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Digital Safari Equipment Tips

By: Nathan Myhrvold

An African Safari is an incredible experience that, for many, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity both to experience incredible scenery and wildlife and to make some amazing photographs.

I have spent more than three months on safari in Africa over the last several years. I have also traveled to many other photo destinations, including Costa Rica, Panama, Seychelles, Patagonia, Galapagos, and the Falkland Islands. Through these experiences, I have learned much about what works and what doesn’t. As a photographer, your enjoyment and productivity depends a great deal on having the right equipment from the start, because once you are there, you are on your own. I have met photographers in Africa who came ill prepared. They were not happy about it.

This article presents my tips for African safaris, and to some extent for other types of expeditionary photography. The discussion inevitably mixes bits of opinion in with the facts. This isn’t an analytical laboratory review, but rather a guide based on my field experience. I have no financial ties or connections to any of the vendors mentioned here; I’m just a customer like anybody else. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes, and your opinions may be different.

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The Safari Day

Let’s begin with some logistical details about how safaris work. The basic structure of the day on safari is pretty similar in all parts of Africa. You wake up before sunrise: 4:45 to 5:30 AM, depending on the season and location. Usually coffee and a light breakfast are available. Before dawn, you set out in a safari vehicle for a game drive that typically lasts until 11:00 AM or Noon, at which point you return to camp. Lunch or brunch is then followed by time to rest during the heat of the day. Tea and snacks are available in the afternoon, usually from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Then you head off for the afternoon game drive that lasts at least until sunset, returning to camp by dark. After dinner, you go to bed. A typical day thus offers roughly eight hours of game drive and four hours in camp.

Some areas offer night drives that stay out until 8:00 PM or that leave after dinner. In other places, full day excursions (with a packed lunch) enable you to cover greater distances. Sometimes a boat trip or other excursion will substitute for a game drive in a wheeled vehicle. The safari guides will often stop the game drives to prepare tea or snacks, or to indulge in a sunset cocktail hour known as a sundowner.

On a game drive, you ride over incredibly dusty rutted roads, deep sand, mud, water or roadless savanna. The ride is often very bumpy. When you or your guide sees something interesting, you stop, pull out cameras and generally shoot from the vehicle. In many national parks, there are strict rules about not leaving the vehicle; the rules also generally prohibit off–road driving. The national parks can see a lot of vehicle traffic, and it can be difficult to compose around other visitors. At one stop recently in Ngorogoro Crater, I counted 26 vehicles surrounding one rhino. The scene was reminiscent of an old Western movie with Conestoga wagons circled against an attack, except that the poor animal was trapped in the middle.

Private game reserves generally impose similar rules, although they often allow more off-road driving, fewer vehicles, and fewer restrictions on leaving the vehicle. In Botswana, each camp typically has exclusive concession rights to anywhere from tens of thousands to 100,000 acres of land, and permits just half a dozen vehicles at a time to explore that range. The camps often have rules that no more than three vehicles can be together. It is obviously much nicer to have fewer vehicles, but Ngorogoro, Serengeti, and other national parks are still worth a visit, as they can present awesome photo opportunities.

Camp may be a lodge or hotel with hard walls, or it may be a “permanent tented camp” which is very similar to a lodge, except that the structures are tents. These are unlike any camping tent you have ever seen, however. Some are highly luxurious, others are rather Spartan, but all that I have stayed in are comfortable. They generally have wooden plank floors and ensuite bathrooms with running water. Mobile tented safaris are closer to camping in spirit, but still can have comfortable accommodations, with bucket showers and the like.

Most safari companies assign guests to vehicles, putting six to nine people in each Land Rover or Land Cruiser, and sometimes cramming even more inside minivans. Such high-occupancy vehicles clearly won’t work for serious photography. So two key elements for a successful serious photographic safari are to have your own vehicle and a good guide to drive it.

A single vehicle can comfortably carry a total of three photographers, and perhaps one additional non-photographer. Any more than this risks great frustration. The only non-photographer that I would ever share a vehicle with is somebody who is traveling with me and who is used to putting up with what a photographer wants to do.

Avoid at all costs getting stuck on a vehicle with random tourists. They can be fine people, but their priorities are not the same as yours. Tourists typically get up later and leave after dawn, and they get bored quickly when watching an animal. Often the best photos and most interesting behavior happen after waiting an hour or more. You just can’t do this with a bunch of people that are more interested in what the sundowner cocktails are going to be. What photographer wants to stop for drinks at all when the light is at its best?

The safari guide—somebody who is good at finding and identifying animals—is the single most important person to your success. There are many ways to connect with a guide; the companies that run safari camps are often helpful with referrals. How to book and arrange a safari is a subject unto itself that is beyond the scope of this article. But however you arrange the trip, insist well in advance on a very good guide who is experienced with the needs of photographers. Some guides know the animals, but have no clue about photography. Although that can work if you give the guide lots of direction, it is better to have a guide who already understands that photographers care about the viewing angle, where the light is coming from, and other considerations beyond just glimpsing the animals. It will cost more to have a private vehicle and your own guide, but it is money well spent.

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Vehicles and Camera Support

The single most important piece of gear for your African photo safari is the support for your camera and telephoto lenses while taking pictures. It sounds prosaic compared to choosing lenses and cameras, I know, but the fact is that without good camera support nothing else can work properly.

Normally you might use a tripod for supporting your camera, but in Africa almost all of the photos will be taken from inside a vehicle. The good news is that, being vehicle based, you can bring heavy equipment like a 600mm f/4 lens. The bad news is that you need a way to steady it while confined to a car.

In East Africa (principally Kenya and Tanzania) the solution is very low-tech: beanbags. Safari vehicles are typically either Toyota Land Cruisers or minivans. You shoot either by standing up—if the vehicles have a roof-top hatch—or by rolling down the windows and placing the beanbag on the sill of the car window. The roof hatch is the less restrictive of the two options.

Beanbags are so convenient for East African photography that they dominate every other approach. I know some photographers who mount a Wimberley tripod head on a car window adapter (such as the La Rue Groofwin pod or the Kirk Window Mount). This is almost never necessary, however, and even if it were, the Groofwin or Kirk mounts cannot usually be attached to the vehicle strongly enough to hold both a giant lens and Wimberley head. If you need smooth panning, the Walt Anderson panning plate lets you do it on a beanbag.

So if you’re going to East Africa, by all means use beanbags. I particularly like the Kinesis Safari Sack beanbags, because they have a quick release strap so you can attach them to the vehicle and leave them in place until you need them. There are fancier beanbags that are shaped to grip the camera, but these often don’t work as well in practice as a simple floppy bag you can position at will.

I strap three to six bean bags in place on various parts of the vehicle. If the vehicle carries three photographers, and each places four beanbags around, then everyone will have a station to turn to when the action occurs. The most weight-efficient way to carry beanbags is to bring them to Africa empty, then fill them with rice or beans obtained locally.

Beanbags are unfortunately not a universal solution, contrary to what you may have read in certain books or magazine articles. Although they work great in East Africa, beanbags are essentially useless in Southern Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The reason is that the vehicles there are radically different. Safaris in Southern Africa use open Land Rovers with no sides at all—often there isn’t even a windshield! So there is literally nothing to rest the beanbag on for nearly any camera angle. In Namibia, both open Land Rovers and closed vehicles are in common use.

A frequent variation in some Southern regions (particularly in certain seasons) is an open Land Rover with a canvas top. In many ways this vehicle offers the worst of both worlds. It doesn’t have the beanbag option of a closed vehicle with a hatch, but at the same time it has less visibility than an open vehicle because of the roof support poles.

At first blush, open vehicles may seem to be counterproductive for photo safaris; indeed, some photographers complain about them. I have shot in both, and find that there are tradeoffs in both directions. The East African approach is more convenient in some ways and has the great advantage that you have a roof over your head (and your equipment) should it rain. Rain is rare during the peak tourism months, but it has happened on my trips.

Open vehicles, on the other hand, have the advantage of unrestricted viewing in all directions, with the tradeoffs of problematic camera support and greater exposure to the rain, sun, and thorny branches that frequently enter the car during game drives.

So why do they use open vehicles? Safari guides wax rhapsodic about the wide open feeling of being at one with the landscape, and so forth. There is something to this, especially when a lion walks up to the car close enough to touch, or an elephant charges (both of which have happened to me). The open vehicle is much more exciting—but objectively speaking is not dangerous. It allows you to see well without standing up. Once you solve the camera support problem, open vehicles are better for visibility, and thus for photography.

Open vehicles typically have three rows of bench seats, each intended for three people. There is also a seat in the front for the driver. For non-photographers, the seat next to the driver is best—it has great visibility but offers very little room for equipment or camera support. In many South African game reserves, and a few places in Botswana, the seat beside the driver is reserved for a tracker (an expert at finding game), so it is unavailable for guests.

Three photographers at most should use one of the open vehicles, plus one non-photographer if the front seat is available. That arrangement allows each photographer one full row of seats, and thus the ability to switch quickly from one side to the other, with a bit of room (but not very much) for camera bags. Most of the closed safari vehicles can also accommodate at most three photographers. There may be minibus style vehicles where you could fit one more, but these tend to get crowed quickly.

Monopods or handholding works reasonably well for small to medium telephoto lenses (up to 400mm), particularly with IS or VR lenses. Be sure that your monopod can be made short enough that it can rest on the seat between your legs, or beside your leg, since that is a common shooting position. The Gitzo carbon fiber monopods work well, but a Manfrotto monopod was too long to use in seat-top mode.

Our monopods were set up with a Manfrotto 3232 tilt head, which was convenient for locking the monopod in a fixed orientation. The Really Right Stuff lever-style quick release was very fast for taking lenses on or off the monopod.

Big lenses, such as the 600mm f/4, need to have a much more sturdy support, as do smaller lenses for really critical shots. We developed the following method. We used large tripods for base support—in our case a Gitzo 1548, although any similar tripod would work. Onto each tripod we mounted a Gitzo leveling base, and on top of the leveling base we used either Wimberley heads or the Kirk King Cobra head.

We set up our tripods so that two legs extended to the floor of the vehicle, and rested against a metal bar at the back of the seat rows. The other leg was extended at an angle until it hit the middle seat. Nylon straps equipped with ratchet clamps (I like the Fat Strap available from Amazon.com) lashed the tripod to the bar. The result is an extremely solid shooting platform.

I use the middle seat for the tripod so that I can jump over and shoot in either direction. In practice, we tended to stay mostly on the right side (driver’s side in these countries), because the drivers are used to lining up game on the left.

The Gitzo leveling base should, in theory, allow us to level the Wimberley heads and pan perfectly. In practice, the Land Rover was often on uneven ground. The leveling base did not allow precisely accurate leveling, but it still helped. Mounting the Wimberley head atop a full heavy duty ball head (such as an Arca Swiss B1, B1-Giant, or Really Right Stuff ball head) would in principle allow much greater range of motion for leveling. But the increased height of such a setup could be problematic.

On one of my trips, a photographer with me used a Kirk King Cobra head, and complained frequently about its performance. We found it much easier to mount a lens to the Wimberley even while the vehicle was driving or rolling to a stop, because the quick release clamp is vertical and the weight of the lens helps you line it up. The side-mount King Cobra was much harder to line up in a moving, bumping vehicle. When our driver would spot game, the Wimberley shooters would invariably be mounted and shooting by the time the vehicle rolled to stop, whereas the King Cobra shooter would be struggling and cursing.

It is important to remember to remove the camera and lens from the tripod while the vehicle is moving quickly; otherwise they can literally get shaken apart. Bumps in the ride are sometimes bone jarring. So the trick in getting action shots is to be fast in drawing the lens and camera out and setting it up as soon as the vehicle rolls to a stop.

Franz Lanting has a somewhat different solution. Instead of a full tripod, he uses a custom bracket that clamps over the bar at the back of each seat, then has a single tripod leg that extends to the floor to keep the clamp from rotating on the bar. I tried a Manfrotto Super Clamp, but found that it slipped far too much on the round bar with any kind of real load, so the leg is really required.

I also bring a beanbag with me to Southern Africa—there are opportunities to use one occasionally. Several of the safari lodges have hides or blinds set up, and the beanbags are often the only practical camera support for them.

If you like to do landscapes, or stitched panoramas, then a small tripod for that purpose is also handy. However, in most African safari countries you will not be allowed out of the vehicle very much. Namibia is a bit of an exception, because it is much more of a destination for its landscapes than for its wildlife, analogous to the canyon country of the Southwestern United States.

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Camera and Lens Cases

The next most important topic after camera support is equally prosaic: the cases for carrying your camera bodies and big lenses. In general I like the Lowepro line of bags because they are tough, and because most models include rain covers built right in.

For Africa, however, I would consider only cases that can store a large lens—a 300mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4 with a body attached, and the lens hood in the extended position ready to shoot. Furthermore you must be able to close the case with the hood extended and the body on.

You’re going to want to quickly whip the camera and lens out, shoot a few frames, then return the assembly to the case. Reversing the lens hood is way too complicated and time consuming to do on the fly. African game tends not to stick around while you fumble with equipment. Keeping the hood on at all times keeps the front element clean and reduces lens flare. Being able to close the case even with the hood extended and body in place reduces dust, which can be a formidable problem, and also protects the camera body.

Cases intended for a 600mm lens will typically accommodate a shorter 300mm or 400mm lens plus a body. To house a 600mm lens with hood and body, however, the only commercial lens cases I have found that works is one made by Kinesis. You need to get their largest lens case (L621), and then order the special accessory deep lid (L128). The Kinesis case is not perfect but it works pretty well. For my next trip to Africa I may have a custom cases made.

Kinesis also has holster-style cases that can hold a lens like the Canon 100-400mm f/5.6 with body and lens hood extended.

I also carry a conventional camera bag which has a body with wide angle lens, batteries, flash units etc. The Kinesis S360 works very well for this. It has attachments on the end where the holster style case can be attached. The Lowepro Magnum AW is also good, but considerably smaller.

 

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Camera Bodies

The first and most important rule of thumb in choosing camera bodies for your safari is this: bring at least two (and three is better). An African trip is very expensive, and if your only camera conks out, your trip will be ruined, at least from a photographic perspective. If budget is a limitation, I think you’d be better off with two cheaper cameras than one expensive one.

I have never had a camera die totally on a trip (knock wood), but at the moment I am on safari with a couple of sick cameras that need various amounts of repair. Catastrophes can happen. At one point on my current trip, a camp staff member was careless while driving the Land Rover to refuel it. I had left my cameras in the vehicle during a quick lunch stop, thinking nothing could go wrong. My 600mm f/4 lens, with a Canon 1Ds Mark II body and 1.4X teleconverter attached, was in a closed Kinesis case. Unexpectedly, the case fell from the vehicle and hit the ground hard. The metal body of the teleconverter shattered in half. I feared for the lens and body, but they seem to be fine, and have taken thousands of shots since the accident.

Having two bodies gives you protection against accidents—and also a way to combat dust. It can be incredibly dusty in Africa, and you really don’t want to change lenses under those conditions. In my trips, each photographer has brought along two or three bodies. One is attached to a long lens (typically a 600mm f/4), and another to a medium long zoom lens (such as a 100-400 or an 80-400). The third body gets a wide angle lens for scenery and landscape shots. With that set up, you never need to change lenses in the middle of a game drive.

Despite the fact that my visits to Africa have usually been during winter, when conditions are extremely dusty, we have managed to get by with very few sensor cleaning sessions. And having two bodies allowed us to follow fast action without pausing for a lens swap.

I have owned every major brand of camera at one some point in the past twenty years, but these days I use Canon exclusively—on my latest trip I had three Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II bodies with me. Another photographer used 1Ds and 5D bodies, and the third used Nikon D2X and D2Xs bodies.

It was interesting to see how well the Nikon D2X stacked up to the Canons. Although I am a big fan of the full-frame sensor on 1Ds and 1Ds Mark II, the fact is that the 1.5X multiplier was a big advantage for the Nikon shooter among us, because most of the time we were shooting telephoto subjects. So, his 600mm f/4 became the equivalent of a 900mm f/4. His 80-400 VR f/4.5-5.6 zoom became an effective 120-600mm lens, which is ideal for most game drive scenarios.

Of course, if you are into shooting wide angle shots, this feature might become a disadvantage. However, the regions we visited offered few wide vistas, and when they did appear we had ample time to do a rare lens change to accommodate them.

The other big advantage of the Nikon D2X is its high-speed mode. The high-speed crop feature allowed the Nikon shooter to get shots that the two of us shooting on Canons simply could not get. I could chortle that my 1Ds Mark II 16 Mpixel shots could make bigger prints than the 8 Mpixel high-speed Nikon shots, but you can’t make any print from pictures that you don’t have.

In truth, high-speed mode is misleadingly named. Yes, the high speed is nice, but the mode’s real advantage is its large buffer size. The three to four frames per second capability of the Canon 1Ds and 1Ds Mark II was more than adequate, and we Canon shooters did not really covet the Nikon’s speed. However, once the Canons’ small buffers (10 shots for 1Ds in raw mode, a bit more for 1Ds Mark II) are full, they crawl along at a truly pathetic speed. It is frustrating watching fantastic action play out while your camera flashes BUSY just as you want to press the shutter. The Nikon high-speed-mode photos are smaller, so more of them fit in the buffer.

In fact, the most frequent cause of buffer frustration is not high-speed shooting. Instead, it comes when you get interesting action over an extended period of time. For example, we recently watched lions feed on a buffalo carcass. The action was not all that fast, but it was continuous. So we took one frame every second or so as the lions interacted with each other (they do not have very polite table manners). Frame rate was not a problem, but after a few minutes of this the buffer would get full.

I generally use RAW + Small JPEG mode, so that I can review the JPEG files very easily. Indeed, for this purpose I wish that the camera had a “very small JPEG” mode that was perhaps 1200 x 800, a size optimized for review on a laptop or attachment to email. The “small” mode is about four times too large for either of these purposes. But to work around the buffer-size limitation, I generally turn off JPEG creation altogether.

I had hoped that the new Canon 1D Mark III would arrive before my trip, but the inevitable production delays meant that I had to leave without it. It seems ideal for African safari shots because it has a 40-shot buffer, as well as 10 frames per second speed, not to mention a number of other interesting features. It would be the ultimate safari camera body for action work—and it will accompany me on my next safari or expedition, hopefully along with the (not yet announced) 1Ds Mark III.

I should emphasize that the high frame rate was only rarely an advantage—perhaps once every day or two. However, when you are photographing leopards mating, or lions hunting cape buffalo or some other rare and fast-moving behavior, it would be very nice to shoot both fast and with a big buffer.

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Lenses

Two lenses are used most frequently used on African safaris: long and longer. Telephoto lenses let you isolate wildlife and elements of landscape from the safety of the safari vehicle. I have read comments by photographers who say that they don’t really “need” anything longer than 400mm. My experience differs, to put it mildly.

You can sometimes be close enough to nearly any animal to touch it. And yet there is inevitably an interesting shot that requires a lens just a bit longer than what you have (no matter how long). For every time where there is an elephant touching your car, or a lion lying in the shade of your vehicle, there are ten to a hundred times when the animal is doing something very interesting but much farther away. You typically cannot get closer because you must stay in the vehicle. In the case of dangerous game animals, of course, you want it that way. And the animals that you are not afraid of are afraid of you (when out of the vehicle), so they won’t tolerate close a approach anyway. Moreover, you often need to frame tightly to avoid including other safari vehicles in the shot.

Even landscapes in Africa tend to call for a wider focal length than you would normally use. As an example, the great red sand dunes at Sossusvlei in Namibia are best shot between 200mm and 600mm to isolate elements of the dunes. I typically bring a zoom such as a 16-35mm, and will use it sometimes, but much less often than I would for landscapes in other contexts.

The mainstay lens for my safari photography is a Canon 600mm f/4 with image stabilization. Occasionally I will use a 1.4X teleconverter to take this to 840mm. If a longer lens were available with image stabilization, I would buy it in a second. The Nikon shooter who has accompanied me also used a 600mm f/4, which has the full-frame equivalent of 900mm—and even that was not enough.

For many years, Canon enjoyed a technological edge over Nikon because it had image stabilization in its long lenses. Image stabilization (IS) is very important because safari shooting is not about shooting from a rock-stable tripod with the mirror locked up, the way people say you’re supposed to do it. Instead your camera is resting on a beanbag or a Wimberley. The action is fast, so you’re fumbling with the Wimberley controls, and trying to frame the animal. Meanwhile somebody else in the car is moving around trying to get his or her shot to line up, which makes the whole vehicle rock…. Sometimes I find myself handholding, even with a 600mm lens. And of course the animals themselves are moving. Despite these problems, a lens with IS can deliver sharp photos—it is equivalent to a critical two to four stops’ worth of extra shutter speed. Without IS, you can sometimes achieve the same thing, but less often and less well.

More recently Nikon has caught up to Canon with VR, its own version of image stabilization. In addition, Nikon has the superb 200-400mm f/4 lens, which surpasses anything Canon currently offers. The 100-400mm f/4.6-5.6 IS lens is as close as it comes, but it is far from ideal—it is one stop slower, and is not as good optically. The 200-400mm focal length range is ideal for safaris, and gives Nikon a big advantage.

Zoom lenses are particularly good for safari use because you have much less opportunity to compose pictures by changing the camera position. You can ask the guide/driver to move the vehicle, but that is limited by terrain and a pretty crude way to frame a picture. Cropping is always an option, but wastes precious pixels. A zoom lens in the right range lets you control composition by changing focal length dynamically.

Lens speed is also an issue. Digital SLR cameras have excellent noise properties at ISO 200, and are still quite good at ISO equivalents as high as 1600. In many types of photography that has taken some of the pressure off having fast lenses—as Michael Reichmann has observed in previous articles. However, this tends not to apply to safari photography. Most safaris start before sunrise, and end after sundown. Low light corresponds to the peak time periods for animal behavior. As a result, there will always be shots that you miss because there isn’t enough light, no matter how fast the lens or how high the ISO. The faster the lens, the fewer the shots you miss. It’s that simple.

I am writing this while on safari, and this morning we came across a cape buffalo that had been killed by a pair of young nomadic lions. They were engaged in a loud and raucous battle for the carcass with a clan of 38 hyena. The action was fast and furious. It was before sunrise at 6:00 AM, and I began shooting at a setting of ISO 1600, using the 600mm f/4 wide open at 1/20 of a second—which was too slow for the photos to work, but I’m an optimist. Every stop of light is important at that limit. At last by 8:15 AM the sun had risen high enough to filter through the woodlands and hit the scene, but by then the action was gone. The lions were sleeping under some bushes, and the hyena had dispersed.

You won’t be able to get every situation, but each f-stop you gain—via image stabilization, or fast lens, or better noise suppression in the camera (or via software later) helps you get shots that you would not otherwise be able to take.

The ideal long lens for safari, in my opinion, would be a 300-600mm f/4 zoom or a 400- 800mm with IS. Unfortunately, nobody makes one for Canon cameras. The Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR effectively matches the capabilities of this ideal lens once you include the 1.5X factor for the D2X sensor. So if you shoot Nikon, it is as close to ideal as you’re going to find. However, I would still recommend using a 600mm f/4 or an 800mm f/5.6, if you can because there will be tight and distant shots that you want to reach.

The Nikon 80-400 f/5.6 VR (the equivalent of a 120–600mm with the 1.5X factor) is also an option. It is a bit slower and not as sharp as the 200-400mm.

Canon lacks any super telephoto zoom lenses like this—either for their full frame cameras or for the 1.3X sensor factor of the 1D Mark III. Sigma comes close with the 300-800mm f/5.6 lens, which is available with a Canon-compatible lens mount. Unfortunately, the Sigma lacks image stabilization. Sigma also has a 120-300mm f/2.8, and at the last PMA show announced a 200-500mm f/2.8. Unfortunately, these lenses all lack image stabilization, so some of the speed that you gain with the large aperture you wind up giving back by requiring a faster shutter speed. The lack of stabilization is puzzling, because Sigma makes an 80-400mm f/5.6 lens that is stabilized, so they clearly have the technology in house.

Super telephotos have been a sleepy backwater niche of the market for many years, with most of the lenses being fixed in focal length. The only technology innovation of note in the last 20 years was image stabilization. It is high time that this area become competitive again, and Sigma is taking some great steps.

The 2008 Summer Olympics will occur in August of next year. The Olympics have traditionally been a launching point for super telephoto lenses aimed at sports photographers (or rather, aimed at athletes by sports photographers). I am hopeful that Canon will rise to the challenge that both Nikon and Sigma have made and will release some new super telephoto zoom lenses. Maybe Sigma can stabilize their lenses by then.

In addition to a very long lens, you need to have something in the 100mm to 400mm range. Here Canon has only the 100-400 f/5.6 to offer. Nikon makes a 70-200mm f/2.8, which becomes a 105-300mm after the 1.5X sensor factor. The Canon 70-200mm is also a nice lens to have along, but it is too short for most photos. If Canon would produce a 200-400mm f/4 like the Nikon lens, then the 70-200mm would be a good choice to have on a third body.

With a 600mm on one camera body on and a 100-400mm on the other body, you’re set for the bulk of wildlife photography. It is nice to have a 70-200mm, and a wide angle (such as the Canon 24-105mm f/4) on a third (or fourth) body. Alternatively, you can carry the lenses and change en route, doing your best to avoid the dust.

Finally, I always bring a macro lens to Africa. I always use it, although frankly not very much. During game drives you cannot leave the vehicle. Back in camp there is too much to do (downloading images, looking at images, cleaning cameras, charging batteries) to hunt for macro shots. Nevertheless, a macro lens comes in very handy for some things, and a dedicated macro shooter would probably use it more than I do. I recommend either the 180mm f/3.5 Canon or the 200mm f/4 Nikon. Many of the interesting macro subjects in Africa need a lot of working distance, because here too either you are afraid of the subject, or the subject is afraid of you.

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Downloading and Storing Photos

After camera support, the biggest issue is how to download and store the photos you take. Africa is an opportunity to shoot a lot of frames. Just this morning I took 16 gigabytes’ worth of shots—mostly on two cameras. This afternoon may be as fruitful, or may be as slow as yesterday afternoon, when I shot “only” 4 gigabytes (GB). The trouble is that 20GB per day translates to 140GB per week, which is a lot of data.

Some photographers I have talked to will say: “I download every day and just delete the bad shots.” That may work if you only have a few photos, but shooting hard with several bodies generates a lot to look at. There just isn’t time in the safari day to do this. Sure, you can review your photos, but in order to review them closely enough to permanently delete enough photos to free up significant space, you need a lot of time. I do, anyway.

Another thing to consider is that portable hard drives now cost less than 50 cents per gigabyte. With modern RAW files, you must delete 60 to 70 photos to save a gigabyte. Unless you’re take lots of really bad photos, you need to consider several frames before you hit delete. If you spend one second per photo (for both viewing and bringing the photo up at sufficient resolution to judge it), then you can process 3,600 photos per hour. If you delete half of these, then you’ve just saved about $13.50 worth of hard disk space. Congratulations—you just took time from your very expensive trip to moonlight with a close to minimum wage job.

In my view, the only practical way to store this volume of data is on portable hard drives. There are some people who like to burn DVD-ROM disks, but there are several problems with this approach. First, DVDs don’t store very much—only 4GB each. Second, they are slow to burn. It would take many hours, and would require some attention in between to change disks and so forth. Third, they are fragile. It is much easier to break or scratch a DVD then it is to break a hard drive. Fourth, I believe strongly that I need to have an extra copy of my photos. One set of DVDs could easily be lost, stolen, or broken. So if I used DVD, I would need to make two copies. That would mean burning 10 DVDs just to store my shooting today.

Hard disks, on the other hand are big, cheap, fast, and quite robust. My current set up triplicates the data onto three hard drives, which are then packed and carried in separate bags. One of the drives goes in a small briefcase with a laptop and never leaves my side.

I usually travel with two other photographers, and we have forged a downloading pact. All of our data is pooled onto three hard drives, which we each carry separately. Each of the triplicated copies has one of us looking after it.

This pooling has several advantages. Since hard disks have large capacity (I am using 750GB Seagate drives on this trip), there is plenty of extra space for the other guys’ photos. If we each bought three disks for ourselves, that would mean lugging six hard disks and 3 laptops. Instead we carry only two laptops between the three of us (one primary and a back-up). We carry three disks rather than six. A scheme like this, of course, requires a couple of traveling companions that you trust.

The secret weapon that makes this strategy work is Downloader Pro 2.0 (DP2). If I could give a prize for the single most useful piece of software for digital photography it would not be Photoshop CS3 or DXO (both of which I use), but instead would be humble DP2, which automates the downloading process.

There are many software packages that will download photos, including Adobe Bridge (included with Photoshop) and Adobe Lightroom. However, these are optimized for somebody downloading a single card, usually while sitting in front of the computer. Safari shooting requires downloading many gigabytes unattended, so that you can complete the task while you eat or sleep.

Multiple copies of DP2 can be open at once. This useful feature means that you can set up multiple card readers—right now I am using seven USB card readers connected by a USB 2.0 hub to a single Dell laptop. DP2 creates separate directories for each camera body, so we can’t confuse our photos. We label the CompactFlash (CF) cards so that we can sort them out afterwards, but we don’t need to worry about where the images go on the disk—DP2 handles that.

DP2 also automates the triplication. In addition to the USB hub, I also use a four-way Firewire hub to connect three portable Seagate hard drives. I can stick seven CF cards into the machine and let it rip—it performs all of the downloads and makes copies on each disk in one fully automated process. At the moment, DP2 is executing a three-hour download, all by itself.

It is faster to run multiple downloads and backups simultaneously than it is to do them one at a time—at least up to the limit of 4 cards or so. A fast laptop can multitask efficiently, doing some of the work in what would otherwise be idle time in a single card download. By the time you load the computer with seven cards and three hard disks, that efficiency maxes out, and the process slows down a bit. It still is still faster than a serial download, however. And because it runs unattended, it frees you to shower, dine, or snooze.

If I were traveling alone, I would use a similar process, but with only three or four card readers. I would still triplicate the disk. It’s cheap insurance; a 750GB hard disk costs about $250. Given the cost of an African safari, the extra expense for a third hard disk is not worth worrying about. I have been using duplicated or triplicated hard drives on my photo trips for the last five years. So far I have never lost a single disk. But Murphy’s Law is bound to catch up with me someday, and when it does I’ll be prepared.

Triplication offers a hedge not only against misfortune, but also against good fortune—that is, unexpectedly fruitful shooting opportunities. On several trips I have taken more photos than I had expected. By shifting from triplicating to duplicating, I freed up enough extra space to store all my shots without losing a full backup.

I use very high capacity CF cards—16GB cards in each of my three bodies on this trip. I rarely fill one of these cards in a day’s shooting. Of course I carry spares in case 16GB is not enough for some reason, but so far I haven’t needed them. Having large cards also helps enable unattended downloads. My two colleagues are using 8 to 12GB cards. Thus one set of seven cards can contain almost an entire day’s download in one set-and-forget session. Ideally we would have 9 card readers, because each of us shoots with three bodies. However, in practice that is not really necessary, because inevitably one of the three bodies (usually the wide angle one) sees little action.

Some people use small capacity CF cards because they fear losing one to a mishap. “No way am I going to risk 800 photos on one card,” a friend of mine says. Well, to each his own, but it is important to compare the risk of losing the entire card to the risk of losing crucial shots when the camera says “card full,” and you must fumble to change it. That particular show-stopper has afflicted me many times in the past (particularly when using 1 to 4GB cards). On the other hand, I have never experienced the loss or damage of card.

The odds of such a misfortune are reduced when using large cards, because mishaps are most likely to occur during handling of the cards. Using 16GB cards on this trip, I have never had to open the camera in the field. I change cards or download only when I get back to my room.

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GPS & Geo-tagging

Another feature of DP2 that has captured my fancy is its ability to automatically tag downloaded photos with the precise latitude and longitude of your position at the time you shot each frame. To do this, you need a cheap GPS logger, such as the Sony GPS-CS1. It costs about $100 and runs all day on a single AA battery.

Before downloading cards, you download a log file from the GPS device that lists its exact time and location every 15 seconds. DP2 compares the timestamps on your photos to the log to figure out where each photo was taken. (Obviously your camera’s clock must be set properly for this to work.) For RAW files, DPS creates a sidecar XMP file with the coordinates. In the case of JPEG files, the software inserts the coordinates into the images’ EXIF data. At the same time DP2 also makes a track log that is compatible with Google Earth.

I find this endlessly cool. I suppose that a pragmatist could argue that I don’t really need to know where each photo was taken. That may be true, but given the low cost and ease of use, it definitely seems worth it if only for the gee-whiz aspect.

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Computer Cases

Pack your hard drives and laptop very securely. Conventional laptop briefcases work reasonably well, and have the advantage that you can carry them with you anywhere.

On my current Africa trip, however, I decided to upgrade the protection to a watertight Pelican 1550 hard case. This holds my laptop, up to two hard drives, and associated USB and Firewire hubs, cables, and power supplies. A smaller Pelican 1450 case can hold two drives and their cables. Pelican cases are heavy and cumbersome, but they do provide superior protection.

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Power & Charging Batteries

African safari camps have a number of different power arrangements. The typical mains power in Africa is 50Hz and “240” volts (V). I put quotes around the 240 because the power typically comes from a jury-rigged generator and battery system. Both the frequency and voltage can vary quite a bit—say from 200V to 250V. The current is frequently interrupted by short glitches, particularly when the camp switches from generator to battery reserve in the evening.

Several different kinds of socket are used; I try to bring adapters for each of them. The most common in Africa are the two-pin European socket, the three-pin British socket, and the three-pin South African socket. I travel with a couple adapters for each type.

Bring a power strip, because you will typically find just one socket in the room. I use international power strips with universal sockets that take nearly any kind of plug. Do not bring a North American power strip—its fuse will blow because it is designed for no more than 125V power.

Nearly all battery chargers and power supplies for computers and cameras these days automatically switch and work between 100V and 250V, so the vast majority of your battery chargers, laptop power bricks, and hard drive power supplies will work fine. You can just plug them into the power strip.

However, be sure to check this by reading the fine print label on the power supply. I brought two D-Link seven-way USB hubs. The product literature I read online said that they had universal voltage power supplies. When I plugged one in at my first camp in Africa, there was a loud pop, and smoke poured from the unit. Product info notwithstanding, it turns out that the fine print on the actual “wall wart” power supply for the USB hub said that it was only good for 110V power. So I blew it up by plugging it in. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a voltage converter to transform mains power to 110V in order to use the second one.

In general I recommend avoiding converters—it is better to simply use chargers and equipment that accept all voltages. I’m sure I could have replaced the D-link wall wart power supply with another one, had I only known about its limitation. Universal DC power supplies that output different voltages are available from RadioShack, Targu, IGo and other makers.

Some safari camps have power 24 hours a day to your room, but many provide power only in one central location, and even then for a limited period. A power strip is even more imperative in such situations, because everybody will need it.

Pig-tail leads are also useful (I like the Y- leads that let you use more devices), because many chargers and wall warts won’t fit on a closely spaced power strip without them. Because the power needs of most electronics are quite modest—often draw as little as 2 watts—there is little risk of overloading a circuit. The trick is to get all of the gadgets plugged in somewhere.

One addition I will make for my next trip is a small uninterruptable power supply (UPS), to smooth out glitches in the power system that can affect the portable hard drives. Laptops are largely immune to glitches because they can run off of their batteries. A hard drive doesn’t have this luxury. A small 240V UPS would relieve some minor anxiety that a glitch will bring down my disks. That has happened twice so far on this trip. Fortunately the CHKDSK utility was able to repair the file corruption, but a small UPS would have prevented it in the first place.

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Flash

I use flash surprisingly frequently on safari, both fill flash during harsh lighting conditions and full flash for night shots. Nikon and Canon flash units work very well, in general.

I use the “Better Beamer” telephoto flash extenders, but hate them, to be honest. They are flimsy and tend to fall apart in a stiff wind, or whenever I really need to use them. They also droop and misalign themselves, sending the light from your flash into the twilight zone. On top of these flaws, they demand extra care for fill flash use. If you point the outfit up in the sky inadvertently, the sun will be focused by the Fresnel lens and can burn a hole in something. Many of my flash units have melted spots on them as a result. So does the back of my left hand!

Nevertheless, there does not seem to be anything better on the market at the moment, so I use Better Beamers to get the reach that is often necessary. You’ll need both a flash bracket and a remote flash cable to use the extenders with a large telephoto lens. Although I love Really Right Stuff equipment and use it whenever I can, the Wimberley telephoto flash bracket is far smaller and easier to pack.

I use the Canon macro flash unit for macro photography. Frankly it is hard to justify the cost and weight of this unit for the few shots I take with it, but I bring it anyway.

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Tools and Cleaning

It is imperative that your travel tool kit include a jeweler’s or camera repair man’s screwdriver. The constant rattling in the safari vehicles can cause the screws to work loose on the bayonet mount that holds the lens to the camera. This happened to me several times on a variety of Nikon and Canon lenses. It could ruin your trip not to have such a tool along! Husky makes a very nice screwdriver (I bought one at Home Depot) that stores multiple bits in the handle.

I also take Allen wrenches that fit the Really Right Stuff quick release mounts and the wrench that Gitzo supplies with their tripods. These things also have a way of working loose.

A good general camera cleaning kit is a must to deal with the tons of dust your gear will be exposed to. Pack a lens brush, a microfiber cloth, and plenty of lens cleaning fluid (I use ROR). I also take the full Arctic Butterfly sensor cleaning kit for the digital sensor. So far I have never had to use the wipes and solvent—the basic (motorized) brush works well by itself. Nevertheless I bring the full kit.

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Overall List

The information above is summarized in the following list. It does not include everything you need for the trip, just the photographic equipment that I find is most significant and important.

Quantity

Item

Nikon model

Canon model

2

Camera bodies

D2Xs…

1Ds Mark II, 1D Mark III, 5D….

4

Camera batteries

To match body

To match body

2

Camera battery chargers

To match body

To match body

1

Super telephoto lens

600mm f/4 VR

200-400mm f/4 VR

80-400mm f/5.6 VR

600mm f/4 IS

1

Medium/long telephoto zoom lens

70-200mm f/2.8 VR

100-400mm f/4 IS

1

Medium to wide zoom lens

24-120mm f/3.5 VR

24-105mm f/4 IS

24-70mm f/2.8

28-135mm f/3.5 IS

1 (opt)

Medium telephoto zoom lens

 

70-200mm f/2.8 IS

1
(optional)

Very wide angle lens

12-24mm f/4

Other…

16-35mm f/2.8

Other…

1
(optional)

Macro lens

200mm f/4

180mm f/3.5

1

1.4X teleconverter

TC-14e

 

2

Flash units

 

580EX

1

Auxiliary flash battery pack

   

2

Remote flash cable

   

1

Macro flash units

   

 

Quantity

Item

Recommended Make or Model

Many

UV filters (for each lens)

Hoya super multi-coated

1

Sensor cleaning kit

Arctic Butterfly

1

Jeweler’s screwdriver

Husky or other—make sure it fits the mount screws on your lenses

Many

Quick release plates

Really Right Stuff

1*

Large tripod

Gitzo 1548 or similar

1*

Leveling base

Gitzo

1*

Tripod head

Wimberley

1*

Ratchet strap

Fat Strap

1

Long lens case

Kinesis

1

Holster case for long zoom

Kinesis

1

General Camera/ Lens Cleaning kit

 

1

International (240V) universal power strip

 

2

South African power plug adapters

 

2

European power plug adapters

 

2

British power plug adapters

 

3

Portable hard drives

Seagate 750GB or similar

2

4-way Firewire hub + cables

 

2

7-way USB 2.0 hub

 

3

Pig tails for power strip

 

2

AA battery chargers

Sony

La Crosse

Many

AA NiMH batteries

Sanyo/GE 2700 mAH

1

Camera bag

Kinesis

Lowepro Magnum AW

1
(optional)

Small tripod

Gitzo 1228 or similar with RRS panoramic head

1

Telephoto flash bracket

Wimberley

1

Telephoto flash extender

Better Beamer

1* to 4

Beanbag

Kinesis or other

*Items/quantities appropriate for Southern Africa

Photographs and text © Copyright 2007 Nathan Myhrvold. All Rights Reserved.

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Nathan Myhrvold is co-founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, WA, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, and a prize-winning landscape and wildlife photographer. His photography has been published in America 24/7 and in Washington 24/7.


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