Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tips for the Photographer on a Photo Safari

I am excited... I am finally going back to the "Dark Continent". I have been there twice in my life and now have the opportunity to return surrounded by some old friends and some new friends.

In April of 2013 Rick Sammon, and myself will be leading a workshop in Tanzania... I cannot wait to see the look on our student’s faces as a heard of Giraffe or Elephant stroll across the plains, or we park mere feet away from a sleeping cheetah in a tree... or when we are treated to a lion or cheetah hunting prey...

But before we even get there, being prepared to get the shot is imperative... For the next 4 days I am going to write about how to make sure you are prepared for your next photo safari!

Let’s start with camera gear… EVERYONE likes to discuss cameras and lenses. J

The first and most important rule of thumb in choosing your camera bodies for your safari is to bring at least two. An African trip can be very expensive, and if your only camera dies, your trip will be ruined, at least from a photographic perspective. If budget is a limitation you may be better off with two cheaper cameras than one expensive one. Or, rent a second or third for just the safari from a company like, Lens Rental Canada, You can rent a Canon 7D for as little as $140 for a week, a Canon 60D for as little as $120 for a week. For Nikon shooters, you can rent a Nikon D300s for as little as $125 for a week.

Having two bodies gives you piece of mind, and also a way to combat dust getting on the image sensor. It can be incredibly dusty in Africa, and you really don’t want to change lenses under those conditions.

On my workshops I suggest to photographers to bring along two or three bodies. One is attached to a long lens (typically a 500mm of 600mm), and another to a medium long zoom lens (such as a 50-200 or 100-400) or a wide angle lens for scenery and landscape shots. With that set up, you never need to change lenses in the middle of a game drive.

The two lenses are used most frequently used on African safaris: long and longer. Telephoto lenses let you isolate wildlife landscape from the safety of the safari vehicle.

You can sometimes be close enough to nearly any animal to touch it. And yet there is inevitably an interesting shot that requires a lens just a bit longer than what you have. For every time where there is a lion lying in the shade of your vehicle, there are ten times the frequency when the animal is doing something very interesting farther away.

Even landscapes in Africa tend to call for a wider focal length than you would normally use. As an example, the Serengeti with a backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro are sometimes best shot between 200mm and 400mm to isolate elements of the huge mountain and stunning foregrounds. I do bring a zoom such as a 12-60mm f2.8 for my Olympus body, and will use it sometimes, but much less often than I would for landscapes back home in North America.

Lens speed is also an issue. Today most DSLR cameras have excellent noise properties at ISO 400, and are now still quite good at ISO settings as high as 1600 and higher. While in many types of photography that has taken some of the pressure off having fast lenses, this tends not to apply to safari photography. Here’s why… most safaris start before sunrise, and end after sundown. The extreme low light always corresponds to the peak time periods for animal behaviour. As a result, there will always be shots that you miss because there isn’t enough light, no matter how fast the lens or how high the ISO can go. The rule of thumb then is… the faster the lens, the fewer the shots you miss. It’s really that simple.

If you have ever wanted to go on an African Safari, check out our African Safari in 2013 to Tanzania with Rick Sammon.

Or, if you want to start planning for 2014, check out our three workshops we are running to Tanzania and Namibia with Denise Ippolito.