By Mike Myers, of Wilderness Safaris. Mike has enjoyed several decades in Botswana, photographing wildlife - and being paid for it!
What photographic equipment to bring on an African safari is somewhat of a minefield to tread through. I write these tips with the amateur photographer in mind, as no more than a guideline and hope they are of help.
Before I get on to equipment let me give you the Mike Myers law of wildlife photography which states that “The number of great photographs you get is inversely proportional to the amount of gear you carry.” How often I have seen serious amateur and professional photographers miss great photographs because they were trying to decide which piece of equipment to use. The ability to react instantly to what happens around you is the second most important part of wildlife photography, the most important being your own imagination and knowing your equipment.
This quote comes from the Online Photographer website "Photography isn't about cameras and lenses. Technique is a lot more important than what camera and lenses you use, and your taste is a lot more important than technique, and having something to say is a lot more important than having good taste, and working hard and following through is more important than having something to say." With that said lets break this down by type of camera and please read www.dpreview.com for the best reviews on the web for all digital cameras and lenses.
Compact cameras come in many shapes and forms. If all you want is to have photographs as memories of your safari any one of the small, compact, all in one type cameras will be perfect.
At the top end there are great offerings from all the manufacturers, dpreview has an excellent comparison at www.dpreview.com/reviews/Q210grouptravelzoom. The compact superzoom camera will give you a longer telephoto lens needed for photographing wildlife. Slightly bigger and heavier but still an all in one solution. You will find an excellent comparison at dpreview - www.dpreview.com/reviews/Q110superzoomgroup/
The EVIL Camera
I love this name, it stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens also called the Micro 4/3 for Panasonic and Olympus, and Sony has the NEX 3 and 5. These are excellent cameras with better image quality than the compact group of cameras. Smaller than a DSLR, Panasonic and Olympus conform to a standard and the lens mount from both manufacturers is the same. I have a Panasonic GF 1 with a 20mm pancake lens which I carry everywhere with me – I love it.
There are excellent telephoto zoom lenses available – two new ones just announced by Olympus which look terrific. These cameras are an excellent alternative to DSLR’s, take great quality images and make for a light and easy to use system. Cameras – DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) The modern high-resolution digital cameras are outstanding and give superb quality images. The traditional brand leaders are Nikon and Canon, though Sony is now a strong competitor in the field. My advice is to buy the best you can afford and don’t rule out buying used equipment – a Canon 40D takes better images, in my opinion, than the new Canon 7D. Match the camera body with two zoom lenses a wide angle to mid-range zoom like an 18mm – 55mm for a cropped frame sensor, or 24 – 70 for full frame and a 70 – 300 telephoto zoom. I personally prefer not to use Teleconverters but if you want to then stick to a 1.4x converter.
A second camera is a worthwhile consideration, as digital cameras do occasionally fail. Apart from providing backup it is also ideal to put a wide-angle zoom lens on one and a telephoto on the other.
Spare Batteries, Recharging Facilities and Additional Storage
Spare batteries are essential and a back up storage device of some sort is strongly recommended. If you bring a laptop computer an external hard drive is essential, if not a portable storage device like an Epson 7000 will allow you to sleep easier at night. Make certain you have enough card storage – most people take more photographs than they expect to. Compact flash cards are continually dropping in price – 16 and 8 GB memory cards are the norm these days. Also try investing in the newer generation UDMA cards as they write data so much faster.
Camps have facilities for recharging batteries. Strips for charging more than one device are suggested for more serious photographers. Supports on the back of a safari vehicle, a monopod can be a compact, light-weight solution for providing additional stability for longer telephoto lenses. Image Stabilisation and better high ISO ability of modern digital cameras means that hand holding of cameras is more the norm these days – as I said at the beginning of these tips the ability to react quickly is a great advantage. Protection from the elements camera bags are the ideal way to transport all your camera gear.
Out on game drives remember to pack something to cover your camera gear and minimise dust – a sarong or Kenyan kikoi does the trick perfectly.
A Petzl headlamp packed in your camera bag is a good hands-free idea for changing settings after dark and packing up your gear after night drives. A Giotto Rocket Blower or small new paintbrush is excellent to remove unwanted dust from a camera for general cleaning before doing any lens changes in the field. A rain-proof cover for your camera bag is a wise investment particularly for African safaris in the rainy season, when afternoon thunderstorms are frequent.
1. Knowing your equipment is vital – how many times have I seen people arrive at the airstrip on the first day of the safari and something amazing happens on the drive to camp. By the time you come on safari using the camera must be second nature – you need to make all the adjustments the way a concert pianist plays.
2. Ask your guides to help you anticipate what animals are going to do – when you see an eagle in a tree drop a pellet it is about to fly and you can be ready.
3. From a composition perspective find out about the Rule of Thirds and apply it – great subject with bad composition is a bad photograph.
4. Take photographs in Aperture Priority – most professional photographers shoot this way as controlling Dept of Field is key.
5. In poor light don’t be afraid of using higher ISO’s – you will read lots about noise at higher ISO’s but there is nothing more important than getting the photograph.
6. Learn about post processing of pictures on the computer – if you know what can be done on the computer after you have taken the photograph it helps you think at the critical moment.
7. Try not to be obsessed with the subject - look around the frame to see what aspects of the environment you can include in the image to make it better. Good luck and have fun.