6 Camera Choices For An African Holiday
Which Safari Camera?
There’s no right answer to the question ‘Which camera is best for a safari holiday?’ since there’s not just one type of safari, nor will there be simply one kind of holiday photo you want to bring home. So let’s look at what cameras you might take with you and which safari holiday situations they will work best in.
1. Bridge cameras
‘Bridging’ the gap between a compact camera and a DSLR is the bridge camera. Unlike an SLR there’s no chance of swapping lenses, but the optical zoom is likely to have a bigger range than on a compact getting you closer to safari holiday action. While the added bulk of a bridge camera means more to lug around on holiday, a distinct disadvantage on a fly-in safari where weight limits matter on small planes, it does give a better feel and produce a steady platform for taking photos. Coupled with image stabilisation and perhaps a bean bag to rest on, photos can be taken of animals in the distance without the dreaded shake of smaller cameras.
The level of control is generally higher than on a point and shoot, allowing longer exposures in low light, or faster speeds for moving animals, although the camera’s reaction time can be slower than a DSLR meaning the photo you take is after the action is over. The built in viewfinder of a bridge camera can come into its own in the bright light of an African safari holiday where the screen on the back of a compact camera or smartphone can become impossible to see.
Bridge cameras; best camera for: Those wanting high quality close up safari photos without the expense of a DSLR
Wildlife photographer @MichaelDanielHo describes himself as having a passion for travelling and conservation. He suggests that “While rarely professional grade, bridge cameras are compact and versatile”
2. DSLR cameras
Traditionally DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras are the tool of the professional photographer, although serious amateurs will use them for holiday photos, particularly for something like a safari where their versatility comes to the fore; with a multitude of lenses, filters and battery packs available and interchangeable. Sensor size matters when prints get big, so if you want to print your holiday photos onto an A3 canvas or bigger, a DSLR is likely to give sharper results than a bridge camera.
Cameras are only ever as good as the lens and if you don’t like the lens on a DSLR, or it’s not suitable for the photo you’re taking, you can change it. This is probably the biggest advantage of a DLSR and something that’s not possible with any of the cameras mentioned above. Long lenses give the opportunity for a real close up such as this one from the fabulous photos on David Yarrow’s website
Extra lenses will mean a heavier camera bag, something that’s not always ideal on a safari holiday, where luggage can be limited, but more lenses do give more options. That said, changing lenses on safari always opens up the risk of dust getting onto the sensor; something to bear in mind in the back of a game viewing vehicle.
DSLR cameras; best for: Serious photographers who want extra lenses and multiple setting options to get the perfect safari photo, and who are prepared to pay for extra seats on light aircraft to take their heavy kit on holiday.
A professional’s view on DSLR’s
Susan Portnoy who photographs and blogs as The Insatiable Traveller says of DSLRs “Lens flexibility is the main reason I prefer to use a DSLR on safari. There are so many lenses to choose from with extended focal length. Many reserves and national parks throughout Africa don’t allow vehicles to go off-road, meaning that if you see a rhino in the distance and there’s no path leading in that direction, you can’t drive closer for photographs. That’s where long lenses really come in handy, especially if you want close ups without having to severely crop your images.”
It’s often said that the best camera is the one you have with you, and with most of us carrying smart phones with us all the time, you’re very likely to have a phone in your pocket when the chance of taking a photo arises. Even on a safari holiday, where you’re less likely to be calling home or checking Facebook, force of habit may mean your phone is tucked in your pocket, and therefore perfect for those static candid holiday shots in good light that don’t need a zoom (more on movement, low light and zooms later)
Sharing holiday photos is another huge advantage of a smartphones. You’re just a wifi connection and one click away from making your friends jealous with photos of you on your safari, while you’re still on holiday, and of course there’s the option to use the front facing camera for a holiday selfie!
Even post production is easy with a smartphone with plenty of apps dedicated to helping turn your quick holiday snaps either into something you can be proud to share, or something funky and fun. These apps are not Photoshop but that’s not the point with these cameras. And while the camera is just one function of a smartphone, they can take some pretty impressive photos as the winners of the iPhone photography awards prove.
Smartphone cameras; best camera for: Always having with you on holiday.
Specialist photographic guide Gerry van der Walt @gerryvanderwalt says “Everybody who has a smartphone is on a photo safari. The ease of use and ability to share instantly is something that makes it popular. Who knows what the future holds! :)”
4. Point and shoot
Small point and shoot cameras, also known as compact cameras, are typically one step up from a cameraphone in terms of resolution and zoom.
Compact cameras tend to have wider apertures and larger sensors, improving the image quality at all light levels, particularly important on safari where some of the best wildlife photos come from early morning or night game drives. They’ll also have a more powerful flash which, although it won’t help for photos of animals since it’s often banned, can be used to fill in foregrounds when the background is very light – that photo of your friend in front of an animal filled Masai Mara.
Probably the biggest difference is zooms. On a safari holiday you’ll relatively frequently take a photo of something in the mid-distance, or want to zoom in on a particular feature of an animal. While the cameras on smartphones use digital zooms, reducing the quality of the resulting photo, compact cameras will perhaps have a 10x optical zoom which will improve quality.
Battery life, cost and manual settings are other advantages for those who take a compact camera on holiday, but for those wishing for the greater flexibility that manual settings offer, bridge and DSLR cameras might be even more suitable.
Point and shoot cameras; best camera for: Having in your pocket on a walking safari or letting your children use on a family holiday.
What the professionals think of point and shoot safari cameras
Ross Couper @rosscouperphoto who contributes to Facebook and Twitter for @singita says of point and shoot cameras: “There is so much action that surrounds a safari experience that capturing every moment is a must. The words ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ are true and you would want to embrace the moments through photographs. Point and shoots are a great to go to camera because of their high megapixel count as this will allow you to print high quality prints unlike a mobile device.
Coffee table books are easy to print these days and you will want to ensure you have a defined quality of photographs. Also the various settings on a point and shoot cameras are easy to navigate and it will allows anybody to take pictures of you with the staff at your destination (as they are always the unforgettable part in your safari experience as these are the people you truly want to pack in your luggage and take them home with you) – this is a better option rather than to rely on a selfie version.
Further a must to photograph is the group sundowner, again this will allow either the tracker or guide to take the photo – or if you all want to be included in the shot, a point and shoot is versatile in the way it can lean on a rock or on the vehicle with a self-timer – these candid moments leave a huge impression when you return home and look through your pictures.
Another plus of a point and shoot is that it can fit in your pocket so unlike a DSLR – it is not cumbersome to carry and you will always have it ready as the bush always presents surprises when you are not expecting – this way you are always ready!”
Want the most versatile camera for cool holiday action shots? A safari camera that can withstand being dropped? Or in water, or rattled around attached to a safari vehicle, quad bike, riding helmet? Or strapped to a selfie stick for photos with you in the foreground and one of Africa’s stunning landscapes in the background? Then a GoPro (other action cameras are also available) is probably one of the cameras to pack in your holiday luggage, or to strap to your chest. Let’s face it, they’re not heavy and don’t take up too much space.
GoPros allow you to take photos or video all the time and then choose the best one. Whereas other cameras are reactive and wait for you to set up and click the shutter. This does mean you’ll need to edit your footage to a small number of quick high intensity shots – probably no more than about 25 seconds of video or photo montage if you’re expecting any teenagers to invest their time to watch it – but if you’re using it regularly, your chances of catching the action is much higher.
GoPro; best for: Capturing holiday action anywhere and at any time without worrying about dust, water or vibration.
Alex Walters from Great Plains @GreatPlainsCons says GoPros are great for “Wide-angle, action video, ruggedness and versatility. You don’t know exactly what footage you’re going to get, but that’s part of the fun – just like getting your old film or slides back from the developing lab!”
6. Eyes and memory
Ok so they’re not really a camera, but many years ago a friend told me to put my camera down and take ‘photos of the mind’. While that all sounds a bit hippy, I think there’s a lot of value in enjoying your holiday without feeling you have to take home safari photos to compete with a National Geographic photographer.
In fact as African specialists one example of us doing this is our recommendation that people arrange two gorilla tracking days. So they can get the photos out of the way on the first day and then simply enjoy the gorillas on the second day using their eyes rather than just seeing them through a viewfinder.
Amanda Ritchie says the following on the Londolozi blog “Taking photographs in the bush is an incredible experience in and of itself, but remember to experience the moments in the bush, too.
If the light has faded, and you’re battling to get the shot that you really want, why not put your camera down and let your senses take over. Smell the dust as it settles, feel the early morning mist, absorb your surroundings and feel the ebb and flow of the bushveld all around you. Capture your memories on your camera, but don’t forget to truly live your safari.”
7. Mirrorless cameras (a bonus field following a comment on the blog)
In January 2018, reader Carol Archdale commented: “I am very surprised that you haven’t mentioned mirrorless cameras which are excellent cameras for travelling as they aren’t as heavy as DSLR’s.”
Although they’ve taken longer to catch on in the UK and USA, mirrorless cameras should certainly now be included in any discussion of cameras for safari. In recent years in Japan mirrorless cameras have been outselling DSLR’s.
Unlike a DSLR which uses a mirror to bring the image seen through the lens to the eyepiece of the camera, in a mirrorless camera the display on the back of the camera and the one in the viewfinder are both digital images.
They certainly are typically smaller and lighter as Carol said, but currently, and this is changing quite quickly, there are fewer lenses available for mirrorless cameras and the viewfinder on a DSLR offers a higher quality image. In many other ways – autofocus, previewing images, image stabilisation, image quality and playback – they are equal, but for video and shooting speed, mirrorless cameras lead the way.
They are another option for serious photographers to consider and in time will possibly become the main option.
If you’ve got this far and not found an answer on safari cameras, or you think there’s something more about cameras for safari holidays that we should have included, please ask in the comments section below, or pop us an email. We’ll be sure to reply and may amend the article to include our answer.
Whichever way you choose to capture photos on your safari holiday, we’re happy to help with advice. We’ve got keen photographers among the team at Aardvark Safaris for the relatively easy stuff. We are pleased to be working with David Murray, a professional photographer based in the UK and Africa, for the tougher, geeky questions. We can suggest camps with hides, the best lodges for private vehicles, specialist photographic holidays, or simply match you with guides who understand photography.
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