Photography and Art

Monday, December 6, 2010

Photo Gear for an African Safari

You've booked your African safari dream vacation. Now comes the tough part -- what camera equipment do you take with you? On one hand, you have to travel light. On the other hand, you want to come back with terrific pictures for the enjoyment of yourself and potentially others. Let me take you through this from three points of view: the pro, the enthusiast and the snapshot artist. For the pro, I'm going to refer to Don Miralle who was staying at the same camp in the Selous as we were. I got to see Don taking lots of photos and have a pretty good idea of what he traveled with.
  1. Camera bodies:
    1. The Pro: three bodies, one for each lens range, all full-frame. If one body seizes, it's just a minor inconvenience.
    2. The Enthusiast: a main body and a spare. I was going to take my old Canon 20d as a back-up body to my Canon 5d mark II, but my son was moving and the battery charger was locked in a storage bin. I worried about the dust, but the Canon sailed through without any issues.
    3. The Snapshooter: Assuming that you won't be heartbroken if your camera seizes, take one body along. My friend Rick managed just fine with his Nikon D90.
  2. Lenses:
  3. Wide Angle - View of the Serengeti from a Balloon
    24-105 mm Zoom - Deb with Village Children
    70-300 mm zoom with 1.5 extender - Cheetah Family
    1. The Pro: full coverage from wide angle (16mm) to telephoto (400mm plus). Don had three pro lenses with him I think: 16-35 mm zoom, 24-105 mm zoom and a monster 400 mm f/2.8 zoom that needed three people to carry it (check it out here: 
    2. The Enthusiast: same coverage as the pro. I had slightly cheaper glass. For wide angle, my 17-40 mm zoom was terrific. I got great shots from the balloon with this lens. For normal coverage, my 24-105 mm zoom was also spot on. All the photos of people were with this lens. I was really happy with my telephoto lens choice. I took a Canon 70-300 mm DO lens with a Tamron 1.5x extender. This combination was lightweight, unobtrusive and pulled in nearly every animal shot that I wanted. I can't say that I missed much because of insufficient zoom power.
    3. The Snapshooter: Rick took along an 18-200 mm zoom on his APS/C sensor for an equivalent of 27-300 mm. He never complained about not having a lens for the job and laughed at me as I struggled to change lenses in dusty conditions. His sensor stayed pristine because his lens was never off the camera.
  4. Flash: 
  5. Masai Warrior - taken with fill flash
      1. The Pro: Don got off some wonderful shots using flash (see Here's a quote from Don's site on his flash equipment: "I used a Canon 580EX fired with a pair of flexTT5 and mounted to a lightstand for the elephant and a superclamp on the land rover for the lions. Both shots weren’t at night actually; the elephant named “Rhafiki” by the camp actually woke me up in my tent at about 6am, and the lions were shot late afternoon with a bit of cloud cover. Both shots I turned up the flash to full power manual to balance the ambient and spot light the subject. I found that the 580EX with pocket wizards is a great travel system to light on the fly for portraits of wildlife, and you can add a softbox, umbrella, or light diffuser very easily to it."
      2. The Enthusiast: I took the same flash as Don and used it to good effect on camera primarily as fill flash. Next time, I'll buy a pocket wizard kit and follow Don's example. I don't think it's all that expensive and it makes for some wonderful pictures when the lighting conditions get sketchy.
      3. The Snapshooter: use the on-camera flash as a fill flash. It takes the deep shadows out of faces.
  6. Camera Bag:
      1. The Pro: I didn't get to observe Don's luggage, but I would surmise that he had special camera cases with lots of protection.
      2. The Enthusiast: A backpack camera bag is ideal. You'll want to be able to carry your equipment on to airplanes to avoid theft, so a backpack works best. Make sure you spend a lot of money and get a good bag. A broken strap will cost you dearly.
      3. The Snapshooter: DON'T PUT YOUR CAMERA IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE. African airports are rife with luggage theft. Take all your valuables on the plane with you. If you have to check a camera, make sure the photo card comes with you.
  7. Tripods etc.
      1. The Pro: Don had a monopod with him and used it extensively. He needed it to support the weight of that 400mm bazooka.
      2. The Enthusiast: I borrowed a friend's beanbag and was going to fill it up in the market and use it on safari. However, I found that if I paid attention to the shutter speed (even to the extent of moving to shutter priority with the long telephoto shots) and used modern lenses with anti-shake, I could shoot freehand. Don't be afraid to boost the ISO to get the shutter speed up. Modern cameras have very little noise and you can remove it with software afterwards in any case.
      3. The Snapshooter: See above. Ask your buddy to show you how to adjust the ISO and shoot with shutter priority.
  8. Storage Media
      1. The Pro: Don had lots of cards and travelled with a Macbook Pro. He religiously downloaded his shots at night and backed them up on an external drive. He also spent his evenings sorting his photos and that enabled him to have his blog updated immediately on his return. He charged his laptop every time he was near power. Don shot jpegs because he's a pro and doesn't have time to fiddle with raw. His shots were almost always perfectly exposed and didn't need much tweaking later. He shot 1,500 shots a day.
      2. The Enthusiast: I'm a huge fan of simplicity. Memory cards are pretty rock solid. I've never had one fail. I took plenty of storage (two 32GB cards and two 16 GB cards) and I compromised on quality a little bit. I shot Jpeg instead of RAW. Quite honestly, I didn't notice much of a difference. You're shooting outside for the most part, so white balance is not much of an issue. I managed to come home with over 5,000 shots on two cards. If you're traveling with friends, have a beer or two at night instead of processing your photos on a computer. Unless you have a real computer addiction, leave your laptop at home. 
      3. The Snapshooter: Take some extra cards. I'd recommend a couple of 32GB cards.
      Here are some other miscellaneous tips and tricks:
        • Take extra batteries. Sometimes you go for a few days without power, so you'll need extra power sources. Don't count on those in-car power supplies that convert DC to AC -- they don't seem to work with battery chargers.
        • Take plenty of lens cleaners. It's very dusty out there.
        • Check your lenses every now and then. I found myself wondering if it was foggy a couple of times and then noticed that my lenses were covered in dust.
        • Power your camera off and on to engage the sensor cleaner, especially if you are changing lenses often.
        • Watch your long lenses if you are standing in a land rover and moving around. They can easily give your fellow travelers a whack in the head.
        • Don't be a bore. If you are traveling with non-photographers, lighten up and enjoy. Unless you are a working pro, you are not going to make the cover of National Geographic, so enjoy the experience, capture some good shots and make time for your friends.
        • Take lots of shots. I noticed that Don had his camera set for rapid fire shooting. You never know when an animal is going to do something neat, so have your finger on the shutter and let 'er rip. I never would have captured my photo of a leopard licking its paw if I hadn't been shooting already. It was over in a flash.
        • Be sensitive to the rights of the people. Many people do not want their photos taken. You can find lots of opportunities to photograph people if you go on the paid village tours or get your guide to ask nicely.
        • Get off the beaten track. Many of my best shots were taken on the road to Kondoa. We got to see the real Africa and meet real people. That was far more exciting than sitting in a Land Rover all day staring at zebras.
      A trip to Africa is truly a dream come true. Photo opportunities abound. Just do it!


      1. Thanks for your nice photography . "24-105 mm Zoom - Deb with Village Children" looks awesome. I highly appropriate you.

        best of luck to you.

      2. No doubt to say that these are the best Real Photos every i have seen in my life. Thanks for your nice photography. It inspire me most.


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