Preparing For A Photo Safari

How to pack and prepare for the eventualities of a photo safari to Africa—or any other far-flung locale—where resources and retail may be scarce

Africa is dusty. Dusty and hot. Safari vehicles don’t come with air conditioning, and so in order to have any relief at all from the heat, windows must be open. In addition, the entire roof of the vehicle is often removed to allow for photography from above. As you hurtle down dirt roads through the national parks, your car is passed by other vehicles either heading the other way or overtaking you at a faster clip. In their wake, clouds of dust billow into the vehicle and settle down over you and everything around you in a fine layer.

Female leopard prowls the grasslands of the Serengeti, Tanzania.

Over the last several years, I have traveled numerous times to Africa and other tropical climes with my wildlife photography gear. My bags and electronics have been subjected to some pretty extreme conditions. My most recent trip to Tanzania in particular held some technical challenges, inspiring me to share what I’ve learned, in the hopes that others will benefit.

What it boils down to is how well you pack and prepare for the eventualities of a photo safari to Africa or any other far-flung locale, where no hardware stores can be found and where Amazon doesn’t deliver.

Make It Fit

My kit when I travel anywhere for photography always includes at least a super-telephoto lens of 500mm or 600mm, a mid-telephoto and a wide-angle lens and a couple of pro-level camera bodies. I definitely need a roller bag for all this weight, and thankfully, early on in my career, I discovered and purchased the Think Tank Airport Security roller bag. To this day, I can’t imagine using anything else, for it seems to have been designed for my exact needs. It holds my big lens, a camera body, two to three additional lenses, two teleconverters, chargers, card readers and cleaning supplies. It has grab handles in all the places I need them. There’s a retractable trolley handle, a rain cover with storage pouch and a compartment for your laptop.

Does it fit in the overhead on the puddle jumpers? Not this model (which may be their largest; they do offer smaller versions). I check the bag planeside when boarding small aircraft. When I first started doing this years ago, this made me very nervous. But then I just learned to let go of that anxiety, especially as all my gear is insured thanks to the camera insurance policy available to me by my membership in the North American Nature Photography Association. By now, I have checked that bag planeside dozens of times without incident.

On regular-sized jets, my Think Tank roller fits easily into overhead compartments. I heft it up and then sit down with my Lowepro ProTactic 450 AW backpack, sliding it under the seat in front of me. That contains one camera body and one wide-angle lens, each wrapped in soft scarves that do double duty, cradling me when I’m cold and sleepy on the trip. I also put all my lithium batteries in the backpack, as well as any personal items I might need on the plane, like snacks, a collapsible water bottle, eye shades, noise-canceling headphones and any valuables, such as jewelry and eyeglasses, that I don’t want going into a checked bag. Just last month, I made the rare decision to place a valuable item in my checked bag, a pair of high-end Nikon binoculars, tightly wrapped in clothing deep in the bag. I had run out of room in my carry-on bags, which were stretched to the limit with gear. My beloved binos were lifted from the bag during the time it was mysteriously delayed at JFK airport in New York, reaching Tanzania a few days after I did and a few pounds lighter. Hard lesson learned.

If you run out of room in your carry-on bags, one option is to wear a camera or fishing vest onto the plane, as these contain a multitude of pockets that can fit anything from camera lenses to binos to toiletries in the pockets.

In checked bags, it’s typically safe to pack tripods and extra camera accessories such as back-up chargers or card readers. But in general, bring anything that you simply couldn’t live without if you got separated from your bag for the first few days of your trip with you on the plane. And don’t forget to grab a quick phone snap of your bag before you say goodbye to it—if it goes missing, you’ll have a handy visual to help airline personnel track it down.

Make It Clean

As I mentioned at the outset, Africa is dusty. Tools for keeping your equipment clean are absolutely critical. Dirt, dust and water spots, and general gunk can not only wreck a good photo but also result in an inoperable camera, ruining your safari.

You will need a variety of supplies. A brush is always helpful to remove loose dirt and sand. Go to the make-up counter at a pharmacy or department store and buy a high-end makeup brush. You can even use it on your camera’s or lens’ contacts, if need be. A Giottos Rocket Blaster—those silicone rubber bulbs with long, thin nozzles—or similar product is a handy item as well. For dirt on glass that needs a little moisture to come off, bring along tissue leaves with optical cleaner or wipes like Kimwipes. If you are using a cleaner, squirt a little onto the tissue (never directly onto the lens), and then wipe streaks, water spots and dirt off gently. To clean contacts on the lens or camera, there’s CAIG DeoxIT Contact Cleaner, though isopropyl alcohol of at least 91 percent will also work.

Young male lion drinks at a waterhole, Serengeti, Tanzania.

In these environments, it’s always a good idea to clean your camera’s sensor from time to time. Many photographers I know use the Eyelead SCK-1 Sensor Cleaning Kit, which features a gel-stick for removing particles on sensors. If you purchase one, don’t fall for the knock-offs from China, despite their lower price, as these are useless. Ensure the product is made in Germany, as only these have the requisite stickiness of the tool as well as the paper it’s blotted on.

Always make sure your lens is covered when traveling by car. In Tanzania, I used my LensCoat soft lens cap on my AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR, and it worked great to keep my front glass element dust-free. Have a microfiber cloth handy to quickly remove dust during shooting sessions. Try to change lenses as infrequently as possible, dedicating one camera body to one lens and another to a different lens.

Make It Work

What I have learned from traveling many bumpy roads from Tanzania to Brazil with my rig at the ready beside me is that the constant jostling of a vehicle can jar things loose when your camera is connected to the lens. Keep in mind that screws can also come loose even when unattached gear is subjected to movement in a roller bag or on an airplane. On several occasions, I’ve had my camera’s autofocus fail because screws loosened on the camera, the lens or the teleconverter, resulting in a faulty connection. I’ve missed some critical shots before I figured it out or had the opportunity to tighten the screws. This did happen on my recent trip, and my friend Todd Gustafson helped me get the screws tightened while also recommending a couple of products. From now on, I’ll be traveling with a small screwdriver set and checking the tightness of all screws regularly. Screwdriver sets can be purchased on the cheap at a hardware store, or you can go for quality and longevity by traveling with a Wiha or Micro-Tools set, which are made of hardened steel. As always, when tightening a screw, make sure not to overtighten so as not to strip the head of the screw.

If you’re consistently struggling with loosening screws, a product that may come in handy is Loctite Blue 242 Threadlocker. Using the pointy end of a toothpick, apply a tiny dot over the last two or three threads under the head, and then screw it in tight. This should prevent loosening of screws caused by vibration. As a note of caution, avoid the Red or Green versions of Loctite, as they are more permanent, and the screws will have to be drilled out if the lens needs repair! Failing all else, a small dab of nail polish on the screw head can be an emergency substitute for Loctite.

Finally, bring duct tape, always. Don’t want to bring a whole roll? Wrap a wad of tape around a pencil. In an emergency—such as a broken tripod—duct tape can be a lifesaver. If traveling with a tripod, a variety of Allen wrenches are also an essential tool to bring with you.

In sum, when traveling to Africa or other remote destinations where the wild things roam, be prepared for you and your gear to get knocked around. The photos you return with will be worth the effort needed to keep your gear safe and functional.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.