What Photography Gear To Take On An African Safari?
This a question every keen photographer asks and agonizes over before going to Africa for what could be a once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunity. Its certainly something I researched carefully before going and as with most things photography these days found plenty of helpful people on the internet with advice. Of course there are as many answers to this question as there are photographers so I would not presume to say that my choices will suit everyone's requirements or budget but for what it's worth I will share my experiences and a list of what I took.
Canon 5D mkII (2 of): Simply outstanding 'full frame' image quality and exceptional high ISO ability. These were my favourite and most used bodies despite the outdated autofocus sytem and relatively low frames per second.
Canon 7D: This was my go-to body for whenever I wanted to shoot action as it will fire off 8 frames per second. It is also my body of choice for shooting birds or whenever I wanted to 'get in closer' as the higher pixel density and smaller sensor size has the effect of increasing the focal length of the lens by 1.6x. It lacks a bit when it comes to high ISO due to the much higher pixel density (and therefore smaller pixels) so I did not use it so much when the light was poor.
What would I change?: Nothing really. Even though a pro 1 series body like the 1D mk4 would have been handy sometimes, especially with its better focusing in low light, I could not justify the much higher expense and weight. I think the extra money was better spent on the lenses I took.
Canon 500mm F4 L IS: This is a must-have focal length for a safari focused on wildlife and there is no better lens of this length than the Canon 500. My most used lens on the trip.
Canon 300mm F4 L IS: A light mid range zoom that was great for larger or closer animals. Stellar image quality and convenient with its slide out hood.
Canon 70-200 F4 L IS: A fantastic mid-range zoom that is much lighter than its F2.8 cousin (and weight counts while travelling). The only time I wished I had the F2.8 version was when shooting at night while spotlighting. Also a great landscape lens.
Canon 24-105 F4 L IS: The standard zoom lens you just have to have in your bag.
Canon 17-40 F4 L: A landscape photographers lens and I got plenty of opportunity to use it for this purpose as well as general shooting of groups of travellers and the camp environments.
Canon 1.4x extender: A must have. Has no discernable impact on image quality when used on the 500mm.
What would I change?: The biggest question mark is the choice of having 2 lenses covering the 70-300 focal range. I had to change lenses frequently which gets tiresome and difficult in the back of the vehicle. Still they are both great lenses and I was nervous about taking one lens such as the 100-400 zoom in case I had a failure and was left without a mid-range option. If the rumoured mark 2 version of the 100-400 zoom is released I would be very tempted to buy and take this on the next safari for the convenience and weight saving.
Monopod: I used this for video as well as in the vehicles. It is not as stable as the tripod but more versatile and quick to change position. I had anRRS monopod head on which is slick and easy to use. On more than one occasion I was able to use it to hold my camera out of the vehicle close to ground level and use a shutter release for a different angle of view.
Tripod: Essential for the opportunities I had for landscape photography. I also used this in conjunction with the monopod on the vehicles. The safari vehicles in Botswana are custom built and don't have roofs or doors for support. They do have a bar behind every row of seats and I was able to partially open the legs of the tripod on the floor in front of me then lash it to the bar with a strip of tyre tube rubber to make a very solid platform for working off. For a head I used the Manfrotto Q5 photo video head (see my previous blog post on this) for all situations - landscape, long lens work and video.
Filters Other Accessories
I took the usual accompaniment of accessories. Cokin Z-pro series filter holder and graduated filter, cleaning gear, allen keys, quick release plates, CF cards. I also took a Rode Videomic Pro external microphone for when I was shooting video and this worked well.
My backpack of choice was the Gura Gear Kiboko. This amazing lightweight backpack was actually able to hold every bit of my photography gear except my cleaning gear but including the 500mm. It was of course overweight for carry-on but like most photographers I ran the gauntlet and was never asked to wiegh it. I also used a Domke photographers vest while travelling plus also while shooting. Its handy to have somewhere to put all those bits and pieces where they won't get lost.
Overall I was quite happy with the results I got from the gear I took and would not change a great deal on my next safari (although I would seriously consider upgrading to the 5D mk3 for its latest generation autofocus system and 6 frames per second speed).