We have just returned from 13 days in the Botswana bush with our good friend Moses Ntema, owner of Unlimited Tours and Safaris operating out of Maun, Botswana. This mobile tented safari was designed to take advantage of the late dry season predator/prey action in three diverse areas of Botswana: The Savuti Marsh in the Mabebe Depression (Chobe NP), the Khwai riverine ecosystem and the rich flood plains from The Blackpools to Third Bridge in the Moremi Game Reserve (including the Bodumatau area). This was our third trip with Moses and Unlimited Safaris having previously visited The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) and Duba Plains in addition to other locations in Tanzania and the Okavango Delta.
On this trip we encountered 28 different lions, 6 different leopards, 2 separate packs of wild dogs and over 1000 elephants and buffalo in the Savuti area. A very rare sighting of a Klipspringer on Kudu Hill in Savuti was made early in trip. Since the water started flowing in the Savuti channel five years ago, after a 27 year absence, each year the Savuti Marsh grows as the place in southern Africa for elephant, buffalo, sable, zebra, wildebeest and predators to gather in the dry season. Now in its fifth year of having water during the dry season our plan was to find and photograph the incredible Savuti lion pride known as hunters of buffalo and elephants. These lions are some of the largest found in Africa only rivaled in size by the lions of Duba Plains.
Having previously shot the Nikon 400mm f/2.8G lens in the Kalahari this past January, we were thrilled to get a copy of the new 400mm f/2.8E lens just a week before we shipped out for the bush. This “weight loss” upgrade by Nikon (shedding 1.7 pounds over the older version) was certainly welcome. That said, the new lens is still a beast tipping in 8.4 pounds and attached to either a D800 or D4s for the trip still made for a very heavy combination. All that aside, the new, slimmer version of the this lens was easier to take hand-held quick shots when the comfort of the Gura Gear Sabi Super Sack was not available. You can handhold this lens a little longer than the previous one but not for an appreciable amount of time. With a shutter speed of at least 1/800 and good breath assisted press you can get very usable handheld images.
While not exhaustive, here are the major differences in this new 400mm f/2.8E:
- Weight loss of 1.7 pounds
- One piece hood (like on the 800 F5.6) – this was a welcome addition as well a easier for packing the beast
- Relocated tripod collar to the rear of the lens
- 4 stop VR with a new Sport setting (new setting not used on this trip)
- Electromagnetic diaphram for the D4s high frame rate
Shooting In the Field
We have tried many types of support in the field for a lens of this size including Wimberley heads with sturdy tripods, small stacked bean bags and large bags like the Sabi Super. Our shooting position is low, right next to our guide Moses in the front passenger seat of the Land Cruiser, so using a large bean bag makes the most sense in the field. From this position, you can quickly grab the D800/D4s/400 combo and shoot right or left off the bag without having to uncouple from a tripod head. It just seems to work especially well when you are off road chasing wild dogs or a hunting leopard.
Our standard rig is D800/D4s bodies with 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II and the 400mm f/2.8E with a Sony RX-10. All three bodies are used for stills and video. A 24-70mm f/2.8 is in the glove box for any special wide situations. A Fuji X100s is in our pocket for camp shots as well as any other situations like having a leopard walk right by your open door. A RRS ground pod with Manfrotto video head is used with the Nikon bodies while the RX-10 rides on a Zacuto Marauder for running and gunning along with a Sennheiser MKE 600 microphone.
For the type of predator action we were seeking, it seems that the lighting conditions are predominately early morning or late afternoon with quickly fading light. The African night comes fast and dark so using Auto ISO with the Auto minimum shutter speed set to a multiple of your focal length can make sure you are ready for the moment. We set up the 400mm f/2.8E to range between 1/400 to 1/1600 depending on the conditions to make sure that the action captured was crisp.
Where this lens really shines (much like its predecessor) is shooting wide open in dramatic light. Here are two examples of the great cats shot wide open in fading light:
Every once and a while you get conditions in the bush were a very low shutter speed is required in the moment. We were following a fully grown male leopard near Khwai who was hunting a herd of Red Lechwe feeding across the marsh. The sun had set and he slithered undetected in the tall grass to take a sentry position on a termite mound. It was 20 minutes past sunset and we turned VR on, went manual for a 1/20 second exposure in very fading light. Here he is ready to stalk his dinner for the evening:
Capturing fast action in low light is a real strength of the D4s and 400mm f/2.8E combination. It seems they were engineered for each other. Near dusk in Xakanaka Moses tracked a large family of African wild dogs. This extremely endangered species is the last of a line with fewer than 1000 individuals in Botswana. Being with them was a rare privilege. Earlier that day, the pack, numbering 10 adults with 6 puppies, had stolen an impala kill from a leopard. We found them trying to cool off as the heat of a dry season afternoon was waning. They were fat, sassy and not really ready for the evening hunt. But as the cool, damp air drifted in from Paradise Pools, they became more active and soon the pups were chasing, rolling and biting each other. Here two of them twirl in pure happiness as the sun dips behind them.
Earlier that morning we caught another pack as the sun was coming up. Here the alpha female starts a push into the mopane.
And finally, what about hand holding this beast? It can be done. Here is an image of the small African antelope the Klipspringer taken handheld with a D800 attached near Kudu Hill in Savuti:
And here is a handheld shot of a bull giraffe straight into the sun:
We have few critical things to say about this lens. In the “you need to watch out” category is the positioning of the focus lock buttons on the front barrel of the lens. They are positioned low and close to the focus ring so you have to watch your hand placement or while pressing the focus lock you can defocus the lens unintentionally. I am sure others will have additional concerns (like cost) but after two weeks of hard shooting in dusty conditions, this lens performed like a real champion.
So is this new 400mm f/2.8E a keeper? To our eyes the wide open images from this lens are just stunning and are a notch above the previous copy. Stopped down past f/5.6 I do not see huge differences. At $11,999 retail the lens needs to be better and yes Nikon surely has a real winner here.
The next test will come in The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in January ‘15 when we will put the new Nikon D810 on this lens. That is a combination to get really excited about.
There are but a few truly wild places left on our Mother Earth and Botswana is one of them. Get there!
This guest post was contributed by Steve Lumpkin. After a successful business career in consulting, heath care and hospitality, Steve was able to retire young and pursue true passions in life – relationships, health and adventure. A film shooter since teenage years, Steve just wants to get better, learn more and create images that stir an emotional connection in people. His photography website, Under Prairie Skies, has but one goal: “For you to better know the land (your mother) and the sky (your father)”.