We are getting excited about an upcoming photography workshop Safari in South Africa this March (We just had one cancellation so there is a spot opened up if you are interested!). This is our second trip with our guide, Kevin Dooley, and his team there and we just had such a great time the first round that we had to do it again! I wanted to share some photo gear and travel tips with you, based on our previous experience and my overall experience traveling abroad with my camera. Oh yah, and some images too.
The biggest question, of course, is usually "What lenses do I bring!?". Kevin Dooley is a manly man and likes his giant 600mm lenses. I can't argue with some of the amazing close-up photos he gets while sitting safely within our Landcruiser. I don't own one of those behemoths, and I opt to rent a 200-400mm f4 lens. I found that to be nearly a perfect focal length for most of the distances we work at there. You will also find that you'll need something shorter as well, since we often see animals right up next to our vehicle, or elephants a few yards away!
Between my trusty 70-200mm f2.8 and the 200-400mm f4 and an 18-200 zoom for backup, I have it all pretty much covered. I also like to bring a nice wide, like the 14-24mm for some of the amazing panoramic landscape images. If you can manage two cameras, one with your long zoom, and one with the wide, you'll be ready for anything at a moments notice.
You may even want to use a smaller mirrorless camera for the closer images since it's less obtrusive to keep around your neck at all times. I bring my Sony NEX-6 with a small variety of lenses as my second camera and it is easy to have with me at all times. In fact, on a recent trip to Machu Picchu all I carried with me was my Sony NEX-6 camera system for the light weight and I was literally stunned by the image quality when using good lenses on it! I have a wall-sized print at my office made from the Sony 50mm f1.8 lens, which is absolutely gorgeous and finely detailed.
As Clare mentioned in a previous email, we all get a 10% discount at LensProToGo.com when you use coupon: LPKKAT
Some people consider using a 1.4X or 2X teleconverter with their 70-200mm, effectively making it like a 300mm or even 400mm. While this will work in a pinch, it is not the sharpest solution. If you can afford to rent a longer lens, go for it. If not, the teleconverter will still work OK and is better than not having the longer lens at all. I bring my 1.4X converter as a backup or occasionally pop it on the rented 200-400mm when I really need super tele.
The next question is tripod, monopod, or bean bags. A tripod will almost never be useful in the vehicle unless you collapse the legs together like a monopod, so why not just bring a monopod. There isn't enough space in the vehicle to setup a tripod, but a monopod is perfect. We travel in open air Landcruisers with no window ledges to speak of, so the bean bags don't really work as well as they would in a windowed vehicle. With a monopod you can easy swing your camera left or right, wherever the action happens to be. I found this great, lightweight monopod that is designed for rifles or cameras. It adjusts quickly with a squeeze of the handle and is very light and compact. The "V" shaped holder on the top can be used to just rest your lens in or you can unscrew it and use the 1/4"-20 thread to attach a small ball head with quick release. Make sure you have some sort of ball head or swivel as attaching the camera directly to the stick doesn't give you much rotational movement. There are also heavier dutier photo monopods, if you prefer something sturdier, but I like the ease and quickness of which this one adjusts up and down and it's super light weight for travel.
Here's the unit I'm using, with a link to it on Amazon:
Choose a small ball head with a quick release for your camera and your all set. Here's a nice sized and affordable option that includes an Arca Swiss style mounting plate, although I don't have this same model. If you have Arca Swiss sized plates for your other camera or lenses, great, if not you may consider getting an extra plate or two as well:
Other photo accessories. If you have filters, like a polarizer, you may find good times to use that too. Have a way to download your images nightly for backup and plan to bring enough cards to cover your entire trip so you don't have to clear them if possible. That affords you an extra backup until you get home. If you must clear cards, then duplicate your main backup to another portable HD and double-check before clearing the cards. A flash unit is not really necessary on the game drives as we won't be out past dark. They do come in handy for portraits or other indoor scenes, so if you feel compelled to bring one, go for it.
I also use a photo backpack to carry my gear. While you won't necessarily have to lug your gear around much once we get there, traveling in general with a heavy camera shoulder bag is pure hellish pain. I've owned and used several brands of camera backpacks, but my favorite camera backpack by far is this Rotation 180 Pro from MindShift Gear. They also have several versions to pick from:
Your "tents" will have power outlets, so you can charge your devices nightly. I'd suggest bringing your own multi-plug adapter if you have many gadgets to plug in. Make sure to get one of the few that is rated for up to 220V so you can use it anywhere in the world. MOST of the cheap ones are not and I found out the hard way that they blow up if used for 220V. South Africa is 220V and the plug looks like this:
If you get that adapter for the US plug to SA plug, then you can plug your power strip in to the wall with it and you don't need adapters for all your other plugs since they go in to the US plug strip. Most electronics are rated for up to 220V so you don't really need a transformer, except for hair dryers or your microwave. Just check your labels first.
Here's a power strip that handles 220V and also includes USB ports to charge your phone stuff.
This looks pretty cool too:
Keep in mind that when we are out on safari drives, we cannot get out of the vehicles to photograph. Period. The only time we get out is for our designated breaks in safe areas. So keep in mind that all shooting will be done from seated in the topless Landcruisers. Every seat is a great seat so don't worry about being near "the window". Do plan to be compact and maneuverable from your seat though. If you bring a huge pack full of gear, you may have a hard time actually accessing it. There is some storage under your seat, or under your feet, or on your lap, but that's it. There aren't big trunks for extra gear so if you can't fit it under your seat or feet, don't bring it on the vehicle. You can however, bring whatever gear you want and keep extras in your room. Each day you can decide what gear you want to bring on the drive and you may try different setups on different days.
Bring a flashlight! A small, reliable light is always a great idea to have on you. When you walk to and from the main lodge from your tent each morning or evening, it may be dark and there have been "critters" known to slither across the foot path. I highly suggest keeping a small light in your pocket at all times. This is one of my personal favorites because it also doubles as a phone battery charger:
If you just want a serious heavy duty mini flashlight, I also have and like this one:
No self-respecting pseudo or bonafide MacGyverist would be caught dead without a sampling of duct tape somewhere on their person. I like to add some zip ties and plastic zip-lock bags too. The ties can also be used as makeshift hand-cuffs in case you participate in a citizens arrest somewhere. The plastic bags can protect lenses and other valuables inside a pack when it really rains hard. I've had one come in handy as a barf bag too for my son on one particularly bumpy bus ride.
Remember, when you are traveling and away from amenities, even the smallest break or mishap can ruin your day. Be prepared. It's a great idea to carry a small multi-tool as well.
This little tool, from Leatherman, is airline TSA compliant – so it "shouldn't" get confiscated, HOWEVER, mine did get confiscated in African airline security. They don't always play by our rules. Keep it in your checked bags and you'll be fine.
Don't forget your hat and sunscreen!