Safari in Africa is special. But it also requires you to think carefully about what gear to bring. What follows are some of my thoughts that I share with workshop students.
You want to think about edge of day shots and how you'll get them. You want to think about flexibility, as we can't always move the vehicle. You want to think about potential backup should something fail. You want to keep things to a minimum so that you're not struggling to keep equipment clean, organized, and accessible. You want to think about how you keep the camera steady.
Here's more on the ways I think you should think about choosing gear:
- How will you handle "edge of day" shooting? There isn't a current mirrorless or DSLR camera that should have trouble producing good mid-day shots. It's very early morning and late afternoon/early evening (and sometimes deep shaded areas during those times) that you need to worry about. It is not unusually for me to set ISO 3200 in some situations in Africa, though I try to avoid it as much as possible. Remember, you'll be trying to get 1/500 or faster shutter speeds to keep camera/lens motion and subject motion both in check. Sunny 16 (mid-day sun) is ISO 60 at 1/500 and f/5.6 (the fastest aperture you might have at your long end). Shade is going to be ISO 250. And those edge of day shots in shadow are going to be ISO 3200 (maybe ISO 6400 at f/5.6). And we haven't even gotten to possible night shooting.
So choosing a body is something you want to do with the pixels versus ISO decision clearly in mind. I'd rather have fewer pixels and better ISO capability than vice versa. My current thoughts are two D810’s, or a D810 and a D7100. That gives me a usable ISO 3200 (though I'd rather avoid it) and a 15mp DX for reach if I need it (24mp if I sub in the D7100). But I wouldn't be afraid of a D600 or D7000 or pretty much anything back to the D3/D300 combo. I used both those seminal 2007 cameras in Africa with great success for several years. Still, if you're thinking about "edge of day" with those older cameras, you'll start thinking that maybe you need f/2.8 and no worse than f/4 lenses.
It's a delicate balance to get this right, and there's no perfect answer. Go out at the edge of day with your dog (or somewhere there are animals to shoot) and see how your camera performs. One thing to remember: VR isn't the solution to all problems. If an animal is moving, you can't rely on 1/60 and VR: you'll still get fuzzy edges due to the subject motion.
- How flexible are you? In Botswana I might be shooting everything from frogs the size of my fingernails to elephants, and things that are inches away to things that are a quarter mile away (or more). I'll shoot close work out of dug-out canoes and far work out of plane windows. While I have a lot of discretion in where to place vehicles in Botswana (and Kenya and South Africa, but not so much Tanzania), I don't tend to constantly move them as the animal moves, as that is not only distracting to the animal, but the more I'm moving the less I'm shooting. The right focal length at one moment might be 300mm, the next 70mm, a few minutes later the longest lens you've got.
The normal solution to this is twofold: first, two cameras ready with different lenses on them. The classic method is to have a body with a 70-200mm on it, another body with your longest lens on it (200-400mm, 500mm, etc.). You can't be changing lenses in the heat of the moment, as it will rock the vehicle and disrupt other shooters. You also want to minimize all lens changes due to the dust, pollen, and other stuff in the air.
Note how the two zooms (70-200mm, 200-400mm) on a D810 body make for a nice combo: I've got not only 70-400mm covered, I've got f/2.8 and f/4 available for low light, and I've got 105-600mm equivalent when shooting with the DX option enabled (plus the D810 has a 1.2x crop, as well). That's what I mean by flexible. Couple that with a really competent compact or mirrorless camera you have with a wide-angle lens or wide-angle to telephoto zoom that you keep in you vest pocket, and you're set for most situations that can arise.
- How much backup do you have? Let's say that you've got the two body, two lens kit I've been talking about (70-200mm, 200-400mm, D800, or something similar). You've got two of the same bodies, so you have backup there. If you drop the 200-400mm and break it, what could you do? Well if you have a teleconverter with you, you can use the 70-200mm in a pinch as a longer lens. Couple that with a compact that gets to at least 135mm equivalent and you're reasonable set for a single failure of anything (add a small mid-range zoom for your DSLR and you can even make up for the failure of your compact/mirrorless).
I don't suggest that you get over zealous at this (e.g. bringing two of everything), but you should think about how you'd keep shooting if any one piece of equipment you bring fails. If you can adjust what you're bringing slightly or add something small to fill in, then you're thinking about backup correctly.
- Are you at the minimum or the maximum of what you can bring? Remember, you have to drag your photo gear through airports, get it past airline personnel that sometimes act like sadistic gatekeepers, you have to drag it in and out of your tent or room every night, you have to be able fit it into the space you have in the vehicle without disturbing others, and more. Minimum is good. Maximum will slow you down and possibly give you problems you weren't expecting.
Now, I don't want to discourage you from bringing what you want to bring. After all, for most of you Africa is a once in a lifetime trip that's pretty costly. Having watched a number of workshop students and fellow Africa travelers over the years, I can tell you with some certainty that more isn't better. Indeed, the last fellow who went way over the top in what he brought turned out to be the person who had the most gear needing to be fixed after the trip, partly because trying to drag all that into and out of the vehicles every day and having it constantly available puts vulnerabilities into place that eventually catch up to you. Remember, you're bouncing around the environment in rugged vehicles, you may ford water regularly, you will encounter lots of dust, dirt, and mud, and most vehicles are open to the environment when you're shooting, plus if you're always the last one dragging all your gear out to a vehicle when everyone else wants to get moving, the rest of the tour participants you're with aren't going to be thrilled by your gear collection.
I put backup (redundancy) before minimization for a reason: you don't want to get too minimized or you risk losing shots. But you really do want to think through your choices and make sure you're not just bringing along stuff that you'll never use or don't want to risk. As with all the things I'm bringing up here, there's a right balance and a lot of ways to be out of balance on your decisions.
- How are you going to keep everything steady? VR is your friend, but it's not a perfect solution. If you haven't read my VR article, do so remembering that you'll often be trying to get 1/500 or faster as your shutter speed while on safari. 1/500 certainly helps, but you could be holding 10 pounds of gear: unless you've trained for that, even 1/500 might not be enough to keep a 500mm lens sharp.
Two types of vehicles tend to be used in Africa. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana you typically find regular Land Cruisers/Rovers with large roof openings. In the inexpensive tours you tend to end up in minivans with the same large roof openings. Let me deal with those, first.
In those vehicles you basically have two options that work reasonably well for different situations: monopods and beanbags. I strongly suggest that you bring both. You'll need a good head on the monopod, too, one that allows you to adjust tilt quickly (e.g. RRS's monopod head), and one that allows you to get the camera off the pod quickly, too (which implies Arca plates). You'll typically be standing when using a monopod, and the monopod will be extended, sometimes quite a bit (sometimes more than your usual eye height as you're standing on the seat and the monopod is extending to the floor), so flimsy monopods are a no no. Find one that you're comfortable adjusting quickly and that is very secure when extended and locked. Fortunately, monopods are far cheaper than tripods, even carbon fiber monopods. Make sure you're really comfortable with the circumference of the top tube, too. Some big pods have a big circumference and don't work with small hands so well.
Beanbags should usually be brought unfilled (unless you've got the checked baggage weight allowance and don't have your beanbag filled with food materials). Pre-arrange with your tour operator to buy enough beans, rice, or other natural option that you can give to your guides or camp crew afterwards as part of your tip. I have to be very careful with this with my workshops: we've actually wiped out a local store of commodity goods filling all our beanbags! In a pinch, you can always put a plastic trash bag liner inside your beanbag and fill it with sand or gravel. If you do this, make sure you tie off the liner well and take good care of your bag so that you don't puncture the liner. If you do, you've just added another source of dust to deal with. Update: Gura Gear now sells lightweight Buckwheat Hulls, which are a lightweight filler that means you can carry a filled bean bag with you to Africa. I’ve also found that some pet cage liners, particularly granulated cardboard, also make for a good light filler you can take with you.
Beanbags are little tricky at the back of these vehicles, as there's a big cut-out there and sometimes two of you are using it. A small bean bag doesn't generally work well, but a big bean bag needs to have a clear ability to spread "legs" over a wide distance to work right. I sit in the front seat usually, so I absolutely have to use a bean bag most of the time, and one that can fit over the Land Cruiser's widish window opening (I also use a LL Rue Groofwin Pod from this position with great success) . If you've got a sunroof on your personal vehicle at home, I suggest that you try standing on your vehicle's seat with your body out the sunroof and consider what you'd do to stabilize your long lens if you were using it in that situation. You'll likely have more room and a better situation in the Land Cruisers, but this little test will start to tell you whether you're really prepared for this type of shooting or not. If you can figure out ways to stabilize your gear in your personal vehicle, you'll find that most of those work fine in safari vehicles.
In South Africa (and sometimes in other locales, as well, especially the high-end camps in Botswana), the operators tend to use vehicles where the entire top has been chopped off the Land Cruiser/Rover. There are no windows, no B or C pillar, no roof. Just rows of bench seats with bars in front of them. In these vehicles your first and about only choice is a good monopod.
Andy Biggs designed a monopod-based system for Really Right Stuff that clamps onto the rails of these vehicles. It's expensive, and it's not a perfect solution, as the rails aren't necessarily where you want your camera to be when an animal is moving in relationship to vehicle (when the animal is static, you can have your driver move the vehicle so that the positioning is correct). Still, it's a nice thing to have around in those vehicles, especially if you're not sharing the row with three or four other people (as happens in cheap tours; most photo tours try to keep photographers down to one or two people per row, which is one reason why they're more expensive).
So what would be a good set of gear to bring that fits all of the above? Maybe this:
- Two D810 bodies (or a D810 and a D7100)
- 70-200mm f/2.8
- 200-400mm f/4
- TC-20E (can use 70-200mm as backup to 200-400mm)
- 24-85mm VR (as backup to compact)
- Nikon 1 V1/V2/V3
- 6.7-13mm or 10-30mm lens
- FT1 (can use 70-200mm as backup to 200-400mm) or 70-300mm CX lens
- monopod with RRS head
But I have a few wrinkles to throw in that might make you alter that list slightly.
Wrinkle 1: sometimes you'll have macro opportunities. Using my list, above, I'd bring a macro option for my Nikon 1 (typically a DX Macro lens on the FT1), or maybe a second V body on which I'd leave that macro option (minimizes lens changing).
Wrinkle 2: you sometimes have aerial shooting opportunities, especially when you're flying into and out of some of the game areas instead of driving to them. What are you going to shoot with from the plane? Certainly not your D810 with the 200-400mm! Even a D800 with the 70-200mm will be a bit awkward in the confines of a Cessna Safari, especially if everyone was trying to go that route. This is where I'd probably want the 30-110mm on my Nikon 1, or maybe a short prime with the FT1 (85mm gives me 230mm equivalent). One other thing: wear black and bring a Lenskirt (or something equivalent) to keep out reflections. (But a Lenskirt works best with smaller cameras.)
Wrinkle 3: Victoria Falls and similar locales. Suddenly, you've finished the safari portion and you're in landscape territory. There are certainly telephoto isolation shots that work very well at the Falls and other such places, but to really capture the falls you'll need to think landscape photography, and thus wide angle lens. I'll probably do this with my Nikon 1, as I can shoot at base ISO by rigging my camera to something like the ubiquitous rails (and I'll likely also have a tripod with me), but I often bring a small wide angle prime for my DSLRs (e.g. 20mm Voigtlander).
Wrinkle 4: casual shooting. You'll want shots of your tent, the tent groupings, the dinner table, the vehicles going through water, sundowners, ferry crossings, small towns, and a heck of a lot more. Make sure you have a way to do this, but also note that often you won't want a lot of gear when these opportunities come up.
Wrinkle 5: night. Those of you coming from big cities are going to see a lot of stars you haven't seen a while. You could do some astrophotography. It's also likely that you might find critters around camp (owls in trees, for instance). I have no real recommendations here, but you want to think about whether you just put your cameras away at night and enjoy the food, beverages, and company, or you want to do try to explore something. I've been known to set up trap cameras, on occasion, for instance.