I am a semi-professional who mostly photographs landscape and fine arts images. My wife recently selected an African safari as her gift for a milestone birthday. She also said that she hoped that I would take photos of animals. This might seem obvious, but last year when we went on a cruise to the Arctic. I decided that I was more interested in photographing landscapes than polar bears. I went with my Leica M10R and M10 Monochrom and was very happy with the results. But this time, I needed a very different solution.

I had never been on a safari and started watching an endless loop of watching YouTube videos. As you’d expect, there were as many opinions about the optimal gear as there were videos.


I almost called this section “limitations” but decided to embrace the decisions that I had to make.

  • Weight

We were limited to 15 kg (33 lbs) all-in per person. I was able to get my clothes, toiletries, and medicines down to 13 pounds—I wouldn’t be pretty but I wouldn’t be indecent either. That meant that my camera gear and a device to offload them and back them up needed to come in around 20 pounds. They may or may not enforce the weight limit, but I had nightmare visions of dumping belongings on a tarmac in Tanzania. We decided that we wanted to go with a carry-on to minimize the chances of lost luggage.

  • Risk of equipment failure

About five years ago, I was on a sailboat off Greenland, and my primary camera (a Canon 5D Mark IV) died. Fortunately, I had a backup body to carry me through. An African safari is even more brutal on cameras. It is hot and dusty, and you are always being bounced around in a safari vehicle. It is also highly inadvisable to change lenses in the field—unless you love dust on your sensor. That meant that as part of my planning, I wanted two compatible bodies with complementary lenses.

  • Flexibility

Even if you go on a high-end safari, you are a passenger. You can’t get out of the vehicle. The vehicle can only approach animals at a certain distance. Often there are six other vehicles crowding in and trying to block your view. The Butterfield and Robinson vehicles were jammed in with everyone else. The animals are obviously wild, unpredictable, and free to come or go as they please. Prime lenses are impractical. Zooms give you the ability to react to changing situations quickly.

  • Photographing on a safari is primarily a dawn and dusk activity.

That’s when the animals are most active. You will most often do two game drives per day. There is no night photography. I love photographing stars, but that wasn’t on offer. Much of the time capturing images is in bright sun.

Much as you dream of capturing a lion in full flight, most of the animals are still or walking slowly.

I hope you get the shot of a full-on chase, but most likely, animals will be standing still or walking slowly. This is perversely a good thing. You don’t actually need a twenty-pound, f2.8 ten-thousand-dollar lens.

  • No matter how long your longest lens is, it won’t be long enough or fast enough.

This is the Zen of photography. It’s not about the shot you wish you could get. It’s about the shot you can get with the gear that you have with you. If you have a 500mm lens, you’ll wish you had a 600 mm lens. If you have 800mm, you’ll wish that you had 1000mm. It’s the way of life. Within the other constraints, plus budget, you need to select a kit that will get 80% of the opportunities available to you.

  • Forget tripods, monopods, and probably bean bags.

There was never really a spot where I could have used a tripod or monopod. There were only a few spots where a bean bag was helpful. You are in a safari vehicle with lots of seats and probably other people. You are going to mostly photograph handheld.


I decided to use my Leica SL2S as my go-to body. That was actually an easy choice. It is rugged and takes great pictures. Because I wanted redundancy, I went with my Panasonic Lumix S5 II as my backup body. Both are great, but there was no question which was my primary body.

The tougher decision was lenses. In addition to the time spent with YouTube videos, I spent a lot of time with a travel scale weighing different combinations of gear. I decided that I wanted to focus on two types of shots: portraits of the animals; and scenic shots that put the animals in context. If I could capture an action shot great. But that wasn’t what I was solving for.

I paired the SL2S with the Leica Vario Elmar 100-400. This was the setup that resulted in more than 80% of my keepers. I considered getting the teleconverter, but it wouldn’t arrive in time. There were moments when I wished that I had the extra 160mm, but as I said earlier, there will always be a shot further than your longest lens.

The tougher question was what to use as my backup lens. I love my Leica 24-90 but it was too heavy. I wound up pairing the Lumix S5 II with the Lumix 24-105 f4. It’s a great body and a great lens but I ultimately didn’t use it much. No fault of the camera or lens, but the SL2S and 100-400 hit most of the opportunities. Some people have suggested a 70-200mm zoom as your primary resource. That could work, but I got a lot of shots in the range from 200-400mm. I also brought the new-ish 35mm f2.0 Leica fixed prime but there weren’t many opportunities to use it. The last lens taken out of my bag before leaving was a wide angle zoom. I worried about it at the time but never actually missed it.


I am not a technical reviewer or a pixel peeper. I am just an experienced photographer who was out in the wild. But I will share my images and let you judge. I found the 100-400 Vario Elmar to be a great lens. It is reasonably priced and at a reasonable weight. It sounds silly to talk about weight as a primary consideration on a trip of a lifetime, but it is.

The 100-400 used with the targeted focus point on the SL2S was a perfect combination. I could lock in on a lion’s eyes and frame the shot by zooming. Interestingly, even my favorite sunrise/sunset landscape shots were taken with the 100-400.

I got artsy with the shot of the wildebeests running. I wanted to create a sense of motion. The lens/camera combo could have frozen the action (and I have that shot), but I put a 10-stop neutral density filter on and set a longer exposure. I used the same strategy on the moving leopard.

I found that the 100-400 was very sharp and delivered great colors. Yes, there were times at dusk and dawn when I wished that it was a f2.8—but life is about choices. That other lens would have been bigger, heavier, and waaaaay more expensive.

This is probably not the best lens for birds in flight or fast-moving animals. But I genuinely loved this lens for this application. If I missed the shot, it was my fault, not the lens and camera.

More about Peter Horan:

Instagram: Peter_C_Horan

Website: peterhoranphotography.com

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