South Africa: Contents of the photo safari bag

Ready to go to South Africa to find leopards during a safari photo trip, I am preparing my photo bag. For those of you interested in its contents and the reasons why I have filled it like that, I invite you to check this list together.

Photo camera bag

The digital photographer I am wants to bring enough equipment to take advantage of all photo opportunities but does not want to be loaded like a jack. It’s all a matter of optimisation:

  • A backpack (mine is a Lowepro Mini Trekker AW). I prefer that to a case. The case is more sturdy but much heavier and I’m not strong/fit enough to carry metal around my equipment.
  • Konica-Minolta

  • An SLR body: my Konica-Minolta Dynax 7D, of course. Remember that the 1.5 crop factor of such a D-SLR brings a clear advantage to the wildlife photographer: It multiplies by 1.5 the apparent focal length of the tele-lenses.
  • No spare SLR body: Too much weight and I don’t have the dough for a second SLR body, but it could be your risk insurance.
  • Memory cards: 2 Compact-Flash cards of 1GB capacity (think redundancy).
  • A portable disk drive to empty the Flash cards: The Compact Drive PD70X (60 GB version) that you saw described here for the past year (fast, compact, operating from standard LR6/AA batteries).
  • Minolta - AF 300 F4 HS APO GTele-lenses: Two of them, the Minolta 200mm f/2.8 Apo G and the Minolta 300mm f/4 Apo G. Both excellent optical characteristics.
  • A 2x lens converter: Since the 200mm will easily accept the converter, I can use both to shoot like with a 400mm f/5.6 (last year in Kenya, I used such lens from Sigma, but the converter will be more flexible). Additionally, I could sometimes use the converter on the 300mm despite the fact that I will loose a lot of light and the capacity to have AF-AutoFocus (equivalent to a 600mm f/6.3).
  • A trans-standard zoom: Minolta 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom xi (the xi series are motorized zooms no longer manufactured, but despite its limited quality, it is very convenient). Think about landscapes too (a nice little postcard as a souvenir of the trip is not something you will want to avoid; traveling is also a matter of keeping image memories of nice countries, not only their animals).
  • A flash: The Minolta 5600HS D is powerful enough for most applications and I intend to shoot some images at night in the private reserves I will visit in South Africa.
  • Spare batteries: It weights nearly nothing and it would be awful to wait for a full charge of the battery before being able to go back to your (not so) patient animal models.
  • Miscellaneous:
    • polarizing filter for the trans-standard zoom (it may help color saturation on some landscapes),
    • supplementary macro lens for the random macro photo (checking flora in mid-day when animals are sleeping),
    • etc.

It may happen that this equipment goes over the limit of handbag weight. Be prepared to this and think about the various and complementary strategies if the issue is raised:

  • Keep only fragile items in the camera bag as handbag (keep it as light as possible; battery chargers will go in the cargo compartment).
  • Be prepared to pay a small (or not so small fee) for oversize/overweight bags. It’s better than loose expensive equipment.
  • Always be polite and cooperative. When the company personnel is against you, you’ll have no chance of finding a good solution.
  • You may spread the load between several people. If you travel as a couple and one of you has less equipment. Balance the load between you and your spouse.
  • As a last resort, many people report that it is possible to be accepted if you empty your bag into your coat pockets. The bag weight goes down (hopefully under the limit) and nobody will weight your coat. It’s going by the book even if it is a bit silly. Just don’t do it in front of the line. If the problem appears, just leave the queue, go back in a more quiet place, put your lenses in the deep pockets of your coat and come back ten minutes later with a smile. You may look like a silly Michelin Bidendum, but it seems to be acceptable in all airports. After the check point, you just have to fill your bag again…

The travel bag

While the camera bag will travel in the cabin with me, I will bring more than photo equipment. The contents are more traditional, but you should not forget it at home:

  • Battery chargers: The nightmare of the digital photographer comes with the number of different battery chargers. I have already selected chargers allowing me to use 12V plugs in cars, or 100-245V mains local power with adaptation plugs. They will cover the battery needs of:
    • camera,
    • flash,
    • portable disk drive,
    • etc.
  • Monopod: This one is very uncertain since I am not sure I will need it. In a 4×4 SUV, it is nearly impossible to use a tripod, but a monopod may help. Most people still advise me to stick to the cheap bean bag or a rolled scarf to put the camera at the window of the car. It will probably depend a lot on the talk I’ll had in a few days with the photo guide about the exact cars we’ll be using. If I take one, it will be the excellent ManFrotto 334B I bought last year.
  • Binoculars: There’s better than that, but the Bresser 10×50 I bought last year in Leidl promo sales will be going with me.
  • Dust protection: I travel light from this point of view since I limit the number of times I change my lenses and I do not clean the sensor. However, I always have a big and soft paint brush to clean the surface of the photo equipment.
  • I bring clothes chosen according to the local climate and weather (my agent gave you sound advice). For South Africa in April, light clothes, soft trousers, bermudas or jean and T-shirts). I add to that a few long-sleeved shirts and a broad-rimmed hat to protect against the sun and mosquito bites. Since nights may be cold or humid, a pull over and a poncho will be going to the bottom of the bag.

Others

A few other important things to remember:

    One dollar bill

  • Some cash: for the tips (or backshish’s in some countries), without forgetting that the Euro is becoming more and more identified in the world, but that the US dollar language is still understood everywhere around the globe.
  • Your vaccine shots should be up-to-date and you need to bring the adequate malaria/paludism drugs: In France, the Institut Pasteur (English pages) will tell you all about these and could even be where you will get your vaccines; Beware! This is something too many tourists tend to forget. The cost of the shots and drugs is very significant and there is usually a minimum delay between the shots and the beginning of the trip.
  • A strong insect repellent: Critically important in geographical zones submitted to the risk of malaria (like Eastern parks of South Africa) where a repellent associated to long sleeves and a bed mosquito net are still the best front-line protection against this endemic sickness.
  • Your passport, possibly with the needed visa: A missing visa may be ruining your travel and leaving you at home (without any possible solution). South Africa only requires (from French nationals) that they have a passport valid for at least one month after return and with two empty pages for border stamps.
  • When you travel on “normal” companies (not low cost companies), you may want to get the free frequent flyer card they offer. It means that you can collect miles toward a future free ticket. Furthermore, you can collect miles by checking in some hotels or renting cars. It’s free and you collect benefits. In my case, I will fly South African Airways, part of the Star Alliance, so the miles could be used later on companies like United Airlines or Lufthansa.
  • Cutters, scissors, and possibly some small screwdrivers, should go in the checked-in luggage (do not keep them in the photo bag for the flight itself). They are prohibited. Same thing with liquids and aerosol cans that are heavily regulated up to 100ml and prohibited in larger quantities.
  • If you bring your mobile phone or your PDA, remember its charger too.
  • If you will stay in a tent or outdoor camp, it may be very useful to have a head-light to be able to wander around after sun set.
  • Under the tropics, a sunscreen is welcome (even more if you will stay in a hotel with a swimming pool. Don’t laugh, the animals will be sleeping most of the day and photos will be best early in the morning or late in the afternoon).
  • Last but not least, do not forget the plane/train/boat/bus tickets and/or documents provided by your travel agent.

Logo Objectif Nature - spécialiste du voyage naturaliste et du safari photoThanks to Objectif Nature that is organizing my photo safari trip to South Africa. They have a nice checklist that all travel agents should include when sending a photographer abroad.