So how do you make sure when you’re on safari that you get the shot instead of missing an opportunity? As a follow-up from my last post, Ten Seconds with a Leopard at the Masai Mara, here are my tips to succeeding as a contemporary ‘Great White Hunter’, so you can snare the Big Five – with a camera of course!
1. Carry a big gun!
Sorry, but you’re really going to need a telephoto lens of at least 300mm reach. While safari drivers such as our guide Edward will do their best to get you as close as possible to the action, it generally won’t be close enough to use a 200mm lens. Wildlife pros use even bigger guns – many close-ups are taken with pro 400–600mm lenses, which cost the same amount as your week in Kenya.
2. Better still, carry 2 guns!
I used an old Nikon body with an 80-200mm lens, plus a newer body with a 300mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter (which magnifies the reach of the lens), making it an effective 420mm lens. This way I can grab either camera as the appropriate opportunity arises and have an effective reach of 80mm to 420mm at any given time. Both lenses are ‘professional’ glass – while there are some single lenses that may cover that focal length, unfortunately most deliver soft images.
3. Know your guns.
You need to be familiar with these longer lenses (see #2) to know which one is the right one to be using when your subject comes into view. Before you go to Africa, head out to a zoo or wildlife park to practice and shoot some wildlife and birdlife so you get a feel for how they move. Remember that the longer the lens the faster the shutter speed you need. The rule of thumb is that you need to double the focal length to determine the shutter speed you need so that you don’t get blur from a too slow shutter speed. For example, in order to capture a sharp image, if your using a 300mm lens, your shutter speed should theoretically be above 1/600th of a second. The reason is that the longer the lens is the more easily that any movement is magnified by the lens.
4. Always keep your guns in the same holsters!
I always carry the same cameras slung over the same shoulders with the same lenses, no matter what. This means it’s a reflex action to select the correct camera/lens to use when I spot some wildlife. If the game is moving fast, you need to keep your eye on it as you bring your camera up to your eye. You don’t want to be looking down to figure out where the camera you need is at any given time.
5. Know how your guns focus.
With the new slew of DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras), there are lot of different settings for focussing. For moving animals you need to be able to ‘track’ focus, where the camera constantly refocuses, often called ‘servo’ or continuous focus. For animals that are static, I like to use single-servo focus, meaning that the camera focuses just once when you half-press the shutter release button.
6. Clean your guns.
Keep your lenses clean, camera sensors clean, batteries charged (I always have a couple of spares), and have plenty of fresh memory cards formatted and ready to pop straight in the camera. In dusty safari conditions, I’m in the tent every night cleaning, charging, downloading, and formatting (over gin and tonics) before and/or after dinner. Whatever it takes.
7. Have your guns ready at all times.
Once out on safari, I am constantly checking the light to ensure my cameras’ ISO, F-stop and shutter speed are tailored to the conditions. For example, first thing in the morning I’m generally shooting 1600 ISO, then 800 ISO as the sun gets higher, and 400 ISO after around 9am. The afternoon’s settings are a mirror-image of the morning’s as the light begins to fade, and by dusk I’m shooting 1600 ISO again.
8. Make sure you have plenty of ammo.
When there are lulls in between the wildlife action, check how many frames you have left on your memory cards. If you have less than 20 shots left, change your cards out for fresh ones – you never know when you’ll need a big burst of frames. If you run out of shots later in the day you can always swap the card back into the camera – using the system in the next point!
9. Have a foolproof system for storing your ammo.
Because I always wear the much-maligned but unbeatably practical ‘travel pants’ when I’m on safari or doing any kind of outdoorsy activities, I have plenty of pockets in which to put memory cards. Fresh cards go in the right lower pocket, ‘spent’ cards in the left zip pocket. Not fully-used cards go in the left lower pocket. When I get back to our holiday rental or hotel, all cards in the left pockets get downloaded. Anal retentive? Yes. Ever made a mistake with full/empty cards? Never.
10. It’s not just about the guns – talk to your guide and listen to him.
Finances permitting, try to hire your own guide when you go on safari – if you’re serious about taking photos, don’t go on safari in a group unless it’s a group of photographers! A professional guide will be used to working with photographers – both amateur and professional. If not, tell the guide that you need the sun behind you when you need the sun behind you, and try to organise your safaris or game drives so that you really take advantage of the early morning and late afternoon light. Talk to your guide and tell him exactly what it is that you want to see. Good guides want you to have the best experience, so take advantage of that.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy yourself. And don’t get too hooked up in the whole Big Five thing – if you do, you risk only getting a shot that looks like this…