Ben Mcrae

Travel | Last Updated: February 18, 2022

I’m actually a full time Ocean lifeguard in Wollongong Australia. I’ve been on the beaches since I left school and 20 years on I am still there.

Originally, I used to chase the summer, working in Australia then going to Japan, England or the Channel Islands to find lifeguard work in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. It was a great way to travel & earn money but in 2004 I got a permanent job. I did not have to chase the summer for work, but I loved to travel.

My extended family had continually harassed me to see them in South Africa, so when I was free I did so, the second day of that trip we were chased by an elephant we did not know was there. Before the adrenaline had a chance to subside I realised I was hooked on Africa. Since then I have been scraping as much time off from work on the beaches to return annually, each trip being 3-4 months long.

From each trip I realised I wanted to capture my experiences, so the camera was always there. Each year I would take a few good shots but ruin many more.

On the wet days on the beach I would study. Anything that I could get my hands on I would read about photography, Africa, post production, animals, cultures and how to travel the continent.

When winter came, I would get a 4×4 and just drive – a border was just a delay in where I went and what I saw. One year I ended up in Namibia on the border of Angola. Due to the issues there at the time I could go no further north, so I spent a lot of time with the Himba. That relationship continued to grow and now forms the basis of my best work.

I mainly focus on environmental portraits. I love showing people, their cultures, their living spaces and environments together. I do a lot of wildlife, landscape and astrophotography, but it is the Himba that are really embedded in my heart.

Each year I travel back to them, stay and live with them, photograph them and now even run photographic tours to share this connection with others. It’s like the other side of my life.

I do implement a lot of lights in my work, I like a point of difference, I want my work to be different just like my life. I flick a switch when the seasons change and transport myself into a different life, my photographic life. It’s a great second life to have as I get to travel, I get to teach others to do what I do, and I get to show people the real beauty of Africa, not only in Namibia but now in Ethiopia and Kenya also.

As far as cameras go, I am a Canon person. There is no reason why: I started with Canon and I am still Canon.

I currently shoot with a Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon 5D Mark III (not pictured as using it for this shot!) the 5D Mark II pictured here is what I call my elephant camera; I leave it on a trail and remotely use it with the Canon App on my phone.

The 5D travels in my checked in bag. It’s not used often but when it is it’s a nice backup to have for quality, but also the lack of care I need with it as I have seen it thrown and know it’s only a matter of time something worse will happen like being squashed by a grumpy bull elephant in must.

I have invested a bit of money in the lenses, the most notable being the Canon EF400mm f/2.8 L.

I love my prime lenses, but unfortunately they do not come cheap. I use this lens for everything: portraits, landscapes and wildlife. This lens redefined where I was going as a photographer and what was possible in quality and depth of field.

It weighs a tonne and is hard to fit in a carry-on bag with my other kit but it is on every trip. When my back is breaking when standing in line for a plane, thick jacket on to hide my camera bag’s size and weight, I just think of the quality this lens delivers. This helps me stand taller and stronger until I can finally squeeze it under the seat in front of me for the flight to come.

My love for prime lenses came from the Canon EF50mm f/1.4. This is the one piece if kit that has been in my bag for the longest period of time. The depth of field it gives for such a small price is amazing and was an amazing lesson in the differences in quality that primes deliver.

Unfortunately, this lens does get left out sometimes these days as I regularly rent a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II for my trips. I can’t afford to buy one of them or always rent one so still the trusty 50mm gets a run as it is great in huts and at night.

If there is a lens that rivals the 50mm for trips it is the Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. This is a solid all-round wildlife and landscape lens. I have had it since I realised for wildlife a bit of extra reach always helps.

I photograph the Epupa Falls in the north of Namibia a lot too. There is no way of photographing these falls as a whole, so isolating points of interest works best and this lens is the best I have found to capture these. It is a versatile lens I would recommend to anyone (well, get the new version as this is the old push-pull version) who wants to have an all-round zoom lens for wildlife & landscapes.

The other two lenses that are always in my bag are the Canon L series EF16-35mm f/2.8 and EF 24-70mm f/2.8. The 16-35 is great for wide-angle shots and the f/2.8 opens up many possibilities when shooting in huts, something I do very often. I do find it warps people’s heads sometimes, but this is easily adjusted in post.

The 24-70 is my all-round guy. Anything and everything gets shot by it, but I find it doesn’t get much use when I have an 85mm f/1.2 in the bag. The 24-70 has a great quality of image and is very versatile so it will always have a home in my kit bag but when and where I use it now is becoming more limited.

The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS UMC Canon lens is in my bag for one reason and one reason only: Astrophotography.

This is a cheap lens – it feels plasticky, it’s manual focus – but it delivers a great image for the money. I love the fact that when shot at 2.8 and with a good shutter speed there is very little chance of getting rice shaped stars.

This lens is well known for its Astro capabilities and if this is something you want to get into I can recommend spending a few hundred dollars on this lens. It owns the bragging rights in my kit bag over the 16-35 for the Astro images.

Finally for lenses, there is the Canon EF 1.4x II Tele converter. Honestly, this should be at the bottom of the ocean. I hate the results it gives. I won it along with the Canon 5D Mark III body in a South African photographic competition.

In theory it’s great for extra length, but the drop in image quality is not worth using it. Why do I have it in my bag? It’s easier to carry it than a pair of binoculars. When I’m on a game drive spotting animals for clients and I need a bit of extra length, I whack it on, take a shot then enlarge it. Then I rip it off the camera and wait for the animal to come in if it is something to wait for.

As mentioned above I do a lot of light stuff. The challenge is to use light but not overdo it. Sometimes it is warranted to use a LOT of light. This, then, sees the need to carry a lot of other kit.

Originally I started off with the Canon 580EX and the small Impact triggers that are a generic B&H brand. They are small, cheap and never fail! I love this kit and it’s universal across any brand that has a hot shoe.

On my tours I hold Off-Camera Flash workshops where I walk people through each step of the process, and these triggers are amazing and as mentioned, never fail. If you’re looking at triggers, these are a great place to start.

In my bag I do also have other triggers. There is the new Godox XPro-C. This is an air remote based on the Profoto model of a similar name for the huge Godox AD600 light. It is a hefty light both in weight and power but not in price; that’s why I have Godox. I’ve used this light alongside a Profoto B1 X and it is as good if not better for less than a third of the price. I don’t treat my kit in the best way but still this light holds up.

Next to it is the Godox AD360. This is also a great light and my go-to for a few years before the AD600. I don’t use it as much now as the Canon 600 speedlight does a lot of the work I used to do with the 360, but I still have it as a backup.

I think I don’t use it as much now as the Godox X1C triggers did decide when to work, in the North of Namibia it gets above 40 degrees in summer and I found these triggers to struggle. The battery pack is also a bit cumbersome but it is a nice medium power range between the big AD600 and the Canon 600EX.

I do also carry a Canon 580EX II and Canon 480EX Speedlites, but this is mainly for the workshops I do on my trips, they are reliable lights that are easy to use for beginners. Each light has its use.

I do change out softboxes on each trip, so I do not want to get bogged down with these, that would be another photo here and a very detailed boring post longer and more drawn out than this one!

Each trip I do I have new ideas or techniques I want to try out, so the light modifiers change. My go-to boxes are usually rectangle or square, brands don’t matter as long as they are easy to erect and connect to the light I’m using at the time.

The last bit of kit in my bag is the Pro Aputure Amaran AL-H198C LED lights. I used to use various torch lights for my light painting for my Astro shots but one night I was conducting a workshop in Namibia and one of the clients forgot her headlight, so she used a videographer’s LED light to see where she was going and what she was doing.

She was slow to turn off the light as we tried a group exposure of the Milky Way. When the results flicked back the tree and rocks in the foreground that were supposed to be silhouetted were not, it was bathed in a warm subtle light. The results were amazing and from that night on I have used these lights as that was the model that was accidentally left on.

The power and temperature can be adjusted and having more than one light lets me lend them out when running the workshops on my Namibian trips or allows me to add a sense of depth to my night images when shooting alone.

All of this kit is carried on a plane with me. I don’t trust any airport with handling my stuff, I’ve had too many clients have lenses lost or broken to think my kit will be ok. In Africa camera shops are few and far between, and when planning a 3-month trip on a tight schedule there is no way I am taking chances.

Don’t ask how or how much it all weighs either. To get around the bulk of the kit all walking into a plane with me I have a duty-free plastic bag that some of the kit gets stuffed into or an extra laptop bag that is just full of kit.

I also have a camera vest – thank god I have not had to use that yet as I would look like an idiot – but it has 25 pockets that will allow me to carry the kit on me if I was ever pulled up for weight. I live a great life, but I don’t make the dollars to blow on business class flights. I figure more travel wins over more comfort.

I use a Lowepro Pro Runner 450 AW (not pictured) to cram all my kit into. It’s a challenge sliding the 400mm and the Godox AD600 in side-by-side but it all fits, albeit with some very tight zipper closings.

Lastly, although I have a lot of kit, I hate travelling with it. It is, after all, not the kit that makes the photographer or the images. Don’t go out and buy new kit for a trip. Think about the trip you’re doing and mould your kit round it.

Being out there and travelling is more important than having the latest kit. If I’m honest my biggest kit purchases came after having too many drinks the night before and realising I had won an auction on eBay (400mm f/2.8), or buying a piece of kit I had been saving for but could not justify the price.

Small primes are cheap and deliver amazing results – look at the 50mm in my bag. Keep it simple and in time your bag will grow but remember, so will your talents and results. This is when you will be pushed photographically to your kit’s limits and new purchases may be justified. Either that or you’re loose after a few drinks like me!

Kit listed in photo (starting top left, working down & snaking around):
Canon EF 1.4x Teleconverter II
Godox X1C trigger
Godox PB960 battery pack for the AD360
Godox AD600
Canon 5D Mark II
Canon 5D Mark IV
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 USM L II
Impact receiver (only compatible with its own transmitter)
Impact transmitter
Godox Xpro-C transmitter
Godox AD360
Canon 600EX Speedlite
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 USM L
Canon 50mm f/1.4
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6 IS USM L
Samyang 14mm f/2.8 ED AS UMC Canon
Canon 580EX Speedlite
Canon 480EX Speedlite
Pro Aputure Amaran AL-H198C LED Lights
Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM

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