In 2015, I decided I was going to quit my job and travel the world photographing wildlife on my own–even if I didn’t get paid for it.
I was determined that I was going to be a documenter of natural history, emulating the master photographers and documentarians I’d grown up idolizing–people like Michael Poliza and Jonathan and Angela Scott.
To take great photographs, you need, first and foremost, an eye for a shot, but undoubtedly the gear to create as good a simulacrum of the natural world (i.e., what you are witnessing in front of you) as possible.
With that in mind, the below article is a breakdown of the best camera for safaris (African or otherwise) from 5 of the world’s most famous wildlife photographers:
- Marlon Du Toit’s Best Camera for Safari: Sony A1
- Will Burrard-Lucas: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
- Michael Poliza’s Best Camera for Safari: OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1 Mark II
- Jonathan and Angela Scott’s Best Camera for Safari: The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
- David Yarrow’s Best Camera for Safari: Nikon D850
Marlon Du Toit’s Best Camera for Safari: Sony A1
Wildlife photographer and safari guide Marlon Du Toit’s work has been featured in National Geographic and other international nature and wildlife publications. His Instagram is well worth subscribing to, and he shoots spectacular African wildlife, from birds to megafauna. His favourite camera is the Sony A1, a gorgeous, state-of-the-art mirrorless.
Why the Sony A1 is Marlon Du Toit’s best camera for safari:
This is a beast. You can get up to 50fps at 50MP, so incredible resolution, very very fast, great in low light and it has bird-eye autofocus, which is something that they only introduced now in the sony alpha 1.
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BIONZ XR Processor; 5-Axis SteadyShot Image Stabilization; 759-Pt. Fast Hybrid AF, Real-time Eye AF
SteadyShot Image Stabilization
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Full Frame (35mm)
Bluetooth, USB, HDMI, NFC
Will Burrard-Lucas’s Best Safari Camera: Canon EOS 1D Mark IV
UK Photographer Will Burrard-Lucas is probably most famous for his award-winning shot in 2021 of a black leopard under the night sky (the first ever melanistic leopard properly photographed in Africa) at the Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya.
He shot the photo using the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, about which he says:
My primary camera. It’s full-frame, fast, great autofocus, good lowlight performance, and has customizable controls. This camera does everything I ask of it.
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EOS HD movie w/ manual exposure control and multiple frame rates; 3” Clear View II LCD monitor; 45-point Area AF sensor w/39 cross-type AF points + f/2.8 support
Canon Image Stabilizer technology
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Here is a TED talk Will did in 2022 that I highly recommend titled “What I Learned While Photographing Wildlife.”
Michael Poliza’s Best Camera for Safari: OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1 Mark II
German wildlife photographer, author, and winner of the 2008 international photography award Michael Poliza has been photographing and writing about Africa for decades. His “Eyes Over Africa” is a mesmerizing work of aerial photography and his Flickr is one of the best wildlife photography social media accounts out there.
Why the OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1 Mark II is Michael Poliza’s Best Camera for Safari:
As an animal photographer, I have high expectations for the speed of a camera that the D E-M1 Mark II definitely meets.
The startup time is extremely short, so the camera is directly ready for the next shot. The auto-focus has been massively improved, and the electronic shutter with 60fps is really convincing.
With the new pro capture feature, I can save a buffer of up to 15 images when I press the release button halfway down, so I never miss the right moment.
The IS of this new camera is just amazing. Thanks to the combination of the five-axis stabilization in the camera body and the built-in stabilization in the lens it’s possible to correct up to 6.5 EV steps while shooting handheld.
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60 FPS S AF, 18 FPS C AF (silent electronic shutter); New TruePic VIII dual quad core image processor, AF points phase detection: 121 (121 cross-type), contrast detection: 121
5.5 EV Image Stabilization
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Micro Four Thrids
Take a look at this video of Michael Poliza shooting with the OLYMPUS OM-D E-M1 Mark II in the Canadian Arctic.
If you are interested in seeing what the Mark II’s 4K video can produce, this short collection of vignettes from Sri Lanka does a good job of it (and of some fauna from a part of the world that is not as well known).
Jonathan and Angela Scott’s Best Camera for Safari: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
Jonathan and Angela Scott have been working as wildlife photographers in Kenya’s famous Masai Mara for decades. Their big “break,” so to speak was as the presenters of the popular BBC series “Big Cat Diaries” and “Big Cat Tales,” but their award-winning wildlife photography has also been featured in National Geographic, Geo, Geographical, BBC Wildlife, Digital Photography, and Outdoor Photography. Much of which they have shot with their Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
Why they love the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II:
“The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is by far my preference for action wildlife stills photography. It’s rock-solid, heavy-duty, and has a high burst-speed frame rate when shooting in RAW format, which we do all the time. When I’m shooting fast-moving wildlife, such as an adult cheetah running at 120km/h or perhaps a cub rolling around quickly, then I need the extra-fast burst rate of a full-frame Canon camera such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II”
8k6 and 4k time-lapse movies; Up to 9 fps1 continuous shooting at full resolution
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Full frame (35mm)
Here is a video of Jonathan and Angela Scott discussing how to “visualize your shot.”
David Yarrow’s Best Camera for Safari: Nikon D850
David Yarrow is a world-renowned Glaswegian wildlife, fine art and sports photographer who has been taking iconic shots since 1986 (the famous Maradona holding the world cup photo). An ambassador for the African Community and Conservation Foundation, David has been taking award-winning shots of African wildlife for decades. He has an absolutely fantastic Instagram.
Here’s why the Nikon D850 is David’s go-to:
It’s faster than anything I’ve worked with before, it’s higher resolution than anything I’ve worked with before. The focusing capability of the D850, the resolution is a game changer. The ergonomics are sleek, they’re intuitive, it’s what you’d expect from Nikon. If you get it in pin-sharp it’s going to be pin-shap, and it can be pin sharp the size of a pool table, there’s going to be no more accurate reflector of your work than the d850. It’s a great piece of kit.
8k6 and 4k time-lapse movies; Up to 9 fps1 continuous shooting at full resolution
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802.11b/g + NFC + Bluetooth 4.1 LE
Here’s a short video of David with Zookeeper Kevin Richardson (aka “The Lion Whisperer”) shooting some of Kevin’s lions with the D850.
What Went Into My Selection Process for the Best Camera for Safari List
I’ve been photographing wildlife for years, and while I certainly don’t hold a candle to the titans of African wildlife photography above, I know enough about the gear to know why they use it, but I thought I would let the experts speak for themselves on their preference for the best camera for safari.
In addition to having spent many years idolizing the above group of brilliant African photographers, I also spent a lot of time going through my dozens of Facebook wildlife photography groups and reading the specs of my favourite shots.
The cameras covered in this article are recurring favourites among both amateur and professional wildlife photographers, and for good reason: They produce amazing photographic representations of our natural world, even in the hands of amateur naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts who don’t photograph wildlife for a living and whose shots haven’t appeared in publications like the BBC, Audubon or National Geographic.
Main Evaluation Criteria to Choose the Best Camera for Safari
If you read or watched any of the articles or YouTube videos that I included with each of the above “best safari camera” breakdowns, there are some recurring specs that are touched on by the above 5 master wildlife photographers.
Bear in mind that another recurring theme among great wildlife photographers and great photographers, in general, is that gear is secondary.
In the words of the inimitable Annie Leibovitz on cameras and gear, “if that’s what you’re thinking about, you are not taking pictures.”
That said, good gear in the hands of a good photographer makes a difference and choosing the best camera for safari is going to produce better quality images than a cheap point and shoot.
Animals tend to be moving subjects, particularly if you are talking about African savannahs, where predator and prey comingle perhaps unlike any other terrestrial habitat on earth.
The best camera for safari is going to have a fast shutter speed so that rapid movements (of legs, wings, tails, heads) don’t become a blur. Shutter speeds of 1/250, 1/500 or faster are ideal.
Performance in low light
Any good wildlife photographer worth their salt will tell you that the best camera for safari has to perform well in low light.
My experience shooting mammals and birds in dense vegetation in the Amazon and SE Asia has shown me this first-hand.
Many animals on the African Savannah are active at dusk and dawn as they settle in for the evening or emerge to start their day of searching for (and avoiding becoming) food.
The best safari cameras are going to have ISO capabilities of 3200-6400. At this ISO, try to keep your shutter speed around 160-400.
With that in mind, the best camera for safari is going to have ISO capabilities in this range as well as a big and adaptable enough sensor to allow light in these low light conditions.
Full frame sensor
Most new-gen DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras are either going to have full-frame or APS-C/H sensors.
Full frame sensors have the advantage over APS-C/H sensors at high ISO because there are more light-sensitive photo sites in the sensor, which means better image quality.
While you can still take incredible shots with cameras that feature APS-C sensors, and plenty of pros use them, the very best camera for safari is going to have a full-frame sensor.
Autofocus is important for wildlife photography, especially of speedy and twitchy African savannah animals, because the alternative is manually focusing, which is just not feasible when you’re trying to take on-the-fly photos of flighty animals.
The best safari cameras have good autofocus capabilities and make focusing on and capturing fast-moving subjects much more accurate.
Short Startup Time
This is probably the most self-explanatory feature of all the best safari cameras.
The longer your camera takes to start and get ready to take photos from the moment you press the power button, the more great photo ops you’re going to miss out on.
I’ve definitely missed opportunities that haunt me to this day because I didn’t have the best camera for safari purposes and what I had took its sweet ass time powering on.
By the time I was ready to take the shot, the animal had changed positions or moved on.
When you’re paying thousands for an African safari (for many people, a once-in-a-lifetime experience), you don’t want to regret the photos you could have taken, but your camera wouldn’t let you.
Your IS or vibration reduction (VR), whether it’s built into your camera body or the lens you’re using is a crucial element of wildlife photography.
Some of the best safari cameras recommended by the wildlife photographers on the above list have IS in the camera body, others don’t and likely compensate for it in the lens.
The bottom line, however, is that if you want to capture animals on the move, especially if you are not using a tripod (and a lot of safari photography is done from the back of a Landcruiser), then you want a camera that will allow you to track and shoot at the same time.
Safari shooting often requires moving with your subjects, so the best safari camera will allow you to do this.
It’s not really possible to capture moving subjects (especially an animal like a cheetah, or any bird for that matter) if you don’t have some sort of IS.
Wildlife Photography Tips From the Experts
So far this guide has covered the types of cameras that some of the world’s top wildlife photographers use and why, but that is more the quantitative part of the art of photography. Below are some of the hard-won and well-used tips from these same experts.
Jonathan and Angela Scott
Shoot from the hip
Jonathan and Angie recommend investing in a good point and shoot and always having it handy with you at all times.
You never know when you are going to need to be able to just draw your camera and fire, and an imperfect shot with lesser technology is always going to be better than no shot at all.
You might want to check out my birding camera guide, where I’ve reviewed a couple of nice superzoom camera (aka bridge cameras) options like the Canon SX540 HS and Nikon Coolpix p1000 or the Panasonic Lumix.
Even professional photographers will travel with a point and shoot camera that has a digital zoom. Good point and shoot cameras are still capable of producing high quality images and many give you the ability to fit great interchangeable lenses to them.
Shoot with the sun
Either at the side of the animal (side-lit) or from behind (back-lit) for more emotionally evocative images. Shooting in the early morning or late afternoon is best for richer colours.
Know your camera
You need to read the manual to be able to use your gear on the fly (which wildlife photography is all about).
Learn from the greats
All good photographers are inspired by the work of others and know what makes them great. They take this, use it and adapt it to their own style and needs.
Learn about histograms and exposure
Even the best safari camera is not always going to expose your shots the way you see them through the viewfinder or on your screen (if you even have an electronic viewfinder). It’s helpful to learn about over and under-exposure and how to read your camera’s histogram (which analyzes tone and brightness) for better results.
Understand the depth of field
When you adjust your aperture, you control how much an image is in focus. This is known as your depth of field, and it’s a vital part of shooting good portraits (where you need a shallow depth of field) and pin-sharp landscapes (max depth of field).
Get down low for the best shots.
A lot of people are tempted to pop out of the roof hatch to shoot something like lions eating but getting down low gives you more impactful photos.
Understand your subject
Knowing where the animals you are looking to photograph live and how they behave are the keys to good wildlife photography.
Don’t be afraid to get creative
If you pan the camera as you press the shutter at a shutter speed of 1/15th to 1/100th, you create a great partial blur that does a great job of communicating speed and motion. A faster shutter speed of 1/1000th is better for giving you pin-sharp images of animals sprinting or birds in flight.
Processing and cataloguing are part of photography
Lightroom and Photoshop CC are your friends. Learn them.
Marlon Du Toit
The eye is the most important part of the image
The eye is the essence of your subject, and they attract attention to the composition as a whole. If you want people to stop and stare at your photo, the eyes must be a focal point.
Never leave the house without extra batteries
There is nothing worse than being excited to document nature only to have your camera die.
Extenders are your friend
Extenders are key for getting up close while minimizing loss in autofocus performance. Your extender fits between the camera body and the lens to magnify your subject. The smaller the teleconverter (e.g., 1.7x vs 2x), the less it affects autofocus speed.
Reserve teleconverters for fixed focal telephoto lenses like a 400 f2.8 or 600 f4.
These lenses have excellent image quality, which means little loss in quality once you’ve attached your converter.
Try to have your camera at the lowest point on the vehicle
This is important when trying to capture an interesting angle. A lower angle will almost always give you a better image and something you will be happier with.
Know your gear before heading out
Trying to capture great shots of wildlife with new-gen DSLR or mirrorless cameras without an intimate understanding of how they work and where all of the controls are located is counterproductive.
Shooting wildlife in action requires fast shutter speeds
You get faster shutter speeds by raising your ISO.
A recurring tip from all of the pros, having the camera at the same level of the subject or lower is important for two reasons:
1) it helps to give your animal subject a greater presence and helps the viewer better connect with the wildlife.
2) It increases the distance between subject and background, unfocusing the background and instead drawing more attention to the animal.
Faster shutter speeds are almost always better
Wildlife is usually photographed with a telephoto lens, and long lenses will exaggerate the effect of camera shake because every tiny movement has a big impact on the picture frame.
A fast shutter speed is, therefore, required for sharp images. General rule: the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed.
Go for the eyes
If the eyes aren’t in focus, it’s very difficult for the viewer to connect with the animal.
The best safari mirrorless cameras will be ones that have, at the very least good auto-focus, but, if you opt for the Sony A1, revolutionary eye focus as well.
Don’t ignore your background
Your background can make or ruin your photo. A good background is free of bright spots and messy foliage.
Your animal subject should be easily distinguishable from the background and framed nicely by the landscape.
Stay with your subject longer
The longer you stick with one subject before moving on to the next, the more likely you are to get good shots.
The longer you spend around an animal, the higher your chances of seeing them do something incredible.
A recurring piece of advice, the closer you can get to an animal’s level, the more stunning the shot.
Don’t always take headshots
Don’t be afraid to zoom out so that you adequately capture the beauty of your surroundings. A wider lens is always nice to have around.
Try to get shots of the animal’s eyes as it heads straight toward you. It’s very often a more engaging shot and increases the quality of the image.
While you are certainly surrounded by life on an African safari and, perhaps, even more animals than you have ever seen in your life, it’s always worthwhile to spend some time observing your subject.
Spending 20-30 minutes just watching what a buffalo or a herd of zebras does is likely to yield more opportunities for special shots than trying to excitedly photograph every animal you spot.
Get below eye level
When you are looking up at big majestic animals, they look more powerful and magnificent.
Use the shortest lens possible
Shoot with a wide angle lens as much as possible to capture the animal’s habitat. You get less compression, and the image is almost always more intimate.
Shoot into the sun
If you’re willing to do some processing work to balance all the dynamic range, shooting into the sun is a good way to make the sky more dramatic.
This is a great tip for birds, but also for animals in trees or anything with an amazing sky in the background.
Utilize golden hour light
Try to photograph in the mornings or evenings for more dramatic light.
The afternoon light from above is much harsher. Softer golden hours light does a better job of pulling the “character” out of the animals and if you’ve chosen any of the above pro’s pics for the best camera for safari, they should all have the ISO range to make good use of this light.
Take fewer photos
Ansel Adams famously said that “12 significant photos in any one year is a really good crop.”
Be intentional and take fewer photos but aim for more outstanding work in your portfolio. The crazy FPS of modern cameras means too many people are taking too many photos.
Research a subject’s location
The more you know about the animals you’re trying to photograph, the more you know about the behaviour of the animal, the dynamics of location and the better able you are to plan your shots and end up with something special.
Looking After Your Camera
Some camera care essentials:
Use a camera bag. If you’re investing a couple of thousand (or any amount of money) in a camera, a good waterproof camera bag that protects against moisture, scratches and dust is a worthwhile investment.
Don’t use your shirt and/or household cleaning products to clean your lenses and LCD screen. Buy a special cleaning kit that includes the proper lens and screen cleaners and micro fibre cloths and brushes.
Don’t leave your batteries in your camera for a long time. If you keep your camera in a humid environment with alkaline or lithium batteries inside for a long period of time, they can become corrosive.
Don’t use canned air. Canned air isn’t air, it’s full of a bunch of chemicals that you shouldn’t be exposing your camera to. Canned “air” can permanently discolour plastics, and the vapours can leave streaks on your camera sensor, which could mean permanent damage.
Turn your camera off before doing any cleaning or maintenance. Changing lenses with the camera on increases the chances of getting dust on the sensor and leaving it on while actively writing to the SD card increases the odds that you ruin the card if you take it out.
Don’t neglect your memory cards. Transport your memory cards inside a protective case, ensure they’re dust free and don’t get them near magnets.
Attach a UV filter to protect your lens. This helps ensure long-term picture quality.
Safari Photography and Camera Type
Once you know how much you are willing and able to spent, there are a handful of camera type considerations.
The best new smartphones are actually quite sophisticated pieces of camera equipment.
The zoom lens isn’t really worth writing home about on a phone camera, and of course, don’t expect amazing stabilization or amazing safari photos in low light.
But new generation smartphones will give you landscape photos and video that are on par with good quality point and shoot cameras and they do a ton of the work for you, so you don’t need great photography skills to come away with great photos you will be happy to show friends and family.
As a backup compact camera, your smartphone will perform quite well and will have a longer battery life than a dslr camera or mirrorless camera.
But if you want stellar quality safari photos, you will want either a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I certainly wouldn’t spend a bunch of money to go on a safari trip with just a phone.
Superzoom camera (aka bridge camera)
Most people who are serious about safari photography definitely want a dslr camera or mirrorless camera as their main set up and, for good reason: they are the more serious pieces of camera equipment.
But a bridge camera is a nice digital camera option for when you need to get up and shooting wildlife fast. Imperfect safari photos are better than none at all and you can always work a lot of magic in lightroom after the shot.
Most have quite a versatile zoom lens that lets you get quite up close. Of course, you’re going to lose image quality when you’re zoomed all the way in with a digital zoom, but you can still take wonderful safari photos (and shoot video) with bridge cameras.
Below is a smattering of some photos I’ve taken with a superzoom camera lens over the years. Obviously not the image quality you would expect from camera equipment worth thousands of dollars.
DSLR camera or Mirrorless Camera
A professional photographer, in ideal circumstances, is almost always going to prefer a DSLR or mirrorless camera setup from reputable camera brands with a full frame camera sensor, a good telephoto lens, a wide angle lens, camera accessories.
These are the best cameras for any serious wildlife photographer and the best cameras for safari. They have the best autofocus, the best stabilization, the best performance in low light, and the largest sensors.
The zoom lenses made by a camera manufacturer like Canon camera
The best point and shoot compact camera on the market won’t be able to compete with the image quality of the safari photos you will take with the very best cameras out there–DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
Why Investing in Good Quality Camera Makes Sense For Wildlife Photography
Cultivating an eye for and understanding of wildlife photography is definitely the foundation upon which everything else is built. But a good quality piece of gear is also fundamental.
Whether you photograph wildlife as a hobby or are looking for something to make memories with before a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, spending a bit of money on getting the best safari camera is one of those investments in your happiness you can feel good about making.
I hope the above review and insight into how the pros approach their craft helps you find to make a decision on the best safari camera for your budget, preferences, location and target animals.
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