Wrap-up 2: Equipment

Sept 3—As many of you know, I tend to shoot DX in Africa. As many of you have figured out, I was shooting FX this time in Africa. So what happened for me to make that change?

Prior to workshops my private workshop Web site generally is quite active in the "what should I bring" type of question. One of the things I discovered is that two of the students coming to the workshop didn't have an adequate backup body plan. Simply put, you don't go on such expensive trips without backup plans. Two, maybe three camera bodies. A way to get to a long telephoto focal length if your big lens fails. Extra cards, extra batteries, extra everything. Indeed, I personally had backup plans to backup plans for many things. I took two projectors and had a backup plan in case both of those failed (and that happened briefly in South Africa, as the small backup LCD projector was stolen and the larger one balked at vibrations in the heat until I disassembled it, tightened some connections, and put it back together).

So I offered to let two people borrow some of my cameras, and they were shooting DX, so that's what I leant them. Two of the bodies I probably would have taken, therefore, were now spoken for. I still could have figured out a three DX body kit I could work with, but then another thing happened: the 500mm f/4 I'd had on order forever suddenly showed up two weeks before I was to leave for the workshop. I really wanted to shoot with that lens and get some more field experience with it, but I felt it would probably be a bit long for the South Africa part of the workshop on DX bodies. I considered bringing a D700 along with two DX bodies that use the same batteries, but I really don't like mixing DX and FX if I can help it. If you depend upon the FX body for low light and it fails, you'll go dramatically backwards. If you depend upon the DX body for reach and it fails, you'll going backwards. Yes, you can add things to your kit to try to put in place more backups to backups, but at some point mixing and matching formats just starts adding complexity, and usually weight.

Thus, I switched to my D3 and D3x bodies at the last minute. My backup to my backup plan, therefore, became bringing two m4/3 bodies (complete with a Nikkor to m4/3 adapter, just in case). The m4/3 bodies add minimal weight, and sub out for the compact cameras I would usually be carrying. 

I didn't like all the extra weight and gear I was now carrying, and I have no solar option for charging EN-EL4 batteries (which meant carrying extra batteries, just in case), so going FX+m4/3 wouldn't have been my first choice for a trip of my own. On the flip side, the D3 (and D3s) excels at low light, and the D3x's 24mp on wildlife yields detail I don't have in some of my file pictures. This is the photographer's conundrum: every decision you make tends to be a compromise decision. We balance many variables in just choosing equipment: weight, size, quality, flexibility, robustness, and much more. 

For me the choices were complicated by two additional factors: (1) I was going to be in Africa for almost seven weeks, and much of that in very remote places where the only backups were going to be what I brought; and (2) I was teaching. The first dictated that I try to bring solid, weather-sealed bodies (which leaves out some of my DX bodies). That second bit dictates a few choices on its own, as I tend to bring additional gear when I'm teaching. You never know what the students might want to see or do. Since this meant things like bringing the Snap Shot IR trigger system and that meant leaving a camera out exposed all night, I decided upon the D3 instead of my D3s, for example. If a hyena is going to eat or an elephant stomp one of my D3-family cameras, it's not going to be my treasured D3s or D3x! Some of you may remember that I was trying to sell my D3 during my spring cleaning sale. I decided not to, even though I had several people wanting it. This trip was one of the reasons why I didn't. I might sell it now, but I'll have to provide a "never been in a hyena's mouth" guarantee, I suppose.

So we have two chores here: I need to tell you what I did bring, and I should tell you what I would have brought if I had my druthers and wasn't teaching.

Here's the gist of the photo gear I brought:

ThinkTank Airport Ultralight Case

  • D3, D3x bodies
  • 500mm f/4
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 II
  • TC-20E III
  • TC-14E
  • 16mm f/2.8 fisheye
  • 16-35mm f/4
  • 58mm f/1.2 NOCT (for night shots)
  • 4 EN-EL4a batteries
  • 160GB CompactFlash cards 


Packed away in various places:

  • E-P2 and E-PL1 bodies
  • Olympus 9-18mm
  • Olympus 14-42mm
  • Panasonic 45-200mm
  • Nikkor-to-m4/3 adapter
  • 2 SB-900 Speedlights
  • Full light modification kit (heads, snouts, filters, reflectors, etc.)
  • SnapShot kit (fits in lunch box) + 2 Nasty Clamps
  • Gitzo 2540 tripod
  • Gitzo monopod (model number not handy at moment)
  • RRS BH-40 head
  • RRS monopod head
  • Wimberley Sidekick
  • Various clamps and plate systems, including RRS pano gear


Had I done it my way for a trip completely on my own, for my main gear I would have brought:

  • D300, D300s bodies
  • 200-400mm f/4 or 400mm f/2.8 (latter gives me back a stop in low light)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 II
  • TC-14E
  • TC-20E III
  • 10-24mm
  • 16-85mm
  • Canon S90
  • Canon G11


(Note, this trip was done in 2010, so cameras such as the S95, G12, G1x, P7100, D7000, and D800 weren't available when I left for this trip.)

Basically, the major tradeoff you see in the two choices is weight versus low light capability. Even if I stripped my FX kit down to what I would have brought for a trip of my own (no students, not seven weeks), the equivalent DX and FX kits would have been probably at least five or six pounds different in weight, which is significant when you're dealing with lots of logistics and many weight restrictions. The problem, of course, is that a D3 is more than a stop better than a D300 in really low light (think ISO 3200 and 6400). You can recover some of that by using an f/2.8 lens instead of an f/4 one (e.g. 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8, depending upon how much reach you need; the 300mm probably would have been fine in South Africa, but a bit short in Botswana). 

I'm not sure I made the optimal choices for this trip, but as I said, I made a last minute decision to switch from what I had packed (yes, it was already packed) so as to provide some backup options for students. 

As for the students, we had DX and FX shooters, with slightly more FX than DX. The DX shooters sometimes--but not often--fought low light issues. The FX shooters sometimes--but not often--fought focal length reach issues. As I noted, one choice isn't necessarily better than the other, as you're balancing variables against each other. Why do I prefer optimizing for size/weight, then? Well, if you've ever dragged a 40 pound pack around with you for weeks on end and been in cramped vehicles (not all African tours are going to give you plenty of room in a vehicle to yourself) and had to struggle meeting tough airline weight restrictions, you'd know why. As I get older, the preference for smaller and lighter also grows, as I don't recover as fast from those days when I've pulled a muscle from man-handling all that weight from place to place.

In terms of long lenses, a majority of the students had a 200-400mm (many rented). Three of us had 500mm lenses. Two had 600mm lenses. 

Aside: Some people get their priorities wrong, and exotic telephotos are one of those places. Everyone wants to own one, sure. But how much real shooting do you do in a year that really requires one? Right, that three-week workshop in Africa is about it. So, you could buy a new 200-400mm f/4 I for US$5700, or you could rent one for US$800 for four weeks (give yourself a week for testing) and apply the remaining US$4900 to the cost of the workshop. Sure, if wildlife is your primary hobby and you're shooting in the wilds eight weeks a year or more it may make perfect sense to buy the lens. But if the lens is sitting on your shelf 50 weeks a year, it'll take a lot of years to pay back its cost over renting it. 


© Thom Hogan 2014 — All Rights Reserved