My Rationalized Safari Rig

My answer to a question in today’s other article coupled with some questions and comments that came up with my review of the 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S make this a good time to talk about my current rationalized safari gear. “Rationalized,” as in what makes the most sense to me. Your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, I think it illustrative to understand my thinking.

Given that Nikon is totally ignoring bringing AF-ON+AF area mode to button customizations on any Z camera other than the Z9, it probably goes without saying that my two camera bodies on safari are currently Z9s. (If I hadn’t moved to mirrorless, I’d be happy with a Nikon D6 and a D850, which, by the way, also allow that button customization.)

It’s not that the Z6/Z7 autofocus systems are bad, it’s that they can’t be discretely controlled on demand. Nikon’s overall approach to autofocus requires user interventions to get the best possible results. When you learn how the system works and can change settings on demand, the Nikon autofocus system is beyond reproach. If you’re stuck with what you set before you put your eye up to the viewfinder, you will sometimes get less than optimal results. 

Nikon engineering deserves a big fat mumpsimus for not addressing this problem on any model other than the Z9. Moreover, Nikon marketing should be in the engineers’ offices daily complaining about this oversight and asking for it to be fixed. The result of Nikon’s lapse is clearly evident in the sentiment on the Internet: user after user castigating Nikon’s autofocus system because they end up losing images they should have gotten. It’s not so much that Sony’s autofocus system is “better at focusing” as it is that it can be more easily constrained and controlled via simple button customizations. The lack of AF-ON+AF area mode button customization on the Z6/Z7 models is a total self goal on the part of Nikon. (You and Nikon learned a new word today, didn’t you? What? You didn’t look up mumpsimus?)

So, two Z9 bodies go in the bag.

What about lenses?

I don’t change lenses on safari, so I really need to think through the two lenses that also go in the travel bag very carefully. I’ll use a Z50 with the kit lens or something similar for any wide or mid-range need, so the two lenses that go on the Z9 bodies are going to be telephoto. (Even something like a Fujifilm X100V or Sony RX100 Mark VII might suffice for the wide/mid-range. What you choose sort of depends upon how much you can juggle in the vehicle. The Sony being a shirt-pocket camera tends to be simple enough to bring along, while the Z50 and kit lens is more something you need to juggle.) 

I’ve got three semi-competing issues that the two telephoto lenses need to handle: (1) foreground/background isolation; (2) low-light capability; and (3) reach. 

#1 and #2 lead me to f/2.8 lenses. I don’t always use them at f/2.8, but at the edges of the day and when the backgrounds get distracting, I do. I’d go all the way to f/1 if I could because of that, but telephoto lenses with that aperture don’t exist and I’m not sure that I could carry them if they did. 

#3 is what I wrote about in the other article today

Let’s see how that plays out. Here’s my current safari telephoto kit:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8 — Gives me #1 and #2 capability when I don’t need reach (e.g. nearby elephants).
  • 400mm f/2.8 — Gives me #1, #2, and my basic #3 capability. This is the focal length I’m trying to position the vehicle for whenever possible. 
  • 560mm f/4 via the built-in teleconverter — When I can’t quite get to the vehicle position I need, I have a quick and excellent choice of flipping the lever on the big lens. I start to lose #2, though (#1 tends to still be okay, and I can often reposition a bit to help that, if needed). 
  • 840mm f/4 via FX/DX switch button customization — Sure, I lost a bit more than half my pixel count (19mp instead of 45mp), but if I’m that far from the subject it’s because there’s simply no way to position closer. In some cases you have to worry about spooking the bird or animal, too. Do I really need more than 5504 pixels on the long axis? That’s still enough to produce an acceptable 30” print with great care. I’m seriously starting to jeopardize #2, though, as I also lost an effective stop of dynamic range in the act of cropping (i.e., increasing the visibility of noise). Moreover, #1 tends to start getting compromised the further you are from the subject (perspective). 

Thus my comment about the 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S in my review: it’s tough to justify using it on safari as then I’d need a lens that doesn’t exist to complement it. Moreover, f/6.3 is starting to introduce issues with #2 and maybe #1. If I were spending most of my time on safari on small birds, I’d be at 800mm a lot, so things start to shift a bit. Still, I’d have some issues with the rest of the range, as I’d really want to also bring, say, a 120-300mm f/2.8 TC VR S to help fill as much of the rest of the range as is possible. Even then, I’d have a large gap between 300mm and 800mm, which would become a problem.

Can my safari, two-lens, telephoto choice get better? Yes, I believe it can. The Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 would be a really good lens to complement the 400mm f/2.8. Yes, I have a bit more of a gap between the lenses, but I can generally manage that more modest gap through positioning. Note that the Tamron would also remove my need for a Z50/X100V/RX100 to cover the mid-range. I believe we’ll get a Tamrikon version of this lens, by the way. (Should you decide to use the existing Tamron via a Megadap ETZ21 E-to-Z adapter, be aware that the fit is very tight on the Tamron lens, and you lose the ability to program the lens buttons. Also, make sure to always turn the camera off when switching lenses.)

Okay, you’re all screaming at me “but I can’t get a 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S!” True. This lens is still more rare than world peace. So what do you do? Simple: 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, 400mm f/4.5 VR S, and a TC1.4x. You’re giving up some light at the long end and the convenience of a built-in teleconverter, but not much else. And you saved enough to buy a really reliable used car. Or two Z9s ;~). 

If the 400mm f/4.5 is still too pricey for you, you’ll have to settle for the 100-400mm f/4-5.6 VR S, instead. The “perfect” safari complement for that lens would be the 24-120mm f/4 S. You’re a bit short on #1 and #2, and your #3 with a TC is a bit worse, but I’ve traveled with this combination and can vouch for it being a solid starting position for safari. Everything I outline above, however, is better optically, and lets in more light. 

Do we need that 200-600mm f/4.5-6.3 VR on the Road Map? Probably not. With it we’ll start to get deeper into convenience lens versus optically excellent lenses, I believe. But, a Z5 with a 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR and a 200-600mm f/4.5-6.3 VR might be the budget safari choice for some that provides a huge focal range. Note that neither lens is an S-line, though, and that you’re at or near f/6.3 a lot, which has #1 and #2 implications. 

Bonus: Some of you are saying “but what about F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter?” Yes, that opens up some other possible combos, such as the 120-300mm f/2.8E VR and the 500mm f/5.6E PF VR. I’m kind of stickler for avoiding extra mounts whenever possible, though, particularly with long lenses. On safari I’m bouncing around the countryside (and off-road a lot), so I’m putting a lot of vibration and bounce stress on those extra mounts. I’ve been slowly selling off my big F-mount telephotos—partly to afford Z-mount ones—but you may still be clinging to them. Just be aware that you need to be more careful about how you carry, support, and travel with F-mount lenses on the FTZ adapter. 

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