This article was written in 2000 and updated in mid-2001. I have since gone on the second trip to Africa discussed at the end of the article. I will try to update this article soon with what I learned from this trip.
My primary interest for going on safari to eastern Africa was for wildlife photography (my wife was more interested in watching the animal behavior) and I was not disappointed - the opportunities for photographing animals and birds in the wild are amazing.
My son (Scott) and I decided to share a single system to reduce the amount of redundant equipment we had to take. In hind site, I'm not sure if he was happy with this decision because I ended up using the "big" lens most of the time.
Since we didn't want to check any of the camera equipment or film, we had to get everything into two carry on bags (one for each of us). I decided on the Lowepro Photo Trekker bags because they are reasonably comfortable to carry, will hold a lot, and meet airline carry on regulations (at least for size - weight is another matter). Our equipment consisted of the following:
All this equipment, along with most of our film, fit into the two Lowepro bags. My wife, Diana, carried the remainder of the film, along with a small lap top computer to copy digital files, in her day pack.
Of this equipment, the combination I used the most (by a significant margin) was the F5 and 400mm f2.8. I like to get up close to the wildlife, and shoot smaller birds. To do this, you need a long fast lens. I often used the 400mm with the 1.4x or 2.0x teleconverter. If you have to leave all the other lenses behind, take a big lens. Yes, these lenses are very expensive, but if you can't afford to buy one, consider renting one.
My son used the 300mm f4 with the F100 body the most. We both shared the D1 until it stopped working about a third of the way through the trip. It was nice to have some of our photos from the digital camera just in case something happened to the film. It also allowed us to check to make sure the lenses were working properly while in the field. I was also very impressed with the quality of the images from the D1, once I had a chance to print them at home.
If I was traveling by myself and needed to fit everything into a single pack, I'd take the 400mm f2.8 and the 80-200mm f2.8, along with two bodies. Having a body always mounted on the 80-200mm lens would have been helpful since I was often switching to this lens to grab a few wider angle shots.
I also took a Domke 600mm lens bag which was stuffed with clothing and carried in one of the duffels for the airline trips. My 400mm f2.8 with F5 would fit into this bag, even with the 2X teleconvertor. When on game drives, this bag was strapped to the back of the front seats and allowed my to quickly pull out the camera for shooting, yet protect it from dust and impacts when driving on the rough dirt roads in the parks.
I had no problem carrying my camera equipment on the plane. I flew Northwest/KLM for all flights. Although the Lowepro bags meet the size requirements, I'm pretty sure that the bags weighed considerably more than the 22 pounds allowed. But the bags were never weighed. The fact I was flying business class may have had something to do with this. I kept a camera body mounted on the largest lens in each bag so that I could pull it out and carry this separately if I had to since the airlines allow a camera to be carried separately from your carry on bag, but fortunately, it never came to this.
Equipment I Wished I'd Had
About the only equipment I'd add to the list of things I'd bring is an additional body to keep on the 80-200mm lens. I might also add another couple beanbags, depending on the number of photographers. Having two strapped in place on each side of the vehicle was useful, but occasionally, we'd need one on the back or front so we'd have to unstrap one of the others. If there is only one photographer, 3-4 is probably enough.
Equipment I Didn't Use
I never used the window mount. This is a small tripod head that clamps to the top of a car window. The beanbags were much easier to use and worked great. I was able to shoot sharp images with my 400mm lens even with the 2X teleconverter down to about 1/125th of a second. Even 1/60th second exposures were pretty sharp.
I used the flash only once, when I was shooting a bird at dusk. I hand- held the flash on an extender cord instead of pulling out the flash bracket. I think some of my photos could have benefited from fill flash, though, so I will bring it again on the next trip and try to be more diligent about using it.
The monopod was very useful in Mahale where we were on foot. It made a great walking stick on the rough trails and definitely helped reduce camera shake when shooting the chimps and scenics. If you're not going to a park where you'll be on foot, I'd leave it at home.
Protecting Your Equipment
This is a very rough environment for photographic equipment. Dust and cameras don't mix very well. And then there's the constant vibration from the dirt roads. We kept all equipment in zip lock bags, inside the camera case, when not in use and whenever the vehicle was moving. I kept the 400mm lens with lens shade and mounted F5 in the Domke large lens bag and would slip a zip lock bag over the top of the F5 whenever we were driving a long distance.
The only equipment problem I had was with my Nikon D1. This might have been attributable to the vibration, but the problem doesn't seem dust related. The camera started locking up and displaying an error code after a couple photos. It would usually reset itself by turning it off and on, but would lock up again shortly thereafter. I sent it back to Nikon for warranty repair when I got back from Africa.
I sent all my Nikon equipment back to Nikon for "clean, lube, and adjust" upon my return.
We used Fuji's relatively new Provia 100F RDP III film for almost all our shooting. This is exceptionally fine grained slide film with great color (a nice compromise between the super-saturated colors of Velvia and the more natural although somewhat bland colors of Sensia). This film can be pushed one or two stops with great results. Over the two week trip, my son shot 64 rolls (36 exp) and I shot 95 rolls (also 36 exp). About half the rolls were pushed one or two stops.
We also took with us about a dozen rolls of Fuji Professional NHG-II Color Print film. I think this is the best 800 speed film available, and nine of the rolls we shot late in the afternoon were of this type.
In addition to film, we took four 128MB compact flash cards for use with the Nikon D1. Using the raw .NEF format, each of these cards held 32 shots. This was usually enough to get us through a morning or afternoon game drive. Between the two of us, we shot around 300 shots on the D1 before it stopped working.
While you can find consumer color print film, such as Kodak Gold 100, it is virtually impossible to find professional slide film while on safari. Bring enough with you so you don't run out. We took all our film out of the boxes and plastic canisters and put them in zip lock bags. This significantly reduced the bulk and weight and made it easy to grab a roll when needed.
Keep in mind that your camera meter will expose for neutral gray. For many scenes, the matrix metering system in pro SLRs will work just fine, but if you're shooting a black rhino, cape buffalo or chimp that fills most of the frame, the meter will not give you a correct exposure. You'll probably be over exposing the scene and the animals will not look as dark as they should. Likewise, if you're shooting a leopard in a tree against a bright sky, you'll probably end up with a silhouette of the leopard.
For problem scenes, I usually try to use the built in spot meter to measure something in the scene in similar light as my main subject that has approximately the same shade as neutral gray. A tree branch often works well. For many of the animals, spot metering directly on the animal works well. If the animal is particularly dark, like a chimp, or light, you can spot meter off the animal and use exposure compensation to adjust the exposure. If you're not sure of the exposure, bracket by 2/3rd stop around the exposure you think is correct. Wasting a little film is a lot better than missing the shot.
The vehicles provided by Thomson had three rows of seats. The front seats were like a bench seat and extended all the way across. The second row consisted of a bucket seat against each door with an aisle between them. The third (back row) had two bucket seats side by side with a small shelf to the outside of each seat (over the rear wheel). Because of this, the rear most seats had the most leg room since you could stretch your legs in the aisle between the middle row seats.
The roof of the vehicle could be raised above the two rear rows of seats. This made it possible to stand in the vehicle (primarily standing in the isle between the two middle seats) and rest our lenses on beanbags on the roof lip to shoot. This worked very well when there were two of us in the back of the vehicle. It gets very crowded when more than two people want to stand at the same time. It was also difficult to keep the vehicle steady when people are moving around in the truck. On the days when I had the vehicle to myself (with guide and driver in the front seat) it was a joy to shoot since I didn't have to worry about getting into anyone else's way (or vice versa) and no one was rocking the vehicle. If we go again, I'll try to arrange for fewer people in each vehicle.
Each vehicle had a single cigarette lighter socket for charging batteries. I brought a small inverter that allowed me to plug in the battery charger for the Nikon D1, my laptop computer, and my daughter's camcorder. All the lodges (with the exception of Mahale) also had a generator with power in the rooms which made it easy to keep the batteries fully charged.
One thing to note is that the raised roof had only about an inch to spare for my 6' frame. Taller folks may need to figure out some other arrangement, or wear a helmet to keep from cracking their head on the metal bars that go across the raised roof.
Note that many safari companies had much worse vehicle arrangements than Thomson. Many had three seats across the back row. Some had open sides and no place to rest a camera. Choose carefully.
UPDATE - 2nd Trip to Africa
I'm planning another trip to Africa this fall. This time, I'm going on a safari dedicated to photography and will be traveling by myself (my family is not going), so I'll have to fit everything I want to take on the plane with me in a single camera bag. I'll pack some of the non-breakable stuff in my checked baggage. Here's a list of what I plan to take.
Digital vs. Film
You'll note that I am not taking any conventional bodies or film. I'm going strictly digital. I was very impressed with the quality of the images I shot with the Nikon D1 on my previous trip. In many respects, I preferred the digital images to film. And since I scan all my slides for processing, the digital camera saved me a significant amount of time.
The new Nikon D1X camera doubles the resolution of the D1 and has other minor improvements. The improved image quality of the D1X makes it a clear winner over film for me. And using Compact Flash cards based on IBM's new 1GB microdrive will allow me to take 250 shots without changing flash cards so I'm much less likely to miss a shot while changing film.
On my first safari, I shot 95 rolls of film and about 300 digital images for a total of approximately 3800 images. We went on a total of 14 morning and afternoon game drives. Approximately 200 of these images were taken at the lodges, while traveling, etc., so this means I took an average of 260 photos, or 7 rolls of film, on each half day game drive.
On this safari, we plan to do approximately 35 morning and afternoon game drives. If I was shooting film and was as prolific as the last trip, this would require 245 rolls of film. This takes a lot of space and weight, particularly since film HAS to be carried in carry-on luggage.
There are other advantages of using a digital camera. I can check exposure immediately instead of waiting until I get the slides back. This is really helpful when shooting in high contract situations which are common on safari. I also don't have to worry about airport X-rays and trying to convince airport security to hand inspect hundreds of rolls of film.
I have decided to use four Digital Wallets for portable digital storage. The Digital Wallet is a small portable device with up to a 20GB hard drive that is designed specifically to save images from compact flash cards. Each Digital Wallet is about the same width and thickness as a VHS tape, but about 2/3rds as tall. The 20GB unit can be purchased for about $450. Having four devices will allow me to have ample storage and plenty of redundancy.
Another option I considered was using a few Lacie 18GB Pocketdrives plugged into a laptop, but I'd have to bring two laptops so that I wouldn't have a single point of failure that would prevent me from taking photos. You can't get a laptop repaired or replaced very easily in Africa.
One disadvantage of the Digital Wallets is that I won't be able to do any editing in the field, other than in-camera.
One of the biggest disadvantages of digital SLR cameras is that they are sensitive to dust. If any dust gets on the CCD, you'll see it in every photo. So minimizing the times when the lens is off the camera is critical.
I plan to keep the 80-400VR lens mounted on one body at all times. I didn't have this lens for my first trip to Africa, but I think it will be ideal for shots where I don't want to get too close it or where I need a little more depth of field. With the 1.5x focal length multiplication of the D1X, this lens is equivalent to a 120-600mm zoom.
I will probably keep the 400mm f2.8 with 1.4x teleconverter on the other body, and switch to the 2x teleconverter only when I really need it. This lens combination is fantastic for getting in real close with a very shallow depth of field to isolate the animals from the background. On the D1X, the 400mm with 1.4x is the equivalent of an 800mm f4 lens. With the 2x, it's a 1200mm f5.6 lens.