- Post #2: Five basic tips for successful photography on safari
1. Light. Many people might assume that the bright African sunshine makes for easy photographic conditions. Wrong! Big predators are most active early and late in the day, when light levels are low. Overcast mornings are also common in summer, when light levels remain low long after the sun has risen. Bean bags for support, fast lenses and high ISO settings are the ways to make sure that you can get sharp shots despite the low light levels at these times of the day. Later in the day the shadows become harsh, which presents its own problems as the contrast in a scene can be extreme. This is where taking photos in RAW format will help tremendously (see point 3), and using spot metering to avoid clipping the highlights and shadows will also help. In such conditions you may also need to think carefully about composition, for example rather zooming in close to avoid large areas of bright sky, which is especially prone to clipping. In the photograph below the shade and the sunlight created harsh contrasts. Spot metering on a more ‘in between’ region such as the trunk of a tree helped, but working in RAW allowed me to reduce the contrast to create a usable image.
2. Preparation. Action often comes unexpectedly on a safari, and even if we’re not talking about a Cheetah taking down an Impala at 60 miles an hour, an animal you want to photograph may only look up at the vehicle for a few seconds as you arrive and then put its head down again to carry on resting or feeding. Having your lens cap on and your camera switched off in between taking shots will mean that you may miss out on the best opportunities of the trip. Dust is just something you have to live with on a safari, though the effects can be mitigated by regular cleaning of your gear and by keeping it covered with a cloth while you are not using it (camera on lap covered by cloth), and by not changing lenses while out in the field (see point 4). And batteries can be charged, and you should have a spare with you anyway, so there’s no reason to turn your camera off during any given drive. Cap off and camera on! In the photo below, there were only a few seconds available to catch the action – pick up camera, point and shoot! No time for removing lens caps and turning cameras on…
3. Format. Use RAW. Many amateur photographers are unfamiliar with RAW format, and stick to Jpeg as a result. If you are at all serious about photography, forget about taking Jpegs and switch to RAW. The basic advantages are that a RAW file has far more ‘information’ in it than a Jpeg, and as a result means that you can do a lot more with it in the processing phase, such as pulling back an overexposed sky. Secondly, a RAW file can be worked on without losing any data, and the editing can be undone at any stage, so the original can be kept as the master copy, and Jpegs or TIFFs created whenever they are needed. Of course this means that you’ll need a software program to be able to edit and convert the RAW files (such as Adobe Photoshop or Elements, or the Digital Photo Professional bundle that comes with Canon cameras), but a program like this is absolutely essential anyway. In the Elephant photo below the sky was blown out, but had enough information for me to pull it back to save the image from the recycle bin.
4. Equipment. As far as possible, avoid changing lenses in the field. If you want to take scenic shots, animals in context and close-ups, you need two camera bodies, one with a wider lens, say from about 15 mm to 80 mm, and the other with a good zoom lens, say 100 – 400 mm (I wouldn’t go more than 400 mm for general safari photography if you’re going to opt for a prime lens). If you can’t afford two bodies, then a small ‘point-and-shoot’ will suffice for scenic shots, but I’ve seen many photographers frantically changing lenses back and forth in the field all day long, missing out on shots and probably getting a whole lot of dust on their sensors. I get around this by using an extremely versatile Canon lens, the old 35 – 350 mm, which on a full frame camera allows me to capture both landscapes and close ups easily. Of course I also have a second body, but with this lens the older camera is more a back-up than anything else. And yes, a second body doubles as a back-up if your shutter goes. In the rainbow photo I used my versatile 35 – 350 mm lens to capture a fantastic scene. In the orange photo below, you can see the dusty conditions of a winter or spring safari. Changing lenses in the field is a no-no.
5. Discretion. Although memory cards are relatively cheap, ‘carpet bombing’ style photography won’t necessarily teach you anything. Anyone can buy a DSLR, switch it to one of the automatic modes and on continuous burst take hundreds of shots of each subject and then spend days sifting through the thousands of images to end up with a handful of great shots. But does that really require skill, knowledge or talent? Sure, the more shots you take the higher the chances of getting the great shots, and continuous burst is the only way to capture fast action, but the point is that other elements should be brought in to create balance in your photography. Take single shots when your subject is still, choosing the moments carefully and reviewing your shots to see if the histogram looks OK and if there’s room for improvement. Experiment in between shots, take your time and try to only take shots of a subject you already have shots of if it’s a totally different context or a better photographic opportunity. In pure photographic terms, there’s no point in taking a shot of a leopard deep in the bushes when you’ve already got shots of a leopard right out in the open, unless there’s something that makes it different or worthwhile. There are times when you really do need to just take a lot of photos to make sure you capture the moment, and that’s the joy of the digital age, but aim to end up with 1000 carefully chosen and composed shots rather than 5000 + shots taken with little thought or planning. You’ll be especially glad you did that when it comes to sorting and processing the images! While photographing the two Lionesses below, they were lying down, so I could choose my moments carefully, rather than just firing off hundreds of shots at a time.