The Second Safari Lens

Nikon has a pretty incredible telephoto Z-mount lens lineup already. Unfortunately the lineup is incredible enough to provoke a lot of buying angst among users. There’s a lot of nuance that has to be juggled to make good buying/using decisions. 

I’m a wildlife photographer much of the time. I’ve already written several times that the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S is my choice for “long lens.” Given my usual access to animals and my extreme travel, I find that lens is the best choice for me in balancing a lot of different variables. For others, the 600mm f/4 TC VR S might be the better choice. But the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S gives me 400/560/840mm at the flip of switch or button on the Z8 or Z9 (the longer option provides 600/750/1125mm). 

The question then becomes what do I use at the “short end” for my second body on safari. Most recently, that’s been a Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8, though that leaves me a gap from 150 to 400mm. However, I tend towards favoring subject isolation capability coupled with edge of day light needs, thus my two fast lens choices. 

If you’re picking a 400mm or 600mm lens as your primary lens for safari, you have quite a few options for a secondary lens. Some users tend towards only using one body, or not having a Z8 or Z9 in the first place, thus have very different needs (which are likely completely filled by the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S or 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR). Either way, it’s important to understand what we have that’s native Z-mount that’s available as a second lens for your second body.

I assume that if you have an F-mount lens, you can already evaluate how that works; it would be rare that a Z System user buys a new F-mount lens these days: (1) you end up extending the length of the lens via the FTZ adapter; (2) the F-mount lenses other than the PF lenses tend to be heavier; and (3) the F-mount lenses are not holding vaue at all, due to how many are being traded in. If you already have an F-mount lens, great. If you want to dip into the used pool to pick up a fantastic F-mount exotic at a low price, that’s great too. But for the purposes of this article I’m going to stick to Z-mount lenses, and in particular, FX ones.

I make the assumption that you want flexibility in your second lens on safari. Normally, this lens is on your second body, and ready for when the action gets closer to you. Or when you're dealing with large mammals, such as elephants or giraffes, at modest distance. Some also want this lens to be useful for potential scenic imagery, as well. 

Here are the primary second lens choices for safari in the Z-mount:

  • Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 S — My teaching assistant uses this and is happy with what it provides (his primary lens is a 400mm f/4.5 VR S or sometimes 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S). One aspect of the 24-120mm f/4 S lens that isn't often mentioned is its ability to focus close (15", or 35cm). That provides another sometimes useful aspect on safari, for instance when you're in a mokoro photographing reed frogs. My only comment is that you wouldn't pair this mid-range zoom lens with a 600mm or longer primary optic, as that just leaves you too much “focal length gap." 
  • Nikkor 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR — This superzoom sounds like a good choice at first glance, but it is clearly the worst possible choice once you're in the true telephoto range. Moreover, like all superzooms, the 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR loses some focal length as you focus closer. You'll also note that the f/6.3 side is slower than the other lenses I put in this group. One reason you sometimes pick up your second body and lens is because the light is disappearing at the end of the day and you're not able to hold subjects with your long lens due to aperture. 
  • Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 — This is my usual second lens (again, my primary is the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S). I'm less worried about the wide scenic, but more worried about subject isolation, which is the reason why the previous lenses aren't the ones I carry. I've never been unhappy with the results from the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8, and now that we have a native Z-mount version of it—the original was a Sony E-mount one that I used on a Megadap adapter—I can heartily recommend it to all.
  • Nikkor 70-180mm f/2.8 — On one recent trip to Africa I brought this lens with me (as a second to the 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR), and I'm going to say something bold: it's a better choice than the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S. No, it's not sharper in the corners. Yes, it can flare more. No, the bokeh isn't quite as well handled. But those aren't the big things you're typically worried about on safari. Here's the reason why I give it a strong nod: it focuses down to essentially macro levels (1:2; though don't place focus in the corners; keep focus centered). It travels smaller and lighter, and it has perfectly fine DX-boundary sharpness. The "drawback" that keeps some from this lens is that it doesn't have VR. Frankly, the sensor VR is good enough to handle 180mm decently, and you're not likely pushing down into slower shutter speeds on safari, anyway.
  • Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S — Absolutely nothing wrong with this lens. As 70-200's go, it's right there at the top of the heap. But it's surprisingly the size and weight of the F-mount version, and the thing we're all clamoring for these days is to make our overall kit smaller and lighter. The 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S doesn't do that ;~). I'm perfectly happy with the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S, but for the size and weight I like the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 better. And if I need smaller/lighter, the 70-180mm f/2.8 is the clearer choice for me. 
  • Tamron 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 — Price and focal length made you look. It's not a terrible lens, but this falls into the 24-200mm type classification: you can do better. The exception might be DX cameras, where this lens gives you a very reasonable 105-450mm equivalent.
  • Nikkor 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S — If you're using a really long primary lens such as the 600mm or 800mm, you might want to give up a bit on the wider side and use something that covers more of the telephoto focal length gap. The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S would usually be that lens. We were all excited and happy when this zoom came out, though it's been a bit eclipsed by subsequent offerings in different ways. Still, it focuses close and it's still remarkably good. 

As you probably noted in those bullets, a couple of things come up: (1) what lens are you pairing the second one with?; and (2) does your second lens have more flexibility or a downside? 

I'll get to some pairings in a moment, but it's worth spending a few more words on the downside/upside equation. Things that are upsides include: smaller, lighter, closer focusing, longer focal range, faster aperture. sharp in the DX boundary. Things that are downsides include: larger, heavier, poor close focus, minimal focal range, slower aperture, lack of sharpness compared to the alternatives. Flexibility has to do with both focal length range (more is better, plus less gap to your primary lens), and perhaps also with faster apertures should you wish to go for subject isolation. Make sure when you pick a second lens where you're considering the balance of all these things with your primary one. 

As for pairings, here are the ones I currently favor:

  • 35-150mm f/2-2.8 with the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S. Top level optical results, with strong ability to isolate subjects. Yes, I have a gap in the 150-400mm range, but I tend to control that with my position relative to the animals (safari) or players (sports). I can also flip to DX crop and get 225mm out of the second lens, if necessary. This is what I refer to as a "luxury pairing."  I'll just say this: I'm never unhappy with the results when I'm carrying that duo on my Z9's. The only thing I might be unhappy with is size and weight of my kit.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 with the 600mm f/4 TC VR S. Another luxury pairing that’s scaled upwards for more reach. This tends to be a little too much lens for my style of wildlife (and sports) work, and it’s a heavier and larger kit to carry. 
  • 70-180mm f/2.8 with the 600mm f/6.3 PF VR S. If you’re looking for reach but still going for the smallest and lightest kit, this would be my choice, though some of you might consider using the 100-400mm f/4-5.6 VR S as the second lens if you’re worried about the focal length gap. That doesn’t give you a low light option, though.
  • 70-180mm f/2.8 with the 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR. No gap! Close focus supported! Solid optical performance, particularly in the DX boundary. This is the best "budget pairing" for sure. Send me to Africa for a season with these two lenses and I'll be happy enough (and yes, I have experience doing just that). I'd even go so far as to say this: if you think you need more than this combo, you need to explain the reason why to me carefully and get that validated before buying a more expensive option. 

I will point out a bit of a dilemma for those who favor really long primary lenses (e.g. 600mm f/4 TC VR S, 600mm f/6.3 PF VR S, or 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S): it gets trickier to pair a second lens with the long primary primes. Indeed, I'd tend to say that the first lens this group should probably consider is the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S. One problem with such “long reach pairing" is aperture: best case is f/4 or f/4.5, which starts to have significant impact as the light wanes. Given that the animals on safari are most active and interesting at first and last light of the day, you need to be careful that you're not locking yourself into high ISO values all the time. 

Nikon could improve the long pairing by introducing a 100-300mm f/2.8 or f/4, but remember one of the other drawbacks that you need to consider: size and weight. Such a lens is likely to be large.

There's no one "right" choice in safari lens pairing. It's all about tradeoffs and balances. For my workshops, I'm generally "negotiating" with students prior to the workshop trying to figure out what the right combo they should bring is from the gear they have (or are willing to add). These discussions are sometimes fraught with FOMO (fear of missing out). 

Let me try to clarify that FOMO worry a bit. Here's my thought: I miss out on something all the time while on safari. I'm not always in the right position, I don't quite have the lens I need, I wasn't there at the right moment, and much more. Don't worry about that. What I want you to worry about is: do you have the right gear for when things are right and aligned for what you can accomplish?

If subject isolation is "your style," then a 300mm f/6.3 aperture—see Tamron—probably isn't going to help you. If isolating small birds mid-day is your game, you probably want longer focal length choices, or you'd better be spending your entire day in a well positioned hide (maybe both!).  

By my calculations I've now spent well over a year of my life in the bush in just Botswana. Why do I return? Well, there's a lot I haven't seen, a lot I haven't photographed. I don't think of my trips from the standpoint of "what did I miss," but rather from the standpoint of "what did I capture?" That starts with, while still back home, figuring out what I want to capture, and that's where my lens choice comes into play. 

This is the way you should think of it, too. Don’t get into the “I must be ready for absolutely any possibility,” because there’s no such combination of lenses that will cover everything. Instead, find a combination that has the highest likelihood of bringing back the type of images you wish to capture.

Looking for other photographic information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: | mirrorless: | general/technique: | film SLR:

text and images © 2024 Thom Hogan
All Rights Reserved — 
the contents of this site, including but not limited to its text, illustrations, and concepts, 
 may not be utilized, directly or indirectly, to inform, train, or improve any artificial intelligence program or system.