Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Photographer's Africa

Little Bee Eater (Merops pusillus), observed while the rest of the crew was trying to dig the truck out of the mud. Selinda Camp. Botswana.

That said, we did a fair amount of research, equipment-wise, before heading half way round the world. Here is what worked for us:

Standing tall. Linyanti Concession, Botswana

Almost all of our pictures were taken with a Nikon D5000 Digital SLR camera. Yep, the same one that I just put in the mail yesterday because it's part of a massive product recall. Something about it not turning on when you flip the power switch. Ouch. Didn't happen to us, thankfully. The D5000 is a small SLR, in the vein of Nikon's D90 (but with fewer fancy options).

A few pictures, including the ones shot underwater, were taken with a Canon Power Shot SD 870, with the underwater case. This is a point and shoot camera. And it's currently on my bad list because the screen is already partially kaput, after only a year of ownership. But I'll be keeping it forever since we purchased the underwater case and it was bloody expensive.

A leopard, Panthera pardus, in the grass. Linyanti Concession.

We bought two lenses for our D5000. One was the standard kit lens: Nikkor 18-55 mm VR. I stuck a Hoya 52 mm clear lens cover on for protection purposes. This is a good everyday lens and it's the one that we use most frequently when at home. Great for portraits and landscapes.

For Africa, we needed some power, in the form of a zoom lens. And here we agonized.Tamron makes a few lenses (18-270 mm) that we tried out but ultimately returned because the shutter speed was significantly reduced. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have a lens that went from 18 all the way out to 270 (requiring only one lens) (and cheaper) but in the end decided that we weren't willing to compromise on picture focusing and quality. It was with reluctance that we purchased the Nikkor 70-300 mm VR, mostly because it was so dang expensive. It hurt. Onto the Nikkor lens we slapped a Tiffen 67mm polarizer lens, for protection and for the nifty blue-sky Africa shots. Make sure to splurge for the VR part of the lens, aka vibration reduction. It's essential when taking pictures from moving vehicles.

Painted Reed Frog, Xigera Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana

A few notes about zoom lenses. When doing research, we found that most people recommended, at minimum, a 200 mm lens. A 300 mm was preferably and a 400 mm (or bigger), was the cat's meow. I just about had a heart attack at the thought of shelling out $1600 for a 400 mm lens. Reason Numero Uno why I will never be a professional photographer: I'm too cheap. But, by golly, I'd love to have one, if somehow I didn't have to pay for it. So, if you're a person of padded pockets, go out and get that 400 mm lens. And then let me borrow it, please.

Hippopotamus (hippopotamus amphibius), This was on the Chobe River, near Kasane, Botswana.

Most of the sweet folks with us on safari had a single lens that was in the range of 17-200 mm. They weren't having to constantly change lenses and I'm sure their pictures were great.

But the 300 mm was pretty sweet to have. This was the lens that was on our camera for 99.5% of the time and it was usually maxed out around the 300 mm mark. My one regret is that I didn't use the tripod more frequently, as we had quite a few fuzzy photos. Naturally, taking pictures of moving animals from a moving safari vehicle leads to fuzzy photos. Ahem. Which is why I love digital so much. DELETE! (and no film wasted). But some of our pictures have a minute amount of fuzz, despite the fact that both the camera and the animal were [mostly] stationary. Like this one:

Here are my camera stats for the above picture:

Filename: DSC_1419.JPG
200Exposure: 1/200 sec
Focal Length:
Flash Used: No

If you click here, you'll see that it is ever-so-slightly fuzzy. Fortunately, this is probably a photographer error, not a lens error. If I knew more about dialing down the exposure length (or using a tripod), I probably wouldn't have a slightly-out-of-focus picture. So, something to work on. Other than that, we loved this lens and I adore the D5000 camera. I am over-the-moon delighted with our pictures.

Update: This picture now has it's very own post. Click here for the blown up version.

Baboon. Zambezi River near Livingstone, Zambia

A few notes about batteries and storage space:

We took two batteries and were extremely thankful to have splurged on the second one. We traveled the less-luxurious route through Africa: safari tents and pit toilets. There are no electrical outlets in safari tents. What frequently happened was that the camp manager would charge the spent battery during the day while we were out on safari, taking lots 'o pictures with our backup battery. There were also a few occasions where battery charging simply wasn't possible and the reassurance of a second batter was comforting. So: Bring a spare.

Mama and baby. African elephant (Loxodonto africana). Linyanti. Botswana.

As for storage space, we had a lot: three (3) 16 GB disks. In reality, we only used one of them, taking approximately 3,100 pictures and about 15 short videos. We were shooting in 'fine' mode, not RAW. Were I shooting RAW, three cards probably would have been necessary. It would have really sucked to have run out of space though. So, yeah, overkill on the storage space but peace of mind for sure.

Of those 3,100 pictures, I have 497 'good ones'. And from there I'm trying to winnow that down to a few hundred keepers that can be put on the blog or into a slide show.

Also, our camera takes video, a new feature in the world of SLRs. I read that many people found that lugging around a video camera and a SLR was a hassle, equipment-wise, and I was grateful that we could stick to one piece of gear. Of course, we were juggling multiple lenses.

Photo backup: After losing a camera card on a previous trip in 2003, we always bring another device to which we can backup our pictures. In this case, it was a laptop. We did this every two or three days. The peace of mind is worth it. [Update: 2014: These days we bring an iPad (smaller and lighter) with a nifty device that allows us to plug in our camera card and download the photos.]

That should pretty much do it, in terms of the camera equipment summary. I'd also recommend bringing a good camera cleaning kit as Africa, we discovered, is exceedingly dusty. Plastic ziplock bags are useful in this regard. A well-padded camera case is also useful as you'll likely be traversing lots of bumpy roads (Which you will be, this is Africa!).

Update: A few years later we also purchased a macro (or micro, as Nikon calls them) 85mm lens. It would have been awesome to bring along on the trip as there were all sorts of crazy bugs, frogs, and other critters that would have made for some fantastic macro shots. But if you have to choose between the macro and the zoom, bring the zoom. No question. 

All pictures, unless otherwise noted, were taken by us. Please ask before using and give credit. It's good karma.

More Africa: