Some time ago, most people only saw African wildlife on the TV. Now it seems that just about anyone can head off on a safari holiday. Many people come back with disappointing pictures, but with a bit of care, you can make sure that your photos match your memories.
Do your research
Unless you’re a wildlife expert and are planning to drive yourself on safari, then the single biggest thing that you can do to improve your wildlife photography is to think about your choice of safari location and the company you travel with. In short, if you can’t see the animals, you can’t photograph them.
Do your research and think about the type of experience you want. The plains will give you the classic African safari, whereas the Okavango Delta in Botswana will give you the chance of seeing animals from a boat. Also, pay attention to the time of year: the Serengeti is all but deserted at certain times, when they all migrate northwards, but if you come during the great Wildebeest Migration, at times you won’t see the grass for animals.
Consider going on an organised photography safari. Many other trips won’t spend as much time with the animals patiently waiting for shots; they’ll just tick them off and speed away in a cloud of dust. Ask about their ethos, the vehicles they use and how long they spend out on safari compared to how long by the pool!
Size IS important
If you’re shooting wildlife on safari, you will need a fairly powerful telephoto lens. Zoom lenses can be useful, but they often have a relatively small aperture at the telephoto end, which can cause problems when shooting in low light. Go for the most powerful lens with the biggest aperture that you can afford, and can also manage to carry. If you don’t go on safari much, then consider hiring a lens, but either way, practise how to use it before you travel.
Telephoto lenses can be somewhat tricky to use. They magnify camera shake, and have a very shallow depth of field, so focus is important. Make sure that you use a shutterspeed higher than the focal length of a lens. So if you have a 500mm lens, you will need to use 1/1000 second to avoid camera shake when hand-holding the lens.
Using a monoped (one-legged tripod) and built in Vibration Reduction (or Image Stabilisation) can help, but practise, and learn what you can achieve yourself. If shooting from a safari vehicle then get the engine switched off wherever it’s safe, to avoid the engine causing shake on your pictures.
If your lens is not powerful enough, then don’t just shoot with a ‘not-big-enough’ animal in the centre of the frame, compose your shot to show animals in their natural environment.
Shoot action Great safari pictures are ones that show action in some way. Pictures of a lion sleeping under a bush don’t tend to be as exciting as the same animal, alert and out hunting. Look out for animals in action, or frame them in the context of their surroundings, and spend time with them so that you will be there when something happens. Getting up at dawn and being out at dusk is also vital. Not only will the light be better, but animals are more active at these times, before and after the heat of the day.
Focus is critical, so use a continuous focus mode to enure that your camera tracks movement and be aware of what your camera is focusing on: don’t end up with lots of pictures of pin-sharp grass with an out of focus lion behind. Sometimes you’ll need to manually move the focus point to check that the camera is focusing on what you want.
Remember the basics, but don’t forget creativity
Telephoto lenses have very shallow depth of field, so if you shoot at the widest aperture, much of the picture can be out of focus. If there is enough light, then an aperture of 5.6 or even 8 will increase the depth of field. If you are shooting fast action then a shutter speed of 1/2000 might be needed to avoid blur.
Sometimes though, you will want to have blur in your pictures. Panning moving animals (where you move the camera during exposure) or using a very slow speed to allow a herd of animals to blur can be very effective techniques to convey movement.
Don’t forget all of your basic camera skills just because you’re on safari. Think about your composition, and avoid placing the subject in the centre of the frame. Leave space for movement, and try to combine elements in the frame, so experiment with composing a shot of a lion, with a background of out of focus zebras for example.
Header shot: Zebras reflected in a watering hole. Look for strong patterns and reflections, especially with herd animals such as zebras.
Steve Davey runs a series of exclusive travel photography tours to some of the most exotic parts of the world, and a range of London-based courses. More information on www.bettertravelphotography.com.