Camera Equipment for an African Safari
A good bit of time before we headed to Africa was spent researching what an appropriate selection of camera gear might look like for such a trip. Having benefitted tremendously from the thoughts and insights of other traveling photographers, it seems only fair to add our own choices and experiences — for better and worse — to the archive in the hope that they, in turn, might prove useful to someone else.
Nikon D810: Superb. Fast-focus in low-light even with teleconverter. Rock solid. Zero complaints. Will likely take a second D800-series body, whatever the latest is, on the next trip.
Nikon D7000: A second body on a trip such as this is a huge value. The D7000 is a great camera, but wasn't quite up to the demands we placed on it on this trip. It was (not surprisingly) a bit slow to focus with a teleconverter. When it lost focus it would simply move off to one end of the focal range and give up. The mode dial would often get bumped while handling or storing, causing all of the adjustment dials to seemingly behave in random ways when you first picked it up again. This would often result in a few lost shots before I realized what must've happened, pulled the camera away from my eye, and fixed the mode. I quickly came to understand why Nikon's professional models don't have mode dials.
Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC: Excellent. One of the most used lenses on the trip. Zero complaints. It's very solidly built. It has versatile zoom range, sharpness that rivals or bests Nikon's 14-24mm, and Vibration Control (which Nikon's 14-24mm doesn't have). The combination of these makes for a fantastic lens.
Nikon 24mm f/1.8G ED: Didn't use once. In terms of speed, there wasn’t much of an advantage over the Tamron since this lens is typically pretty soft below f/2.5 to f/2.8. The Nikon 24 mm is much lighter and muchsmaller than the Tamron, and slightly sharper at middle f-stops, but the versatility of the zoom and the Vibration Control on the Tamron meant that it ended up being the go-to wide angle for everything on this trip.
Nikon 50mm f/1.8D: Didn't use once, but should have. This lens, too, is unusably fuzzy wide open, but there were a number of times while driving that the 50mm would have been the perfect focal length for capturing roadside action from the vehicle, I just never remembered to put it on before we got started. Before the next trip, we will almost certainly pick up something in the 24-70mm range. From what I hear Nikon and Tamron both have great offering's here.
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 FL ED VR: Superb. This lens is ridiculously sharp, even wide open. The autofocus is incredibly fast and accurate. The Vibration Reduction is amazing. The wide aperture allows you to separate foreground from background wonderfully when desired. Fantastic lens.
Nikon 105mm Micro f/2.8G IF ED VR: Only used once. When it's useful, though, this is a fantastic lens to have. In addition to macro work, it can be a great portrait lens as well in a pinch. Hopefully, they'll update it at some point, however. It's not the sharpest near the edges; and the Vibration Reduction is ancient. It might give you a half-stop advantage when hand-holding. Might. Just updating that would be a huge improvement.
Nikon 300mm f/4 IF ED: Used extensively, always with the teleconverter on this trip. (The lens doesn't have a rear element so taking the teleconverter off in the field seemed like a prime way to coat the inside of the lens with a thin film of red Namibian or Ugandan dust.) For the price and the class it's a very good lens with quick, accurate focus. Drawbacks: pretty soft below f/8 with the teleconverter; and no Vibration Reduction (this is the last telephoto lens that Nikon designed without VR). Also, the single focal length reduced its flexibility. I always wondered why folks spoke so highly of the 200-400mm lens. Now I understand. There were many, many occasions where I wanted to be able to zoom out a bit. Will almost certainly pick up something along the lines of the 180-400mm, 200-400mm, or 200-500mm before the next trip to replace this lens.
Nikon Teleconverter TC-14E II: A bit soft. In retrospect I was far happier with the pictures we took in Australia without a teleconverter. Won’t make that mistake again without significant pre-trip testing.
Think Tank Airport Commuter: Absolutely superb. Perfect! Very rugged design that easily stood up to a month of Africa and still looks like new. Room enough to carry all of the above equipment plus a laptop, a couple of small backup hard drives, power supplies and cords, extra batteries, a tripod ball-head, a binder with hard copies of all our travel documents, etc. Note: If you're thinking about getting something bigger than this, STOP, and seriously, seriously think about it first. U.S. airlines are very permissive about the size of items they will allow you to carry on. Once you get to Africa, they will NOT let you take a standard carry-on size roller bag on the plane. The Airport Commuter is the perfect size as it is big, but will still just fit under the seat in front of you or in a small overhead compartment. Perhaps more importantly, I wore it backpack-style when boarding and they never once questioned the size or weight. The weight will be waaay over their technical limits if you have it filled with camera gear, so you'd certainly prefer that they don't feel inclined to check. Put the camera bag on your back, carry a duffel full of clothes, and when they stop you, requiring you to check one, give them the duffel...
Zomei Z699C Tripod: Excellent. I don't understand how this tripod is so cheap. I spent a lot of time researching travel tripods before leaving. Small, lightweight and sturdy, with a ball head were the prime considerations. The carbon fiber Zomei weighs just over three pounds, folds down to only 14" tall for storing, and extends to 60" during use. It's amazingly well-constructed and easy to use; as well as being wonderfully flexible, including breaking apart into a monopod and allowing the central support to be flipped upside down for ground-level shots. Oh, and at $150 it costs one-tenth the price of some of its competitors. Was, and still is, rock solid after a month of abuse in Africa. (Update: Well, maybe now I understand the price a bit. The ball head broke on a recent backcountry canoe trip. Still, might be worth it considering the price. We’ll be taking the tripod to Ecuador, but with a new, higher end ball head.)
HP ProBook 430 G4 13" laptop: Small and lightweight with a 64 GB solid state drive and built-in SD memory card reader. This served its purpose fine. We installed both Lightroom and Photoshop on it. Basically just used Lightroom to backup images from memory cards each evening. Didn't use it for much more than that. If you're used to the speed and processing power of Mac Pros or MacBook Pros, this isn't in the same league ( ... but neither was the cost, which was pretty much expendable). It took many times longer to import images than our Pro Desktop at home. Obviously, the 64 GB internal hard drive wasn't big enough to actually back up images. Used external drives for that. Also: Sign out of Lightroom before you leave and then sign back in. This will start the clock on when it will require you to have internet access next to verify your subscription. This way you should have at least a month of use before you need to start worrying, just in case internet access is spotty.
LaCie 2TB Rugged Mini External Hard Drive: Awesome. It's just a tiny rubberized brick with one port for a USB cable (included). Small and light enough that we could put it in a little CamelBak daypack with our passports and carry it everywhere with us (the second hard drive usually stayed in our room safe). Runs off of power from the USB, i.e., the laptop battery, reducing the number of cords and number of power receptacles you need. Also allows you to back up images when you have trouble getting your international power adapters to work with what you actually find when you get there (e.g. in South Africa and Namibia).
Western Digital 2TB My Passport Wireless Pro External Hard Drive: Not quite as sturdy as the LaCie, but had no problems with it. It also runs off the USB power and was very light weight. Also has a built in SD card reader so that if the computer had been lost during the trip, we still would've been able to back up images directly to it (that's why the two different types of hard drives). This usually stayed in the room so that we had separate backups of all our images in different places. We also never erased anything from the SD cards themselves (lots of 128 GB cards) so that they served as a third backup.