Travel photography gear and gadgets

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.

There must have been something REALLY interesting on the left side!

There must have been something REALLY interesting on the left side!

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. 

The newer version of my Sony NEX-6 is the Alpha 6000 and it's amazing for stills and video

The newer version of my Sony NEX-6 is the Alpha 6000 and it's amazing for stills and video

One of my favorite lenses for the Sony camera is this 50mm f1.8. It's incredibly sharp!

One of my favorite lenses for the Sony camera is this 50mm f1.8. It's incredibly sharp!

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: 

Primos Gen 2 Tall Monopod Trigger Stick, 33-65-Inch

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:

Smith Victor Ball head with quick release plate

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:

MindSHIFT Gear has a deal going now if you follow this click through you get a free gift with any purchase over $50!

MindSHIFT Gear has a deal going now if you follow this click through you get a free gift with any purchase over $50!

The MindShift Gear Rotation 180 Pro

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: 

OREI 2 in 1 USA to South Africa Adapter

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.

Universal Power Tower 4 Outlets + 8 USB

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:

RAVPower 3rd Gen Mini 3200mAh Portable Charger & Flashlight

If you just want a serious heavy duty mini flashlight, I also have and like this one: 

Fenix E12 CREE XP-E2 130 Lumen LED flashlight

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.

Leather Style PS Multi-tool

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!

 

 

Photography Tips: Post Safari

I’ve learned a few valuable things after my first official photo safari adventure. I’ve done a lot of travel photography – visiting Italy many times, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc. However, a photo safari is a unique beast, pun intended. I made a blog post before our workshop on some general travel tips, and thought it would be great to follow up with some Safari specific tips that may be useful to others looking to embark on such an adventure in the future. 

One of the tips I gave previously was to rent a lens that is appropriate to your type of trip. I decided that a 200-400mm f4.0 lens would be just about right for the subject and distances I would be shooting from. I rented one from LensProToGo and it was the best decision I could have made. The lens was perfect for almost every situation and with the addition of my own 1.7x teleconverter I was able to capture even the most distant subjects with extreme clarity. I only needed the teleconverter on a few occasions, however, and the 200-400 worked beautifully by itself. This is one amazingly sharp lens!

If you decide to go on a photo safari, find out what type of vehicle you’ll be shooting from. Generally, due to park rules and safety common sense, you cannot get out of the vehicles. So, plan for shooting accordingly. The type of vehicle you’ll be in depends on the region you visit. In South Africa, most of the vehicles are Landcruisers or Land Rovers with no tops and stadium style bench seats. These are great because you have unrestricted views in nearly all directions. In other regions you’ll be in a standard Cruiser or Rover shooting out the windows. When you shoot out windows, a bean bag type support is needed so you can rest the camera on the window ledge.

The safari vehicle. Love them Landcruisers!

In our vehicles, however, I found that a monopod worked really well for being able to quickly reposition from front to left to right. I could be in the middle seat and have access to animals on either side of the vehicle. A tripod doesn’t really work because you have no space to set it up – unless you pull the legs in and use it as a “monopod”. 

Don't try this at home! Standing up while viewing animals is a no-no. This was during a guide-approved rest stop. 

I brought a giant Tamrac camera backpack with me to haul all my gear. Bringing that bag in the vehicle, however, really wasn’t practical due to space limitations. So, I left the big bag in our room (ensuring the windows were closed to prevent monkeys from adopting stuff, like they did with the shoes of another guest) and I brought a small Tamrac camera bag on the vehicle with a few essentials. I didn’t want to change lenses very often, being in the dusty, bumpy environment, so I kept a wide-angle zoom on my second camera body sitting on the seat next to me. I could quickly grab that when an elephant decided to approach the vehicle and give us a proper distance warning. Phew.

My main camera was my Nikon D800, which I grew to love even more than I already had. The cutting edge Nikon has massive file sizes, which initially concerned me (see my review of the D800 vs. D600), but I soon realized the benefit of the full-sized sensor and high resolution. As with most full-frame cameras, you can use your lenses designed for full-frame cameras, or DX lenses – those designed specifically for smaller sensors. When you use a DX lens, you essentially are cropping in camera to use only the center part of the sensor. With lower resolution cameras, this gives you a lower resolution image, which may not be sufficient for large prints. With the D800, you get a whopping 36.2 MP image with standard lenses, and a perfectly useable 15 MP image when cropping with DX lenses. This means I could use my 10.5mm fisheye DX lens and my highly versatile 18-200mm zoom on the same body and still get high-resolution images. Awesome.

Video shooters can be really excited about the D800 too because when you use a DX lens (like the 10.5mm fisheye) the crop factor doesn’t even come in to play and you get the same field of view and high resolution video – as though it were shot on a DX camera body. 

I shot quite a few HDR sequences out under the African sun and my D800 was perfect for hand-held HDR capture. Ideally, you want to capture at least 5 frames – each 1 f-stop apart, for a nice HDR. Ideally, you should also be on a tripod – but as I mentioned, I didn’t use one. Hand held capture works great if you hold relatively still and capture the 5 frames quickly. The key to doing that is to use the auto-bracketing feature of your camera. The D800 allows for up to 9 frames of auto-bracketing. I programmed my custom function button to be a “bracket burst” – meaning that when I’m in bracket mode I can hold that button while I press the shutter once and the 5 bracketed exposures are captured in a quick burst. Sweet. 

I then used HDR Efx Pro 2 or Photomatix Pro to create the HDR image. Even if there is some slight hand movement between captures, you can make them perfect with a little pre-processing trick. (tomorrow I’ll post a review of 4 HDR software programs and the HDR processing tips).

Even though most people anticipate the “Big 5” when embarking on a safari, you can’t forget the “Little 5” as well! Yes, there actually exists the itty bitty Rhinoceros Beetle, Buffalo Weaver, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, and the Ant Lion. These, of course, necessitate the macro lens or something that close focuses! Some of the most fascinating creatures we saw were spiders and beetles that could fit in the palm of your hand – not that you’d want them there.

Beauty in the little things. Bring a close-up lens!

Traveling light is really important when you have photography gear to schlep along with your standard personal paraphernalia. I had two different DSLRs, 3 different compact cameras, a helmet cam, a flash unit, and an audio recorder – each with their own separate battery types, and of course, chargers. Instead of bringing the dedicated charger for each device, I got this universal battery charger to work with ALL my different batteries. I then packed only the dedicated charger for my D800 (since it would be charged most often) and the universal charger and had everything covered. For my next trip, I’m ordering a second universal charger (since they are only $20!) and just bringing those two chargers.

I carry large heavy duty garbage bags in my camera bag. Yes, it could rain at any time. No, I’m not going to stop shooting because of it.

Speaking of my audio recorder. One of the most amazing sensations of being in the jungle, is the sound of the jungle. The birds, monkeys, lions, elephants, hippos, rhinos, and other mystery beasts all make beautiful music together. I loved lying in bed at night and listening to the symphony of sounds just outside our glamping tent. I kept my Zoom H1 audio recorder on the nightstand so I could quickly turn it on whenever a particularly interesting chorus awoke me. This makes great background music for your post-trip slideshows.

Do you have any great travel tips? Share them here!

Post Safari Blues…and reds and greens

What happens when an enthusiastic group of wedding and portrait photographers goes on a photo safari in Africa? You have a ton of fun, that’s what! I’m blaming my absence of blog posts over the past weeks on my spotty internet connections in Africa and being chased by wild beasts all day. Actually, we did most of the chasing, but it sounds more adventurous the other way.

Our workshop consisted of 18 people, which is as many as we could fit in the safari cruisers. Our days began at 5am, with a light breakfast then on to the vehicles at 6am. We’d explore the park until 9 ish, then find a beautiful spot on the plains somewhere free of predators and have a morning coffee break. We’d return to the lodge about 11am for brunch, have a little workshop class time, have afternoon tea at 3:30 then hop back on the Landcruisers for the evening drive at 4pm. At about 6pm we’d find another lovely spot for wine and hors d’oeuvres (consisting of traditional beef jerky, or biltong, amongst other things). At about 7:30pm we’d head back to the lodge to a large and delicious dinner around a candlelit fire pit. We did this for 8 straight days and it never got old. Visiting with the animals began to feel like visiting good friends – the initial excitement of the encounters turning to familiar anticipation. We started to relax and appreciate them even more, noticing details we didn’t catch on first sighting.

On our very first departure from the lodge, not 5 minutes in to it, we were halted by a large herd of elephant drinking from the river we needed to cross. We all knew from that first moment that this would be an incredible trip! Each outing was completely unique - some turning up new animal encounters, others bringing us closer or in to more intimate settings with animals we’d previously seen from afar. By the end of the week, nobody wanted to leave. It was truly a significant lifetime experience.

After the safari, my family and I spent time exploring Cape Town and that was beautiful in a very different way. I couldn’t help but miss the animals though. I found myself (and my kids did too) longing for the quiet sunrise drives, disturbed only by the roar of a lion or the cawing of our favorite birds. Safari has gotten under my skin like very few other experiences have. And I don’t mean in an itchy, infection sort of way.

Here are some images! I hope they can convey even a small percentage of the incredible feeling of being there. 

Click on any thumbnail to see them larger: