Thursday, June 12, 2014

Gearing up for Africa 2014

Since the trip, itself, was going to require significant monetary resources, I didn't want to buy too many things new for the trip. I've got a nice photo gear kit as it is.

But I did need/want a few things for this trip, all of which should have continued utility in the future.

Long Lens
This was to be a wildlife shoot. To whatever extent I have photo skills, I'm a landscape photographer. The most expensive lens in my kit is a Zeiss 15mm/2.8 wide angle lens. When I switched from Canon to Nikon, there was no equivalent for my Canon EF 100-400L lens in the Nikon line-up. I got the highly praised Nikon AF-S 70-200 VR, but that only got me halfway there. I got a TC-20Eiii teleconverter, but that always comes with compromises. Nikon has since come out with a new 80-400mm lens that people seem to love. If it had been available when I made the switch, I'm sure I would have opted for it rather than the 70-200. But that's water under the bridge.

One thing I know about wildlife photography is that you're always too far from the animals. If I hoped to get some keepers, I was gonna need a bigger lens. The trouble is that once you move past 200mm in the world of Nikon lenses, you move into serious weight, serious bulk, and very serious cash.

But Tamron was introducing a monster 150-600mm lens this spring. Sure, it's not a Nikon. And it only opens to f/6.3 (not f/4) at 600mm. But it's very sharp, isn't 10+pounds, isn't so huge it requires its own luggage, and doesn't carry a 5-figure price tag. The Nikon f/4 prime is $10,000; the Tamron f/5-6.3 zoom is $1100.

The problem was that the lens was new and demand outpaced supply. By a lot. It was getting great reviews, and it was $1100. The lens needed to be in my hands well before my June 13 flight, but it was rolling out slowly. Seemed like everyone wanted one and no one had them. The release date for the Nikon mount was never really clear. The released Canon mount wasn't showing up in stores. Tales of eBay scalpers began to emerge as the accepted release date came and went.

I solved the problem the same way I solved the Nikon D800E initial launch availability problem: Pardee's Camera—the local shop. And once again, they came through. While the preorder queues at photo mega-retailer, B&H, grew longer and longer, I was shooting my Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD long before Memorial Day. [Even after my mid-July return from Africa, the lens is not available from B&H.]

Hard Case Spinner (and packing cubes)
Johannesburg's OR Tambo airport is the busiest on the continent and has a bit of a reputation for baggage handler theft. For R60 ($6), you can have your luggage wrapped in cellophane before checking in for departure. There are a dozen or more wrapping stations in the airport.

YouTube videos show how easy it is to break into zippered luggage despite having the pulls locked together.

I decided to get a large hard case spinner with zipper pulls that could be locked into the case, itself.

Actually, my first attempt was a Zero Halliburton Polycarbonate Spinner that featured clasps rather than zippers. But the clasps seemed eager to pop, and the copy they sent me had some manufacturing defects. For the price they were asking, these were deal breakers. So I returned the case to Zero Halliburton.

I settled on the Briggs & Riley Torq. Blue, of course. It scratches like crazy, but I'm okay with that. It's big, sturdy, and rolls like a champ. The big bonus is that it opens like a normal suitcase, not the awkward 50-50 split that most hard case spinners employ. Gotta love their slick YouTube ad. And I was happy to buy local at Holloway's Travel Outfitters ( 

I picked up a pair of packing cubes at REI and found them to be very handy in keeping the luggage packing reasonably organized.

Seemed like a good thing to have for a wildlife safari. But good ones can set you back an arm and a leg. After considering the Nikon Monarch 5 series, I went with the Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x42, and saved about $50 by getting the camouflage paint job (RealTree AP) instead of straight black.

I rented a flash unit from Lens Rentals to potentially help in low light situations. But I lacked the off-shoe accessories needed to prevent "green-eye" (the big cat version of red-eye).

I considered renting a backup DSLR body, but settled on bringing my Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ200 as a backup, instead. It's a very capable little camera with an equivalent 25-600mm f/2.8 lens. If called upon to work on safari, it had my confidence.

With that, I was geared up and ready to go. I would use my awesome Pelican roller with detachable courier bag as carry-on: camera gear pre-packed in my Lowepro AW350 backpack inside the main compartment of the Pelican. The laptop, DVDs, iPad, and 3-1-1 bag would ride in the courier bag. The Briggs & Riley Torq would hold an empty duffle and all clothes, some photo gear, the tripod, and DOP kit.

Once in Joburg, I'd reconfigure. The Lowepro pack with gear would also hold the laptop and be my carry on. The duffel would be packed and act as my checked luggage. The Pelican would pack inside the Torq, and they'd be left at the airport hotel's bell hop storage. 

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