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Africa is the easiest place in the world to photograph wild animals.
In most other portions of the globe, animals live in environments that
are inaccessible as well as uncomfortably cold and wet. African
animals live in a climate very similar to Southern California's.
Getting to them is as easy as calling a tour company and having them
arrange a Cessna flight to a game lodge's airstrip.
As noted elsewhere on photo.net, taking a trip to Africa is easier
than going to Los Angeles for the weekend. To visit LA, you would
have to decide in which of its 50 subcommunities to stay. You would
have to choose a hotel within one of those subcommunities. You would
have to rent a car and navigate to your hotel. Waking up the next
morning, you would have to decide which of 5000 potential activities
to engage in, make a reservation at one of tens of thousands of
restaurants, and then pick one of 1000+ nighttime entertainments. By
contrast, an African trip might start and end with one email to a
travel agent in your home country. They make all of the arrangements
with local tour operators and send you an itinerary. After that, you
show up at the first airport and the rest requires no thought,
planning, effort, or choice. Guides pick you up, tell you when to be
ready for dinner or a game drive or whatever, and take you back to
your room when it is time to sleep.
How Safari Works
The daily schedule at a game lodge will be something like the following:
hour before sunrise: wakeup knock at your door
30 minutes before sunrise: light breakfast at the lodge
sunrise: depart on game drive in a six-passenger open Land Cruiser/Rover
9:00 am: guide sets up a tea break on a camp table in the bush
10:30 am: arrive back at the lodge to wash up
11:00 am: enormous buffet brunch
12:00 noon: siesta
3-4 pm: quiche, pie, sandwiches, and other high tea items
4-4:30 pm: depart on the afternoon game drive
sunset: guide sets up table with alcohol, snacks
sunset+1 hour: drive back to camp with spotlight, looking for predators in action
sunset+2-3 hours: enormous buffet dinner
The main health hazard on this kind of trip is obesity. Feeding
people five meals per day makes sense when they are spending 12 hours
per day toting a heavy rifle through the bush. It isn't such a great
idea when all that the guests need or can do is sit in a Land Rover.
Very likely you will be less active than you are at home, so try to
force yourself to eat less than you would when at home.
Most tourists stay two nights at each lodge. For the best
photographic results, try to stay a minimum of three nights in each
location. The first day or two will be good for figuring out what is
worth photographing on the last day or two.
Here are the fundamental challenges to taking pictures as good as what
you see in books or on television:
animals don't usually do anything very interesting and, often the most interesting activity is at night
animals tend to be skittish and keep their distance from humans, even when those humans are sitting in Land Rovers
objects that are far away require high magnification (long telephoto) lenses
high magnification lenses magnify camera shake
you are in a vehicle on springs with a handful of other people, some of whom may be moving about and adding camera shake
high magnification lenses offer very limited depth of field, especially at the wide apertures required for high shutter speeds to freeze camera shake (see above)
the environment tends to be dry and dusty, increasing the risk of getting crud on the sensor
Challenge: Animals Don't Usually Do Anything Interesting
You can cope with the challenge of "animals typically don't do
anything interesting" by lowering your expectations. One camp that I
visited had leased out an area to a BBC television crew. They had
been filming all day every day, and most nights as well, for three
years, all in hopes of putting together just a few hours of
broadcast-quality footage. Don't expect to get a competitive photo of
a common animal; those are typically taken by photographers with
months or years to spend in the bush. A great wildlife photographer
is someone with a big lens, a big tripod, a big bladder, and a lot of
patience. The best photos are taken by people who are competent users
of their equipment, but don't necessarily reflect artistic genius.
Try to stay at least three nights at every lodge if your goal is to
photograph rather than experience. You will need the first day to
figure out where the best photographs are typically made and what
kinds of lenses and perspectives are best. You will also use that day
to scope out interesting backgrounds such as unusual trees.
Pay extra for a private guide and vehicle (or organize a trip with
friends in a group of 6 total). You will be able to leave early, stay
out late, skip meals, etc. Maybe you can't stay in the bush for
months or years, but you can improve your odds by being in the bush
instead of at the buffet.
Challenge: Animals are Far Away
Animals in Africa have evolved a healthy distrust of humans. They
don't want to let you get close enough for a clean shot with a spear
or even with a rifle. Despite the large size of many animals, you
will need a magnification similar to that afforded by a set of
binoculars, which are typically 8-10X. On a full-frame camera, a 50mm
lens is normal and 8X multiplication from there corresponds to a 400mm
lens or 300mm with 1.4X teleconverter. A lot of exciting views
through a pair of binoculars, however, have the subject occupying only
a small portion of the field. For birds and far-away larger animals,
the most successful images are taken primarily with 600mm and 800mm
lenses on a full-frame camera.
The French philosopher Rene Descartes noted that animals move. Thus
you might not have time to change lenses for the perfect composition
before the animal moves away. The most obvious solution to this
problem is a zoom lens. Unfortunately, high magnification zooms tend
not to offer the best image quality. For small sensor Canon body
users, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, (compare prices), is probably nonetheless a
good choice. The image quality isn't competitive with prime lenses,
but you're only using the sharp center portion of the image circle
illuminated by the lens.
If you're using a full-frame sensor camera, the mediocre image quality
of the long-range zooms at the long end is going to be noticeable. It
is probably better to bring one or two prime telephotos and a 1.4X
Springbok captured with 300/4 lens and 2X teleconverter. Note the
lack of contrast and punch in the image. It is rarely possible to get
a satisfying image with a 2X teleconverter. You are probably better
off using a 1.4X teleconverter and cropping.
Springbok captured with 300/4 lens and 1.4X teleconverter. A little
better image quality, but the problem is lack of patience; the animals
are simply too far away.
Red-billed Hornbill with 300/4 lens and 1.4X teleconverter. It is
tough to fill a significant portion of the frame with a bird with any
lens shorter than 800mm, but this is a very common species and they
like to hang out at the side of the road. Nonetheless, due to their
shyness and propensity to fly away as a vehicle approaches, it took
several days to create this image.
Meerkats at Jack's Camp in Botswana. The camp employs a guy to stay
with the Meerkats all day every day so that they are accustomed to
humans. Successful images may be obtained at 20mm or wider (right).
Challenge: Camera Shake
When an interesting scene presents itself, your guide will stop the
Land Rover and shut off the engine to reduce vibration. Nonetheless,
at 450mm or 600mm, the magnification of the lens will necessitate high
shutter speeds to eliminate blur due to camera shake. The standard
rule of thumb is that freezing camera shake requires a shutter speed
of 1/focal-length, e.g., 1/600th of a second or faster for a 600mm
lens. Fast shutter speeds force a photographer into using very wide
apertures, which reduce the depth of field, or high ISO settings,
which reduce image quality.
One way to reduce the problem is hiring a private guide and vehicle so
that either there are fewer people in the vehicle or all of the people
are vibration-conscious photographers and assistants. If you are
sitting down in a still vehicle, you could probably get an acceptably
sharp image with a 600mm lens at 1/300th of a second. Another path to
slower shutter speeds is an image-stabilized lens or camera body.
Note that the in-body stabilizers are not that effective for long
telephoto lenses. The traditional techniques of tripod and beanbag
are not very effective since the Land Rover itself is not perfectly
steady. The most important benefit of having a beanbag is that it
reduces the strain on your muscles when using long heavy lenses, e.g.,
anything larger than a 300/4. Sitting in a reasonably still vehicle
with an image-stabilized lens, you could probably go two f-stops
slower than the standard, e.g., 1/150th of a second instead of 1/600th
for a 600mm lens.
Challenge: Shallow Depth of Field
If you've been a casual photographer until now, the use of long lenses
and their shallow depth of field will challenge your focusing skills
as never before.
Autofocus is a great feature, but keep in mind that the camera is not
artificially intelligent. It will autofocus on something, but
probably not, by default, the thing that you want it to focus on.
What do you want to focus on? If you can't have the entire
animal in focus, which you usually can't, focus on the eyes. If the
eyes are sharp, viewers will accept unsharpness in the rest of the
With Canon bodies, use Custom Function 4 to move autofocus from the
shutter release to the exposure lock button on the rear of the camera.
Challenge: Dusty Environment
Keep your camera covered with a shirt or jacket while driving. Keep
the camera bag closed. Southern Africa in tourist season is dusty and dry. Bring two bodies
along so that you don't have to change lenses in the field.
Where to Sit
The typical game drive Land Rover has four rows of seats, each one
successively higher. Some professionals prefer to sit in the front
seat next to the guide, putting them more at eye level with the
animals. One advantage of this seat is that placing a beanbag on the
hood is an effective way of reducing arm strain.
As you move farther back in the vehicle, you are sitting progressively
higher. This has the advantage of clearer views of animals, who are
less likely to be obscured by long grass and low bushes. The
disadvantage of being farther back is that more dust blows up from the
tires, making changing lenses riskier.
If none of the seats in the Land Rover are working out, consider an
aerial perspective. Helicopter charter is available from Maun,
Botswana, Victoria Falls (both sides), and a variety of places within
On a one-week trip to Africa, it is tough to take the world's best
picture of a lion. A lot of photographers have pointed cameras at a
lot of lions for a lot of decades. But maybe you can take the world's
best picture of your guide, a fellow guest, or the lodge itself. And
even if you don't, pictures of the people and facilities behind the
scene will be enjoyable souvenirs.
Taking a picture of a moving animal from a moving vehicle is
challenging enough. Why add the additional challenge of getting
exposure perfect on the spot? That is what you're doing if you store
images in JPEG format. Set up the camera to capture RAW instead and
you can fiddle with exposure when comfortably sitting at home, or,
better yet, deliver the RAW file to a print lab and let their
professional technicians optimize a print from the RAW image.
A JPEG is like slide film. An image can be an aesthetic failure due
to a 1/2 f-stop exposure mistake. If the animal is posed against an
18-percent gray background, you'll get a perfect exposure from any
camera every time. If, on the other hand, the scene is mostly dark
trees or light sand, the camera will be fooled into thinking that the
light is weaker or brighter than it actually is.
RAW files are like color negatives. The sensor captures a larger
range of tones than can be represented on paper. A photographer or
lab technician will decide post-exposure which of those tones should
be rendered in a final print and at what intensities.
The disadvantages of RAW capture include the following:
larger files, necessitating buying larger and more memory cards
(count on approximately 60 RAW images per GB from a 13 megapixel
camera or 1000 images on a 16 GB card)
slower processing and viewing
requirement for special software on any computer used for editing or viewing
Many digital cameras offer the opportunity of simultaneous storing of
both RAW and JPEG versions of every image. The JPEGs are useful for
quick emailing and printing; you still have the RAWs if you find a
favorite image to enlarge.
Most digital cameras can be set to bracket exposures, taking three
images in rapid succession for example. The first image will be at
the meter's recommended exposure. The second will be 1/2 f-stop
underexposed and the third will be 1/2 f-stop overexposed. This is
pointless if you are capturing RAW files, which have an exposure
latitude of at least +/- 1 f-stop.
Animals in Motion
Animals tend to move, especially if you drive close to them in a Land
Rover. There are two basic approaches to dealing with a moving
subject: (1) freeze the motion, or (2) follow the motion.
To freeze the motion of a subject, select a high shutter speed, e.g.,
1/250th or faster. To follow the motion of a subject, pan the camera
to keep the subject centered in the frame and press the shutter
release once the pan is well-established. A shutter speed between
1/30th and 1/125th will generally render the subject sharp and the
background blurry. This is a riskier photographic technique, with a
lower yield than freezing motion, but the successful images are more
interesting than ones taken at a high shutter speed.
Camera panning to follow the running baboon. Note the blurred background. 420mm. f/8 and 1/125th of a second.
A shutter speed of 1/640th of a second was selected to freeze all motion. 420mm and f/8.
These are recommended starter settings for taking pictures on safari:
file format: RAW
white balance: auto (AWB); this has no effect on RAW files and you
can reset the white balance later on your computer
ISO 100 if animals are standing out in the mid-day sun; ISO 200
for average lighting conditions, giving you the ability to use faster
shutter speeds; ISO 400 near sunset or sunrise; ISO 800 just after
autofocus mode: "AI Servo" on Canon, for continuous autofocus
tracking of moving subjects
autofocus start: moved to a button on the back of the camera,
separated from the shutter release, enabled with Custom Function 4 on
most Canon EOS bodies
exposure mode: aperture-priority autofocus; you choose the
aperture and the camera chooses a shutter speed
aperture: one f-stop down from the maximum, e.g., if you have a
f/4 lens, use f/5.6. This improves image quality and increases depth
of field to make focusing less critical. The camera will select an
appropriate shutter speed
rear control dial: disabled; you probably won't be trying
intentionally to set exposure compensation, so disable the rear wheel
from being nudged accidentally
Tape the autofocus and image stabilization buttons on the lens so that
they aren't accidentally disabled while you are cradling the camera in
a bouncing Land Rover. Gaffer's tape will not leave adhesive sticking
to the lens. If you are using Canon EOS lenses with ultrasonic motors
and Custom Function 4, you will have manual focus available even if
the lens is always in autofocus mode.
Image Storage and Organization
If you're slightly antisocial, unable to relax on vacation, and are
willing to carry a bit of extra weight, a laptop computer is
definitely worth bringing to the lodges. When everyone else is
napping or chatting, you can be transferring, sorting, organizing,
rejecting, and captioning images with Adobe Bridge, Picasa, or a
If you don't want the hassle of carrying a laptop and its power
adaptor, simply bring enough memory cards to hold all of your images.
Try to sort and caption them as soon as you get home, however, or
you're very likely to have forgotten the names of the various animals.
Game lodges are generally off the grid, not that there is much of a
grid to begin with in most African countries. Lodges operate
generators for at least 12 hours per day. Some high-end lodges have
power available in every room, but traditional lodges only have power
in the main bar/dining room. They will generally have a power strip
to fit European two-prong plugs. It is worth bringing a small
adaptor, not a voltage converter, through which to plug in your camera
battery charger. Note that laptop computers and camera battery
chargers are powered from switched-mode
power supplies that accept any voltage between 90 and 240V.
Security and backups
The game lodges are safe, probably safer than any hotel in the U.S.
You can leave a camera bag stuffed with the best lenses in the bar
while you go back to your room and sleep. You can leave a Rolex on the
night table while you went out for a game drive. The rest of Africa
is chancier, however, and you may want to take precautions such as
having your suitcases sealed in plastic before checking them (this
service is available at most African airports for $5 per bag).
As soon as you finish a memory card or a backup, place it into a
separate bag from the rest of your camera gear. If your camera
equipment is stolen, at least you will have all but your most recent
Make sure to prepare yourself before the trip so that you aren't
reduced to the "green idiot all-automatic mode". Read the owner's
manual and take the outfit to a sports event such as a soccer game,
trying to follow the players with autofocus. Learn how to capture in
RAW and convert to JPEG; you won't have time to get exposure right
when you're out in the bush.
Outfit for the serious photographer:
two full-frame digital SLR bodies, e.g., Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review) (two bodies so that you don't have to spend time and risk dust changing lenses)
beanbag to take the load off your arms if you're going to be using a lens heavier than the 300/4
tripod, which will be most
useful for general-purpose photography in places other than the game lodges
enough CF cards to store 300 photos per day, e.g., a big stack of 8 GB cards (each holds 500 RAWs)
sensor cleaning kit
Arranging a Trip
However you book your trip, do it far in advance. Roads are few and
poor in Africa, making air travel essential. In an effort to protect
small domestic carriers, governments set tight limits on air travel.
The result is that flights are few, far between, and five times as
expensive as in the U.S. or Europe. Even if you can get a place in a
lodge, you might not be able to get there. People typically book
Africa trips six or nine months in advance. If you book last-minute,
be prepared for some days cowering in a Jo'burg hotel room or
bored in a dusty provincial Botswanan town.
The easiest thing to do is what I did: contact James Weis at Eyes on Africa and let him book
the entire trip. He is an experienced wildlife photographer and knows
the lodges, the seasons, and the animals.