for Travelers on Safari in Africa
(originally written April 2004, updated August 2005)
On a recent trip to Tanzania, I observed many people taking photos. Some of them had clearly done their homework and were well-equipped. Some were sad because they realized what a photographically-rich place they had come to and wished they had brought a better camera. Others seemed oblivious to the capabilities (or incapabilities) of their cameras and were shooting away happily producing garbage.
This article is meant to help anyone interested in being better prepared for taking photos on safari. You want images that you will be happy to look at and share when you get back home. After all, the best souvenir you can get on safari is not some wood carving or piece of cloth, but a great story. And pictures make stories so much more interesting!
What kind of camera should I use?
The next consideration should be the choice of film or digital. I've used both and now that I've used digital I'll never go back to film. Many people on safari go only once in their life. They spend a lot of money to experience the African bush and collect some exciting stories. A big part of relating those stories to their jealous friends and family back home is showing pictures. Film has the distinct disadvantage of giving no feedback while in the bush. You are taking pictures but you have little confidence in what you are really getting. You are plagued with questions. Is my exposure right? Is my camera working properly? Are my pictures sharp? Did I catch the lunge of the croc as it went for the wildebeest? Digital cameras, on the other hand, let you see what you have right away. You can adjust what you are doing and sleep better at night (unless the hippos are serenading you) knowing you got the shot. For all these reasons, I can now only recommend a digital camera for safaris. Most pros have switched to digital. If you haven't, the time has come.
What types of lenses do I need?
If you have chosen a Digital SLR, then I would recommend taking at least two lenses. If I could only take two they would be a wide angle to short telephoto zoom, and a short telephoto to long telephoto zoom. Many of the new affordable DSLRs come with lenses like 18-55 or 18-70mm zooms. These are fine for catching those beautiful landscapes and for when the cheetah climbs on the Land Rover. The second lens should cover the range from 70 or 80mm to 300 or 400mm. I'm a fan of Nikon equipment and one of my favorite safari lenses is the Nikkor 80-400 VR lens. It offers an awesome range of zoom and the vibration reduction built into the lens makes all the difference when you round a corner and only have 5 seconds to get a shot off without any camera support. Canon makes a 100-400mm IS lens that is also very nice. Of course these lenses are expensive. Cheaper alternatives are 70-300 zooms without image stabilization (consider using a beanbag for support) and lenses from 3rd party manufactrers like Tamron or Sigma.
I would really discourage the average photographer from using teleconverters. These devices increase the focal length of your lenses but do so at the expense of sharpness and the ability to autofocus in low light. They work best with very expensive non-zoom lenses. If you do insist on trying one, go for a modest 1.4X teleconverter and avoid the 2X and 3X models.
Finally, I would also warn you to be wary of the "super-zooms". These cover huge ranges like 28-200 or 28-300mm. Their optical performance is compromised to offer such a range, at least in the current generation of lenses.
What kind of film should I take?
How many megapixels do I need?
If you get a DSLR, the current models will all be in the 6 to 17 megapixel range, with the affordable models (sub $2000 USD) around 6 or 8 megapixels. The difference between 6 and 8 megapixels is hardly noticeable, so I would make a decision based on other features and build quality rather than megapixels. Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Olympus are all making DSLRs in the 6-8 megapixels range and all do a nice job.
How do I charge batteries on safari?
Most safari camps have electricity, but often it is provided by a generator and only on for limited hours. Take advantage of those hours. Having extra batteries and extra chargers is very helpful because you can have a set of batteries charging while you are out on a game drive, if that is when the camp runs its generator. Most of East Africa uses 220 or 240V AC power, so check to see that your chargers can handle this. The best chargers will have a label that says INPUT: 100-240V. These are designed for international use. You will encounter various plug styles, so be prepared that way as well. Ask your tour operator before you go what you will need. Often safari camps will be able to loan you a plug adapter, but not always.
How much digital memory should I take?
Is dust a problem?
Digital SLRs have the unfortunate problem that dust can get inside the camera and stick to the sensor. This means every photo will have faint spots where the dust is. This dust can be cleaned by various methods. None are easy to do, but if you are serious enough about your photos to buy a DSLR, you should take the time to research the subject of sensor cleaning. Personally, I like the products offered by www.visibledust.com.
How should I support my long lens in a vehicle?
Do you have any tips for technique?
2) To get your shutter speed up (to freeze motion), open up your aperture (go to low f-numbers) or increase your film speed (aka ISO, aka sensitivity). It's always a trade off. As a general rule, you should try to keep film speed as low as you can and the aperture in the middle of the range of values while still keeping your shutter speed up over 1/250th if you can. On digital cameras you get a record of all this data with every shot. Check it. Putting your camerea in Sports or Action mode should maximize your shutter speed.
3) Avoid shooting into the light. Look for the best shots to be on the side of the safari vehicle away from the sun. Sit on that side if you can.
4) Keep looking through your camera. Things happen fast and unpredictably. If you aren't ready, you won't get the shot.
5) Read my article on Composition.
What do you use?
What are good compact digitals to take?
Where should I go in Africa to get wildlife photos?
Taking photos on safari can be challenging and rewarding, frustrating
and exciting, disappointing and elating. Being prepared can make all
the difference. Hopefully this article has helped you think about
some of the important considerations before your trip. I'm happy to
add more information to this article, so keep the questions coming.
Try to make your questions specific if you can.
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