Photography Tips: Post Safari

I’ve learned a few valuable things after my first official photo safari adventure. I’ve done a lot of travel photography – visiting Italy many times, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc. However, a photo safari is a unique beast, pun intended. I made a blog post before our workshop on some general travel tips, and thought it would be great to follow up with some Safari specific tips that may be useful to others looking to embark on such an adventure in the future. 

One of the tips I gave previously was to rent a lens that is appropriate to your type of trip. I decided that a 200-400mm f4.0 lens would be just about right for the subject and distances I would be shooting from. I rented one from LensProToGo and it was the best decision I could have made. The lens was perfect for almost every situation and with the addition of my own 1.7x teleconverter I was able to capture even the most distant subjects with extreme clarity. I only needed the teleconverter on a few occasions, however, and the 200-400 worked beautifully by itself. This is one amazingly sharp lens!

If you decide to go on a photo safari, find out what type of vehicle you’ll be shooting from. Generally, due to park rules and safety common sense, you cannot get out of the vehicles. So, plan for shooting accordingly. The type of vehicle you’ll be in depends on the region you visit. In South Africa, most of the vehicles are Landcruisers or Land Rovers with no tops and stadium style bench seats. These are great because you have unrestricted views in nearly all directions. In other regions you’ll be in a standard Cruiser or Rover shooting out the windows. When you shoot out windows, a bean bag type support is needed so you can rest the camera on the window ledge.

The safari vehicle. Love them Landcruisers!

In our vehicles, however, I found that a monopod worked really well for being able to quickly reposition from front to left to right. I could be in the middle seat and have access to animals on either side of the vehicle. A tripod doesn’t really work because you have no space to set it up – unless you pull the legs in and use it as a “monopod”. 

Don't try this at home! Standing up while viewing animals is a no-no. This was during a guide-approved rest stop. 

I brought a giant Tamrac camera backpack with me to haul all my gear. Bringing that bag in the vehicle, however, really wasn’t practical due to space limitations. So, I left the big bag in our room (ensuring the windows were closed to prevent monkeys from adopting stuff, like they did with the shoes of another guest) and I brought a small Tamrac camera bag on the vehicle with a few essentials. I didn’t want to change lenses very often, being in the dusty, bumpy environment, so I kept a wide-angle zoom on my second camera body sitting on the seat next to me. I could quickly grab that when an elephant decided to approach the vehicle and give us a proper distance warning. Phew.

My main camera was my Nikon D800, which I grew to love even more than I already had. The cutting edge Nikon has massive file sizes, which initially concerned me (see my review of the D800 vs. D600), but I soon realized the benefit of the full-sized sensor and high resolution. As with most full-frame cameras, you can use your lenses designed for full-frame cameras, or DX lenses – those designed specifically for smaller sensors. When you use a DX lens, you essentially are cropping in camera to use only the center part of the sensor. With lower resolution cameras, this gives you a lower resolution image, which may not be sufficient for large prints. With the D800, you get a whopping 36.2 MP image with standard lenses, and a perfectly useable 15 MP image when cropping with DX lenses. This means I could use my 10.5mm fisheye DX lens and my highly versatile 18-200mm zoom on the same body and still get high-resolution images. Awesome.

Video shooters can be really excited about the D800 too because when you use a DX lens (like the 10.5mm fisheye) the crop factor doesn’t even come in to play and you get the same field of view and high resolution video – as though it were shot on a DX camera body. 

I shot quite a few HDR sequences out under the African sun and my D800 was perfect for hand-held HDR capture. Ideally, you want to capture at least 5 frames – each 1 f-stop apart, for a nice HDR. Ideally, you should also be on a tripod – but as I mentioned, I didn’t use one. Hand held capture works great if you hold relatively still and capture the 5 frames quickly. The key to doing that is to use the auto-bracketing feature of your camera. The D800 allows for up to 9 frames of auto-bracketing. I programmed my custom function button to be a “bracket burst” – meaning that when I’m in bracket mode I can hold that button while I press the shutter once and the 5 bracketed exposures are captured in a quick burst. Sweet. 

I then used HDR Efx Pro 2 or Photomatix Pro to create the HDR image. Even if there is some slight hand movement between captures, you can make them perfect with a little pre-processing trick. (tomorrow I’ll post a review of 4 HDR software programs and the HDR processing tips).

Even though most people anticipate the “Big 5” when embarking on a safari, you can’t forget the “Little 5” as well! Yes, there actually exists the itty bitty Rhinoceros Beetle, Buffalo Weaver, Elephant Shrew, Leopard Tortoise, and the Ant Lion. These, of course, necessitate the macro lens or something that close focuses! Some of the most fascinating creatures we saw were spiders and beetles that could fit in the palm of your hand – not that you’d want them there.

Beauty in the little things. Bring a close-up lens!

Traveling light is really important when you have photography gear to schlep along with your standard personal paraphernalia. I had two different DSLRs, 3 different compact cameras, a helmet cam, a flash unit, and an audio recorder – each with their own separate battery types, and of course, chargers. Instead of bringing the dedicated charger for each device, I got this universal battery charger to work with ALL my different batteries. I then packed only the dedicated charger for my D800 (since it would be charged most often) and the universal charger and had everything covered. For my next trip, I’m ordering a second universal charger (since they are only $20!) and just bringing those two chargers.

I carry large heavy duty garbage bags in my camera bag. Yes, it could rain at any time. No, I’m not going to stop shooting because of it.

Speaking of my audio recorder. One of the most amazing sensations of being in the jungle, is the sound of the jungle. The birds, monkeys, lions, elephants, hippos, rhinos, and other mystery beasts all make beautiful music together. I loved lying in bed at night and listening to the symphony of sounds just outside our glamping tent. I kept my Zoom H1 audio recorder on the nightstand so I could quickly turn it on whenever a particularly interesting chorus awoke me. This makes great background music for your post-trip slideshows.

Do you have any great travel tips? Share them here!