I began taking photos on a university expedition after my graduation in 1988. On the plane on the way out to Borneo, I read 'an idiot's pocket guide to 35mm photography', did not really understand too much of it and spent the next three months taking awful photos of proboscis monkeys and other wildlife in Bako National Park.
Those initial forays were with borrowed equipment: my grandparents' Olympus OM10, a couple of lenses and a rickety matchstick-legged tripod. But I was hooked and so saved up to to buy my own camera. This turned out to be a Nikon F301 and I have been using Nikons ever since.
All my early gear was bought secondhand, and this is still a valid alternative today that I am happy to employ from time to time. My favourite film camera was the FE2 (I had two) and I then moved to F5's when autofocus came along. Back in the days of film, I regarded lenses as the most important component with respect to final image quality, so invested more heavily in them than I did in the latest specification camera body.
With the advent of digital technology that dynamic has changed. Lenses obviously remain pivotal to image quality, but camera bodies are now equally important as they contain the digital sensor that actually records the image (it does what film used to do, plus a whole lot of additional stuff). The frustration now is that as technology moves on, so cameras and sensors etc improve and last year's models quickly become dated and eventually obsolete. However, I would still advocate considering buying a second hand body, providing it is only one generation behind the state of the art. Preceding models are often available for considerable savings and for £?? you may get a specification of camera well above the equivalent priced latest model.
I would say at this point, I'm not one of those photographers who bangs on about how good the cameras I use are, as compared to those made by other manufacturers. Always remember cameras don't take photographs, people do. Obviously, good equipment helps enormously, but even the most expensive cameras don't walk out of the front door and take photos on their own (although they should, given their astronomical price tags). Whichever brand of camera you use, good photographic approach and technique is far more important when it comes to taking good pictures.
Having said that, if you are starting out, or starting afresh, remember when you buy a camera body, you are buying into a broader system of lenses, flashguns and other accessories, so I would let this influence your choice. There is little point in buying something now, that might back you into a cul-de-sac further down the line. In my book this effectively means you are limited to Nikon, Canon and (possibly) Sony camera systems if you are a serious digital SLR user.
I initially went down the Nikon route because at the time their reputation for being robust and being able to take the knocks was way better than the opposition. Old Nikons were built like brick s**t houses. And I still think that holds true today. Modern digital cameras are far more sophisticated and contain a far greater amount of delicate bits and pieces than old film cameras ever did, but my Nikons still feel chunky and dependable in my hands and have rarely let me down, even though I do have a tendency to abuse them from time to time.
Which conveniently brings me to a tangential point. Remember cameras are tools to do a job. So yes, they need care, servicing and looking after in the field, but this does not mean they should be wrapped in cotton wool and molly-coddled. Good wildlife photo opportunities often present themselves suddenly and quickly, then in an instant are gone. This is especially true on vehicle-based trips like safaris in East or Southern Africa. If your kit is always tucked away in a bag, the moment will have passed by the time you take your camera out and are ready.
Like most photographers I am a squirrel, so over the years I have collected all manner of kit and bits and pieces. Some get's used once and I then ask myself, "what the hell we you thinking?" Other items have stood the test of time and they still get outings 20 years after they were bought. Inevitably, my collection of gear has grown with time as I have been able to afford more things, but I have also refined things as different equipment has become available and my perspectives have changed.
Here is a list of the major items I use at the moment.
• Nikon D5 - outstanding AF, high ISO capabilities and rapid fire.
• Nikon D3s - excellent AF and good for action.
• Nikon D810 - amazing resolution.
• Nikon D7200 - DX crop format with terrific resolution.
• Nikon D2X - I have converted the sensor to infra-red - a bit of fun - but can be great for B&W under certain lighting conditions.
• Nikkor 600mm f/4 AF-S G ED VR
• Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 AF-S G IF ED VR
• Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S G ED VR
• Nikkor 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-D Micro
• Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 AF-S ED VR Micro
• Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 Micro (manual focus)
• Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 AF-S G ED VR
• Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S D IF ED
• Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8 AF DX G ED Fisheye
• Nikon Speedlight flashguns: SB-910, SB-900s and SB-200
• Pocket Wizards for remote flash firing
• LumiQuest 'Big Bounce' flash diffusers
• 77mm Circular polarising and ND filters
• Lee filter system (various ND graduated filters)
I would stress that NEVER does all this go away with me on a trip at the same time (if it did I would need a Sherpa and a deep pocket to pay the excess luggage fees). Instead, I tailor what I take to the location and the likely situations and subjects.
After camera and lens this is THE most important item of equipment. In fact I would say it is equally important. There are no short cuts here. If you are serious about photography you NEED a good tripod. The match-stick-legged types (like the one I took to Borneo many years ago) simply do not cut it. They could not hold a packet of crisps steady on a calm day, let alone a weighty camera and lens combination when it is breezy. There is no point what so ever buying a decent camera and lenses, then attaching them to something flimsy. Firstly, it simply will not do the job it is meant too i.e. hold the camera firm and steady. And secondly, there is a strong chance of disaster with the thing toppling over and causing major damage to your camera etc.
If you have (or intend getting) reasonably heavy equipment - say a camera plus a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens or larger - then I would recommend a tripod with screw-lock legs, rather than the alternative snap fixtures. Snap fixtures may seem quicker and easier to use, but over time there is a tendency for them to weaken and then a danger of dreaded 'leg sag', with consequential expensive disasters.
Similar consideration should be given to the tripod head and the way your camera / lens attaches to this. Again too many options in high street stores are poor and will ultimately lead to frustration.
I am a devotee of tripods and support equipment made by the American company Really Right Stuff. I have used their gear for many years. First and foremost it does the job it is designed to do - it holds my cameras and lenses rock-solid. It is beautifully built, and as tough as it gets, almost to the point of being 'over-engineered'. Secondly, the attention to detail is excellent and with so many of their bits of kit every angle is considered, potential issues predicted and solutions found.
Their carbon fibre tripods are the best I have used - light in weight, but chunky in feel and with excellent non-slip screw locking legs. Their ball-and-socket heads are silk-smooth and capable of holding even the largest of camera / lens combinations and they are all built around the ARCA-style attachment system. When using my largest, heaviest telephoto lens (600mm f4) I now prefer the RRS fluid gimbal head with cradle. It is a heavy piece of kit, but the stability and versatility it provides is exceptional. Really Right Stuff also make all the appropriate camera and lens plates to match and I have fitted my camera bodies and larger lenses with these.
This is what I use the majority of the time
• Tripod - RRS TVC-34L: Versa series 3, 4 sections
• Ball and Socket head - RRS BH-55 LR with quick-release clamp
• Gimbal Head - RRS FG-02: full gimbal head with cradle clamp
Camera Bags and Cases
There is no such thing as the ideal or perfect camera bag. Over the years I have tried dozens of combinations of ways of transporting and carrying my gear. My loft contains numerous discarded and obsolete variations. I now use two different photo backpacks and Peli cases of various sizes.
My favourite back pack is a Gura Gear Bataflae 32L (32 litre). Gura Gear are not as well-known as many of the other back pack manufacturers (at least not in the UK), but they make tough well thought out bags and packs, and the build quality is excellent. I particularly like the 'butterfly' opening mechanism and the neat way the straps tuck away.
On trips where I prefer to carry my two long telephoto lenses in a back pack I use a Mr Jan Gear 'Boris'. Again this is not a well-known manufacturer - they are based on the Continent - but their bags offer considerable flexibility. The designs are certainly different to the more generic offerings of mainstream manufacturers and as such solve many issues.
The combination I use for a trip depends on the choice of equipment for the location and of course, the likely weight restrictions for the flights. International flights are now a bit easier than they were say five years ago, with many airlines adopting a 2-pieces of check-in luggage policy, but any trip that involves flights on small planes with very tight luggage restrictions remains problematic (I once left all my regular kit and clothes at an airport in Africa and flew to a bush camp with only my essential camera gear, a tooth brush and one additional pair of underpants for a week).
On safaris in Africa, where most photography is from a vehicle, I use the Mr Jan Gear 'Boris' back pack, which allows me to carry my 600mm, 200-400mm plus one camera body and a few bits and pieces as hand luggage on the international flights. In addition I use a small Peli-case (1500) for my other camera bodies, small lenses and peripherals which is checked into the plane's hold.
To most other destinations, where considerably more varied photographic situations are prevalent and there is the need for a greater amount of kit (e.g. Madagascar and Borneo), the I use the Gura Gear Bataflae 32L loaded up with one of the big telephotos, plus two or three bodies and some smaller lenses and accessories (carried as hand luggage). I then use a larger Peli-case, either a 1560 or 1600 to carry the remaining gear which is then checked in. My tripod is wrapped in a fleece and buried inside my regular duffle bags with my clothes etc.
A final word. A reasonable pair of binoculars is absolutely invaluable on any wildlife watching trip. Always choose the best you can afford. There is little point in spending several thousand pounds on a safari and having a cheap pair of binoculars that make seeing the wildlife difficult. Where optical equipment is concerned, you get what you pay for.
For many years my first choice has been Swarovski - I use a pair of EL 10x42's that are optically brilliant and gather light in gloomy conditions amazingly well. Looking through them in the dark recesses of a rainforest almost looks brighter than when looking with the naked eye.
I also carry a back-up pair - Minox HG 8x33's - which are more compact and lighter than the Swarovskis and are also optically excellent.
And one last bit of advice.
COUPLES - please do not bring one pair of binoculars between you with the intention of sharing. IT DOES NOT WORK and only leads to frustration and ultimately missing out on sightings.