Last year I co-led an epic, month long Photographers.travel safari from Cape Town all the way up through Namibia, to the border of Angola and then a little bit into North-Western Botswana for good measure, before heading back to Cape Town via Namibia. We did this road trip in two vehicles with 8 guests (all Nikongear.com members) and covered some 8500km (5300mi) in total. It was by far the longest road trip I have ever done. It was gruelling at times because of the state of some dirt roads we had to use, but it was well worth it because it also saw me shooting more photographs in that month long period than I have ever taken before, and getting my best results too.
I made a lot of discoveries on that safari. The most significant being that it was the beginning of the end of my love affair with the DSLR. When I got back from Namibia and began looking through my photos I had a whole new appreciation for my little Olympus OM-D E-M5 and what I could accomplish with it. I also noticed that I had done about 95% of my picture taking on safari with the Oly and not my supposedly superior Nikon D700. It wasn’t long afterwards that I began selling off my Nikon kit. I’m now a full micro four thirds convert as a direct result of my discoveries on safari. This article is an insight as to how that trip helped shape this transformation in my approach and the gear I now use to get the images I want.
A little background first. I live in Durban, the third largest city of South Africa. It’s located on the East Coast of the country, about 1600km (1000mi) from Cape Town. My business partner and I started putting together photo safaris in 2009 and we’ve been doing it ever since, making new friends from around the world every year. Last year we decided to do a trip that started in Cape Town and went all the way up into Namibia and the Kavango region of Botswana. The easiest way for me to get to Cape Town is to take a local flight. It’s about 2 hours flying time and because the two cities are of similar size (over 3.5 million people each) there are numerous flights between them every day. The planes used are typically jet-engined Airbus or Boeings, so you’ll have overhead bins for hand luggage. The airline I was on for this trip had a checked baggage restriction of 20kgs (44lbs) and hand luggage limits of 7kg (15.4lbs). I had a big problem in that my hand luggage made up of all my camera gear, laptop and other valuables weighed about the same as my suitcase, just under 20kg. It was all packed into a ThinkTank Airport Security roller that looks like a suitcase and while it was technically OK to use as a carry-on in terms of its size, the weight was definitely going to be an issue if the ground staff decided to take a closer look at it.
I’ve done this flying with camera gear thing enough times before and while I have gotten away with really heavy carry-ons in the past, I can’t begin to explain the stresses you go through during check-in. What if they don’t let you carry it on? What if there’s no room in the overhead bin by the time you get to your seat? What if there’s no overhead bin? The paranoia doesn’t abate. This time I got to Cape Town OK but of all the trips I’d made in the past, this one was by far the most stressful as far as gear goes and I was beginning to think that if I am going to keep on doing these photo safaris, I was going to need lighter gear.
So eventually the safari got underway in Cape Town amidst some horrific Cape winter weather. Cape Town has a wet and windy winter climate, which is the complete opposite of what I am used to in Durban where our winters are dry and mild. A lot of the activities we had planned on doing got scuppered because of the weather, so we had to console ourselves with lots of wine tasting. Photographically it’s a bit boring sitting around a table watching people sample wine (especially if your interest in it runs parallel with mine, which I must confess is not very high at all), but a lot of the places we visited in Stellenbosch and Klein Constantia had some interesting historical buildings so I often found myself wandering around wine cellars, taking shots of old oak barrels and even some of the vats they use to produce the stuff.
(click on the images to view them larger)
The one thing I began to become aware of was that I hadn’t used my Nikon D700 at all yet on the trip, despite having some choice lenses to use with it. I had brought with me a little ThinkTank Retrospective 5 bag and inside it I had my E-M5 and 6 lenses, covering from fisheye up to 175mm (which is 350mm in “big camera” speak). It was light and inconspicuous, whereas my fellow travelers were all lugging monster DSLR’s and large bags around with them wherever we went. To the casual observer I might not have been a part of the same group, because trust me, a lot of people got a case of the Tom Cat curiosities whenever they saw this small army of DSLR users coming!
After enduring a few days of the Cape Town winter weather at its worst (apparently it even snowed on Table Mountain while we were there) we headed North towards Namaqualand, which is famed for its wide open plains of wild spring flowers. It was here that I discovered another massive benefit to using the Olympus E-M5. I didn’t have to crawl on my belly to get level with the flowers when composing a shot. I simply angled up my LCD, sussed out what was going on with the composition and then tapped the screen to take the shot.
We spent a few days in Namaqualand going from farm to farm photographing the wild flowers before we made our first border crossing of the trip into Namibia and the enormously vacant landscapes it offers. This was what I had been longing for. This was where I was hoping to make some magical images!
Namibia is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s hard to describe the solitude of these massive, ancient and inhospitable landscapes. It’s as if the earth has a dried up patch on its skin, on which nothing appears to flourish. The moment you cross over the border from South Africa the geology changes dramatically. Our first stop was the Fish River Canyon, which is the second largest canyon in the world (behind Grand Canyon, USA). Photographically it’s difficult to capture the awe of this place. You need to explore it from many different locations and the best times for photography would be in the evenings, so you’d want to give yourself a couple of days to scout a good location and then take your shots. This makes it a bit of a challenge because during the day there’s not much else to photograph in the area, so you end up spending a lot of time doing nothing in camp, which is not exactly thrilling. We got there towards evening on the first day, so we did get some nice sunset images of the canyon. We revisited it the following morning at dawn, but I didn’t find it as interesting as the previous evening (photographically that is). The evening is definitely the better time for canyon photography as the rocks take on wonderful hues in the soft, dusty sunsets. Once again I found myself using the Olympus while the Nikon D700 slept in the big rolling camera bag.
Onward into the desert proper we went after the canyon, our next stop being Sossussvlei which is where you find the enormous red sand dunes of the Namib desert, the oldest in the world. This rapidly becomes landscape photography heaven as you have the dunes coming into contact with the Naukluft mountains. We had three days in this amazing landscape. It was winter but it was still unbearably hot during the day, with temperatures easily climbing over the 40C (104F) mark. My objective here was to put my recently acquired LEE Filters Seven5 system to the test in the field. For those of you unfamiliar with this system it’s basically the same as the regular LEE filters drop in filter system except that it’s been made smaller for use on mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D series. To put it as succinctly as possible, I just adore the images I got out of the E-M5 using those ND Grad LEE Filters. They are a must have item for anyone interested in landscape photography.
After our time in the dunes came what has to be the most mentally demanding drive I have ever undertaken. Going from Sossussvlei to Swakopmund along the badly corrugated dirt roads was something that drove home just how desolate this place is. Roadworks departments might take years to get these roads re-graded. The actual distance isn’t that far, about 350km (217mi) but because you have to drive so slowly it takes between 5 and 6 hours to get there. If you’re not careful your vehicle might end up shearing a wheel right off its axle. This happens with disturbing regularity on this road.
Swakopmund is a sleepy little seaside town seemingly stuck in the early 20th century. Most of the buildings and architecture date from the time when South West Africa (as Namibia used to be known) was a German colony. German is still widely spoken here, in fact together with Afrikaans it’s the most commonly encountered language. Mornings are usually damp and misty as the cool air coming in off the Atlantic mixes with the hot and dry air of the desert often creating thick fog. We were there for three nights and each morning was the same; overcast and moist, gradually clearing towards lunch time. Apparently it’s like this most of the time. Thankfully it was considerably cooler than Sossussvlei (about 16C daytime high)! Photographically it is very interesting and well worth the visit. We spent some time in the town itself, getting the vehicles checked out after the horrendous drive there, plus we also went a little South to Walvis Bay to photograph the large flamingo colonies found there.
Typical building found in swakopmund. Note the grey sky.
The dunes surrounding Swakopmund are fascinating and were the highlight of our stay in Swakopmund. It’s hard to believe that anything can survive in them yet on a couple of guided tours we were introduced to some of the creatures who do just that. From snakes to spiders and chameleons, they all somehow get by.
It was in these harsh desert conditions that I came to realise my days of lugging around a DSLR were almost over. Lying in my hotel room in Swakopmund one night I read online (with unbridled enthusiasm I’ll add) Olympus’ announcement of the E-M1. It addressed all the shortcomings of the E-M5, particularly where auto focus tracking is concerned. But it wasn’t so much that announcement that drove home this realisation, it was watching my guests and safari business partner lying on their bellies in the desert taking photos of a chameleon with their faces mashed against the view finder that truly drove home the sheer inadequacy of the DSLR design for me. In the midst of all the technological advances we have made over the past few years, major companies are still asking camera users to contort their bodies in order to frame a shot using old mechanical interfaces (mirrors and prisms).
Moments before I took this shot I had been sitting next to these guests, also shooting the chameleon, but instead of taking the somewhat impractical measures of lying down in the sand, I had merely hunkered down, tilted my LCD upwards and once again used the touch screen of the E-M5 to make a series of super sharp, perfectly exposed images of the reptile zapping a grub at 9 frames a second. I could check the images immediately without the interference of the desert glare using the EVF. That was it. It was all I needed to convince me that the move to mirrorless was the way forward.
We spent another 2 weeks in Namibia, moving from Swakopmund to Caprivi. Along the way I found yet another shooting situation where the E-M5 refused to accept the label of “inferior instrument” from its older DSLR cousins. In Damaraland there is a village of Himba people who live their lives according to their tribal traditions. We got to go inside one of the Himba women’s huts where she demonstrated to us how they bathe themselves using smoke. There we all were, 10 of us photographers crammed into this little hut where the only light coming in was via the short front entrance. Nobody else seemed to be taking photographs in the gloom. I was right next to the Himba lady and with the incredible Olympus 75mm f/1.8 ED lens I was able to make some awesome images of her ritual at high ISO.
Photography is a wonderful craft and a great pastime. It’s evolved dramatically over the years and it’s continuing to evolve as new technologies are incorporated into camera designs. Since December my mirrorless m43 system has become the only system I use, both professionally and for my personal needs. All the Nikon stuff is gone. I have added an E-M1 body, Olympus 12-40/2.8 PRO, Olympus 45/1.8, Olympus 7-14/4 (4/3rds mount with MMF2), Olympus 50-200/2.8-3.5 (4/3rds) and a couple of Olympus FL-600R flash units. I’m ready for just about anything the world can show me, but the most important change hasn’t been so much about the new gear itself, it’s been about how the new gear has allowed me to rekindle my love for photography. It makes me want to take it everywhere because its so easy to take a bunch of lenses and accessories wherever I go in a small camera bag without any fuss at all. It’s all I have wanted for years.
The next big challenge I will put my m43 gear through are the two group photo safaris we’re doing later this year. We’re heading back to Botswana again on the first safari, this time to the Chobe region where big game and birdlife are the primary subjects. I’ll be using the Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 for that one as well as hopefully the new 40-150/2.8 PRO if it is out by then. We’ll stay on a houseboat for 5 days and then also spend some time on land in Chobe before heading to Victoria Falls for some action and more water based adventure photography. That trip is in September and there is still one suite left for a couple sharing if there is interest amongst readers (full information here).
Then the following month we head to Sabi Sabi for our annual Ultimate Big 5 Safari, which is to be honest, the best introduction to Africa and it’s wildlife you could ever hope for. You get closer to the Big 5 than you’ll get anywhere else and the photo opportunities are ridiculous. It will certainly be a great test of the long lenses that are available for the E-M1.
Maybe we’ll see some of you there too?