Out of Africa…or, more correctly, two and a half months spent IN Africa… A land of sun, sand, harsh environments, vibrant colors and all things wild! I was here with my close friend Dean, together we guided four separate photo tours with Wildlight Safaris through Botswana and Namibia. So how do I pack for an extended period of shooting, knowing I will be covering a variety of subjects that include not only wildlife but also landscapes and culture? The answer of course is “very carefully”.
To get from New Zealand to Africa I carry my Pro Trekker 450 on board my flights. The 450 is within flight regulations although I must say mine is – umm – well, VERY heavy when loaded for a trip like this. I wear it on my back at check in, smile and try to look light!
In the Pro Trekker I carry my Nikon D5 with 400mm 2.8 attached. I then have a Nikon D810 body, a 70-200mm 2.8, a 24-70mm 2.8 a 14-24mm 2.8, spare batteries and a couple of extra items of clothing and warm socks for the long haul flights. In the side pocket I carry a water bottle and in the removable top compartment I carry everything I may use during the flight – this handy little removable pouch stays with me in the seat pocket and holds my phone, passport, travel documents, wallet, eye mask, earplugs, headphones and a small bottle of tabasco sauce – a must for airline food!
My checked in luggage includes my Lowepro Hardside 400 Photo, this safely houses my various battery chargers, a spare Nikon D810 body, 3 x SB 5000 speedlites and transmitters, 20mm 1.8 lens, 300mm f4 lens, a 200-500mm lens (this is a spare rental lens available for my photo tour guests to use), portable softboxes, filters and a cleaning kit. I love the rigid support of this case and the fact that I can padlock it closed, which gives me great confidence travelling with my gear, especially in some of the more remote locations I visit.
Once in Africa I repack my gear to suit the various shooting situations and what I want to have with me. On safari, I would generally have my D5 set up in the Pro Trekker with the 400mm 2.8 attached. I then have my D810 and 70-200mm and 300mm on hand for closer events and environment shots. Keeping things simple when shooting wildlife helps ensure that you don’t miss the shot. Too much gear means lost time and in turn lost opportunities.
Gear knowledge and being prepared for any opportunity that may happen at any time is something that I always discuss with my photo tour guests. Knowing your camera settings well, and using those settings to your advantage is one of the best ways to ensure you are ready for a great shot, especially when photographing wildlife where anything can happen without warning. Even on a bright sunny day I will have my camera set at a base level of 800 ISO. This ensures a good fast shutter speed which means I am ready to capture any sudden action that may happen – and often does!
If things are unfolding at a slower pace and I have chosen a subject that is more sedentary, then I have plenty of time to lower my ISO for that image. But I personally prefer to be “ready for speed”. A little noise in your image is far preferable to a blurry one… Especially when that image is one of cheetah cubs zooming past, a leopard leaping up a tree or an Impala (horned antelope) in full flight.
When visiting these amazing people I repack my Pro Trekker. In this situation I would have my D5 ready to go with the 24-70mm and Nikon flash transmitter attached. I use the transmitter to trigger my SB5000 speedlites, which I prefer to keep off camera and fire remotely to provide dramatic and controlled lighting where required. I then have a second setup – my Nikon D810 with the 70-200mm attached. I use this for longer reach and shoot using natural light. With a slight alteration to the internal configuration of the bag, these both fit easily into the backpack ready to shoot. I have a small lightstand with 2 speedlites attached that straps to the tripod mount on the rear of my Pro Trekker.
To not only get the best images but more importantly to enrich the experience for both the photographer and the Himba people we spend our first afternoon amongst them with no cameras, simply learning about their culture and interacting with the people on a very personal level as they go about their daily life.
These people have chosen to preserve and nurture their culture and educate their children in traditional ways. We therefore don’t bring any ‘western’ gifts into the village with us, but we do bring supplies of maise and rice – which makes up their staple diet.
We have built a fantastic relationship over the years and the villagers are like extended family with friendly smiles and warm traditional greetings on our arrival. Our visits financially support their orphanage, the local school and also help to fund medical support.
Once we begin to take photos, I find somewhere in the shade to leave my backpack so that I can move freely around the village with just a camera in hand. The rest of the equipment remains protected from the dust and the heat within the backpack, and it’s an easy change when I choose to alternate between set ups, depending on the shot I am working on (or I may be busy helping my tour guests with their photos). I always tell them that being mobile here is key as I find I spend a lot of time on my knees or lying down to get the desired angle, always trying to show a more intimate view of the village scenes we are so lucky to witness.
The group also spends time shooting landscapes in the Namib desert such as the sand dunes of Sesriem. The days here start very early – a 4.15am wakeup to drive into the park then a hike to our favourite “secret photography spots”. We tend to stay away from the known areas and search out amazing locations where we don’t see another soul, which further enhances the surreal experience of time spent amongst these gigantic sand hills.
The early morning and late evening light dances across the dunes creating a kaleidoscope of light and shadow. This is often followed by winds and moving sands so here I tend to have two D810’s with lenses already mounted (to reduce lens changes). My most common combination is the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm though I do swap to the 300mm plus 1.4 converter as well as the 20mm 1.8 for different perspectives. Keeping dust out of equipment is critical here so I tell everyone to keep the zippers done up and minimise lens changes where possible.
I encourage the group to look for shape and form not only in the dunes themselves but in the shadows and light cast on them. This changes very fast as the sun rises / falls so being observant and getting a creative flow going is key! The days are very hot so the middle of the day is spent resting, swimming in the lodge pool or sipping on a well-deserved ice cold beer.
Another piece of advice I always give my photo tour guests, “don’t invest all your hard earned money into expensive gear and then skimp on the protective gear you use to transport it in”.
About Chris McLennan
A talented photographer and generous mentor for enthusiasts and up-and-coming photographers, Chris McLennan is a Nikon Ambassador based out of New Zealand – but his assignments and adventures take him to more than 45 countries (and still counting!) to capture amazing, travel, wildlife, tourism and adventure photography. His award-winning images have been published worldwide and his photo tours sell out quickly and earn extreme praise from participants.