Photographic gear for safari

Tuesday, July 11, T-15

Our upcoming trip to Africa was a birthday present to Sally from me: pick any place in the world you want to go, including a place that I’ve resisted in the past, and we will go there.   And I promise not to whine or complain.  After a bit of thought, she settled on an African Safari.   And I began planning for the photography gear I’d need to shoot (1) wild animals in the bush.

Here’s the thing about wild animal photography: the animals usually don’t cooperate.  They’re often far away, they move around unexpectedly, they hide in grass and brush, and they’re most active when the light is dim (dawn and dusk).  This drives you to want to have big heavy cameras that shoot fast and work well in low light, and big heavy lenses that have high magnification and work well in low light.  Every equipment decision therefore becomes a balancing act between how much weight you can bring and how much flexibility you want in the field.  Add to that the special requirements for an African safari: you travel on small airplanes with severe weight restrictions, you have limited (i.e. no) ability to repair or replace equipment that fails, and the dusty conditions mean you don’t want to be switching lenses while out and about.

I’ve never even owned the biggest and baddest cameras or lenses.   The most demanding thing I usually shoot from an equipment perspective is kids’ sports and shows.  I used to use medium sized equipment from Nikon (so-called “crop sensor”), but switched a few years ago to a class of camera called “micro 43” or m43, which uses a smaller sensor and therefore smaller lenses.  This enables one to save a lot of weight and space.   I estimate that my m43 kit, for similar capabilities, is about half the weight of my old Nikon kit.  And given the progress in digital camera technology, my current gear out-performs my old Nikon gear in most ways.   And the old stuff performed better than the photographer working the controls and was never the constraint on the quality of my images.

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Cruise cameras and lenses: 4.25 lbs., May 2017

For our trip to Europe this year, I took four lenses that weighed about 2.5 lbs. and encompassed an 11x zoom range from pretty wide (9mm) to moderately long (100mm) (2).  That maximum magnification is woefully inadequate for safari.   Serious wildlife photographers like a magnification ratio at least 2 or 3 times greater, or 300mm.  And sadly, the weight of a lens grows faster than the focal length.   So where the 35-100mm zoom I took to Europe weighs 12 oz., the 40-150mm zoom I’m taking to Africa weighs 31 oz.   And the 100-400mm zoom I’m taking weighs 35 oz (3).

I mentioned that replace or repair is also not an option, so one needs to think about what you would do if some piece of equipment fails.  This stuff is pretty reliable, but it does fail.   I had an old lens actually fall apart in my hand last winter.   I also had the shutter on one of my cameras fail last winter.  The camera has been repaired, while the lens was not repairable.  So I have a strategy for what I would do if any piece of gear I’m bringing fails while we’re in the bush.

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Safari cameras and lenses: 8.2 lbs, July 2017

I’m taking four zoom lenses which have some overlap in range: 9-18, 12-35, 40-150 (convertible to 56-210), and 100-400. I’ll also take a fixed 25mm lens.  So:

– if the 9-18 fails, I use the 12-35 and loose the 9-11 range

– if the 12-35 fails, I use the 9-18 anf the 25mm, and loose the 19-24 and 26-35 ranges

– if the 40-150 fails, I use the 100-400 and loose the 40-99 range

– if the 100-400 fails, I put the adaptor on the 40-150 so I can have 56-210, and loose everything over 210.

In the cities, loosing the 12-35 would be the worst case, as I typically take about 2/3 of my “keeper” pictures with that lens.  On safari, loosing either of the long lenses would be a problem.  In any case, the solution would be to use the next shorter lens and crop the resulting pictures as needed.  Or to take different pictures more suitable to the lenses I have.  But hopefully, I won’t have any problems.

The camera backup is simpler: I’m taking two similar cameras, an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and an OM-D E-M1 Mark 2 (3).  Assuming both are working, I’ll use them both with different magnification lenses on each one while we’re driving around in the bush looking for animals, which solves another problem: changing lenses while driving is risky because it’s extremely dusty, and you don’t want to let dust get into the camera or lens.  But if one fails, I’ll have the other.

But other critical gear needs backup as well.  Cameras without batteries are paperweights, and one might use more than one battery in a day. So I will take four batteries for each camera (of course, they use different batteries).  And two chargers for each camera, as they could fail as well.

Finally, I need to plan for how to backup the most important thing, namely all the pictures I shoot (5).  They’re stored on little chips called SD cards, which are pretty reliable, but can fail.  Many serious photographers carry a laptop with them and copy the images into it each day as they travel, and review the images as they go.  I don’t own a laptop, and don’t want to deal with the weight of one, and don’t want to spend my valuable time on the trip reviewing thousands of pictures.  So I have a special device that will simply copy the contents of an SD card onto its own storage, and weighs only 12 oz. It also replaces the USB battery pack I usually travel with, so the net weight increase is only a few ounces.  And as with the other gear, I won’t be able to buy more SD cards in the bush if I fill them up.

And remember, the fact that the kit itself is so much larger and heavier means that the bag is much larger and heavier.  After counting all the stuff I need to bring – what’s listed above, batteries, chargers, tripod, etc. – the safari kit totals about 24 lbs. while the cruise kit was only about 7 lbs. (6)  I can only hope the pictures are 3.4 times as interesting …


(1) “Shoot” is the easiest term to use when you’re talking about making a photographic image of something.  Unfortunately, it’s also what you do with a gun.  Rest assured that we will not be using any guns on this trip – the only shooting that takes place will be with a camera.

(2) Focal lengths determine magnification, but differently for different classes of cameras.  Compared to old-school 35mm film cameras, an m43 camera requires half the length for equivalent magnification.  So my 35-100mm zoom on an m43 would need to be 70-200mm long on a film or “full frame” digital camera.   For comparison, most phone cameras are equivalent to about 15mm on my m43 cameras, but are actually 2.65mm on the iPhone 6S.

(3) The 100-400mm only weighs a bit more that the 40-150mm because is is the same physical diameter, and therefore works less well in low light situations.  A 400mm lens that had the same light-gathering capability as my 40-150 would probably weigh over 8 lbs.; Nikon’s version, which doesn’t even zoom, weighs 8.4 lbs. and costs $11,000.

(4) I don’t make up these names, I only report them.  The Mark 2 camera is a new improved version of the other.

(5) My professional career in IT started as a database administrator, which instilled in me a lifelong need to make backups of anything digital.  Of course, back in the film days, no one worried about backup – just how many rolls of film they could carry, and how to get them through airport security without being x-rayed. I’m carrying the equivalent of more than 400 rolls of film, not counting the backup copies.

(6) 7 lbs. for just the core kit – it totaled somewhat more than that.

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