In Prep for Africa at the San Francisco Zoo

In case you missed it, I recently announced my plans to take some extended time off of work to travel the world and practice photography. 

My first trip brings me to Africa for safari with Intrepid Travel. I'll be practicing wildlife, cultural and travel photography in ways I’ve never done before.

There’s a reason why photographers tend to specialize in one area - each type of subject requires a masterful understanding of very specific requirements.

For wildlife, I need to work with a super telephoto lens - one that’s also light enough to carry along with me. Telephotos are heavy, enormous beasts! So, it’s key to be realistic and decide what's most important: choosing the best possible lens out there or one that’s good and manageable on the road.

A majority of my time will be spent rattling and bouncing around a safari vehicle and a big piece of expensive glass is even tougher to deal with in that kind of precarious situation.

With all of that in mind, I decided to go with Canon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II weighing in at 3.5 pounds and fitting snugly into my backpack.

  • Weight: 3.5 lbs
  • Rental Cost for 10 days: $135
  • Retail: $2,199

I’ve also decided to rent from BorrowLenses - an easy choice for those who aren’t committed to own. (For the curious, I am shooting with a Mark IV.)

For comparison, if I was a pro, had assistants and was setting up for the most idealistic shot, I’d probably go for the 500mm f/4L IS II. Prime lenses are always better.

  • Weight: 7.03 lbs (!)
  • Rental Cost for 10 days: $540
  • Retail: $10,500

Kind of a no-brainer when income is being reduced to zero.

Before leaving for Africa, I had to get out there and try this new-to-me telephoto lens to get a feel for its weight, quality, distance, and to get an overall understanding of how the lens works. So, I rented it for a weekend and took it for a spin.

What better place to go practice photographing wildlife under known conditions than the San Francisco Zoo? (Author’s Note: Zoos make me feel sad).

I’m really excited about the images that I was able to create. The lens was smooth and wasn’t terribly heavy. By the end of the day my arm was sore, but not painfully so. The image quality was superb as well. 

I am concerned that the max focal length of 400mm won’t be enough to capture animals in the wild at greater distances, but now I have proper expectations set and am ready to face whatever this safari gives me.

I call this series: Animals in Captivity, 2016


For these shots, I went with a high shutter speed for these fast moving animals, a wide aperture to minimize detail in the already dark cage backgrounds and a low ISO to get the least amount of noise. I used only natural light - the afternoon was soft, darkish and cloudy.

All the shots were intentionally underexposed to bring out some drama and slightly edited in Lightroom to make the shadows darker and the highlights brighter.

I had the most fun with the birds, of course.

Can’t wait to get my hands back on this lens and get out there to Africa. Follow along with me as I head out on January 13th.


The Packing Post

I have an iterative approach to packing and it goes a little something like this:

  1. Pack
  2. Sleep on it.
  3. Unpack and remove stuff. Repack.
  4. Sleep on it.
  5. Sleep on it. 
  6. Unpack and remove stuff. Repack.
  7. Sleep on it.
  8. Unpack, remove stuff, add stuff. Repack.
  9. Depart.

I started with a pretty large list, laid it all out on my floor, rolled it all up and packed it all into 1 suitcase (checked), 1 backpack (overhead), 1 small gear bag (under the seat), 1 tube (checked).


Here’s what I’ve got in those bags:

  • Lots of winter clothes/layers. Breathable, tough, polypropylene and fleece. Rolled.
  • Smallish winter coat (to hold me over in Ushuaia, Quark gives passengers a big parka). Poncho, Rain layers.
  • A few comfy lounge clothes for ship meandering and sleeping.
  • Snow(Ski) pants & Waterproof pants. Hiking pants. Rolled.
  • Socks galore. Wool, waterproof, regular, cozy, etc.
  • Gloves & Hats. Multiple. Diving gloves for the Kayak.
  • Polarizing sunglasses. Two. With straps.
  • Waterproof boots (I don’t want to borrow), hiking boots, sneakers, flats.
  • One nice outfit. Rolled.
  • A swimsuit. Though, I doubt I'll "polar plunge."
  • An insane amount of sea sickness remedies like Gravol, Gum, Ginger Chews and Sea Bands (enough for two, in case my cabin-mate is ill prepared).
  • Sunscreen, lotions, chapsticks, Advil, Vicks, cold medicine, general beauty care and travel laundry. Doubled. (Apparently vicks is a helpful tool because penguins are stinky and rubbing a bit under your nose can help.)
  • Super light travel tripod.
  • Camera Gear (see photography post).
  • Packable Herschel Bag in case I need to check another bag on the way home.
  • File folder with every possible confirmation document, shot list, notes, itinerary, etc.
  • A nautical chart of Antarctica to chart locations visited. In the tube.

Some logistics:

  • All camera gear (aside from the tripod) will travel on the plane with me.
  • A change of clothes, hats and gloves will travel on the plane with me.

And that’s about it! I think... When I return, I plan to post some lessons about what I packed -- what I used, I what I didn't need, what I wish I had, etc.  

Photography Gear: What I'm Packing

First,  a disclaimer. 

I have no idea what I’m doing. I take a lot of pictures, so there’s some lessons learned and some getting better by sheer, brunt-force practice. But, I’m not a pro. I’m an enthusiast. Or rather, a very enthusiastic novice.

Now that that’s out of the way… Here’s my gear plan:

Lenses (Renting):



  • Canon EOS 6D Digital SLR 
  • Backup: Yikes, I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll rent a 5D MKIII and use the 6D as a backup...

Additional Cameras:

  • iPhone 6 + Moment Wide Lens 
  • Fujifilm Quicksnap 800 Waterproof 35mm Disposable Camera 



I picked this gear based on lots of research and talking to people who are legit photographers (thanks, Ira Meyer, Steve Boyle, Martin Bailey, and many more!). Ultimately, taking too much stuff makes travel cumbersome and difficult, so I’ll have to choose a small subset of this gear each day for a happier me and happier photos.

What about you guys? People who have been and people visiting soon… what are you bringing?