The African Safari, Part 3: Photo Gear and Shooting Tips

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To quote the pioneering aviator Beryl Markham, “Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations.”

In this third portion of a four-part series, South African photographer Isak Pretorius shares his knowledge about optimizing your photo gear, and gives you shooting tips to consider, to help make the most of the variety of picture-making opportunities that await you during an African safari.

Above Image: The sea of dunes in Namibia’s Sossusvlei offers unlimited opportunities for a landscape photographer. The most important accessories for a journey here are a polarizing filter, time, and patience. Canon EOS 5D Mark II; EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; Manual exposure; 1/6 sec. at f/11; ISO 100; 0 EV

Jill Waterman: Do you have recommendations for how much and what types of photo gear to bring on a safari?

Isak Pretorius: To photograph wildlife, we typically do game drives on a vehicle. We don’t walk around, because the animals are dangerous. So, you find yourself on a vehicle that can drive quite close to the animals. But even though you can get really close to lions, leopards, and rhinos, I still recommend a long lens, like a 500mm or longer, to take the really close-up details, or to photograph birds. I’d recommend combining that with a medium zoom, like a 70 – 200mm or a 100 – 400mm, and then a wide-angle lens, like a 24 – 70mm or a 16 – 35mm. This way, you can cover all the focal lengths with three lenses. If you bring too many lenses, it can become difficult to choose what to use in a certain scenario. You almost confuse yourself. So, keep it simple, and go long, medium zoom, and wide angle, then it's rather straightforward. I’d also recommend bringing two camera bodies, so you don't have to swap lenses too much outside, in dusty conditions.

Photographs © Isak Pretorius/The African Photographer

In Kenya’s Masai Mara, there are photo opportunities for every focal length lens, so selecting gear to bring on safari is every traveler’s biggest headache. Canon EOS 5D Mark II; EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/640 sec. at f/8; ISO 400; 0 EV

JW: Do you recommend zooms rather than fixed focal length lenses?

IP: I think a fixed lens could work well for your long lens if you have a 500 or 600mm prime, but it's better to have zoom lenses for the medium and wide-angle focal lengths, because you never know how close you're going to get to the animals, and it's also nice to show an animal in its environment.

JW: Are there specific brands or models of cameras or other gear that you'd recommend based on weather sealing or durability factors?

IP: I think the top-end gear is all quite similar, so I'm not going to mention specific brands. But in Africa it’s less likely to rain than most other destinations, so you generally don't need to make extra arrangements for rain cover. But one unique aspect of African weather is that it’s very hot, and the heat is a problem with gear. So, you need to keep your equipment out of the sun by covering it with a cloth, like a scarf, a towel, or a kikoi, so it's not in direct sunlight. I don't know if you're familiar with the term kikoi. It’s like a towel, but it's a very special weave. So, it’s very thin, but still very protective. People use it at the beach or whatever.

Neoprene covers also work quite well for protecting your camera body and other gear against little bumps, as well as dust, and rain. You can also get a neoprene lens cover, instead of a lens cap. If something unexpected happens, you can quickly pull the cover off your lens and start shooting, and it also helps protect against dust and rain.

Animals congregate around the waterholes during the dry season in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. The associated dust and heat makes it essential to keep your equipment under cover. Canon EOS-1D X; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM +1.4x III lens; Aperture priority; 1/2000 sec. at f/5.6; ISO 2000; 0 EV

Dust can be quite significant in Africa, especially in the dry season. It's very dusty everywhere, and you should cover your equipment with a cloth, a towel or even a rain cover. The pro bodies usually have good weather seals to keep the dust out. But even non-pro bodies that don't have a good weather seal should be OK if you’re careful to protect them.

However, I do recommend that you take a cleaning kit with you, including a sensor cleaner, so you have the option to clean your camera in case you start seeing a lot of dust spots on your sensor. That said, I travel all the time and I very rarely need to clean my sensor. I take it to a company for a cleaning maybe once every two or three months, but it's been years since I had to clean the sensor out in the field.

JW: Are there specific photo accessories that you recommend as essential to getting good shots?

IP: Support is always the main concern. You're in a photographic vehicle, and you need to rest your long or medium zoom lens on something. So, I recommend bringing a bean bag camera support. You can bring it empty, and get it filled with rice or beans at your safari camp, or at a hotel, so you don’t have to carry the extra weight on the plane to Africa. If you like using a monopod, that’s also handy to bring along for equipment support. You should also make sure to bring an on-camera flash, and if you're very particular about your flash, I’d recommend an off-center flash bracket, to avoid reflections in the eyes of the animals. Other accessories might be nice to have, but those items can really help you get better shots.

Pearl-Spotted Owlets make for beautiful subjects just after sunset in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, when adding a flash is a must. Canon EOS 5D Mark II; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/80 sec. at f/6.3; ISO 800; -1/3 EV

JW: Are GorillaPods or similar small tripod accessories useful, or don’t they work in a safari context?

IP: If you shoot with big DSLR or mirrorless cameras, the GorillaPod is not very handy. However, if you bring a Go Pro for some additional footage, then a GorillaPod could work. In fact, I’d recommend bringing a Go Pro just to get a couple of cool different angles, or maybe you want to photograph yourself taking pictures. Some people even wear one on their cap, or next to their lens when they’re photographing, because you do get situations like an elephant mock charging the vehicle, and it's nice to use a Go Pro for footage of events like that.

JW: What about memory cards and storage devices? Do you have recommendations for the number, or the capacity, of cards to bring?

IP: My biggest recommendation is to bring enough memory cards or storage, because people always underestimate how many pictures they take. This involves bringing an external hard drive to copy your pictures onto, which then requires a laptop, as well. This is very common on photographic safaris, because you do want to download and spot-check your pictures to confirm that you're doing the right thing, and that your pictures turn out sharp. Making backups of your pictures on safari is also very important, because drives fail and, when traveling, you should keep one hard drive in your checked luggage, and one in your carry-on, to separate them for safety purposes.

You should also bring enough memory cards. There's always the argument between whether you should have one big card, or a lot of small cards. I lean toward one big card, so you'll be less likely to lose or misplace your other cards, and your card will not get full at the critical moment when the action is happening, and you really need to take the picture. The argument against one big card is always that the card could go corrupt, and then you lose all your pictures in one go. Although this is possible, it's only happened to me on safari maybe twice in the last 10 years. But each time I managed to retrieve all my data with data recovery tools, so that's why I'm not too concerned about using one big card.

Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is known for its predator action, so make sure to bring sufficient memory cards and hard drive space if you plan a visit. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/500 sec. at f/4; ISO 1600; 0 EV

JW: How big a card would you recommend?

IP: It varies from person to person. Most people shoot quite conservatively, but I don't. So, I have a SanDisk 256GB Extreme PRO CFast 2.0 card in my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, and I can probably take about 9,000 pictures on one card. That could last me maybe two days of really good sightings, so I do travel with an Apple 15.4" MacBook Pro and an external hard drive, as well. But most people on our safaris shoot an average of 300 gigabytes during a 10-day trip. So, if you bring three 256GB cards on a 10-day safari, I'd say that should be fine.

JW: Do you have a preferred brand of memory cards?

IP: I do like the mainstream ones, so I stick with SanDisk and Lexar, but I have no preference between the two. They’re both fantastic quality. They've never let me down.

JW: And what storage capacity do you travel with for a hard drive?

IP: My philosophy is that hard-drive space is a very easy problem to fix, but the problem you're going to encounter by running out of space is so big, it really merits making sure you have enough hard drive space. So, I travel with two Samsung 2TB T5 Portable Solid-State hard drives. They are fabulous, because they download my entire 256GB card in just 10 minutes. I also use it for backups, and can synchronize between the two drives in next to no time. It's absolute bliss. They’re tiny, and they weigh nothing, so it makes traveling very easy.

Shooting wide open helped keep the shutter speed fast and the background blurred for this image of a Red-billed Oxpecker, in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/400 sec. at f/4; ISO 800; 0 EV

JW: And, what about camera settings? Assuming a photographer is not shooting on full automatic mode, what are the most important camera controls and settings a photographer should get comfortable with to optimize their shooting experience?

IP: I always recommend shooting in either aperture priority, where you choose the ISO, or manual mode with an auto ISO. The manual mode with auto ISO is probably the easiest way to shoot. But you should only do that if you can change your exposure compensation using your camera dials, without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. And, unfortunately, right now, you can do that with Nikon, and probably Sony, but for some bizarre reason, not by default with most Canon gear. You can change the exposure compensation, but you need to do it on-screen, so you need to take your eye away from the viewfinder. And that is not advisable when shooting wildlife.

I also recommend shooting wide open. And if you need to choose your ISO, do so in such a way that you get a shutter speed that’s adequate for the given situation. So always use the lowest ISO possible, good enough for what you're trying to achieve. If it's a portrait, you're looking at a shutter speed of around 1/400. And if it's an action shot, maybe a shutter speed of 1/1,600.

Close-up of a leopard drinking in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, which requires a fast shutter speed to freeze its tongue, and a sharp focus on the eye. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV; EF 600mm f/4L IS USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/250 sec. at f/4; ISO 800; -2/3 EV

For other settings, it’s very important to use a single autofocus point, or use the single point of the surrounding points as a catch net, and always use the center one by default. When you’re on a game drive vehicle and you put your camera down on the seat next to you, you never know what’s going to jump out of the bush ahead of you. By setting your camera on the center autofocus point, you can just pick up and start shooting.

You should also set your camera on continuous focus—on Nikon it’s AF-C and on Canon it’s AI SERVO—again, because you don't know what's going to happen in front of you in the next moment. You just need to be able to pick up and start shooting, and your subject will probably be a moving animal, so you need continuous focus mode.

JW: You mention shooting with a wide-open lens. Do you think it's particularly beneficial to bring fast lenses?

IP: Yes, definitely. Bring f/2.8 lenses if you can, because you might spend a lot of time shooting in low light. If you’re trying to capture the best light just before sunrise, you'll be struggling to get a good shutter speed, so it’s always beneficial to come with wide lenses like f/2.8 or f/4.

Wide-aperture lenses are not only faster, but focus more accurately in low light, like in this shot of a Zebra at Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens; Aperture priority; 1/500 sec. at f/4; ISO 250; 0 EV

JW: Do you recommend that people use filters on their lenses, either a protective filter against scratches or a polarizer?

IP: I often see people with UV filters for lens protection, but I always recommend never to use them, because they actually soften your images a little bit. It’s such a pity to spend all this money buying expensive lenses for sharp pictures, and then put a UV filter over it. A better way to protect your lens is to always use a lens hood, which will help with flare if you shoot into the sun, as well as with bumps, and you won't need to worry about scratching your Lens.

I definitely recommend a polarizer if you're going to be doing a lot of landscape pictures. Even if you’re just coming to do wildlife, bring a polarizer for your wide-angle lens, because if you have nice skies close to sunrise and sunset, the effect could be beautiful. But for general wildlife photography, I never recommend a polarizer. It doesn't really make a difference for tight wildlife shots.

JW: How many camera batteries do you recommend packing, and what methods do you use for charging digital devices when you're away from power sources?

IP: I’d bring at least two extra batteries per camera. So, when you have a long day out on safari, you never run short of power. Remember Murphy's law, if you're always ready, then nothing will happen, and the day that you only bring one battery, then you're going to have the most amazing sightings.

All the safari camps cater to photographers, so they know that you're going to have gear that needs to be charged. But it’s best to inquire about this before your trip, so you can plan accordingly, because some camps might only have power during daylight hours. Even if it's a very small mobile camp, they usually have solar panels and a charging station, although it might be in the main area, or in the office that they allow you to use.

If you feel that you need additional power, bring an external battery pack. Another handy tip if you're going to have a lot of things to charge is to bring your own power strip, because they only have limited plug points at some of these charging stations, and you don't want to hog them all. You should also make sure to have the correct adapter plug for the country you’re visiting. Since Africa was colonized by a lot of different European countries, plugs in various countries look different, so it’s always a bit of a drama. But they sell these universal travel plugs that can fit any thing. That's what I use, and they always work for me.

A handheld spotlight illuminates this White Rhino, photographed from an underground hide during a safari in Zimbabwe. Rhinos are disappearing quickly, so consider yourself lucky if you get to photograph one. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; Shutter priority; 1/100 sec. at f/ 5; ISO 2000; -1 EV

JW: Are there any non-photographic travel accessories that you'd recommend as essential for people to bring?

IP: A headlamp is probably the most important travel accessory, because you're going to be packing stuff in your camera bag on the vehicle after dark, and you need both hands to work, so putting a light on your head helps a lot. If you have space, binoculars could be useful, because a lot of sightings are better to see than to photograph. I travel with 8x32 Swarovski binoculars, which are probably just enough magnification. It's always a trade-off between larger magnification binoculars like 12x, where you see better detail, but they're usually big, and heavy, and you need to keep them more stable, otherwise the picture through the binoculars shakes a little bit. Because my 8x binoculars are small, you've got the convenience of having something small and light.

JW: How important is brand to a binocular purchase?

IP: Swarovskis are like the Rolls Royce of binoculars, and you're paying top dollar for perfect quality. Zeiss 8x32 binoculars cost about a tenth of Swarovski’s, giving you almost 90% equal quality. So, from a value for money point of view, those are fantastic, very affordable, and there's nothing wrong with the quality. However, if you go to a lower price, then you'll probably start compromising on quality a bit.

For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, jump to our companion articles in this four-part series with Isak Pretorius: Planning & Booking Tips, Safari Camps & Animal Sightings, and Packing & Travel Tips for International Flights.

To learn more about Isak Pretorius, and the safaris he offers, check out his website, The African Photographer, and visit him on Facebook and Instagram, as well.

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!

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