Wildlife Photography in Madagascar – What Gear Should You Bring?

Endangered red-ruffed lemur in Masoala National Park (Sony A7R IV with 200-600mm F5.6-6.3)

What was in my bag? 

Choosing what gear to bring with you to any new destination is a daunting process. If you are like me, you’ve spent your time pouring through forums trying to glean information about what types of camera gear to bring. In preparation for my trip to the forests and rainforests of Madagascar, I opted to bring a lot of gear to cover many bases (a lot of which, unsurprisingly, I did not use that much). In retrospect, I would have downsized my kit. For this trip, I had with me the following: 

Diademed Sifaka at the lemur rescue center. D850 with 70-200mm F/2.8
  1. Nikon D850
  2. Nikon 70-200 F/2.8
  3. Sigma 15mm Fisheye for Nikon
  4. Sony A7RIV
  5. Tamron 28-75 for Sony
  6. Tamron 17-28 for Sony
  7. Sony 200-600 F/5.6-6.3
  8. Full size tripod
  9. Gimbal
  10. Monopod
  11. Speedlights

Below are my impressions of the gear I brought, what I appreciated having, what I should have left home, and what I wish I had brought instead.

Parson’s chameleon. There are no shortages of incredible reptile species on the island. D850 with 70-200mm F2/8

What I appreciated having

D850 and lenses. The D850 combined with the 70-200 F/2.8 was an ideal setup for 50% of the photography that I did in Madagascar. If I had brought the teleconverter with me I’d up that to 75%. This focal length proved to be the best in terms of low light and autofocus performance, sharpness, and versatility. During the trip, this kit performed admirably.

Things come alive at night in Madagascar, where night active lemurs often outnumber day active ones in a number of places. Nikon D850 with 70-200 F/2.8 and SB5000 speed light

Fisheye lens. I was unsure at first about the usefulness of bringing a fisheye lens, but this lens did prove to be fun and useful on several occasions. 

The goal of this photo was to capture an alluring subject (giraffe weevil) in its environment using the fisheye lens. Nikon D850 with Sigma 15mm Fisheye

Monopod. The monopod proved very useful. Most of the time, as I was hiking around various parks, I had a cameras mounted to the monopod and carried the monopod over my shoulder . When we saw something, I was glad to have the monopod to rest the heavy camera on for extended periods of time. It also was great for those times when I wanted to shoot low, because holding a heavy camera low to the ground with pure arm strength is not fun. Since there is limited light in the rainforests, the monopod added extra stability so that I could shoot at slower shutter speeds.

This Madagascan Pigmy Kingfisher was one of the many great birds seen, and birders would do good by bringing a telephoto lens. Sony A7RIV with FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3

Waterproof backpack. The Ortlieb Atrack backpack that I brought was an asset on this trip. This bag is essentially a compressible dry bag backpack, and I found it incredibly useful to put all of my clothing inside and compress the bag down to provide more space in my bag when flying from one destination to the next. When the downpours inevitably came, the backpack kept the contents bone dry, and the bag withstood abuse in the forest. It also had good frame support to remain comfortable during long hours of hiking with heavy gear each day.

The “dancing” Verreaux’s sifaka are a great subject but don’t expect them to stay still for long. Sony A7RIV with FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3

What I wish I had left home

Tripod and Gimbal. Most of our trip involved hiking for long distances in search of wildlife in hot weather, which was not conducive  to carrying around a full size tripod. Also, within the dense forest, animals rarely stay in one spot for a long period of time, rendering a tripod fairly useless and cumbersome. 

What more can I say. Chameleons are fascinating. Sony A7RIV with Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8

Long zoom lenses. They are nice to have but not entirely necessary for photographing wildlife in Madagascar, unless the primary focus is birding. A 200-600mm F/5.6-6.3 lens was pretty dark for use in forested areas, but to be fair, I did get a lot of use out of it. In a lot of cases, lemur species may come close, where having a faster, wider lens becomes more of an asset. In addition, having a long lens doesn’t necessarily mean getting the shot, because many of Madagascar’s forests that we visited were thick with vegetation preventing one from seeing distant subjects. In retrospect, a smaller telephoto prime like the Nikon 500 PF, 300 PF, 300 F/4, etc., would have been ideal for birds.

Kingfishers are fairly common and are, in my opinion, incredible wildlife photography subjects. Sony A7RIV with FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3

The Sony setup. While I have no doubt that the Sony setup is capable of taking spectacular photos, I found that the low-light AF performance in Madagascar’s dark forested areas the A7R IV simply could not keep up with my Nikon D850. To be specific, my main issue was not bad pictures, but low keeper rate due to focus inaccuracies in AF-C. To be fair, I was using a relatively dark lens with the Sony (F/5.6-6.3) and a bright zoom with the D850 (F/2.8). Nonetheless, I still observed these issues when using brighter F/2.8 lenses on the Sony. Hopefully Sony can further improve low light AF accuracy in a future firmware update. In the end, the Nikon setup proved time and time again to be the most reliable in this environment. I did get a lot of use out of the Sony equipment, but I struggled with the autofocus performance compared to the DSLR and had to adapt my shooting due to the lower keeper rate.

A sportive lemur that sleeps during the day with its eyes open. Sony A7RIV with FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3

What I wish I had brought

Ultimately, I overpacked, and if (when?) I visit Madagascar in the future, I would downsize my kit and also focus more on DSLR. The mirrorless is wonderful for the electronic viewfinder, but I yearned for the reliability of the DSLR. The following are what I would consider bringing: 

  1. Nikon D850 or similar full frame DSLR
  2. 70-200mm 2.8
  3. 24-70mm 2.8 or 24-120mm F/4
  4. 1.4X Teleconverter. 

Maybes: 

  1. backup DSLR body
  2. longer, compact telephoto prime, such as the 500 PF for birding
  3. 105mm macro
The Indri Indri lemur is the largest in the world and has a piercingly loud whale-like call. These are spectacular wildlife subjects but like all rainforest subjects, difficult to capture. This is an adult female with baby in tow. Nikon D850 with 70-200mm F/2.8

Author: Bobby Vogt

Biologist, photographer, and site administrator.

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