Safari Gear: Packing your camera bag for an African Safari
I have been involved with African Safaris for well over a decade, in fact I can remember when I was asking myself how many rolls of film I would need and how I was going to get it through the airport scanners without damaging my high speed 400ASA Tri-X film, now that was a long time ago. Safari Gear: Packing for an African safari or an Alaskan Safari is not all that different, both places can be wet, can be dusty, and both places can offer many types and styles of creating images. Both places can require transport on small planes with weight restrictions. The biggest difference between packing for Africa and packing for Alaska is the selection of clothing and footwear.
The days of my heavy Hasselblad gear are in the past, however I still to this day, pack and repack my camera bag, I seem to always start out with more gear then I need, or at least want to carry. However I am a big fan of strong telephoto prime lenses while on safari, and my bag is always heavy, leaving me with choices that I have to make over what can go and what can stay at home. Once you have mastered your Safari camera bag packing, I strongly suggest making a list of what gear you have packed and a quick photo of how you packed it. This will save a lot of time and effort when packing for your next safari, allowing of course, notes of what you may have forgotten and what you never used.
Because we are using some camps in Africa as well as Alaska that involve weight restrictions with plane travel, packing can become even more complicated and precise. Even when we are traveling to our camps that do not require flights with weight restrictions, a person has to lug around and travel with his or her gear of choice.
We also need to take into consideration how much gear we want to lug around while out in the field. The vechicles or other mode of transport while out in the field, and the simplicity or difficulty of making a choice of lenses and other gear while photographing your subjects. All of this can be as complicated or as easy as you make it. No matter what lens you are using, there will always be another choice, just relax and enjoy creating the images with the choices you have made. Learn to use the limits of your gear choice as a parameter to learn and shoot with in. When I decide to use a 600 prime lens instead of a 150-600 zoom lens, I know that I am working with a specific type of image creation and I can concentraite on those specific rules of engagement.
Personal gear on Safari
Personal Gear on safari also has to be a consideration, as it will be part of your overall weight including both your personal gear and your camera gear. This is where packing for Alaska becomes a bit more tricky because of the cooler weather, where Africa has a much warmer climate and heavy clothing is not as important. Therefore I am going to save packing for Alaska for a different time and another blog.
When combining your weight and over all bulk of what you will be hauling around through the airports and throughout your traveling experience, there is always a trade off. We as photographers are blessed with the ability to spend all our money on amazing camera gear, and we want to use it. However we also need those everyday items, such as cloths, laptops, external hard drives, and maybe a toothbrush. For me personally this becomes even more difficult as I can be on Safari for as much as 21 days at a time, fortunately most of the safari lodges we use provide laundry services.
Budget and Goals
As a safari operator I get all sorts of amazing folks who join us on safari. I get a lot of repeat clients, who have the opportunity to try different styles and ideas on different safaris, and I also have photographers who are experiencing a once in a lifetime adventure. I get people on safari with huge gear budgets and also those who have a very limited budget, whatever the situation might be, we do our best to make sure everyone goes home with a huge smile and lots of wonderful images. No matter what your budget is, unless you take along a few sherpas, you still have to get your gear packed and carry it through the airports, hotels, safari lodges, and out in the field.
Your goals of photography should be considered, if you are a huge lover of macro photography, well of course a macro lens should be a must have, on the other hand if you are a big fan of wide landscapes, then that is a lens consideration that should not be left out. If portrait photography has been a big part of your life and you really love those close up faces, a supper telephoto is a must have. Fortunately in todays age of amazing zoom lenses and digital cameras, we can combine a lot of these goals into just a few lenses. However you will want to think over what is important and make sure you are selecting lenses that will meet the needs of your photographic desires. It is also important to share your goals with your safari guides so that they can accommodate you as best as possible. Granted that wildlife and nature photography is a bit unpredictable, however we can look for and concentrate to try and find great opportunities for all. As a nature and photography guide, if you share with me that you love to photograph insects with your macro lens, I am going to keep an eye out for insects that we can photograph. However it is also important that we accommodate everyone, so if you hate insects, you will have to enjoy and be patient while we stop for insect photography, as the next stop might be what you are looking for.
Safari photography can offer so many different opportunities for different styles of photography, everyday can be different, with different species, varied lighting, weather, and animal behavior. Most people want to photograph everything we encounter no matter the subject. This leads to packing gear that is as multifunctional as possible. There is always a trade off with any gear choices, and that is where you need to consider your top goals. However it is possible to concentrate on your main photographic goals still and have gear for most everything we encounter.
Whatever your favorite camera brand may be, I feel very strong about the importance of bringing two camera bodies. I have witnessed on more then one occasion where a camera is dropped or just quits working and a once in a lifetime photography trip is turned into just sightseeing. Granted in some occasions we can organize a loaner camera, however there are just too many different camera brands to be guaranteed that the loaner will work with your lenses. In addition to the possibility of a camera drop or malfunction, it is nice to have a second camera body with a different lens choice, sometimes nature happens fast, changing lenses can mean a missed opportunity and additional exposure to the elements. Some folks will use the second camera body as an opportunity to have a full frame sensor on one body and a cropped frame sensor on another body to pull a bit more reach out of a lens. Another benefit to a second camera body can be the advantage of setting one camera at a higher ISO for those times when photographing action and a faster shutter speed is needed. Safaris can be really tough on camera gear, bumpy roads, dust and rain, frequently changing lenses, and transporting gear all take a toll on your gear. A second camera body for the serious photographer is a very important and highly recommend on your gear list.
A small pocket camera is also nice to have for those occasions where you just want to grab a few candid images for your memories and photo albums. As we become more endowed with big lenses and heavy cameras, we can become less likely and or just plain lazy when it comes to pulling out that big camera rig. A small compact camera is just the ticket to getting all those memories of the great time you had and the new friends you have made.
The big question, how close will we get and how strong of a telephoto will I need? As a safari operator safety is always the number one concern, however we do concentrate on getting as close as possible, with in the boundaries of remaining safe and not disturbing the wildlife. Your style of shooting is a big consideration, are you wanting to concentrate on extreme close up's of faces, expressions and eyes, or do you prefer showing the animal in it's natural environment. Fortunately we have recently been blessed with zoom lenses that can go to0 both ends of the range. However you will often have to make sacrifices in other areas such as f stops and a slight loss in image quality. Todays zoom lenses are amazing and the image quality from a good zoom lens can be outstanding.The fewer lenses you pack the less gear you have to lug around, if you are wanting to cover the largest variety in shooting styles and techniques, I would suggest three lens to consider. A macro, a wide to mid range telephoto, and a mid range to strong telephoto. I personally use a 150-600 range telephoto, a great lens that covers a huge variety of focal length choices. However I do come from using 600 and 300 prime lenses, I find myself being very particular in image sharpness and quality. I am still comparing these prime lenses side by side with the zoom lens. to determine any loss of image quality in a zoom lens vs a prime lens. If I do not have weight restrictions to deal with I will often take both. However wildlife photography is my profession and I often suffer the consequences of having extra weight. A few multi purpose lenses are the perfect answer to packing your safari gear.
A good quality light weight carbon fiber tripod is a great and possibly expensive addition to any safari, however in my opinion they are not the best choice for a support system on a safari vehicle. A tripod can be very cumbersome, unsteady, and bulky on a safari vehicle. The main purpose of a tripod on safari will be for off vehicle landscapes, macro, time lapse and night time star photography, all of which can be fun and rewarding. Most camera bags will have an outside pocket and straps for securing your tripod. Try to select a tripod that will not exceed the length of your camera bag. Another time for a tripod would be for around camp during those mid day hours, it can be fun to concentrate on macro and mini landscapes around camp, however by the third day you will most likely be napping. A monopod is often the choice of many photographers as it will also work to some extent on a safari vehicle. However I personally find them way to unstable and not a good choice for long exposure night photography. The one advantage to a monopod is the ability to extend them very high and do wide angle from above images. A good quality carbon fiber tripod is a great way to go for our Alaskan Brown Bear Safari, however in Africa I use a bean bag type of camera support for the majority of my safari photography.
Trash Bags and Rain Gear
With the many brands and types of rain gear available for you and your camera, the choices can be a bit over whelming. Fortunately most African photo safaris take place in moderate climates, where cold weather can be possible, but extreme weather conditions are unlikely. Traveling in a safari vehicle with no top is the most likely scenario, you will be constantly exposed to weather conditions such as extreme sun and the possibility of heavy rain fall. Most Safari companies provide rain ponchos on the safari vehicles, however I find it is best to pack your own good quality rain gear, including a wide brimmed rain hat. This is an area that it is not worth skimping on. Cheap rain gear tears, and does not have any breathable capabilities.
Tools and Tape.
Safaris can be a bit tuff on camera gear, bumpy roads occasional bad weather and a bit of dust. It's a good idea to pack a few tools in your camera bag just in case you need to tighten up a screw or even replace one. I carry a small screwdriver set and a few extra small screws for both my camera and my lenses. Check them for the proper fit as you pack them, and make sure the spear screws will also fit your camera and lenses. I also use a dab of lock tight on the screw on my big prime lenses. I have had many screws come loose on lenses. I also suggest a small pair of pliers and a small roll of electric tape.
Jewelers Screwdriver, Leatherman, and Allen wrench.
African safaris normally take place in very wild areas. A camera or lens breakdown can be a problem, especially considering you are not close to any repair facilities. By bringing along a jewelers screwdriver you can tighten and lose screws on both your cameras and lenses. A weatherman tool comes in very handy, players, a knife, scissors, and larger screwdrivers can be very helpful on an African Safari. The screws on your lens plates may have a square or retangle type of head, be prepared with the correct Allen wrench.
More to come.