We have used Nikon® cameras and lenses exclusively since 1990. This decision was made based upon our need to embrace the autofocus technology that was becoming increasingly prevalent at that time. Nikon had made the decision to stick with the same bayonet lens they have used forever, thus allowing photographers who already owned Nikon lenses to use the same lenses on the new cameras, albeit without autofocus (AF). For us this was a major incentive, as it allowed us to take advantage of the large number of second-hand Nikon lenses available on the “used” market as photographers upgraded to the newer AF models, or changed to other brands. Nikon has been a major camera brand, and one used & relied upon by professionals the world over, for decades, with the result that there are always good, quality, pro lenses and bodies on the second hand market.
Our decision to “go with Nikon” was a turning point for us in our photographic careers, and one we have never regretted.
We sincerely believe that Nikon as a brand offers photographers the utmost in durability and reliability under harsh conditions – the kind of conditions wildlife photographers must work in to be successful. We work hard, under trying conditions of dust, heat and inhospitable terrain, for many months of each year. We have never molly-coddled our vehicles, our equipment, or ourselves. Our Nikons have never let us down.
In December 1992, when I was trampled by the giant elephant Tshokwane and both my Nikon 8008s cameras were trashed underfoot a 6-ton tusker, the film was retrieved unscathed from both bodies. Despite the destructive attentions of an angry elephant, resulting in both cameras being destroyed beyond repair, neither camera back sprung open nor let in any light. The film from both bodies was unmarred by scratches or any other damage. To us as photographers, for whom the image is the ultimate reward, this was the ultimate accolade for the durability of our Nikon cameras.
Today we use an array of Nikon digital cameras including the D3s, D700 and new D7000, and some of the latest lenses. But our battery of cameras still includes some of the venerable old Nikon classics – the F2 and F3, a totally manual FM2, and the more modern AF film bodies, the F4 and F5. Although we don’t shoot film much anymore – our photo agencies and most publishers insist on digital submissions – we still maintain a freezer full of Fuji® Velvia & Provia emulsions for those special occasions.
When we set off into the field on a wildlife photographing expedition our camera bags contain a selection of Nikon digital bodies, lenses and electronic flash units, along with an array of ancillary accessories such as Gitzo® tripods, Really Right Stuff® and Wimberley® heads, a laptop computer and LaCie® and Epson® hard drives for backups, an array of CF cards by SanDisk® and Lexar® in 4GB, 8GB, 16GB and 32GB capacities and a case full of lesser bits and pieces. We also never travel without beanbags, the most versatile camera/lens support device ever made! We make our own in heavy duty denim with Velcro® closures and can thus fill them with inexpensive beans, rice or even sand or gravel at our destination when travelling abroad.
We have an extensive selection of lenses for all occasions, but the most important lenses in our arsenal are all zooms and we use, extensively, the Nikon 200-400mm f4 AF-S VR, 70-200mm f2,8 AF-S VR II, 24-70mm f2,8 AF-S and 14-24mm f2,8 AF-S, as well as the recently added AF-S VR 28-300mm, a very handy lens. We also make use of the exceptional Nikon 600mm f4 AF-S VR-II, but this is an awkward and bulky piece of equipment and difficult to use under general conditions.
Our camera bodies of choice are currently the Nikon D3S, D700, D300 and D7000. These are all 12+ megapixel cameras and we have never had an editor reject an image because the file-size was too small. The megapixel race is over-stressed and exaggerated in our opinion – image quality depends on a lot more than simply the number of megapixels in a camera. We have added the new D7000 16,2 megapixel camera body to our arsenal, mainly for its great video features, but also the higher pixel count in the smaller DX sensor.
The D3S and D700 are full-frame sensor (FX) cameras (i.e. there in no “crop factor” caused by a smaller sensor, so a 200mm lens is a de facto 200mm lens on it.) The D7000, D300 and D2XS are DX (APS-sized) sensor cameras, resulting in a 1,5x “magnification” of lenses (i.e. a 200mm lens gives the magnification of a 300mm, a 400mm gives you 600mm, etc.) The D700 and D300 bodies are fitted with the MB-D10 battery packs, giving exceptionally long battery life and the ability to shoot at up to 8 frames per second.
The D3S & D700 are amazing cameras with fantastic high ISO capabilities. They can be set at ISO ratings as high as 25,600 for extreme situations, but few photographers will ever find the need to go that high (The D3S can in fact go right up to 102,800 ISO and shoot by moonlight.). We have obtained publishable results with settings as high as ISO 6400, and we generally find that we can leave the D3S and D700 set on an ISO of 800-1000 for all our wildlife photography unless we specifically require lower shutter speeds or low ISOs. And of course, being a full-sensor camera, the wide-angle lenses remain true wide angles. The Nikon 24-70mm f2,8 and 14-24mm f2,8 lenses have to be among the best, sharpest lenses ever made and both are great for wide-angle landscapes and close-ups, as well as interiors.
The D7000, D300 and D2Xs on the other hand, with the 1,5x crop-factor inherent in the DX sensor size, offer true advantages for wildlife photography. Our most-used lens, the Nikon 200-400mm f4, is effectively a 300-600mm f4 lens, complete with Vibration Reduction (VR) technology that allows hand-holding at up to 3-stops slower than would normally be the case. Now go back a few years, when the 600mm f4 was the ultimate lens-envy piece of glass, and imagine how a 300-600mm f4 would have been lusted after!
Although we carry tele-converters of 1,4x, 1,7x and 2x we very rarely find we have need to use these, and whenever we do the 1,4x or 1,7x suffice more often than not. Given that the 1,4x on the 200-400mm results in a range of 420-840mm at a respectable f5,6 on the D300 or D7000, with full autofocus and VR, it is easy to see why we rarely require more.
However, for those occasions when a longer lens is required – more often for smaller rather than distant subjects – we use a Nikon 600mm f4 AF-S VR-II lens.
This lens, and the 200-400mm, will autofocus with the 1,7x TC under good lighting conditions and using the centre focussing bracket, but not with the 2x (although on occasion under very good light it will do so!). All can be manually focused of course.
Generally in the field we will keep a D3S body fitted to the 600, the D700 on the 200-400mm lens, a D7000 on the 70-200mm lens and a D300 on the 24-70mm (or the new 18-200mm VR lens, which we find extremely versatile and exceptionally handy).
While these camera bodies and lenses make up our primary photo arsenal, we do call on an array of other Nikon lenses from time to time. A macro lens is an essential in any outdoor photographer’s kit and we rely on Nikon’s legendary 105mm f2,8. We can supplement this with one or all of three extension tubes when greater magnification is needed. For aerial photography we use an 85mm f1,4 and a 50mm f1,4. An 18mm f2,8 wide-angle lens also comes in handy when the 14-24 is too bulky or intrusive. We also own the Nikon 18-200 and 28-300mm zoom lenses and find these very useful when we need lightweight kit.
Among our most important accessories are Nikon’s intelligent flash units. We use several of the SB-900 and SB-800 strobes as required and find them to be so “intelligent” as to be virtually foolproof. We often fit Better Beamer® flash extenders to our strobes to extend the range of our flashes outdoors, and use flash extensively for both night and daytime photography, the latter to add a touch of fill-in light to harsh shadows, and put a catch-light in our subjects’ eyes.
It is preferable when using flash almost any time to keep the flash unit some distance from the lens axis to prevent “red eye” (or “green eye” in most animals) to which end we use one of the Nikon extension flash sync cords such as the SC-17.
One of the biggest causes of un-sharp pictures is camera shake…or an unsteady camera. We are firm advocates of the use of beanbags to steady your camera & lens prior to shooting. A beanbag is nothing more than its name implies – a bag of beans (or rice, plastic beads etc). The old canvas bank bags make great beanbags, but any durable bag, about 20-30cm x 15-20cm, filled with any suitable beans or similar, on which you can securely bed down your camera on the car window sill, or wherever, will result in greatly improved sharpness compared with hand holding your camera, particularly with any form of telephoto lens. (In our Maasai Mara safari camp we do supply plenty of large beanbags in all our vehicles.)
We also use tripods extensively when outside of our vehicles, and have two medium and heavyweight carbon fibre Gitzo® models as well as a lightweight carbon fibre Manfrotto®. Fitted to these we have ball heads made by Really Right Stuff, such as their top-of-the-range BH-55 or medium-weight BH-40, and the lightweight unit made by Acratech®. We also use the Wimberley® gimbal-type head for our longest lenses, which allows easy panning and tracking of birds in flight or running animals. A Kirk® window bracket allows these heads to be attached to the door or window of a vehicle, while Manfrotto Super Clamps facilitate attaching a ball-head to the framework found on many game drive vehicles.
We also use a heavy-duty Manfrotto monopod fitted with a Really Right Stuff® monopod swivel head for those occasions, such as photographing chimpanzees and gorillas in dense forest, when a tripod is not practical or possible.
Our images are our livelihood, so it is essential that we download and back-up from our digital memory cards at the end of each day of shooting. To this end we usually always carry a laptop computer as well as one or two external hard drives. We use two or three LaCie® Rugged external hard-drives with a 500 GB capacity each, as well as an Epson® P-7000 on which we can both store up to 160GB of images and review them on its excellent viewing screen and do some initial editing selections if needed.
Of course, to keep all the above in operating order we need to pack it in secure bags and cases, and carry along enough batteries, chargers and a means to charge when travelling off the beaten track. We use Lowe-Pro® camera backpacks and Pelican hard cases for our camera gear. And we generally always travel with an inverter or two with which we can produce 110-240v AC current from a 12v DC car battery to recharge our camera and other batteries.
Now all we need is a private airplane to carry it all on our travels!