My Unconventional Africa Kit

People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there, things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of…Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen)

I’ve dreamed of going to Africa, specifically Namibia, ever since seeing a National Geographic special on the desert elephants there.  As I type this though, I realize the dream went farther back than that – to Elsa the lioness from Born Free, to Isak Dinesen and Out of Africa, and more.  That’s why it’s high on my “bucket list” of places to visit…and tonight I start my journey there.  Almost a month, visiting Namibia, Zambia/Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls area) and Botswana.

Many people have asked me what type of gear I’m taking.  If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that I loathe talking about gear.  Not because it doesn’t matter – it does – but it matters only because you need to choose gear that will align to your photographic direction.  No one can tell you what that is; you need to figure it out yourself.

I also wanted to set my own internal expectations.  I’m a huge fan of Nick Brandt – he’s simply the best African wildlife photographer I know as he lends a true artists touch to his “portraits” as he refers to them.  He shoots a Pentax 67 (medium format film) and will spend weeks patiently waiting for a shot of one animal or herd.  I simply won’t have the time to do that.

Oh, one other question I’m frequently asked:  Am I going with a tour group?  Heavens no.  Despise them.  We’re actually doing a self-drive around Namibia and independently flying/boating to the remaining parts.

With that out of the way, here’s my kit:  

Film:  I’m taking two Holga’s.  My one outfitted for Infrared photography and one “straight”.  I thought about taking a higher-end film setup but I couldn’t pull together the configuration that I wanted in time. My Holga’s have been very good to me and I plan to use them extensively in Africa, especially shooting infrared.  I’ll use them for landscapes, villages, pretty much anything.  Hey, if an elephant gets close enough  maybe even wildlife! I”m hoping to include some of this work in the big show of my Holga work I have coming up in the Spring.

Digital:  For wildlife, my main digital camera will be a Panasonic G1 with a 45-200 lens (90-400 equiv.).  I’m extremely happy with the output I get from that camera and have done beautiful 50 inch wide enlargements from it.

For landscapes and around camp, I have a Canon 5D (original) with a 70-200 2.8 L IS II lens and a 50/1.8.  This was a last-minute addition as I was able to buy one in great condition for only $750 just before I left.  The 70-200 was rented using “lens lotto” promotion.  I got it for substantially cheaper than renting it “straight”.  I highly recommend Lensrentals – a great group to work with.  Why this camera?  Full frame goodness…cheap.  And 12MP is plenty for me. No, no teleconvertor.  I don’t plan on using it for wildlife at all unless they’re very close.

For going out to dinner at night, I have a Canon S95.  I’ve been very impressed with the reviews and can easily fit it into my pants pocket.  I hate lugging around my gear when I go out to dinner at night and with the f 2.0 lens, big sensor, shoots RAW,  and very high quality, this should do great (same sensor as the G12, by the way, just in a smaller form factor).

I have an Induro CT014 tripod which fits into my carry-on bag easily. I was very impressed with the quality of this tripod.  I compared it side-by-side with the Gitzo and actually preferred the Induro.  And it’s less than half the price.

Is it my ideal Africa kit?  Not even close.  If I really wanted to do wildlife properly I’d have all sort of monster tripods with gimbal heads, 500/2.8 lenses, etc.  No way was I going to do that.  There are some serious internal weight & size restrictions on the internal charters and I didn’t feel like coughing up an additional $1000 to buy a seat just for my gear.  I wanted light and able to handle a variety of shooting conditions.

BUT – my entire kit (aside from the tripod) easily fits into a Think Tank Retrospective 20 bag.  I really like that bag as it doesn’t look like a normal camera bag.

Oh, one more thing.  I’m doing the whole month-long trip out of one small carry-on bag – 24″ x 12″ x 10″ (plus the camera bag).  Again, I’m trying to do this very light weight and that’s the largest size allowed on our internal charters without paying extra.  The only way that this is possible is that virtually every lodge we’re staying at has free laundry service.  Yay!

So that’s it.  I leave tonight at 3:40am.  I have no idea what to expect photographically, but I do know that I’ll come back with lots of memories and have lots of fun. If you want to follow along on my trip, you can follow my personal Africa blog here.  Since we’ll be without Internet for much of the trip, I don’t know how much I’ll be able to update it, but I’ll do my best.

Talk to you again after Christmas.




  1. Hey you forgot to tell people about your travel blog! We don’t want to have to wait until Christmas to hear from you.

    Have a wonderful trip, Mark.

    P.S. No teleconverter for the Canon 5D?

  2. Thanks Sabrina. No, no teleconvertor. I don’t plan on using the 5D for wildlife at all.

    I’ve updated the post to include the link to my travel blog. Thanks for reminding me.


  3. Have a great trip, Mark. I envy all that gear. My travels usually see me with one body, usually one, maybe two lens and the G9. And great job with only taking a carry on bag. That’s the only way to travel, free laundry or not. I’ve found that if you’re going to be out on the road for any length of time a) it ain’t no fashion show and b) even if a hotel charges, it’s worth it. There’s something liberating about not standing around a conveyor belt waiting for a bag. Though it gets challenging when you try to pack the souveniers too! 🙂 One last question – laptop or no?

    Again, godspeed.

  4. Impressive packing to get it all into a Retro 20 and one other carry on. I would be nervous not having a laptop to back up my images. I usually put all images onto at least two places each night. It would make weight and power restrictions easier though.

    Why both the G1 and the 5D? You like the extra reach the 4/3 sensor gives you over the full frame 5D for wildlife? So why the 5D for landscapes? Wider with your lens combo?

    I did have to laugh that you tagged this post with ‘vision’. Weren’t you a little tired of that word?

    Sounds like an awesome trip. I have wondered about doing an Africa trip, but figured you would need to do a tour of some kind. Would love to hear more about how you planned and arranged it.

    Have fun.

    1. Hi Chris,

      I’m taking the G1 for 2 reasons: 1. Backup in case something happens to the 5D, and 2. I get the 400mm reach in a very small package. Unfortunately, the G1 lenses I have are slow and don’t give me very good bokeh. So the 5D with the 70-200 2.8 will do well in low light and give me that great separation of the background (this would be mainly around villages). For landscapes, just the quality of the 70-200 version II glass is why.

      I thought long and hard about a backup device, whether that’s a laptop or a device lilke the Hyperspace, but in the end I just decided to buy more cards. Lighter, more compact.

      LOL about the vision thing. Yes, I am. The only reason I tagged it as such was the paragraph about why I don’t talk about gear much.

  5. We are very excited for you going off onto your dream trip. My wife and I are going to Cuba next week. So, gear planning has been on my mind too. It’s part of the process. Figuring out what to take and what to leave can be a struggle.

  6. The first thing I thought when reading about your Holga’s is “wonder if everything will fit into his new bag”. Haha!

    Your Africa kit is pretty unusual (cue the 600mm monsters and crazy tripods I keep hearing about on these trips). Looking forward to seeing what you come back with muchly.

  7. Have a fantastic time in Africa. It’s on my bucket list too, but then so are many more places. Looking forward to the images you will get with that “non-traditional” safari gear 😉

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