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Summing up - Photography travel notes South Africa

In my last post I tried to cover some of the more important general points that have made our travels successful and which were particularly useful on our SA trip. In this post I’ll cover a few of the key photography concerns that we dealt with. I will be adding to this list as more thoughts occur to me, but this will get the ball rolling.It's a messy process! In all of our previous travels we have always taken photographs, after all, who doesn’t? As skills developed and as I actually began to generate revenue from my photography it began to take on an increasingly larger role in the trip planning, culminating in the SA trip.I have always packed a reasonable amount of camera equipment, but usually limited to one body and 3 or 4 of lenses as well as all the associated bits to make it all work. When we went to Bhutan in January of 2010, I had just purchased a Leica M9 and decided that I’d use the trip to learn how to use it. Which leads me to my two of my most important learnings: 1. Don’t travel with a camera equipment that you don’t know how to use if the images are important to you. I had never used a range finder camera before and had never tried to operate exclusively with manual-focus lenses. I was carried away with the thrill of learning to be a Leica shooter and I had visions of all the great shots that I would return with. If you drive an automatic car and have never raced before, never get on a racetrack with a gear shift automobile; the heat of the moment does not lend itself to thoughtful learning when all you are trying to do is survive. Fortunately, I had had the minimal good sense to take a Canon G11 as a backup, which became my go-to camera. I did get comfortable with the Leica over time, but when I look at my portfolio from that trip and see the failed Leica shots as well the successful G11 shots, which while successful from a compositional point of view are full of small sensor noise and with their excessive DOF, I could weep. Some unique and never to be replaced shooting opportunities lost because I did not know how to use my equipment; very, very expensive learning.

2. Never travel with only one camera body if the images are important to you. Knowing that the SA trip was likely to provide some lifetime portfolio shots and with Bhutan very much in the back of my mind, I took 3 camera bodies, two of which were in continual use and one which barely came out of the camera bag. My major equipment was:

  • Cameras: Canon 5DII / Canon 7D / Leica M9
  • Canon Lenses: 17-40mm f/4 / 24-105mm f/4 / 70-200mm f2.8 / 300mm f2.8 / Sigma 150mm f/2.8 Macro / 1.4 lens extender
  • Leica Lenses : 35mm f/2 / 50mm f/2 / 90mm f/2.8

The Leica was barely used as I expected that we’d be in situations where a small and less obtrusive camera would be ideal for candid, street portraits or local people shots where the M9 shines. These opportunities were few and so the Leica never was used. However, the idea is a good one and I will still take a small rangefinder on our next trip which will include more tribal lands as we expand our southern african travel horizons. This time I expect to be taking the new Fuji XPro-1 which I have just ordered and which has all the M9’s advantages with the addition of autofocus. My M9 and lenses will be up for sale in the next few days and I will post a review of the XPro-1 after I get a chance to work with it. As for the other two camera bodies, they were in constant use and I would have had a real problem had one of them failed. They were both in use because I did not want to change lenses in an open Land Rover in the midst of dusty savannah so my intent initially was to keep the 300mm on the 7D to take advantage of the field of view of an APS-C sensor which would give me the apparent reach of 480mm lens and the 70-200 on the 5DII. As it turned out, I still found myself changing lenses in the field as conditions and shot needs changed. For example, there were occasions when I needed all the reach I could get and put the 1.4 extender on the 7D with the 300mm to give me an apparent reach of 672mm. I tried to handhold this without great success but it worked well with a bean bag (see my third important learning below). However there was a periodic need to put the macro lens on or to switch to the17-40mm for landscapes or to put the 70-200 on the 7D for a longer zoom. Hence my earlier statement that I would have been lost with only one body; I needed to have two fully functioning camera and lens combinations ready at hand and easily switchable for changes in shooting needs, quite literally within seconds of each other without needing to change a lens. I should footnote this by saying that all of the instances I’m referring to were on safari drives and in the heat of the moment. Two bodies and fast lenses should be standard operating equipment if images matter.

3. You need to hold the camera steady but how? Huge learning here; I took a Slik tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head, and a Wimberly. All of my pre-trip research had suggested that on safari drives, while there were lots of points of view on the best platform for the steady mounting of a camera on the safari vehicle, a good tripod could be lashed to the inside frame of the vehicle and with a Wimberley mounted they would provide an ideal vehicle camera mount and the tripod would also allow you to have a platform for more mundane, non-safari uses like long exposure photography and pano shots. My only comment? Your mileage may vary and in my case I got no mileage at all. First of all, I could never find the right location and orientation in the vehicle to mount the tripod; two of the legs were lashed to the vehicle’s frame with the third leg free, but the two lashed legs and the free leg could never be adjusted so that everything worked smoothly. The third leg got in the way, the other two legs were never oriented quite the way I wanted and the whole thing felt and behaved like just what it was, a jury-rigged makeshift, trying to masquerade as an effective tool. Quickly gave up wasting my time on the tripod experiment and hand-held and used bean bags, which in my experience, were readily available on the vehicles that we used. What would have worked in retrospect? Either a monopod would have been much better as it would be much easier to secure and would not have been nearly as cumbersome and/or a Manfrotto Super Clamp with the appropriate fitting to allow a Wimberley to be attached. For me, for the next time I will be taking a Super Clamp and ditching the tripod. Having said that however, a quick diversion on tripods. If you use a tripod as part of your normal shooting take a tripod and a clamp, if you don’t use a tripod don’t expect that you will suddenly start taking, for example, pano shots because you happen to have a tripod handy. In my case I took a set of RRS pano rails because,well, it was africa, there would be wonderful opportunities for panorama scenes and I after all, did have the tripod! I don’t usually take panos at home or on other travels, why did I believe that I was suddenly going to turn myself into a pano shooter in africa? Another lesson; you have enough to do to get good shots with your usual kit without taking a ton of equipment that you don’t ordinarily use just on the off chance that you may use it.

4. A couple of concluding thoughts on the stability topic. I was surprised at how well the 300mm f/2.8 handheld. It, after all, weighs 3.4 kilos between body and lens but the IS is an enormous help and I found that the largest percentage of my shots were either acceptable or crisp. With the 1.4 extender on, however I really did need some form of support. As I have noted in earlier posts, our choice of safari camps was guided by, among other variables, the requirement that the safari camp be able to provide us with a sole-use vehicle so that there were no other occupants besides ourselves and the tracker. This meant that with V on the bench behind me and no other occupants in the vehicle, I could prop my leg on my bench and use this as a camera brace with an unobstructed field of view of almost 180 degrees. In almost all instances, this was enough to provide me with the stability I needed and with a beanbag resting on the vehicle frame I was fine for the really long shots. If you can arrange for a sole-occupancy vehicle, do so if your images matter. In a sole-occupancy vehicle, I could survive without a monopod or Super Clamp but for the minimal additional weight I will bring the Super Clamp the next time. One more last point on the topic, at MalaMala Rattray’s Camp, the ranger also serves as the tracker so there were only three of us in the vehicle. That meant that the best seat in the vehicle was the jump seat next to the ranger driving the Land Rover. Two advantages; you are down as low as you can get in the vehicle so your shots are eye to eye rather than being shot from an elevation which helps the natural look of the images and you can put beanbags on the front windscreen frame and shoot straight ahead as well as off to the left. This did not work in Tswalu as there is both a ranger driving as well as a tracker, who sits on a seat positioned on the left front of the hood of the LR. This nullifies any advantage of the jump seat for shooting straight ahead so the best seat in this situation is the first bench behind the driver.

5. Fast lenses matter! Because so much of safari shooting takes place at dawn and dusk, you really do need lenses that are as fast as possible and that are still respectably sharp wide open. Thank goodness for modern camera technology with cameras that perform respectably well at high ISO’s but while in a pinch you crank up the ISO and get the shot, a lower ISO and a faster lens is the better route to go.

6. On safari drives, ask for a guide who is a photographer. A large number of them are, but if you can get a vehicle with a ranger who is a keen photographer your shots will be all the better for it. They know how to position the vehicle to take best advantage good light and how to properly align it relative to the position of the sun. They will take all the small but important steps with the vehicle positioning, light source and direction and orientation to the animals to make sure that you have the best opportunities to make great images. And ask the ranger for his thoughts and ideas; he will be happy to become your partner in the process.

7. The portions of southern africa that we explored are full of inconvenient twigs, blades of grass, branches, stumps and deadheads, and I can only assume that the rest of the continent is equally well provided with un-photogenic obstructions. Know that 90 times out of 100, the shot of a lifetime will have an inconvenient branch jutting into the frame and blocking one of the animal’s eyes. We always check our framing, don’t we, to make sure that there are no trees growing out of our subject’s heads, and it is even more important on safari shoots, but sometimes when you are in a vehicle and a lion is 2 metres away, it’s hard to move a branch out of the frame and survive to tell your story on Animal Kingdom. See point 6 above; make sure that your guide understands the imperatives of a shot.

8. Take a photographer’s vest. I know, they are ugly and geeky and I swore when I started taking pictures seriously that I would never be caught dead in one. But I bought one just before we left and it was a lifesaver. For small plane internal flights when weight matters, load up your vest! You can jam a surprising amount into one and as long as you don’t look like Atlas carrying the globe on his shoulders, you can get a fair bit on board and minimize your carry-on.

9. What camera bag should I use to pack my kit? I have used a variety of bags over the years with varying success but ultimately I was never quite satisfied with any of them. Prior to this trip I read reviews of the Kiboko 30 bag from Gura Gear and knowing the amount of gear that I planned to take, the right bag was going to be more important than ever. I bought the Kiboko and I have to say it was one of my best pre-trip buying decisions. It held all 3 camera bodies and all the various lenses, battery chargers and spares, filters, cables and all the other bits and pieces; it all fitted in one bag, and the bag fitted in the overhead. A great bag and I’m going to look at their smaller bags for less strenuous trips. One small addition to my carry-ons was a small foldable set of wheels to roll the Kiboko. Most airports are well supplied with carts for luggage, but unfortunately these are only ever available in the non-secure areas of the terminal. From the x ray machines to the plane and from the plane to the baggage carousel you are on your own and the distances involved can be hundreds of metres; not a lot of fun hauling 18 kilos without wheels.

Amsterdam Day One

Summing up - General travel notes South Africa