How to Choose a Lens for Safari and Wildlife Photography
An exercise in finding the right tool for the job
When I went on safari in 2017, it was my first time photographing wildlife. I knew that the lenses I had at my disposal weren’t enough to get the shots I was hoping to capture. My objective was to get portraits of the wildlife I saw on safari. I wanted to capture the details in their faces and the things that made them unique.
Knowing that I was going to have to either rent or buy a lens, I started researching to find what would be the ideal solution for my problem statement. I needed one lens that could provide me with the ability to capture portraits of wildlife along with a variety of shots throughout the trip and I needed to do so while maintaining great detail and sharpness.
After extensive research I finally found the right lens for the job. Today I want to walk you through that process I took, and help you decide which lens is right for you when you go on safari. This process applies to buying lenses for a variety of situations, but I’ve written it from the perspective of wanting to shoot wildlife.
Determining What You Need
The first step in determining what you need from any type of lens is establishing the shots that you are trying to get. If you’re hiking up into the mountains to get wide landscapes, that tells you you probably shouldn’t bring a telephoto unless you’re wanting to do some stitching in post. Similarly with going on safari or shooting wildlife, you need to decide before you go what you’re aiming for to get the best images when you’re on the trip.
I wanted to capture portraits, so that informed me I needed to get something with a pretty high focal length. I also knew I would be photographing animals from a variety of distances, and thus would need a zoom lens. So your first step should be to establish what you need your lens to do for you, and then evaluate what you currently have. If you have something that will do the job, great! Use that! If you don’t, it’s time to start researching.
Renting vs Buying
As I’ve mentioned in each of these safari guide articles, for many going on safari is a once in a lifetime experience. If you’re looking into getting a lens that you will only use for this trip, renting can be a really great option. Renting can give you the opportunity to use the equipment you want without having to make the large investment of purchasing it.
For me, I knew that wildlife photography was something I wanted to start doing, so buying a lens for the purpose of taking photos of animals wasn’t only going to serve me this trip, but in trips moving forward.
So once you know the lens or type of lens you’re looking for, look into what options are available for renting in your area. If the money you save in renting makes sense, it can be an incredible option.
Finding the Right Lens
The problem statement I listed earlier was that I needed one lens that could provide me with the ability to capture portraits of wildlife along with a variety of shots throughout my trip. Maintaining detail and sharpness were also a priority.
Knowing that, I started looking at a variety of focal lengths. Since I shoot Canon, I started looking at demo images for shots taken at different distances with their lenses of different focal lengths. This gave me an idea of what focal length was the bare minimum for me to get what I wanted. From there I looked at the lenses that both Canon and other lens manufacturers offered.
I looked at everything, from 400mm primes to widely versatile zooms. The first decision I made was that primes weren’t going to work. While I love the results primes give, I didn’t have an exact idea of the distances I would be shooting photos at, and thus I didn’t want to risk having a lens that would end up being too far punched in or too wide. I also wanted the versatility I could get with a zoom lens. In terms of depth of field, I wanted the lowest possible aperture within the lenses that fit into my other qualifications and budget.
With these parameters and new info, I began to look at offerings from the different lens manufacturers, and came to a final decision.
My Final Decision
I eventually landed on the Sigma f5.6–6 150–500mm, which ended up being the perfect choice. It provided me with an incredible range of focal lengths, allowing me to punch in and capture great profiles of lions at a distance, but it wasn’t so extreme that when our vehicle was surrounded by a herd of elephants, I could still get shots from less than fifteen feet away. The detail and sharpness of the lens proved to be top notch, and the aperture was good enough for the zoom variety I got in return. Lastly, the price was reasonable and allowed me to buy the lens as I had hoped. If I had to blindly recommend a lens to someone for their first safari, this would 100% be it.
If you’re into gear, going on safari or any trip with the objective of shooting wildlife will prove to be incredibly fun to plan. Researching and planning for a safari is both rewarding and adds to the excitement of going. There are countless options out there when it comes to what lens you may use for the different shots you want to achieve. So do your research, prep your gear, and get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
I hope this article helps you in your ventures ahead! If you are interested in purchasing a lens for wildlife or safari photography, I’ve left some links to my lens as well as a few others below. Full disclosure, the links provided are affiliate links.
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