African safari is a vast ocean of photographic opportunities. Different countries have different topographies ranging from grasslands, deserts, forests, oceans, and a lot more, with equally diverse choice of subjects, which is not only wildlife but locals too.. At first it feels overwhelming to have such a vast choice of photography subjects and backgrounds, and such abundance of wildlife. However for a serious photography endeavor one needs to carefully plan their shoot through this vast labyrinth. The first question should be
WHAT DO I WANT OUT OF IT?
While I cannot answer that for you, as everyone has to find the answer for themselves. But I can surely present some options, which are
- Get the best portraits of wildlife
- Get the animals in their natural habitat
- Do story telling through photographs
- Creating virtual travel experience
In the following paragraphs I can give some pointers to do your best for each of these objectives.
GET THE BEST PORTRAITS OF WILDLIFE
Portraits means closeups of body or face of an animal. It is an interesting way to intimately depict the facial expressions, moods, and behavior of an animal in solo or small group.
Gears you will need
Typically any lens above 150mm in focal length. Even upto 600mm for close portraits. Top quality primes take the cake here, and a lens like a 400 f2.8 or 600 f4 can make exceptional portraits where you can focus on the face, and unwanted details are blurred out. Suggested list is as follows.
- 70-200 f4 canon/nikon
- 150-600 Tamron/Sigma
- 150-500 – Sigma
- 200-500 Nikon
- 100-400 Canon
- 500 5.6 Nikon
Top quality lenses (made by Canon, Sony, Nikon)
- 70-200 f2.8
- 300 f2.8
- 400 f2.8
- 500 f4
- 600 f4
- 200-400 f4
In terms of body, you need something with decent autofocus and good IQ. Exceptional auto focus is not a deal breaker here as the subjects are fairly stable. You will get time to use external image stabilizers like beanbags (you can shop Wild Voyager’s bean bag here) and tripods to make such images.
In terms of settings, shutter speeds above 1/300s should work fine in most cases, particularly with stabilizer support. So you have more opportunity to shoot during low light.
- Choose the best lights for portraits. That makes all the difference. Early mornings and late evenings work the best in giving rich golden hues. Even rains or dust-storms can make great images.
- Composition is the key. Choose what you want. If something is giving interesting facial expressions, then you could focus on face. For a body movement or two animals compose them in one frame, and give some space around the animals, do not make it too tight. This particularly works when two animals are interacting amongst themselves, you would like to show that interaction.
GET THE ANIMALS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT
It means shooting the animals in their natural surroundings, where the animal occupies a small portion in the frame, and the frame depicts the environment where the animal exists.
Gears you will need
You will need a good wide-angle lens for this, but even mid-level telephotos work sometimes. In general my rule is (yours could differ), wider the better. So any lens from 14mm onwards work best, and upto say 200mm at the most. Even fish eye lenses like 8mm etc provide a great perspective when you are really close. Suggested list is as follows.
16-35 F4 Nikon
70-200 F4 Nikon/Canon
24-120mm F4 Nikon/Canon
Top quality lenses
16-35mm 2.8 Canon
8mm Fisheye Nikon/Canon/Sony
70-200mm F2.8 Nikon/Canon/Sony
In terms of camera settings, here you have the best leverage against low light. You can even go down to 1/50s in most cases as your lenses are wide, and subjects are fairly stable. Auto focus is not a deal breaker either.
- Again light is the key, and even more so than portraits. Even if the habitat is not so great, a great lighting can make up for it. Contrary to popular perception, grasslands like Masai Mara or Serengeti are tough to make good habitat images as the habitat is completely flat with no interesting elements during the day. Only during mornings, evenings, rains, storms, the habitat comes alive and allows you to convert your good compositions into exceptional ones. Just after sunrise, backlit images look great too.
- Composition is equally important, and it is more difficult than portrait as you have lot of external elements now (than just face or body of the animal) and if everything does not fall in sync, the image will not look nice. Generally cleaner images with minimal distractions look better, unless multiple elements are joining together to tell a story. If the animal makes a powerful expression, that also makes the image stand out, like this one. Try to move around your vehicle a bit if you are not getting your perfect composition.
DO STORY TELLING THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHS
Africa has many unique stories for photographers, many tales remain undocumented, some which are documented catch the attention of viewers. If you are looking to capture unique stories – of the wild, interaction of man and wild, of the locals and a lot more – then you need to have a lot of time and patience on your side, and come with some initial planning about what exactly you want. Of course the reality maybe different from your plans, but the initial planning helps to streamline your thoughts and sets clear expectations in your mind.
Gears you will need
It completely depends on what and how you are looking to shoot. Generally wide-angle lenses work better unless it is some intimate behavior of wildlife shot from a comfortable distance. The lens recommendations will be a mix of the above, depending upto what you want. For publishing level output, needless to say that you will need pro gears.
- Planning and research is the key if you are after particular kind of results, let’s say hunting shots for an example. There is nothing worse than having certain expectations and landing up at the wrong place with wrong gears without any planning.
- You will really need a good guide with understanding of lighting, your shooting terrain and its subjects. A vehicle to provide for comfortable shooting. Speak to your guide on the possibilities before venturing into actual travel planning.
CREATING VIRTUAL TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
You may like to document your travel and different experiences as they happen to present to your viewers. That may involve interactions with locals, your stay and food experiences, safari experiences, and many more.
Gears you will need
More than cameras, you need a good mobile phone and possibly an action camera like gopro to document your journey. You may still need a zoom camera to document some wildlife.
- Take it as it comes. Document every aspect of your trip, starting from airport check-in to arrivals to local transport to safaris to stays and all. The fun of the story is in compilation as you compile different aspects of your journey and present a holistic picture.
- Still taking care of light and composition always helps, if you can shoot the mundane things in great light, they look great. Similarly a basic eye for composition like leveling the horizon, using rule of thirds occasionally, or using elements like dust, rain, clouds etc give your media an edge over the regular stuff.