Choosing the Right Camera Body for Safari

April 08, 2015  •  3 Comments

Thus far we've covered the ins and outs of planning for safari and when to go on safari now let's move on to the fun part - gear. Because such a wide array of gear is available to us in this day in age, his will be the first of a few posts focused on gearing up for safari.

Going on safari is a big commitment - of time and money - and it may be a once in a lifetime experience. Chances are it will be one of the most photogenic experiences of your life as well. Which, to me, makes safari a great excuse to upgrade your gear. That is, if you've done your homework and know how to properly utilize it - good gear alone will not make you a good photographer.

Today's topic: camera bodies

Your camera body is, by far, the element of your rig with which a photographer has the most interface. If you don't feel at home with your camera body or know how to leverage its functions to execute your creative vision, it doesn't matter how many thousands of dollars of glass are mounted to the front of it - it's a losing equation. Capturing a scene in focus at the right moment with a crappy plastic kit lens is far better than missing the moment and getting an out of focus image through a $5,000 telephoto. Having a decent camera body and knowing it like the back of your hand is one of the most essential requirements for capturing quality images on safari.

 

Below is a list of important factors to consider when selecting a camera body, in order of importance, each followed by a brief description of the impact on your shooting experience and the resulting images:

**Hint: an extra piece of my most important advice is buried beneath this list, so make sure to keep reading**

  • Format: This refers to the size of the camera's sensor. Although other formats exist, full frame and APS-C are the only two worth considering. Full frame camera sensors measure 35mm diagonally while APS-C (also known as crop format) sensors are approximately 28mm diagonally (this varies across different manufacturers - see image below). A larger sensor translates into either more pixels or larger pixels and, generally, translates to better low light (high ISO) performance and better image quality across the board. Crop sensors, aptly named, deliver a cropped version of what full frame sensors capture. Images shot at a given focal length (let's say a 50mm lens) on a crop sensor will have a 1.6x zoom factor compared to those captured on a full frame sensor. This means that subjects captured on a crop sensor will fill more of the frame in a crop camera than they will in a full frame camera - almost a built in zoom. However, this zoom effect comes at a cost. Namely, pixel density and depth of field. Higher pixel density means smaller pixels on the sensor, and smaller pixels cannot physically capture as many photons of light as larger pixels; this is why full frame cameras generally deliver superior low light performance. I won't get too far into the physics, so take it at face value, but images shot at equivalent focal lengths (a 35mm lens on a crop sensor is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor due to the 1.6x crop factor - 35 x 1.6 = 56) will result in a shorter depth of field on a full frame sensor. Short depth of field is achieved by shooting at larger apertures and is generally seen as a visually appealing way to separate the subject from a background. The format of your camera's sensor will determine which lenses you purchase - both because full frame lenses cannot be used on crop sensors and because of the 1.6x crop factor's zoom effect - and is a fundamental decision in determining which body is best for you.

 

  • Autofocus system: Autofocus is a beautiful thing these days - cameras are able to track and achieve sharp focus on moving subjects as fast as cheetahs (which you'll likely see and want to capture on safari). But all autofocus systems are not created equal. A primary consideration here is the number of focus points and how many of those are cross-type points. Generally speaking, more focus points are better than fewer because you can achieve focus across more of the frame (see illustrative comparison between the Nikon D600 and D800 below). And strictly speaking, cross-type points are superior to basic points (typically only a fraction of the focus points are cross-point, and this will be listed in camera specs) because they are able to detect contrast and achieve focus more effectively. More expensive camera bodies, as you might guess, will typically have more sophisticated focusing systems and more focus points than low-end bodies. Another feature to look out for that I find essential for moving subjects is the AF-ON or thumb focusing button. I'll write more on this later, but for now it suffices to say that the paint on my AF-ON button has nearly all been worn off by my thumb.

 

  • High ISO performance: The day's best light is during dawn and dusk - low light periods. Because of this, low light performance is very important. Capturing a sharp image of moving animal in low light conditions requires the photographer to use fast shutter speeds, and producing a properly exposed photo in these circumstances requires use of high ISOs. All camera bodies are not created equal in high ISO performance. Older and lower-end camera bodies produce garishly grainy images at higher ISOs while newer and higher-end bodies will produce much cleaner and more appealing images. I recommend you read reviews and tests of the cameras you are considering to determine where they fall in this spectrum and place a high level of importance on this factor as you make a purchase decision.

  • Frame rate: This refers to how many frames per second (FPS) a camera is capable of shooting. To give you a general idea, Nikon's flagship D4 is capable of shooting a blazing 10 FPS while Nikon's D800 only shoots 4 FPS. As many of us have heard running the motor drive (spray and pray) is not the best way to capture a world class image, and it is a great way to blast through batteries and memory cards. But, in certain circumstances (i.e., a running cheetah, lion taking down a gazelle, bird in flight) it is a necessary means to capturing 'the moment'. This is yet another case in which high end bodies typically out-do lower-end bodies - but not always. High resolution bodies (the 36MP D800) require more buffer to write large files to the card and, therefore, cannot shoot as fast as their lower-resolution counterparts. Having a camera body capable of shooting high frame rates can be the difference between capturing 'the moment' or the scene just before and after it.

 

  • Dynamic range: This is a measurement of the light intensities, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights, that a camera is capable of rendering detail within a single frame (no, I'm not referring to HDR photography). Camera's are not capable of capturing high contrast scenes as our eyes see them, and I'm sure you've been frustrated when a beautiful sunset didn't look nearly as good in the camera as it did when you looked out on it with your own eyes. Significant advances in cameras' dynamic range have been made in recent years but some cameras still have an edge. DXOmark performs excellent in-depth testing of camera bodies, including dynamic range, and I suggest you take a look at the research they've done when making your decision.

 

  • Vertical orientation: Shooting in the vertical, or portrait, orientation for long periods of time with a standard camera can strain the wrist and make your shooting experience altogether less enjoyable. Many pro bodies, like the Nikon D3 or D4, have a built in vertical grip with secondary controls and shutter release that allows the photographer to roll the camera over to portrait mode and continue shooting without wrenching your arm and wrist into an uncomfortable position. But if a body of this caliber is not in your budget battery grips, which add the same functionality and extended battery life, are available for nearly all modern DSLRs out there.

 

  • Resolution: This is the most commonly talked about metric among camera bodies and, realistically, one of the least important ones. Nearly all modern digital cameras are plenty capable of producing nice prints at 18x24 or even larger. The Nikon D3s - a heralded sports and action camera used by many top professionals (and yours truly) - is a 12MP body that produces stunning results. Truthfully, anything above 12MP will cut it, as long as you put good glass in front of it. One of the only reasons to spring for a higher resolution camera body is cropability (is that a word?); a 36MP image can be cropped heavily and still result in an image containing more than 16MP of data.

 

  • Form factor: Mirrorless cameras have been gaining a lot of ground recently, but this point comes in at the bottom of the list because the autofocus capabilities of mirrorless systems are far inferior to those of DSLRs which essentially rules them out for wildlife photography in which fast autofocus is key. If you have a mirrorless camera and don't want to shell out for a DSLR and the accompanying lenses, it will do the job. But even a low-end DSLR will far outpace a high-end mirrorless body in autofocus. 

 

  • Brand: Another one of the most-discussed topics that comes in low on the list. The two big names out there are Canon and Nikon, and the two camps will forever stick to their guns that their system is superior to the other. While there are significant differences in the interface, the capabilities of one is on par with the other. Your decision on brand should come down to which interface is more intuitive to you and which lenses you hope to pair with it (each manufacturer's lens lineup is slightly different from the next). 

 

  • Price: Price isn't important, you say? Well this is a very subjective topic, and that's why I've nestled it down here at the bottom of the list. To some it may be at the top of the list and to others it may be an afterthought. As has been mentioned throughout this post more money generally translates into better performance, but the marginal gains achieved as you step up the price scale are diminishing. Today, exceptional camera bodies - the Nikon D7100, for example - can be had for around $1,000. The same rule of diminishing returns applies to the age of a camera body. As you consider the price-to-performance tradeoff, consider looking into a used body that was released two or three years back;slightly dated technology will be a much better bargain than chasing today's cutting-edge technology.

 

If you've made to the point, congratulations - I'll now offer an exceedingly important piece of advice. Bring two camera bodies on safari with you! It may sound like an expensive proposition, but it will pay off in multitudes. The action unfolds quickly in the field, and moments only happen once; you've got to be prepared to exercise your creative vision to its fullest during these once-in-a-lifetime events. This may mean shooting at 500mm one moment then switching to 24mm the next. Sorry to break it to you, but there ain't a zoom lens out there with that sort of coverage. And you often won't have the time to properly stow your telephoto and reattach a short lens (not to mention the dust that will likely get into your camera from constantly switching lenses - another topic that I'll cover in-depth in a later post). One option that can afford extra versatility is using one full frame body and one crop sensor body, essentially extending the zoom range of your lenses (remember 1.6x crop factor). Whatever the combo may be, bring two camera bodies. I really can't emphasize it enough.

 

Getting properly outfitted for a photo safari is no doubt an expensive proposition, but you don't have to buy the gear yourself. There are plenty of establishments and web-based companies who rent the finest equipment that money can buy for a fraction of the purchase cost. Whether or not this an economic solution for you will depend on how long your safari lasts and whether or not you anticipate having a use for the equipment once you return. If you do choose to rent equipment make sure to rent it all at least a week before your departure. This will give you a chance to familiarize yourself with it and determine if you've received a properly functioning copy. 

 

Now you may be asking, which camera bodies do you use? I'm a Nikon shooter, and I currently use a D3s and D800. The D3s affords supreme low light, autofocus, and frame rate performance while the D800 offers 36MP of excellent dynamic range. I find this combination to be an excellent one-two punch that covers nearly every scenario the African bush can throw at me.

 

Well that about covers it for camera bodies, but if you have any questions that went unanswered be sure to let me know in the comments section below!


Comments

Dick Berry(non-registered)
Bernie to answer your question to using rental equipment from Borrowlenses.com....YES.
They have great customer service and have plenty of inventory to choose from.
I use them all the time and they have come through for me on all my trips to Africa.
The price of renting over buying is well worth it if you do not have the cash to buy outright, and it's also a great way to test equipment out as well before you buy.
Witt Duncan
Bernie,
Thanks for the suggestion - this is something I have considered in the past and totally slipped my mind while writing the post! Going to add that in now. And I thought the post was overly exhaustive already.... ;)
Bernie J.
I don't have any experience using rental equipment, but I wonder if a site like http://borrowlenses.com is worthwhile for something like this in order to get high quality equipment for this once-in-a-lifetime experience
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