Namibia Photo Safari: What worked, what didn’t?

tl;dr — I don’t care, just show me the photos.

A few weeks ago I completed a 3,000km Safari trip around Namibia with an amazing guide (thanks Brian, from Namibia tracks and trails!), my wife, and friends. I brought nearly all of the camera gear I owned and then some in an attempt to capture all of the flora and fauna that crossed our path.

Marcy planned this trip for all of us to go and see the fabled Fury Road from Mad Max (spoiler: it was awesome.) and we had an amazing, amazing time.

I’m going to try to walk you through my current camera setup and maybe save you some of the trouble that I went through should you ever decide to go on Safari.

The Rifle and the Sidearm

My “Rifle”: The Canon 5d Mark II with Sigma 150–600mm f/5.6–6.3, hood on and lens fully extended. 10 pounds! Our good friend Dr. Kingfish calls this the ‘bazooka’. I think he’s right.

Neil (fellow photographer friend) and I pretty much agreed early on in the trip that our DSLRs were the high-accuracy, animal shooting “Rifles” that we’d come to love. They’d handle the real work behind our captures while our “Sidearm” iPhones played another role for from the hip shooting, exceeding our expectations and providing features that didn’t exist on the DSLRs. We’ll get to the DSLR load out in a moment, but when the cameras would fail, became too heavy to hold, or had lenses on them which were of a focal length far too long to capture the Zebra who just came up to the Safari vehicle, out came the iPhone.

Don’t discount this valuable tool in your arsenal — the technology has changed so much that smart phones, in extremely well-lighted scenes, produce very viable imagery.

Panoramas were another key feature for us on our phones, For starters, Namibia is vast. Very, very vast. You don’t know what that word means until you’ve been to Africa. The only good way to capture them is with a Panorama. Even an 11mm fisheye won’t do the landscape justice.

Deadvlei, Namibia. Shot on an iPhone 6S Plus in Panorama mode

These sorts of shots show people how big some of the incredible landscapes were like and were certainly not going to be possible with the DSLR alone.

Additionally, Our friend John Cervelli had this amazing Samsung 360 camera for panos, which will be out in the US Shortly. It requires an Android phone and it shoots 4k video in 360 degrees. He had to purchase it in Korea. Amazing piece of kit!

He was shooting primarily on an APS-C Fuji camera which worked wonderfully in the desert at much less weight than our heavy DSLRs.

Trying to take stock of the gear before packing the backpack

What to take?

It was probably harder than anything to consider what to actually take. What would we encounter? What would we need? Where does the complexity end?

I’d expected landscapes and figured 24mm would be plenty for that (it wasn’t!)

For animals, I’d need serious reach to get to them without being charged or eaten. I wanted high quality, National Geographic worthy photos.

Sadly, when dealing with lenses that have reasonable low-light performance for high-end DSLRs and long reach, the price quickly escalates into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The Canon EF 400mm prime f/5.6L starts at $1,200 and can be doubled by the 2x Extender, but that puts you at f/8 or worse. If you want to shoot 600mm at say, f/4, you’ll have to purchase the Canon EF Super Telephoto 600mm f/4L at the low-low price of $11,999. There are very little options in ranges above 400mm, aside from “something plus an extender”.

Extenders are not free. In fact, they cost $500 and 2 stops.

Remember that extenders are not free. They offer you a 1.4x to 2.0x multiplier on the focal length of the lens at the cost of between one and two full stops. Worse off, they only work on specific lenses and you lose features (such as AF and IS), dependent on the lens in use.

Hint hint! You’re going to spend most of your time shooting at f/8 or f/11 unless you’re on a night drive. Don’t worry about it.

To get around the ridiculous price issue, I’d purchased the Sigma 150–600mm f/5–6.3 (sports) ($1700) before the trip.

Sigma, like Tamron, reverse engineers Canon, Nikon, and other camera lenses to produce 3rd party, compatible lenses at significantly lower prices than the OEM lenses. They’re really worth looking into if you can’t afford/don’t want to pay for the manufacturer’s lenses.

This was either a great addition (reach) or a bad choice (heavy). The 150–600mm weighed in at a stupid-heavy 6.7 lbs, it was extremely difficult to handhold and required the use of a monopod to alleviate some of the pain of carrying this beast around. It also made my backpack excessively heavy, consuming nearly a full 1/3rd of my weight allowance on Safari (did I mention that smaller in-Africa airlines like SAA, and your Safari vehicle will have limits? They will.)

I’m told the “Contemporary” version of this lens weighs much less (and costs half at $980 vs $1700), but lacks fast focusing ability, a prime [sic] requirement for shooting animals and birds.

Vulture, 1/3000th, 400mm (Sigma 150–600), f/6.7. Got him!

I kept wondering on the trip if I would have been fine with the Canon 70–200mm IS/L lens and the 2x extender, doing without the 600mm lens. That combination was much lighter than the Sigma and offered comparable optical stabilization to the Canon lens. It could be easily hand-held without the need for a monopod and tripod ring. Of all of the lenses I’d brought with me, these two were the only focal-range overlap I had to deal with (140–400mm vs. 150–600mm)

However! As photographers, we do love our toys, and the Sigma is a big, big sexy lens. Why leave it behind?

‘dat reach, though! 600mm!

I could have easily left the flash kit behind, though. I tried a couple of fancy shots with it and the pocket wizards and was generally unhappy with injecting flash into the dark African night. Everyone was asleep at night anyway, so no club photos to be had here.

Monopods, tripods, and clamps, oh my!

Many, many safari articles say: “don’t bring a tripod, don’t bring a monopod.” there are claims that there’s no room for it in the truck. Bullshit.

I nearly fell down Big daddy, this big fucking dune right here:

That monopod saved my ass when I jammed it into the ground to arrest my fall. Nothing says “You’re gonna die” like dropping your water bottle in the desert and dropping 400 meters down a dune.

Okay, no, really. It was good for much more than that. While tracking a Black Rhino(!) the monopod held the 600mm lens firm and let me concentrate on other things. It’s essential that you bring a monopod. Don’t bring a tripod. There’s no room for them.

With a monopod you get results like this at great distances. We tracked this guy for hours until finding him, one of the last Black Rhinos in the world.

I did try to rig something together with a Manfrotto super clamp and tripod-ball head. That was about 5–10 lbs of clamp that could have stayed home. It was a last minute purchase that I should have left behind. $150 of parts later, it was completely useless on the trip as there wasn’t any good place on our particular vehicle to clamp onto. On other safari vehicles maybe (open top ones with exposed rails) but not our Toyota Land Cruiser.

Hey, what’s with all this light?

Neil and I have spent a lifetime photographing night clubs and concerts. These events are low-light hellscapes requiring you to fully understand and control light to get a proper image.

ISO 3200, ISO 6400, 1/60th shutter, at f/2.8 or f/4 is not an uncommon occurrence in these dark enclaves. Sure, we’ve shot at Burning Man before, but most of the time I’m not trying to photograph a moving cheetah at Burning Man (unless it’s a girl dressed as a cheetah, but I digress…)

Desert Hare, 400mm, Canon 70–200@2oomm w/ 2x Extender at ISO 6400, Night Game Drive, Africat

Day one, out in the African sun was a whole different hellscape. The after-the-safari discovery here was that about 90% of the time we ended up shooting between f/8 and f/11 at ISO 50, 100, or 200, and mostly ISO 200!

So much Light, so many elephants. Sigma 150–600 @ 600mm, f/11, ISO 400, 1/400th

Higher f stops led to lens distortion and diffraction. It wasn’t worth it to go above f/11. On the 600mm Sigma, I experienced a bad case of vignetting at higher f-stops. Easily fixable with ‘lens correction’ in Lightroom, though!

A word about lighting

The mornings and evenings are the best times to go shooting (Golden hour, all that.) Mid-day sun is practically useless in Africa because the light is overhead and the dimensionality of the world is just gone.

When I got back to San Francisco, and woke up to see the downtown buildings of SoMa at 8am, I really really noticed the way the light played on the buildings in the morning. Too bad I hate mornings.

Fully packed LowePro Pro Runner Backpack, minus batteries and adapters.

Load Out

My load-out for this trip was as follows:

  • One Lowepro “Pro Runner” BP 450 backpack, filled with:
  • Canon 5D Mark II with BG-E11 battery grip and the amazing Luma Labs Cinch2 Strap
  • Four LP-E6 batteries
  • Sigma 150–600mm f/5-6.3 lens + hood
  • Canon 70–200mm f/2.8 IS/L + hood
  • Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L + hood
  • Canon Extender III 2X extender
  • Calumet Carbon Fiber MonoPod: Don’t ask me how but Calumet sells these for $46. Maybe that’s why they went out of business in San Francisco.
  • Nikon Monarch 8x42 Binoculars — I regret not buying the slightly wider Monarch 7 10x42’s. Get as wide as you can afford, and make sure you bring Binoculars on Safari. They’re useful for the times when you should put down the damn camera and soak in the scenery.
  • Various CF cards (32GB/64GB) from Sandisk (Extreme Pro UDMA7)
  • UV filters (B&W Pro) (50mm, 77mm, 105mm)
  • Canon 600EX II Flash, cables and two Pocket Wizards for remote triggering (barely used, should have left home)
  • Gary Fong LightSphere II — I never used it, but it’s my go-to flash modifier in clubs. I recommend you get the collapsable one and not the hard-side one. Fong is a bit of an over-zealous self-promoting wedding-photographer tool but the overpriced plastic toys he makes work and work well, nearly replicating studio lighting in some conditions.
  • Anker 5 port USB charger: Absolutely essential. There are always limited places to plug things in. If you have one international plug adapter and this thing, you can charge five devices at the full 2.1 Amps.
  • Power! Dual LP-E6 battery charger, transformer, USB adapters, and lots of international power adapters. South Africa is on a big-pin 220VAC plug standard unlike the rest of the world. and your Euro adapter isn’t going to cut it there.
  • Euro/International AC power adapters: You’re going to be traveling through Europe to get to South Africa, so you’d better be able to have plugs that work in the UK, Europe, Germany, and South Africa. Buy these on eBay/Amazon before you leave and you can find specials like a 4 or 8 pack of adapters for less than $10. Most power supplies these days are dual 110v/220v (check first!) Don’t concern yourself with transformers.

Things I wish I’d brought, or bought in advance.

  • A second camera body. If my camera was damaged during the trip, I was toast. I didn’t have one and Spending $3500 on another 5d wasn’t going to happen.
  • Polarizers, Neutral Density Filters. Polarizers would have given me a beautiful blue-sky pop in the desert, but I was able to do that artificially in post in Lightroom. The ND filters would have helped when shooting long-exposure astrophotography.
  • More batteries (one battery failed on the trip, leaving me with three.) The time between shore-power and lodges can be quite long. At one point it was 5 days between charges when camping in the Etosha Concession for us.
  • More CF cards (one of my 64GB cards failed hard on the trip — no data loss though, just couldn’t use it after formatting again)
  • A iPad Lightening to USB female cable, so I could upload files directly from my camera to the Internet in the rare moments that we had Internet access at lodges and cities. I got by shooting the back of the DSLR with the iPhone.
  • A few more european plug converters. I eventually bought some in Frankfurt on a layover where they were way, way more expensive than Amazon.

Things I left behind (and enjoyed living without)

  • A laptop. Don’t bring one. An iPad and keyboard is plenty, but I didn’t even bring a keyboard.

Failures that Cost Real Money

I’m sure you wanted to hear this part.

Focusing screen: When I fell down “Big Daddy” I planted my camera straight into the sand. The sand, which our guide told us was “the worst stuff in the world, spherical on a microscope” got into the camera, and an attempt to clean it caused me to destroy the 5d’s focusing screen when a single grain of sand got underneath the screen and prism. ($40 to replace.) It might have even caused a small ding in my prism, but really, I can’t tell. (remember, I shoot mostly at night, mostly. Maybe the damage was there before.)

Lesson: If you can avoid it, don’t open up your camera anywhere but in a clean environment. Seals do you no good when you open the camera body up.

Batteries: They fail. I had a battery report 99% charge, I took it into a plane with my 3rd and 4th backup battery in the truck, thousands of feet below. The primary failed in the battery grip (expended) and the secondary refused to power the camera. This cost me half the flight, where I switched to iPhone (yay sidearm!) when the 5D’s power was kaput. It’s in the junk bin now.

Lesson: Always carry extra power with you! The batteries in the battery grip do not count as extra batteries.

CF Cards: They die. It happens. Be smart and take extras. Backup to some sort of portable HD device if and when you can. I had a card issue a card-read error in the camera, I was able to offload data, and a subsequent format bricked the card. It’s in the recycle bin now. I’d bought the bad card in Amsterdam for 1€/GB. It was garbage.

Lesson: Only buy reputable cards, from reputable vendors. See my previous post, because not all cards are the same.

Take time to enjoy yourself.

You’re probably not on a photo assignment, so put the damn camera down and soak in the scenery. There’s a good chance your trip is a once in a lifetime experience and you really need to understand how precious it all is.

Don’t Edit on Safari!

Don’t even plan on editing photos while on Safari. You are not going to have any power, Internet, or time to do so. It’s just not possible when you’re waking up at dawn and going to bed after your sundowner drinks and dinner. Plus, don’t you want to see the stars in a dark sky, sans city light pollution, and watch the fire crackle?

Yes, yes you do.

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