Lightweight & Compact Safari Equipment
I get many people writing in to ask me “what should I take on safari” – of course there is no absolute list as all adventures are slightly different and different people have different wants/needs. But because I am currently busy planning for a trip to Zimbabwe, where I hope to spend a lot of time on safari, photographing as well as just enjoying the wonderful wildlife that the country has to offer, I thought that with my experience, what I take with me may be of interest to others as well and at least give you a starting point.
I have already written an article with an essential packing list & what to take on safari, and another one that covers what clothes to take on safari, so I won’t go over the basics again, but rather go into specifics on the actual equipment that I take on safari:
On this trip I will be going with my wife as well as our new daughter who will be just over 4 months old when we leave, so I have to make sure that what safari equipment (Cameras, Binoculars etc) I take are as compact and lightweight as possible as I will also need plenty of space, free hands and available weight to carry baby clothes, prams etc!
Best Safari Binoculars
For me the most important piece of kit is my binoculars, as they take viewing wildlife to a whole new level and I highly recommend that anyone who goes on safari invests in a decent pair. Through working on this website (see my section on Safari Binocular Reviews) and from working on my Best Binocular reviews website, I test and review many binoculars every year. The cheapest binoculars are rubbish, little more than toys and I urge you to stay well clear. That does not mean you have to spend a fortune as most good quality pairs are sufficient and far better than not having any at all.
Like all my other equipment, the most important feature I am looking for is a pair to take on safari is one that is light and compact. The very compact pairs have the disadvantage of not being as suitable as larger versions in low light conditions, so for me the ultimate pair would be a mid-sized binocular where you combine decent light gathering ability with a fairly compact binocular.
Of all the binoculars I reviewed last year and taking all things into consideration (including cost) the best for safaris were the Minox BL 8×33 Binoculars and if price is not really a factor, the Kowa Genesis XD 10×33 Binoculars.
If you are looking for a cheaper pair and want to keep size down to a minimum, favourites of mine are the range of Steiner Wildlife and Safari compacts. I often use them when out walking in the bush, especially when I am carrying other equipment like my camera as they can fold up small enough to fit into your shirt or jacket pocket. Take a look at the Steiner 10.5×28 Wildlife Pro Binoculars or the cheaper Steiner Safari Pro 10×26 Binoculars.
Would it not be for the fact that I am going to combine this trip with a little work and take a pair of binoculars that I have not used before to test and review, I would definitely take one of those pairs above.
Best Camera For Safaris
For this trip, I am looking to get myself a new camera – For me it is important to get the best possible wildlife photographs, not only for my enjoyment, but also for this website and so it is vital that I don’t sacrifice quality for gear that is too lightweight and compact.
I have already written an article as to why I feel that for me, a Superzoom Bridge Camera is the best camera to take on safari, rather than an SLR with a powerful telephoto lens (Digital SLR vs Compact SuperZoom Cameras) – The main reasons being cost as well as weight and size.
Panasonic FZ100 The obvious choice?
I have been using the range of Panasonic FZ cameras years now and I am a real fan of them, indeed some of my favourite Zimbabwe safari photos were taken with the now very old Panasonic FZ18 (see my gallery of Bird & Wildlife Photographs taken in Kariba, Zimbabwe)
I especially like the way that you can so easily attach a Telephoto Conversion Lens to the Panasonic’s to further increase the focal length, which is especially useful for bird photography.
So looking at my list of the best Superzoom Bridge Cameras 2016 and the fact that I thought it was excellent when reviewed it a while back, I was very tempted to go with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ100.
Newcomer: Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR
Brand new for 2011 is the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR that in many of the specifications is very similar to the Panasonic FZ100, except in some key areas like having a more powerful 30x zoom (compared to 24x on the Panasonic) and a EXR CMOS sensor that records images with a very high resolution (16 Megapixels compared to 14M on the Panasonic).
What I also love is that at the end of the lens there is a 58mm thread, meaning that I can also attach a Telephoto Conversion Lenses (more on that later). So even though it is a little bulkier and heavier than the Panasonic, it is still far smaller and lighter than the equivalent SLR set-up.
So because of this, the camera I have decided to buy and take the Fuji FinePix HS20EX with me, which to be honest I am very excited about.
Telephoto Conversion Lens
Whilst I will admit, that the Fujiflim with its 30x (720mm – 35mm camera equivalent), will be more than enough for most situations on safari, but I also have a real passion for birds and love bird photography. Because of their small size and the fact that most are very timid, the bigger the zoom, the better the chance you have of getting close enough to take great photos. To do this I add a Teleconverter lens to my camera as for me the added size and weight that this entails is well worth it. Up until now I have always used the Olympus 1.7x Tele Conversion Lens (TCON-17) attached to my Panasonic – but have recently purchased a 2.2x teleconversion lens made by the Japanese company Raynox that I am extremely happy with. For more take a look at my Raynox DCR-2025PRO Super Telephoto Conversion Lens Review.
Best Compact Tripod For Safari and Travel
Because this FinePix HS20EX camera has a powerful 30x Zoom (35mm camera equivalent: 24-720mm) and the fact that I will also be attaching the Raynox 2.2x teleconverter lens to it, I feel that even with it’s very impressive image stabiliser, to get the best photos and video, without any blurring or image shake, a tripod is necessary.
As I write in my page on the Best Tripods for Travel & Safari, they need to be small and light enough to easily carry with you, but strong enough to take your camera with as little or better still no flexing or movement.
A while back after reviewing the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT Tripod for my Binocular Reviews website, I liked it so much that I decided to buy it. But unfortunately as much as I would love to take it with me, I feel that it is just too it is just too big and heavy for this trip.
Another option that I considered, also from Vanguard is their excellent PH-242 Pan Head Window Mount, but as well as vehicle and houseboat safaris, I am also planning on doing a lot of walking in the bush and even though you can attach the mount to objects like tree branches, you cannot always guarantee that there will be one exactly where you need it.
Ultra Compact Tripod?
So I contacted Vanguard asking if they could help me with some lightweight equipment for the trip and they very kindly sent me some kit to try out and review, including the Nivelo 204BK Aluminium tripod. You can read my full review of the Nivelo 204BK Aluminium tripod here, but to sum up I was really impressed:
With a folded height of only 30cm and weighing just 600g it is certainly extremely lightweight and compact, so no problem packing it away with my luggage. It extends to over a meter which is good and I love the “twist-n-lock” legs that allow you to extend and lock them in seconds – a very important consideration a few seconds can mean the difference between capturing a picture of a skittish bird or not.
It has a load capacity of 2kg (4.4lbs) and considering it is so lightweight this is very impressive and easily holds my Superzoom Bridge camera. Admittedly when fully extended there is a little movement and flexing, which is to be expected, but as a base for safari photography and as a travel tripod it is steady enough and far better than none at all.
The problem I have with it is the added instability I get once I attach a Teleconverter lens to my camera and this is mainly due to the extra length added to the camera by the telephoto lens. I feel that if I was just taking photos, it would be acceptable, but I also shoot a lot of video with my camera and so I need a tripod that is a little more stable, which is a shame because I really love just how light and small it is.
So all in all an excellent lightweight travel tripod, ideal for super zoom bridge cameras and the new Mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, but if you are planning on using a DSLR camera or indeed a Bridge Camera with a telephoto lens attached and want to take steady video footage, I would recommend getting a slightly beefier tripod.
Compact Travel Tripod
Slightly larger and less compact than the ultra compact tripods a compact travel tripod can also carry a little more weight and is more stable, making shooting video on a superzoom bridge camera like the Fujifilm FinePix HS20EX or Panasonic FZ100 with a teleconverter lens possible. Here again you have some excellent choices from Vanguard and many in their Alta+ look ideal and I especially like the look of the Vanguard Alta+ 225CT that weighs just over 800g, has a folded hight of less than 35cm and yet it can carry a load of 3kg or for added stability the Alta+ 284CT, weighing 1.37kg’s with its folded height of 50cm, that should still easily fit into my suitcase and can carry a weight of 6kg.
Latest Update: I know I said that the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AT Tripod was too big and heavy to take with me, but because I felt that the Nivelo 204BK was just not steady enough for my camera with the teleconverter attached, I have decided that I will now be taking it with me. I would have preferred to take a more lightweight carbon version – but my budget just won’t stretch that far.
Cost & Where to Buy
UK Residents: Vanguard Alta+ Tripods on Amazon.co.uk
US Residents: Vanguard Alta+ Tripods on Amazon.com
I have decided that because I am not going to take an ultra-lightweight tripod with me, instead opting for a more sturdy full-sized tripod, I may as well also take what is now one of my favourite pieces of kit as well. The Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball Head.
Because the handle that is attached to a ball head is so intuitive it makes moving the camera into position very quick and accurate – even more so than a standard ball head. Panoramic shots are really easy and panning for video is also possible.
I can’t begin to tell you how many shots I have missed in the past (especially of birds) because I was fiddling, trying to get my camera into the correct position on the tripod – with this I hope to rectify much of that – so for me even though it is a little bulky and heavy for travel, I have decided to take it on safari with me this year.
Read the full Vanguard GH-100 Pistol Grip Ball Head Review.
Night Vision Binoculars
There was a time not so long ago that the only people that had half decent night vision equipment were the military, police and other law enforcement professionals. This was mainly down to their high cost and whilst I wouldn’t describe a good quality night vision binocular as being cheap, their prices have come down a lot over the past few years and it is now a real option for you to take your own night vision binoculars on safari.
Why Night Vision?
So much of what goes on in the African bush goes on after dark. Most predators hunt at night and many other animals are far active during this time when it is much cooler.
In the past most people would use a spotlight at night, this had the major disadvantage of disturbing the animals natural behaviour. A night vision device is a far better and more ethical option and I now almost never go on safari without one.
For more on how they work and why I highly recommend taking a night vision binocular or monocular on safari read my article on Night Vision for Safaris and Wildlife Observation
Night Vision Monoculars or Binoculars?
On this latest trip I will be taking the excellent Luna Optics LN-PB3 Night Vision Binoculars with me. In the past I have often opted for a night vision monocular as opposed to a binocular, just to save weight and space in my bag.
However after reviewing the Luna Optics LN-PB3, I was so impressed with the quality of the view through it, especially after adding the optional LN-ELIR-1 laser illuminator, that I just can’t resist taking it with me. Besides because it’s body is made from aluminium it is pretty lightweight. It is also one of the smaller full size night vision binoculars out there. (it is about the size of a standard full-size binocular).
For more details – take a look at my full review of the Luna Optics LN-PB3 Night Vision Binoculars
Cost & Where to Buy
UK Residents: Luna Optics Night Vision on Amazon.co.uk
US Residents: Luna Optics Night Vision on Amazon.com
Travel / Camera Bag
Obviously I don’t want to have to put my expensive equipment in with my luggage on the plane with the cargo, so I always carry it on board with me as hand luggage. To do this, with as little hassle and as much comfort as possible a good Travel / Camera bad is essential.
Over the years I have used many and in my experience a bag that has been specifically designed to carry photographic equipment works the best. This year I will be taking the one of the Skyborne Series of bags from Vanguard as they have kindly sent me one to review – Read my Vanguard Skyborne 51 Laptop and Camera Backpack Review
As I mention in my review, I think that this Skyborne Camera Backpack is one of the best that I have ever used. The only thing that I would say about the Skyborne 51, is that I am a little worried that it may just be a little to big to take on as hand luggage, it will probably just depend on the person at the desk on the day. To be safer, it may be better to take one of their smaller bags like the Skyborne 48 that can carry one Pro DSLR with attached lens (up to 70-200mm f/2.8), 3-4 extra lenses, a flash unit and accessories (memory cards, cables, battery and charger) plus a laptop up to 14″or even the Skyborne 45, which can still carry one Pro DSLR with attached lens (up to 70-200mm f/2.8), 1~2 extra lenses, a flash unit and accessories (memory cards, cables, battery and charger) plus a 12″ laptop.
Whichever one you choose, one of the best bits is the quick access opening, that enables you to quickly grab your camera without disturbing all your other gear.
Cost & Where to Buy
UK Residents: Vanguard Skyborne Bags on Amazon.co.uk
US Residents: Vanguard Skyborne Bags on Amazon.com
Also worth Considering
Below are a few new pieces of equipment I have reviewed since first writing this article and what I am planning to take with me on my next trip:
In my never ending quest for the smallest, lightest safari photography equipment, I take a look at Vanguard’s ICS gear carrying systems.
The ICS system includes a harness, vest, belt and a whole range of pouches and bags, all designed by professional photographers and may just be the ideal way to comfortably carry your gear on safari.
We took this excellent remote Minox digital camera with us to Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe where we would leave it overnight and got proof of what ever passed by.
What we got back was some incredible video and still photos of elephants, honey badgers, hyenas, a porcupine, African civet, warthogs, bats and many more animals that you very rarely see in the wild and we managed to capture them on film!