Thursday, 5 February 2009

Some advice for photographic safaris

The big lens in action, Tanzania, January 2009

Based on my recent trip to Tanzania with Andy Biggs, here are some pointers from a traveller's perspective. This was my first such trip, so this post is more geared towards the new-comer, as ever YMMV.

First, get to know your camera. I was surprised that people weren't fully familiar with the functions of their camera. They have expensive gear and don't know how to use it to its best. Out on safari is not the time to learn. Based on what I experienced, these would be my top things to learn (this should all seem a bit basic):
RAW shooting, Av & Tv, metering and compensation, depth of field control, servo focus, thumb focus button, ISO setting & auto-ISO, panning & tracking subjects, manual exposure.

Learn to fine tune the custom settings to your preferences.

If any of that doesn't make sense, or is new I suggest spending some quality time with your camera and its manual.

Second, equipment selection. There's quite a bit of advice out there, some of it designed to scare you that you'll never have enough equipment, some suggesting you can get by with very little. I'll tread a middle course.

The cameras: you'll need more than one body (I automatically assume you're a DSLR shooter). This is not for back-up purposes. The primary reason is so that you can mount multiple lenses and switch quickly - you will not have time to mount and un-mount lenses frequently if your subject is moving. Having similar operation helps a lot. For reference I had a Canon 20D and 40D; these are sufficiently different in operation that it was often a problem switching (buttons and functions in different places). For a general 3-lens set-up, I'd highly recommend 3 bodies, one for each lens.
The lenses: I reckon a general 3-lens set-up is good. A mid-zom, mid-telephoto and long lens should be good. I took a 17-40, 70-200 and 500 plus 1.4x teleconverter. In future I'd drop the 17-40 and carry my 300 instead. A 24-105, 100-400 & 500 would also be a good combination.
Out on the plains you'll often want more focal length. The 500 + TC gave me 1120mm-e*, just enough for big wildlife on open plains. Birders may well want to longer. (If you are a birder it is worthwhile hooking up with others similarly inclined. Cat hunters and birders in a vehicle can make for some tensions.)
I found the wide-angle opportunities limited: that's usually landscape where I want a tripod, low-ISO, small aperture, long exposure. Safari is not conducive to that sort of work. You can't get out of the vehicle and often have to move quickly to get the the wildlife.
If you can't afford the extra equipment, rent. There are plenty of places that will rent the big glass and good bodies. Some on the trip had done just that. Better that than cursing missed opportunities.

The other kit: lots of memory. I reckon you can expect to take at least 500 frames a day, and up to 1500 on a good day. That means lots of storage required. Having enough CF cards is a good way to go, but may mean buying lots of cards that aren't otherwise needed. I used a netbook and a pair of external drives, with full duplication between them. I had originally estimated to shoot about 2500 frames total, around 40GB. That took 3 days. I was glad of the extra capacity, ending up with 5500 shots and 72GB. In the group, that was typical. Those with pro cameras were shooting as much as 20-30GB a day.
You'll also need spare batteries, chargers, cleaning kit etc. Supports (tripod/monopod) are a bit location and vehicle dependant. For our trip with enclosed Land Rovers with a pop top, they were useless. I was glad I left them behind. Binoculars can be useful, but don't sacrifice photo gear to carry them.
A good camera bag, preferably quite small so you can carry it in the vehicle. I was actually using a belt system for my bits and pieces, which I slung over the seat but that is unusual and means a lot of kit rationalisation.

Other stuff. Be patient. Often it takes time for a situation to develop. Sitting around watching lions sleep until they get up is necessary. Waiting for a leopard to climb out of a tree is an unmissable event.
Learn something about the wildlife and location, even if it is just watching a bunch of nature documentaries. Even a little knowledge goes a long way. Being able to identify major species is a must.


  1. Having shot such an incredible number of frames each day did you prefer using many many smaller memory cards or fewer larger capacity cards? I've taken photography classes in the past but my level of knowledge is still that of a beginner. I live in South Africa and am hoping to do a safari this winter.

  2. Go big. Changing cards is a pain in the field. If you're using smaller capacity, you can bet you'll need to change at a critical moment in the action. I wish I'd had more 4GB cards, rather than a bunch of 2GB ones. With higher res cameras, I'd even be tempted up to 8GB. I reckon I'd want to shoot at least 300 frames per card.


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