With many varying types, brands and models of cameras available on the market today, selecting the one that caters best to your individual needs can prove to be a strenuous activity at times. When planning a safari trip as a hobby or professional photographer, determining which equipment might enhance the experience and quality of the expedition can tend to seem like a task with a multitude of elements to consider.
Indeed, but in order to meet the rigorous demands of life in the bush, the need for speed, precision and durability of build becomes more acute than ever.
Certainly no one wants to risk missing the shot due to a sluggish autofocus system. Nor does anyone relish getting the beautiful shot, only to then find out that it’s unacceptably soft and grainy when viewed on the computer at days end. But with so many diverse elements to consider, and a plethora of choices available, it can be tough figuring out where to begin.
To aid you in making the purchase that’s beneficial for your needs, experience-level and budget, we’ve rounded up a selection of four of the best cameras for a wildlife safari currently on the market – providing an option for the varying price brackets.
Rather than a DSLR, the FZ200 is a Bridge camera (also known as a superzoom), i.e. a camera that combines a very long, integrated, zoom lens with a small to medium-sized sensor in a package that allows much greater manual control and flexibility than is generally the case with a compact camera. While superzooms can’t compete with DSLRs in terms of image quality, they do offer a very convenient all-in-one solution that makes them ideal for taking on the road.
The DMC-FZ200 has been around for a few years, and has even been superseded by the more recent FZ300, consequently it is by no means the most up to date or heavily ‘speced’ camera available right now. Indeed, if you’re looking for a Panasonic Bridge camera, the newer Lumix DMC-FZ1000 is clearly the more obvious option.
That being the case, why is it that the FZ200 makes our list?
Well, for a start, it’s cheap. However, price alone would not suffice to make it a worthy addition to your bag when packing for a safari. Rather, what makes it stand out even after all this time on the market, is a combination of low price and great features in a fairly lightweight and compact body.
To be sure, with only a 1/2.3-inch,12 megapixel sensor, the FZ200 leaves quite a lot to be desired in terms of image resolution. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the FZ200’s impressive 25-600mm zoom lens retains a constant maximum aperture of f/2.8 across all focal settings. Whereas the lenses on even many considerably more expensive superzoom cameras quickly need to shut-down diaphragm as soon as you move away from the widest focal length.
In practice this means that, on many other Bridge cameras, as soon as you want to shoot at anything but a wide-angle setting, there’s less light hitting the sensor, and therefore it’s likely that either a tripod or a higher ISO will be called for. And higher ISOs of course mean more pixel-noise.
Unless you’re fantastically lucky, on a safari you’re going to be needing to shoot on longer lens settings most of the time – in order to get a good close-up view of your subjects. The FZ200 will allow you to do so and still shoot at f/2.8 right up to a setting of 600mm, whereas many other similar cameras will not. Due to its inferior sensor, the FZ200 is likely to start off shooting noisier images than most of its competitors at the onset, but this problem will not increase as you zoom through focal lengths. Meanwhile, many more expensive – and theoretically superior – Bridge cameras cannot maintain the same maximum aperture throughout all zoom settings, thus increasing the likelihood that you would need to compensate in such a way as to add more digital noise to the image in the end anyway.
Generally, with a more expensive camera you are likely to have greater flexibility, and under ideal conditions a more expensive camera should of course produce higher quality images. But if half the time your shooting conditions are far from ideal, and therefore suggests the end results are much the same as they would’ve been with the FZ200 anyway, begging the question – is it really worth spending the extra cash?
In good lighting conditions, the FZ200’s 1080p HD video capabilities are excellent. The only drawback here is some noticeable motor noise from the lens that may prove distracting while stalking your ‘prey.’ Burst shooting of RAW format images is at a respectable rate of 5.5 fps, however this can go up to an impressive 60 fps when shooting at lower resolution.
To sum up, then, if you think you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting hand-held, either in good light or at dusk, on a long lens (all highly likely scenarios on a safari) and you don’t need to make particularly large prints of your photos (or you’re content to just view them on screen), then a more expensive camera may not offer you much advantage over the FZ200. Certainly the FZ200 is one of the best deals at this price point, and its fantastic zoom lens makes it a great choice for shooting wildlife on safari.
Nikon’s D3400 is a classically powerful, entry-level DSLR that dispenses with many of functions that are often found in more expensive models, but ultimately non-essential in producing a quality image/video. What the D3400 does consider to be important, is offering maximum image quality for minimal cost, leaving the excess gadgetry to more expensive ranges. Indeed, the D3400 produces photos that are of a resolution more commonly associated with the professional end of the DSLR spectrum, only without the high price-tag attached.
What you get with the D3400 is an unassuming, functional camera with an excellent 24.2-megapixel image sensor and full HD 1080p video at 60 fps. The camera’s burst-shooting rate is a fairly standard 5 fps, and it also offers a maximum ISO of 25,600 and the ability to shoot in RAW format.
What you don’t get though, are any of the fun extras – such as an articulating touch screen or internal Wi-Fi – that are found on even slightly more expensive DSLR cameras (although it does come with built-in Bluetooth to connect to other devices, and remotely control the camera). Additionally, the D3400 is less user-customizable than is the case with cameras targeted at a more professional level of shooter. Correction, the D3400 can be customized all you want, but you’ll have to spend a lot more time digging deep into labyrinthian sub-menus in order to get there, potentially losing out on a shot while scrolling through lists of settings.
Most importantly, though, what is also missing from the D3400 is an anti-aliasing filter. However, before we begin looking at exactly what an anti-aliasing filter does, the crucial thing to understand here is that for anyone hoping to get sharper, more detailed photos, the lack of an AA filter is very definitely a plus, rather than something to lament the loss of.
This is because an anti-aliasing filter adds a degree of in-camera softening or blur to photographs, in order to reduce image-noise and lower the risk of moiré patterning (i.e. that bizarre optical effect that can sometimes occur when photographing repeated patterns, such as checks). An anti-aliasing filter is not the only way of achieving this however, as both of these problems can easily be fixed on a computer after capture by anyone with basic photoshop skills. Nonetheless, as most hobbyists don’t want to have to bother with this extra hassle, previously anti-aliasing filters were only ever removed on pro-end cameras.
However, before you get too alarmed, it’s worth keeping in mind that moiré patterning is a fairly rare occurrence at the best of times. Added to this, we should probably note that the middle of the savannah is perhaps not the most likely place in which to come across a great deal of complex geometric patterns.
More importantly though, as image resolution increases, the probability of moiré patterning decreases even further. In short, with its hefty 24-megapixel sensor, users are unlikely to encounter any problems with moiré patterning on the D3400 – hence why Nikon have chosen to dispense with the filter, as they did with its predecessor (D3300). Instead, what you get are very sharp and detailed images – effectively as the lens saw them – that have not been artificially blurred by the camera itself (an ingenious solution to a problem that should never have occurred in the first place). This makes the D3400 ideal for shooting images that can later be printed as stunningly detailed enlargements of your on-safari encounters.
Finally, we should note that a more expensive DSLR will likely (but not necessarily) provide faster and more accurate AF performance and a more impressive burst-rate than the D3400 can muster – clearly both considerable advantages when it comes to capturing fast-moving wildlife in the bush. However, unless you’re thinking to go on a night-safari – or really just have money to burn – the D3400 will perform just fine for most peoples’ needs, and at a fraction of the price when compared to a top-of-the-range DSLR.
The SX730 HS is equipped with 20.3 generous megapixels, keeping its resolution within touching distance of higher priced DSLR cameras. Also packed into this lightweight (300g) compact digital camera, is a zoom range of 24-960mm, which will prove to be exceptionally useful when shooting a subject from distance.
The SX730 HS has great image smoothing when shooting up to an ISO of 1600, but at a full ISO of 3200, making larger prints can become a little bit problematic. However, you can feel confident to shoot right through the entire zoom range without losing quality, this is due to its fantastic optical image stabilisation that keeps the images blur free. The automatic white balance is diligent and delivers quality across an array of lighting conditions, but the all-purpose metering system has slight difficulties in very high contrast shots, although in normal shooting conditions the sensor assists in producing well rendered images.
A few shortcomings found in the SX730 HS are that it doesn’t have a RAW shooting option, no built-in viewfinder and no external flash shoe. While the omission of these features may cause distress, fret not as it’s common to many compact digital cameras. The SX730 HS compensates for this by incorporating tech such as built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity and NFC connectivity, allowing you to remotely control the camera via your smartphone. As for shooting, the only limitations are a lack of RAW images, noise seeping into high ISO shots and an absolute lack of an optical or digital viewfinder, meaning all shooting is done through the LCD touch-screen.
The video capabilities on the SX730 HS are reasonable for a compact digital camera, it has a built-in microphone and shoots at a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080. It is does not have 4K video capture, but the full HD recording is very respectable. The button layout and menu interface are both user friendly and intuitive, permitting easy on-the-fly adjustments while shooting.
The ergonomics of the SX730 HS are excellent. The entire unit weighs only 300g, which means it is easy to lug around for hours photographing wildlife without transforming your arms into jelly. Its petit physical dimensions allow for the camera to fit easily in your pocket, and the rubberized texture on the grip promotes a secure in-hand position.
All things considered, the SX730 HS is good value for money. The 960mm telephoto lens is extremely useful on a safari shoot, the lightweight and durable build of the camera ensures its safety out in the elements, and its exceptional portability means it can go everywhere you do. It is a shame it lacks certain features to have a broader appeal for serious photographers, but beginners are sure to love it.
Note: Canon released the EOS 6D MKII in 2017 to replace the EOS 6D. The new MKII offers an extra 6-megapixels, articulating screen, 56% higher ISO, 2 more fps and a whole collection of cross type focus points. The MKII is certainly the superior camera, but unless you have the extra cash ($900 difference at time of going to print) to purchase it, the 6D is far better value for money.
We’re assuming that if you already own a professional-level camera such as Canon’s EOS 5D MKIV, and are planning to go on safari, you’re likely quite content in the knowledge that your expensive, rugged and precision piece of kit will be more than up to the task at hand and therefore you really don’t need anything else. At most you might be in the market for a longer, faster lens. This article clearly isn’t for you then.
Although we might also dream of shooting fantastic high-resolution, full-frame photographs of our African wildlife safari, for the rest of us mere mortals the price of a 5D MKIV is going to be somewhat out of reach. What, then, are the options for a photographer who doesn’t wish to compromise on image quality, or risk being left without a functioning camera mid-trip, but who would rather not have to remortgage their house in order to achieve those standards?
Canon’s EOS 6D might be the answer.
To be clear, this is not a cheap camera. It is however, probably the cheapest way into full-frame DSLR photography currently on the market. While all the cameras we’ve looked at here have been selected, in part, because they are at the top of their particular price-range in regards to image quality, clearly a camera with a bigger sensor is always going to come out tops. Even if the megapixel count is actually lower – as is the case here – full-frame trumps all (the 6D shoots 20.2 megapixel images, compared with the 24.3 megapixels of the Nikon D3400). And the 6D comes with the exact same top-quality full-frame sensor as Canon’s 5D MKIII, only at a much lower price.
Additionally, the 6D’s build quality is superior to cameras lower down the price range, and the rugged exterior instills plenty of confidence that it wont let you down in the field. There’s onboard Wi-Fi and GPS and the camera is relatively small and lightweight when you consider the size of sensor it’s packing under the hood. With only 11 autofocus points, however, the 6D will still not compete with pricier camera models. Nonetheless it’s rapid enough to hold its own and will likely be faster than most other cameras we’ve seen here.
So, what’s the bad news? Well, somewhat surprisingly for a camera as expensive as this, the 6D’s burst-rate is only 4.5 fps. I.e. it will shoot less consecutive frames than even the Nikon D3400 manages (5 fps). Also, there’s no built-in flash (perhaps a good thing, unless you particularly want to attract that lion’s attention by inadvertently firing a strobe right in it’s face). And finally the rear screen is fixed, rather than articulating. Otherwise, all other features, such as video, are comparable to, if not better than, any of the other cameras we’ve looked at in this article.
All in all, then, the 6D is an excellent quality, hardwearing DSLR that permits entry into the world of full-frame image making at a comparably low price. While perhaps it should more rightly be viewed as occupying the bottom-rung of the professional range, it nonetheless costs little more than many consumer-level DSLRs, while providing far superior image quality. Anyone bringing this camera with them on safari will not be disappointed with the results.
Canon has already announced that an EOS 6D MKII is scheduled for release at some point in 2017. At the time of writing, full specifications had not been disclosed, however, given how great a camera the original 6D is, the updated version will certainly be worth looking into once it does finally drop.
All four of the cameras listed above can be relied upon to deliver the goods out in the field. Ultimately then, exactly which of these options is right for you will largely depend on your own particular needs. However, if pressed to narrow our selection down to just one DSLR and one lighter-weight, all-in-one option, the following two emerge as our clear favorites.
Top Recommended DSLR Camera for an African Safari
Nikon’s D3400 takes pride of place as our most recommended DSLR for a safari. For anyone wishing to dive into DSLR photography without breaking the bank, no other camera can offer this level of image quality at such a great price.
Nikon is releasing its new D3500 later this year (rumoured in the second quarter). “Should I not wait for the newer model in that case?” you ask.
Well, yes, that’s the simple truth. Hold on before pre-ordering a D3500 though, because the logic that dictates waiting for the new D3500 to be released, is so that you may purchase the D3400 at a better price.
Nikon is about to start shipping its brand-new D3500, which will relegate the D3400 to a lower ‘echelon’ of the Nikon range, and thus, force retailers to lower their price to accommodate the new addition.
“So, what does the new model actually offer consumers over and above the D3400?”
Well that’s the thing, apparently the D3500 delivers very little that the D3400 couldn’t already. Aside from an increased price tag, that is.
By all means, go for the new model if you desire – as there’s certainly no indication that Nikon has done anything to make the camera any less usable. However, the differences from the D3400 are slight, and not in any of the areas that do much to change either usability or image quality.
In short, with the D3500, Nikon appear to have altered and added to some of D3400 features, but not to the extent that justifies spending more. So why pay the extra premium? Meanwhile, the D3400 is just as great a starter-DSLR as it ever was. With the money saved compared to the newer model, you can invest in a longer zoom lens and be sure you’re ready for any upcountry eventuality your trip might throw at you.
Top Recommended Compact Digital Camera for an African Safari Canon PowerShot SX730 HS
Meanwhile, for those seeking a more compact and automated option, Canon’s PowerShot SX730 HS offers a great balance between image quality, functionality, cost and convenience. The exceptionally lightweight, ergonomically executed design and superzoom telephoto lens, combine to make this an ideal choice for capturing great images of wildlife on the fly with minimal fuss.
To put together a comparable kit in DSLR format would require buying many separate, heavy and bulky lenses and would undoubtedly cost an absolute fortune. So, while images shot on the SX730 HS will not quite stand up to comparison with those made using Nikon’s D3400, they’ll still be good enough for most peoples’ needs. What’s more, producing them doesn’t entail dragging a whole bunch of expensive kit halfway across Africa.