Photography is one of the prime pleasures of a safari. Luckily, with advanced digital technology in recent years, photography has become much more user-friendly and offers many different options.
The first choice you must make on equipment is whether to go with an SLR (a camera body that can be equipped with different lenses) or a point-and-shoot camera. Point-and-shoot cameras have advanced to such a degree that excellent photographs are possible on safari. They offer the advantage of ease-of-use, compactness and affordability.
For the more serious photographer, SLRs offer, among other things, flexibility and enhanced speed. Because the technology is so advanced nowadays, one need not reach for the top SLR models to obtain great pictures. Unless your objective is to produce very large prints, any SLR available in the market with 12 megapixels or more will produce excellent results. Generally speaking, SLR prices increase with features such as more megapixels (which generally translate to increased resolution), higher speed (the ability to shoot more frames per second and/or faster auto-focusing ability), wider range of ISO (the ability to shoot in dark conditions without the aid of a flash), durability, etc.
With an SLR, a variety of lenses can be mounted on the camera body in order to capture a certain type of a shot. Now, the size of your SLR’s sensor comes into play here. There are SLRs with “full-frame” sensors and those with smaller sensors (called “APS-C” cameras). An APS-C camera has a “crop factor” associated with it. An APS-C camera with a crop factor of 1.6x, for example, when mounted with a 300mm lens, will produce a photograph equivalent to one produced with a 480mm lens (300 x 1.6) mounted on a camera with a full-frame sensor.
As a rule of thumb, a focal length of 400mm on a full-frame sensor is adequate to capture excellent close-up images on safari. If you were to only bring one lens, a zoom lens, due to its versatility, is recommended. There are popular models out there such as the 100 – 400mm zoom lens. Note that if you have an APS-C camera with a 1.6x crop factor, even a 70 – 300mm zoom lens would get you over the 400mm rule of thumb barrier.
For the more serious photographer, telephoto lenses with focal lengths of 500mm, 600mm and even 800mm are available at astronomical prices. But close-up images aren’t everything. Interesting landscape photos can be taken with wide-angle lenses (focal lengths ranging from 40mm down to the teens).
Extenders (sometimes called teleconverters) are an economical option to increase the focal length of your lens. 1.4x and 2.0x extenders are the current popular models. They increase the effective focal length of your lens by the respective multipliers.
Accessories should include a back-up rechargeable battery, a battery charger, a plug adaptor, a sufficient number of memory cards, a lens cleaning kit, and a camera bag. They could also include things such as a flash, a memory storage device, and monopod/tripod (discussed below).
On Safari (Technical Aspects)
Poor focusing and camera-shake are the two biggest factors resulting in poor images. There are situations in which auto-focus fails and you need to go to the manual-focus mode. These include photographing in bushy areas (the camera may focus on a tree branch instead of the animal) or in low-light or back-lit conditions. Camera-shake is the result of a combination of too slow a shutter speed and the actual shaking of the camera. As for shutter speed, for sharp images, the rule of thumb is that the shutter speed denominator should at least equal the focal length of the lens (for example, with a 400mm lens, the ideal shutter speed is 1/400th of a second or faster). In order to reduce camera-shake, a monopod or tripod may be considered. A monopod can be useful on game walks. A tripod can be useful in camp or at a waterhole. Neither is particularly helpful in a vehicle. For most situations, a bean bag is sufficient in minimizing camera-shake in a vehicle (consider The Pod www.thepod.ca).
There is no substitute for practicing and getting to know your camera set-up before going on safari. Experimenting with things such as manual-focus, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is paramount prior to your trip.
On Safari (Artistic Aspects)
Well-focused, razor-sharp photos of animals are exhilarating and what everyone is after. However, different types of shots can enhance the enjoyment of photography. With the ability to instantly review your photos and also delete them if you wish, why not experiment? Try different compositions, different angles, different depths-of –field, slowing the shutter speed on purpose to blur the image, etc. Remember, photography is intensely personal… there are only two types of photographs: the one you like and one you don’t.
A Final Word of Advice
As wonderfully enjoyable as photography is on safari, it isn’t the only aspect of a safari. Don’t lose yourself in photography at the expense of forgoing the entire safari experience. Soak in everything… away from the viewfinder at times.