Friday, August 8, 2008

Beginner's Guide To African Safari Photography

Male Lion, Tanzania

As advertised, now we are back and have had some time to take stock, thought I'd post a few thoughts on safari wildlife photography and what I learned over the two weeks we were shooting.

Before jumping in, though, let’s begin by saying that whatever your level of experience the good news is that you don't need the best equipment possible, but as always you do need to make the best of the equipment you do have available! That’s more of the point here rather than focusing on specific lenses, cameras or accessories, but having said all that then it is worth looking at renting equipment to supplement what you may already have because the better your technique, the more benefit you will get from higher-end equipment. More on that below.

Firstly, for a more detailed summary of the itinerary we followed, see S’s post here. Posted on this blog (July 08 archive) are some more posts covering our trip accomodations, travel and experiences.

Secondly, run, don't walk, to Andy Biggs' site. There's more good advice in here than you even realize, especially on first reading when it’s hard to figure out what’s important and what not. Print out the relevant stuff and take it with you. I did, and I picked-up more and more from these notes on each subsequent reading, especially after a day shooting and hence better understanding all the great points being made.

Thirdly, here are a few shots from the trip just to give an idea of what we, as average tourists with some photographic experience at least, were able to produce.

Starting with everyone’s favourite topic, equipment, then for those of you with a decent entry level or above DSLR (e.g. Canon Rebel or Nikon equivalent, say) then buy or rent the best lenses you can. Having just one decent lens with reasonable reach will get you further and faster than anything else you can invest in. Although we were reasonably well resourced in this regard, we did rent a camera body from where, as you might guess, lenses can also be found! This service worked well (there are several others out there on the web so you can shop around) and the price was very fair indeed; highly recommended, in short. Just using them as an example, three weeks for a Canon L 100-400 zoom will set you back some $150. Bearing in mind what you have just dropped on airfare, hotels etc. this is a small additional price to pay, and compared with the less-than-stellar kit lenses supplied with the Canon Rebel family, for example, you *will* see the difference. 100 to 400 mm gives you great flexibility and with current generation sensor performance being restricted to f4 or f5.6 as the widest aperture is really no big deal. Downsides? Weight is the only thing I can think of. If that’s a primary concern, look instead at lighter small aperture fixed lenses in the 200 to 400 range (yes, I think they rent teleconverters too so that can help deal with some of the loss of flexibility in going fixed.)

Key point: for those of you who bought a DSLR in the past couple of years, don't be afraid to push the ISO. My own camera is an aging 20D and I don't usually go beyond 400 ASA because I find the resulting noise is just too intrusive. On newer bodies (and here I only have experience with the 1D Mk III) however, 800 ASA looks like mine does at 200, a fact it took me quite a few days to get comfortable with. Therefore, and again following the sterling advice from Andy, try the following approach:

1) pick the required depth of field you want. I used anything from f5.6 up to f14 depending on how close/far the subject was and what I wanted to show. To help planning, I printed out a small set of example DOFs for 400 mm and kept those in my camera bag as reference. (Beats me why we need to do that and why camera manufacturers can’t just give the calculated answer in the view finder. They have all the necessary information to do the math after all.)

2) Since you are in aperture priority mode (right?), look at the shutter speed. If you are using a bean bag or similar then even with longer lenses you can get away with 1/100th if the subject is rock steady, but don't rely upon it, even when using lenses with stabilization. Reviewing my results, 1/200th upwards looked to be a more practical lower limit (except in limited situations) and that shutter speed + IS was able to handle both camera shake and the odd movements of the animals.

3) adjust your ISO setting to get within the above parameters while striving to keep it as low as possible.

While not foolproof, the above approach does get you some way there, and quite frankly I wish this had been my starting point from day one instead of having to learn the hard way, producing too many shots that were almost sharp … but not quite.

One other point: don't forget to constantly check all *3* parameters if you go down this road. Many cameras still don't show ISO in the viewfinder and I've lost count of how many frames I've messed up in the past with my 20D because I forgot to shift back from a high ISO setting I've used in poor light! (Kudos to Canon therefore for now including this on the 1D Mk III.)

It’s also important to watch your histograms and be prepared to regularly dial-in some exposure adjustment. There were a couple of days there where we were trying to shoot game that was set against a bright but grey sky. Getting anything exposed appropriately in those situations by just relying on the camera’s meter was very challenging, especially for high-contrast things like zebras and colobus monkeys!

If all these technicalities are more than you want to deal with then don't despair: Program or Auto Mode can work and work well, but again try to at least use the ISO setting to give youself the best chance of making the shot crisp and clear. (On some cameras you can set a range over which the electronics will use ISO settings to keep the other parameters within reasonable bounds.)

In very general terms, if the animal is in bright sun then 100 or 200 ISO is fine. For a beastie under a bush (or otherwise shaded) go to 400 ISO. If it's darker still or you are photographing a group of animals such as a pride of lions (where more depth of field is required to get the group sharp), move up to 640 or 800 in order to cause the camera to close down the aperture. Nope, it's not foolproof and it does require that 800 ASA is usable on your camera, but it should be better than just allowing the electronics to figure out all by themselves what it is that you are trying to do.

Only other thing to check out in advance and that is is what sort of focus mode your camera has. On Canon, it's basically AI Servo, which means the focusing will change as the subject moves, or Single Shot, where once set the focus stays where it is. More often than not, you want to focus on something and then recompose, especially if you want pictures that are something other than an animal front-and-centre of the frame, and trust me when I say "you do". Can you, for example, half-press the shutter to focus on something, move the camera to look at something much closer and see that it's not changing focus? You are in good shape if so, otherwise go back and read the manual until you know how to make that work right! Nothing, I repeat, nothing can really fix up a blurred photograph, and frankly getting the focus right is probably the most important thing you can learn even if the rest of shooting is done entirely on automatic settings.

One final recommendation: take something to back-up your files with. I carry a laptop to act as one place to cache pictures as well as a small Maxtor USB hard drive to provide a second level of safety. (It weighs just 5 ounces, has 300Gb storage and transfers data reasonably quickly.) We heard tell of someone who had been in Zanzibar coming back with some wonderful shots from a trip photographing the gorillas, who got their equipment stolen and lost the lot, pictures and all. Therefore, keep the back-up drive separately if you can, preferably in the room safe if you are out all day, and don’t take chances. Yes, many hotels have internet access in Tanzania but you will find it's a) relatively slow and b) relatively expensive ($10 for 30 minutes was the cheapest I found) so backing up to the net will not be a viable option. For a 10 day trip with two camera bodies, one each, we generated 40 Gbytes of still images, so at that level it’s also viable these days to buy extra memory cards and go that road, but frankly I just feel more comfortable with a layered approach of having files cached in more than one place.

On the creative side, try and think in advance what you want to show. Animals in their natural, enclosing environment or tight close ups? Action shots or posed stills? Take elephants, for example. After the first 10 shots of "large grey mammal standing in a field", try instead to photograph some impression of the animal you want to convey. Age and wisdom? Solidity? Family grouping? Candid? Alone in the wild? You get the picture ... (sorry, couldn’t resist). Take some time to browse the web and see what the pros have produced, and once more Andy comes up trumps with the galleries he has posted on his site providing a great starting point.

Lastly, have a great time, and don't forget to take the camera away from your face sometimes just to experience the magic of Africa! It's going to be a wonderful trip no matter how the shots work out so don't sweat-it unduly - it is meant to be a holiday after all!

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