Locations: A Journey To Africa: A Photographic Safari

When photographing animals on an African safari, sharp photos are a gift to bring home and it all centers on proper technique. Use the “sweet spot” on the lens; with both of my shorter lenses it was around f/5.6 or f/8. On the longer zoom, I found f/5 or f/5.6 gave me needle-sharp and distortion-free images. With the animal at rest, always put that focusing spot on the eye. On longer distances or perhaps with the animal moving, place that spot on the shoulder or flank to keep a decent depth of field throughout their length.


Once out at the lodge and on a morning game drive I caught this male looking into a South African sunrise with my Nikon D3s, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens set at 400mm. This animal is one powerful and handsome cat.
All Photos © Stan Trzoniec

If you want a particular point of view, tell your guide about it and he will not only stop but also appreciate the fact you are alert in the art of spotting game. Most guides will do it as a courtesy, but if your guide forgets, tell him to shut off the diesel engine as it can give your VR or Image Stabilization a hard time.

If you are looking for a classic photo, get in close. I zoomed my Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 lens to almost its maximum focal length to see the detail in the skin and eye of this mature elephant. With today’s optics, if you are careful, sharpness is assured, depending of course on your technique and image stabilization within the lens.

Out in the bush, expect anything! While taking a secondary road, this elephant did not like our intrusion of her space and made a mock charge at our vehicle. With soft words from our guide William, she relaxed and stepped back enough for us to pass.

When shooting, shut off the rear monitor on your camera, as it will eat into productive battery time. Today’s modern cameras are spot on, and besides looking at your handiwork will only lead to missing—and perhaps—the last great shot of the day in perfect light. You can review all this later, keeping in mind that if you don’t have it now, there is always tomorrow. For my initial camera settings, I programed both camera bodies for Raw, dynamic area (51 spots), continuous-servo autofocus, continuous high (fps), cloudy white balance, aperture priority with the meter set at center-weighted for game, as they are the main subject of the trip.

To get the most out of your photo safari, shoot and keep shooting! At first take, do some establishing photos (the herd, area, possible weather conditions) then come in closer and still closer for a portrait or details. With a good photographic system and lenses, the wrinkles on an elephant will jump out, zebra stripes will take on a whole new look, and that cheetah will look at you like she wants you for dinner! Strive to keep the animal in sharp focus and use depth of field creatively to help separate the wildlife from the background.

This cheetah was spotted on a termite mound deep inside the park. She lay down to get a better view of us in the Land Rover. Staying outside their comfort zone, cheetahs make outstanding subjects for any photographer and will stay put, especially if they have their cubs near them.

Left: During a drive, we had a chance to disembark from the Land Rover in a safe area and walk with the giraffes. They are beautiful and curious animals and seem more than eager to pose for you. For this type of activity, a shorter lens is perfect and the D700 with the Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 proved its worth on expeditions like this. Right: There are literally hundreds of zebras to photograph and most are not shy. We caught this one right next to one of the access roads. I photographed with the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens; by utilizing a larger f/stop, the background remained pleasantly soft.

Granted, Africa could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many, but as photographers, we are planning to go again. Simply put, it’s the gift to you as a photographer that just keeps on giving.

Travel Tips
If there’s one suggestion I have it’s to pack light. The only item of weight should be a windbreaker (doubles as a rain jacket) or a fleece type of jacket plus a sweater for those early morning and late night drives. Hats are good; a couple of wash and wear drip-dry shirts for the day and add three or four sporty dress shirts for dinner. I also packed three pairs of cargo pants made from a lightweight fabric that could be washed and hung out to dry but there is a laundry service at the lodge if you need it. For footwear, a well broken in pair of boots for the wildlife walks and loafers come in handy for the casual times during meals and security checks at the airports.

A call to the Travel Department of your local medical group for a list of shots you will need for your stay in Africa is very important. Depending on your final destination, you will need pills for malaria, a shot for hepatitis, and possibly updates on the measles or mumps, depending on your medical history. Your tour/lodging will most likely supply you with bottled water, but as an option a prescription of Ciprofloxacin is a great hedge against a serious bout of diarrhea. You will not have any trouble at the lodge, but traveling around the local markets might present a problem if you stop to eat or drink. Finally, no matter where I travel, my wife and I always pack a “medical kit” for the unexpected.

In a few of the more protected areas where the guides know the whereabouts of the wider ranging animals and their hunting habits, walks through the bush are available. Take note of the guide with the rifle; if something happens he will never kill the game, just fire over its head to scare it away. We never had any such encounters, just a pleasant and informative short walk and then back to the Land Rover.

Here’s a typical Land Rover safari jitney, a great shooting platform with open access for all the Shutterbugs!

In South Africa, you’re always treated to beautiful sunsets. After dinner while walking back to the room, I shot this with my D700 with the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with the ISO set at 2500, -2 EV.

Photo Gear Tips
I know you want to take it all, but consider the restrictions on the plane of 45 linear inches for the overhead compartment and pare down to fit essential gear into your carry-on. First, although I know it sounds contrary to what you may have heard, stay away from taking a tripod, as 99 percent of your photography will be from the inside of a Land Rover and there is simply no place to set it up even with only a few people in the vehicle. A monopod might be a compromise, but since I use nothing but stabilized lenses, this accessory is of little value as any solid support works against stabilization. Next, a built-in camera flash is good to have as it adds nothing to the inside of the pack. Don’t take a full-blown strobe unit that sits on the shoe of your camera; believe me, I did not come across a situation where I needed it.

I rarely take my computer on trips anymore; instead, I may pack one of the newer portable storage units to download or view my images when I return to the lodgings. Something from Epson, Jobo, or Wolverine with an adapter makes saving images a snap. I will take 16 to 20 4MB or 8MB CompactFlash cards for each camera. With my Nikon D3s, 20 8MB cards will give me a run of 8000 photos in Raw, which is more than I would ever hope to take. When used, the cards are placed back into the case upside down to keep them from being returned to the camera by mistake.

My primary D-SLR was the Nikon D3s, a fast, handy camera capable of shooting up to 9 frames per second (fps); plenty of speed for most anything I might encounter. My backup was the Nikon D700, again, with the battery pack, 8 fps is the norm and since both take the same EN-EL4a battery, an extra set of these went into the versatile Moose Peterson MP-3 backpack.

Along with the bodies went three Nikon Vibration Reduction (VR) lenses that would cover all of my shooting requirements. First is the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G VR. Next in the bag is my AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, a versatile objective that is perfect for fast-moving animals even with the 1.4x tele-converter. Finally, the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR was my ticket to crisp portraits of animals and was glued to my D3s the entire trip. In addition, I included a 77mm polarizer and the Singh-Ray Vari-ND for both the Nikkor 24-120mm and the 70-200mm, lens hoods for all, lens cleaner and a Giottos blower for cleaning later at night.

I know there is a temptation to take a longer 500mm or 600mm lens, but I would refrain from that because you have to get it there. That usually requires a long Pelican case that will go in the belly of the plane, and that makes me nervous. If you need more power, add a tele-converter.

Stan Trzoniec is a well-known outdoor writer and photographer with over 2800 articles and 850 magazine covers to his credit. He publishes coffee-table books on nature, photography, and railroads available and autographed through his website, www.outdoorphotographics.com.

Joanie's picture

Amazing animal photos. There is no question that Africa is one of the best places in the world where we can find interesting animal species. - Mint Springs Farm