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Suggested Kit for the Serious Amateur Photographer

When it comes to digital SLRs, Canon and Nikon are generally considered the front-runners. As it happens, we both use Canon, but that is not to say that Nikon (or other manufacturers) do not make excellent cameras.

Below are some tables that show what's in our camera bags. As you can see, our kits vary a little, which points up the fact that we're all different. But more important, it depends on where you're going, what kind of shooting you like to do, and your budget. In some places, you'll want a super wide-angle lens for glorious landscapes, while the longest lens you can afford (and carry) will help you get those close-up eagle shots you crave. In other locations, a 200 mm lens is perfect because you are close enough to the action. So... it really does depend. We chose our kits with light aircraft transfers in mind.

Camera Body: Most wildlife photography takes place at a distance, so a crop body is an advantage. Two bodies gives you a backup in case one camera fails, and equally important enables you to avoid changing lenses in the field where dust and/or moisture (depending on the location and season) can be a big issue.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Canon 40D
  • Canon 20D
  • Canon 20D (2 bodies)

Lenses: Minimum would be one relatively wide-angle zoom and one telephoto zoom. For many people, this is quite enough. An additional wide-angle lens for landscapes/indoor photography and a teleconverter (TC) for that bit of extra reach also are useful. Image stabilisation (IS) is essential when shooting from a moving vehicle or at extreme telephoto.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Canon 16-35 f/2.8L
  • Canon 24-105 f/4L IS
  • Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS
  • Canon 1.4x II TC
  • Canon 17-40 f/4
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8
  • Canon 100-400 f/4 IS
  • Canon 200 f/2.8
  • Canon 1.4x II TC

Filters: Some photographers use filters and some don't. We recommend using a good UV filter (multicoated to minimise flair) to protect your glass. Julian also makes occasional use of circular polarising filters, which can truly save your bum in situations with dodgy lighting - the African sun is much more intense than we are used to in the northern hemisphere. Polarizers are also marvellous for getting superb shots over and through water (they are the secret to many of those amazing photos of tropical tidal pools where you can see straight to the bottom). Don't skimp on your filters - putting cheap glass in front of your expensive lens is penny-wise and pound-foolish! Make sure to get thin filters for wide-angle lenses to prevent vignetting.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • B&W 010 MRC UV filters for all lenses
  • B&W multicoated circular polarizer
  • Thin versions of above for wide-angle lenses
  • Hoya Super Pro HMC UV filters
  • Looking into B&W circular polarizers, but you must know how to use these filters to get good results from them!

Camera support: Some consider these vital to make the most of your photographic opportunities. Others prefer not to take them because of the extra weight and bulk. A monopod is both lighter to pack and easier to use in a vehicle than a tripod, and a carbon-fibre monopod is much lighter (but more expensive) than an aluminium one. A shoulder brace provides extra stability. A ball head, ideally one with separate vertical and horizontal controls, gives you maximum flexibility and is ideal for shooting panoramas; they are heavy, so choose the smallest ball head that will support your heaviest kit. A quick-release plate enables you to shift rapidly from supported to handheld shooting. If you prefer not to use a monopod or want an additional option for camera support, a beanbag offers one of the best low-tech camera supports around.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Manfrotto 695 MagFibre monopod
  • Manfrotto shoulder brace for monopod
  • Giotto MH-1002 ball head with Manfrotto quick release plate
  • 'Beanbag' (I fill a giant Ziploc bag with beans or rice when I arrive in camp, and stick that inside another Ziploc bag for leak insurance).
  • Manfrotto 681B aluminium monopod
  • Bogen/Manfrotto 488RC4 ball head with two quick-release plates (this is larger and heavier than needed for travel but was purchased for tripod work.)
  • I have yet to take these on safari but probably will next time because I do believe my shots would have been sharper!

Batteries: The last thing you want is to run out of power just as an exciting animal interaction comes to a climax. Bring plenty of spare batteries, and don't wait until they are about to die before changing them - if you get a 'low battery' warning, change the battery as soon as you can find a quiet moment between sightings.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • 5 camera batteries (1 in each camera body; 2 spare in camera bag; 1 charging in camp)
  • 1 camera battery charger
  • 6 camera batteries
  • 1 spare battery for Epson P-2000
  • 2 camera battery chargers

Cleaning Kit: Blower (NOT a blower brush, which will blow dirt all over your lens); cleaning solution; lots of lens tissues; lens pen with brush for touch-ups in the field. The jury is out on whether you should bring a sensor-cleaning kit - many modern camera bodies include automatic sensor cleaning, and while in experienced hands sensor cleaning kits can be a lifesaver if used improperly they can seriously damage your camera's sensor. With the extra camera body on board and no experience in sensor cleaning, we elect not to bring a sensor cleaning kit.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Hama Hurricane blower
  • Lens pen with brush
  • Lens cleaning fluid and plentiful lens tissues
  • Microfibre lens cloths
  • Giotto Rocketblaster
  • At least two lens pens at all times
  • Microfibre lens cloths

Camera Bag: Don't skimp here - this is what will protect all your precious gear. Some people prefer a shoulder bag because gear is much more accessible (even when you are walking) whereas others prefer the comfort of a backpack. We recommend that you try to get to a camera shop and check out various bags, ideally with all of your gear in hand so you can see how it fits and how accessible it is. We have tried many and they do feel different on the body! Sharon ordered and tried out many backpacks (from Crumpler, Kata, and others) before choosing the Lowepro model, and Julian lugged all of his kit around New York stuffing it in different bags (miraculously avoiding leaving anything behind) before settling on the Crumpler.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Crumpler Sixhundred Daily XL
  • Lowepro Mini Trekker backpack
  • Even better would be the Lowepro Computrekker; it's the same size as the Mini. When you're not storing (or even packing) your laptop, you've got an extra space for a light jacket or to conceal money, passports and other papers because it's quite invisible.

Photo Storage: Either lots of cards, or a few cards plus a portable storage device (PSD). If you shoot in RAW or RAW plus JPEG, a PSD is much better value for money. If you have a camera body that shoots video as well as photos, you'll want larger cards as video (especially HD) burns through memory like wildfire. In our experience, it's a good idea to make sure that every card you buy can fit at least 100 images on it, or you run the risk of running out of memory in the middle of an exciting action sequence - your camera's manual will tell you approximately how many images at your desired resolution will fit on a given size card. As with batteries, don't wait until you are out of memory to change your card - if you have a quiet moment between sightings, check to see how many images you have remaining and if the number is low switch cards. You'll be very glad that you did!

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • Sandisk Ultra II and Sandisk Extreme III CF cards
  • Epson P-7000 (160 GB storage)
  • Sandisk Ultra II CF cards
  • Epson P-2000 (40 GB storage)

Car Chargers: Note that many safari companies in southern Africa will not allow the use of invertors/car chargers that plug into the cigarette lighter (with the exception of mobile safaris). Since you don't have the long drives that are typical in East Africa and can charge your equipment in camp, it's not really an issue. A car charger can be useful on ground-based safaris in East Africa.

Julian's Kit Sharon's Kit
  • None
  • None

Lessons from the Field
  • If you have two camera bodies, keep your main wide-angle zoom on one and your main telephoto zoom on the other - you should be equipped for most situations.
  • Less is more - too many SLR users lug around a tonne of glass they never use.
  • Practice before you go - you'll want to know how to use your quick-release plate before you get into the field.
  • If your budget is tight, skimp on your camera body and spend on lenses. Good lenses are worth their weight in gold.
  • Take at least one very fast lens (f/2.8) for low-light shooting
  • Some people find gloves helpful on cold mornings and evenings, whereas others find that they interfere with shooting. Sharon bought the Lowepro photographers' gloves and found that they worked quite well. Other gloves will work; thinner ones with grippers probably are best, but again, it's all about personal preference.
Pros and Cons

Pros: Superb photo quality due to a higher number of autofocus points, more sophisticated light metering, and advanced modes such as predictive AF tracking. High resolution with the ability to generate huge high-quality prints. Excellent low-light capability with a fast lens, enabling you to continue shooting long after 'point and shoot' super-zoom cameras become unusable.

Cons: Steep learning curve before you can get the most from your kit. Weight. Expense. Most bodies lack video capability.