During a group travel, it is very common to consider that the experience can be considered as a reliability test for photographic hardware. This was really the case during my photo safari trip to Botswana in April-May 2010.
The participants were spread on a large spectrum from a pro photographer (Laurent Baheux) equipped with a Nikon D3, some determined amateurs bringing a Canon EOS 5D, a Canon EOS 1D Mk3, a Canon EOS 550D, a Canon EOS 50D, a Konica-Minolta Dynax 7D and a Sony Alpha 700 (so, without any representation for Nikon) and an amateur equipped with a Sony bridge. Furthermore, there was also a Canon G11 high-end point-and-shoot, also often used, but more during the stops at the camp than in the main safari activities.
The teachings in terms of reliability and usability are always difficult to draw from observations (all the more when there are so few elements for comparison), but they still can be useful. Just look at the list of the relevant “observations”:
- From the very first mist in front of the Victoria Falls, the Canon 550D chose to stop down (the analysis proved that it was only a small water infiltration between the camera and its lens – later easily corrected by wiping and drying it). It is true that mist quickly transformed itself into a heavy tropical rain and the photographers did not push it too far. But all the other cameras seem to have accepted much more humidity than whatever was initially specified.
- The use of big tele-lenses is a very heavy mechanical stress for the interface between the camera body and the lens. This was proven again by the need to tighten the screws of the lens plate of a Nikon D3 and the base mount of a Minolta 300mm/4 (used on the Sony and Minolta bodies). Not really dramatic, these incidents remind us that you should be prepared for small maintenance operations during a difficult and stressful experience like an intense photo safari (5000 to 15000 shutter activations per photographer).
- The environment is harsh in a country where dust is everywhere as it was the case here in Botswana. Not counting the obviously predictable appearance of stains on SLR sensors after swapping lenses or during the mechanical moves of internal lens parts (Photoshop will be called into action to “clean up” the pictures), we could observe an extreme case of total failure: A 100-400mm/5,6 zoom from Canon grinded to a stop in 200mm position probably because of sand or a big lump of dust. This will be back to the repair services of Canon, but with the risk of a cost higher than the residual value of this relatively old zoom lens (the owner seems now convinced that it should be replaced with a 500mm prime, but this is another story altogether).
- Unexplained incident in my own photo bag: A Minolta battery appeared to short-circuit (unusable and impossible to charge) and demonstrated again the criticity of having some replacement parts at hand (at least for the small inexpensive parts whose lack could lead the trip to a complete failure). Being equipped with three batteries (unfortunately one of them is already really old and sick) allowed some relief to keep using the Minolta D7D as a second camera body. If I had had only two battery packs it would have become a very unpleasant situation, as I should admit.
You can easily notice in this list that more or less every brand of photographic hardware had to suffer some deterioration. Having only pro equipment did not avoid L.Baheux to do some minor repair work on the field, but it’s true that a pro photographer is often less cautious when using its cameras and lenses (he/she will rely more heavily on its high tolerance for rough handling).
My photos from Botswana are being published all during June 2010 on www.roumazeilles.net and some of them are also sold as cards, posters or large-size prints on my photo gallery and RedBubble (from $3.90).
What is less visible in this list is that some equipment, short of a full failure, had some unpleasant weaknesses. At this very high usage load, batteries have suffered a lot of strain. The high-capacity battery packs of the Nikon D3 or the Canon 1D MkIII find here a major advantage. But the batteries of the Sony Alpha 700 required a large number of recharges (it is difficult if not impossible to spend a 1000-shot half-day with only a single battery). Charging becomes a strict necessity, even before the end of the day; The use of an additional battery grip could be an excellent idea too. And when we reach a camp site without any autonomous electricity source (generators are often not allowed inside the National Parks limits), it becomes critical to have a DC/AC converter to connect to the 12V plug of the car/truck. But remember that in this case, the plug and the converter become a common point of rupture for all the photo passengers and it may be handy to have a redundant connection (e.g. “crocodile clips”) when a 12V plug fails (I had this experience a few years ago in Kenya) and a spare converter(we found this need in Botswana). Paranoia is useful. I often force myself into relying on nothing more than a 12V-only power source (with the adequate chargers and plugs) to avoid relying too much on the presence of a heavy, bulky, and inefficient converter).
The most strained batteries have certainly been the Sony bridge camera ones. Its owner had the good idea to bring four of them to be able to exchange them often and charge them nearly continuously during the long trips (we had days of 6 to 10 hours of driving either in safari or in transit).
There seems to be no obvious reliability issue with the camera equipment observed here (what happened seemed quite easy to explain from the age of the involved devices and it could well be the mere consequence of low statistical representativity). However, it should be a lesson for all photo travelers: Be sure to plan for all kinds of failures from your hardware and from the hardware you will be relying upon.