African Safari Photography & Safari Photography Tips
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When you go on your African safari, don’t
forget your camera. But which camera or camcorder is best for an
A video of your African
safari experience is certainly a great way to keep the memories lasting,
but also take a good camera on your African safari. The small size
functionality of cameras today are perfect for African safaris. Below
are a few things to consider when choosing which photographic equipment to bring on your safari.
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this page, James offers his personal advice and ideas for
anyone wanting to come home with the best possible images
(digital, film and video) of their African safari...
strongly encourage anyone interested in taking quality wildlife
images on your African safari to invest in a digital SLR (single
lens reflex) camera. I do not recommend point-and-shoot cameras as a primary camera for a safari, but having one in your pocket throughout any type of travel, including a safari, is a great for those times when carrying your SLR is not practical. That said, many of the new "all-in-one" (ie,
no removable lens) digital cameras will get you some excellent
shots, as the animals are often within close enough range of
the vehicle for these cameras to capture good images.
My next suggestion may be impractical for most, but here it is anyway: bring 2
cameras. Even if you bring a smaller, less functional backup, if something happens
to your ONLY camera on your African safari, you will lose out on
some of your enjoyment. At least if you have some backup with you, you can still
record images. The best is to have two good cameras - put a lens on each and
use them both! This is my suggestion and is really just insurance for most
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(James' Equipment and James'
is an approximation of the percentage of images I have made with
various focal lengths over the past few years:
over 400mm: 15%
Keep in mind that I travel with quite a bit of heavy camera equipment. But this
is not necessary to get most images. I take some large lenses (like a 600mm f/4)
mainly for birds. You can get excellent images of the
majority of the wildlife if you travel with one or two of the wide-range zoom
lenses available. If you can get one, I suggest having a zoom that will get you
up to 400mm with auto-focus capability. This will allow you to take advantage
of virtually every photo opportunity from your vehicle. You won't be disappointed.
A 300mm lens will also suffice, but 400 would be better.
Be sure to read
the sections on: 1) image stabilization lenses; 2) image
magnification and Field of View Crop.
Camera / Lens Purchases: I
recommend that you spend your money
first on a good lens and second on a camera. By this I mean that it's
slightly more important to have a quality lens than it is to have a quality
camera. Cameras are really just a box that captures light. Of
cameras include software, different sizes and quality sensors, autofocus
and metering systems, and other technology built in, but in the
just a box.
Lenses, on the other hand, vary significantly
in quality based on the optics. The term optics describes the glass,
which may be many different elements or lenses inside, all working
together. The quality of a lens' optics will vary depending upon the
manufacturing process, the coatings used on the glass, etc. The point
is that the quality of your images will be more affected by using "poor
lenses) than by using an inexpensive camera. In other
words, if you put a $1500 lens on a $300 camera, you’ll likely
get images of significantly superior quality to images taken with a $1500 camera
and a $300 lens.
Furthermore, the pace of new camera introduction
is far quicker than it is for new lenses. To illustrate this point,
I used the same 300mm f/2.8 lens with 4 different cameras during a 10-year span on safaris. Also, the quality of the digital sensors used today
is so good, that using a high-quality lens is even more important than it ever was with
a film SLR. This
is because lens aberrations are much more likely to be picked up by these
sensitive digital sensors than by film emulsion, which was more "forgiving" in
sure you have screw-on filters attached to all of your lenses. You can
use a daylight filter which blocks
UV light without
color of your images. I used to use warming filters on my lenses
when I shot film, but shooting in digital Raw mode, I just leave my white balance setting on "Auto" almost all the time and then make any needed corrections to an image's white balance using Camera Raw software. I recommend
the UV or clear filter as protection for your lenses. A scratch on the
on your lens! Use filters! You may also want to consider a circular polarizing
filter. These filters cut the reflections on water or glare from
the harshest light
rays. Polarizing filters are most effective when shooting at 90 degrees
from the angle of the sun. The filter will darken a light blue
however, be careful as these filters can also overly darken an
image if too much
polarization is applied.
Support: I have taken
many tens of thousands of images on African safaris and my techniques
for getting the best shots have changed slightly over the years.
has always been the same - to find the most effective way of taking
sharp, well exposed images. The main problem you will face
in shooting wildlife from a safari vehcile is finding the best way to steady your camera. The problem
becomes more pronounced when using longer focal-length lenses.
I have used all
conceivable techniques (I believe), including home-made mounts
that affixed to the side of the Land Rovers. Today, I use a good beanbag
(I take my own but the vehicles usually have extras) and a tripod.
I set the tripod up
the floor beside me (2 legs on floor and the 3rd leg into the seat) and, with a ball head or gimbal (I use a Wimberley, which
pans and adjusts to any angle); this gives me a wider range of
sight than the fixed
door mount. It works well.
For anyone not using a very large lens (ie, if you can hand-hold
your camera without struggling from the weight) a beanbag will
work best. I
encourage you to bring a beanbag (empty - you can fill it with
sand when you arrive in the camp) or two. If you are using a small
point and shoot,
most of this does not apply - but again, I urge you to bring an SLR
camera if you can afford
one or borrow one.
Image Stabilization Lenses: If
you're considering purchasing a new lens, I would strongly advise you to
consider one which offers image stabilization. Both Canon and Nikon offer
image stabilization lenses covering a wide range of focal lengths.
the use of some solid form of support (tripod, beanbag, etc) is essential
to hold the camera completely still while you take your shot (especially
with larger/heavier lenses); otherwise you risk
which can be the result when hand-holding a camera. The
rule of thumb when hand-holding a camera is to use a shutter speed that
is at least as fast as one
lens. For example,
if you are trying to handhold a camera with a 200mm lens, you will need to
have the shutter speed set for 1/200 or faster in order to maintain sharp
Using an image-stabilized
lens (Nikon calls their version Vibration Reduction) permits safe hand-holding
(ie, no tripod
or other support needed) at up to two full f/stops (Nikon claims three)
slower shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible, and since they make
hand-holding so practical, it's easy to
shoot quickly and follow rapidly moving subjects. What this really means
is that some images which would otherwise turn out blurred or slightly out of
focus can often be captured in perfect focus using these lenses. Two recommendations
for an IS/VR lens on an African safari are
the Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D and the Canon EF 100-400mm
IS USM. Neither is inexpensive, but both offer a wide range of focal
length and are great if you want to bring just one lens.
important -- Do not miss those to-die-for images because your
batteries have gone dead. I use rechargeable battery
packs with my cameras and rechargeable AA's with my flashes.
First things first, the electrical voltage in Southern Africa is 220V (versus
110V in the US). Do
NOT bring a re-charger from home without having purchased
and tested a voltage converter or you will irreparably damage your
is NO batteries.
Many of the camps do sell batteries, but DON'T count on it
- bring your own!
My suggestion: use rechargeable's. Purchase a voltage
converter (they are available at Radio Shack and all over
the internet by mail order),
bring several sets so you can swap them when they run out.
I suggest two sets for your camera (three is better still).
camps have recharging stations and some even have multiple plug points inside the tents - check with us to be sure for your itinerary. You always want to have a charged
set PLUS a backup set for each game drive. Remember - check
device you have and be sure it accepts 220V - if not, you'll
need the converter. Note that some recharge units can
accept an optional 220V accessory plug with the converter
built in. See our links page for
our source for batteries.
DIGITAL STORAGE / FILM
images are initially stored onto removable digital flash media in your camera. For
many cameras, this media is in the form of CompactFlash (CF) memory cards. There
are other formats of flash memory used (Secure Digital (SD), XQD, and others), but the same principles apply to all, so I will use CompactFlash/CF
Cards interchangeably with all digital flash memory for this discussion.
much digital storage to bring depends on several factors.
1. How many digital images you will make.
2. The size of the digital images (ie, how much storage space each
image takes). This is determined by your camera settings (ie, JPEG
Fine, JPEG medium, Raw, etc.)
3. Whether you will edit images (ie, delete shots you don't want)
during your trip.
How many CF cards will you need?
CF cards come is varying sizes (note that the
physical size of the card is generally the same, but the digital storage
size differs). CF cards are available in several denominations by Gigabyte
(GB) of storage space (1 Gigabyte = 1,000 Megabytes). If your
images are 12MB in size each and you use a 16GB CF card, then you will
be able to take and store approximately 1,333 images (16,000
÷ 12) on this CF card. At this point, the card is full
and you'll have to remove your CF card from your camera and
put in an unused card before you can continue taking pictures.
you plan to make more images than will fit on the sum total of all
your CF card space, then you'll have to bring along additional storage
in the form of a laptop, external hard drive(s), or specialized digital
Additional Digital Storage
Bringing additional storage devices allows you
to upload your digital images from the CF card to the storage device. Once
the images are safely stored onto the storage device, the CF card
can be re-formatted (erased) and subsequently re-used in your camera
to store more images. This process is then repeated each time
the CF card is full. In this way, your CF cards may be used
more than once during your trip.
Commonly used digital storage devices
1. Laptop Computer - The advantages are that you can
edit your images on the laptop's screen and upload images onto the laptop's
hard drive (or portable hard drive - see #2 below). The disadvantage
is that a laptop adds significantly to the amount of gear you are brining
will also need to purchase a CF Card Reader device (USB and Firewire readers
are available) to upload your images. The card reader is plugged
into your laptop and the CF card is inserted
into the card reader. This allows you to copy images from the CF
card to your laptop's hard drive (just like a CD drive is required to play
or copy data from a CD).
2. Portable Hard Drive - A portable hard drive is basically
the same as the hard drive that exists inside a computer (usually 2.5-inch
laptop-type hard drives are used for this portable variety), only these
drives are enclosed in a protective housing and have a power switch and
data transfer ports (either USB, Firewire or both) so you can connect
them to a computer.
main advantages of portable hard drives are that they
are compact (usually about 5.5" x 3.5" x 1") and can hold LOTS
of images -- up to 2,000GB or more. The
disadvantage is that you will require a computer in order to transfer images
onto these drives. This is because they are simply hard drives; they do
not have a card reader built in.
The fact that these drives require a
computer to use them defeats their purpose for many, but if you are
bringing a laptop, this will allow you to avoid filling up your laptop's
hard drive AND allow you to make backup
your images on two separate drives (highly recommended if at all possible
for obvious reasons). This is the data storage option I use.
photo equipment for African Safaris.
3. Custom Storage
To meet the demands of the growing digital photography travel market,
several new compact products have come to market. In essence,
this type of device is a portable hard drive with a built-in card
reader. Some of the devices in this category include
a viewing screen (usually 3 to 4 inches) so that you can use
it to edit images. Keep
in mind that images viewed on such a small screen may be difficult
to edit critically. Other devices in this category include
the built-in card reader, but not the viewing screen. These
custom storage devices may be the perfect answer for those who want
additional data storage without having to lug around a laptop.
I can recommend the following products
in this category:
Sanho HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA2 Storage Viewers. The HyperDrive storage devices include 3.5-inch (480 x 320 pixel) QVGA color LCD screens and comes in several models with storage capacities up to 1TB. They accept Compact Flash (CF), Secure Digital (SD, SDHC, SDXC and MMC. Power comes from a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery. The HyperDrives will read JPEGs and Raw files (Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic and Pentax) and also include a wireless adapter, allowing the hard drive contents to be accessible from iOS, Android, any WiFi capable device or an FTP client. The HyperDrive also connects to your computer using a USB interface. Included software will recover lost or accidentally deleted photos from memory cards.
Wolverine Pic-Pac Portable Backup. The Wolverine models are currently available in sizes up to 1TB. The Wolverine's do not have an image viewer and as a result, they are much more affordable. The built-in 11-in-1 memory card slot accepts just about every card type available. Additional cards can be read with an optional adapter. The Wolverine connects to your computer using a USB interface. These units use rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries.
Nexto DI Storage Viewers. The Nexto DI models ship without a hard drive. A user can install a 2.5" Serial ATA (SATA) hard disk drive with 9.5mm height. The units support hard drives up to 2TB. The Nexto can connect to your computer using USB and Firewire 800. The built-in 3-in-1 memory card slot accepts CF, SD, SDHC and SDXC card types. It uses a rechargeable Lithium Poly battery.
Digital ISO has replaced film speed, with
the advantage that one can change ISO speeds at any time. The same basic principles apply as did with
film, in that the slower ISO speeds generally produce images with less noise (artifacts or other aberrations in the image)
at the expense of having to use slower shutter speeds.
Regarding ISO on digital cameras...
Generally speaking, as you increase the ISO, you’ll find that the image
colors tend to lose a bit of their saturation (i.e., get “duller”)
and contrast is lowered. At the extreme, it can result in the equivalent of
a 2-bit or higher reduction in individual color values, which is easily seen
in images. Note however that the top camera companies are using image sensors which are more and more accurate (less noise) at higher and higher ISO's. For example, the new Nikon D3 camera, which uses a Sony sensor, is able to produce extremely accurate and low-noise images at ISO's up to 1600 and above.
Here’s how ISO values are created:
My camera (the Nikon D4) uses a “native” ISO
of 100 (it’s the lowest ISO setting on the camera). All ISO values
above 100 are created by amplifying the image data coming into the Analog-to-Digital
(ADC) converter. In other words, the sensor always works at the1200 sensitivity,
but underexposed data values coming from the photosites (on the sensor) are
boosted by an amplifier to produce higher ISO values. This means that minor
differences in the light values received between the many photosites on the
sensor get magnified and may become visible (creating “noise”).
Imagine taking a picture and let's focus only on two adjacent photosites on
your camera's digital sensor. Next imagine that the tiny part of
detail in your image that is captured by these two neighboring photosites
is 195 light photons by the first and 200 photons by the other. This difference
is insignificant when these are near-black or very dark values and end
up getting interpolated by your camera's software into, say, a pixel value
of 12,12,12 (ie, Red, Green, Blue color values) versus 12,13,12. But if
these values are being amplified several times and they now represent middle
gray instead of black or very dark, the difference may be significant (ie,
125,125,125 versus 125,135,125). This later difference in the pixel
colors will likely be noticeable.
My ISO suggestions (to optimize image quality):
1. Use lower rather than higher ISO settings whenever possible (ie, such that you are
able to get sharp images based on the light and lens combination).
to the right (to the right refers to the right side of an image's histogram).
By this, I mean lean towards OVER-exposure without actually blowing out the
important highlights completely (ie, making them go 100% white, with no edge
detail at all).
the reason: Digital camera sensors capture light in a linear fashion. Our eyes
do not. A scene with twice the number of photons reaching the camera's sensor
appears twice as bright; with our human eyes, this scene appears brighter,
but not nearly twice as bright. If it did, we’d
experience overload when we move from shade to bright sunlight. Thus, our
eyes see light in a non-linear way... and this is what a gamma curve is intended
to do... model human vision.
use 12 bits (some now 14 bits) to encode the capture, producing 4,096 levels (2 to the 12th power)
and effectively capture 6 stops of dynamic range. With linear capture, this
means that one-half of those levels (2,048) are devoted to the brightest
stop, half the remainder (1,024) to the next brightest stop, half the remainder
(512) to the next brightest stop and so on. The darkest stop, in the extreme
shadows, is represented by only 64 levels. Thus, if you underexpose (to avoid
blowing out highlights) you are wasting a lot of bits (image detail) that the camera can
capture (as the most detailed info is in the brightest stop).
To further illustrate, if you underexpose by
just one stop, you are essentially wasting 2,048 bits of data and capturing
only 2,048 (instead of 4,096). You are stretching only 2,048 bits across the
histogram instead of 4,096... Thus, less digital information is captured than
would have been if you had used proper exposure and therefore image quality
400 is actually quite close to 200 in quality; so don’t
be afraid to use it. I use ISO 400 quite often just to make sure I have the
extra shutter speed (to get tack-sharp images). The slight increase
in noise from 200 to 400 is usually nothing to worry about.
4. Use ISO 800 and above only
when you really need the increased shutter speed, but expect a slight loss
of color saturation and increased noise in large color blocks, such as skies.
A properly exposed ISO 800 image is far better than an underexposed image at
ISO 400. Underexposure at this ISO level will definitely introduce substantial
noise in the shadows that you would not find at lower ISO’s.
ISO's above ISO 800 will usually require some post-processing work to eliminate
the noise (although the new Nikon's are pushing this level up to ISO 1600 and more). You’ll also likely have to perform color
correction and contrast adjustments. If possible, opt for longer shutter speeds
rather than increasing the ISO.
6. Note that on the newer highest-end professional DSLR's, ISO 800 is the new baseline and images at this ISO are usually sufficiently "clean" (ie, no visible noise) and require little to no post-processing work.
IMAGE MAGNIFICATION / FIELD OF VIEW CROP
This topic may be a bit confusing, but important, especially if you are using a camera which does not have a "Full-frame sensor"...
Many of today's digital SLR's use an
imaging chip (CCD or CMOS) that is about 40 percent smaller than a 35mm
Nikon refers to its version of this smaller sensor as a DX sensor and I will use that terminology to represent all such smaller sensors in the following discussion. The results of DX sensors being used in a digital SLR is
"field of view crop" or lens magnification factor of 1.3 to 1.6
(depending upon the camera) times the focal length of the lens being used. I will not attempt
to explain the physics of the
is true, but suffice it to say that the smaller sensors use only the center
2/3 portion of the image created by the lens.
Therefore, the effective focal length of the lens increases
by about 50% when used on a digital SLR with a DX sensor.
As an example,
lens on a DX digital body with a 1.5 crop factor, the lens will have a field of view of 120-300mm
and a 300mm lens on that same camera effectively becomes a 450mm lens and so on. The effective aperture
(maximum f/stop) remains the same. The effective extra magnification
can be either good or bad (if you want wide angle shots, the additional
focal length is undesirable), depending on your needs.
Most African safari photographers will
usually benefit from additional focal length, since good quality telephoto
are both expensive and heavy to lug around on African safaris and we
all wish we had a bit more magnification to get closer to our wild
A few final comments:
obvious benefit of all this is that since a digital sensor is capturing
only the middle portion of the image,
will (should) be better (all other things remaining equal) since
camera lenses typically have better optical performance (sharpness
and contrast) at their centers
than at their outer edges.
For those photographers who would still like to be able to get those beautiful wide angle landscape or people shots (this includes me), the additional focal length is not always good news. A 20mm ultra-wide lens becomes a not-so-wide 30mm lens. Canon and Nikon now make ultra-wide zooms designed specifically for the smaller sensor cameras.
Finally, there are several digital SLR cameras (Canon EOS-1DS, EOS-1DS Mark III, Canon EOS 5D, Nikon D3 and Nikon D700, and others) which offer a “full frame” digital sensor. These cameras have 24x36mm image sensors (the same size as a frame of 35mm film) without any field of view crop (focal length multiplier). Simply put, a 16-35 mm lens on a “full-frame” digital SLR’s will provide the exact same field of view as it would on a “traditional” SLR with film. Note that these are top-of-the-line cameras — not inexpensive.
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(James' Equipment and James'
on Africa was selected most knowledgeable
Regional Expert for Southern Africa / Safaris by
National Geographic Traveler Magazine,
20th Anniversary Special Issue.