10 things to know about buying the right cameras and lenses

David Rogers gives some tips and tricks about buying a good wildlife camera and lenses for taking on safari.

David Rogers gives some tips and tricks about buying a good wildlife camera for taking on safari. 

1.  The best camera is the one you have when something happens that has a card in it! This is more true than ever today when people are using i-phone cameras more and more. And they take really excellent images. However, on safari the action rolls really quickly and you need to be able to shoot animals at a distance and have fast shutter speeds. So, for this reason, you are highly recommended to purchase a dedicated camera. These days the options are either for a more traditional Digital Single Reflex Cameras (DSLR) or mirrorless camera. Nikon and Canon have established themselves over many years as the leading DSLR manufacturers and if you buy either you can expect great value, good resale value and great lenses. Sony and Fuji is also extremely well respected. 


2. You are likely to get 5 to 8 years good use out of a DSLR and after that they are going to go out of production and spare parts will be difficult to come by. There has also been a vast improvement in technology which enables better focus, better low light shooting ability and really extraordinary stabilisation and video. The ability to shoot at fast shutter speeds in fairly gloomy situations is also of great importance and this is where low noise shooting at high ISO becomes critical. 


3.  Unless you are a landscape shooter wanting to print really big images, don’t think that mega-pixels always maketh the camera. You can also turn up a bad music system loudly but that does not mean that the quality is great! Having said this 20MP is the starting size for most serious cameras and they go up massively from there. 


4. The size of the sensor makes a difference. Most top end wildlife DSLR cameras have full frame sensors of 36mm x 24 mm, or the same size as a traditional 35 mm film camera, and so a 300 mm lens behaves as a 300 mm lens. A crop sensor on the other hand will have a smaller sensor and a 300 mm lens will be magnified, without any image loss, to 450mm or so. This obviously has significant advantages for wildlife shooting. Typically, the full frame, with its larger sensor, offers better resolution, quality and ability to gather light in low light conditions. The advantage is most apparent with wide angle lenses as it does not crop the width of the image and this has great advantages for landscapes and architecture. A full frame camera also offers a more shallow depth of field at each f-stop. A larger sensor size allows for larger pixel sizes for a given number of pixels and this means that you get a wider dynamic range and lower noise at high ISO levels and you can crop into images more easily. There are some excellent wildlife cameras that have a crop sensor including the Nikon D500 which also has extremely good ability to shoot in low light conditions and a high frame rate. Many photographers will have a full frame camera and also a second camera with a crop factor giving them the best of both worlds. Bear in mind that you can’t use a full frame lens on a crop sensor body.


5.  Currently in 2022, the very top end mirrorless cameras being produced by Nikon, Sony and Canon are producing staggering frame rates, extraordinary focus ability which matches or exceeds the very best dSLR cameras. This technology is likely to trickle down quite quickly to less expensive models and perhaps in 3 of 4 years time these lighter and highly sophisticated cameras will be at a lower price. Currently, you will get more bang for your buck getting a top end DSLR with excellent focus ability. Even at entry level, mirrorless gives you a live view of your subject which has amazing opportunities for seeing your final results in camera. They are also much lighter than traditional DSLR cameras and have amazing video. You can also use an adaptor to mount a DSLR lens to a mirrorless body. But its an odd combination (a bit like Rambo wearing high heeled shoes) and you will miss out on the benefit of a much lighter rig. 

6. Ultimately, it’s best to have two digital camera bodies in case one breaks in the field, and so that you don’t have to change lenses in the field. This is particularly true with mirrorless cameras which attract dust very easily. Some of the later Sony models do have covers which fall into place over the sensor, when you remove the lenses, and this is an enviable feature that other manufacturers are likely to follow.


7.  Pro or serious amateur quality camera are more robust and have strong seals which resist water and dust. They are also much likely to take some impact. .


8. iPhones and other mobile devices are also excellent now offering very good features particularly for landscape, portrait and low light photography. Their ability to shoot HDR is also very useful. The only downside of these phones is that they are not that good for wildlife action shooting and do not have strong zoom lenses. 


9. Before buying a camera its always a good idea to do an online review to see what other people are saying about it. Having a local store that can give you great advice, or go to www.dpreview.com. I quite often buy used cameras. When doing so, I suggest visiting a camera store that offers a good warranty. You should also ask them how many actuations the camera has. Anything less than 50 000 is a “new” camera. In Cape Town, I recommend Orms which offer excellent service. 


10. Feel comfortable with the camera. Most cameras have fairly intuitive controls but you should become very familiar with the controls before going on safari. Learn how to change focus points, set up custom functions, the location of the various controls must become second nature. Do it in the dark too, as sometimes you will be operating in difficult conditions. For this reason many photographers stick with a brand as they become familiar with its control placements. 

  1. When buying a lens, the rule of thumb is to look for the widest aperture that you can afford. This corresponds to the widest f-stop (in the case of professional lenses this is the smallest number — f2 8 or f4). The wider the aperture, the more light can be ‘sucked’ into the lens and the better the result in low light conditions. A fast lens allows you to make use of faster shutter speeds and, when you’re shooting at wide apertures such as f2 8, to blur out the background and create more foreground interest. This blurring effect is called bokeh.
  1. Prime lenses have a fixed focal distance – meaning they are 300mm, 400 mm or 500 mm and so they do not allow you to zoom in or out. These will also have a fixed aperture of either F2.8, f4, f5.6 – or in the case of some more recent mirrorless lenses up to f11.
  1. There are some excellent zoom lenses some of which have very high specifications. The Nikon 200 – 400 for example is a fixed f4 lens. On less premium lenses, the f-stop will decrease from say f4.5 to f5.6 as you zoom into your subject. What this means is that at full zoom you will only get a f5.6 f-stop and so this will let in less light. Better quality zoom lenses, such as the Nikon 200 – 400 has internal focusing which means that the lens does not extend in length. Zoom lenses which extend in length when you zoom are called “suckers” as they often can suck dust into the mechanism which is a problem in dusty conditions.
  1. I do not like using teleconverters in the field and avoid living them on the camera as they do affect quality and also light and you might get dust into your camera when you want to put them on or off. If you are going to use a converter its best to go for a 1,5 rather than a 2 x converter as the former will have less effect on light and quality. Some excellent lenses come with drop in converters which can be applied with the click of a button and will turn a 400 mm into a 600 mm. But do bear in mind that adaptors do affect the amount of light coming into the lens by a factor equivalent to the magnification.
  1. For general wildlife photography you will need a whole suite of lenses. Traditionally professionals would have a suite of lenses: a 24 – 70 mm (f2.8), a 70 – 200 mm (2.8) and then a 200 – 400 or 500. But the big thing is that you cover this sort of range. The landscapes in Africa are amazing. You will also want to get close to birds.
  1. The “nice-to-have” range of lenses will include an ultra-wide. A 14 – 24 range 2.8 will be excellent for capturing the amazing stars in the night sky. You may also be interested in photographing smaller things such as insects which will demand a macro lens. Macro lenses are usually rated f2.8 and can range from 60 – 200mm in length. A good middle of the range is a 100 mm macro.
  1. Managing multiple lenses is only really recommended if you are travelling in a private vehicle as you will need lots of space. In reality, many photographers taken excellent photographs using some of the really good zoom lenses on the market. I tested a Sigma 60 – 600 mm lens recently. It’s a heavy lens but offers amazing flexibility in the field. If you were really short on space and wanted convenience you could easily get by with such a lens and a modern mobile phone for landscapes. The only areas you are likely to be a little limited is in very low light or shooting with a spotlight when nothing really beats an f2.8. The rule of thumb, when you are shooting in low light situations is not to shoot at full zoom and also to make sure you have a high ISO to capture the action.
  1. The increasingly good low light and low noise ability of modern cameras has meant that you can crank up the ISO to 3000 or 4000 and still get a decent shutter speed and really sharp results even with a lens that is not a prime. During daylight you will still get the crispness that you will get with a better quality lens.
  1. Lens image stabilization, which allows you to get sharp results with shutter speeds 2 to 4 faster than a non-IS lens, is a game changer. As a rule of thumb, I would shoot a stationary subject with a 300 mm lens at 1/300th of a second quite comfortably. But, with IS switched on you could get away with shooting at 1/60th of a second. Remember that IS can affect image quality a little so turn it off when on a tripod. Also, get used to the fact that there are two IS settings. One which works in all directions and one which is only for up and down movement. The latter, usually IS setting 1, is recommended when panning. For video, it’s even better to have image stabilization in the camera.
  1. Good quality modern lenses will have excellent seals to stop dust and water, lens coatings that reduce lens flare and refraction of light and also multiple layers of glass that make for excellent optics. The overall build quality, smoothness of focus and also general sharpness differ from one lens to another. Do your homework on Google and ask for reports on various lenses. Do not expect to get the same quality on a kit lens that comes with a camera than you will get with a more specialized lens. As with most things you pay for what you get. But there are some really good sharp lenses that come at a good price. The Nikon 100 – 500 for example is a great option for many shooters. Sigma and Tokina also make very good zoom lenses.
  1. As the market moves to mirrorless, lenses are changing rapidly. They tend to be much lighter and have more features built into the lens. You can still use a dSLR lens on most mirrorless cameras by using an adaptor that increases the distance from the sensor and do not include any glass elements so its unlikely to affect quality. However, the balance and weight of a heavy DSLR lens on a mirrorless body can be a bit awkward.
  1. Finally choose a lens setup that suits your strength and personality. Do you want to carry a heavy lens and a big bag, or do you want to compromise a little. I have a combination of mirrorless and dslr cameras, and a large selection of prime lenses. But in many situations, particularly when space is limited for me as a guide with guests, I often shoot with a 200 – 500 Nikon lens, an 80 – 400 and yes, my i-phone. It takes great shots and video too.