue to actively pursue.

    My DSLR is a Canon T3i/600D. So, if the OP doesn't mind, I would love to expand this topic to include Canon lens suggestions.

    I presently just have the 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 IS kit lens that I got with the camera. It's been a good learner lens, but I am starting to understand its limitations. I am definitely planning on purchasing the Canon 50mm/f1.8 soon. This is obviously not a wildlife lens, but I need it for other purposes and it's so small and light, I might as well bring it along.

    To purchase prior to the trip, I'm considering (in ascending order of price) the Canon 70-300mm f3.5-5.6 USM IS, the Canon 70-200mm f4L IS, and even possibly the Sigma 70-200m f/2.8 OS.

    The Cannon 70-300mm IS isn't really in the other two lenses' class, but it is cheap enough that if I got it, I could probably afford an additional lens; maybe a wide-angle for landscapes er sumfink.

    The mid option, the 70-200mm f4L IS, looks good, but I'm worried that 200m may not be quite long enough -- Luangwa in particular is known for birds and some other types of small wildlife. Getting the 1.4x extender might be an option, but does start to stretch the budget.

    The final (Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 OS) may open up opportunities at dawn and dusk when the wildlife tends to be more active, but does stretch my budget a bit. It might be doable if I'm a good boy and save my pennies between now and August. Definitely nothing left for a 1.4x extender if I get this one, though. In addition to the cost, I am also worried a bit about the weight of this lens. For part of our trip, we will be traveling via canoe, with a *total* personal effects weight limit of 10kg. So the nearly 1.5kg of this lens would use up a fair chunk of my allowed weight. Gotta save a few grams for sunscreen and malaria pills...

    In addition to the T3i, we also have a SeaLife DC1000 point-and shoot that we'll be bringing along. Nothing great, but since this camera is optimized for underwater shooting, it's definitely better at the Macro end, and it does give us something to use to capture a fleeting close range subject if a tele lens is on the T3i.

    Anyway, any thoughts, alternatives, and general Safari photography advice much appreciated.


  13. pna macrumors 6502

    May 27, 2005
    Based primarily on your long-term criterion above, and having just spent a month in South Africa and a number of the game reserves in December, I'd recommend that you just stick with the 18-200 VRII. I think that it will serve you will enough while you're in Africa, you can potentially swap out for nicer glass with your friend while you're there, and you'll find it much more useful for your overall photographic needs after you're home.

    I took a bunch of lenses with me that I've accumulated over the years. I borrowed the 18-200 VRI that I had given my brother, put it on my d5100, and gave that to my girlfriend to shoot with while we were there. I then brought my 12-24, 35/1.8, 50/1.8, 185/2.8, and a 70-300 VR that I bought used for the trip. What I found was sort of in line with what I expected:

    1) When you're either in a jeep on safari or else out in the backcountry yourself, your options for 'zooming with your feet' are often extremely limited. This can get you by not having enough zoom if the animals are far away, or by not having enough width for when they come close. If you're on safari, you may be (happily) surprised to realize just how close some of those animals come. Certainly closer than a 70mm on a DX body would allow for framing in the way you might want. In that way, I'd actually say that the 18-200 is more helpful than something like the 70-300, as you can at least crop on the long end to try and mimic the effect of having a bigger zoom, where you may miss shots you'd want to have because you can't go wide enough. No question that the 70-300 lens can yield a (somewhat) higher quality shot, but I wouldn't be swayed by this for your particular trip and long-term use for the lens. Another shot you might often want to take would be to zoom out quickly to capture your wife with an animal in the background, and not having to change lenses is nice for that. It was for me, certainly.

    2) In most cases, I did not find myself limited by the set of lenses I brought along. Generally the things that kept me from getting what would have otherwise been awesome shots were things that a lens can't help with: an animal partially obscured by a tree, or some wavy grass in the foreground, or some other piece of a vehicle, or the inability to stand up from our hiding place because the lion would have come and eaten us, or the rhino would have charged us, or whatever. Had I dropped the $2k or whatever for the 70-200 /2.8, it would have made some of my shots better, no question. But honestly, the ones that it would have made more awesome are already pretty fantastic, just because of the subject matter.

    3) The ability to quickly switch to wide angle to put the animals in context is really nice.

    4) I've lost track of the reason why I started numbering these things.

    5) I should note that, by far my favorite picture from the entire trip is a panorama I stitched together of a sunset from Tintswalo in Hout Bay. It was an incredible night in an incredible place, and the final shot actually comes close to doing it justice. That panorama was taken with 4 shots stitched together from my girlfriend's 3 year old, 8 mp Canon point and shoot.

    I guess what I'm saying in all of this is that many of us would like to believe that we're going to take award-winning quality photographs of wildlife if only the opportunity were right. And we think that having the right equipment with us at the time will give us our best possible opportunity to do so. That's true, but only when the equipment is likely to be the limiting factor. I take photography fairly seriously, and have taken some shots that others that don't know me have praised highly, but it was very clear to me on the Africa trip that I was being limited by my own expertise/talent, and even more so by our general lack of time to simply be patient and wait for the shot to develop the way I was envisioning it. If I were to be fortunate enough to go back to Africa, those are the two factors that I'd hope to work on to make my pictures better, as they'd make a much bigger difference than any improvement in my equipment.

    I think you'll be happy with the pictures you take with the 18-200, and that you'll get some that are real winners. I think the same is true with the 70-300, but I think in that case you'll also miss some other shots that you'd like to have, and have a less versatile lens in your kit for other things you want to shoot when you get back home and aren't always looking for lions.

    Two more things -- I got very quick at changing lenses, but there's no question that in all of the lens changing I started getting dirt on the sensor of my d7000. I didn't have a cleaning kit with me, so that actually caused me to mess up what would have been some of my favorite shots of the trip due to the dirt, and it also caused me to just go to the 18-200 on my d5100 more. Some of those shots turned out great, despite using an inferior camera with lower quality lens. The second is that, midway through the trip, I started getting good at using a zoom on my d7000, but then signaling to my girlfriend when I wanted to grab her camera to take advantage of the wide angle part of the 18-200 that was on it. That allowed me to take advantage of both, while not needing to swap lenses. You could potentially do that with your d40 and the kit lens.

    Finally, I bought the 70-300 used off of craiglist. I think I only paid about $400 for it, and wouldn't expect it to be difficult to sell in the same manner at little to no loss. That's an easy way to test out lenses, though it requires a little bit of savvy.

    Enjoy your trip. You're going to have a great time, and see amazing things. And you'll have great pictures to prove it, regardless of what you choose here.

    Ah, and truly last but not least, you really need to go and practice shooting animals with your d7000 if you want to have a chance at taking shots you like while you're there. I spent an afternoon at the zoo before I went, and it totally improved my ability to use the autofocus properly and to see what settings I could get away with with my lenses and own technique and still have sharp pictures. I learned a ton, just by trying it out for a few hours in that setting, and that paid big dividends on the actual trip.
  14. -hh macrumors 68020


    Jul 17, 2001
    NJ Highlands, Earth
    Both are good points. Another one is the logistics of how you're going to be getting around ... if you're moving between camps in bush planes, you're very likely going to have a pretty serious weight restriction...the last time I went (2008), the flight company's policy was 15kg total per person. Softsided "gym bags" are a lot lighter than rigid luggage.

    I'll agree with Paul on this one. Be aware of what's hard, so while there's surely going to be easy "bright daylight" hours, being out pushing sunset is pretty common, with some of one's best shots being likely to occur as the light is rapidly dropping...


    ...or even later.

    Good point - specific destinations can help with tips. I did Selous GR in 2008 with a Canon 20D (1.6x crop) with a 70-200 + 1.4x which will yield ~450mm and still found that the boat had to get within ~10ft to really get decent shots of many of the tiny bee eaters & kingfishers. Land animals were better elsewhere IMO (Mikumi NP, Ruaha NP, Katavi NP, for comparison's sake).

    Very good environmental point. I found a good "works in the jeep" bag and lens cap cut down a lot ... and also carried along a "Rocket" air blower for helping to keep dust off each day in the jeep. Probably most important for me was to have two cameras, with one dedicated to telephoto (wildlife) and one dedicated to wide (landscapes), as a strategy to minimize the temptation to open up the camera while outside in the dirt/dust/tsetse flies.

    Or even just dirt/sand, if you pack a couple of empty ziplock bags within it.

    I took a Canon 20D & Elan (film SLR) on my first Tanzania trip: the 20D had a 70-200 f/2.8 IS + 1.4x and the Elan had a 19-35mm WA. For the second trip, I had two 20D's, same telephoto, same WA (now not quite as wide) and also took my 28-135 IS...which I found that I hardly used.

    There's a million "tiny" things that add up weight-wise. I skipped the 50mm and carried one of those cheap 3" long tripods instead, and ended up getting this night photo.

    You're right. I just recently sold off my predecessor, the 75-300 IS, and AFAIC, that lens is too soft and too slow .. I've even found the 70-200 f/2.8 IS to be 'too slow' on the (now ancient) 20D for trying to get shots of small birds in flight (violet breasted roller). My next trip (TBD) will be with a Canon 7D, which should help some with AF tracking.

    Make your decisions in the context of how much the trip is already costing you per day. Also consider renting the 1.4x extender, since that's not an expensive piece of kit in comparison to the lenses...figure around $50 for ~2 weeks.

    This is why we take along non-photographer spouses :D

    A P&S is also a nice option for things like taking photos out of small aircraft, too.

    For baggage restrictions, do check out what the camp policies are for if they offer laundry services. High tech socks/underware that are quick drying are also on the shopping list, as well as a very lightweight windproof shell - - just because one might be equatorial doesn't mean that it can't be cold, especially in the morning & with the safari jeep's front windshield down: I've seen 59F+windchill.

    EDIT: oh, and for those of female persuasion, my wife's #1 tip is "Sports Bras". The roads are rough and everyone (and everything) will get jostled around quite a bit.

  15. sl1200mk2 thread starter macrumors 6502

    Oct 17, 2006
    Thank you everyone for the considerable feedback and thoughts!

    I'll take it all in and digest it. I totally overlooked the option of lens rental... that's a great option which I'll look into. It's my mother-in-law that's the real photographer in the group and she has a 400mm Nikon along with a selection of other lens (don't know all the specifics) for her D700 body. I definitely know there will be opportunity to borrow lenses, but don't want to constantly interrupt.

    I'll decide on one lens I'll want to keep for myself and look into renting a couple others. Weight is a huge issue -- we're very restricted there as we'll be taking a couple flights on smaller planes. I'm packing as light as possible along with taking camera gear, a camcorder and my 15" mbp. I was hoping new Air's would be shipping by then, but I'm not holding my breath. I know the D7000 can do double duty on video, but I really want to take a dedicated unit for that too. I'll make some decisions and pair things down if I'm being over optimistic.

    Some great tips on everything else. We'll primarily be in Tanzania and the whole trip is 10 nights all together. It's probably a once in a lifetime trip that I'm very fortunate to go on, so looking forward to it. Well, except for the flights. 26hrs travel each way is a b*tch. ;)

    Thanks again -
  16. firestarter macrumors 603


    Dec 31, 2002
    Green and pleasant land
    Tanzania is amazing, I used to live there and have been on probably 20+ Safaris. From the Southern parks / Rufiji, up through Mikumi/Ruaha to the Northern parks with Tarangere, Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengetti you just can't go wrong. The people are friendly, and the camps are great. You'll love it.
  17. -hh macrumors 68020


    Jul 17, 2001
    NJ Highlands, Earth
    IMO, leave the laptop at home. Its ~5lbs and you'll be busy enough such that the only thing you're likely have time during your week to use it for is to offload memory cards onto...from a weight standpoint, you'd probably be better off carrying a Hyperdrive, or buying a stack of cards.

    Plus...a friend who was a bush pilot in TZ has had at least two laptops stolen since I first met them in 2006. Not to suggest that things are unsafe, but when we consider that the country's per-capita GDP is ~$500/year, stuff like a 15" MBP represents ~3 years income and simply become too much of a temptation.

    BTW, for memory planning, I'd say a good rule of thumb is to expect to take 300 images per day. IIRC, I shot around 4300 images on my first Tanzania trip, although that was 18 calendar days including all of the international flights from/to the USA on both ends.

  18. equilibrium17 macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Thanks to hh and pna especially for the good information. I'll keep all of this in mind as I contemplate what to purchase and bring for the trip. Renting at least some of the equipment is definitely a good idea to consider, and I appreciate the other more general Safari tips as well.


  19. pna macrumors 6502

    May 27, 2005
    I think hh has some good advice here. I'll add that, if you're buying a bunch of memory cards, make sure you get a chance to test them out before you go. This sounds obvious, but my order for a bunch of sandisk extreme 16GB cards didn't arrive before I went to South Africa, so my girlfriend had to bring them with her. For whatever reason, they were really finicky with my d7000, though they were fine with my d5100. A d7000 firmware update seems to have largely fixed the issue, but it was a real problem while I was there.

    I had planned to leave my laptop at home for exactly the reasons that hh described above. I did pick up the camera adapter for the ipad so that I'd be able to at least dump the jpegs to the ipad and view them on a larger screen. In the end I needed to bring the laptop for work anyhow. I would have been fine without it, but it did prove useful to have a bigger screen to review some of the images on at night as I was downloading them. My technique improved a fair bit while I was there as a result, and it became obvious to me when looking at them all together that I was taking many of the same types of shots. That review helped me to break out of that and make sure that I was exploring a greater range of possibilities when I headed out on the subsequent days. But yes, I was often concerned that it was going to get stolen, just as I was afraid that my camera gear was going to get lifted. The benefits that I got from having my laptop down there could unquestionably have been gotten in some other way without the laptop.

    In all of the game reserves we visited, there were options for game drives, and game/nature walks. I can't recommend the nature walks enough. You go out with two nature guides (that have guns for protection), and basically just experience whatever's out there. It's a wholly different experience. We quietly tracked and then followed rhino from about 40-50 feet away, came upon a cheetah, hippo, leopard, and on and on. Being out in the wilderness and walking got us away from the other tourists, and let us experience all of the sights and sounds and communication happening among the animals in a way that you can't get by being in a jeep. The walks aren't strenuous, but they can certainly be thrilling.
  20. carlgo macrumors 68000

    Dec 29, 2006
    Monterey CA
    It is likely a one-time opportunity, so I would rent a long, bright and stabilized lens. You have some pixels to play with on the new camera, so a 300 is more than enough.

    With my D40 I find the image quality is ok if you fill the frame, but it goes away fast if you crop. It is relatively small with the kit lens so you can take it around town and places where giant cameras and lenses are off-putting.
  21. AgRacer macrumors member

    Apr 20, 2011
    DO NOT, borrow lenses from poeple that are on the trip with you. Esp. the MIL, unless you work something out with her in advance. I can promiss she's going to miss a shot while you have her lens and be really upset with you about it. RENT a good lens for you camera.

    See here for advice on which one to take; http://www.bythom.com/nikkor-telephoto.htm
    Also read his articles on the trips to Africa.

    Skip the video camera.

    This is a once in a lifetime trip to be sure. Do not come home regretting you didn't bring the right gear. Rent a good 300/2.8 or 300/4 or larger and invest in a 1.4 TC (again - see bythom's reviews for what works well with what). The 70-200/2.8 with the 1.4TC would also be a very good option.

    Give your wife the 18-200 on the D40 and be done with it. NOTE: The D7000 will operate with all Nikon AI lenses. The D40 will not. Be sure it's all compatable. Also, a lightweight trippod that can double as a monopod (just extend 1 leg) with a good head is also a must have item on this trip.
  22. flosseR macrumors 6502a


    Jan 1, 2009
    the cold dark north
    ok, i bought.... a sigma 100-300 f4 for Nikon. Not stabilized and "old" but VERY VERY fast autofocus. I know people will be like: urghh: SIGMA.. but if you read around, its one of the best and sharpest lenses that sigma has made. ANd so far, I have to agree.. the trick is to find one. But if you do, you get constant f4 all the way to 300mm and sharp. Of course you can rent a lens as well but a good long stabilized lens will cost you a pretty penny, even in rent. and the f2.8 300mm weight a ton and a half :)

    just saying... go for quality and light.. especially on those kind of wildlife trips...
  23. AgRacer macrumors member

    Apr 20, 2011
    One other option would be to go ahead and purchase that expensive lens a few months out, practice, practice, practice. Learn to use it. Take it on the trip, then sell it when you return.

    Expensive prime lenses like the 400/2.8 and 300/2.8 retain their value very well. Even if you lose $500, you've basically rented it for $20/week. Much cheaper than you'll find rentals anywhere.
  24. shortie8512 macrumors member

    Aug 28, 2011
    Guildford, UK
    This is what I used down in South Africa...


    Excellent lens and very well priced too.
  25. TheDrift- macrumors 6502a


    Mar 8, 2010
    A good alternative to look at is maybe the 55 250, good range decent IQ and excellent value for money...for the price of the 70 -200 f4IS you can get this and the excellent 17-55 2.8IS, (not to be confused with the 18 55 kit lens) you could even sell your kit lens and buy a 50 1.8.

    This would give you a very versatile set up, not just for your trip but afterward as well.

    If you are going to be much more focused on shooting wildlife and want to focus on that, then maybe a long prime might be more suitable.

    Finally if you do want reach and versatility sigma make some lenses worth looking at e.g. the 'Bigma' 50- 500..(lightness is not one of its strong points :))

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