Why I didn't take my 'proper camera' to Africa

October 23, 2013

In August I had the pleasure of visiting Africa with my family. The reason for the trip was two fold: we were making a long overdue trip to stay with a university chum who lives just outside the Zambian capital of Lusaka and together see some of Zambia’s sights (safari / Victoria Falls), then spend a week working at Nayamba School near Chisamba which we support through our local church. Since the school starting in 2009 it has grown from just a handful of pupils to a school of over 200, but faces many challenges ahead, including a 2 teacher to 200 pupils ratio. We were also taking with us a large quantity of school books to make up a reading scheme, sports equipment and cricket sets donated by my cycling group #TheMondayKnights, and a mountain of soft toys donated by several Exminster community groups.

I thought long and hard about what sort of footage I’d want from the trip, and whether I was prepared to lug my fairly weighty camera gear around with me, knocking about in dusty situations and swapping lenses with a child on each arm seemed like a recipe for disaster.

The bottom line was this:

1. Having a full size SLR with me represents work – I want to be in holiday mode, present in the moment
2. I’m travelling with 2 kids – I want to capture footage of them experiencing Africa, not obsessing about which lens to use

What I actually wanted was one gadget that does everything.

I knew we planning a short safari drive in Livingstone, and although my iPhone could handle video of my kids spotting animals from the safari truck, its lack of zoom wouldn’t cut the mustard. I’d also been tipped off by a wildlife photographer friend who’d come back from a recent trip to Africa (without kids) who told me he’d been frustrated by his SLR, as he’d been flapping around swapping lenses whilst a leopard had calmly strolled past the safari truck he was in. He didn’t get a shot of the cat, and I certainly didn’t want to be CameraDad, constantly working the camera and not really in the moment.

I certainly didn’t want to be CameraDad, constantly working the camera and not really in the moment.

I wrote down a list of camera priorities.

Mine were:

Must be low-key, not showy
Needs to be able to capture good quality video and photo at SAME TIME
Either long long battery life or swappable batteries
Must have long zoom
Value must be less than iPhone 5 / SLR (so I wouldn’t feel precious about it)

Shopping

I actually fell over my solution at my local PC World. They had 2 Samsung Galaxy Cameras, playing demo videos on the back of it’s their arrestingly wide LCD display. I was transfixed by the size of the screen and the simplicity of the controls. I had a play with it, and joy of joys, it had a ‘take photos whilst videoing’ button. The built-in 21x zoom lens is remarkable for the size of the camera. And after the trip I reckoned it would have a use at school assemblies when I’m stuck at the back of the hall, but don’t want to take in an SLR or a camcorder.

So here’s 10 good reasons why this point-and-shoot camera got taken to Zambia

  1. Removable battery means you can always replace if device dies
  2. Long, long zoom from one do-it-all lens
  3. Simultaneous photo and video (take up to 6 pics whilst video-ing)
  4. Send and receive text messages within Zambia with SIM bought locally
  5. Wifi and/or 3G, use Facebook, Twitter, Google, Dropbox, Linkedin, email
  6. Has its own Android operating system so you can back up photos to USB stick straight from camera so you have unlimited storage
  7. For me, I could relax, if the shots weren’t great, I could blame the camera!
  8. Low key – doesn’t shout ‘hey – I’m an expensive camera, steal me’
  9. For keen photogs – you can still play with manual settings if you have time to set up ‘proper pictures’
  10. Images are stabilised on zoom, reducing shake

Also good is:

  • Big LCD screen
  • No lens swapping means better protection from dust
  • Lots of apps/games/books/music via Google Play keeps boredom at bay whilst travelling
  • Decent enough flash for fill-in portraits

Not so good

  • Manual controls look cute but feel unnatural after a ‘real camera’. But they do work
  • No manual focus
  • Image quality best imagined as phone camera quality but with a long zoom lens
  • No RAW, only JPEG, so not for pro use
  • No mic socket for plugging in an external microphone. Again, possibly not a big issue for youZoom sometimes struggles to focus at full reach

The Trip

So how was the trip? Well the 3 weeks in Zambia was as amazing and inspiring as I thought it would be, for me and the family. Africa as a country has affected us in different ways, and it’s left indelible mark. I won’t ever forget the smells, the wildlife, the people, the injustices, the poverty, the joy, and it all comes back when I look at the photos, and particularly watch the videos.

Helping at the school didn’t allow much time for arty photographs. My biggest camera regret was not having a dedicated mic socket. The wind noise was a problem in the dusty yard at the front of the school which you’ll hear on the video below if you get a chance. Guess Samsung will put one on the mk2?

Since Zambia the camera has largely been back on the shelf, being used for the occasional school performance where I want to be in stealth mode, or for family days out. It’s a good device for cataloguing a day for a blog, and then sharing straight from the device. But back in the UK without the constraints of travelling light, I always have an iPhone in my pocket as well as a flight case rammed with cameras and lenses. But the little Samsung has shown me where the next generation of top end DSLRs will be like; wifi will be built in, and ideally they’ll have their own OS so you can process, share, and upload.

Video footage

So how was the camera to use for video footage? Well on the whole it was a pretty user-friendly experience, the camera was quick to start up, and the ability to pause and then continue videoing as well as photograph during filming was brilliant. Sure, it wouldn’t work for professional use, but we’re talking family snaps and low-key charity work reportage here for which it fitted the bill.

For any of you interested, here’s a link to the Nayamba School project we’re involved in, its exciting to be able to give help so immediately and directly thanks to our contacts on the ground there at the school. There’s lots and lots and lots of ways to get involved if you’re interested.

Here’s the short film I made to show an update of life at Nayamba School near Chisamba, Zambia – do have a watch, and if you’re inspired to help, do get in touch – it’s actually a special opportunity to help a real project.