The author capturing images from a Roy Safari “special photographic” vehicle using a 500mm f/4L IS lens attached to a 1D Mark IV body supported on an Art Morris designed BLUBB® beanbag
This largely determines what equipment you can take with you on a trip. It also depends on where you are flying from , the airline, class of travel and aircraft type. If you fly business class this makes things easier as you generally have less hassles with the airline and they are not as fussed about hand luggage. It is sometimes worth the extra expense rather than paying for excess baggage and maybe being forced to check-in some of your valuable equipment. The worst that can happen is to have some of your gear stolen or damaged. This could ruin your trip and make the safari a huge waste of money. So consider the benefits! Best of all, if you have a non-photographer accompanying you, then you can then share the load. This is not the norm, but on my latest trip I had my family along and that helped enormously.
You are generally allowed 30Kg to 40Kg on international flights but the local flights are the problem with many only allowing 10Kg to 20Kg of luggage packed in “soft bags”. If you can avoid using this means of transport, consider it. Hand luggage is an issue, with many airlines allowing up to 10Kg, some only 6Kg. There are a few loopholes as most airlines do not consider a laptop and small camera bag as part of the weight allowance and you can use this to your advantage. Photo vests play their role in being able to add a few more peripherals to your weight load.
Camera bodies and lenses
It is ideal to take two camera bodies, one a full frame sensor body and a smaller sensor body. However, in my case with Canon, this requires different batteries and battery chargers. It all adds to the weight. I find it better to take two 1D Mark IV bodies which have a crop factor of 1.3. This means you can carry one extra battery which can be used in either body and only one charger. The controls are identical on the two bodies and that simplifies things. The downside is a loss of wider angle options with the 1.3 crop factor sensors, but you can always take a panorama if you want to include wider angles, or an ultra-wide lens option. Once the EOS 1DX camera body is available then the issue with batteries and charger falls away and you also have a full frame body. So, in future, the bodies will most probably be a 1D Mark IV and a 1DX.
Lenses are the most difficult choice. For me the first lens to go in is the 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS. With a 1.4x TC and even a 2x TC (both Mark III versions) you have 70mm t0 400mm focal lengths covered. Add a 24-70mm f/2.8L lens and you have wider angle options for up-close subjects and landscapes. At the long end I find the 500mm the most versatile. The 500mm hand-held is also great for bird flight photography. With a 1.4x TC you have up to a 700mm focal length option. I seldom use a 2x TC on the 500mm although there is auto-focusing at the central focus point and image quality is acceptable. So with 3 lenses you cover most options.
If you have the luxury of being able to take additional lenses, then my favourite is the 300mm f/2.8L IS lens. Image quality is superb and I find many of the mammal shots are well-covered with the 300mm lens. With a 1.4x TC you have a 420mm option at f/4, which produces a better quality image than the 70-200mm with a 2x TC. On this last trip, I did not take the 300mm lens, but opted to take my 800mm f/5.6L IS lens. Whilst I missed the 300mm, I found that I was able to get a number of images of very good quality from the 800mm that would not have been possible with the 300mm or the 500mm (with TC combinations). The 800mm proved particularly useful for smaller birds. But generally the three lenses, mentioned in the previous paragraph should suffice for Tanzania. In the Ndutu area, you have the advantage of getting the vehicle closer to the subject as you are not confined to the laid-out tracks and roads. If you are really into landscapes you may want something like a 16-35mm wide angle zoom.
Obviously a spare camera battery and battery charger are essentials. Try to limit the number of plug options. If possible ensure that all your power cords have the same type of plug fitting. For me a European two pin option is the best. They are small and all you require in the way of adapters is a European two-pin to a UK three pin adapter. Tanzania has UK three pin plug points. This goes for any other charger and your laptop charger.
Next must be a flash unit. Flash is handy to give some catch light but is also useful on the early morning or late evening drives. On this trip the flash proved particularly useful for lion cubs in the darker undergrowth and for leopards in the deeper shadows of tall trees. A flash extender, like a Better Beamer® is essential to give greater reach. I will talk about support later in the article. A flash extension cord and possibly a power source such as a Quantum Turbo must form part of the gear needed.( Another charger!) AA batteries can be used but the recycling time is longer.
Extension tubes are handy for close-up work when you need to reduce the minimum focus distance of your longer lenses and can be used with the 70-200mm for macro-type images. They add very little weight. A remote cord should be used when necessary – another small, lightweight article.
I normally take a 77mm circular polarising filter – fits the 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. A drop-in circular polarising filter is useful for the super-telephoto lenses. They are good for reducing glare and increasing colour saturation.
More debate takes place about support than any of the equipment. For me a tripod is essential. I do a lot of photography in and around the camps and lodges and mostly with a 500mm lens (800mm if it goes with). I don’t find monopods that useful in these situations, so a tripod is put into the checked luggage. A Gitzo 1548 is my standard. I know it weighs a ton but I still have not brought myself to replace it for one of the lighter weight tripods. A Wimberley gimbal-type head provides good all-round maneuverability. A ball head is also useful. On this last trip I took a ballhead instead of the Wimberley – whilst great for landscapes and panoramas, I missed the Wimberley.
Vehicle support depends on your personal preference. Many of my colleagues use a Todd-Pod® which is essentially a T-piece on which you attach a Wimberley head and can be used to shoot from a vehicle roof hatch. It needs to straddle the corners of the hatch and you need to be fairly tall to easily manipulate the rig. I still find a large solid beanbag to be my best bet. I use an Arthur Morris designed BLUBB®. See picture above. It is very heavy (takes 6,5 kg of beans) but, for me, it is still the best atop a vehicle. Empty it weighs next to nothing in your luggage. Your first stop on your safari is a supermarket to buy beans! Stock up on water and energy bars as well. The downside of the beanbag is difficulty in manually focusing if you need to, and the placement of your flash extender bracket. On the subject of flash extender brackets for the flash unit and Better Beamer – use a Wimberley combo. All my lenses have Wimberley lens plates and the bodies have Arca-Swiss type plates on the bottom. The flash extender bracket can be attached to the lens plate or the camera base plate. If you are using the Wimberley gimbal head on a tripod, then the Wimberley flash bracket can fit directly onto the arm of the Wimberley gimbal head.
Computer Gear and other Electronics
For me a laptop is essential as I like to do a fair amount of editing, sorting and rating while on safari. I use a 17″ MacBook Pro which needs a charger! Remember airlines don’t usually count a laptop as weight. An external hard drive for image back-up goes without question. This can be put in your photo vest which also guards against possible damage. An iPhone (has a number of photo apps like “simple DOF”) and an iPod with earphones complete the list. Good for those many hours on an aircraft, buses or in airports.
Compact Flash Memory Cards
Not to be forgotten and also part of the photo vest pack. I take along one 64 GB UDMA 7 , two 32 GB and a few 16GB cards. I do not use the SD slot in the 1D Mark IV -find it too slow in comparison to the CF slot.
Other Bits and Pieces
Flashlight or preferably a headlamp. Cleaning materials for your gear (remember sensors get dusty and so do lenses!). Spare AA or AAA batteries. Small high quality screwdrivers and Allen keys (running repairs). Duct tape. Ziploc bags. Penknife. Binoculars. I always take two towels with me. I wrap my camera and lens combo in it in the vehicle. This lies on one of the seats when not in use. Keeps all the dust out and reduces marking/scratching on the camera body or lens.
I am sure you are wondering how all this goes. I put the two camera bodies with the 24-70mm and 70-200mm lens in a small shoulder camera bag. I have never had an airline even look at this. It is an old style one and looks quite innocuous, like some amateur traveler. The 500mm lens, tele-converters, flash unit, extension tubes and polarising filters are put into a Lowepro Road Runner. This is my “official” hand luggage (not too heavy without bodies and two lenses). The small camera bag and laptop don’t count! The other stuff is carefully wrapped and put into checked luggage. If I have a”sherpa”, he/she takes the 800mm or 300mm lens in a Lowepro Lens Trekker 600. The Road Runner is repacked once at my destination and is also placed on a seat in the vehicle in a handy position.
DONT FORGET SOME CLOTHING AND TOILETRIES!