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Some Thoughts on Safari Photography

There are several features of digital photography that make it a fun and accessible activity for anyone willing to invest a little bit of time in mastering some basic technology and techniques. One is the zero cost of taking a digital photograph, once the equipment is purchased: no film to buy or develop means that there is no financial disincentive to press the shutter release and take your chances at getting "the shot" (even the most accomplished professionals take multiple pictures to get a few great ones). Other features that digital photographers take for granted but that were unthinkable during the film era include the ability to quickly change ISO settings, and advanced options for professional-grade post production editing.

We firmly believe that the first priority for anyone on safari should be to maximize the experience while you are there, and not to allow potential distraction like cameras, videocams, or other forms of technology to get in the way of your full participation in, and enjoyment of, the safari. Having said that, it's also a shame not to take advantage of the advanced technology available today to bring home unforgettable memories from some of the most beautiful and unspoiled natural settings on earth. The secret is finding a balance, and part of this is understanding your goals, ambitions, and abilities as a photographer, and choosing an approach (and equipment) to match. The table below lays out four generalized approaches to safari photography, with guidance on matching equipment choices. As with any generalization, it entails a degree of oversimplification, and travelers might find themselves straddling categories, but it is our hope that the information will provide a framework to help you make decisions about the approach and the equipment that are right for you.

 

Level I

Level II

Level III

Level IV

Safari Experience

First safari, or repeat safari wanting minimal hassle

First time safari, or repeat safari moving to the next photographic level

Preferably repeat safari (or very experienced photographer on first safari)

Repeat safari

Photography Experience

Beginner

Novice to intermediate

Intermediate to advanced

Advanced to professional

Camera Body

High quality point and shoot (e.g. Canon G11)

Mid range digital SLR (e.g. Canon Rebel series or Nikon D7000)

High end "cropped sensor" SLR (e.g. Canon 7D or Nikon D300)

High end "cropped sensor" SLR (e.g. Canon 7D or Nikon D300) Plus "full frame" SLR (e.g. Canon 1Ds Mark III or Nikon D3x)

Lens(es)

Built in lens (roughly equivalent to 30-140mm)

One or two autofocus zoom lenses covering range from approx. 30-300mm (e.g. 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 Plus 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6)

Two image stabilizing (vibration reducing) autofocus zoom lenses covering range from approx. 30-400mm (e.g. 24-105 mm f4 Plus 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6)

Three or more image stabilizing (vibration reducing) autofocus zoom (or prime) lenses covering range from approx. 14-400mm or higher (e.g. 17-55mm f/2.8 Plus 70-200mm f/2.8 Plus 200-400mm f/4)

Tripod

N/A

N/A

Consider a lightweight carbon fiber monopod or tripod (e.g. Gitzo).

Lightweight carbon fiber tripod

Bag

Padded carry pouch

Compact shoulder bag (or hard case) for camera plus lenses

Well padded backpack with internal compartments, all weather cover, and tripod straps (e.g. Lowepro Flipside 400AW)

Well padded backpack with internal compartments, all weather cover, laptop compartment, and tripod straps (e.g. Lowepro Pro Trekker 400AW or Tamrac Expedition 8X)

Filters

N/A

U/V filter; consider polarizer

U/V; polarizer; graduated neutral density filter(s)

U/V; polarizer; graduated and split neutral density filters

Batteries and memory cards

Be sure to take extra batteries (at least one or two extra batteries), as well as a battery charger. Take more memory cards than you think you might need - the conventional wisdom is to take several smaller capacity cards rather than one large card so that, if you lose a card, you don't lose all your photos with it.

Apparel

Safari shirt with pockets (for extra batteries and memory cards)

Safari shirt with pockets (for extra batteries and memory cards)

Consider a safari / photographer's vest (for extra batteries, memory cards, and filters)

Safari / photographer's vest (for extra batteries and memory cards, and filters)

External Storage Devices

Not necessary (take enough memory cards)

Not essential, but consider a lightweight, inexpensive storage device for backing up photos (e.g. Wolverine PicPac)

High quality, lightweight multimedia viewer (e.g. Epson P6000); also consider a second backup device (e.g. Nexto DI)

Laptop computer plus second backup device (e.g. Epson or Nexto)

Image File Format

Large JPEG

Large JPEG (consider RAW)

Large RAW (consider RAW plus JPEG)

Large RAW

Photo Editing

N/A

Use software that came with your camera (consider Photoshop Lightroom)

Photoshop Lightroom

Photoshop CS4 plus Photoshop Lightroom

Private Vehicle and Guide

N/A

N/A

Worth considering (adds significant value)

Almost a given

Extra Seat on Charter Flights

N/A

N/A

Might be necessary (or pack very light)

Unavoidable

Scheduled Flights

Always take camera gear as carry on

Always take camera gear as carry on

Pack camera gear wisely to meet carry on constraints (46" total dimensions, 18lbs)

Risk of camera gear ending up in the hold

Photography Classes

Recommended for anyone going on safari for the first time, and/or taking new equipment

Study animal behavior, research photogenic landscape features.

 

Level I - The Minimal Hassle Approach

If you have no experience with digital cameras and this is your first safari, or if you would simply like to minimize the distractions on your safari, then you might consider a high quality point and shoot camera to record your experiences. These have advanced to the point where a camera weighing less than a pound can capture high resolution images (around 10 megapixels), and offer lenses with up to 5x optical zoom factor. Other SLR-type features include various program settings, image stabilizing lens technology (vibration reduction in Nikon), high ISO sensitivity (up to 3200 ISO equivalent), and the option of capturing pictures in RAW format.

From the perspective of safari photography, "point and shoot" cameras have two fairly significant disadvantages. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, shutter lag can be a real constraint when photographing animals. Shutter lag is the delay that occurs between the pressing of the shutter release button, and the recording of the image; it is often compounded by relatively slow autofocus and metering. What this means is that anywhere from 1/4 second to a full second can lapse between the time that you press the button and the actual picture being recorded - an animal whose eyes were looking straight into the camera at the time when you took the picture could well have moved its head by the time that the photo is recorded, such that you miss "the shot". Secondly, although a telephoto equivalent of 130mm is very impressive given the size of the camera, it is quite limiting compared with the flexibility of an SLR camera to accept lenses with much higher levels of magnification. This again has most impact on photographing animals, where the ability to "get in close" to capture facial expressions or other details can make a big difference to the overall impact of the photo.

Having said all of that, many non-photographer guides have moved away from bulky SLR cameras to these handy instruments for recording interesting sightings, identifying animals for research purposes, etc. If your photographic objective on safari is simply to record your experiences, and most of the photos with be posed people or landscape shots, this approach certainly has the advantage of being very low impact. There is also a lot of be said for taking a "point and shoot" as your backup camera, to complement your SLR or videocam.

Be sure to have a well padded carry pouch to protect your camera, and take extra batteries and plenty of memory cards. It's helpful on game drive to wear a shirt or jacket with lots of pockets, so that your spare batteries and memory cards are readily available (along with sunscreen, lip balm, medications, etc.). Unless you plan to edit your photos in Photoshop afterwards, set the camera to shoot in JPEG format (as large as the camera will record), and you're ready to go. We do recommend taking digital photography classes to help you master the basic functions and program modes on your camera, and learn some of the basic principles of nature photography. This will significantly enhance the quality of the pictures that you take on safari. Most medium to large camera stores offer classes, or can direct you to someone who does.

Level II - The Added Range of DSL

If you have some degree of experience with digital camera technology (or are willing to invest in learning), would like to have the additional range of telephoto lenses, and don't mind the added hassle of the extra equipment, moving to a SLR camera can add greatly to the artistic impact of your photos.

We recommend going with an established brand, probably Canon or Nikon. When selecting your camera, try to get to a store where you can try out different models to get a sense for which one has controls that feel easiest and most intuititve. It's also worth thinking about the future - does one or other brand have higher end lenses or bodies that you might one day want to upgrade to? Once you start down a given brand path, it's a fairly costly proposition to change brands at a later point (once you have already started amassing equipment). At this point, buy a body with a general purpose kit lens (e.g. 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5), and combine this with a good telephoto zoom lens out to 300mm (e.g. 100-300mm f/4.5-5.6). An alternative approach, if you would rather not deal with the hassle of changing lenses (which exposes your camera's internals to dust), is to have one versatile zoom lens that covers a wide range of focal lengths (e.g. a 55-250mm zoom lens).

You'll want a nice, compact padded carrying bag (or hard case) to protect your camera plus lenses. There should also be room for spare batteries and memory cards, as well as filters. A UV filter eliminates haze and reduces color aberration caused by UV light, but perhaps its most important function is to protect your lenses from physical damage should they be dropped or bumped. A polarizing filter reduces the amount of light that passes to your cameras sensor, and can have the effect of making skies bluer, reducing reflection off water and other surfaces, and reducing the contrast between sky and land. A polarizing filter requires additional steps and attention in the course of taking a photograph, and is perhaps more distraction than most Level II photographers want to bother with. Wear a safari shirt (or jacket) with lots of pockets for all of your accoutrements.

For several years our "compact utility camera" rig has comprised a body with two lenses covering the range from 30-300mm, neatly contained (along with extra batteries, memory cards, and a polarizing filter) in a Pelican 1200 case. The whole package weighs a little over 6 pounds, is extremely robust, and measures a handy 12" x 10" x 5". Making use of the current digital SLR technology, you'll be able to take photos with this combination that you will blow up, frame, and hang on your walls at home or in your office (much to the envy of your colleagues).

While not necessary, there are some more advanced steps to consider. One would be an external storage device to backup your valuable images (memory cards are small, and can get lost or broken). These devices can be relatively inexpensive, and can be worth their weight in gold if something does happen to your memory cards - just bear in mind that they need to be charged, which means even more equipment. A second consideration is your choice of which image file format to shoot in, and the corresponding decision about image editing software. JPEG is the simplest format, and almost certainly makes most sense at this level: your camera essentially makes most of the editing decisions for you, and delivers an image that is ready for use; the images are also significantly compressed, which means that they take up much less space on your memory cards and computer hard drive. If you are (or plan to become) a more serious photographer, then the additional flexibility of RAW format can be attractive: RAW images are much larger, capture significantly more data, and enable you to make an almost infinite number of adjustments to features like exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, etc., etc. Some cameras allow you to capture images in both RAW and JPEG, such that you can keep your options open - just bear in mind that RAW images take up significantly more space than JPEGs, so you'll need to take sufficient memory cards (and/or external storage devices) if you decide to shoot in RAW. Once home, you have the option of editing your photos on your computer using image editing software. The options are much more limited if you shot in JPEG as opposed to RAW, but even JPEG images can often by significantly improved by simple cropping to improve composition - your digital camera will almost certainly come with software that enables you to carry out relatively simple functions like picture rotating and cropping.

It is at this level that photography classes probably have the greatest impact on the photos that you will bring home - your camera gear will provide you with everything you need to take some very high quality images, but the extent to which you can take advantage of this will depend on your familiarity with the equipment and your photographic ability, both of which can be significantly improved by learning and practice.

Level III - Serious Photographer

Before taking the step (and investment) to Level III it's worth considering your photographic background and goals. If you don't have extensive prior experience with a digital SLR, and/or don't intend to continue with photography as a serious hobby after your safari, the cost and learning curve are probably too steep to justify this approach. This approach only makes sense if you are (or want to be) a serious photographer.

You'll want a high quality "cropped sensor" SLR body (if your budget covers a "full frame" camera, go for it!) plus two good quality lenses that cover the range from wide angle out to 400mm. Buy the best quality glass that you can afford. The question of whether or not to take a monopod or tripod is one that will be endlessly debated. The primary advantage is added stability, which makes for sharper photos (especially in low light with telephoto lenses). The downsides are weight, bulk, and a limitation on your range of movement/shooting angles. On my most recent safari I took a lightweight travel tripod by Gitzo, which I used as a monopod in the safari vehicle, and as a tripod for landscape shots. I had the privilege of spending two days shooting with Dana Allen, one of the top pros in southern Africa, and he does not use a tripod or monopod in the vehicle because he feels that the restrictions on his range of movement outweigh the added sharpness (and he has equipment and techniques that cover for this anyway). Dana also doesn't use any filters, apart from a polarizing filter, but I find a graduated neutral density filter (ND 0.3 or ND 0.6) to be helpful with high contrast scenes (like sunsets).

Backing up your photos becomes important at this level of photography. One approach is to take a simple, lightweight data storage device (they come in various sizes, with 160GB being more than just about any photographer could ever fill in a two week trip). The next step up is a multimedia viewer, which has the added benefit of a high resolution screen which enables one to start reviewing (and deleting) images while still on safari. It's not everybody's style, but I edit aggressively during the course of the safari so that I am not completely overwhelmed by the volume of photos when I get home; I'm ruthless about culling images that are out of focus or don't make the grade (if they look weak on a small screen, the blemishes are only going to be magnified on a big screen). I use the downtime on airplanes to manage my images.

All of this equipment, including extra batteries, memory cards, filters, chargers, etc. has to fit into in a sturdy, well padded bag (preferably a backpack), with internal compartments. We strongly discourage travelers from placing anything of value in checked luggage, so all your camera equipment (and accessories) has to be taken with you as carry on luggage on scheduled flights. Having a backpack makes it much easier to carry through airport terminals (roller bags have rigid frames which can create problems on charter flights). I was very pleased with a Lowepro Flipside 400AW, which also includes an all weather cover and straps to hold a small travel tripod. The whole package weighed around 16lbs (a tad more than all the rest of my luggage put together), and measured roughly 18" x 14" x 8". I don't use a safari / photography vest because I minimize on clothing for safari. Instead I have safari shirts with several pockets, and also wear shorts with cargo pockets.

If you're investing this much time and effort in shooting the photos and getting them home, you're also going to want to optimize your images with editing software, which means shooting in RAW. One option to consider is to shoot in both RAW and JPEG - this way you will have a full set of JPEGs ready to email to friends and/or post on a website when you get back, and you can pick your favorites to optimize in Photoshop at your leisure. Photoshop CS4 is probably a bigger and more complicated program than you need, so consider Elements or Lightroom - most photographers with whom I have spoken find Lightroom to be more intuitive and user friendly (which is also my experience).

Finally, in terms of value added services on your safari, it's worth considering a private vehicle and guide (at least for some of the time) - the only other guests on a safari vehicle who are nearly as unpopular with everyone else as hard-core photographers are obsessive birders. As much as it may surprise you, nobody else on your vehicle is going to want to spend 45 minutes at a giraffe sighting to get that perfect giraffe-in-ideal-light shot. Another factor to consider is the luggage restrictions on your various flights. For scheduled flights, to ensure that your camera equipment can all go with you as carry on luggage, the weight has to be under 18lbs and the total dimensions (length + breadth + height) have to be under 46". Charter flights differ by country in terms of the luggage allowance but, no matter where you travel, you are going to have to be very strict with your clothing to accommodate all this camera equipment. If you aren't able to make the cutoff, it will be necessary to prebook an extra seat on your charter flights (don't take a chance and wait until you get refused boarding on a flight - the extra seat needs to be booked in advance). It goes without saying - be very familiar with your equipment and brush up on your photography skills before the safari. It won't hurt to take classes.

Level IV - Professional Grade Photographer

If you are a Level IV photographer, there's frankly not a lot that we can tell you about photographic equipment. From a safari perspective, having two bodies provides the benefit of greater flexibility and speed to switch between setups while shooting at a sighting. Full frame cameras have two attractive advantages on safari: one is wider angle landscape shots, and the other is less "noise" at higher ISO settings (which comes in very handy for shooting under low light conditions, around sunrise and sunset). Nikon's 200-400mm f/4 lens is probably the most versatile safari lens available, and makes Canon users (like me) green with envy. Given the weight and bulk of the rest of your equipment, a 3lb carbon fiber tripod is a small addition that will be beneficial for landscape shots (and possibly as a monopod in the safari vehicle).

Backing up images is even more important at this level, and a laptop can be used not only for data storage, but for a more thorough review and editing of images at the end of each day. Level IV photographers will need more than the relatively basic image editing and management capabilities of Lightroom (or Elements), and will probably want to complement this with the full version of Photoshop (CS4) - stitching panoramas and creating HDR images are just two of the added advantages of Photoshop.

It goes without saying, given the value of your equipment, that you want the sturdiest bag(s) available, offering the best padding and protection. The style of bag depends on personal preference, but it should ideally be within the dimension parameters for carry on luggage (46" total size, which is calculated by adding length, breadth, and height). Taking this much camera equipment on safari is inherently risky - it's highly unlikely that the weight of your camera equipment will comply with the 18lb limit for carry on luggage, and there is a chance that you will be required to check some of your camera equipment. Dana Allen (one of the top professional wildlife photographers in southern Africa) faces this dilemma every time he flies. His strategy: he tries to make his carry on luggage (which is comprised entirely of camera equipment) look as small and light as possible. He carries it himself (at all times) and does so with minimal fuss, no huffing, and a smile on his face. When I asked Dana what he would do if he was ever forced to check any of his camera equipment, he answered that he would not get on the plane: checking camera equipment on scheduled flights in southern Africa comes with a virtual guarantee that it is going to disappear. Dana lives in the region, so missing a flight is not the end of the world - for an international visitor on a "once in a lifetime" safari, the stakes are much higher. One doesn't adopt a Level IV approach to safari photography lightly.

Unless your traveling companion is willing to let you take up half of her/his luggage allowance with your clothing and toiletries, you'll almost certainly need an extra seat on your charter flights. And a private vehicle and guide makes eminent sense. While photography classes can't teach you much, it won't hurt to do some research on the habits and behavior of the animals that you are going to be photographing - being able to anticipate what your subject might do in particular circumstances will enable you to take full advantage of any opportunities (e.g., if a leopard is moving towards a tree with a carcass, it's probably going to leap into the tree with its prey, and this will happen in the wink of an eye). Also research any particularly spectacular landscape features in the areas to which you are traveling (e.g. the Okavango Delta and Zambezi Valley are not only rich in wildlife, they are also spectacular landscape subjects in their own right). 

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