They shoot, mostly finding their target. They sometimes miss their targets. They very often end with breathtaking trophies‚ to show for their efforts. Wildlife photography is an extremely popular sport-cum-art ‚ much more, if all participants are counted, than hunting!
The joy of it is that you may, without the legislative constrains, aim at a much, much greater variety o ftargets, having less weight to carry afterwards, less red tape, much less expenses and still doing the same route, with much the same amount of enjoyment on the way. Yeah, it's a safari, all right!
Photographers have the freedom to shoot any of the almost 400 species of mammals, 800 species of birds, 20 000 species of flora, an absolute uncountable number of insects and reptiles, let alone the scenic heavens, mountains, rivers and fields which won't object a single time to do the background artistry.
Wildlife photographers may decide for themselves the league in which they wish to compete against the hunter which have to obey the ballistic rule of the thumb. Which means that you may shoot the biggest elephant with the most tiny little photo graphical junk if you like. And just the same you may do the photo of your live on the little white bird taking off from a submerging hippo (if you have the right equipment).
As with everything, the better your knowledge of the subject, the greater your encounters become. Knowledge of the bush, the animals or the surroundings, combined with knowledge of your equipment, will yield one of the most satisfying sporting experiences anyone could wish for. Interested in an Eco-safari, armed with your camera? Prepare yourself for one of the most richly rewarding experiences!
Of course, a full photographic course can't be given here. But it will serve the interest of many aspiring safari-going tourists to have a few hints about the use of a camera in the bush, especially coming from a source who have had the good, the bad and the ugly experiences in this regard!
We will share some information on this topic covering some practical hints about both the conventional and digital cameras, and covering also some information about the use of the videocameras/camcorders, lighting, lenses, filters, film and tripod's.
We would like to draw the attention to the fact that some magazines, like the very readable Nature Wildlife and Safari Magazine, that covers exactly this topic as it's leitmotiv or even great tourist guiding magazine's like Getaway, that almost always features articles on South African wildlife photography.
Hints when setting off into the wild, camera in hand
- Plan the shots you would like to take (for example, if it is action photo's of running wildlife, you won't fit 100 A S A film, but 400 A S A into the camera) and make a list of the equipment needed.. Although this is obvious, the excitement of the safari may tempt people to forget that good planning needs to be done on the equipment side as well. A forgotten tri-pod or a flat camera-battery can't easily be replaced deep in the bush. And bring along enough film, you may never know what scenery is waiting around the next bush.
- Always have the camera well-cleaned and well-covered. Even the sandy bushveld in South Africa, have it's own fine dust (let alone the red powder-dust of some places). When the big wheels of the 4 x 4 vehicles are turning, or the zebra's are running flat out in a herd, equipment may become very dirty if not enclosed in a dust proof bag. What's more: South Africa, even in wintertime, can become very hot. Heat will damage all conventional film and even most digital equipment (if, for instance, left in closed vehicles for a long time). Always make provision for protection in this regard, even if it only means to open the car window a centimeter or two to cool of the vehicle. A cooler box with some softening inside, may even be the best camera-bag in South Africa! Even using your sleeping bag to protect your film isn't such a bad idea for those that haven't earlier made provision for the heat.
- Light-readings of cameras may not be as accurate in the bushes where shadow, light and dust intermingle, and, if shots are done very professionally, it even may be necessary to bring along a second meter. Because of the fact that the camera-person and hunter may be together on the same mission, or simply because of the absolute silence that may sometimes be needed in order to prevent a rare specie to take flight, or because of the rough terrain, all settings should be done as early as possible. Once the beautiful animal is flashing his magnificence, one may experience the same fever as hunters do. This simply means messing up the shot because of the excitement of the moment, not finding the right settings, making a stupid noise or realizing too late that the film hasn't lock in because of a over eagerness.
- Animals are best shot on film at your well-known shutter speed of 250th of a second. This is because they mostly will be photographed standing still. If you are using 35 mm film (which is freely available in South Africa), an A S A film of 100 will do just great. Doing shots of running game out of a helicopter will naturally be another matter! (Quicker shutter-speeds and higher A S A!)
- Plan each shot in advance, for all almost professional hunters will be perfectly at peace with the idea of taking you to a terrific scene to facilitate that awesome shot you planned. Communicate your planned photographic needs as part of your safari's formal agreement with the outfitter.
- Except for ray-lighting scenes or profile shots at dawn and at sunset, take early photo's always with your back as much to the east as possible and late afternoon shots with your back as much to the west as possible. This will ensure crisp, sharp-edged photo's.
- Early morning dawn scenes, as well as sunset scenes in South Africa amounts to the best of photos one could hope to take. It is also the best times to encounter animals at their natural best (for instance, on their way to the waterhole). Now the animals can be photographed in bright sunlight, while in the middle of the day they may be lying in the shade.
- When clouds forms part of the sky, the most magnificent sunset pictures will be taken. A fully overcast day is also a good day to take great pictures: simply adjust your shutter speed somewhat (to achieve 250 th/s again). Most modern cameras will do that automatically once it is set. Although this may not always be possible, remember that, generally speaking, photos of game comes out better where the horizon features as part of the photo.
- An open space near a waterhole may be a excellent place to cover with your lenses in search of that photo of a life-time. But take care if you are taking a hideout: where will the grueling sun be shining in a hour or two's time? In which direction can the wind be expected to blow? The golden rule is: stay downwind from the direction you are planning to photograph. (To determine wind direction, throw some dust into the air or hold in the air some good old toilet paper, not a bad thing to take along in any case). Animals are excellent to pick up a scent, and you may be excused if you thought that your sunshine lotion will be just the thing to take along. If you want to smoke, take a good seat at the safari campfire and do magazine-hunting, because animals will smell a Camel for a mile or three! (In strong down-winds, you may still have a slight chance to fool them. But be careful: game reserves usually have long grass that may easily set on fire, and no cigarette look nice in the natural bush.)
- If you and your camera are left alone to take the prized photo, have you brought along some drinking water?
- Try to understand the animal behavior. They are reacting in common sense: if they keep on looking nervous and avoiding the water, it may be, of course because of a wonderful hyena catch about to happen. Or it may simply be that they can see through your stakeout!
- The use of a car as a hideout isn't such a bad idea, provided it is parked in the shade with fresh air running through. This isn't because the animals will think it is a stone, or can't smell your oil leakage, but because it is in a motionless state long enough to calm them and give you space to get your picture. Your movement inside the car will not be easily picked up and your noises will be fainter. But don't park your vehicle in the natural footpaths or walkways of the animals. Mrs. Elephant may have had a bad day!
- Always avoid artificial structures or objects in your picture. Humans aren't artificial at all, provided that they don't stand with the video camera, tri-pod or camera bag in their hands!
- Be as quite as possible for as long as possible. Animals that have seen you, may overcome their fear, or be inquisitive enough to pose for your calendar shot, but that's the odd ones. Even a lion may choose to avoid a human-infected waterhole!
- Game in the Kruger National Park may be quite used to vehicles, but it may be different at other reserves or game farms. A slow drive and gradual stop, without switching off the vehicle, may give you the best change to do your pic out of a vehicle. Sudden noises or movement is the surest way to loose that beautiful photo you could have taken.
- Be on the alert if any animal have a young one with her/him. Motherhood in nature is typified by the instinct to fend off ALL danger, even if it means killing the intruder. A very good photo still isn't worth a human life. Also, watch out for older or injured animals, often recognized by their solitary wandering. The rule is: don't disturb the animals you are privileged to see.
- A car's windscreen is as good as NO Protection against an ivory teeth or even a lion's paw. It won't happen easily if unprovoked, however. But don't try to photograph the colour of the eyes with a 35 mm lens !
- Animals may be inquisitive. It may also be the most dangerous ones that don't need to fear others, that dares to come closest. But, if you see a lion coming right to your car, just close the windows and stay put. Don't make sudden movements and don't become hysterical inside or try to better the quarter mile record. On the other hand, it is best to move out of an elephant's way if it draws near. But if it isn't trumpeting or shaking it's ears, you are still fairly save. And if it does become wild and noisy, there will usually be quite enough time to move away, because most elephant's will behave in such a way to chase away irritating disturbances. It is only saying that you are in the way or too close for comfort.
- Birds are sensitive to unknown disturbances. You may cause a bird to leave a young one in a nest permanently because it was disturbed by a camera flash or an unknown odour.
- To avoid taking photos into strong light that grants only the silhouette of the object that was photographed, overriding the exposure meter by a stop or two (to open the lens longer) may help. Modern cameras will have some manual switch which have to be used in this instances. Remember that the background will then be over-illuminated. And, on the other hand, if the silhouette scene is the one your'e looking for, quickening the exposure meter manually may do the trick.
- Remember to stay sober in case of a highly exciting scene. A few lions taking down a buffalo may be out of this world, of course, but 36 expensive photo's of the same thing may, in the end, not be what you planned to do with your film. And in case you're working with a digital camera, you may ran out of bytes and not be able to do the leopard and the zebra around the next tree. (And OK, if you can load dozens and dozens of new memory cards or whatever and have them in the bag with you, go on, click-click, enjoy the day! But you may loose some time sorting them out on the laptop tonight while the others are enjoying the campfire)
- Any camera including a cheap one can take a prize-winning photo provided the owner knows how to handle it. Having some practice before the actual safari may help beginners in this regard. Mountain and scenery landscapes is, at any rate, best pictured by wide angle lenses, found in the cheapest of cameras (and, of course, by the most expensive ones as well).
- Some people store conventional film in a refrigerator to protect it from the heat. It is OK only if it isn't opened yet.
- Bring along a charger for electronic devices is great, but it may be that, in some areas, there's no common electricity available. And the South African power connections may vary to those that tourists are used to. Clear this beforehand with your outfitter and yes, bring along that spare battery!
- If photographing quality pictures is important to you, use the eyes as the focal point of your picture for closer shots. Many professional photographers had prefer the manual settings to that of an automatic ones. But these days, and definitely for most of us, an automatic focus will do quite well. Just remember that some grass of small branch may cause your automatic focus to play cat and mouse in a dense bush.
- Expensive equipment may be damaged by some of the outdoor activities. Take along only what is necessary, don't put any equipment on the open ground and don't wear it casually in a pocket or at a string if you aren't dead certain what may be waiting around the next bush. And there are some dangerous snakes, if not lions, to make you forget about equipment at some time.