In my previous post, I discussed our “non-photography” preparations for this visit to Namibia. In this post, I will discuss everything photography related.
Flying with British Airways, we were allowed one piece of hand baggage weighing no more than 23 kg – until we reached Johannesburg, South Africa. That is very generous for an airline these days. With internal African flights (Johannesburg to Windhoek), the hand baggage allowance was a mere 7 kg.
I decided to use my trusty ThinkTank Airport Ultralight V2.5 Backpack to transport all of my gear as carry on luggage. It is an excellent backpack and since it has minimal padding (but just enough to protect your gear), it can hold a lot of equipment without being too bulky or heavy. I also appreciated the large front pocket which comfortably holds a laptop computer.
What did I take with me? Read on…
The Equipment List
Here is the list of items and why I brought them with me:
Total weight including the Ultralight V2.5: 14 kg. We’ll see what the airline in Africa has to say.
You will read in the days to come how each piece of equipment performed on this trip. I will, however, give you a brief summary of what worked, what didn’t and what I would do differently next time.
The Nikon D3s is a fantastic camera and I am glad that I had it with me. I could track moving animals with ease and shoot in near dark conditions – it is simply wonderful to use. High ISO is unbelievable – I could shoot upto ISO 10000 with no or little noise. The camera feels like an extension of my hand and any images that I missed (or that were out of focus) are due to operator error. It is one of the best DSLR’s on the planet (along with the Nikon D3x and Canon 1D Mark IV).
I only used the Nikon D7000 for about 600 shots, but when I did, I was quite happy with its performance. For the money (about $USD 1,200.00) it is a really great value. Image quality was excellent (up to ISO 1600), AF and metering were very good, and I appreciated having the two SD card slots for in camera backups. To my surprise, battery life was excellent. The video on this camera is supposed to be quite good, however, I never used it as my interest is in still photography only. This is the best (at present) Nikon DX body and the image quality, IMHO, is better than the Nikon D300s. If I was not a professional photographer but an advanced enthusiast, this would be my only camera. That says alot about this little machine.
The Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S and Nikon 16-35mm f/4G VR II AF-S zoom lens zoom lenses worked exceptionally well and I did not miss the 36mm to 69mm gap that I had in focal lengths. I used the telephoto zoom the most (about 60% of my shots) and it performed perfectly.
When you travel in Africa, you will need all of the reach you can get when photographing animals. Two issues though with long, fast glass:
The Sigma 150-500mm f/5~6.3 DG OS HSM APO zoom lens turned out to be a much better lens than I expected it to be. My testing of this lens at home proved that it was worthy of being in my camera bag – it is an excellent value given the price and the focal range. No, it is not at the same level as my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR AF-S (a fantastic lens), however, the Sigma lens is less than one sixth of the price of the Nikon lens (i.e. $USD 1,070.00 for the Sigma vs. $USD 6,999.00 for the Nikon) and half the weight.
For optimal results, shoot with this lens from 200-450mm @ f/7.1 ~ f/8. I must have gotten lucky as my copy was sharp throughout the entire range. With good long lens technique, you can get some amazing shots with this lens.
Check out the next shot (straight out of camera, no adjustments or sharpening applied) taken with this lens at 500mm @ f/8, handheld on my D3s:
And here is the 100% crop.
Impressive performance from such an inexpensive lens.
The Naturescapes SkimmerSack Beanbag turned out to be really useful. It fit perfectly in the vehicle’s window (sitting on top of the door with the window rolled down) and after I filled it with rice (it took 7 kg of the stuff), it provided me with very solid support. The nice thing is that the beanbag weighs only 141 g when empty, so it is easy to transport. Once it is filled up with rice/beans, it is simple to use. Every photographer going to Africa needs to have one of these in their camera bag.
The Hoodman 3″ Loupe turned out to be really useful when photographing in the desert. The sand reflects the light from all over the place and it is really hard to see the rear LCD. For landscape work, it is important to check critical focus and this little device saved my butt on a few occasions when I did not get the focus point correct. For $USD 80.00, put one of these little gadgets in your bag – you will be glad you did.
Finally, the ThinkTank Airport Ultralight V2.5 Backpack was the perfect camera bag (for me) on this trip. I am really glad I used it as I had no problems with its size, padding, durability or accessibility of items inside. It is an excellent bag.
Backup, Backup, Backup
I once heard a useful expression:
It is so true. My Apple 11.6″ Macbook Air was a joy to use on this trip. It weighs very little (1.08 kg), is extremely fast and is the perfect travel computer. I even showed it to several Namibians and my fellow tourists and all of them marveled at this little bundle of joy (I sound like a proud parent, don’t I?).
I ingested all of my D3s and D7000 files into Adobe Lightroom on this machine. Lightroom is a fantastic tool for the working photographer and I could quickly catalog and sort my images with ease. I chose not to post process my images on this machine, even though there was plenty of power to do so. I would rather do that at home on my 27 inch monitor.
I also made two backups of the internal solid state drive on external (USB) 2.5″ portable drives every night. That way, I always had two working backup disks (with all of my system and image files) if need be. Yes, I am paranoid. I’d rather be safe than sorry on a trip like this.
Dust bunnies everywhere
As you are aware, dust and camera sensors are not a good combination. And in Namibia, there is plenty of dust.
You cannot completely eliminate the dust when you are traveling in Africa, it is simply impossible to do so. You can, however, do a few things to help minimise dust on (and in) your gear:
Keep in mind that attaching a zoom lens “permanently” to a camera body does not guarantee you will not get dust on the sensor. Zoom lenses create a small vacuum when you “zoom” in and out thus “sucking” in dust from your environment. I learned this one the hard way many years ago.
How to clean your sensor
There were times when the dust was so overwhelming that I had to resort to “wet cleaning” the sensor. I did this 4 times during our trip. If you have a little patience and the right tools, it is easy to do … I have been doing this for 10 years now with great results.
First of all, make sure your blow most of the dust out of the mirror chamber (and off the sensor). I used my Giottos Rocket Air Blaster for that.
Then I would “wet clean” the sensor using Visible Dust Sensor Swabs and their solution. Do not reuse (i.e. only use them once) the swabs – you may scratch the filter on the sensor, thus resulting in an expensive repair. Yes, the swabs are pricey, but they are worth the cost. You may have to use 2-3 of them per cleaning for stubborn stains.
This video gives you a good overview on how to use the swabs and solution.
There are other videos on YouTube on how to do this… take the time to watch them before attempting to clean your sensor. I admit the first couple of times that I did this, I was really nervous. Now, it is really easy. Practice makes perfect.
What Would I Do Differently Next Time?
For the first time in my travel photography career, I was happy with how everything performed and I used every piece of equipment in my bag. From previous trips, I have learned the hard way that, “Less is more.” It is so true and I am glad that this time I took just the basics with me while making provisions for backing up critical items.
The only casualty was my flashlight (I lost it), but that was no big deal – my wife had one with her :o) None of my equipment failed and I was glad to have extra batteries with me as power was not available in all of the places we stayed at (some places only had solar powered lights in the rooms/tents).
I would have loved to have taken my Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR AF-S to Namibia, however, my back thanked me for not taking the extra weight and the Sigma 150-500mm f/5~6.3 DG OS HSM APO lens proved to be a good performer at a fraction of the cost.
BTW, none of the airport personnel or British Airways said anything about my backpack or its weight. There were people with even larger (and heavier) carry on luggage who were never challenged. Maybe I should fly with British Airways more often…
So there you have it. My Namibia equipment spiel. I will discuss various items further in future posts in the days to come.
See you soon!
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