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African Photo Safaris - Equipment Choices
Your choice of photographic equipment to take on an African Photo Safari will play a large part in the success and your enjoyment of the adventure. Your pocket book will obviously be a limiting factor on your kit, so its important to know what is really essential and what isn't.
When looking at lenses, it is important to realise that despite what the TV shows you, most of the action will happen at some distance to the vehicle that you are observing from. Because of this, a good telephoto lens is essential if you wish to fill the frame with your subject. A 200mm lens is the minimum that is required, and a 300mm very useful. If you wish to focus on the eyes of the big cats, and see the blood dripping from their prey in full technicolor detail, then the sky is the limit where telephoto lenses are concerned. The cost is too! But bear in mind that the bigger telephoto lenses may be impossible to hand-hold. They may be very difficult to focus. The depth of field they provide is challenging if you are not used to it. The slightest vibration will upset the sharpness. The tripod must be fully up to the job and sturdy enough. But if you are on a vehicle with springs, is that really steady? Sometimes a lens can be just too big and specialised for a general photo Safari, and may cause more problems than it is worth. Better to stick to something more manageable, such as a 300 or 400mm, and crop to get the image you want.
When choosing a camera, ease of use and speed are obvious advantages. There is no point having a camera that requires attention at the critical moment, causing you to miss the shot. There is nothing more annoying than a camera that takes 3 or more seconds to turn itself on, extend its lens, and generally prepare itself to take a photograph. In that time, the animal will have moved on, and the photo will be lost. Yet many moodern compact cameras do exactly this, as witnessed on my last African Safari. Better to buy a suitabe camera for a trip as important as a Safari, rather than risk coming home without the shots that you can be proud of.
You should assure yourself that you will have suffucient memory cards for the shots you will be taking, and plenty of backup capability to preserve their contents. During the day and during a game drive is not the time to be copying photos and freeing some storage space on your memory cards, so always carry enough of them to last. Most people will bbackup their memory cards in the evening, after a quick review of the photos taken. Delete the obviously bad ones, but if in doubt, keep them for beeter assessment at a later date. You will need at least two portable USB hard drives, but as the price of these is rapidly reducing, and their storage capacity rapidly increasing, this should not cause a problem. All photographs should be backed up at least twice, and each drive kept in a different location in case of loss or damage to one.
Most keen travel photographers will carry a laptop with them these days, and this is the obvious tool to use when copying and transferring photographs. A separate card reader is also required, though some laptops have a basic one included. I prefer one of the separate ones, that can cope with a variety of different cards - you never know who you might wish to help. A laptop is not the only choice available for photo copying work: a number of companies such as Vosonic, Jobo, and Epson make devices that will do all of your copying without the need for a separate computer. Some will even back up to external USB hard drives as well. Avoid portable CD or DVD burners - they are not as flexible as a USB hard drive, use much more battery power, have limited storage capacity, and take a long time to do their job.
No matter which area of Africa you choose to spot animals in, a major problem for your equipment will always be dust and grit. It is found everywhere and gets everywhere, in every little nook and cranny of your photographic equipment. It can be a major job to keep equipment free of dust and grit, but an even bigger one if the dust gets in and stops your equipment working. The nearest camera repair depot might be hundreds of miles away, to it is vital that you look after everything yourself. Dust can ruin a number of holidays: on my last trip to Africa, and more recently in South America, I saw five different cameras fail, all for the same reason. The cameras in question were the all-automatic ones: when you turn on the power, the lens cover slides away and the lens automatically extends. But get some dust or grit in the mechanism and the lens jams. The computer only realising that the lens has not extended yet, keeps power to the motors. The result is that the tiny plastic gear wheels are stripped. They can't be replaced or repaired, so the whole camera is good only for the garbage can. A few hundred dollars are lost, but more importantly, the owner can no longer record his trip memories. What a shame.
Always keep your cameras suitably protected when not using them on Safari. A good case, such as a Pelican Case will protect your spare camera from dust, water, and even a truck driving over your luggage - don't laugh: it can and does happen. For your camera in use, the bag you use should have a good zip so that the camera can be protected in an instant. If you have a spare body use it, then you won't have to change lenses in the bush so often: the number one cause of dust on the sensor. What about water? Most camera cases are only showerproof at best, so always carry some spare ZipLock bags or black garbage bags as extra insurance. When photographing in watery areas, such as the Okavango Swamps, a popular wildlife destination in Africa, it makes good sense to have a Wet Bag, that will guarantee your camera should it fall in. Make sure your camera is in the bag before getting in or out of your mokoro (traditional canoe). They are quite stable in the water so shouldn't tip up, but it is easy to slip on the wet wood surfaces and fall in, or drop what you are carrying.
Don't forget sufficient batteries for your trip. Most batteries used in SLRS are rechargeable these days, so you will need a charger as well. Make SURE that it will work with the voltage of the country that you are going to before you set off. The switch mode types generally work over a range of about 90-220v, which cover all standard power sources. You might still need an adaptor, though, so that the plug pins will fit in the wall socket. Two-pin round is the most common in Africa - indeed on my last trip from Tunisia via Libya and Egypt then all the way south to Cape Town (16 countries), I only had a two-pin round lead with me - it worked everywhere. You are on a game drive? In a vehicle? Then it probably has the standard round cigar-lighter socket on the dashboard. It supplies 12 volts DC, and is a very useful source of power for the Travel Photgrapher. Most people tend to forget about this. Not me. A quick search on eBay will locate 12v chargers for all your camera batteries, your GPS 'AA' batteries, your iPod, and even your laptop computer. As your vehicle is moving about, recharge your old batteries, and you won't have to fight for the wall socket back at the lodge.
One final thought - never forget, when taking photographs, it is the photographer that is important, not his equipment. All but one of the photos in the four pages of the African Safari section of Tim's Tips were taken with a Sony 4-MP point-and-click DSC-P43 camera with its fixed 50mm non-zoom lens. The one exception is the image of a photographer at sunset at the top of this page, taken with the Nikon D300.
Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...
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