What you will need at a glance (* = optional)
- SLR camera body (and backup*) – lenses (300mm+; standard, wide*, macro*) – flash*, flash extension cable* – tripod, monopod* – shutter release cable* – batteries and manuals – at least 3 storage cards – cleaning gear – laptop computer (less than 2 years old recommended) – external hard drive – card reader – Adobe Lightroom 3 (30 – day trial available), Adobe Photoshop * (CS5 or Elements) – plug adaptors.
The products which follow are targetted at the serious “prosumer” with a substantial budget. If you are starting out then you may wish to aim at entry level equipment. Products change frequently. If you are wanting to do a product check find out more information on the web using such sites as dpreview. Its also useful to get product comparisons through google by typing, for example, D700 vs D7000 and getting detailed comparisons. There are people out there who go to considerable trouble broadcasting their research.
Digital SLR bodies
Its always a good idea to have at least two digital bodies. One as a backup and also to minimize taking lenses on and off. Often useful to have one full frame and one cropped to give different options. Nikon and Canon are the two makes that I would recommend although Sony and others are making great strides. The benefit of choosing from the two leaders is that you will always be able to hire lenses and have a wide choice. The defining feature of the latest bodies is that they have excellent sensors able to be used at very high ISO and in low light with very little noise.
If you are looking for pin sharp images at low light, there is no substitute for fast glass. All of the best lenses have f2.8 or f4 and this is fixed throughout the zoom range. The sharpest lenses are usually fixed focal lenght such as 300mm or 400mm, but zoom lenses are often more convenient. Whatever you decide you should have lenses that cover the range 24 – 70 mm for standard work, 80 – 200 for mid range action and something in the 300 – 400 mm for birds and game. I only recommend the use of 1.5 and 2 x converters for lenses that are f2.8 or f4. They reduce aperture by the amount of their magnification and using them with f8 and f11 lenses renders almost unuseable images.
A wide angle lens (12 – 24) is very useful for landscapes and creating abstract images and is a useful addition to the bag. Also consider getting a macro lens. These give a 1:1 view of your subject and allow you to get very close so they are great for making insects and smaller details come to life. Macros come in 60, 105 and 180 magnification. They become increasingly tricky to use and also rewarding in the upper range.
Tripod and supports
See more about tripods here. The best tripods and heads are made by Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto and its worth investing in gear that is sturdy enough to support your lens and also light enough not to make it too much of a drag to lug about. A tripod is invaluable for low light photography, panning and also for shooting with long lenses. If you are using a 400mm or ar above then a Gimbal type head is worth considering such as the one made by wimberley opposite. These have a free head which makes the lens feel like a feather. A monopod is also very useful for more cramped vehicle conditions or game walks but make sure that it has a head which allows you to rotate the camera through 180 degrees. Beanbags are also great for lenses up to 400mm and you can bring them empty and fill them with beans when you get to camp. There are some good debates on which tripod is best on my site.
Light dissipates rapidly outdoors and an external mounted flash is essential for night shooting on game drives and also for putting a twinkle in the eye of game in gloomy conditions as well as illuminating birds. Having said this, when conditions are right, the most rewarding shooting at night is done by spotlight. When using a flash at night having an extension arm or setup that allows you to shoot with the flash in an “off camera” position allows you to reduce the amount of red eye in your animal subjects and avoid flat, front on lighting. It is also very useful having off camera capabilities when you are shooting macro subjects.
Computers and memory
On a workshop the idea is to spend time working on our images, selecting, processing and comparing resuts. So please bring a computer — ideally one that is not so tiny that you can work on it comfortably — and that is not so slow that you never get a chance for a siesta. Lightroom uses lots of RAM so make sure that you check that your computer is running the program effectively. If it is not and you do not plan to buy a new one you may as well leave your computer behind. Also make sure that it has at least 80GB of free hard drive space. Also bring along a spare external hard drive so you can backup as you go along. I recommend Lacie but these days they are all pretty good as long as you don’t drop them (I have personal experience on this one!) . We do our processing on the workshop using Lightroom which works on both mac and pc and if you do not have it and want to try it out you can download a trial version on the Adobe site. I suggest you bring an external download device and plenty of flash cards. I recommend bringing 8GB or 16GB cards.
I wish there was one perfect bag, but there is not. I have a variety of bags for different circumstances. These include a bag that I have had custom made that takes my 200 – 400 lens with the body attached and it stays on my lap in the vehicle. I think there are bags best suited for travelling and others great for game drives and in the field. I have a Think Tank Airport Bag which has wheels and is custom designed to fit into airport overhead lockers. I like the way it does not look like a camera bag! I also have a Lowepro bag with comfortable straps that I use for trekking. In retrospect I would have gone for the Think Tank without wheels — wheels are not useful in the bush.
Keeping Gear Clean and dry
Most cameras these days clean the mirror when you switch on, but if you get a really hefty something on the screen you may need some physical intervention. The Arctic Butterfly is a really excellent invention. You switch on a little motor and the tiny hairs spin round creating static. Then, switch off and brush the mirror. It works like a charm. You will of course also need a lens cloth and a blower brush. Conditions can be dusty on a game drive so try to avoid taking off lenses. Its also useful to take a bag to put right over your lens and camera while driving. Usually I have one or two cameras on my lap or on the seat next to me for quick access.