The 7Kg Wildlife Bag

bythom INT BOTS August 2016  SavuteKhwai D7200 23665.jpg

The wildlife/safari photographer these days is encountering more and more airlines with strict 7Kg carry-on bag limits. (American readers please pardon me for using the metric system in this article, but that’s what will generally be applied at check-in or the gate.) This article is an attempt to describe several approaches that get you within that limit but still have an acceptable kit for a serious safari. 

Some ground rules need to be described first:

  • I’m only going to use bags from three makers that I’m familiar with and have used (ThinkTank, Mindshift, and Tamrac [formerly Gura Gear]). I’ve used other bags, as well, but I won’t be using them here for various reasons. Moreover, I’ve picked light backpacks from these makers, and ones that can accomodate lenses that might go into a safari kit. Here’s the full list, along with the maximum weight of the bag—some bags can be further stripped down of straps and doodads—and the biggest full frame lens that they’ll generally accommodate:
    • FirstLight 30L = 2.4Kg (500mm f/4)
    • Ultralight Dual 36L = 1.5Kg (70-200mm f/2.8)
    • BackLight 26L = 1.8Kg (200-400mm f/4)
    • Airport Essentials = 1.6Kg (300mm f/2.8)
    • Airport Commuter = 1.9Kg (400mm f/2.8)
    • Airport Accelerator = 2.5Kg (600mm f/4)
    • G26 Elite = 2Kg (500mm f/4)
    • G32 Elite = 2.2Kg (800mm f/5.6)
  • Backpacks that are also roller systems are out. They tend to add 2Kg or so to the total bag weight. That’s 29% of our allotted weight! If you have to roll your bag because your back can’t handle 7Kg, buy one of those cheap folding luggage carts and if they attempt to weigh that at the gate with your bag, ask them to gate check the cart! Obviously you’ll need to put identification on the cart, and you shouldn’t expect that it’s going to come back to you in perfect shape (I did find one on Amazon  [affiliate link] that is super small and folds down into a size that might fit in your laptop bag, though). But again, if your back can’t handle 7Kg in a well fit pack, handling 2Kg or more body/lens combos probably is going to be a problem for you in the field, too. 
  • I’m only going to describe three camera systems here: m4/3, Fujifilm XF, and Nikon DX. First, I’ve gone on safari or serious wildlife trips with all three of these systems. But more importantly, they’re appropriate to the weight limit. Full frame is a bit out of the target here: you’re just going to add weight for the most part, only to get a stop worth of capability (over APS/DX). There certainly are times when I want that stop, but we’re on a budget here—a weight budget—and something has to give. I can’t really give you Sony folk a safari kit, because there isn’t a long lens I’d be comfortable with recommending at the moment. And for Canon and Pentax users I don’t have enough experience with building a kit to weight constraints, so I’m going to have to let you fill in the gaps there.

(A number of early responses to this article suggested just taking gear out of the bag and hanging it around your next or putting it in jacket/vest pockets. Yes, this is a last resort for getting around arbitrary bag weight checks, but it is not one you want to do if you can avoid it. Why? Because your primary goal on the plane is transporting your gear from point A to point B safely. Airplanes and airports are crowded and there’s a lot of jostling that goes on these days around the gate and in the plane. Your gear is not safe outside of its reasonably protective bag.)

Our goal here is a backpack that’s 7Kg on the dot. But let’s not forget that airlines also let you take a “laptop bag” along with you. Obviously your tablet or laptop is going to go in that bag, but if you use the right messenger style bag, you’ll tend to also have room for some smaller photo gear. 

Personally, I use a ThinkTank Urban Disguise bag of the appropriate size for the laptop I’m bringing, which gives me some room for other things, in particular a walk-around camera such as a Sony RX100, and some small primes (and even zooms) for wide angle or normal use. In a pinch, you can fit some pretty big lenses in the right bag. My teaching assistant Tony Medici often brings a 200mm f/2 in his Urban Disguise 50, for example. Also, extra batteries can always go in this bag or in the vest you wear on board, minimizing some of the weight constraints on the backpack.

So for the backpack, we’re talking about a couple of camera bodies and some appropriate long lenses. 

Nikon DX
Let’s start with Nikon DX, which is what I often use on such trips:

  • G26 Elite (2Kg)
  • D500 (860g)
  • D7200 (675g)

We’re at 3535g with the pack and two camera bodies (and two batteries, which could always get transferred to my vest). That leaves us 3465g for lenses. Let’s look at the most likely list:

  • 70-200mm f/2.8 = 1540g
  • 70-200mm f/4 = 850g
  • 300mm f/4E = 755g
  • 300mm f/2.8 = 2900g
  • 400mm f/2.8E = 3800g
  • 500mm f/4E = 3090g
  • 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 = 1570g
  • 200-500mm f/5.6E = 2300g

Well, straight away you can see that the 400mm f/2.8E is out: you can’t get down to 7Kg. The 500mm f/4E will get you there, but you won’t be putting much of anything else in the bag. But look at this combo:

  • 70-200mm f/4
  • 300mm f/4
  • 200-500mm f/5.6

That’s 3905g, which is just a bit over our goal. We could get to the goal by using two D7200’s, or taking out batteries and hoods and strip down the pack a bit in order to carry three lenses. Or we could just go with the 70-200mm and 200-500mm and leave some weight room for cards and accessories. So, our main backpack for DX is:

  • G26 Elite (2Kg)
  • D500 (860g)
  • D7200 (675g)
  • 70-200mm f/4 (850g)
  • 200-500mm f/5.6 (2300g)
  • 315g of accessories

Excellent. That’s a very capable system, even though we’re using lenses slightly slower than optimal. Readers of my workshop blogs will know that I’ve done the Botswana trips pretty much that same gear and come back with great images. This kit is a little problematic at the edge of day when light is low, but it works. (The photo at the top of this image was with the D500 and 200-500mm, and taken just after sunset.)

As many of you know, m4/3 is a system I’ve used many times on wildlife trips since 2009. With the latest lens offerings from Olympus and Panasonic, we now have quite a bit of reach at reasonable weights. So let’s fire up an m4/3 bag and see what we get.  I’m going for a really light safari kit this time, so that I can stick some other things in the backpack and use the longest lenses:

  • Airport Essentials (1.5Kg)
  • E-M5 Mark II = 417g
  • E-M10 Mark II = 390g
  • 35-100mm f/2.8 = 360g
  • 40-150mm f/2.8 = 880g
  • 100-400mm f/4-6.3 = 985g
  • 300mm f/4 = 1475g
  • 1013g of accessories or other lenses!

Yow. I’m able to bring four great telephoto lenses with me that cover the 70-800mm equivalent range. I obviously don’t need all four, but I’d likely pick three just so that I have some backup capability should something go wrong in the field (the reason why we have two bodies, too). I’d be tempted to leave out the 40-150mm f/2.8 and add another body. Three bodies allow me to have mid-range zoom, short telephoto, and long telephoto mounted all the time: no lens/body switching in the field. 

We've also got enough weight latitude here to stick two E-M1m2 bodies into the kit instead of those lesser bodies. That adds a bit of bulk (the E-M1m2 body is bigger), but not enough to be concerned about.

The drawback to this kit is if you’re shooting in low light. For the Galapagos, where you’re only on visitations during the day and at the sunny equator, it works really well. Heading into the rain forest and under the canopy—especially at the edge of day—doesn’t work so well, you’ll be pushing ISO higher than you probably want to.

Fujifilm XF System
Okay, let’s take the XF System out into the wilds. I’m going to start with the cameras and lenses I need first:

  • X-Pro2 (495g)
  • X-T2 (507g)
  • 50-140mm f/2.8 (995g)
  • 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (1375g)

That’s 3372g, so we’ve got a lot of flexibility in choosing which bag and perhaps some additional lenses to stick in it. 

Again, we can put that leftover weight allowance into a good mid-range lens, maybe even the wide angle zoom, and still comfortably hit our target. The drawback with this option is the 100-400mm lens. It's not particular fast at focusing, in my experience. 

Yes, it’s quite possible to put together a very competent 7Kg safari kit. But as with all tight targets like this we’ve made some compromises:

  • No full frame. Full frame cameras such as Nikon FX have several benefits and a couple of drawbacks. The benefits are that—all else equal—you’re getting extra low light capability due to the greater image capture area. If you’re using long, fast lenses, you also get more subject isolation from distracting backgrounds. I’ll be honest with you: if I were shooting on assignment for someone like National Geographic, I’d be bringing the full frame gear with big, fast lenses just so that I have those capabilities available. The drawbacks are that the full frame cameras are more expensive, they are heavier, and you’ll need longer lenses to get true reach to distant subjects. Those last two things are contradictory to our 7Kg goal. Even a Sony A7m3 and the 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens eats over 2Kg of our 7Kg goal, and adding in a bag, we don't have a lot of room left for a second body and other lenses. But we can just barely manage if we had to; and that's the lightest full frame option at the moment.
  • Not always the fastest long lens. The differences can add up fast if you’re not careful. If I were to shoot with a 400mm f/2.8 lens on full frame, to get the same exact potential shot equivalents on DX I’d really need a 270mm f/2 lens. But there’s still no 270mm f/2 lens that I know of: my subject isolation capabilities are limited in this case. If I were shooting full frame (FX) with a 500mm f/4 lens, the 300mm f/2.8 on a DX body nets me pretty close to the same angle of view and subject isolation with a net savings of 900g in weight. But still, I’m at 2.9Kg just for the lens alone.
  • Not always the best image quality. Let’s be honest here: the 200-500mm f/5.6, no matter how good you think it is—and it’s quite a good lens, one that I recommend—still isn’t quite as good as the 500mm f/4 at f/5.6. It’s closer than we have any reasonable expectations of, but it’s not as good. This, of all things, is perhaps the trickiest of the compromises that we have to make to get to 7Kg: we're not using the top glass.

These things mean that if you’re going after the ultimate image quality, then the 7Kg kit just isn’t going to get you quite there. That said, it gets you a lot closer than you think. Much of what you come back with in terms of images boils down to how well you use what you’ve got

Personally, I’m comfortable with all three of the kits I’ve described above. I’ve used all three on wildlife trips (okay, a couple of the lenses I mention weren’t on the trip with me, but I’ve since used those around the wildlife preserves here in Lehigh County and believe I can vouch for them). 

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