A trip to the Serengeti--need some advice on glass

jheftijhefti Registered Users Posts: 734 Major grins

Hey all,

My wife and I are going to Africa in a couple of weeks for a climb of Kilimanjaro and a week in the Serengeti. I'm comfortable with the mountaineering photography, but I've never done any meaningful wildlife photography and I need some advice on glass. I have a whole range of lenses in my quiver: everything from an 8mm fisheye to a 400mm f/2.8 and a 1.4x extender (which I hate to use because of the reduced IQ). I'd rather not take the 400mm if it won't be useful--it's a challenge to pack and carry--but I also don't want to miss any good shots because I lack reach. Was thinking of running two bodies--older 1DX backups I have, so that the risk of theft and/or breakage isn't too big a concern--with a wider lens (maybe a 24-70 or a 70-200, depending) on one body and the other with whatever tele makes sense.

Have any of you visited the Serengeti? Any suggestions on lenses?

Thanks in advance!


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    ziggy53ziggy53 Super Moderators Posts: 23,894 moderator
    edited September 10, 2017

    Was really hoping that one of our experienced users would respond to this. Barring that, and with the understanding that I have never been to the Serengeti region nor the Serengeti National Park in particular, I have investigated and prepared for a similar excursion in the US; i.e. a wildlife trip.

    To address the needs I wound up with the following kit for Canon bodies:

    My FF and Crop travel kit, which is normally:

    (Canon EOS 7D, Crop 1.6x/APS-C)
    Canon EF-S 17-55mm, f/2.8 IS USM
    Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM

    (Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Full Frame/FF)
    Canon EF 70-200mm, f/4L IS USM
    Canon EF 50mm, f1.4 USM
    Canon 1.4x teleconverter
    Canon 500D, 77mm diameter, diopter lens with 67-77mm ring to fit 70-200mm, f/4L (Nearly an effective 1:1 macro used on a crop body.)

    ... But for a wildlife trip I add:
    Canon EF 400mm, f5.6L USM

    My thought is that, while not truly lightweight, the 400mm, f5.6L is the lightest super-telephoto lens in the Canon lineup and has truly "L" class optics. On an APS-C body, like the 7D or 7D Mark II, it has a good combination of extra range without using the teleconverter, providing both excellent image quality and good AF performance.

    Of course, if you want to stay with your pair of FF Canon 1D X bodies, renting the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM would net around half the weight of a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS USM. Combined with the low-noise, high-ISO capabilities of the 1D X you might not miss too much the f2.8 aperture of your current 400mm.

    Edit: I should add that the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is enough of an improvement, both optically and in terms of IS, that I often hear photographers using it to replace their 70-200mm zooms for a wildlife trip.

    It also adds Mode III IS, which Canon claims should work for most monopod applications. This might eliminate the need for a gimbal-head/tripod in many instances.

    Moderator of the Cameras and Accessories forums
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    puzzledpaulpuzzledpaul Registered Users Posts: 1,621 Major grins

    I'll add a vote for the 100/400mk 2, as I bought one earlier this year and have found it to be a decent piece of kit, allowing me to get shots that I would have missed wit the main lens I've been using for waterfowl for the last 8 yrs - a 500f4.
    Yes, I mutter various oaths under my breath when I can't get the extra stop showing in the viewfinder - but there's no way I could justify its fancier brother - the 200/400f4 (+1.4ex).
    I can't give you an actual user's view on its suitability for your trip, as I've not been (or intend /have any desire) on such a trip.

    The 2 items I would certainly take would be a bean bag and an angle finder - and hope that I got the chance to use them - so's I didn't return with shots that looked similar to many others - ie from too high a pov.


    btw, body these days is a 7Dm2, but has also been a 1.3 crop ... no FF.

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    pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,698 moderator
    edited September 11, 2017

    I've been on Safari three times, twice in Kenya, and once in South Africa. I have also photographed wildlife across North America, Alaska, Greenland and Svalbard. I have used lenses from 16mm to 800mm and in between chasing critters.

    I think the first question you have to answer is do you want to photograph birds and large carnivores hunting. If you do, I think 400mm is the shortest lens you will want at times - even on a crop body APS-C style body. If you do not care about birds, and longer distance shots like lions or cheetahs chasing game, then you will be able to use a 70-200 ( or better a 70-300mm ) zoom lens from a safari vehicle.

    The premiere wildlife shooter's lens in Africa is usually the 200-400 f4 zoom, or the Canon version of the 200-400 with the built in 1.4 TC. Your 400 f2.8 is also superb and I envy you it, it creates luscious bokeh that the none of the other telephotos can match. From a safari vehicle the 200-400 zooms ( or the 400 f2.8 ) are great devices, but if you have to walk and carry them, not so much. If walking with your gear is in your plans, then I strongly suggest using the Canon 100-400 Ver2 zoom as your primary wildlife lens. It is very sharp and reasonably small and light. The background bokeh will not match the other wider long primes.

    You will still need a 24-105 for close up shots of animals - I have lots of elephants shot at less than 4 feet as they approached the Land Cruiser we were in; at 24mm they barely fit.

    If you want to capture the southern Cross and the night sky, take a 16-35 f2.8 L and a good tripod. Or a 21mm f1.8

    So to answer what you need for Africa, you have to answer what you want to photograph while you are there. I am assuming you are not carrying your photo gear up Kilimanjaro, that you have a safe place to store it while you are climbing/hiking. If you want to carry a smaller DSLR up the mountain, I use a Tamron 18-300 zoom on a 70D or a 7D MkII as my walk around grab shooter. It creates nice files, despite being a "lowly travel zoom"

    I didn't even mention a macro lens for bugs, but they come in a very wide variety in Africa as well. An extension tube works well with the EOS 100-400 V2 zoom, I use mine for butterflies that way often. An extension tube is lighter and smaller than a dedicated macro lens. Canon does make a nice 50mm f2,5 macro that is very small and light. Not my first choice for moving flying bugs though.

    Take two bodies, you won't want to swap lenses in the dust in the field usually, if you can avoid it. I usually take one Full frame and one crop body to take advantage of the telephoto effect of the crop body. 24-105 and a 100-400 gives a nice range with having to swap lenses with two bodies.

    My most used lens on all three trips was a Canon 400 f4 IS DO lens. Smaller and lighter than the f2.8, but still very sharp. I also own a Canon 200-400 f4-5.6 IS L, and have used it to photograph grizzly bears, but it is a beast to carry around very much, I much prefer the 100-400 or the 400 DO for handheld shooting. The 400 DO and the 400 f2.8 will pair with a 1.4 TC nicely too.

    If you rummage around here - https://pathfinder.smugmug.com/Travel - you can find some of my wildlife images from North America and Africa shot with the lenses mentioned above..

    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
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    pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,698 moderator

    Like Paul says, shoot from down at ground level if you can and IF IT IS SAFE. Lots of my elephant images in Amboselli were shot from a prone position.

    When you hear lions in the grass behind you chuffing, it is not safe to be in the grass, especially before sunrise. Indeed, one is not allowed out of the vehicles in many game parks in Africa. Check with your guides at all times.

    Africa is a fantastic place. Toss an 85 mm f1.8 or something like that in your kit to shoot the natives too. So very much to see and enjoy in Africa, I loved it. I may need to go back again I think.

    Pathfinder - www.pathfinder.smugmug.com

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
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