Freeman Safaris

The Amateur Photographer

I am a keen amateur photographer capable of taking good pictures. Over the years have learnt my skills from many a good amateur and professional photographer. I have tried to summarise my knowledge by offering practical advice without making it all too complicated. Please remember that this is written as a result of my experiences with safari photography over many years in the bush and may differ from the text books! I have written this in some detail to provide you with a reasonable insight to what is a very enjoyable hobby. I have tried to give sufficient information so that you can come prepared but at the same time ensuring I don’t over-burden you with too much theory – after all it can get rather overwhelming. Photography is fun and once you master the basics, I am certain your pictures will improve and so will your enjoyment.

Until recently, we all used film, but no longer. And I can’t remember the last client who came out on safari with film. Now everyone has a digital camera – from the very good ‘happy snapper’ to the very best professional camera. The ‘happy snapper’ cameras are so good these days that you don’t have to be an expert to get good results. In fact, they often get the shots others miss, so whatever your choice, you can get the shots and enjoy your picture taking immensely. I believe those using video actually get the best of all worlds. They capture the spirit and atmosphere of the safari and with the video camera’s superb magnification and low light capabilities. They can shoot when others can’t – video is a great way to record your safari. I see many couples, one of whom shoots video and the other stills and therefore and get the best of both worlds. I always say to everyone to take as many shots as possible to get results, the number of really good shots will be a low percentage of your take and therefore your success rate will increase in proportion. I have many digital photographers who take over 700 pictures a day, but they do need the extra kit to store the images.

Equipment

Digital photography requires so much more kit as you need not only the camera and lenses, as you did before, but also laptops/ storage devices, cards, batteries and their chargers and so it goes on. The facilities to charge all this equipment is not a problem in the bush as I run inverters in the mess tent that supply a 240 volts power source able to handle the demand. For the majority of us that use digital SLR cameras, the extra magnification from the sensor crop factor is a pure bonus, and vital in wildlife photography as it is not always possible to get as close as we would wish for a number of practical reasons. However, if it is possible without upsetting the animal, we will get you very near and there will be many occasions when you say we were so close that you could only fit the elephants eye in the frame!

I am often asked which lens is ideal. As a general rule, a 100-400 zoom lens is the best single lens to have but, as with camera bodies, it depends on your resources. The lower the ‘f stop’ the better the lens as they allow more light in and can therefore cope with darker situations – but, of course, they cost more. I would always advise a lens of f4 as it is a good compromise and copes very well but won’t cost you too much. I have a f2.8 70-200 lens and would dearly love to buy the f2.8 300 lens – but not yet. For animal portraits it is important that the subject fills the frame. As I have said, we will work hard to get you in close, in the right place, and we will consider the light (the most important single factor), the foreground and background. However, some of the best opportunities can arise when you are a little too far for a normal or even a moderately long lens.

As a compromise you can push the magnification of the lens by using an extender which further magnifies the image, usually by a factor of 1.4 or 2. This will reduce your aperture by 1 or 2 stops respectively. I often hear people say that the sharpness suffers, but I don’t see that since, as with lenses, they too have improved tremendously. Just being able to have a quick look at the histogram if you have time allows you to make exposure adjustments to the next shot, and examine the picture for sharpness. Being able to have a more detailed look back in camp in the evening is a tremendous advantage. It allows you to try for a re-shoot and invariably the next time the shot is better. I wish it was that easy though, as many shots are just once in a lifetime. And of course, the other fantastic advantage is that you can enjoy your pictures immediately.

Equipment

Digital photography requires so much more kit as you need not only the camera and lenses, as you did before, but also laptops/ storage devices, cards, batteries and their chargers and so it goes on. The facilities to charge all this equipment is not a problem in the bush as I run inverters in the mess tent that supply a 240 volts power source able to handle the demand. For the majority of us that use digital SLR cameras, the extra magnification from the sensor crop factor is a pure bonus, and vital in wildlife photography as it is not always possible to get as close as we would wish for a number of practical reasons. However, if it is possible without upsetting the animal, we will get you very near and there will be many occasions when you say we were so close that you could only fit the elephants eye in the frame!

I am often asked which lens is ideal. As a general rule, a 100-400 zoom lens is the best single lens to have but, as with camera bodies, it depends on your resources. The lower the ‘f stop’ the better the lens as they allow more light in and can therefore cope with darker situations – but, of course, they cost more. I would always advise a lens of f4 as it is a good compromise and copes very well but won’t cost you too much. I have a f2.8 70-200 lens and would dearly love to buy the f2.8 300 lens – but not yet. For animal portraits it is important that the subject fills the frame. As I have said, we will work hard to get you in close, in the right place, and we will consider the light (the most important single factor), the foreground and background. However, some of the best opportunities can arise when you are a little too far for a normal or even a moderately long lens.

As a compromise you can push the magnification of the lens by using an extender which further magnifies the image, usually by a factor of 1.4 or 2. This will reduce your aperture by 1 or 2 stops respectively. I often hear people say that the sharpness suffers, but I don’t see that since, as with lenses, they too have improved tremendously. Just being able to have a quick look at the histogram if you have time allows you to make exposure adjustments to the next shot, and examine the picture for sharpness. Being able to have a more detailed look back in camp in the evening is a tremendous advantage. It allows you to try for a re-shoot and invariably the next time the shot is better. I wish it was that easy though, as many shots are just once in a lifetime. And of course, the other fantastic advantage is that you can enjoy your pictures immediately.

Shutter Speed

Wildlife photography is usually shot in aperture priority mode so that you can control the light into the camera, thereby achieving the right shutter speed to keep the subject in focus. As a general rule, when filming wildlife it is advisable to use the fastest shutter speeds possible. Camera shake is greatly increased with long focus lenses. It is best to aim for speeds of at least 1/250 and ideally 1/500 plus. Too many shots are taken without steadying the camera and as most are taken from the vehicles, I strongly recommend you use one of our bean bags.

We all know how important light is. Being able to make ISO adjustments for each individual shot is probably one of the best improvements digital photography has bought to wildlife shooting. Being able to increase the ISO to achieve faster speeds is such an advantage and allows the camera to make the best use of what light is available. Using higher ISO settings does increase the noise in the image but modern cameras are reducing this to very acceptable levels. I think it is worth mentioning that the lower the f-stop setting, the less the depth of field will be, i.e. the portion of the picture that will be in focus. When taking portraits the professionals often aim to blur the background, however if you take the picture placing the animal in its surrounding you could use up to f8 if speed allows. Scenic shots, as a guide, can be taken up to f14 – f18. I discuss this further below.

I think you may now be realising there is more to this photography lark than first meets the eye! All I can say is that it does sound complicated on paper but when we get you out there it won’t be long before you start to understand the general rules, and after practicing, it will become second nature. I certainly will be guiding you along the way. If you try to use your digital SLR properly, I can promise your pictures will be far superior to those you take if you set your camera to Program or Auto mode -which after all, is programmed to average your settings – a poor compromise.

Shutter Speed

Wildlife photography is usually shot in aperture priority mode so that you can control the light into the camera, thereby achieving the right shutter speed to keep the subject in focus. As a general rule with safari photography, when filming wildlife it is advisable to use the fastest shutter speeds possible. Camera shake is greatly increased with long focus lenses. It is best to aim for speeds of at least 1/250 and ideally 1/500 plus. Too many shots are taken without steadying the camera and as most are taken from the vehicles, I strongly recommend you use one of our bean bags.

We all know how important light is. Being able to make ISO adjustments for each individual shot is probably one of the best improvements digital photography has bought to wildlife shooting. Being able to increase the ISO to achieve faster speeds is such an advantage and allows the camera to make the best use of what light is available. Using higher ISO settings does increase the noise in the image but modern cameras are reducing this to very acceptable levels. I think it is worth mentioning that the lower the f-stop setting, the less the depth of field will be, i.e. the portion of the picture that will be in focus. When taking portraits the professionals often aim to blur the background, however if you take the picture placing the animal in its surrounding you could use up to f8 if speed allows. Scenic shots, as a guide, can be taken up to f14 – f18. I discuss this further below.

I think you may now be realising there is more to this safari photography lark than first meets the eye! All I can say is that it does sound complicated on paper but when we get you out there it won’t be long before you start to understand the general rules, and after practicing, it will become second nature. I certainly will be guiding you along the way. If you try to use your digital SLR properly, I can promise your pictures will be far superior to those you take if you set your camera to Program or Auto mode -which after all, is programmed to average your settings – a poor compromise.

Setting up your photographs

Let us leave the camera aside for a moment and consider the other factors that make a good picture. I have mentioned light and let us consider it in more detail. When the African sky is blue, the sun is harsh which can create a photograph of dense shadows or burnt out highlights. Shadows on animals spoil more photographs than any other factor, so positioning is vital. Is it best to be positioned between subject and sun?  Or off to one side to create shape and form? Back lighting can create a super effect and helps to separate the subject from the background, but you need to be careful to avoid the possibility of under exposure. I always spot read from the animal’s body unless it has a dark colouring.

In the heat of the day, especially out in the plains, there is a danger of fussy, untidy backgrounds or foregrounds and a lack of contrast. The combination of long focus lens and wide aperture will usually over come this problem by allowing the subject to be sharply focused and the background as soft and smooth as seeing through the blades of grass which may actually add to the subject. Every effort is made to get you in close enough, to shoot when able to see the whites of the animals eyes, to fill the frame to create plenty of impact. Let me just once again mention that the unsuitable background will spoil an otherwise super shot. Longer shots where the subject becomes the focal point of landscapes or settings, can also create very pleasing and atmospheric shots. You are just spoilt for choice as each area is so different. The fantastic trees in the Mara and the Ewaso Nyiro River in Samburu are just unbeatable.

I have tried to give a very potted summary of what you should expect from your camera, to help you decide on the type of camera and lens required, plus a few very basic pointers on the art of taking photographs. All modern cameras are now fully automated giving all the different shooting priorities, auto focusing, single or multi shots – the list is endless. Whilst I have tried to give you some idea of the complexities, can I just say some of the best pictures we have seen have been from the very easy and quick to use snappy digital camera, so ultimately it’s your choice.

Setting up your photographs

Let us leave the camera aside for a moment and consider the other factors that make a good picture. I have mentioned light and let us consider it in more detail. When the African sky is blue, the sun is harsh which can create a photograph of dense shadows or burnt out highlights. Shadows on animals spoil more photographs than any other factor, so positioning is vital. Is it best to be positioned between subject and sun?  Or off to one side to create shape and form? Back lighting can create a super effect and helps to separate the subject from the background, but you need to be careful to avoid the possibility of under exposure. I always spot read from the animal’s body unless it has a dark colouring.

In the heat of the day, especially out in the plains, there is a danger of fussy, untidy backgrounds or foregrounds and a lack of contrast. The combination of long focus lens and wide aperture will usually over come this problem by allowing the subject to be sharply focused and the background as soft and smooth as seeing through the blades of grass which may actually add to the subject. Every effort is made to get you in close enough, to shoot when able to see the whites of the animals eyes, to fill the frame to create plenty of impact. Let me just once again mention that the unsuitable background will spoil an otherwise super shot. Longer shots where the subject becomes the focal point of landscapes or settings, can also create very pleasing and atmospheric shots. You are just spoilt for choice as each area is so different. The fantastic trees in the Mara and the Ewaso Nyiro River in Samburu are just unbeatable.

I have tried to give a very potted summary of what you should expect from your camera, to help you decide on the type of camera and lens required, plus a few very basic pointers on the art of taking photographs. All modern cameras are now fully automated giving all the different shooting priorities, auto focusing, single or multi shots – the list is endless. Whilst I have tried to give you some idea of the complexities, can I just say some of the best pictures we have seen have been from the very easy and quick to use snappy digital camera, so ultimately it’s your choice.

Practice makes perfect

However it is vital that you know your camera. If it is new, practice and practice until you know how to use all the features – you have no time to practice when you get to the bush. There is nothing worse than travelling half way around the world to take pictures only to find your camera packs up in the 3rd day, so please consider a spare – even if it means borrowing a second body.

Storage

Correct storage is vital. It is best to keep your equipment in a cloth camera bag, as a case takes up too much room, has sharp edges and lacks the compartments. The camera bag needs to be well organised with compartments for, and space to house, the camera bodies plus lens attached, and the other lenses all easily accessible for quick changes. Also your bag needs to house extra batteries and cards. It helps to make it as dust proof as possible using cloth bags. Don’t forget the odds and ends, screw drivers, tape, pocket knife, lens filters, spare batteries, remote switches, cleaning cloths. I really recommend you place your camera in a cloth bag such as a pillowcase when travelling in the vehicle, which gives maximum protection from the dust, but still provides instant access.

And finally…

It is worth bringing along a smaller auto camera for the fun shot, real close ups, groups by the fire, travelling in the vehicle. Confused? I hope I have helped and not confused! The art of photography is complex and can be approached in many different ways and I hope to combine your knowledge with my on-the-ground experience to get some great photographs. I have the sufficient know-how to get you in position to take the best shot possible. How you take it is down to you. One thing is for sure, first hand experience is so rewarding and easily beats anything you have seen on TV!