Starting Safari Photography
An increasing number of people on my regular City Academy photography courses want to learn to take better shots for an upcoming safari. Shooting on safari is very different to a London-based travel, street or documentary photography class, so I’ve written this to help them make up the gap.
Practice Makes Perfect
You know it makes sense! If you’re not familiar with your camera, especially if you are only used to making changes through the menus and not through the lens, you’re going to lose some great moments. Practice on garden birds, on traffic, on children. Practice in very bright conditions, at dusk and in the dark. Then, when the lion yawns or a bird swoops or your travel companions react strangely to a traffic jam of safari jeeps, you’ll be able to capture the moment without worrying.
Preparation Makes Perfect Too
- How long are you out on safari? Make sure you have sufficient charged batteries to shoot continuously for that time. You’ll probably not need them all but think of the missed opportunity if your battery runs out!
- Take loads of memory cards. Imagine how you’d feel if you missed something because you were so busy looking through your shots trying to work out which ones to delete because you had run out of room. I’d suggest you take lots of smaller cards rather than one or two big ones because if something goes wrong with one card you’ve not lost so many of your hard-won magic moments.
- If you’re camping or roughing it for a night or two, don’t expect a power supply. Take a battery pack recharger so that you can recharge your batteries even if there are no electric points.
- Keep it simple while on safari. Don’t carry too much, decide what you want in advance of each trip and leave the rest behind. Doing this makes life simpler, your load lighter and is much better for your back.
- While on safari always keep your lens cap off. Don’t risk missing the action because you’re struggling to get it off! I use neoprene hoods instead of lens caps, they’re easier to remove, protect my lenses while I’m traveling and are much harder to loose.
- Keep a spare battery and memory cards in your pocket so as to lose as little time as possible changing them over.
- Keep notes or get your travel companion to do so. It’s all too easy to forget the names of the many exotic creatures you are likely to shoot.
- Get up early! Ideally before dawn, so you can get to the great places as the sun comes up. This isn’t just because the light is better, but also because the daytime light is fierce and bleaching and most of the animals will have gone.
- The sunsets will be spectacular, but don’t forget to change your ISO.
- The closer to the animal’s eye level you shoot, the more impact your image is likely to have. Focus on the eyes too if you can, generally speaking if you focus anywhere else, the image will end up looking wrong.
- Consider your background. Your subject will stand out more if you find a way to make the background less busy. If you can, shoot at an angle that avoids too many details that interfere with your main subject. If you can’t eliminate disturbing features such as tree trunks, sticks or other safari vans, crop them out afterwards.
- Remember the basic rules of competition. Only put your subject right in the middle of a picture if the leading lines are very strong or if you’re making a point.
- Take different types of shot, use your aperture and shutter speed. Choose to take sharp shots, soft focus shots or play with your depth of field, use motion blur and panning. Try and use them to express the way you feel about the creatures, people and places that you discover on your way.
- Expect a crowd. There are strict rules governing when and how close one can go to the animals, and traffic jams sometimes occur.
Dawn and Dusk
The light is lovelier at these times and the animals more active. If something fascinating is happening, don’t try to do flash things with the aperture and shutter speed, just get the shot any way you can. Get the right ISO and shutter speed, make sure you’re correctly exposed and let the story sort itself out.
Safari trips vs Photo Safari trips
These are very different events, decide which you want and find someone who can provide it. An experienced guide of regular safaris will take you to places which look best, a guide who has experience with photographers will know that the best place to see the natural world with the unassisted eye is rarely the best place to take a photo.
Dedicated photographers will be absolutely committed to getting the right shot and will take as much time and as many photos as they think necessary. If others on safari aren’t into photography they might get annoyed, and the guide himself needs to know it’s likely to happen, and to be aware that while you’re concentrating on getting that one great shot, your own safety won’t be uppermost in your mind.
Consider taking the following:
• More than one camera body so you don’t lose time changing lenses (and ‘just in case’).
• Wide angle lens for landscapes with beautiful skies and nature close up.
• A long lens for properly close-up shots, clear images of beautiful birds, the details of an animal’s eye. By long I mean something that starts around 200mm. You can rent or buy. (most rental lenses require you to get insurance but it’s not too expensive). If you only want one lens, an 18-200mm lens is probably best. However those amazing close-ups are usually taken with something much bigger, although they come very big and heavy.
• A mid range lens. You might be there for the animals but the people and places, the herds and the whole environment will also inspire you. This type of lens will help you show the folks back home the whole context of your trip.
• Filters (for your environment, for the harsh mid-day sun, for special effects and for fun)
• A bean bag or similar to cushion and hold your camera. Tripods don’t really work while you’re in a vehicle but a monopod might, depending on your vehicle and the people sharing it with you.
• Lots of memory cards and somewhere nice to store them (my favourite is my sealed leather credit card holder but you can buy special memory card wallets or find your own way of protecting cards and identifying their contents.
• A tripod for landscapes, shooting the stars and big-picture photos.
• A way to back up your images. This could be a laptop, an iPad, a portable image drive, whatever is easiest. Just don’t rely on wifi or backing up to the Cloud.
Pause for thought
• It’s better to have a sharp picture with a higher ISO than a blurry one, so when in doubt take your ISO a little higher and work from that.
• Don’t use flash on the animals without checking with your guide! You’d not use flash on a human dancer because they’d be dazzled and might injure themselves. Think how disturbing it would be for an animal and how it could get hurt or become easier prey as a result. Flash will annoy your fellow travellers too, and may also frighten creatures away.
• Decide whether you want your photos sharp, with motion blur or panned. Set up to do what you’ve decided, stick to it, and remember what you’ve done or you’ll lose the special effects.
When you come back, share your photos and your experience with friends.