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Safari camera equipment post-mortem

A moment can never be captured twice: once it has passed, it is gone. There are no real do-overs in photography, which is why being prepared and informed are important traits for photographers. What does all this have to do with my latest trip to Kenya?

Simple. This was my second trip to Kenya, and third to Sub-Sahara Africa. My first was in 2000, when I visited South Africa. I then had a chance to do a one day game drive in Pilanesberg. I carried with me a small film camera and took fun pictures. I can honestly say that I didn’t know what I was doing from a photography perspective, but I had a great time. Some of the pictures turned out great, some others, well, let’s not go there.

Then came my first trip to Kenya in 2004. This time, I came prepared with an SLR, dozens of rolls of film and a few lenses. Back then, I had average gear and admittedly so, average skill. When looking back at the output, I can honestly say that my pictures were underwhelming. I made critical mistakes at key moments which I can actually identify and remember to this day. I sometimes find myself wishing I could go back in time with all my current equipment and knowledge in order to capture better pictures. Wishful thinking.

Seven years since my last trip to Kenya, some 50,000 pictures later and after hours of research and education, I went back to Kenya this past July. This time, it felt like I had all the right ingredients to make it a successful photographic trip:

  • Appropriate gear? Check. I slowly acquired the necessary equipment (new and used) over the years that would be needed for such a trip. Tip: don’t buy all the equipment right before going, you won’t know how to use it properly.
  • Knowledge? Check. Tens of thousands of pictures and hundreds of articles later, it felt like Kenya would be just like any other project I’ve undertaken. Knowledge and practice gave me confidence. Past mistakes left me with something to build on.
  • Travel experience? Check. I have logged hundreds of flights since my last trip to Kenya, visiting some pretty interesting places along the way. There aren’t many travel situations that can throw me off.
  • Accommodations? Check. Found a local company that organized everything for me, at a very competitive price. The key component of the trip was booking private game drives, which are a must if you go there for photography.
  • Post processing skills? Check. The pictures that I brought back from Kenya in 2004 were not developed by me. I therefore lost creative control. Since those “dark” (room) days, I have moved to a DSLR, like most of you, and have steadily enhanced my post processing abilities (in no way am I a pro though).

With that said, let's get down to the gear that I brought along:


Camera Used? Notes
D3s Yes Big, heavy and not inconspicuous. Incredible at high ISOs which were needed when coupled with the 200-400 F4.
D700 Yes Along with the portrait grip, the 80-200 was attached to it 80% of the time. Great camera which complimented the D3s very well.
Lumix LX5 Yes Discreet camera for Mombasa and necessary to have for spur of the moment pictures.

I've been using a D3s for close to a year, and it has allowed me to take pictures that in the past would simply not have been possible. I just can't say enough good things about this camera and the flexibility it affords photographers.

When looking at the D3s ISO chart, you'll notice that a whopping 90% of pictures were taken at ISO 800 or higher. That ISO was necessary since the 200-400 F4 was permanently attached to it during game drives. To realistically photograph anything at 7AM at 400mm F5.6, you have no choice but to bump up the ISO in order to have a reasonable shutter speed. The resulting images, all shot in 14 bit (RAW), are extremely clean and malleable. The only drawback of the D3s, and any full frame camera, is pixel density when compared to a cropped sensor camera. To get the same amounts of pixels on a subject when using a full frame camera, you simply need longer lenses. Longer lenses are more expensive, and less portable. The trade-off is therefore between excellent high ISO performance and reach. That said, other than a handful of occasions, I didn't need the extra reach.

Attached to the D700 75% of the time was the 80-200 AF-D. Note the linear relationship between the D700 and D3s ISO charts. The most often used ISOs on the D700 were ISO 200 and ISO 400, which is one to two stops better than what was most often used for the D3s. This of course makes sense given the fact that the 80-200 is roughly half the focal length of the 200-400 and could therefore manage with slower shutter speeds (up to half the speed). Moreover, the 80-200 is a full stop faster than the 200-400 (2.8 v 4).

The LX5 became my main camera when touring the city of Mombasa and was also used for casual shots in airplanes, hotels and airports. Why did I use the LX5 instead of the D3s in Mombasa? The original plan was for me to visit Mombasa on my first day in Kenya with the LX5. This would have allowed me to gain a certain amount of comfort in the city and to determine if bringing the D3s on my second day in Mombasa was a worthwhile endeavour from a photography and security perspective. Due to a mechanical en route to Kenya, my trip was shortened by a day. Since I didn't have a chance to acclimatize myself to Mombasa and with the safaris being the main reason for this trip, I erred on the side of caution and left the D3s at the hotel. The pictures taken with the LX5 were good, but the lack of proper RAW support from Panasonic is terrible/pathetic. I will most likely suppliment my Nikons with a m4/3 camera in the near future, since Nikon still has not produced a competent compact camera. That said, I really did enjoy having a small portable option with me, and would not hesitate to bring one again.


I am returning to Africa, Tanzania to be specific, in a month. What cameras will I bring? All three, as they all played an important role in my bag, and possibly a fourth. A third DSLR, preferably DX (cropped sensor) fitted with a wide angle lens, will be a welcomed addition since it will give me the crop sensor option for the handful of times I need the extra reach. Moreover, DX wide angle lenses are substantially smaller and lighter than their full-frame counterparts. In addition, having so many cameras fitted with such a wide range of focal lengths also means fewer lens changes in the field, which is a huge advantage given the incredible amounts of dust everywhere. A D300(s) is the most likely camera that I will bring as it uses the same batteries and portrait grip as the D700. Finally, for those who can't afford or find a D3s, I would strongly suggest a used D700 and D300 combo. The two cameras combined cost less than half of a D3s and are more than adequate, as long as you have the appropriate lenses to go with them.


Lens Used? Notes
16-35 F4 Yes Used sparingly to capture panoramic pictures.
24-70 F2.8 Yes Used sparingly to capture panoramic pictures.
80-200 F2.8 Yes Used often for animal and panoramic pictures.
200-400 F4 Yes Primary and most often used lens during game drives.
35 F2 No Should have been used in Mombasa, but delays getting to Mombasa meant the lens was unused.
50 F1.8 Yes Was supposed to be used in Mombasa. Used it instead on the road back from Tsavo and allowed me to capture all pictures found in the hotels collection.
55 3.5 macro No No opportunity to use.
85mm F1.4 No Should have been used in Mombasa, but delays getting to Mombasa meant the lens was unused.

Due to the initial delay getting to Mombasa, I ended up bringing too many lenses. I could have left the 85mm and the 35mm behind since those were supposed to be primarily used during the Mombasa city tours.

That said, given the start time of safaris (anywhere between 6h30AM and 7AM), I also believed that the 85mm would be useful in low light situations when out in the field. The D3s' high ISO capabilities are such however, that shooting wide open (or close to it) was never really required except for a handful of times. In addition, shooting animals with an 85mm wide open isn't always optimal for two reasons. First, the depth of field would be too thin. Second, the 85mm is very restrictive since you can't freely move to recompose when you're in a vehicle. In the end, the 80-200 gave me enough aperture (i.e. 2.8) and zoom flexibility (when combined with the D700) that I did not need the 85mm.

D700 aperture and focal length charts

The 200-400 F4 was on the D3s most of the time. As you can see, I mostly shot at 5.6 in order to maximize lens performance and to get a good amount of depth of field. The focal length chart summarizes my thoughts on lenses though: you can never have enough reach when on a safari. If you look at the D3s focal length chart, you'll notice that 57% of the pictures were taken at 400mm. That's simply incredible and begs the question: did I need more reach? The answer as noted above is "sometimes, but not often". Apart from the leopard, I was lucky enough to get close to all the animals. The decision to shoot at 400mm had more to do with composition than lack of reach. Furthermore, as a Nikon shooter, what portable options do I have beyond 400mm? Not many. A 500mm and the heavy 600mm, neither of which are flexible when in a vehicle.

D3s aperture and focal length charts


My indispensible lenses were the 50mm for the hotel series, the 80-200 / 200-400 for the safaris, and occasionally, either the 16-35 or the 24-70 for general landscapes. For Tanzania, four of the five will be in my bag, along with a D300 outfitted with a 10-20. I will continue to use the 200-400 on my D3s because of the high ISO capabilities that allow me to use appropriate/optimal shutter speeds, and will again use the 80-200 on the D700. Occasionally, the D300 will also serve as a "reach" camera and will be kitted with the 200-400. The challenge will be to find the optimal ISO and shutter speed combination on the D300 seeing as it simply does not offer the same ISO performance as the D3s. That's where VR comes in I suppose, though I'd rather not use it if possible. I will also bring along the 24-70, which will be used in the city on both crop and full frame cameras (note: I actually prefer the field of view of the 24-70 on a crop camera). And the nifty-fifty will of course be brought along: you can't go wrong with the 50mm 1.8.


Accessory Used? Notes
Netbook Yes A necessity, crucial part of your backup strategy.
External hard drive Yes A necessity, crucial part of your backup strategy.
CF cards Yes Brought enough along to compliment the external hard drive: 4*32GB, 2*16GB, 3*8GB, 2*4GB
Batteries Yes Despite taking over 4,000 pictures and a handful of videos, I only recharged my D3s battery twice. Each time, the battery still had over 50% left in it. I never had to charge the D700's battery since I didn't use it as often.
Monopod Yes But quickly became too cumbersome/restrictive. Stopped using it after a half day in Tsavo.
Wimberley sidekick Yes But quickly became too cumbersome/restrictive. Stopped using it after a half day in Tsavo.
SB-900 No Never needed

Unlike in the film days when what you brought in the field had to serve you for the duration of your trip, we now have more flexible options. You can buy a reasonable amount of memory cards and "chimp" and delete as you go. The problem however with that solution is twofold. First, if you delete pictures from your memory cards and have a subsequent card failure, retrieving the pictures becomes infinitely more complicated. I learned that the hard way. This leads us to the second problem: if you shouldn't delete pictures as you go, how many cards should you buy in the first place? That is the same question I was asking myself during my film days.

The answer for me was to bring a netbook and an external hard drive. The cost of a low end netbook and a 500GB external hard drive combined can be as little as $400, significantly less than 500GB worth of 400x compact flash cards. During this last trip, I shot 100GB worth of pictures and movies. Every night, I transferred the data to the netbook AND to the external hard drive. The external hard drive was always with me, even on game drives. I therefore had redundancy and some level of security should something happen to the netbook whic was stowed at the hotel. Moreover, the side benefit of the netbook is that it also allowed me to record my thoughts and events as they unfolded.

In addition to the netbook, I brought along a monopod and a wimberley sidekick in order to hold the 200-400 F4. A few hours into my first game drive, I was too frustrated with the combination and stopped using it. It was too difficult to manage and maneuver the 200-400 when attached to a monopod in the vehicle. I therefore improvised and made a bean bag out of an airline amenity pouch. It worked a lot better and gave me significantly more stability and flexibility as animals moved around the vehicle. This isn't a knock on the sidekick though, it's a great piece of equipment that has a place in my bag. Just not in a safari vehicle.

Lastly, I found that the 133x speed compact flash cards were very restrictive. The D3s could not clear its buffer as fast as I would have liked it to when using 133x cards, especially when compared to the 400x cards. The camera / 133x card combination hindered me twice in the same day, which was enough to relegate these cards to the bag for the rest of the trip. Note that I used Transcend cards, and I was very pleased with the price/performance ratio especially when compared to SandDisk cards which cost infinitely more. I picked up the 32GB cards from Newegg (please note that I am not affiliated with them in any way) for under $75 each.

Concluding thoughts

My bag for my upcoming Tanzania trip will contain most of what I brought to Kenya. I will leave behind the 16-35 and replace it with the D300/10-20 combo and I will also leave behind the 85mm. The latter is simply not flexible enough and the 1.4 aperture is not needed. The lens/camera mix that I will bring to Tanzania is I believe optimal for such a trip as it offers sufficient reach, light gathering capabilities and clean high ISOs for dawn to dusk photo-ops. The netbook and external hard drive are again a must, as are extra batteries, cleaning supplies and a bean bag. Depending on the final itinerary, I may also bring the monopod/sidekick combo.

With all that said, what it really comes down to is the pictures. The hotel and Mombasa collections are available now. The collection that contains the animal pictures will be online in the next day or so, and there may be a fourth collection named "Kenyan people". Feel free to browse through the pictures to get a better sense of what the lens/camera combinations can do and feel free to ask me any questions: info@roberthawara.com .

Thanks for reading.