Now, I’m not a veteran of the safari circuit. One trip over 25 years ago and a second recently hardly qualifies. Nevertheless, I have travelled quite a a lot with camera gear and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the gear to take because of the both the increasing difficulty of carry-on weights when travelling today and because I really didn’t want to end up with a breakdown and be unable to photograph or find the gear was completely wrong. In the end, it all worked really well so I thought I’d share my gear list with my reasons for taking it.
Before the list though, one crucial point. Nothing here was bought just for the trip alone and none of it was bought just before the trip. The newest camera I’ve had for four months and I’d already shot thousands of images with it. Most of the lenses (i.e. all bar one) were a year old and I’d had plenty of practice with them. Probably the worst mistake is to get new gear and hope it works when you get there; it’s a sure way to mess up!
I’ll also admit to having a number of trial runs and weighing everything several times weeks in advance to see if it would all work. My core camera bag, taken to Botswana, weighs 9.7Kg. Not that light but it’s a pretty comprehensive set of gear. Packed, it looks like this:
Details of the gear in the bag is as follows:
- Nikon D500. The newest professional crop sensor (DX) camera by Nikon. Performed faultlessly and my main lesson was to keep pushing the ISO up to maintain shutter speed for action shooting at near dawn and disk. ISO 6400 was very usable.
- Nikon D7200. This was my previous main body and I took it as a second body and as a spare in case of a problem with the D500. In its own right the D7200 is an excellent camera and, while I only used it for about 15% of the photographs, it produced the goods for me. It lacks nothing in image quality to the D500 at ISO below 1600. It also has a built in flash that was very handy for fill-in on a couple of occasions.
- Sony RX100iii. Small, pocketable 1” sensor compact camera with 24-70m equivalent fast lens. Used for pretty much all the daily ‘snaps’ of camp and people. Turned out to be very handy as it meant I could avoid swapping lenses on the DSLRs. (This one is actually carried in a small personal day-sack that’s allowed in addition to the carry-on).
- Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E This lens was stuck on the D500 all the time while on drives. I think I’d now choose this lens over an exotic prime 500mm. 500mm (750mm equivalent on DX) is about the least I’d be happy with on a safari that includes a good number of birds and it was still essential for bigger animals. The versatility of the zoom was far more valuable than I’d originally thought. There just isn’t time to change lenses (e.g. Wild Dogs) when there is lots of action about. This lens is fitted with a replacement Kirk Enterprises foot which makes it easier to use and pack.
- Nikon 70-200mm f/4. Yes, the f/4 version of the classic zoom telephoto. I made the decision to forego the f/2.8 several years ago and have never regretted it. I find the f/2.8 just too heavy when carrying a bag full of gear on trips. It was attached to the D7200 most of the time and, with the D500, allowed me to switch zoom ranges without needing to change lenses on the main body. This two body combo’ worked very well indeed.
- Nikon 300mm f/4E PF. The latest version of this f/4 prime telephoto. This is my newest lens and earned a place in the bag for two reasons. First it’s crazy light and fast focussing so it fills a niche the big lens doesn’t. Second, If the big lens has a problem it was my backup strategy giving me 300mm and 420mm (with a 1.4 tele converter). Fortunately, the insurance wasn’t needed but I used the prime a couple of times on small boats.
- Nikon TC-1.4Eii. Teleconverter for insurance (see above). Not used but it’s small and therefore not an issue to carry for that purpose.
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8DX. Small, fast, good quality prime for DX bodies only. Used a number of times in low-light or for landscape type shots mainly. Well worth carrying as it’s so small. (The TC and 35mm stack on top of each other in the bag.
- Nikon 10-24mm f3.5-4.5DX. Very wide angle zoom. I don’t tend to use wide angles very much and only used this, as I’d suspected, for shots of Victoria Falls and for night skies of the Milkyway. It worked well for the first purpose but less well for the second. It’s a bit too slow and subject to some unpleasant coma aberrations when used wide open. But for the amount of use I give a wide angle I’d decided before not to buy something new - indeed, the ideal DX lens (in my view, a light prime 14mm or 12-24 f2.8 DX; that’s 21mm/21-35mm equivalent) doesn’t really exist. Come on Nikon.
I have no lenses for the 35-70 or 24-35 ‘gaps’. I’ve yet to miss these because I can normally move that far. (Though the Sony could cover these precisely if push-came-to-shove!)
- 1 x Polariser and 1 x 10 Stop ND Filter with step-down rings and end caps wrapped in a spare sunglasses microfibre bag. Not used.
- Nikon SB600 Speedlight. Taken for fill-in purposes but was essential in getting night photos of a Genet!
- Battery Charger and cable for DSLR batteries.
- 2 x spare Nikon DSLR batteries (fits either body). Definitely needed 1 spare but I’d still take 2 in the camera bag.
- Spare memory cards. 1 x 64Gb XQD for D500 plus 4 x 64Gb SD (SanDisk Extreme Pro always) cards for either body and a bunch of older 16Gb cards. (Both bodies carried 2 x 64Gb cards each as well). I underestimated need here and ended up off-loading to laptop and spare hard drive and then reformatting cards. I didn’t have enough for use without reusing the card. I’d buy at least a further 2 XQD cards in future.
- Camera and lens cleaning brushes (inc Lens-pen for lens & sensor), and microfibre cloths, small torch, pens.
- All the above was carried in a Think-Tank Airport Essentials rucksack. It all fitted (just - see photo) and weighed a fraction under 10Kg. This bag is about the smallest bag around of this type and is certainly worth consideration for any crop frame user. The photos doesn’t really show how much smaller it is than similar style bags sized for full frame ‘Pro bodies’. It never raised a query even on internal 12 seater flights and carries well.
Carried Separately in my partner’s carry-on bag (thanks!):
- Apple Macbook 12” Retina. Tiny and powerful enough laptop. It’s loaded with Lightroom (not used on trip) but the most important software is Fast Raw Viewer which is much more handy for quick review and learnings in the evenings). I used a (credit card sized) 1Tb SSD from Samsung to backup photos from cards each day.
- Adapters (inc card readers and USB hub for the Macbook) and cables for the above and other hardware including a spare DSLR battery charger. (What do you do if your only charger dies? Hope someone else has a Nikon charger? On my trip I was the only Nikon DSLR user with the EN-EL15 battery type.)
- UK to South Africa plug adapters. Annoyingly I didn’t take a USA adapter. Annoyingly because the 4x4 were fitted with inverters and had USA plug strips; guess who the the majority clients are. Doh. Lesson learnt but I was ok because I had a ‘cigarette lighter’ power adapter and could use USB from that for all our devices. This was the one backup plan I needed!
- 2 x Lithium battery USB packs capable of charging the Apple Laptop, phones and even DSLR batteries. I’d drop down to one of these in future because we used these only sparingly and probably had enough in-car charging options to work for us. This is despite being off-grid for 2 weeks.
- Spare rechargeable AA batteries for head torches and flashgun.
Plus 2 x Kindles and headphones for both of us and toiletries etc. This second carry-on bag (an Osprey 40litre backpack) also packed enough spare clothes that we could survive for the holiday if the check-in gear went missing. A lesson learnt from bitter experience.
Camera Gear Carried in Check-in Luggage
- Full albeit small DSLR Cleaning gear (blower brush and sensor cleaning swabs & solution and spare lens brush)
- Carbon Fibre Monopod (Sirui) with ball head (Giottos). This is a modified setup that I’ve been using for some years and gets used with the long lenses. Used on walking days but not needed in the 4x4 truck in our case.
- Carbon Fibre tripod (Gitzo Series 1 Traveller) and Arca P0 head. Very small but still stiff enough for landscape and night shots. I don’t use for big lenses except occasionally when I use it as a ‘steady’ with the head fluid; I never release hold of the camera in this case!
- Black Rapid Sport sling strap coupled to an AcraTech quick release clamp. My usual walking strap when carrying the D500 and 200-500mm lens with monopod attached. Allows me to carry that combination for (quite literally) hours without problem.
- Empty ‘bean-bag’ filled on arrival a the camp (rice) and used a lot in the 4x4 truck.
- 1 largeish 20litre lightweight ‘dry bag’ (thin silicon coated ripstop fabric). I used this bag a a dust cover for the large lens and D500 whenever in the car. I just pulled it over the lens and camera whenever it wasn’t being used. It kept the worst of the very light dust, that permeated everything, off the camera gear. I also has a smaller one for the D7200 and lens but found I didn’t really need this as it was usually in the camera bag on the seat next to me.
Even with the above, we travelled very light with carry on gear with neither of our two small duffel bags weighing over 20lbs (9kg). Key was using lightweight clothing and using the camp laundry to rotate clothes!
That’s it. It worked and worked well. I’d change nothing except for the minor points as already noted above and for an African Safari, I’d probably think very hard indeed about changing the core gear even if I had the funds to go full frame and exotic telephoto. Unless that is, I had the funds to take a full time assistant to carry it and pay excess / have spare seats on those small planes. My partner is good about carrying the spare bits in her gear but lugging all the camera gear would be a step too far;-)