Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Right Tools for a Great Safari

I have been on safaris around the world. After each safari I inevitably examine what I did and how I could have done it better. A big part of this equation is the equipment that you bring. If you don't do your homework and the wildlife viewing isn't very good, then your images are going to be limited. At the same token, if you bring the wrong equipment for the light, or lenses without enough reach in an area where the guides aren't allowed to drive off road, your images will be equally limited.

On our safari to South Africa, I brought all the equipment that I could get my hands on. I would have brought the kitchen sink too if I thought it would have helped in some way. On that trip, I was traveling with Gaye and my step daughter, so I had a litte more room for carry on as I assigned a camera bag to each of them each flight as a carry on. This satisfied the airlines as I wasn't traveling with three camera bags. Instead, three people were flying with one bag each. The issue of "carry on" is a big part of how I decide what to bring or not to bring. The last thing I need is to put 35 grand in camera equipment in with the luggage and get to my destination in Africa only to disover that my equipment is in Spain, or it has arrived but is broken to bits or stolen. I am very protective of my equipment!

I came back home after our first African first trip realizing that I needed to pack lighter. For example, I realize I need extra hard drives, so this past trip, I bought small external hard drives. You can now buy a terabyte hard drive that is the size of a deck of cards. I brought two. One to store the pictures and one for back up. On our past trip to Kenya and Tanzania I scaled back considerably. I normally have two full camera bags full of equipment plus a 600mm lens. On this trip, I managed to fit all of the camera equipment into one think tank camera bag. I would highly recommend these bags. Think Tank literally thinks of everyhing a photographer needs in a camera bag. They are sturdy, practical and they don't look like they contain camera equipment. They just look like a regular carry on bag.

Here is a list of what I brought on safari to Kenya and Tanzania:
Canon EOS Mark III 1Ds
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 7D
Canon Powershot- a point and shoot camera for videos and snapshots that I kept in my pocket.
I bought the 7D for this trip and really enjoyed it. I bought it because it shoots 8 frames per second and I figured it would help with the action shots. It was fantastic for catching the action. It shoots about three more frames in raw in a burst than my Mark III shoots (approximately, I can't remember exactly), I think it focuses quicker and crop sensor really helped in Tanzania where they don't drive off road and the animals in the Ngorongoro crater are 100 meters least! They aren't always that far away, but more often than not, they certainly seemed to be. Needless to say, I got much better photo opportunities in the Masai Mara.

ISO 800 7D 600mm IS- I didn't think the
7D performed very well in low light

Where I thought the 7D was quite weak was shooting with higher ISO's. Don't quote me, I am not a camera analyst or anything, but it seems to me that the Mark III 1Ds performs much better in the lower light scenarios.

In regards to lenses, I brought a 24-70 wide angle lens for my 5D Mark II, a 70-200 IS, 2.8 (which I never used once), a 100-400mm for my 5D Mark II and I put the 600mm, f4 on my Mark III 1Ds. The idea being that Africa can be very very dusty in September and you do not want to change lenses. The last thing you need is dust and gunk on your sensor. The other reason is because if you see a pretty sunrise, but have to change lenses to get the shot, you may not bother as it might just be too much effort. For those reasons, my system worked extremely well. I think people probably thought I was nuts, but I didn't care. I was there to get the best images that I could get, not to fit in. On a side note, if you do decide to try this system out, make sure that you ask to book a private guide and landrover. If you don't, you won't have room for your equipment. It will get bumped around and will constantly be in everyone's way.

I thought my system worked really well until I got back home and started thinking about it. In 2012, I will be going back to South Africa and the Masai Mara. In learning from my past experiences, I have decided that I can improve upon my current system in a few ways:
  1. I will still use my 7D on my 600mm lens. That was my bread and butter in Kenya and Tanzania and worked like a charm.
  2. I will put my 70-200 IS. 2.8 on my 5D Mark II. Interestingly enough in Africa, the use of a wide angle lens seems pointless to me. I took better pictures of the sunrises and sunsets in the Masai Mara and Tarangire National Park with my 100-400mm lens than I did with my wide angle lens.

    Sunrise taken with canon
    100-400 IS
  1. I will buy a 400mm IS, 2.8 for my Mark III 1Ds. Most of the pictures I took in both South Africa and Kenya and Tanzania with the 100-400mm lens, the lens is almost always extended out to 400mm anyway. My biggest issues were around ligthing. Either early in the morning or late afternoon, having to use high ISO's. When considering why my shots weren't better, I would say part of it was high ISO's, due to a lens that is f5.6 rather than f2.8. I think the 400 2.8 would take care of a lot of those issues.
  2. I picked up two 32 gig memory cards for my cameras which were aweome! Even at that, one day the light was good, the lions were playing and I took 3900 pictures and almost ran out of space. Once the morning safari was over I had to rush to try to download and back up the pictures so I could format the cards. I didn't really have enough time to finish and so was flustered not wanting to erase anything. Next time, I go to Africa will be two years from now. Hopefully the 64 gig cards will come down in price and I will pick up a couple of them. Having two 32 gig cards and two 16 gig cards was nice and only put me in a pinch a couple times, but I need more space.
  3. Solar charger. I was just introduced to solar chargers that are big enough to charge a laptop. I think that is ingenious! I don't know how big or heavy they are off hand, but it is definitely something that I am going to look into. When we were in Tanzania, the only chargers were in the vehicle. The vehicle had a difficult time charging my laptop. Without a charged laptop, I couldn't download my pictures. If I couldn't download the pictures, I couldn't back up my shots, then format the cards and start again. The ability to be able to always have a charged laptop is essential! The idea with these chargers is you take them out on safari with you  and let them charge all day, then they should be able to charge your laptop for a few hours and that is all you need. The other problem I have run into in the past is bringing the wrong adaptors in foriegn countries. Sometimes it is only a minor inconvenience until you get things sorted out, but bringing a solar charger would just be a nice back up just in case. For that matter, if you are really roughing it and absolutely have no access to any sort of power source, then these chargers might be essential to your sanity while on safari. When you think of it, charging is pretty essential. Three camera bodies, a laptop, picture viewer and an ipod or two, they all need charging and your trip is screwed if for some reason you can't keep these things charged.
That is all I can think of right now that I would and will do differently on the next trip. I am always looking for better photographic opportunities; thus better prints. Boring for most, but for me it is the ultimate pursuit.

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Miss Africa!!!

Well, we have been back from Africa for a week now and I am trying to figure out how soon and when we can get back again. Our blog from our Kenya/Tanzania trip is now done. I set it up so I would learn from my mistakes and repeat my successes from this trip. I tried to be as specific as possible listing what camera equipment I brought, which gear I used and more importantly, which gear I could have gone without.

Elephant taking a dust bath in
Tarangire National Park

I listed how we needed to dress to be comfortable and reviewed the hotels and tour companies that took care of us. I logged three days at Giraffe Manor, two days at Tarangire National Park, two days at Ngorongoro Crater, five days at Little Governors' Camp, along with a few travel days.

Now, after having been to Africa twice and having some really great experiences and some not so great experiences, we are planning on combining the great experiences from 2008 in South Africa with our best experiences in 2010 in Kenya and Tanzania to hopefully create our best trip to date...2012 South Africa and Kenya.

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog.