Lens Choices for the Masai Mara: Lets Get Technical

Andrew Beck Andrew, great migration, Lens Recommendations 20 Comments

If you’re looking for images of wildebeest crossing the mara river, predators taking down wildebeest and gazelle, leopards in trees and big BIG african skies then you’ll be disappointed with this post. However, you can get your fix from this blog post on that front!

This post will be a bit more technical and will look a the last 3 years worth of metadata from my time in the Mara. Using Lightroom to filter a range of metadata I looked at the 9042 images captured in the Mara between 2013 and 2015 and looked specifically a focal length and lenses used.

Focal Length

What gear do I need?

This is a common question for guests that have travelled with us to the Masai Mara and, although all of our team have a feeling for wha focal lengths work best, I thought it would be interesting to see how the images I’ve captured over the last 3 years have been spread across a range of focal lengths.

Now, bare in mind that this will obviously be skewed in favour of my shooting style and also by the gear which I have with me at the time. For example I used the Canon 800mm F5.6 for an entire week and pretty much focussed on that as my primary lens in an effort to force myself to think a bit more about composition and capturing tight portraits.

This is also based on the actual focal length on a full frame body and does not include any sort of crop factor.

With that in mind, the figures I came up with are quite interesting.

Number of Images by Lens – 2013 to 2015

Focal Length 1

Number of Images by Focal Length – 2013 to 2015
Focal Length 3

Based on this, almost 20% of all images take over the last 3 years were captured at a focal range of 70-200mm on a 70-200mm F2.8. his has always been one of my preferred lenses and is a real go-to in so many instances. It is no surprise then that it makes up such a large percentage of the total number of images captured.

43% of images were captured at a focal length of between 200 and 600mm. Some of these would have been on 300mm, 400mm and 600mm prime lenses and the Canon 200-400mm but many were also captured using a combination of the prime lenses and 1.4 and 2 x converters.

Anything shot a a focal length in excess of 600mm would have been captured with either the 400mm F2.8 and 2 x converter or the canon 800mm F5.6 and this accounts for 20% of all images. In reality I feel that this figure is slightly distorted by the fact that I focussed almost exclusively on using the 800mm for our extended migration safari last year. This is supported by the fact that a quick analysis of my “hero” shots shows that most of these fall within the 200 – 600mm focal length bracket.

So, what gear do you need in terms of focal length in the Masai Mara?

There is no set recipe for this but based on my shooting style and this quick analysis of the metadata, I would say that you need to try and cover as wide a range as possible – without carrying every single lens in your arsenal. The ideal situation for me would be to have a full frame body with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens for some of the wider and more scenic shots. This is regardless of what brand you shoot on.

That leaves us with a need to cover the 200 to 800mm focal length range. Quite a range I’m sure you’ll agree!

Canon has their new 100-400mm MKII which when paired with a crop sensor body like the 7D MKII would give you a rang of 160-640mm. That would give you two bodies and two lenses which cover you from 70mm right the way through to 640mm with a 40mm overlap between 160mm and 200mm.

Similarly, Nikon has their new 80-400mm which when paired with the D7100 and D7200 combine to give you a focal length of 120 to 600mm.

Throw something like the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm into the mix and you’ll end up with 240-960mm on Canon, and 225- 900mm on Nikon.

Personally, I’m loving the combination of the 400mm F2.8 which when paired with the 1.4x and 2 x converter yields a focal length of 560mm and 800mm respectively. Even with two full frame bodies the combination of the 70-200 and 400mm prime allows me to shoot at 70-200mm, 400mm, 560mm and 800mm. Two bodies, two lenses and a range of 70 to 800mm. Not bad right!

One of many other benefits of these prime lenses is of course their ability to perform in low light, which is not that much of an issue in the Mara as one can only be out on drive between sunrise and sunset. This graph shows the range of ISO values used over the last 3 years.

ISO Ranges for Images Captured in the Masai Mara 2013-2015

ISO 2

More than 85% of images were captured between ISO 100 and ISO 1000, a range which even the most basic of DSLR’s today are capable of. The images captured beyond his range were more than likely captured in first or las light, under cloudy weather conditions, or a night in and around camp.

If you’re worried about joining us because you think you don’t have the right gear, ask us and we will help you out with a rental unit to ensure that you’ve got your focal ranges covered!

Andrew

About the Author

Andrew Beck

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Very few people can tell you what their passion in life is. Even fewer will be able to tell you that what they do for a living is in fact their passion. My love for the bush and conservation took me on journey which would not only allow me to explore the continent which fascinates me so much, but to share my passion for photography and conservation with others. Be sure to check out my my website and instagram account.

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Comments 20

  1. Martha Myers

    Andrew: Many thanks for this information. It was very timely, what with the holidays fast approaching and husbands often at a loss for what to get their wives for Christmas. 🙂 Particularly useful were the ISO data, which in the Mara at least seem to make the “loss” of f-stop range in zooms [vs. primes] less of an issue. I’m tempted to save the Canon 300mm f/2.8 for the Sabi Sabi, and perhaps consider a 100-400 mm [along with the workhorse 70-200mm and 600mm] for the Mara. If that sounds feasible to you, I will be sure to apprise husband Andy of your recommendation.

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      Hi Martha!

      I would hate for your hubby to make an ill-informed decision with regards to your christmas gift and hope that he will find this as useful as you have!

      Your thoughts are spot on and I think you have identified a powerful combination there. I quite enjoyed putting this post together and I think the statistical nerd in me is already plotting a full length presentation on some more of the historical data from my travels!

      Hope you’re keeping well!

      1. william watkins

        Just got back from S Africa and Botswana. I used the 100-400 mk2 mostly, but the 70-200 2.8 allowed me to get early morning and end of the day shots that I would have missed or had unexceptionably high isos for. If I had 2 bodies, I would have used the 70-200 more I’m sure. I cost so much to get there, it would be a shame to miss the early morning and late day shots. Hoping to do the Serengeti and Masai Mara next. Will probably rent a big lens, so the above info is greatly appreciated. Thanks Lin

        1. Post
          Author
          Andrew Beck

          Hi Lin

          Only a pleasure.

          Yeah something along the lines of a 200-400mm with the built in 1.4x (280-560mm) would compliment your 70-200mm very well. Shout if we can assist you in planing your next adventure or assist with a camera and lens rental!

    2. DaveT

      Martha, I did a trip to the mara with a 300mm F2.8 and another with the new 100-400 MkII zoom. My experience was that the 300 did produce one or two fabulous images with great bokeh backdrop, but overall I found the fixed length limiting. In contrast the 100-400 worked out extremely well, it is sharp and very versatile. The fact that this new model can focus down to just over three feet extends the possibility for when you want some close detail shots of things like butterflies. The quality of this newer 100-400 is worlds apart from the old push pull model.

      On the second trip I used the 100-400 MkII almost exclusively, but also had another camera body with a 24-105 attached which again proved handy for shots where the animal was close, and more general shots around the camp and landscapes of the Mara. I used both full frame 5D MKIII and a crop sensor 7DMKII as my camera bodies. I had a back up 70-200 F4 lens with me as well which wasn’t needed.

      I’m not a professional photographer, like Andrew, just very keen.

      Anyway, I hope this helps add another perspective.

      Dave

      1. Martha Myers

        Hi DavidT:
        You posted this comparison quite some time ago. But it could not be more welcome now. I’ve just come off an osprey workshop disappointed with the reach and sharpness of the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 + 1.4x, on a 7DMKII.

        As a result, the Canon 300mm f/2.8 [with and without 1.4x, on 7DMII] was my go-to lens. It was tack sharp, but hand holding it to follow flight was a challenge. And, the lack of zoom capability proved frustrating. So, I’m seriously considering acquiring the 100-400mm MkII for the next migration.

        Leaving my faithful companions, the 70-200mm f2.8 and the 300mm f/2.8 behind, will be gut wrenching decisions, however.

        Thank you [and Andrew] for making the decision easier.

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          Author
  2. DaveT

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for this article it’s both fascinating and useful. I have use Lightroom metadata myself but have never used the info in a chart, which I think is a great idea.

    I see you have some less conventional ISO settings such as 160, 640 etc, rather than full stop increments of 200, 400, 800 etc. Are theses settings that you selected or are you using Auto ISO? Just curious 🙂

    Dave

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      HI Dave

      I never use the Auto ISO function and having read numerous articles on posts on the noise levels at ISO values other than the full stop increments I am not convinced that the impact on the images is worth worrying about.

      My primary concern is ensuring that my shutter speed is correct for the image I am creating. That is to say fat enough to freeze movement and eliminate any chance of camera shake, or slow enough to create movement in the frame.

      I think issues like this are becoming a thing of the past as sensor technology and the noise reduction algorithms in software like Lightroom are able to deal with noise in a more efficient manner.

      Hopefully, the stories told by the images themselves will be far more important than any of the technical information behind the shot anyway!

      Those are my thoughts in any case!

      1. DaveT

        Thanks Andrew. I wasn’t inferring that full stop increments in ISO settings were better than partial increments. I was merely curios because I know some people when shooting video for example use specific ISO settings and I wondered if you had chosen them for some special reason. Now I can see now why you used those partial increments – just part of the exposure triangle adjustment process.

        I know some people who are fixated about noise. I’m not one of them and I’m in total agreement with you the stories behind the image are what is important.

        1. Post
          Author
          Andrew Beck

          Hi Dave

          I see what you’re saying and I believe there is some merit in using full stop increments for video when it coms to ISO but don’t do much of that myself so I cant really comment. Thanks agin for taking the time to comment and engage with us!

  3. Andy Benaglia

    Very interesting read. Makes me happy to see I have the right gear for my trip with you.
    Will be carrying a Nikon D810 and Nikon D800E as main bodies and also my old D90 as emergency backup.
    Lenses will be Nikon 105 Micro, Nikon 24-70 mm 2.8, Nikon 70-200 mm 2.8 and my new Sigma 150-600 mm Sport. Still not sure about the Nikon 80-400 pr 300mm as they would both be surplus.

    Now just waiting for details and booking.

    Thanks again.

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      HI Andy

      So glad that you’ll be joining us for this incredible safari experience and I know our guys have been in touch already on your booking.

      I agree with your choice of lenses although the 300mm F2.8 may not be a bad idea to have if you have a set of converters to match? There is still no substitute for good quality prime lenses and the incredible creamy bokeh that they provide!

  4. Jakes De Wet

    Hi Andrew. My longest lens is the Nikon 300 f2.8 vr2 that I use with all 3 TC’s and on the D810 with the FX, 1.2 and 1.5 crop modes make this very flexible, yes we have slower focus speed and softer images with the TC2.0 but remains a mind blowing lens. I also have the 80-400 and it looks crazy to use the 2 together but the flexibility and 80-400 covers a great range. Thanks for the stats, it takes a bid of the buying urge out of the mind as it confirms that my equipment covers all my needs. Great work

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      Hi Jakes

      Great combo of gear you have there. We tend to lust after longer focal lengths regardless of the destination. Renting that kind of gear for specific destinations is a far better bet. I think using the prime and 80-400 together makes perfect sense, regardless of the overlap in focal length.

      Prime glass is in a league of its own!

  5. Pingback: ISO - Are we still making noise about this in 2016? - Wild Eye

  6. Umit

    Hi, thanks for the post.
    I have just registered to a trip to Masai Mara at the end of august.
    This will be my first time for wildlife photography; so far I have mostly interested in landscape photos. For this reason, I mostly have wider angle lenses in my gear bag. However, the idea of getting a second body was already in my mind since my last trip, where I had lots of dust on the sensor, which caused by changing the lenses on the field.
    I am planning to bring my 24-70 and 70-300 lenses, for closer animals; but for the far views, the situation is now totally mixed up in my mind.
    I am using Sony full frame mirrorless camera, which unfortunately brings a unique difficulty of finding a decent tele lens, unless you like using adapters. So, for the second body and lens, I can see that I have choices like; a Sony aps-c with native 100-400 lens or 150-600 Sigma/tamron using an adapter. Or again a Sony full frame with 150-600 Sigma/Tamron again mounted through a converter which I really hate the idea.

    I have written a lot, but the main question is, is 150-600 is a reach, good enough for this trip -If so reaching that target through an aps-c is a loss??-
    or should I push it through 900???

    Sorry for that mixture.

    Thanks,
    Umit

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      Hi Umit

      Thanks so much for the comment.

      Its a tricky situation and, not knowing the quality of either the APS-C or Full frame options on Sony, I cant be of much help. What i can say is that the 100-400mm option on a full frame would make your 70-300mm lens redundant.

      The option of a 150-600 paired with an adaptor ring (this is different to a converter as it wont result in a reduction in your maximum aperture or image quality) may be a better option as this really does covera full range of options.

      If at all possible I would try and shoot the 150-600 on a Full frame body with the necessary adaptor to try and establish whether there is any reduction in the AF speed or image quality. Any serious camera store would be only too happy to assist you with this.

      I hope my comments address your questions and make sense?

  7. Nilesh T

    I am planning to visitin Aug . I got 1 dx m2 , 7dm2 & 5dm4 with 600is2 , 400DO , 100-400is2 , 70-200 2.8 l , 11-24 cann new . Which bodies & lences should i carry ? Thx

    1. Post
      Author
      Andrew Beck

      Hi Nilesh

      I would suggest pairing the 1DX MKII and the 600mm and then the 5DMK IV with the 100-400m carrying the 70-200 and 11-24mm as spares for as and when you may require them.

      I hope this helps!

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