Madagascar Equipment Report

Now that I’ve had some time to recover from my Madagascar trip, I wanted to write a bit about how my equipment choices worked out. In this article I’ll talk about the camera, lenses, etc. while actually shooting. In the next article, I’ll talk about my solution for backing-up and downloading images while on the trip.
This was my first time shooting in a jungle environment, and I found that it presents some interesting challenges. First of all, it’s dark…very dark. Most of my images were shot at 1600 ISO, which on the 1Ds Mark III is a very good compromise between sensitivity and noise. Still, I could have used an even higher ISO in some cases, and for many of my macro shots with the 180mm lens I was shooting lots of frames at 1/50 sec to make sure I ended up with some that were sharp enough. If you’re a Nikon shooter, a the D3 or the D700 would probably be great for this kind of trip. Some kind of image stabilization is a must, whether it’s IS/VR in the lens or a tripod/monopod or both. I often found that there was no room or time to setup my whole tripod, such as when photographing fast moving frogs on a pandanus plant. Instead, I would sometimes use my tripod like a monopod by extending the legs and leaving them folded together to form a single support.
Second, it can be hard to compose clean images with so many trees around. Either there are branches between you and the subject, or the background is full of crisscrossing branches or flat gray sky. Mostly this problem is solved by patience and having a good guide, but I also wished for a lens like a 300mm f/2.8. On a full-frame body like the 1Ds, this would have been an ideal lens for photographing lemurs in their environment while still having a nice shallow DOF to clean up the backgrounds. Although the lemurs sometimes come down close to the ground, I often wished that I could get up into the canopy to be on their level.
Third, it’s wet. This one is more obvious, and I planned ahead for it. I used a wonderful belt system from Think Tank Photo so that I wouldn’t have to keep setting a backpack down on wet, muddy ground. All the lens pouches have their own removable rain cover, and there are lots of well thought-out details. My Canon camera body and L-series lenses are all weather sealed and stayed dry on the one really rainy day that we had. However, my Sigma 180mm macro lens is not sealed, so I brought an Aquatech raincover to protect this lens. I was less pleased with this, as it was quite fiddly to take the cover on and off the camera body when changing lenses. Another option would have been to buy the more expensive Canon 180mm macro, which is weather sealed. A word of caution: even the weather sealed bodies and lenses will not necessarily stand up to sustained rain, and unfortunately Canon doesn’t provide any guidelines as to how much rain is “too much”.