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On Safari in South West Africa

What Worked, and What Didn't


Angola Sky. Namibia – April, 2006
Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 100

What equipment to bring on a remote shoot is a topic of endless fascination and discussion among photographers. Pros with assistants can afford to bring cases of gear and choose the best possible tool for each particular shot. This is not the case for most everyone else, and so if one has several systems, and a large collection of lenses, the question of which ones to bring on a trip can produce some difficult choices. This is especially true when international travel is involved, and compounded when travel in small planes in remote regions is added to the equation.

A trip to Namibia and South Africa in late April, 2006 presented some unique challenges. I wanted to shoot medium format digital in two particular locations – one architectural and one landscape. I also needed 35mm format with long lenses for wildlife work as well as hand-held cultural photography. Because we would be flying a number of times between locations in small aircraft within Namibia (4 seat to 14 seat planes), and on also on nine separate international and domestic commercial flights within a three week period, packing lightly was imperative. No hard cases, for clothes or equipment, because they simply won't fit in the tight luggage holds of small aircraft. Airlines can also be fussy about both the size and weight of carry-on, though they can also be very inconsistent in the application of their rules.

I ended up with two checked duffle bags and three carry-on's. The duffels contained my clothes as well as tripod, batteries, charges, adaptors, walkie talkies, sat phone, and the like. I have a rolling briefcase which held my laptop as well as 4 portable hard drives, and of course the usual paraphernalia of travel – tickets, passport, wallet, magazines, and a Panasonic LX-1, which is my current point-and-shoot of choice.

The second carry-on was a Lowepro Mini-Trecker backpack. This contained a Canon 1Ds MKII, along with a Canon 5D and three Canon zoom lenses; the 24-105mm f/4L IS, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, 100-400 f/5.6L IS and a 1.4X Extender. In a Lowepro Slingbag I had a Hasselblad H2, 50-110mm zoom, and Phase One P45 39 Megapixel back. (Reviews in development.)

You're probably wondering how I managed to fly commercially with three carry-on bags. The answer is that my wife accompanied me on this trip, and claimed one of these bags as hers. Otherwise, I would have had to either check some of the camera gear (which I am loath to do), or carried less.

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Why?

Why the Canon gear as well as medium format? Simple. This was primarily a landscape shoot, with the Hasselblad and the P45 as new additions to my kit. I was eager to try them out in Namibia, both at Kolmanskop and also at Sossusvlie. My original intention had been to shoot with the Linhof 679 system and P45 back, but the extra weight and bulk would have meant being unable to also bring a 35mm system and long lenses, which I definitely would have needed for wildlife. So, in the end I gave priority to 35mm, and brought along the most compact medium format system that I owned, the H2 with P45.

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What Else?

In addition to the Canon and Hasselblad gear, and their lenses, there was the usual clutter of accessories. These included flash (a Metz 54 MZ-4) which allowed me to use one flash unit on both camera systems, flash soft box, flash projector, light meter, polarizing filters for all lenses, as well as UV filters for sand protection, lens and sensor cleaning equipment (Arctic Butterfly), extra batteries, battery chargers, and power inverters for charging batteries in the Land Rovers. This was an occasional necessary, because all of the camps used generators for electricity, and some of them had no AC outlets in the rooms, or ran power only at certain times of day.

A 12" Powerbook has been my travel laptop of choice for the past couple of years. I also have four Firewire-connected portable hard drives, a mixture of Lacies, Smartdisk Firelight, G-Teck, and Epson P2000. Between them this give me about 300GB of storage, which is up to 150GB of files along with a complete backup. Since I shot 80 Gigabytes on this trip it left me with a comfortable safety margin. My habit on these shoots is to copy cards to one drive each evening when I got back to the room at our camps, then after dinner copy the day's directory of files to a second hard drive. Only then do I erase that day's cards. These drives are then carried separately, one in my briefcase, along with my computer, and the other in my camera bag. This way I have protection against loss, theft, or a hard disk crash prior to getting back home.

When I return I make a copy of the entire shoot to my desktop working hard drive, and then again to my backup Raid 5 network drive. Only once I have these two new copies of all files do I erase the portable drives for reuse on my next trip.

As for cards, I brought along seven; four 2GB Extreme IIIs, along with two 4GB Microdrives as back ups. I used an 8GB Extreme II in the P45. Since I never shot more than four GB in a single day on this trip, the backup Microdrives went unused.

UPDATE

They say that Murphy was an optimist. When I got home I found that one of the directories on my primary travel drive was empty. The directory was there, but no files were in it. Fortunately they were on my backup drive. Thank goodness. For all my care and attention to file handling somehow I had lost about 4GB of files – a full day's shoot. I have no idea how this happened, but it did. Moral – make backups, and make them early and often.

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Long Shadows. Namibia, April 2006
Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISOm 100

Dust

I had fully expected dust to be a serious issue on this expedition. Sensor dust as well as grit getting into everything. Surprisingly, sensor dust, for me at least, was almost a non issue. I only cleaned the 1ds MKII and 5D sensors once, about midway through the trip. More out of obligation that necessity. Considering that we were in a very dry climate, in the middle of one of the world's largest deserts, and driving around all day in open Land Rovers, this was a real, though very pleasant surprise.

I also has no serious issue with sand and grit getting in my gear. Andy Biggs had the opposite experience, having to send three of his lenses in for servicing after the trip for cleaning.

Everyone had been advised to bring large clear garbage bags to protect their equipment in case of blowing sand. We only had one bad evening when we were in a dunes area and the wind was up, so at our last location we made a very large donation of clear trash bags to our camp staff, rather than drag them home unused. (The weight to cost ratio of lawn trash bags is pretty low).

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Yellow Door. Kolmanskop, Namibia. April, 2006
Hasselblad H2 with 50-110mm lens with Phase One P45 @ 50

Casualties

I had two pieces of equipment fail on this trip, one of them serious. The minor problem was with my Canon 1Ds MKII. About half-way through the three week trip the vertical shutter release started to act wonky. It didn't fail completely, but it would refuse to fire on occasion, or would fire only when the button was released rather than first pressed. This is the first failure I've had with a 1 Series Canon (film or digital) in some eight years of use. I continued to use the camera, simply using the horizontal release for all shots, so this problem was only a minor inconvenience.

The second failure was more serious, and was a huge disappointment. On the second shooting day of the trip, just after my shoot at the Kolmanskop ghost town outside of Luderitz in Namibia, the Hasselblad 50-110mm lens fell apart. Literally, with the front element assembly falling out, fortunately into my hand rather than onto the ground.

The lens was brand new and had just had some brief testing back home prior to the trip. I shot with it for about 3 hours at Kolmanskop the day before, and then the following day started working with it again. I noticed that it was having trouble autofocusing to infinity. I turned the lens to manually focus and it started to feel rough, making a scraping sound. When I got back to the Land Rover after about a one hour hike (unable to do any shooting), I was standing around showing a couple of the trip members what the problem was, when I tipped the camera forward and the front element assembly separated from the lens body.

This was really bad news because it was the only lens for the H2 / P45 system that I had with me, and so I was forced to do the rest of my three week shoot with the Canon 1Ds MKII and 5D. This obviously was no hardship, as I was able to produce some very high quality results with this gear, but to have the expensive and high-end gear that I had brought half way round the world become so much ballast after just two days of use was a huge disappointment. (It also points out the need for backup gear on any shoot). As the saying goes, Murphy was an optimist, or, more colloquially, – shit happens.

By this point we were in quite a remote location. But I had my satellite phone with me, and I called the dealer from whom I bought the lens, Harrysproshop. I had bought the Hasselblad H2 body from Vistek in Toronto, but they were unable to find a 50-110mm lens for me, and so I had gone to Harrysproshop, with whom I had always had excellent dealings in the past.

Brian, the proprietor of Harrysproshop, was very proactive after my call, and much to their credit, so was Hasselblad. When I phoned Brian back 24 hours later I was offered a new lens as replacement, and Hasselblad was ready to ship it immediately to me in Namibia. This wouldn't have worked out, since there would be no way to get the lens to me at some of the remote locations we were working. Also, we were changing locations every couple of days. I could have had it sent to Cape Town for use during the last week of the trip in South Africa, but then it would have meant dealing with South African customs and then again Canadian customs when I returned home. I consequently asked that the new replacement lens be sent to my home upon my return at the end of the month.

The net of this is that I only got to use the Phase One P45 back in one of the two locations where I had planned to use it, Kolmanskop The second location, Sousesvlie, and in particular Deadvlie, had to be shot with the 1Ds MKII. Bummer!

UPDATE

When I returned home from the trip I started to make some enquiries as to whether or not this lens failure was a unique occurrence or not. The answer is – NOT. My first call was to a friend who is an executive in the photographic industry. We chatted about my trip for a few minutes and then I mentioned that I'd had a Hasselblad lens failure. He immediately stopped me, and asked – Was it the 50-110mm zoom? Needless to say I was surprised at the prescience of the question, and when I asked him how he knew he said that he'd heard from at least four other photographers that the exact same thing had happened to their 50-110mm lenses. Lose front element, scraping sounds, front lens assembly falls out.

I knew one of the people he'd been referring to, who in fact happens to be a Hasselblad dealer in the US. I called him and he said that this had happened to him as well a while ago. He'd been walking across a parking lot with an H1 and 50-110mm lens hanging over his shoulder. He was on his way to do a demo of the gear at a client's studio. Crash. The front element fell onto the pavement. Long story short, Hasselblad US claimed they'd never heard of this problem before, told the dealer that he must have dropped the lens, and refused warranty repair, which cost him something like $1,500. (The fact that the only impact damage was to the inside of the front lens assembly remains something that a simple accident can't explain. Lenses don't fall to the ground inside out, now do they?)

After hearing this I started doing a bit more research and have found other online mention of front elements falling out of this lens. I did speak to several other people, including a large Canadian dealer. Most told me that they'd never heard of this issue, though a few had. Most owners of this lens have had no such problem, and in fact it is a very highly regarded lens. But, clearly, there are some people who are experiencing this issue, and it's more than a few.

Is this a design flaw or a faulty batch? Maybe it has something to do with airplane vibration. Maybe it has to do with the tight fit of the spring-loaded lens shade, which can be difficult to get on and off in the reversed position, and which could be putting torque on the front element assembly.

We may never know, because Hasselblad has been stonewalling on the issue. Of the people I spoke to some had their lenses repaired or replaced with varying degrees of reluctance by Hasselblad. Some had been refused warranty repair. I'd had a very prompt and totally appropriate response, but one has to wonder if it's because of my profile, and whether things would have been the same if I was just another anonymous customer.

My take on this is as follows. This lens has a real problem. Not all copies of the lens have this problem. Some have been in daily use for years and have provided nothing but yeoman service. Others have failed within the first few days of use. Hasselblad treated me very well with regard to replacement, but there are first-hand reports of others who were treated less well. According to my dealer friend in the US there has been no service bulletin issued by Hasselblad to dealers on this issue – ever, and I was told by Hasselblad that they have no data to show that this is a common problem.

A Request

There is of course the possibility that I'm wrong. It has been known to happen. It could be that the failure of my lens was a unique event. It could be that the other people whom I've heard from who claim to have had similar problems are lying, or that they dropped their lenses and are trying to get repair under warranty. Or maybe they just have a grudge against Hasselblad.

For this reason I'm asking that anyone that has experienced the failure of a 50-110mm Hasselblad lens please contact me. The symptoms that I experienced were that the front lens assembly started to become lose, then a scraping noise was heard, then the lens wouldn't focus properly on infinity, then the focusing locked up, then the front element fell off. If you have experienced any of the above symptoms, please drop me a line. Let me know when this happened, and what, if anything, Hasselblad said or did about it. You can remain anonymous if you wish – just let me know. Please though do not write with details on problems with any other lens or camera model. I only am concerned here with the 50-110mm zoom.


Triangle Dune. Kolmanskop, Namibia. April, 2006
Hasselblad H2 with 50-110mm lens with Phase One P45 @ 50

A Parting Thought

If the failure of my Hasselblad 50-110mm lens had been an isolated instance, I would have reported it here briefly, mentioned what fine service my dealer and Hasselblad had provided, and that would have been the end of it. But since this clearly is a larger issue I felt an obligation to bring it to light. And while I appreciate the fact that Hasselblad responded very well to my problem, the fact that others have received a completely opposite response makes me feel obliged to give the issue broader exposure.

There's now an old saying – The internet changes everything. Companies can no longer hide behind their stone walls, pretending when there's a problem as if there's nothing going on. If a customer in Sydney has a problem, others, as well as potential customers in New York or Berlin will know about it within hours, if not minutes. Everything that appears on the Net last forever, and is no more than a few clicks away for anyone that cares to do a bit of research.

In the mid-1990s a company which I had founded did an IPO. Our investment bankers insisted that our senior executive team take a weekend seminar with one of the large public relations firms. The prime lesson which we were taught was that when a problem comes up, face it directly and get in front of the story. In other words, fess up, fix it, and move on. Don't pretend nothing is happening. Don't hide behind baffelgab and stone walls. Because eventually the problem will bite you in the ass and will cause even more grief than if you'd dealt with it appropriately to begin with.

So, while I thank Hasselblad for doing the right thing in my instance, I would also urge them as well as other companies to take a more open approach to dealing with problems such as this. If they do, we'll all be the better for it.

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The Comparison That Wasn't

I was unable to do any of the comparisons which had been planned. One of the trip's members, Coleman Fung, had an Aptus 75 in Hasselblad H mount, and we had anticipated doing an extensive series of field comparisons between it and the P45. But when my one Hasselblad lens failed this plan went out the window.

Coleman was shooting with a Silvestri Bicam with an H mount for his Aptus back. We couldn't put my P45 back on his Silvestri because I didn't have a sync cable with me. The sync cable that Coleman had for his Aptus back has different connectors than those needed for the Phase back. Of course we could put his Aptus on my H2, but then my only lens was broken.

In the end we figured out that we could do a bit of comparison testing with the H2 by inserting the detached front element into the lens barrel, and focusing by manually sliding it in and out. But since this obviously would introduce an unknown variable into the mix we decided to only do some superficial comparisons. (I was also afraid of doing much with this setup because even the slightest tilt downward would send the front lens assembly crashing to the ground. I had gaffer tape and could have taped the front element assembly in place, but then wouldn't be able to focus. Needless to say this was a source of considerable frustration not to mention some choice words for Fuji's quality control. (Fuji manufactures Hasselblad H bodies and lenses).

The results of this test? Drum roll, please!

The Leaf Aptus 75 and the Phase One P45 were so similar in their image files as for it to be a quibble as to which was superior. Our test shots included a subject with high dynamic range. Both backs were quite similar in their ability to hold highlight detail, and the Aptus seemed slightly better in its ability to capture shadow detail. The Aptus though showed some slight colour artifacting on high contrast edges when viewed at 100%. There was no significant visible resolution difference between them, though the P45 is a 39MP back while the Aptus is 33MP.

We didn't do any tests at low light levels or with long exposures, so our comparison was superficial at best. To level the playing field we used Rawdeveloper, which is able to process both types of files. Arguably Leaf and Phase One's proprietary raw software would each have been able to extract superior image quality from their respective files, but such a comparison was not something that we had time for. It was also 35C in the shade at mid-day, and we'd been out shooting since 4:30am. So, due to the heat and fatigue, combined with the equipment interface hassles, we decided to bag the comparisons after about an hour and to take a siesta instead before that day's afternoon game drive came round.

It's been a while since I'd used at Aptus back, and the firmware seems to have improved considerably. But, the two people shooting with Aptus backs on this trip had their complaints about issues like file naming inconvenience, and the like. By comparison with the utter simplicity of the Phase One user interface the high level of sophistication and customization possible on an Aptus seems like a mixed blessing. I did envy the Aptus back's screen though. It is very large and bright by comparison to that on the P backs. I also liked the fact that the Aptus can take large batteries, while the P backs are limited to those that can fit within the body structure.

Coleman's Silvestri Bicam was a fascinating camera. I had read about them but not had a chance to yet see one in the flesh. Though I haven't done camera reviews on The Video Journal for some years, we took the opportunity on this trip to film a look at the Bicam and its accessories. This will appear in an upcoming edition of The Video Journal.

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What Others Used

There were fourteen of us on the Namibia expedition, twelve being photographers. I shot with my Canon and Hasselblad / P45 gear while Andy Biggs used a Canon 1Ds MKII and 5D as well. Two of the trip's members used Aptus medium format backs, one on a Silvestri and the other on an Alpa. The fourth medium format shooter used a Phase One P25 on a V series Hasselblad. We had one member shooting film on a 25 year old 6X7 Mamiya RB, and another with a Nikon F6. There was one other Nikon shooter, using a D2X and D200, while the rest of the group were using various Canon bodies.

Other than my major Hasselblad lens problem and minor 1Ds MKII hassle, there were no equipment failures of note. There was a lot of sand and dust, but not so bad as to be a serious impediment to shooting. We all spent some time at the end of each day cleaning off our gear. Five to six hours of bouncing around over dirt roads and sand dunes in an open Land Rover isn't the most dust free of environments. But surprisingly dust on the sensor wasn't much of an issue for anyone. I think the main reason for this is that we all shot with multiple bodies and tried our best not to have to change lenses in the field. I had to clean my sensors just once in some 20 days of shooting, which was quite surprising. That isn't to say that there was no dust visible on my files, just not so much as to present a hassle in post processing.

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Four Himba Women. Namibia – April, 2006
Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 200

Closing Thoughts

With shoots in China, Antarctica, California, Namibia, and South Africa, all within a six month period, I have come to the conclusion that less is more. While I always wish that I had another lens, or some other piece of gear that got left behind, in the end one can make do with a fairly basic assortment of lenses as long as one uses zooms. If primes are used then more lenses are needed to cover a range of potential needs, and this increases weight and bulk. So long as top quality zooms are used, a basic two body, three lens system is usually sufficient

I found that for landscape shooting my Canon 70-200mm f.2.8L IS lens was the most used, accounting for probably 60% of all my work during these three weeks. Image quality with this lens is always first rate, and the relatively wide aperture always appreciated. The 24-105mm f/4L IS has become a new favorite, and has almost completely replaced the 24-70mm f/2.8L for much of my mid-range shooting because of its wider focal range and IS. But it does vignette badly much of the time, necessitating some additional post processing.

The lens that I love to hate is the Canon 100-400 f/5.6L IS. While I appreciate its range and versatility, unless stopped down to f/8 and preferably f/11 I'm rarely really happy with its resolution capabilities. And at 400mm, which is where I use it most of the time for wildlife, it's good but not first rate. The Canon 400mm f/5.6L is a far superior lens, but I chose to use the 100-400mm zoom this trip for the sake of versatility and because it features stabilization, which the 400mm f/5.6 sadly lacks.

I also really dislike the push-pull design. It pumps dust around, and for this reason while in Namibia I used the 70-200mm with a 1.4x extender when I needed more reach, only using the 100-400mm when shooting wildlife in South Africa, where dust wasn't as big an issue. Because I find the 100-400mm to not be up to my expectations until stopped down to about f/11, except in bright daylight this means shooting at high ISOs much of the time – at least ISO 800, early and late in the day. While cameras like the 1Ds MKII and specially the 5D produce quite good results at these speeds, I find myself always wishing that the 100-400mm was a better (and faster) lens.

I could have brought my 300mm f/2.8L IS and used it with a 1.4x, and gotten better results. But the added weight and bulk were not acceptable on this trip. The 500mm f/4L IS was similarly not on this time. The 400mm f/5.6L was my only real alternative, but this would have been more limiting in terms of focal length choices.

The net of this is that I believe that it's time for Canon to update the 100-400mm to better meet the needs of wildlife and sports photographers. It was a versatile but marginal lens six years ago when it was introduced, but today's high resolution sensors mean that it's now past its best-before date.

I also am eagerly awaiting the next generation Canon 1 series. The reason? The 5D. The 5D's image quality (other than absolute file size) is a noticeable step up from that of the 1Ds MKII. Images are cleaner and have lower noise at all ISOs. Assuming that this new sensor or image processing capability appears in future bodies, a 1 series with a 22MP sensor of this quality should be something. Let's hope that Canon gives us some better lenses as well while they're at it.

May, 2006

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Concepts: Full-frame digital SLR, Photographic lens, Canon EOS DSLR cameras, Hard disk drive, Camera, Image sensor, Canon EOS, Telephoto lens

Entities: Land Rovers, Cape Town, New York, Sydney, Toronto, Berlin, Canon, Hasselblad, the Phase One P45, Vistek, Nikon, Alpa, Fuji, Antarctica, Kolmanskop, South Africa, US, China, image processing, high dynamic range, Michael Reichmann, Hasselblad, Murphy, Coleman, Andy Biggs, Harrysproshop, Epson, Luderitz, Coleman Fung, Brian, Rawdeveloper, The Video Journal, P2000, F6, California, Hasselblad H2, Panasonic LX-1, satellite

Tags: Hasselblad, trip, 1ds mkii, Phase One, canon 1ds mkii, Hasselblad lens, gear, Phase One P45, 50-110mm lens, lens assembly, medium format, Hasselblad 50-110mm lens, Namibia, Hasselblad H2, land rover, cameras, sensor, South Africa, element assembly, dust, 50-110mm hasselblad lens, Hasselblad lens failure, 50-110mm zoom, Hasselblad lens problem, hard drive, portable hard drives, large, open land rover, equipment, backup, image quality, Hasselblad H2 body, spring-loaded lens shade, Hasselblad gear, new replacement lens, long lenses, Kolmanskop, lens body, Hasselblad dealer, new lens