Photography Shooting the wild side

Tamron 150-600mm F/ 5-6.3 and Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3. Pic Mogens Johansen, The West Australian
Photo of Mogens Johansen

How to best capture your safari holiday.

The perfect camera for an African safari will be one that will be able to take your day-to-day family pictures and also capture the landscape and some close-up wildlife shots.

For wildlife photography, the lens is the most important aspect. It is frustrating to see a photo opportunity and not be able to get “close enough”. Ideally, you’ll need a 600mm lens (and possibly a tele-converter). A fast auto focus system and a reasonably fast burst rate are also important.

Having photographed wildlife all over Africa, Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield says: “I have never heard anyone trying to photograph a leopard in a tree say ‘I wish I’d bought a shorter lens’. The simple truth in this is that you can’t have a lens that’s too long. A monopod completes the kit.”

Let’s look at a couple of camera types that will suit a safari expedition.

Travel zoom or bridge camera

Travel superzoom cameras (also called bridge cameras) fill the gap between a compact camera and a DSLR or mirrorless camera. They are larger than a compact camera and often look similar to a small DSLR camera. They are simple to use and may be the camera for you if you want an all-in-one camera that has a big zoom lens range from wide angle to a powerful telephoto lens.

These cameras are good value for what they offer. Many will shoot 4K video and have 4K photo modes that enable you to take 8MB still frames from a short video burst, which can be very handy if you want to capture peak wildlife action.

However, they do have some limitations. Generally, the processors in these cameras aren’t as fast as those in DSLR and mirrorless cameras and that results in slower auto focus performance and burst rates and their slower lenses have a limited aperture or f-stop range, which can be frustrating if you like to play around with depth of field.

Safari tips — Look for a camera with at least a 2.5cm sensor and 4K photo modes. Also look for one with a fast lens (f: 3.5 or f: 2.8 if possible) and make sure it has a good optical zoom range. (Digital zoom essentially just crops your existing image and you lose quality). Choose a camera with a good grip to make it easier to hold it still when using the long zoom.

Mirrorless or DSLR system camera

This type of camera generally offers the best quality and flexibility. You can start with the camera and standard zoom lens and build a system of lenses and accessories to suit.

You will get the best quality from a camera with a full frame sensor but there are also advantages to choosing one with what is referred to as a crop size sensor. These cameras are generally smaller and lighter, plus the smaller sensors have a crop effect that effectively extends the magnification of the lens. For example — an APS-C sensor camera with a crop factor of 1.5 turns a 300mm telephoto lens into a 450mm lens. Mirrorless and DSLR cameras usually have faster processors that enable more accurate autofocus and a faster burst rate (frames per second). These features alone are handy if you are on a safari.

Safari tips — Look for a camera that is weather and dust proof, has a good-quality image stabiliser and is comfortable to hold— this is important when you start adding big, sometimes heavy telephoto lenses. Look for good fast lenses so you can take pictures in low light (f: 2.8 is good for a telephoto zoom). Invest in a monopod to take the weight of the camera and lens and minimise camera shake — which is magnified when using long telephoto lenses — and help you get better and sharper images. It’s is also useful when you shoot video. 

One lens fits all

Third-party lenses can save you lots of money compared with ones from the camera manufacturers. You may not use some focal lengths as much as others so it makes sense to look at other options, particularly when you are looking at really long telephoto lenses which, if you are buying the original manufacturer’s models can cost you several thousands of dollars. 

Third-party lenses can lack a bit in build quality, lens sharpness and resolution but reputable manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron have a good reputation of offering decent quality at an affordable price.

I took two of Tamron’s zoom lenses for a test run. Both will be particularly useful if you are off on an African safari.

The Tamron 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 is relatively compact for a lens with such a huge zoom range. It is good looking, well built and the autofocus is fast and accurate. It has three built-in stabiliser modes and a removable tripod/monopod ring. I particularly liked that you can grab the focus ring at any time for instant manual focus override and it is also easy to lock and unlock the zoom when needed. The lens sharpness and resolution was acceptable in all of my test shots though not as crisp as my Canon 100-400mm.

 The only downside is it is a relatively slow lens. F/5-6.3 is not exactly lightning fast so you will need to bump up the ISO a bit to achieve fast shutter speeds — even more so if you need to add a tele converter. The Tamron 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 retails for about $2100 so it is good value for what is a very versatile lens.

The Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD is a remarkable lens designed for APS-C crop sensor DSLRs. The impressive focal range is equivalent to a 28-640mm on a full frame DSLR. The lens is only 121mm long and weighs only 705g so it effectively turns your DSLR into a bridge camera — just slightly bigger but significantly better. This lens also has a built-in stabiliser and tele-macro feature. 

However, with an impressive range like this there are compromises. The auto focus is accurate but not lightning fast, there is some sharpness and light fall-off in the corners of the frame when shooting with wide-open aperture but it does improve when stopping down.

The Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD retails for about $1000. It is a handy lens if you want it all in the one convenient package but I would have other lenses in my bag as well.

Pictured at top: Tamron 150-600mm F/ 5-6.3 and Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 by Mogens Johansen.

Disclaimer

Both lenses were lent to Mogens Johansen by Camera Electronic.

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