Saturday, 12 January 2013

Getting Great Shots When on an African Safari

There are two approaches to take when you are on an African safari. #1 - Go all out to nab perfectly framed photographs of the Big Five at dawn or dusk, when the sun kisses their face at the perfect time, or #2 - or just go and take some memorable photographs that give you images of posterity of what is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Neither way is the right or wrong way… but for the people that come with me on my photo workshops, #1 is the goal, with a dash of #2.

So let’s address the attempt to capture that National Geographic type image first…

Going all out means having two DSLR cameras and good lenses (not cheap zooms) ranging from 10mm to at least 400mm. And, no, a lens that zooms from 14mm to 400mm is not going to make fantastic photos. A wide angle lens like the Sigma 10-20mm is great to capture the wonderful landscapes you’ll see, and, at the long end, because the (good) safari drivers try to keep a safe distance from the animals, you’ll need a telephoto lens. Anything less than 300mm and that lion will be the size of an ant in the frame. Unless your driver has an unexpected encounter with a cheetah or Lion Pride… and that unexpected encounter is why you need the second camera with a wider lens on it.

Photo courtesy of Rick Sammon

The cameras have to perform well in low light (i.e. be capable of producing quality shots at 1600 to 3200ISO) because you’ll be shooting the bulk of your best photographs when you should be sleeping or cracking a beer in front of a fire. Why do you need to use such high ISO settings? It’s not just because of low light at dawn and dusk, when you’re using a long lens you need to shoot at a faster shutter speed because any camera shake is exponentially multiplied by having a long lens. And you don’t want a blurry elephant throwing dirt around. A commonly recited rule is that your shutter speed should be at least twice that of your lens length – which means that if you’re shooting a 400mm lens your shutter speed should be at faster than 1/800th of a second.

Speaking of speed, you’re going to need cameras that can shoot several frames a second (at least five) to capture that burst of animal action, as well as know how to keep focused on the action. For this you need to be able to have continuous focus, a mode where the camera constantly refocuses, often called ‘servo’ focus. If you don’t know the difference between single-servo focus and continuous focus (or know where to change it on your camera), do some reading before you hit the ground or better still, go practise by trying to photograph birds in flight and you’ll soon get the idea of why continuous focus is a good thing.

None of this is helpful; however, if you’re bouncing around in a vehicle that is difficult to shoot from, such as a converted delivery van that some guides use. You need a 4WD with an ‘open’ passenger area like my guides use. That way you can easily move from one side of the vehicle to the other to take your photographs and have your gear at hand.

Finally, I mentioned enjoying yourself and take memorable photos. Do not forget to enjoy yourself. Unless you’re doing this for a living, don’t get too hooked up in the whole Big Five thing, wildlife photographers and workshop leaders will stay there for extended periods of time to get those classic photographs. Even I wish I could spend a week, sitting, waiting in optimal light to get that once in a lifetime photo… but it rarely comes with the limited time I am there… but we will get you some awesome photos, and you will have a memorable time filled with laughter, learning and memories that will last a lifetime.

Asanta sana,