In the first part of this series of articles on our travels through Namibia I discussed general preparations, including route planning, booking, medical issues and money. This being a blog on photography, we will now turn towards the gear side of things.
When travelling abroad most photographers and photography enthusiasts face the hard decision of which equipment to take with them and what to leave at home. Online forums are full of people seeking advise on which two or three pieces of glass out of their massive lens park they should pick for their family vacation in Texas, the backpacking trip through the Andes or the honeymoon in Thailand. For me deciding what to take to Namibia was easy – everything. I own a total of four lenses, two of which are very compact primes, so there was no reason to leave anything at home. Here is what I took and why:
I took my main camera, the K3. Why? Because it is my camera and I have no better one lying around. One and a half years after its launch it is still one of the best APS-C cameras on the market. Image quality is great, it is built like a tank and weather sealed, and the APS-C sensor means it has more reach than full-frame sensors of the same resolution. The only drawback is that it does not feature the best autofocus system for tracking and AF.C, so for tracking a speeding cheetah or fast birds you might want to look at the likes of the Canon 7D Mark II or a Sony a6000 instead.
For the first time in my life I also took a backup camera along, the Pentax K-r I used before I acquired the K3. So far I have never felt the need for a backup as it means extra weight and I am not a professional photographer who depends on his images to pay the bills. Should my K3 ever fail, well, bad luck, I will not take any more pictures until I am home and have time to fix it. But Namibia is an exceptional destination that I will probably not visit again in the foreseeable future, and losing the ability to photograph all the beautiful animals and vast sceneries because my main camera fails would have been a massive bummer. So I took the K-r along.
As mentioned before I took all my existing lenses, which originally were:
Pentax DA L 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 WR The standard Pentax kit lens. For a kit lens it delivers very decent image quality, at least stopped down, and it is weather-sealed so I can shoot in the rain or snow. I used it to shoot a Holi Festival at my university once and after I came home I simply rinsed the camera and the lens off under the shower. Image quality wise I really think I should upgrade soon, because as decent as it performs for a kit lens, it really is just that – a kit lens. The K3’s stellar 24 MP sensor really deserves something better, but so far a lack of funds has not permitted a switch. So I took this one along mainly for landscapes and when I needed versatility.
Pentax SMC-A 50 f/1.7 This is a legacy prime from the 1980s. I bought it through eBay where it goes for around €40-60, and do not regret it. It is a manual focus lens that only works in manual or semi-automatic modes, but it is very sharp, has a very true to life colour rendition and is mostly made from metal and glass. For €50 it is great value, and I use it for the occasional portrait and street photography. I took it to Namibia for low-light scenes and the occasional portrait.
Pentax DA 35 f/2.4 Possibly my favourite lens so far. The SMC-A 50 f/1.7 got me hooked on primes, but I missed the autofocus and wanted to add something wider to my bag, so I purchased this one just about a month later. For what it is worth the image quality is amazing – sharp wide open, pleasing colours, nice contrast. It is not as fast as similar offerings from Nikon or Canon which are usually f/1.8, but in turn it is smaller and very lightweight. The thing is almost entirely plastic, including the mount, but I guess some corners had to be cut to deliver almost professional grade image quality for just €130. I brought it for all kinds of general shots and in anticipation of some street photography in Windhoek of which I ended up not doing any.
For the upcoming trip I was looking to acquire two additional lenses – a tele-zoom for wildlife and a fast wide-angle prime for landscapes and the night sky. I had picked out the Pentax HD DA 55-300 WR and the Samyang 16 f/2.0 – unfortunately I could only afford one. Because the Samyang would have merely been an improvement on my current kit lens for landscape photography (albeit a significant one) while the Pentax was absolutely necessary for wildlife photography as I did not own anything above 55 mm, the choice was obvious. I got the zoom and postponed the purchase of the Samyang. I have since used the Pentax extensively and you can read my take on this lens in the two-part review I posted.
Support (3 & 8)
For landscape photography and the night sky I took my tripod along. I use a Manfrotto 055XPROB with a 804RC2 three-way head (3). It is a sturdy, well-built solution with a rotating centre column that allows for very interesting angles. It is also a bit on the heavier and larger side and maybe not the ideal choice for the frequent traveller, but it serves me very well.
In addition to the tripod I also bought a beanbag (8). These little things are essentially just empty sacks of varying sizes that can be filled with rice, dry beans or similar materials to provide support to your camera wherever a tripod cannot be used. On a motorised safari you wind down the window, then place the beanbag on the window frame and the camera so that its centre of gravity sits just on top of the beanbag. This helps you to minimise camera shake when shooting at very long focal lengths.
Memory and Power (4 & 6)
I took a couple of 8 GB Sandisk SD cards, a 16 GB Sandisk and a 16 GB Samsung Pro. I added the Samsung in order to match my camera’s write speed as I expected to shoot quite a few series in continuous drive mode, which at about 9 fps and over 30 MB per image generate a lot of data in a very short amount of time.
In addition to the K3’s and K-r’s original batteries I also took one replacement each. The original replacement batteries sold by manufacturers are extremely overpriced and much more affordable alternatives can be found online. As long as you do not take the cheapest chinaware but make sure to buy from a reputable manufacturer you will not be disappointed. My K-r’s replacement has about 20% less capacity than the original at less than 1/3rd of the price. I you are an extreme shooter and plan to take thousands of pictures a day on safari you might want to consider taking more than one replacement though.
I took both a small messenger bag and my larger f-stop Loka camera backpack with me (review coming soon). The small bag fits my camera with one lens attached, the backpack consists of a photo insert that can hold almost all my photography gear and ample additional space for other gear like food, additional cloths, a first aid kit, a climbing helmet and so on. On the few hikes we took in Namibia I took the whole backpack with me, but usually I had only the photo insert sitting in the passenger seat’s legroom for quick access to my camera and lenses while driving around in the national parks.
For secure storage and casual editing in the evenings I brought my MacBook Pro 13′ and a Toshiba external hard drive. That way I always had two copies of my images in case one storage unit failed or got corrupted.
A lot of photographers are absolutely paranoid about dust getting into the camera housing and onto that fragile little thing that is the sensor. Namibia is a particularly dusty country and there is a realistic danger of that stuff getting into everything, from lenses to your camera, especially when changing lenses. Some people use special sensor cleaning swaps and solutions, but having never had any visible dust on my sensor at all, I simply took a rocket blower along just in case. I noticed a piece of dust on the sensor once in the Namib desert and simply blew it off. Done, no other issues.
For all the other stuff I took a lenspen and a ton of microfibre cloths. I simply brushed off the dirt first with the pen, then polished the lenses with the cloths.
How did it perform?
I am happy to say that all my equipment performed exceptionally well and enabled me to get the image I wanted 95% of the time. Despite its less than stellar AF.C the K3 proved a formidable safari camera, delivering detailed, sharp, contrasty images with very true to life colours. The 9fps rate made it easy for me to capture the action and pick only the best frames and the comprehensive weather sealing kept most of the dust out. With the additional SD cards and spare battery I never ran out of memory or power, and the beanbag provided a useful support that I used for pretty much all shots from the car. Because the K3 worked flawlessly, the K-r saw close to no action except for a couple of shots I took of the K3.
There were a couple of instances where I wished for better or just different equipment, but due to the monetary shortcomings of a student budget I would not have been able to afford this stuff anyways, so it is nothing I can say I regret in hindsight. Particularly I would have wished for a longer lens. The Pentax HD DA 55-300 WR is pretty long already (82.5 – 450 mm full frame equivalent), but I found myself shooting the majority of my images at 300 mm and still had to crop quite a bit in Lightroom to get the intimate perspectives of the animals I was looking for. Something like the new Pentax HD FA 150-450 DC AW would have been ideal, providing more reach and at the same time higher image quality, alas I do not have €2,200 lying around (and if I had I would have spent it on something else).
I also wished for a smaller, lighter tripod. The 055XPROB is a sturdy all-round solution, but it is on the larger and heavier side. For landscape photography something smaller and lighter would have probably been the better choice.
Lastly, I wished I would have b(r)ought a decent, fast wide-angle lens. But as I already detailed above, the choice was between a tele-zoom and a wide-angle. I chose the tele-zoom and do not regret it.
Ever been to Namibia? What equipment did you take and how did it perform? Feel free to share your suggestions and questions in the comments below. The third part of the series can be found here.