For quality safari wildlife photography, telephoto lenses are even more important than the camera itself.
In fact, it's often better to first choose the right lens and then get the camera body that fits with it.
But what is the right lens for safari photography and how do you go about making the choice between the hundreds of telephoto lenses available in the market?
Factors Affecting Safari Telephoto Lenses
I often get asked what the best lens is for an African safari and the answer depends on a number of factors...
Your Budget and Purpose With The Telephoto Lens.
If you are going to go on the occasional safari (or only one) and you practise wildlife photography as a hobby you will have different telephoto lenses requirements to the professional safari photographer who intends to sell the resultant pictures.
The Size Of The Lens
Because it is relatively difficult to get very close to your subjects (most reserves don't allow off-road driving), you need to take along a lens with a big magnification. At least 300mm for mammals is adequate (400mm is better) and 600mm for birds.
Continuous Predictive Auto Focus
The lens should also be able to focus automatically for any action picture opportunities that might come along like a fish eagle catching its prey on the water with talons extended or a lion ambushing an impala in a river bed.
Ideally you would want telephoto lenses with image stabilization to prevent blurring so that you can hand hold it when there is enough light (use a beanbag or window mount when there is low light).
- Large Aperture
Generally speaking, the larger the aperture (also known as the 'f-stop') of a lens the better because then it lets in more light and you can use it more effectively at dawn and dusk on a safari when many of the animals are more active. It also affects the amount of blurring of the background and the shutter speed.
- Image Sharpness
Photographers who make their living taking wildlife pictures need lenses that give absolutely tack sharp results but the amateur hobbyist going on a safari trip doesn't need such a high degree of clarity.
- Background Blur
Also known as 'bokeh', this is the ability of the lens to blur the background to reduce distractions from the main subject. Mirror lenses often produce unsightly circular shapes in the blurred background and some lower quality telephoto lenses are subject to 'striping' in the bokeh.
Bokeh is useful on safari because of the prevalence of distracting elements like vegetation, rocks, trees etc. You can't move the subject and you often can't change the angle because the vehicle is limited to where it can go so background blurring is your only other option.
- One Lens Is Better Than Two
Because of the dust that is prevalent on an African safari you want to change lenses as little as possible to prevent the camera mechanisms from clogging up and to avoid missing that split second when the leopard yawns to reveal its sizable canines because you were fumbling with another lens.
- Weight and Size
Luggage restrictions on airlines and the fact that you are going to be handling the lens for extended periods of time on safari means that lighter and smaller is better.
- Ease of Use
The ideal is to keep it simple on safari because you often aren't going to have much time to fumble with lens functions when your subject pops into view next to the road. So you either need to get a lens that is simple to use or practice a lot with it before you go on safari.
The Best Telephoto Lens For the Occasional Safari Traveller
You want to take some decent wildlife photographs on your safari (it's a once in a lifetime trip after all) to show your friends and family back home that don't end up as dark blobs in the distance surrounded by a lot of vegetation
And you don't want to break the bank in the process and still be able to use the telephoto lenses when you are not on safari for other photography projects (but you don't sell your photos for a living).
The first decision you need to make is whether you are going to use compact camera super zoom lenses or interchangeable DSLR lenses...
Compact (Bridge) Camera Lenses
One lens with long zoom range
Lightweight and small
Easy to use, short learning curve
Not as sharp as a DSLR lens
Noise at higher ISO levels
Slower (medium max aperture)
The sharpness disadvantage is largely a question of semantics because for all intents and purposes the results are sharp enough unless you want to sell your pictures for a living or make huge prints to hang on your wall back home.
The image quality is perfectly suited for online viewing and prints up to A3 size.
So in my opinion, for the occasional safari traveller, the advantages of using bridge camera lenses on safari far outweigh the disadvantages, especially with super zooms on the market covering the whole range from 28mm up to an incredible 2000mm (35mm-equivalent).
These compact cameras are also known as bridge cameras because they fill the niche between the single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) and the point-and-shoot camera.
Many of the photographs on this website were taken by me using compact cameras, namely the Canon Powershot S1 IS and its bigger brother the Canon Powershot S5 IS. Technology has moved on since then and now there are better models available.
I highly recommend these two cameras below and their built in lenses for safari photography (PS, these are the same ones I recommend in the best safari camera section because the lens and camera are integrated on a compact)...
DSLR Telephoto Lenses
Fast (large max aperture)
Good bokeh (background blurring)
Continuous predictive auto focus
Large and heavy
Steep learning curve
If you already own a DSLR camera or for whatever reason don't want to get a compact camera, then the lenses below in my opinion are very suitable for a safari.
Please note that they aren't the very best lenses available, those are in the professional photographer section, which I don't recommend for the occasional safari traveler because they are hugely expensive, very heavy and require a lot of practice to master.
Another option to consider for DSLR lenses is that you can rent them for the duration of your safari or buy and then resell them when you get back from your trip.
The Canon EF 100-400L IS is one of the most versatile safari lenses you will find and the image quality is really good but it comes at a price (used by many professionals too).
If your budget can't stretch that far and you are willing to downgrade a slight amount on image sharpness, then the Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS an excellent choice.
And if image quality is absolutely paramount to you then a prime lens (fixed focal length) is the way to go but remember that you will miss some opportunities because you can't zoom. The Canon 300 f/4 IS with a 1.4x teleconverter (Canon) is as good as you'll get without going into the astronomical price bracket.
The Best Safari Telephoto Lenses For A Professional Photographer
You are serious about your safari wildlife photography and want to sell your pictures (or already do) and enter competitions.
My recommendations for the perfect safari lens for you if you have very deep pockets...