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The Perfect Safari Lens?

One of the most common photography questions that we're asked is what lens is best for safari. For most travelers, the answer lies in two lenses covering a range of focal lengths from roughly 20mm-300mm (if your budget can stretch to a 400mm zoom, then so much the better). But there is also a strong case to be made for a single "super-zoom" lens that covers this full range. Examples include:

Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM

AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

Tamron 28-300mm f3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD

Some of these lenses (particularly the Canon) are quite expensive, and all three manufacturers also offer 18-200mm lenses that could be considered as more budget-friendly alternatives for a one-lens safari.

As with any "Jack of all trades" these lenses have pros and cons:

Advantages

Flexibility - you always have the right lens on the camera. In a matter of seconds (versus minutes if you had to change lenses), you can switch from a wide angle landscape shot of the Okavango Delta to a close-up wildlife portrait of the leopard that just emerged from the bush next to your game-drive vehicle.

Size - everyone knows that luggage on charter flights between safari camps is limited, so having to carry just one compact lens weighing 30 ounces and measuring 3x5 inches leaves more space for your recharger, flash, filters, extra batteries, external hard-drvie, and clothing (of course).

No lens changes - not to be underestimated in the dusty conditions of Africa. Removal of a lens from the camera body leaves the camera's internals (especially the sensor) susceptible to harmful dust accumulation that can damage parts and spoil images.

Cost effective - while not "cheap", these lenses cost less than two "conventional" zoom lenses of equivalent quality that would cover the same focal length spectrum.

Post safari applications - most travelers are understandably reluctant to invest in a highly specialized lens that may be great for wildlife, but for which they will have limited use after the safari is over. With their compact size and versatility, these "super zooms" can be used for just about any photographic application before, during, and after your safari.

Disadvantages

The primary downside of these extended-range "super-zoom" lenses is loss of sharpness relative to conventional zooms (or prime lenses). Lenses are incredibly complex mechanical devices and, the more focal lengths that a lens must cover, the more challenging it becomes to correct for distortions and aberrations - this is why (all else being equal) prime lenses deliver sharper images than zooms, and the problem is magnified as the range of focal lengths is extended. If the final product of your safari photos is likely to be digital images or small (8x10 or smaller) prints, the difference will be barely perceptible; if you're planning to make large prints, this is a factor to consider.

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