If you don’t end up tired and with your head full at the end of a full day of photographing wildlife, you probably haven’t worked hard enough.
Africa. Wildlife. Safari. The three words follow in a natural sequence, and then come the questions...
“What camera do I need?”
“What lenses do I need?”
“How do you take good wildlife pictures in Africa?”
I am so often asked about photographic needs for travelling in Africa that it is worth this moment just to concentrate on it.
And the first point to make is about just that — concentration. Wildlife photography is so specific that if you’re at all serious about it, it’s good to just concentrate on this aspect of your photography while you’re there.
You will have to work the camera harder and specifically, for wildlife photography is a real mix, and test, of the disciplines of composition and technical mastery.
I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to know your gear. My experience is that you’ll have between five and 20 seconds for a shot — you have to be able to use your camera’s potential, change settings, wring the best out of it in that time.
Concentrate. Think it through. Things happen quickly — the moment is upon you and you just have to nail it. You will be working the camera all the time. And if you don’t end up tired and with your head full at the end of a full day of shooting, you probably haven’t worked hard enough.
Get in tight, and think big
Put in effort to fill the frame, but don’t forget to go “big”, too.
You want that close-up of the elephant’s eye and part of its ear, and the amazing texture of its grey skin — but don’t forget to shoot the herd also as a small line along the bottom of a big savannah scene.
Make it sharp
This is something to really, really concentrate on. Wildlife pictures that aren’t quite sharp are desperately disappointing.
The important thing, usually, is to get the animal’s eye sharp. Quite often, with a long lens, the difference between that eye and other parts of its body (a lion’s mane) will be only a few centimetres, but enough to make the picture look soft.
If you are using auto focus, “work it” by moving the camera slightly, letting it refocus, then taking a picture. Do it again, and again.
Learn about the focus modes in your camera, and how to quickly toggle between them.
If your camera lets you focus well in manual, take it off auto focus, if you have time to focus carefully manually (and it’s quite easy to not be well focused with a long lens). Take some shots, enlarge them, really look at them and make sure they are sharp.
I was shooting pictures of a leopard 7m up a tree in the Masai Mara, and there were twigs in front which the long lens was focusing on in auto focus. I put the lens on to manual, and pushed the focus past the twigs and on to the eye.
When you get back at the end of the day, download your images and critique them. Take a very close look at sharpness and exposure. If they’re not quite there, you’ll get a measure of how very specific you need to be with your focusing.
It’s a fair rule of many aspects of photography that the lower the number is, the better the quality. So, for a start, the fewer pictures you can take on you memory card, the better quality they are. RAW format is full capture of information (big files) and preferable for quality wildlife photography.
And so it is with ISO, which sets the sensitivity of the sensor. The lower the number, the better the quality. But given the long lenses and quick moments in wildlife photography, we are going to spend time with 400 ISO, and up to 800. But do remember that the higher you go with ISO, the lower the quality of the picture — so if you have it set very high, you are doomed to poor-quality images before you’ve even started.
But ISO will have to be “worked” in your wildlife photography, so get used to using it and learn to understand the results and compromises.
When you’ve finished taking your bracket of pictures, really think about them. If you took the ISO up to 800 and really started to compromise the quality of the shot, could you have come back to 640 or 500 and lived with a slightly slower shutter speed?
Choosing cameras and gear
- Optical zoom is good, digital zoom is bad. Look for a minimum of 20x or preferably 50x optical zoom (which you get in the Canon SX50 HS for about $420 at retailers such as JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman and The Good Guys).
- Look for a camera without shutter lag — that’s the nasty delay some cameras have between when you press the button and when it takes the picture. Try it in the shop. Get someone to walk around and see how much delay there is. If you buy a “point and shoot” with bad shutter lag, the bird will have flown and you’ll end up with a lot of pictures of branches.
- It is almost impossible to find “point and shoots” with good range finders (the little window you can look through, rather than using the back screen). But it’s often bright out in the landscape in Africa, and you are looking for considered composition. So it is worth considering a camera that will take a “lens hood”. This fits on the screen on the back of the camera and you can look into it, at the screen.
- Look for a camera that can shoot RAW files, not just JPEGs. This is like shooting an old-fashioned negative — much better quality. You may not want to set the camera on RAW but it is a helpful measure of its sensor quality. (The Canon SX50 HS does.)
Digital SLRs and lenses
- Look for an exposure compensation that’s easy to use. For serious wildlife, and particularly bird photography, you will be using it.
- Look for ease of changing ISO. Once again, you will need to work this.
- Most good DSLRs shoot RAW format, which gives the best quality.
- Consider a fast frame-per-second rate, and ease of using it. For a lot of wildlife action photography, you may want an “A1 Servo” setting combined with a fast (“H”) frame burst. That means the lens will track, for example, a running cheetah or flying bird. You can keep your thumb on the tracking button and it will keep focusing on it as it moves towards or away from the lens, and at the same time, you can shoot bursts of frames.
- In buying lenses, go as long as you can afford. Anyone going to Africa to shoot wildlife with a 70-200mm zoom is likely to come home disappointed. Go to 300mm for sure, 400mm if you can. (I like my Canon 100-400mm).
- You can increase your lens length with a 1.4x teleconverter. This fits between the camera body and the lens, and increases, say, a 300mm lens to 420mm — a 400mm lens to 560mm. You lose quality, you lose the equivalent of an f-stop, but you do gain that length and I find the loss worth it. A couple of things to think about. First, you will have to do some research and make sure you get the right teleconverter. For example, if you put a Canon 1.4x between some Canon camera bodies and genuine Canon lenses, you lose lens functions, like auto focus. If you put a cheaper Kenko 1.4mm teleconverter between them, you don’t. It’s tempting to go to a 2x teleconverter but I don’t recommend it — I think you really start to see the loss in quality then.
- To keep your gear light, you could consider a superzoom like the Tamron 18-270mm ($499 at Camera House, for example).
- Coupled with all of that, I like to use a monopod for stability and manoeuvrability. Look for one that is tall enough to bring the camera comfortably to your eye level, even when you are looking up, at 45deg.
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