Thursday, December 1, 2016

FUJIFILM GOES WILD - African Wildlife Safari with the XF 100-400 and XF1.4X TC

Earlier this month, I left the busy city environment of Dubai for a 9-day photo-safari in Northern Tanzania; visiting four National Parks (NP), Tarangire NP, Lake Mantra, Serengeti and last but not least the world renown the Ngorongoro Crater NP.


This was the my first Wildlife photo-safari shot exclusively on the Fujifilm system. Earlier trips to the Kenya and Namibia had all still been with the much heavier and bulkier DSLR system. 

Even though, I don't see myself as a Pro Wildlife photographer, I do really enjoy a good photo-safari. What is below is an overview of the gear I packed, some tips and tricks and the overall experience I had with the Fujifilm equipment in the wild!

PHOTOGEAR - What did I pack?
One does not want to go with a single camera body on a trip like this; do yourself a favor and  bring a back-up camera! I carried my Fujifilm X-T2 as the main body with the X-T1 as a back-up/second camera. The X-T2 had the Vertical Power Booster Grip (VPB-XT2) while the X-T1 had the Large Metal Hand Grip (MHG-XT). 



I brought the following glass:
  • XF100-400 ; my main wildlife lens
  • XF50-140 ; for wider shots and potentially as a back-up with the XF 1.4TC if something would go wrong with the 100-400
  • XF10-24 ; for wide angle vistas (rarely used)
  • XF23mm f2 ; for street photography when traveling between places
  • XF18-55 ; all round travel lens, although used it could have probably stayed home
  • XF1.4X TC ; teleconverter used a lot on the 100-400 lens





Beside the above, I carried an 15 inch MacBook Pro, a 2 TB external hard-disk and a single charger for the cameras as well as the new AC-9V AC Power Adapter that allows to charge two batteries in the grip simultaneously. Talking about batteries; I took a total of 6 batteries which turned out to be largely sufficient. 

I brought plenty of memory cards; a total of 288GB which allowed me to not format a single card during the trip. This will give you an extra backup beside the download on the laptop and external harddrive. 


Leave the tripod home as their often is no real use of it, except if one wants to photograph the night sky which can be very dramatic. But bring a bean bag to stabilize 
long glass on the window/roof sill of the car. When you are tight on baggage allowance, bring an empty bag and buy the cheapest beans you can find in a local (super)market. It will work just as well.


All was carried in two camera bags, the main one being a ThinkTank Streetwalker Pro and the second one an Everyday Messenger bag from Peak Design.




OTHER GEAR TO PACK


Generally try to pack as light as possible, but make sure to pack a few warmer clothes for those early morning Safaris. Believe it or nor but it can get a bit chilly in Africa, especially in the higher elevation parks like the Ngorongoro Crater.


  • A good flashlight will come in handy as a lot of the more basic accommodation will probably not have electricity during the night. 
  • Take a few zip-lock bags to protect stuff that can't handle the dust; It will get into everything.
  • Bring a Safari hat; a classic baseball cap is really out of place and will not protect you from the harsh midday sun. 
  • Make sure you have the correct electrical plug converters for the country you visit; click here for more.

PLANNING THE TRIP

Needless to say that a trip like this requires a decent amount of planning! First of all one has to decide when to go and where to go... Whenever the trip is to Kenya or Tanzania  a lot of photographers will want to be there for the "Great Wildebeest Migration". If not familiar please check out the link here

On my latest trip we however wanted to go to the Serengeti during the dry season (just before the short rain season) which gives a very different perspective to the place but also comes with specific challenges! While dust is always present  during a wildlife safari, it proved to be very much the case on this one. The "where" to go I'll leave entirely up to you as there is plenty of choice!




A great place to start the planning is SafariBookings.com ; they will send you quotes from most of the Safari companies organizing African safaris. When choosing a company please make sure you book a "Private tour". As a photographer you really don't want to be teamed up with non-photographers! The first will be ready to leave early before sunrise while the second group will be ready to go after breakfast when the best light of the morning is gone! If you do travel only with photographers, make sure that you set your objectives and expectations beforehand, as it can easily create tension amongst different photographers as well. I personally like to travel alone (or as a couple); something that obviously will be more expensive as a car and driver is obviously still needed for 1 or for 5-6 people. 


Check that the car you book is a 4x4 (normally Landrover or Toyota) and not a converted mini-bus. The latter are not ideal for wild-life photography. Then there is the choice between a closed or open vehicle; the second one is the preferred option but is largely being limited to the South-African Safaris as the travel distances on the road in Kenya and Tanzania can be quite long and not comfortable in an open car. For more info check out this well written article here

Make sure that your car an inverter installed to charge batteries and other electronics while on the go; especially when camping without the access to electricity at night. 

Lastly ask your local travel agent if the driver is familiar with wild-life photography; if possible ask for a referral to a photographer group/person that used them lately. 

In most places one can self-drive but this comes with its challenges as road-signs are often pretty thin in this part of the world. Beside, the safari drivers stay in contact through radios which makes finding wildlife easier than being on your own. On the other hand, there is of course something to be said about the freedom of being alone in the African Savannah! 


WHERE TO STAY

A safari will never be a cheap holiday, accommodation can vary from basic camping to luxury 5 star lodge accommodation. I personally prefer the "tented camps", such as Katti Katti in the Serengeti. These have all basic needs such as a toilet and shower but give you the advantages of a real camping experience; living amongst the animals.



While hyenas and other animals can be heard during the night, one morning we found a nice fresh elephant poo right outside our tent. Nature at its best!

TIPS AND TRICKS

1/ A few weeks before leaving, check what vaccinations you might need. Most places in Eastern African will also come with the recommendation of taking anti-malaria tablets; check with a medical professional for more. 






2/ One will often have to fly on domestic flights when going on safari. Avoid exceeding the hand and check-in luggage allowances; not only in weight but also in size, especially when flying on the smaller single-engine aircraft. You really don't want to load your photo-gear in the cargo hold of the aircraft. Believe me, as an airline pilot I do know how checked in luggage is often handled! 


If traveling with two photographers, a back-up camera as well as some lenses can be shared; maki amongst the two of you. Using mirrorless cameras like Fujifilm, allows me meet those weight requirements much easier. 



3/ Try to only use weather proof photography gear; not so much as a protection for rain but much more for dust. The African safaris are notorious for a lot of dust while driving. If you don't want to ruin your photographic experience, plan on not changing any lenses while being out and about; use your back-up camera with the alternative lens. 






4/ If you do take a personal driver/guide, advise him at the start of the trip what you expect from him. Agree on how you will make him stop when you see something and that you'll let him know when it is OK to start driving again. You might also have to explain to him that you normally prefer to have the sun in the back.


5/ Rather than taking breakfast in the lodge/tented camp, ask for a breakfast box so you can leave before sunrise. Tell the driver you are ok to come back to the accommodation during the mid-day harsh light and then leave again around 2.30-3pm. In order to be able to do this, it is advisable to have your accommodation inside the National Park.





6/ Use a geotagging app on your smartphone. After the trip, Lightroom will sync all of the images to the GPS track which will give you a good idea where exactly you took your shots. I personally use geotagphotos.net





7/ Go as low as you can! Getting a low perspective will often lead to more dramatic images. This is where the advantage of an open 4x4 will come in handy. If not, consider shooting through the side windows rather than from the higher open roof viewpoint when the situation allows it.





8/ Be patient! Rather than driving around like a headless chicken, spent time with the animals you find on the way. When a Leopard takes an afternoon nap in a tree, she will eventually come down; patience pays off! 



9/ When the animal is close to the car, don't put the long glass down! Details shot often make for interesting wildlife photography.




10/ Enjoy the experience of being in the wild. Don't forget to sometimes just put down the camera down in order to really let the whole experience sink in! 




FUJIFILM GEAR FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

Personally I believe that cameras like the X-T2 (review here) are near perfect for Wildlife photography; fast auto-focus with excellent glass like the XF100-400 make for a great combination. 


Before my recent trip to Tanzania, I had limited experience with the XF 1.4X Teleconverter and XF100-400 lens. It is not a secret that Teleconverters will degrade the image quality. However when paired with the 100-400 lens, the sharpness remains really good. Actually I can hardly notice the difference with or without it. I therefore had the TC on the camera most of the time; especially when I suspected that extra reach might be needed. The image below is taken at 560mm or 840mm full frame equivalent and is tack sharp!




Both the X-T1 and X-T2 didn't miss a beat in the very dusty environment. For me using weather resistant lenses like the XF50-140 and XF100-400 is a must in such circumstances. 

I did end up charging almost of my batteries with the AC-9V Power Adapter that comes with the X-T2 Power Booster Grip rather than using the standard battery charger. They charge really fast and will do two at the same time. I often topped up my battery load in the car while driving between locations and never took out the batteries in my X-T2 for the whole trip!


SAMPLE IMAGES

A few more sample images of the trip can be found below. Please refer to the metadata below the image for more details.
























Those of you who want to see all of the edited images of the trip so far, can visit the gallery "Tanzania Wildlife safari 2016".


Feel free to share this blogpost on social media or your personal blog; permission is not required as long as credit is given to Bjorn Moerman PHOTOGRAPHY! 

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Nice photos
I considered buying a Fuji setup for wildlife photography
But then i saw the high price tag of the 100-400mm and the f4.5 aperture and became doubtful.
So i ended up going for a Pentax setup and got hold of wider aperture lenses which Pentax offer. I have been on safari in pretty much every country in southern and east africa.
But it begs the question, was the f 4.5 aperture of the fuji 100-400mm problematic? Did it hinder you in any way?


Regards
Shiv

Bjorn Moerman said...

Shiv,

I absolutely had no issues with the 4.5 aperture; even after when I used the 1.4 TC limiting the aperture more by one stop.

Having said that I have no problem using higher ISO ( happily shoot at 6400) if needed to shoot at a higher shutter speed.

I find the X-T2 with the 100-400 and 1.4TC great for wildlife work.

Hope it clarifies,
Bjorn