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By Justin Black
For Outdoor Photographer, October 2014
One of my most important photographic mentors, Galen Rowell, grew accustomed to being told how lucky he was to capture the stunning natural events that he photographed. He would chuckle politely, and respond that he tried to be prepared to receive luck. In other words, he went to great lengths to be in the right place at the right time, well-practiced with his tools and technique, familiar with his subjects and surroundings, and able to anticipate and account for as many variables and technical challenges as he could. Galen knew that if he stacked the deck in his favor making pictures would be easy.
Each year, tens of thousands go on safari in Africa, hoping to bring home wildlife photos that capture the drama and beauty they’ve seen in the pages of National Geographic. Too often, though, the deck seems stacked against them. A photographer’s first African safari always comes with a steep learning curve. Even with the benefit of a good guide and abundant wildlife, it takes a while to get a feel for the place and animal behaviors. For many, it’s their first time with a big telephoto, introducing a range of technical challenges that they may not even have the opportunity to identify, much less overcome, during their trip of a lifetime. It’s no surprise when many people leave Africa disappointed with their photographs, wondering what they did wrong, or thinking they were plain unlucky.
The good news is that with a little preparation, awareness of the situation you’re going into, and practice of a few techniques in advance of your trip, you can radically improve your chances of “getting lucky” on safari.
Shutter Speed: If your goal is to make sharp, detailed wildlife action images with a long telephoto on a high-resolution DSLR, the common advice to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of focal length (i.e. 1/500 of second with a 500mm lens) isn’t going to cut it when things are in motion. Instead, try to use shutter speeds around three times the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, with the 500mm f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter (a 700mm combo) that I commonly find myself using for wildlife, I know from experience that I’ll often need at least 1/2000 sec to truly freeze the motion of the animal, the safari vehicle, wind, my adrenalin-driven heartbeat, and so on. At the other end of the scale, you could instead choose to embrace creative blur of animals in motion, panning with them at slow shutter speeds in the range of 1/30th to 1/2 second.
ISO: It’s often said that low ISOs maximize the quality of the digital image data, but what about maximizing the photograph itself? Photographs sink or swim based on qualities other than a little noise or compressed dynamic range, so don’t be afraid of using higher ISOs if you need them. With wildlife, using a low ISO could result in too slow a shutter speed or too little depth of field, and hence a lousy photograph (though a noise-free one to be sure). I consider ISOs in the range from 800 to 1600 as “normal” for fast-moving wildlife. It is of course preferable to use lower ISOs if you can still achieve the shutter speed and depth of field that best serve your photograph, but don’t limit yourself with the notion that low ISOs are the only way to make a quality picture.
Setting Proper Exposure: It’s very easy to overexpose highlight detail in animals with light-toned fur or feathers, so make sure that you are properly evaluating your exposure for the highlights. You can do this by playing back a test image with the RGB histogram displayed on the camera-back LCD, and then magnify the image to display the brightest highlights in which you want good texture and tone. The histogram you see will be derived only from the portion of the image displayed, so you’ll be able to see whether or not your highlights are clipping. In some circumstances, such as when photographing a sun-lit bird against a dark background, you may find that you need to dial in as much as -2.0 stops of exposure compensation to avoid blowing out whites. Keep in mind that today’s RAW conversion software gives you more highlight “headroom,” so a highlight that looks mildly blown out on the camera’s histogram may be just fine in Lightroom.
Exposure Mode: Just as with my landscape work, I use either Aperture Priority or Manual modes for wildlife. You might also consider using manual exposure mode to select the specific shutter speed and aperture you need to freeze motion and achieve the depth of field you want, and then use your camera’s Auto ISO feature to adjust exposure value. This is a very powerful technique that puts tremendous creative control in the photographer’s hands.
Controlling the focus point: Virtually all DSLR cameras these days have multi-point autofocus to help you track moving subjects, but it’s important to understand how they work so you can judge when and how to use their various modes. For instance, Nikon’s 21-point Dynamic continuous focus mode makes it easy to track a flying bird, but be aware that the camera won’t necessarily find focus on the focus point that you have highlighted in the viewfinder. Let’s say you position the highlighted focus point over the bird’s eye as you follow it through the air. The camera will focus on the eye, right? Not necessarily. If the far wingtip of the bird is the area of greatest contrast falling under one of the 21 active sensors, the camera may focus there. In this case, to better control the actual point of focus, you might do better switching to single-point mode, or at least the tighter pattern of the 9-point Dynamic mode. I don’t mean to pick on Nikon either. An AF system that can read your mind to select point of focus has yet to be invented.
Depth of Field: As always, you’ll want to consider what aperture you need to stop down to if you wish to keep the subject sharp from front to back. If we imagine the bird flying by us from the previous example, let’s say we want it sharp from wingtip to wingtip. One wingtip is toward us, and the other is behind the bird’s body, so they are in different planes of focus. The priority for sharpest focus is typically the bird’s head, so that’s what you’ll probably choose to focus on. In this scenario it isn’t uncommon to need fairly small apertures to keep everything sharp. For example, if the bird in this example has a three-foot wingspan, is sixty feet away, and you’re photographing it with a 600mm lens on a full-frame DSLR, you would need to use f/16 to keep it sharp from tip to tip. This is one of the reasons those higher ISOs are so handy.
Also, when making head-on animal portraits, try focusing in front of the eyes and just behind the tip of the nose, and then stop the aperture down so depth of field covers the tip of the nose back to the eyes and ears. If you focus precisely on the eyes, the nose of the animal could be disturbingly soft.
Camera Control and Setup: The ability to react quickly is critical for wildlife photography, so you’ll want to set up your controls and presets for efficiency, and then you’ll want to spend time familiarizing yourself with them. For instance, for landscape work I focus using my camera’s thumb-operated AF button and deactivate autofocus activation on my camera’s shutter release so it won’t re-focus when pressed. For wildlife, however, I turn shutter-release AF back on, because I can simultaneously focus track a subject and change AF point or aperture with my thumb via the controls on the back of the camera. I’ve learned that my favorite AF modes – single-point, 21-point, and “auto” – are all three clicks of the dial apart so I can set them by feel. Special features that you like to use frequently can often be assigned to function buttons for instant access, such as your camera’s crop mode, which gives you greater magnification and faster frame rate on some cameras. It’s a good idea to use your cameras’ personal menu features to provide quick access to menus that you access most frequently.
Attentiveness: I have real difficulty following baseball games at the ballpark. The action is so intermittent that I end up chatting with friends rather than paying attention to the game, so I always miss the peak moments. Some people find wildlife photography challenging for the same reason. If you want great wildlife photographs on safari, you’ve got to pay attention to animal behavior, be aware of what is going on around you, and be ready to react quickly and decisively. Peak action sometimes comes on fast and with little warning, but often, the attentive and perceptive photographer can improve their changes by anticipating opportunities and staying ahead of the game. It goes without saying that it is a lot easier to get a great shot of the bird in flight or the sprinting impala stretched flat-out in mid air if you saw it coming toward you ten seconds ago, as opposed to trying to catch up with it when you notice only as it zips by.
Tracking the Subject: Speaking of zipping by, the ability to pan a fast-moving animal with a long tele while keeping it where you want it in the frame is not one that most people are born with. Photographers who are good at this make it look effortless, but it takes a lot of practice. For the first time safari photographer, I recommend going out with your longest lens to find subjects that you can use to practice panning, even if its just pigeons in flight or dogs playing at a local park. The goal is to decide where you want the subject in frame, lock tracking focus on it, and try to keep it sharp and in the right position as you fire off a series of frames. It may not be easy at first, but after some practice it will become child’s play, and your safari images will be much better for it.
Predicting Animal Behavior: Studying up on the behavior of the animals you’ll be photographing will help you anticipate what an animal might do in a particular situation, but if your local safari guides are knowledgeable and experienced in the area you visit (as they ought to be), you should be able to rely on them to advise you about wildlife activity and the position the vehicle properly to take advantage of the opportunities you encounter. The selection of local guides is tremendously important, since few first time visitors will be able to adequately anticipate animal behaviors and habits.
Safari vehicle photo setup: The arrangements for photography in your safari vehicle significantly influence the quality of a photo safari experience. A safari operator who understands the needs of serious photographers will limit the number of photographers per vehicle to provide plenty of space for you to maneuver with a big telephoto and work unobstructed. The bar has recently been raised, however, in the form of state-of-the-art safari vehicles (both 4WD land vehicles and boats) with a small number of customized swiveling photographer’s chairs positioned along the centerline for maximum visibility and stability. Each incorporates an integral 360-degree revolving camera mount that is height-adjustable with a gas-assist lift, and mounted with a Wimberley head to balance a long telephoto for effortless handling for hours on end. This setup delivers smooth and stable panning of fast moving animals, quick repositioning, and an incredibly stable and user-friendly camera platform. I’ve found that vehicles equipped this way absolutely revolutionize the experience, enabling even relative novices to take home a surprising number of great images. The traditional camera mount solutions for safari vehicles – bean bags, window brackets, or clamp-on mounts – may provide decent stability, but in general they can’t compete in terms of capability, flexibility, and performance.
When to go? Now!
Finally, you’ll want to give some thought to the timing of your safari, and I’m not simply referring to the month or the season. The sad reality is that wildlife in Africa is facing tremendous pressures and is experiencing a startling decline. Anyone with an urge to see African wildlife in a diversity and abundance that we associate with “wild Africa” ought to do so sooner rather than later.
Lions, for example, are 95% gone. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the early 20th century, over the last century they have been decimated – as few as 15,000 may still remain in only 14 of the 49 African nations that were once their home. The fundamental cause of this crisis is the rapid growth of human populations in Africa, along with the accompanying pressures on wildlife: expansion of agricultural land and fragmentation of habitat, persecution of lions by herders, hunting of both lions and their prey species, and more. Since they need expansive territories, large predators like lions are “canaries in the coalmine” of habitat loss. They are also essential to maintaining healthy balance in the ecosystems they inhabit. As go the lions, so goes wild Africa.
Despite the challenges, there are credible efforts being made to protect lion populations and habitats that are also depended upon by countless other species. The international non-profit organization Panthera is at the vanguard of coordinating conservation of important big cat habitats, and numerous other conservation NGOs are working tirelessly to make the connection between sustainability of biodiversity and the sustainability of human societies.
Responsible eco-tourism is critically important to this equation, as nature-loving tourists (and many readers of this magazine) convey a compelling economic value on healthy ecosystems and sustainable wildlife populations. Visitors to Africa can vote with their dollars by giving preference to nations, communities, safari operators, parks, and preserves that are doing the most for sustainable resource management, protection of biodiversity, and the well-being of local communities that benefit more from protecting the resource than from destroying it.
I remain optimistic despite the challenges. Years from now, perhaps others will look at the pictures from our latest African safari and tell us how lucky we have been to capture them. Hopefully we’ll be able chuckle like Galen, amused in the knowledge that an abundance of wildlife served up endless photo opportunities ripe for the taking. If so, the trick will have been two-fold: we were prepared to receive luck, and did what it took to ensure that there was still luck to receive.