The “Portable” Safari Kit

Note the word “portable” in the title. The goal here isn’t to make the “best” safari kit, it’s to make one that travels easily and still performs well. That starts with fitting into restrictive airline carry-on bag restrictions but also means not taking up a lot of room in the vehicle you’re on safari in. 

On some package tours you could be packed as many as nine people to a vehicle (my workshops max out at three, but we’re catering to “best”, not “portable”). Vehicle crowding alone becomes a gating element. You can’t swing a big camera with a 600mm f/4 around with three other people in the same seat row as you.  

The goal here is to come up with something that isn’t going to get you in trouble with the airlines or other tourists on your trip, but still manages to capture some great images.

Let’s start our portable kit planning, unfortunately, with another set of realities: no matter where you travel in Africa and what you bring to shoot with you’ll never have enough lens for something that happens, and you’re not going to want to change lenses while out on safari (maybe not in camp or your lodge room, either).

That means we have two maxims to consider:

  • You want a flexible lens/camera with “reach”
  • You need two cameras, minimum

In the Serengeti and other parks where you can’t leave the road (which will include the Masai Mara starting in 2023), you tend to need longer lenses than in the places where you can (e.g. the private reserves in South Africa). I’m going to assume that you’re not going to one of the latter places, as the lens needs there are far less extreme and easier to meet. We’re going to assume the worst case here, and that you’re bouncing around the Serengeti in search of animals.

Sometimes you get lucky and the animal is right by the road. Much of the time you’re not so lucky and there’s no road that gets you near to the animal.

Thus, we need flexibility and reach. Flexibility means a zoom lens; reach means pixel density.

Pixel density: the number of pixels captured on your subject. If we frame an animal so that it fills the frame on an APS-C/DX (crop) camera that has 24mp, we will have more pixels on the subject than if we photograph from the same position with the same lens on an full frame/FX body that’s 45mp (24mp captures on the DX camera versus 19mp captures on the FX body in this example). 

Since we’re looking for pixel density, we’ll tend to pick smaller sensor cameras for a truly portable kit. Lately I’ve been favoring APS-C/DX cameras over full frame/FX cameras on safari, and sometimes when things are extreme (e.g. walking safaris) I’ll move down further to m4/3. 

Let’s look at simple, portable kits for DX (or EF-S/RF-S in the Canon world):

  • two crop sensor bodies (typically D7500 or D500 in the Nikon realm; something like the R7 or R10 in the current Canon world)
  • 80-400mm f/4-5.6 lens (Nikon), or 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 (Canon); this is our flexible “reach” lens
  • 16-80mm f/2.8-4 lens (Nikon), or 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 (Canon)

Thing is, you can find better bodies (typically full frame) and better lenses (typically longer focal length or faster aperture or both) than these choices. Yes, I know that. But the point here, again, is not to make the best possible kit, but to build a system that’s smaller and more portable and going to be less of a problem during travel. 

Let’s address what you’re giving up:

  • By picking a crop sensor body (APS-C/DX) instead of a full frame one (FX), you’re losing about one stop worth of low light ability, all else equal. 
  • By picking those long variable aperture lenses, you’re giving up some optical quality versus the big primes, plus you’re giving up perhaps another stop to two stops of low light ability compared to what’s possible. 

Now what you’re gaining:

  • A D7500 has 1.5x the pixel density on a distant subject than a D6, for example (both are 20mp cameras). More pixels on the subject, all else equal.
  • Those lenses I specified are smaller and lighter than the better alternatives.

So, to be clear, our portable kit operates less well in low light (dawn/dusk) and perhaps doesn’t have as much edge acuity as we could get from a maxed out system, but it’s smaller, lighter, and simpler. 

Wait, what about full frame mirrorless instead of crop-sensor DSLR? The full frame mirrorless bodies are often as small as the crop-sensor DSLR bodies, after all?

The problem is lenses and pixel density. If you need 400mm on a crop body to capture an animal, you'd need 600mm on a full frame body. This has changed slightly with the arrival of high megapixel bodies. The Z7 II/Z8 can photograph at 19mp in DX crop mode, so you can use those bodies like a D7500 when you need to, and still have 45mp if you don't need a long lens for an animal (think elephant). Still, be careful to make sure you understand the differences between these approaches.

You may have noted that I didn’t put the usual 70-200mm choice as the lens on my second body in the APS-C/DX kits. Why? Well, the Nikon lens I chose already gets to 80mm, and the Canon to 100mm, and our long lens goes down to that focal length, so we’re not gaining a lot of flexibility by putting a 70-200mm f/4 on the second body. That said, there is something to be said for backup on safari. If you’re concerned about that, sure, stick a 70-200mm f/4 and a teleconverter for it in your bag, so that if something happens to your 80-400mm you can still get to 280mm (1.4x) or 400mm (2x) with the 70-200mm.

We could “quibble” a lot about what is and isn’t portable. For instance, on the Nikon side we now have the 200-500mm f/5.6, which is an excellent lens and works fine for safari. But thing is, once you get beyond the D7500 with an 80-400mm, you’re starting to gain weight and size very, very rapidly. The 80-400mm is 8” (203mm) long and 56 ounces (1560g). The 200-500mm is 10.5” (267mm) and a whopping 81.2 ounces (2300g). All to gain 100mm at the long end and lose more than that at the short end. We’re starting to lose our goal of truly portable by going longer.

I mentioned m4/3 earlier. We can give up another stop in the sensor capability and get to another excellent portable system. We just use some faster lenses to grab some of that light back. Moreover, we can get far more reach for about the same weight now. Consider this:

  • two OM-5 or OM-1 bodies
  • Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8
  • Olympus 300mm f/4

We’ve lost our wide angle to modest telephoto range here, requiring us to carry a pocket camera of some sort for that (e.g. Panasonic LX-100, Sony RX-100). But we’ve increased our reach out to 600mm equivalent (full frame). This is a very similar kit to what I use on walking safaris: lots of reach for a very hikeable weight. 

So let’s see where we are:

  • DX camera with 80-400mm: 20mp at 600mm equivalent
  • EF-S/RF-S camera with 100-400mm: 18-33mp at 640mm equivalent 
  • m4/3 camera with 300mm: 20mp at 600mm equivalent

All three options give us plenty of pixel density with distant subjects, which is one of the things we’re looking for in these kits. All three options can be packed into even some of the most restrictive airline carry-on requirements, though you might have to fudge a bit if you hit one with a 7kg limit. 

Have I put my money where my mouth is? (Wait, isn’t it "my practice where my writing is?" ;~). Yes, I’ve done so many times (article links):

Note: nothing's really changed in the years since other than the cameras got better, particularly on the m4/3 side.

So, yes, it is possible to create interesting and excellent images using these smaller, lighter packages. Are these the way I prefer to shoot on safari? No. My general preference is a full frame body with the big, exotic telephoto lenses. But here’s the thing: don’t get overly obsessive about the gear if the situation doesn’t dictate it. A good, simple kit can take you a long way photographically. It can also free you from lugging an excess of gear around when you want to be nimble. 

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