© Gabe Weisert
Creative cropping: You can lend your safari photos a much needed sense of proportion during the editing process. The above photograph was cropped in order to a) get rid of the Range Rovers in the distance and b) de-center the subjects.
updated 10/1/2007 3:14:31 PM ET 2007-10-01T19:14:31

Last summer in the Serengeti, a tired group of safari clients sat listlessly in their Range Rover, gazing out on yet another vast herd of wildebeest. The appeal of these particular ruminants was fading quickly; many wildebeest had been seen, and many pictures of them taken.

Then, apropos of nothing, two males from the herd took issue with one another, resulting in a spectacular clash of horns and hoofs. But before the startled observers had a chance to fumble for their Canon Powershots, the fight was over.

A professional wildlife photographer, of course, would have calmly captured the scene with a respectable SLR camera and a telephoto zoom lens, having waited patiently for this moment with the autumnal reserve of a zen monk. Instead, the few images that survive of the incident depict two roughly adjacent blurs.

Lesson learned: if you intend to take safari photos that don't require a magnifying glass and some abstract observational skills to interpret, bringing a $200 point-and-click camera on a $5,000 safari doesn't make sense.

"I always recommend that folks use a 35mm camera on safari, and get the best one that their budget permits," says James Weis, of the award-winning photography outfitter Eyes on Africa. "However, the most important feature is to have a lens which provides 300mm of focal length at the very least."

A decent zoom lens has an added benefit — the ability to selectively focus in the midst of that grimly familiar safari phenomenon, the wildlife jam.

“I began my 6-day safari thinking I would get some amazing shots of the wildlife of Eastern Africa, and I did,” says Roberta Chavez, a modern dancer in San Francisco. “But I didn't realize how strong the human presence is in these national parks. Almost every time we spotted something amazing, like a pack of cheetah cubs with blood on their noses while their mother chomps on a zebra carcass, half a dozen other vehicles would appear and surround the site. It made it quite difficult to get a shot of the animals without a Land Rover in a corner of the picture!”

© Gabe Weisert
Adjust your ISO to capture motion. When light is low, you may have to bump up your ISO to 400 or even 800 in order to freeze motion (then again, you may want to keep it at 100 for a more impressionistic, blurring effect).
Fortunately, having the right equipment doesn’t require a huge outlay. A dependable SLR camera like a Canon Rebel can be purchased for $300, and a 400mm zoom lens can be rented from a local camera store for $15 to $20 a day.

A proper camera package should also include a wide lens for taking landscapes (most SLRs come with very serviceable stock lenses), plenty of storage capacity (80 gig portable hard drives that read media cards run for around $150), and a good brush. Safaris can get dusty.

© Gabe Weisert
Experiment with depth of field. Adjusting your aperture to wide settings (say, 1.4 or 2.8) causes your subjects to pop in focus against a gauzy background. Longer lenses will do this naturally, so telephotos can be useful in shooting close-ups as well.
"Bring the longest lens that you can afford," says professional wildlife photographer Andy Biggs. "And you should try to take most of your photographs within the first and last hours of sunlight. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the warmer and more dramatic your shots will be."

It also pays to be patient. Those jaw-dropping shots of frolicking kudus in National Geographic are inevitably the result of hundreds of hours in the field. First-time safari goers tend to fall into a predictable pattern: spending their first few days gripped in a frenzy of photo-taking, and winding up oversaturated, their “bingo cards” filled, their cameras in their cases.

In both cases, they're missing out on well-composed photographs that capture not just static portraits (elephant stands idly next to a pack of baboons), but moments in time (elephant flares his ears at an overcurious baby baboon). This takes a steady hand, though it helps to stabilize your zoom lens with a small bean bag, and several minutes behind the viewfinder.

"Review your images daily if you have the time, as you will look for areas for improvement," says Biggs. "Pay attention to the small details, such as a giraffe's tongue or a big cat's tail. It is those small details that will make or break an image." And when all else fails, shoot for the eyes.

For an enthusiastic amateur photographer, a safari can be a boot camp in compositional basics like the rule of thirds, stopping down the ISO for visual effect, and experimenting with depth of field (none of this is as complicated as it sounds — see the slideshow). All skills which you can actually carry over into more dubious photographic genres like the little league shot, or the holiday portrait.

We consulted a number of professional wildlife photographers, and conducted some mildly successful field research of our own, to gather this list of safari photography tips. Happy clicking.


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