For those going on safari, one of the top priorities is typically coming home with National-Geographic worthy safari photography; and searching google inevitably leads you to think that those photos are attainable given the abundance of them. Although it isn’t easy, with a bit of practice, the right equipment and some basic advice, you should hopefully be able to return with something that could grace your living room walls (note, spouses may draw the line at hanging a photo of a leopard’s deer kill in your bedroom). In this first part of two articles I’ll cover the key things to consider before you even leave home! In part two I take a look at tips to consider whilst you’re on safari.
Safari Photography: Before you Travel
Getting the Destination Right
If you have your heart set on a safari and want to maximise your game viewing (and safari photography) chances, then two of the first things to consider are your destination and travel season. Some of you may not have the luxury of choosing the season, but if you have the bonus of vacation freedom, then analyse your best game viewing options by the time of year. Ideally, you want to focus on the dry season as that’s when there’s less overgrown greenery (meaning the wildlife will be more visible) and water is typically isolated in fewer waterholes (meaning the wildlife is easier to pinpoint). You (or your travel agent) will also want to do a little research on the propensity of wildlife across different countries and game reserves. For example, if you’re all about a ‘niche’ animal (such as my love for tracking Wild Dogs), then some National Parks and Game Reserves just can’t cater to your needs. On the other hand, if you’re just interested in spotting the Big 5 (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard), then your options are greater and the research easier.
Size Matters (Lens size that is)
I’ve been on a couple of safaris where people have been surprisingly disappointed with the results of their safari photography from a tiny little point-and-shoot camera (and one safari where someone, heaven-forbid, expected top-notch results from a camera phone!). This just isn’t realistic. You should expect to be contending with taking photos from distance (and in some parks e.g. Etosha National Park in Namibia, regulations prohibit off-roading to get closer to the wildlife). My advice would be to travel with nothing less than a zoom lens of 200mm. For most people, especially if you don’t plan on going on safari regularly, the most practical (and cost-effective) solution might be an 18-200mm lens. An 18-200mm lens is, for most people, a fairly versatile general travel lens that can cater to almost anything – especially if you don’t like packing lots of different lens’ or only travel with carry-on luggage. You might miss out on some of the longer shots, or may not get the ‘animal’s soul’ so to speak; but you’ll likely get most of the action. If you can afford it, or are willing to splurge to maximise your chances of getting the National Geographic-worthy safari photography you always dreamed of, then go for a high zoom lense (although I’d cap that statement at 500mm – anything greater than that is problematic to control when in a group safari vehicle). If you do bring a high zoom lens, then make sure to also carry a wide/wider angle lens to capture those quintessential silhouetted African sunrise and sunset panoramas.
If you don’t plan on going on safari regularly, or just got freaked out by googling the possible costs of the lens sizes I mentioned above, then you could also consider renting the gear you might need. I’ll be honest; sometimes the cost of renting (especially if you’re on a prolonged vacation) can almost be as much as buying. So, make sure you do your research. That said, costs for renting seem to be have been coming down and it means you can take some fairly specialised equipment with you for what may be a fraction of the purchase costs. A simple google search will bring up a whole host of rental companies – be sure to check the insurance and damage policies!
Storing Your Photos
Before you leave, make sure that you have all of the memory cards you could ever need. Expect to take several hundred photos on an average 3-day safari. I’m going to strongly recommend that you set your camera to shoot in RAW or RAW+JPEG. Basically, if you only take photos in JPEG format then most of the information gathered when you take a photo is compressed and gone forever. As a result, the overall image quality is lower than in RAW format (shooting in RAW format also means that you can, if you have any interest at all, post-process your safari photography in High Dynamic Range (HDR). Setting your camera to shoot in RAW will make the file sizes much larger (to account for all that extra information), so you’ll want to have plenty of memory card space. I’d also suggest you take a device to back-up your photos as you travel. There is nothing worse than taking several hundred photos only to lose the card or the card becomes corrupted. I suggest running a search for the latest portable photo storage equipment or to take a laptop together with a portable hard drive.
More Stuff to Buy Before You Go
I know the laundry list of things I’m suggesting you buy is getting longer – but I swear we’re nearly at an end. First up is a gadget to stabilise your camera when taking photos from the safari vehicle. I’ve tried some different techniques, but my favourite has been a bean bag (it was also the cheapest). This is purely due to the fact that it can rest on anything and adapt to pretty much any situation with minimal fuss and effort. Next up is spare camera batteries. Sure, you might be able to charge your camera battery at the end of every evening, but I can 98% guarantee there will be one day when you run out of battery in the middle of safari (with no back-up in sight) when a pride of lions arrive on the scene to engage in ‘paw-to-paw’ combat with a feisty leopard over a fresh zebra kill…. Yes, there you are left explaining to your friends that you failed to capture any of the action. Simple solution: buy (and charge, obviously) back-up batteries! My final recommendation is to carry a camera cleaning kit with you (and a pelican case if you fancy splashing out on something to protect your camera from dust).
Get to Know Your Equipment
Now that you have all of this sparkly new equipment, it’s time to practice before you go. Animals don’t tend to hang about waiting for you to try and figure out where your ISO or white balance settings are or to change a lens. Learn as much as feasibly possible about your camera before you leave and practice taking photos in different lights. The aim is to figure out how to work your camera at home (and ideally without your eye leaving the viewfinder) rather than in the middle of a safari.
Next time we’ll take a closer look at safari photography tips to consider when you’re actually on safari!