I had an opportunity to visit South Africa in September and visited Cape Town (stayed at the Kensington Place) and two different Safari Camps: Garonga and Camp Jabulani. The trip was orchestrated by Uncharted Outposts. Our experience with these four organizations was absolutely wonderful. Highly professional and responsive to our needs. And our experience with each of these places and with Uncharted Outposts was wonderful.
In this blog I describe the photography solution that I tried. There were several critical considerations that I attempted to balance.
1. Weight (For our smaller flights, there is a weight restriction of 22 pounds for carry on. For some other countries it falls to 12 pounds!)
2. Focal Length (On the long side most people recommend at least 300mm and some suggest going to 600mm or longer).
3. Light sensitivity (Some of the best opportunities for photographing animals will occur at dawn or dusk so excellent light sensitivity and fast lenses are important.)
4. The focal length/low light combination drives a significant need for camera stabilization.
5. Divergent needs (While walking around Cape Town, I wanted something small and light. On Safari, long focal length fast lenses was in order--large and heavy! I also wanted the best of still photography and video.)
6. Protection of the pictures
There are a host of solutions and I provide mine below.
Camera bodies and lens
1. Sony NEX 5N with the Sony 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 zoom lens
2. Nikon D800 with a Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VRII lens.
Both of these cameras have either reasonable to excellent low light performance with high quality video capabilities. The Sony was light, easy to walk around with. The Nikon with the 200-400mm lens was heavy! This combination provided for a full frame focal length of 27-600mm, if images from the 36 MP D800 were cropped to a 1.5 sensor size.
2. Based on the recommendation of another photographer who has been to Africa 18 times, I also took the Red Pod. I know it says that it is for compact cameras but I had it on the tripod foot of D800/200-400mm lens combination and it worked beautifully to stabilize the lens. I used either my knee when I was in a curled up position or the jeep rails. The Red Pod is a marvelous little device and worked very very well for me.
Protection of pictures
With several recommendations against this approach, I took the following
1. 15" Macbook Pro Retina Display with Aperture 3.2.1
2. Two 2TB Western Digital Passport drives. One was partitioned into a bootable backup of the SSD of the Macbook Pro and a separate 1.5 TB backup partition.
3. Two card readers
Work flow: At the end of the safaris or in the evening after dinner, I would simply transfer the images off of the cards, renumbering them according to my usual conventions, and place them on the primary South Africa PIcture Drive. I would then backup the primary picture drive. This whole process took about 30-45 minutes.
At both camps we were warned NOT to leave our room unattended by a guide so this transfer/backup process was not really interfering with the whole experience and allowed me to send 1 or 2 pictures to friends and family.
A total of about 3500 image files were transfered and backed up during the trip, 500 or so were video clips. There was approximate 185 GB of image data collected.
As an additional layer of back up, in the second card slot of the D800, I had a 128GB SD card which I did not remove or erase.
I carried all of the gear (except the Red Pod and tripod) in my Think Tank Airport Accelerator 2.0 bag. Inside I had two plastic garbage bags in case of rain. Total weight was about 25 pounds, but I could transfer the MacBook Pro to my wife's carry on and we would both be within limits, if necessary. When out on Safari, I only brought the cameras, one extra card and battery for each camera. When not in use, I just covered them with my fleece to minimize dust accumulation.
1. It is very important that you remain as fluid as possible. Things can change very quickly and the animals rarely allow you to get a second shot in. I shot everything in aperture priority and autofocus most of the time. In the bush and when you are shooting an animal in the distance, there are likely to be bushes/trees in between you and the animal. Autofocus would become very confused in such situations so be prepared to switch to manual focus quickly. I would also check my ISO setting through out the safari rides to make sure settings were optimal for the available light.
2. Safari rides in a jeep are dusty and very bumpy affairs. On ours there were two riders per seat so there was a reasonable amount of room, but it would have been difficult to use a tripod and maintain fluidity. Dust was not a terrible problem on this trip, but I could easily see it being a big problem. I never changed my lens and the dust on my sensors was the same afterward as it was before.
3. Clothing. In addition to pants/shorts/shirts, etc, at least in September, a fleece combined with a wind breaker is an excellent combination. But the days can warm quickly so layering is always a good approach.
4. Metrics. When I carry two different cameras, I like to see how I actually used them. A total of 3175 still pictures were taken: Nex 5N (1339 or 42% of total; D800 (1836 or 58% of total). The number of pictures finally selected for family viewing is where the rubber meets the road: Nex 5N (229 or 17% of the pictures taken with that camera); D800 (164 or 9% of the pictures taken with this camera). Finally, the number of pictures finally selected for the world to see: Nex 5N (138 or 10.3% of pictures taken with this camera) and D800 (158 or 8.5% of pictures taken with this camera). As you can see the Sony NEX 5N really holds its ground against the D800 in actual use scenarios for personal/family situations. This is now the third time I have made this comparsion and it is similar to previous experiences. So when you look at the pictures in the slideshows, about half are from the Sony and the other half are from the D800.
5. I was glad that I took the D800 with the 200-400mm lens. While it was a significant effort (heavy and I am not a spring chicken anymore), the next picture sequence helps to explain why. Many of the D800 images I would never have captured with just the Sony NEX 5N.
Original Picture (ISO 200, f4, 1/320 @ 400mm-hand held with the Red Pod)
Working crop (19.3 MP). Will be able to get a large print from this image, if I wish.
Crop to 100%. The clarity and sharpness is remarkable.
And another original image ISO 1000, f4, 1/160 at 400mm.
And another 100% crop approximately.
6. What would I have done differently? I know that I would really have liked to have a second D800 on my 24-70 f2.8 lens and perhaps even a third with my 70-200 f2.8 lens. Another alternative was a second D800 with the AF-2 Nikkor 28-300mm f3.5-5.6, VRII lens. While this would have matched my focal length on the Sony NEX 5N, I am sure the weight would have been substantially more. The weight reduction required for the second D800 body would have come from not taking the computer and associated hardware.
The other important consideration of the two D800 model is weight associated with carrying it all around.