Africa: What worked, what didn’t.

One of the things that helped me in my preparation for Africa were posts by other people about what worked and what didn’t on previous similar trips (thanks Sabrina Henry!).  Here’s my attempt to pay it forward.

Before I start though, one bit of news:  I was fortunate enough to be invited to post one of my Holga photos from Africa on Canadian landscape photographer Darwin Wiggett’s blog.  I admire his work tremendously, so I was honored to provide him with the photo and write-up he wanted as part of his “Inspiration” series.  You can see that post here.

Okay, here’s what I ended up taking to Africa and my comments on each.  A strong note on this: this is not your conventional kit in the slightest, but it worked for me and let me implement what I had visualized prior to the trip.  Some parts may be applicable to something you’re planning and some won’t.

Film:  I’m took two Holga’s.  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.  The Holga’s worked great and I ended up with a nice set of Art Images as a result.  Looking back on it, I should have done even more and taken even more Efke IR820 infrared film.  FYI:  I went through probably two dozen X-ray machines on this trip.  No problems with film fogging whatsoever.  No special protection or hand inspection.  You can see the Holga images from the trip here.

Digital:  For wildlife, I thought my main digital camera would 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.  It ended up, however, that we were able to get much closer to wildlife than I ever imagined, so I ended up using the Canon 5D more than the G1.  The G1 ended up being my least-used camera, not because it’s not a good camera, but because the situation didn’t call for it.  I rarely needed the extra reach of the 400mm equivalent.

For landscapes and around camp, I planned on using 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 a 5D in great condition for only $750 just before I left.  The 70-200 was rented using lensrentals.com “lens lotto” promotion.  I got it for substantially cheaper than renting it “straight”.  I highly recommend Lensrentals – a great group to work with.  They set the standard for great customer service.  Why this camera?  Full frame goodness…cheap.  And 12MP is plenty for me.  The 70-200 stayed on my camera the entire time and became my primary setup for wildlife and landscapes.  That lens is stunningly sharp (but heavy) and the original 5D’s files have a quality that is tough to duplicate using other digital cameras. (And I can hear you guys now – Mark’s switching to digital.  I’ve never had anything against digital, it’s just a different tool for a different job than film).  The big surprise was that we were able to get incredibly close to most wildlife, so that became my main wildlife camera too.  You can see the results of all my digital work here.  I never took the 50/1.8 out of my bag.

For general around camp and snapshots, I took a Canon S95.  I’d 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 and high quality, it did great (same sensor as the G12, by the way, just in a smaller form factor).  I was very impressed by the S95 in actual use as well.  Super quick to use, much more pocketable than a G12 or Micro-four thirds setup and really nice quality files.  I ended up using this much more than I thought I would.  Highly recommended. 

I took an Induro CT014 tripod which fit 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.  You see the question asked a thousand times all over the Internet – I want something sturdy, lightweight and small enough to fit in a carry on.  The snarky answer is usually “pick two of those qualities because nothing has all three”.  Well, I can tell you that the Induro CT014 is just that – light, small and sturdy.  It handled all of my cameras easily and is now my primary tripod for everything.

My entire kit (aside from the tripod) easily fit into a Think Tank Retrospective 20 bag.  I really like that bag as it doesn’t look like a normal camera bag (I have the Pinestone color shown above).   I whizzed through every airport and got on every plane with both it and my carry-on because it looked like my “personal item” that is allowed along with the carry on bag.   It is the perfect “shooting bag” for me because I was able to easily shoot out of it (compared to a “getting to location bag” which is mainly for storage and flights).  I had the inside split into thirds:  One third with the G1/45-200, one third with the Canon 5D/70-200 and one third with the Holgas.  The “silencers” on the Velcro bag flap were great when working around wildlife.  It holds a ton, but doesn’t look like it.  The one thing I wish the Retrospective line had was some security to it.  The main flap closes using just the Velcro, not a latch or a lock.  Ideally, there would be a security cable built in so I could lock the bag to some furniture in the room as I went out at night.  Some of their bags already have this, but not the Retrospective line.

If you recall, that blue bag above is my carry-on and I did the whole month living out of it.  This was only possible because most of the lodges we stayed at had free laundry service (what I didn’t know was that due to cultural restrictions, they wouldn’t wash underwear or socks, so I had to do those in the sink).  I wanted a light setup that was able to handle a variety of shooting conditions.  This kit worked for me. 

What would I do differently next time?  I’d leave the G1 at home and use that space for more film.  That’s it.

Questions?  I’d be happy to answer them.

Ttyl,

Mark

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for this handy round up Mark. I’m heading back to South Africa in a couple months and this confirmed that I will be getting the Induro tripod. I’m also thinking of renting a 100-400mm Canon, will be checking out the lens rental co. Loved your wildlife shots.

  2. I will also second the same induro tripod. I took it to nepal and love it. It is a tripod and not absolutely rock solid, but seemed the same as the gitzo’s that were beside it. Don’t raise up the center column (wish you could remove it) and you will be fine.

    I like my TT retro 20 also. I wish I had the pinestone one. I the pinestone looks the most like a “regular” bag.

    I was not as adventurous enough to try pure carry on. I am glad that worked out for you. I had one carry on with my camera gear, and the slimmest of camera bags (another TT) and got questioned about having 2 bags a couple of times, but was let through.

    Thats good to know that you can get fairly close to wildlife without the need for a 600mm lens. I have heard others on trips that wished they had more than a 70-200 though. Glad that worked for you too.

  3. Your post is full of useful information. Thanks for putting in th work, Mark.

    I have been looking at the S95. I would like to get one in my pocket. As you said, a great little camera when you don’t want to pack around the big stuff.

    Also, congrats on impressing Darwin. 🙂

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