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Photography Gear: Packing Your Camera Bag for Safari

The biggest challenge for any photographer going on safari is what to take in your equipment bag- we would all like to take as much gear as possible, but the strict weight restrictions on light aircraft dictate circumspection on what to pack. In an extreme case, I once met a safari photographer who had brought only one change of clothes in order to maximise his luggage allowance with camera gear! This is not completely necessary if you take a few of the pointers below.

Firstly, most safari camps offer a laundry service, so that you don’t need to bring too many clothes along, and the dress code even at the poshest places is casual- so no need pack your ball gown! I find a pair of sandals, a pair of walking shoes and a couple of changes of clothes that can be layered according to the temperature are sufficient for a trip. This allows you to be more liberal with what photography equipment you can take along on your African safari, but I have pared it down to the essentials over the years. 

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Tripod
Carbon-fibre tripod folded into a compact size for travel is ideal.

Tripod

A decent carbon-fibre tripod is essential for when you need to shoot safari landscapes, interiors, and night time long-exposure scenes. I have a Manfrotto that is lightweight and the same length as my camera bag when compacted, which helps to carry and stow it in aircraft.

Remotes/intervalometers

Remote triggers or a combination intervalometer radio trigger allows you to use your camera from a distance where animals might be nervous of your presence, or to program a sequence for time-lapse photography. They are small enough not to cause any major packing issues, and can be used to fantastic creative effect. 

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Lens
A fixed lens is ideal to keep dust from entering the sensor and causing spots on your images.

Camera bodies

I travel with a minimum of two camera bodies, and usually have a lens fixed to each which I try not to remove in the field. The reason is that in the wilderness environment you will be shooting, dust is your enemy. Removing a lens exposes the sensor to airborne particles that can attach themselves to it and cause spots on your images or worse, damage the sensor. Therefore I keep my zoom lens on one camera, and a wide angle on the other, and only change lenses when I am reasonably certain I cannot allow dust into the sensitive inner workings of the camera body.

I tend to use a 70-200mm f2.8 lens the most for wildlife photography. If I need more zoom, a 1.4 or 2x convertor suffices, at the loss of one f-stop, without having to carry a larger (or more expensive) lens. Generally, in safari areas, animals are habituated enough for vehicles to approach them close enough that this setup works, and for the weight and ease of packing, I find it perfect for my needs. For landscapes, interiors and creative photography, a wide-angle lens comes in handy- anything from 10-20mm is ideal.

I also carry a Canon G12 pocket camera for incidental shooting of candid moments or in situations where I don’t need the larger cameras, and as it has manual functions and can shoot RAW images, it is very useful.

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Gorilla Grip
A gorilla grip tripod, ideal for uneven terrain.
What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Gorilla Grip
A gorilla tripod is perfect for GoPros.

Gorilla Grip

A gorilla pod is a smaller, lightweight flexible tripod that can be fixed to just about anything, which is ideal for setting up camera traps or GoPros in hard-to-reach places. These give you creative freedom to let your imagination run wild and put a camera in the most interesting places.

Storage

Always take twice as many memory cards as you think you will need, and as a rule of thumb, you will probably end up using them! Depending on the length of your African safari trip and the technology you are prepared to invest in, there are a variety of options to consider for backing up your data. I use LaCie Rugged hard drives in conjunction with my MacBook Pro 13” laptop, which allows me to edit and process images while in the field. Otherwise, HyperDrive make a great backup drive with a screen to view images, or it links to an iPad with an inexpensive accessory for more editing options. 

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Go Pro
A GoPro camera is compact and versatile.
What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Go Pro Accessories
Accessories to clip the camera to bars & skids are a must.

GoPro

These little cameras don’t take up much space, and can be used in a variety of situations. I have shot wonderful video footage from one mounted on the skid of a helicopter, on a canoe (including going underwater) and have used it to capture moody time-lapse sequences of a cloudy sky. One tip in using a GoPro is to put it on the “medium” setting as opposed to the “wide” when filming or photographing anything further that a few metres away from the lens- I find the wide setting distorts the horizon which detracts from the image. As accessories, I carry a spare battery back, a screen back, and a clamp to attach it to roll bars and skids. For other attachments I use my Gorilla Grip. 

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Beanbag Mount
A beanbag is perfect to steady a camera.
What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Manual dust blower
A dust blower is key to keeping everything clean.

Beanbag

A vital piece of kit that I always carry with me. Perfect to steady a camera on a vehicle or boat, I travel with it empty and fill it with whatever is available when I get to my destination- sand, rice, dry beans and even rolled-up fleeces, gloves and beanies have done the job! I use a saddle-shaped custom design that can hug most roll-bars and gunwales- ask your local camera dealer for a good manufacturer, or get one made up. 

Batteries and chargers

Spare batteries are crucia l- and generally I take as many as I can, depending on circumstances and the availability of power for charging them up- nothing is worse than missing a fantastic moment because you have run out of juice!

Keeping clean

Keeping everything clean and dust-free is vital on your safari. “Dust Off” compressed air canisters are ideal, but often airlines do not allow you to fly with them, so I use a manual blower. A LensPen is also great for brushing and polishing lenses, as well as a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid and a microfiber cloth. 

What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Canon
A smaller pocket camera is nice and convenient for candid moments.
What to Pack in Your Camera Bag: Storage
A well-cushioned, yet compact bag is a must.

Storage

Always take twice as many memory cards as you think you will need, and as a rule of thumb, you will probably end up using them! Depending on the length of your trip and the technology you are prepared to invest in, there are a variety of options to consider for backing up your data. I use LaCie Rugged hard drives in conjunction with my MacBook Pro 13” laptop, which allows me to edit and process images while in the field. Otherwise, HyperDrive make a great backup drive with a screen to view images, or it links to an iPad with an inexpensive accessory for more editing options. 

Backpack

I manage to fit all of this in a Lowe Pro backpack that has a slot for my laptop and a waterproof rain cover. If I am going into extremely wet conditions, I have a dry bag that will take the entire backpack within it.

This entire setup weighs about 12kg, which allows for a small duffel bag of clothes that any bush pilot could stuff into a luggage compartment easily.

Now that you've got the photography tips and know what to pack, and how to pack it, all you need to get great pictures on your African safari is perseverance, patience and a dose of good luck!

Written by Ryan Green. Connect with him on Google+.

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