Safari Photography Print


Being a serious amateur photographer, going to Africa was a dream trip, albeit one over which I fretted a lot. I say again, a lot. When going to Africa to photograph on safari, there is much about which one can fret.

Anyway, I read numerous web articles about it, several of which were very helpful. I suggest that you read these:


    • Gary Voth's description of his trip, which is excellent background and advice. He's a professional and I found his information to be very helpful.

      Nathan Myhrvold's description of his various safari trips. He is the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and is a highly accomplished photographer, as well as a very intelligent man. He also has more money that everyone in the world I know put together and, as is obvious from the article, doesn't have to travel under the same kinds of restrictions that I did. But, the article is filled with great advice and is worth reading.

     d2x and elephants web resize.jpg
    My D2X, with 300mm f/2.8 & 1.7 telextender, pointed at a herd of elephants in Amboseli
     amboseli elephants web resize.jpg
    The herd


Among the things that concerned me were the following:  


Equipment failure. I bought a D200 as a backup for my D2X. My plan was to put my 300mm lens and 1.7 extender on the D2X and put the 70-200mm on the D200, figuring that I wouldn't have to change lenses at all while out on the drives. Unfortunately, the D200 died on our second day at Amboseli so I was down to one good camera and had to change lenses a lot more often than I had wanted to.

Battery life. I took an extra battery for the D2X and an extra set of two for the D200 (I have the vertical grip so it can use two batteries at once). It's vital to have extra batteries and to charge them whenever possible, as some camps (even the luxury camps) may have restrictions on the time and place where one can charge batteries. And, VR and/or image stabilizing lenses use the camera's battery for their motors, which will drain batteries more quickly than normal.

Backup of images. I couldn't take a laptop due to space restrictions so I took an Epson P5000 instead. It worked very well and was a great solution.

Sufficient memory cards. I took eight each 8 Gb Delkin Pro CF cards, figuring that in the unlikely event I filled them all I could start formatting and reusing them after uploading images to the P5000. As it worked out, I only filled four of them, despite the fact that I shot RAW files once we left Nairobi.

Carrying the equipment. Going through Heathrow was a pain in the neck because of the carryon bag size restrictions. I used a LowePro Magnum Pro AW that was actually ¼" too tall but no one ever questioned me about it-it went through the scanner and appeared to be in conformance, so it was not a problem, except for the fact that it wasn't big enough to hold all my gear. I had to carry the D2X body in one of my photography vest pockets and had Sue carry the D200 body in her backpack.

Packing and carrying the gear took a while to figure out, but here is what I took and how I got it there.

    Nikon D2X, my primary camera.

   Nikon D200, my backup camera.

    Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 lens.

    Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

    Nikon 300mm f/2.8 lens.

    Nikon 1.7 telextender.

    Nikon SB800 flash. I actually took two, but didn't ever use both for lighting. And I didn't take my flash arms or Better Beamers (which can enhance contrast lighting on animals) and I'm glad I didn't.

    Casio Exilim S600 pocket camera. I used it a lot more than I thought I would, since all my other gear was apart and in pockets or bags while we were en route from one camp to the next.

    Epson P5000 viewer. It has an 80 Gb drive that would have easily held the data from all eight of my CF cards, plus the photos from the Exilim.

    Delkin Sensor Scope cleaning kit. I used the scope frequently and I used a large bulb blower to blow out the D2X body every night.

    Heliopan polarizing filters for the 17-55mm and 70-200mm lenses. The 300mm lens requires a special insert filter made by Nikon and the polarizers have been back ordered ever since the lens came out so I didn't have one for that lens.

    I also took my infrared filter but didn't use it.

    Gitzo tripod with Arca Swiss ball head. This Gitzo has four leg sections and thus collapses into a smaller profile, so I could fit it in my duffel bag. I used it for some group shots and photos of Sue and me in our tent at Tortilis but didn't have time for any other serious landscape work. I'm not sure I'd take it again-there was plenty of room in the duffel, but the weight was the issue.

   Bogen Pod screw-in beanbags.  These were indispensable.  You can't take a tripod in the safari vehicles--at least not effectively--so bean bags are in widespread use.  Micato provides them in the vehicles but the Pods are much better since they screw in to equipment.  I screwed one into each DSLR body and another into each big lens.  As it happened, I rarely used both bags in that manner;  it was sufficient to have one screwed into the big lens in use.

    Hakuba photography vest. All you photographers have a vest of some kind and this one has served me well. It's showing signs of age, especially after this trip, but it was indispensable.

We took our video camera too, but never used it. Sue just enjoyed being on the drives, looking at the animals and taking in the scenery. I was busy taking photographs while enjoying being on the drives, looking at the animals and taking in the scenery.

I packed all three lenses, the telextender, both flashes, my filter wallet and most of the other paraphernalia in the LowePro. I stuffed the D2X body in the lower left front pocket of the Hakuba vest and the video camera in the middle right pocket. I keep other things in the lower right divided pocket, like a space blanket, Kleenex, etc. I kept the Micato flashlight on one of the hooks in the upper left pocket, while the upper right pocket carried a Solio solar charging device that will charge a cell phone twice with its solar charge. (Never had to use it, but it made me feel good.) The Casio Exilim went into a Tamrac Neo's belt carrier that made it very handy, which was a good thing. As I said, the D200 body went into Sue's backpack.

With all that packed (or crammed, depending on your point of view) I still had a small carrying case full of charging bricks for the D2X, D200, Exilim, P5000 and my BlackBerry. Greg made the unfortunate mistake of offering to carry some stuff for me, so he lugged that package around for me until we left Africa.

And yes, my BlackBerry was useful. T-Mobile's service included roaming for cell phone, text messaging and internet email in Kenya so I was connected all the time in Nairobi, Amboseli, Mt. Kenya and the Maasai Mara. The cell phone worked in Tanzania, but Tanzania is not a GPRS-enabled country so there was no text messaging or internet email available there.

Anyway, British Airways doesn't have a weight limit on carryon bags, per se. The criterion is that you must be able to lift it up and stow it in the overhead bin yourself. I could do this, despite the weight of the lenses, etc., so once I made it through Heathrow check-in, my main concern was the in-country bush flights, since I knew that small aircraft like the Twin Otter wouldn't have overhead bins large enough for the LowePro. In fact, they don't have overhead bins at all, and you can't fit anything in the space under the seat in front of you.

I resigned myself to surrendering my camera bag to baggage handlers for placement in the baggage bay, as would happen on most small commuter plane flights in the U.S. I affixed a bright fabric "FRAGILE" flag to it and prepared for the worst.

The good news is that you can carry your carryon bag in your lap on those flights. Whew. Given that the flights are all an hour or less, that was wonderful. Once I folded myself in half and duck-walked up to my seat, I could drape the equipment in my photo vest pockets around my legs and place the LowePro on my lap. I could even get the Exilim out and take a photo or two inside the plane. What fun.

As I filled CF cards, I uploaded the photos to the P5000 and put the cards back into my Gepe card safe. I didn't take a spare SD card for the Exilim-obviously, a mistake-so when it filled and I uploaded those to the P5000, I had to format the card so I could continue taking photos with the Exilim. That gave me some heartburn but it worked out OK. Once we arrived in London, I didn't use my Nikon gear at all-I was kind of burned out on serious photography and didn't want to make London another photo shoot. I used the Exilim throughout our London visit and it was just fine.

Upon return, I took all of my Nikon gear up to the Nikon Service Center at LAX to (1) have the D200 repaired, (2) have the D2X cleaned, including the CCD, and (3) have the lenses and telextender cleaned. This is a must when you return from a place like Africa. The D200 was still under warranty but it cost a few bucks to have everything else cleaned and serviced-a few bucks being $1,017. But, we do what we have to do.

Upon arrival home I uploaded the photos from the cards and/or the P5000 to my PC and began the long, arduous task of processing. First, cataloging and selection using ACDSee, then Adobe Lightroom, then Adobe Photoshop CS3. Having taken in excess of 2,000 photos it took a while to whittle the collection down to a more manageable size. Long, hard work, but fun too, and I enjoyed reliving the trip in the process. We must go back to the Mara, so stay tuned for more.