For those of you who have gone digital, it is a great way to photograph the wonders of Africa (or any other location for that matter). Using digital technology on an African safari brings up a number of items to be considered as you plan your trip.

   Power, Power and MORE Power

     There is no question that today’s digital SLR’s require far more power to stay running than their film-based predecessors. Tanzania, like a number of my other remote location photography trips, is designed so that we are far a field, close to the wildlife but a long way away from the nearest wall outlet. If you consider the need to provide power for not only cameras but flash units, backup image storage devices, and laptop computers, the challenge to having a supply of fully charged batteries can become daunting. Minimizing power demands starts with minimizing the amount of equipment brought into the field that requires it. Cell phones do not work in any of the Tanzania national parks due to the great distances involved and only work in the major towns. I also discourage bringing along a laptop computer as they are bulky, power hunger and very susceptible to dust and theft.

     Electricity is available in the camps by means of a generator operating just a few hours each day. This makes long term charging difficult. There are a number of backup charging options available. The first is that there are now a number of quick charge devices available that can completely charge a set of batteries in just a couple of hours. These can help maximize your charging time when power is available. The second option is to use a small solar powered charger that can handle up to four batteries and be left outdoors at the camp while you are in the field. The third option comes in if the safari vehicle is being used. Taking turns with the vehicle’s cigarette lighter will help you to keep a set of charged batteries always at hand. Keep in mind also that most vehicles in Tanzania have 12v sockets. However, be prepared to encounter 24v vehicles. Older Japanese vehicles such as Land Cruisers might use 24v lighter sockets.

     Under these conditions, it is wise to bring extra set of batteries with you on your safari. Using my camera body as an example, I bring three sets of batteries. One is in the camera, one is in the camera bag with me in the field and the other is in the charger back at camp.

   Dust, Dust, and MORE Dust

     I conduct a number of my Tanzania photo safaris during the August/September dry season. This time of year offers the best conditions for wildlife photography and viewing. While these dry conditions can produce abundant wildlife, unfortunately they also produce an abundant amount of dust. There is a lot of airborne dust due to the winds and animals. While dust in the atmosphere makes for magnificent sunrises and sunsets, it also makes for headaches when it comes to keeping it out of your gear.

     In my book, an ounce of prevention is worth hours of cleaning time. Keeping your gear covered when not in use is the first step. My Lowepro Trekker AW bags all come with a rain cover that I can use as extra protection to keep dust out of the bag. When driving between locations, I will put the front lens cap on and enclose camera and lens in a cover while it sits on my lap. (Note: while putting camera and lens in the bag is the best way to keep out dust, it also the best way to miss the unanticipated killer shot you could come upon while driving to a new location.) Keep the amount of lens changes in the field to a minimum. Change lenses only after the vehicle has stopped and then only with the camera pointed down.

     Keeping today’s digital SLR’s dust free is a big challenge in the field. Thankfully, there are now a number of charged brush products on the market that work very well in ridding your sensor of dust. That said, plan on cleaning your camera’s sensor (along with all your other equipment) each evening.

   Digital Storage

     Thanks to rapid technological advances in camera resolution, image file sizes have increased dramatically in just the last three years. Shooting in a combined raw+jpg format with a high resolution camera can create a 35MB file for each image taken. The questions of how much memory will be needed each day and how to store your images while in the field must be addressed.

     You do not want to find yourself in the field and out of image storage capacity nor do you want to store images on the memory cards for the length of the safari. In order to determine how much storage capacity to bring, you need to consider: the camera’s resolution; the file format(s) you will be saving the images in; how many images you might (or usually) take in one day; and how long to you have to go before you can get back to camp to download images off of your cards.

     Determining the number of images per card is as simple as dividing storage capacity by file size. A 2GB card can hold 250 8MB images but can only hold 57 35MB images. It then becomes a question of how many cards to bring into the field. For Tanzania, I recommend bring a minimum of three cards. If one would fail you at least have two in reserve. I will usually bring four cards with a total capacity of 16GB as I generate large file sizes. In almost all cases, downloading images can be done twice a day - once during lunch break and again in the evening.

    Whether an extended safari or a weekend vacation, the means of storing your digital images must be well planned. Size, weight, power needs, storage capacity and reliability are all factors that need to be considered in determining the best backup device for you. My preference is a photo storage and viewer device made by Epson. It is basically a portable hard drive that runs on batteries. You simply insert you memory card into the unit and transfer the image files. This will enable you to reuse your memory cards in a matter of minutes. The extra benefit is that it comes equipped with an industry leading, 3.8” LCD screen that can be used for editing your images. Bring along the charger and a spare battery and your set. Epson currently offers two models with different storage capacities, the P-2000 (40GB) and the P-4000 (80GB). Regardless of the storage device you choose, keep in mind the files sizes generated by your camera when determining the needed capacity. Storing 8MB files on a 40GB hard drive equals a 5,000 image capacity while storing 35MB files on the same size drive reduces the capacity to about 1,100 images.

     As noted earlier, I do not recommend bringing a laptop computer for use as an image backup device. Their bulk, heavy power needs and susceptibility to dust and theft make them a poor choice for safari travels.

   And in Conclusion

     Despite all of the issue raised while shooting digital, careful planning and equipment selection will make the rewards all worth the effort. With the advances in digital technology and the growing selection of equipment to support the digital photographer, the advantage of shooting digital outweighs the use of film while on safari.


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