What camera should you get for your safari?

Luke Street

For most people coming on their first tented safari to the Timbavati, it is the trip of a life-time. It is such a powerful experience that most guests want to record and document the journey. Some really enjoy just being present in the moment without any distraction, while others find themselves wanting to capture visual evidence in the form of photography and videography.

Of course, there are a number of ways to do this and this article will explain those different ways and hopefully help you to understand, through your own needs, exactly which avenue to take. It may be worth stating early on that each option comes with pros and cons.

Let’s begin by looking at the most common way images are taken in this day and age. It’s small, it fits in your pocket and it has endless ways of helping you share your images with your friends and family right away! Yip, you guessed it…

The Smartphone

Smartphones are incredible devices. They have changed the world forever through their ease of use, ease of transport and their ease of photography. They also happen to connect to the internet at every chance they get. And we all have one. Recently smartphone cameras have become very powerful and full of features. Some sport awesome megapixel ratings allowing for decent detail to be captured. Others sport two different cameras entirely, allowing one to capture scenes in wide angle and with a little bit of zoom. They also now have things like time lapse and slow-motion recording and to top it all off, most of the new one’s film in 4K! They are great for a snap shot here and snap shot there with a little bit of filming in between.

However, there are some cons to the humble little camera at the back of your phone. Smartphones are compact devices which means that everything within them is compact and that includes the image sensor. I won’t bore you with the technical stuff but what this means is that smartphones are generally terrible in low light situations, producing a very noisy image when the lighting is not just right. It is also this small sensor that does not allow all that much detail to be captured.

Remember the saying “Nice from far but far from nice”? Well it rings most true here. Try and zoom in on any smartphone image and one will immediately see pixilation and distortion. Sadly, these devices also lack any sort of meaningful zoom, when wildlife photography is in question.

Recommendations for smartphone use on safari

  • Photography in and around the lodge 
  • Filming the action (rather than photographing) 
  • The odd landscape image 
  • The obligatory selfie with a giraffe 
  • Quickest way to make friends and relatives jealous all over the world

So, while the smartphone is a great companion to have. I do not recommended it as your only camera while on safari. Remember to use your phone in landscape mode and only in portrait when necessary.

Next up, lets focus on something that is also small enough to fit in your pocket. They are generally inexpensive and can be found in just about any store that stocks anything remotely electronic.

The Point & Shoot

Point and shoot cameras come in a variety of different models at a variety of different prices. Some can be really cheap while some can be pretty expensive, such as the newly announced Sony RX100 V which retails for over $1000.00! Needless to say, all of them should perform better than your smartphone for a number of reasons. For one, they all have a built in optical zoom which is far superior to even the best smartphone and although not many of them film in 4K, they are generally able to film 1080p with the added advantage of that zoom! They also have better image stabilisation, allowing one to capture better low light pictures. A bigger image sensor is also going to create better images and allow one to zoom in much more effectively.

Some of the cons of the point and shoot are that not many of these devices are capable of capturing RAW images and if you read my blog “Basic camera set up”, you’ll know that this means that you can’t effectively edit your images later. I have also noticed that point and shoot cameras for the most part struggle to capture rich colour and often images are left looking a little dull. Images can also often lack detail. Most point and shoot cameras also lack a viewfinder, this makes composition fairly hit and miss. Lastly, if you are like me and have big hands, then you will really suffer with one of these very compact cameras (however this can actually be a pro for some!).

Recommendations for point and shoot camera use on safari

  • Photography in and around the lodge 
  • Filming and photography while on safari 
  • Average wide angle for landscape 
  • Average zoom for wildlife 
  • Great for that photo of you and a sunset (Taken by someone else of course) 
  • A decent back up camera

This is a great choice for someone that is not overly concerned with image quality but rather just wants decent evidence of their safari.

Let’s take it up a notch now. They are also relatively inexpensive, but they are bigger, much bigger than anything we have covered thus far. 

The Bridge Camera

Ever wanted your very own DSLR camera but found it to be too expensive and too much of a hassle to change lenses and so on? If your answer is yes, then this is the camera for you! Bridge cameras have come a long way and as the name would suggest, they are the “bridge” between point and shoot cameras and full blow DSLR systems. When compared to DSLR systems they are also very attractively priced. They very often have a great lens built in and while these lenses often capture wide angle nicely, it is their zoom capabilities that make them famous.

The newly announced Nikon P1000 has an effective zoom range of 24mm-3000mm. That is an incredible reach! This is the only bridge camera to have that reach, but most of them have a decent zoom range. Zooms like this also create a great situation for some very detailed filming. Bridge cameras not only bridge the two systems in terms of size, but also in controls. They too will often allow users to utilise a full manual setting just like their big DSLR brothers.

Of course, having a built-in lens is always going to be a compromise and bridge cameras are no different. While they have great zoom and respectable image quality they will never compete with the DSLR and mirrorless systems in this regard. They are also fairly big, which makes it a little harder to travel with than a point and shoot camera and not everyone wants this inconvenience. Many bridge cameras do make use of EVF’s (electronic view finders) but they are nowhere near as refined as the large and crystal clear EVF’s you’ll find in the mirrorless systems.

Recommendations for bridge camera use on safari

  • Photography in and around the lodge 
  •  Filming and photography while on safari 
  •  Good wide angle for landscapes 
  •  Excellent zoom for wildlife 
  • Why not photograph the moon? Looking the part (almost)

These are incredible devices and really do bridge the gap. If changing lenses and carrying a lot of gear are not for you, then a bridge camera is what you need!

Now we move into the world of prosumer and full on professional gear. They are said to be smaller but still uncompromising and often carry an idea of “more bang for your buck”!

The Mirrorless Camera

Mirrorless systems have been around for some time now, and during this period they have grown in leaps and bounds! They are compact, but versatile and offer loads of features, most notably interchangeable lenses. This allows one to set the camera up perfectly for completely different situations, something that was always the great divide between DSLR’s and all other cameras.

As stated before, mirrorless systems also make use of EVF’s. These basically allow you to preview your images and the affects your settings are having through a tiny screen placed inside the viewfinder. This can dramatically improve your image keeper rate. These cameras also have very few, if any, moving parts, which possibly means more reliability. They often have impressive scope as far as focal points are concerned, allowing the user to focus on just about any aspect within the frame.

Many of these cameras come with the capability of recording in 4K and what’s more, because of their mirrorless nature, they are able to find focus and maintain it excellently when filming. Image quality is not compromised through the use of APS-C and Full Frame sensors which allow incredible detail to be captured in both low light and normal light. Most mirrorless cameras now have internal image stabilisation. This means that just about any lens can be stabilised, negating some hand movement and helping dramatically in low light situations.

There is no perfect camera though, and mirrorless systems still have their drawbacks. Most notably would be the lack of lenses available and this goes for Sony, Fuji as well as most of the other well known brands. These manufactures have just not had the time needed to produce all the lenses required to compete with the likes of DSLR manufactures such as Nikon and Canon. However, Sony did recently release a 400mm f/2.8 lens which is proving to be incredible.

At the end of the day however, what this does is takes away the “Its smaller and lighter” credibility. As a mirrorless camera with a big lens resembles the size and weight of a full blown DSLR camera with a similar lens. Mirrorless cameras are still falling behind in terms of focus tracking and in general focusing when compared to DSLR’s. However, this will change with time. Mirrorless cameras might not be what you are looking for if you have ergonomics in mind, especially if once again you have big hands. The camera body can often prove to be fairly small and not much of an anchor between you and your lens.

Recommendations for mirrorless camera use on safari

  • Photography in and around the lodge with correct lens 
  • Excellent filming while on safari 
  • Excellent for landscape photography with the right lens 
  • Excellent for wildlife photography with the right lens 
  • Tricky to give to someone to take an image of you with the sunset as you may need to explain how it works first 
  • With the right lens you will definitely look the part

It is often stated that mirrorless cameras are the cameras of the future and while they are most certainly brilliant there is still not much reason to change from a DSLR setup. However, if you want to capture professional grade images and have a camera with all the bells and whistles then you can’t go wrong with a mirrorless system!

We now move onto the last camera type on this list. It’s the big brother of everything that came before, not just in age, but also in size and weight. For the most part, still the reigning champion.


The DSLR has been around since the beginning of the digital imaging world. It finds its roots in the SLR systems of old. With that comes decades of development not only in the cameras but also in the lenses that accompany them. For this reason, DSLR cameras are still the most relative to the professional or prosumer photographer particularly within the wildlife photography world.

Both Nikon and Canon produce over 80 different lenses each! With that I would like to mention that having a brilliant lens on a mediocre camera is better than having a mediocre lens on a brilliant camera. The benefits of a DSLR are not limited to just lens variety though. They have incredible auto focusing systems which are both fast and accurate. These focusing systems still track subjects better, for the most part, than their mirrorless counterparts as well.

DSLR’s also have brilliant ergonomics with good button layout, great menu layouts and they feel really nice in the hand. Many are not capable of filming in 4K now and although the Nikon D850 has most probably the clearest footage, Canon is still a better option if you are mostly after filming capabilities. This is due to Canon’s incredible Dual Pixel focusing system when in filming mode.

DSLR’s also make use of optical viewfinders (in other words they have mirrors) and what this allows you to do is look at the scene as it is, in real time. Of course, many people might call this a disadvantage, but some people really enjoy this aspect rather than looking at a small screen in an EVF with a slight lag.

Even the reigning champion has his downfall and the DSLR is no different. They are big, and they are heavy, and this is often not something people enjoy. You need to decide if having that extra weight is worth the pros that come with it. These big cameras are also capable of making an almighty sound, due to the moving mirror, every time you take a photograph. Now imagine that sound when you are taking nine frames a second! As mentioned above, they also lack an EVF which can be a major drawback for some people.

Lastly, although they shoot many frames per second, allowing one to capture something like birds in flight, they don’t take as many as their mirrorless counter-parts. With some of those cameras doing 20 frames per second!

Recommendations for DSLR use on safari

  • Photography in and around the lodge with correct lens 
  • Excellent filming while on safari 
  • Excellent for landscape photography with the right lens 
  • Excellent for wildlife photography with the right lens 
  • Excellent in low light focusing
  •  Don’t even bother asking someone to take an image of you – that’s why you have a smartphone 
  • You will look the part and people will make comments and ask questions

DSLR cameras are still very relevant in today’s world of photography. If you want something that does it all and feels great in the hand with endless lenses to choose from (provided you have deep pockets) then this option is still the best for you!

*All images; https://www.ormsdirect.co.za/

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