Friday, 25 November 2011

One for the Geeks

As this is a blog about a photographic safari, we thought we should give at least one update over to those who want to know more about the equipment used and the technicalities involved, problems that can be experienced, practicalities of organising and running this safari etc.  So here it is...

The KonicaMinolta 5D is an old 6MP DSLR.  Our main camera for several years, it still came in very handy on this safariIt was and is the best 6MP DSLR ever made.

Most of the wildlife photography blogs you read and magazine articles you see will no doubt have been shot with the most up-to-date "pro-level" equipment.  We have actually heard people complain that, because they cannot afford a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3s and a 600mm f4 lens there is no point in them considering going to Africa on safari!  On the other end of the scale, you will hear others complain that there is too much "equipment snobbery" and the photographer is more important than the camera.
In a sense, we feel that both arguments are right but only partially.  If you are not a good photographer, then it doesn't matter what equipment you have but good quality equipment will make it easier for a good photographer to get better shots.

The main advantages of top-of-the-range cameras tend to be in the ergonomics and useability - they may focus slightly faster, shoot more frames per second for capturing action, have better placed controls for easier access to advanced functions, offer a greater range of control etc but these are generally lots of minor tweaks individually that combine to make the camera easier to use for an experienced photographer.  They may also be hermetically sealed against dust and water, giving greater protection from the elements and therefore allowing you to continue to shoot in adverse environmental conditions.  Whilst the advantages of a "pro-level" camera will help a good photographer get more useable shots, that doesn't mean he or she can't get outstanding shots with less expensive cameras.

Lenses, however, are a different kettle of fish to cameras.  Good quality lenses have massive advantages over lesser lenses and even the most expensive camera will struggle to make anything worthwhile with a poor lens.  For wildlife photography, where fine detail often makes the difference between a good shot and a great shot, the quality of the lens makes a huge difference.  Having said that, whilst we would all like to own a 600mm f4, a 400mm f2.8 etc this is not possible for the majority of people, so our maxim has always been to buy the best quality glass we can afford and a camera body that does what we need it to do.

Another factor in wildlife photography that often gets overlooked is that conditions vary and animals don't tend to sit and pose in the ideal place for a prime lens, so zoom lenses are infinitely more practical.  It used to be the case, however, that prime lenses offered significantly better image quality than zooms but that is not always the case nowadays.  Lens technology has advanced greatly in the last 30 years and the differences in image quality between good quality zooms and primes have narrowed to the point where for all practical purposes there is no difference that can be seen outside a laboratory.

Now that you know our views on cameras and lenses, what exactly did we take with us?  Howard used a Sony Alpha 550 camera, with a Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens and Karen used a Sony Alpha SLT55 camera with a Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens.  We also shared one of our old KonicaMinolta Dynax 5D cameras, a Sigma 18-50mm f2.8 EX DC Macro and a Sony 18-55 f3.5-5.6  Full reviews of all of our equipment will be posted shortly on our Safaripics website.

Sigma 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 APO DG OS lens attached to Sony Alpha 500 body and Sigma 18-50mm f2.8 EX DC Macro attached to Sony Alpha SLT55 body.  The orange staining on the long lens is safari dust!

We think you will agree that we were able to capture some nice images with this equipment but what problems did we encounter with not using top-of-the-range pro equipment?  The short answer is "not a lot".

The pervasive nature of the fine dust in Africa can wreck some equipment and if you have been following the blog, you will have seen one image where the shutter on the Alpha 550 was stopped by dust.  This happened for only four images, out of almost 35,000 images taken on this safari!  On another occasion dust in the contacts between the lens and the Alpha 550 prevented aperture changing, which was cured by simply switching the camera off and then back on again.  The only other problem and also the most annoying, was when dust got into the zoom changing ring in one of the Sigma 120-400mm lenses, preventing it from pulling back beyond 150mm.  This lasted for a day, until Howard accidentally smacked the lens on the steering wheel when climbing into the Land Rover and that dislodged the dust!

As you can see, dust can be a major problem on photographic safaris!

Of course, in the digital age, it is not just the camera equipment that is needed but also computers and software.  We were also blogging "from the field", so what equipment did we use and what were the practicalities and problems of that?

Blogging from a budget hotel room in Voi

We updated our laptop before we left, so that we would have something fast, reliable and with good storage and processing power.  We opted for an Acer, with a an Intel i3 processor, 640Gb hard drive and 6Gb of RAM.  It also came with the new ultra-high speed USB3, so we also bought a USB3 card reader for downloading images.  This meant we could download images much quicker, which would in turn save battery power in the laptop.  We also took an inverter to give us 240 volt AC power from the car's accessory socket for charging batteries in the field.  We couldn't afford an extra copy of Photoshop for the laptop before we left, so all the images uploaded during the safari were processed using the free Sony software that came with the cameras, which is surprisingly good.  We also took two portable hard drives with 1TB and 750Gb capacities, so that we could have double back-ups of everything. 

Blogging by the light of a head-torch from the back of a Land Rover in the bush

 The thing that made blogging from the bush possible was the excellent mobile newtork coverage available in Kenya.  We obtained a Safaricom USB modem from Ashtech Systems in Voi (Tiju Aziz, the owner, was kind enough to meet us at the shop on the Sunday we arrived to supply the modem, despite her shop being closed).  In many places, including the Masai Mara, we had full 3G coverage, which made blogging fast and easy; we were also able to talk with relatives back in the UK via Skype in Tsavo West and Nairobi.

Once we had the dongle, we just needed to pick up airtime vouchers whenever we needed them

The total cost of blogging for three weeks, including the dongle and airtime vouchers was around £55.  We encountered only two problems when blogging.  At Sekenani, we stayed in a budget tented camp for one night, which was situated in a valley that blocked signals, so we were unable to provide an update for that night.  The only other problem was that we had not disabled automatic updates on the new laptop, so the first time we went online, the laptop used all our airtime credit downloading a security update!

To the many people who may read this blog and think that safaris are out of reach and even if they could afford it, they can't afford the photography equipment to make it worthwhile, we would say to think again.  Jason, who joined us on safari for the second time on this trip, told us recently that he had worked out that the cost per person, per day on this trip was just over £110, which includes flights, accommodation, vehicle hire, fuel, food, souvenirs and Park entry fees.  The equipment we used cost a total of £2,100 each, meaning we could have bought all the equipment brand new and gone on this safari for three weeks for only £4,500!  We also spent fifteen days out of the three weeks in National Parks and Reserves, which is more than most off-the-shelf safaris would provide for over £10,000 and we came home with thousands of images and memories.

Elephants in Tsavo East National Park

 Don't forget the purpose of this blog is to raise funds for Save The Elephants; please consider making a donation to our fund-raising through our Just Giving page.

That's the geeky bit over - normal service will be resumed in our next post, with a look at some of the animal behaviour we photographed on this safari.

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