Welcome

"My knowledge-packed photo blog is a great resource for photographers looking to develop their skills and nature lovers looking to immerse themselves in beautiful and evocative images and wildlife encounters..."

THE photo BLOG

Elliott Neep on Safari with David Lloyd

Remembering Wildlife: Remembering Great Apes

I’m pleased to say that the Remembering Great Apes gallery exhibition is now open! On the 17th October, the Private Viewing took place at La Galleria, Pall Mall, London.  This free exhibition of images from the latest book, will be open daily 10am-5pm from Monday 15th October to Saturday 27th October.

“The exhibition features images from the book which is a collaboration between many of the world’s top wildlife photographers, each of whom has donated their work to the project.”

If you’re in London over the next week, please do visit the exhibition. All prints are for sale and money raised goes directly to collective conservation efforts for great apes around the world. As a sneak preview, here is my photograph for Remembering Great Apes…

Hold on to hope (April 2011)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda with NIKON D3S and 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 1250

Tonight, from 7:15 onwards, sees the official launch of the photographic book: Remembering Great Apes. This will be at the RGS and tickets are available here:

 https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/remembering-great-apes-book-launch-tickets-45623794999

“The fundraising event will be introduced by our editor, Born Free consultant Ian Redmond OBE and as well as a presentation of the images from the book, will include talks by Ofir Drori, activist and founder of the EAGLE Network and former Wildlife Photographer of the Year Tim Laman, alongside his wife Cheryl Knott, founder of Gunung Palung Orangutan Project. The founder of Remembering Wildlife Margot Raggett will compere the evening, which will also include a special guest appearance by the former lodge manager of the magical Greystoke Mahale, Julien Polet.”

I’ll be attending along with dozens of contributing photographers. It’s a great event and now firmly fixed as part of our wildlife photographer’s calendar. This evening, all the attending photographers will be on-hand to sign your copy of this exceptional fund-raising book.

“So far, Remembering Elephants and Remembering Rhinos have together raised more than £315,000 for conservation projects across 10 countries in Africa and Asia. We are hoping that Remembering Great Apes will be our biggest launch yet and we’d love to see you there to be part of it.”

Trekking up densely forested volcanos, encountering wild Mountain Gorillas – arguably the most enigmatic of all wild animals – has to be in every wildlife photographer’s bucket list. I’ve been fortunate enough to do several treks in the Virunga and compiled this article should you ever wish to undertake this unforgettable adventure.

7 Wildlife Wonders

I’ve had a long successful career as a Wildlife Photographer and Tour Leader. During the last 16-years of wildlife photography, I’ve travelled to every continent, and fulfilled many of my bucket list aspirations. It’s been a career literally full of wildlife wonders.

Here, is my top 7 Wildlife Wonders. It’s really an impossible list to fulfil, as new encounters and experiences constantly vie for position in the top rankings. Maybe next year, I’ll pen a new list. But, for now, while I’m writing, these are my 7 magic moments in no particular order…

Emperor penguin crèche (December 2009)

Emperor penguin chicks. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Cape Washington, Antarctica | Click image to buy print

Emperor penguin chicks

For years I had dreamt of visiting Terra Incognita, the fabled frozen land of Antarctica. Like many in this industry, I grew up on an Attenborough TV diet. To be stood on the ice, just a few metres from a gaggle of young downy grey Emperor penguin chicks just blew my mind. A true wildlife wonder!

I didn’t care that it was practically a white out scene, nor that I’d lost feeling in my fingers. I certainly didn’t care that I had to be physically removed from the ice. It will always be one of the greatest highlights and privileges of my life.

Roaring male lion No.2 (November 2011)

Roaring male lion. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya | Click image to buy print

The Lion’s Roar

There are memorable and enduring natural elements that an image cannot capture. Smell is one. The other is Sound. I have been around big cats and predators for many years. I have heard lions and tigers growl and snarl, elephants trumpet and silverback mountain gorillas beat their chests.

For me, there are two sounds in the natural world that make the hairs on my entire body stand on end and send an innate primeval shiver down my spine – howling wolves and the roar of lions in the night. One of the greatest experiences in nature is having a mature ‘pride male’ lion roar beside you, with your heart pumping, lungs resonating and bottom squeaking!

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Polar bear roaming fast ice. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Samarinvågen, Svalbard

The Polar Bear

There are many ‘memorable’ firsts. But, I could not think of anything more memorable than seeing my first polar bear as he roamed across fast ice, deep in a frozen fjord in Spitsbergen.

Some of my clients would have been sorely disappointed with this distant view. However, this was more real and more meaningful than having a bear stand against the hull of your expedition ship. In one snapshot, you could understand so much more.

The scale was epic. The sheet of fast ice was immense, but still dwarfed by the size of the glacier. On the ice, a tiny creamy-yellow dot bumbled along – the embodiment of a solitary life. I couldn’t help but think “How on earth does a polar bear manage to hunt prey out here?!”

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)

Two-week old tiger cubs suckling mother. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India

Infant Tiger Cubs

One of my most wondrous encounters has been greatly publicised as it was so rare and so intimate. Suffice to say, that finding a litter of infant tiger cubs is one of my most cherished memories.

The encounter was highly emotional with everybody watching from the elephant (including the grizzled mahout) were in floods of tears. Yes, I am an emotional softy, but I would challenge anybody not to be moved by something as precious as this.

For ten glorious minutes, Bandhavgarh and the rest of the world disappeared as four blue-eyed, toothless tiger cubs suckled from their mother.

Read my guide: Everything you need to know about photographing wild tigers.

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Hyena hunting flamingos. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya

Flamingo Hunting Hyenas

Some animals are very unpopular. The hyena is the proverbial bad guy in almost all wildlife documentaries – savagely and ruthlessly tearing up the weak and scavenging fresh prey from lightweight cheetahs. I arrived in Lake Nakuru with the same disdain that is shared by many. However, during a thirty-minute encounter, my ill-informed views were entirely overthrown.

From the lake shore, a pair of spotted hyenas made several mock charges into a flock of flamingos. Each time, they ran, stopped and watched. After several attempts, they came back to shore and rested, rolling lazily about. The flamingos gradually returned to the shallows, ignoring the seemingly preoccupied hyenas and that is when they struck.

Both hyenas charged-in and each seized a lame pitiful flamingo. They had been testing the flock to find the weakest birds. Those with injuries, that couldn’t take flight quickly.

Crater Lion (March 2011)

Lion basking in afternoon sunlight in the Crater. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania | Click image to buy print

Ngorongoro Crater

Despite its overwhelming popularity and tourist over-saturation, Ngorongoro Crater still has the ability to turn your creative grey matter into wanderlust purée. I return year after year as I know that unique combination of highland macro-climate and those sheer crater walls can produce the most incredible, jaw-dropping scenes.

Find yourself a quite corner in the afternoon when the clouds begin to build, track down the lions, elephant, rhinos or herd animals and cue the ephemeral magic of Ngorongoro.

Read my guide: Top camera gear essentials for the African photo safari.

European Badger (Meles meles)

Baby badger cub foraging on woodland floor. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Aston Rowant NNR, England

Woodland Badger Cub

I first photographed badgers in a secluded beech woodland in Buckinghamshire. I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly!” So, I spent everyday at the sett for over two months, rain or shine.

When the badger cubs emerged, I was one of the first things they saw. Unfortunately, this remarkable experience was tinged with sadness. We had a cold and dismally wet May, which evidently took its toll as I found one of the cubs had died – its body dragged out and left near the sett entrance.

I buried the little thing some distance away. That was the lowest point. The most rewarding came a few days later. I was in my usual spot, when a badger cub (this one pictured above) appeared in the long grass. It bumbled over and curled up next to my leg and promptly went to sleep.

Although I rationalised that it just needed some body-warmth, how can you not feel touched when shown such trust from a wild animal?

The Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris | Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my knowledge-packed 5-part guide to safari photography. This time, I’m discussing issues you might face travelling with camera gear, a few words on DSLRs, lens choice, support recommendations. Over time, this entire series will be re-edited and refreshed. Bookmark it now, so that you can refer back to it later…

Travelling with camera gear

We, are our own worst enemy. Us photographers simply take too much kit. We’re wedded to that old axiom: “Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” Anyway, it’s not like we’re trekking with it, right? We’re just in a Land Cruiser rumbling around the savannah, so we can take everything, right? Wrong!

This misguided wisdom leads us to travel half way round the planet with bags of kit we will never actually use or need. As I demonstrated in Part 1, too much choice clouds your judgement and lens selection takes too much time. Besides, there are some particularly prickly issues when it comes to travelling with all our valuable, precious, fragile camera gear: Weight restrictions flights; Security, Theft prevention; Protection against mishandling. Below, I’ll detail my experiences and best advice. In short, leave nothing to chance. Assumption truly is the Mother of all mistakes!

Weight Restrictions (International Long-haul)

Follow my advice from Part 1, regarding cutting-back on your lens selection and unnecessary paraphernalia. Trust me. This will go a long way to alleviating concerns regarding weight restrictions.

In general terms, your weight limit for check-in baggage is 23-30kg and this will vary depending on the airline and the route – yes, the route, so do not assume to know the weight limit. Always check. You can usually take more than the standard limit, if you pay online in advanced. I strongly advise against this because of the rigorous and strictly enforced weight limit on internal flights – more on that later.

Your carry-on (hand-baggage) for international long-haul is anything from 5kg upwards, again depending on your airline and your class of travel. All airlines issue guidance, referring to both weight and physical dimensions of your hand-baggage, stating that passengers should be ‘able to easily manage carry-on items’. Here’s the latest hand-baggage guidance from British Airways (Sep 2018), but do check your own airline as these restrictions do vary immensely across carriers:

  1. Your bags must fit into the baggage gauge at check-in (including handles, pockets and wheels).
  2. The weight limit applies to each bag; it isn’t possible to split the total weight across multiple bags.
  3. You must be able to lift your bags into the overhead locker by yourself.
  4. Your handbag/laptop size bag is guaranteed to travel in the cabin.

On busy flights, you may be asked to check in your additional cabin bag, so make sure you have no valuables or essential medication packed in this bag.

  • 1 handbag/laptop bag (max. 23kg / 51lb and up to 40 x 30 x 15cm / 16 x 12 x 6in)
  • 1 additional cabin bag (max. 23kg / 51lb and up to 56 x 45 x 25cm / 22 x 18 x 10in)

Choose the right airline

For years, I’ve flown with British Airways almost exclusively and nearly always flown World Traveller Plus. I opt for World Traveller Plus, because it’s more comfortable with larger seats, more leg room, etc. Not all carriers have this ‘in between’ cabin, just Economy and Business. Whenever possible, I try to buy my tickets in the sale (although these are infrequent and ad hoc) and can sometimes bag the World Traveller Plus cabin ticket for the same price as standard economy.

More important than price

Although British Airways may appear more expensive, it’s a premium worth paying for. Besides, when I have used price comparison sites, searching for alternatives, tickets that seem cheaper often have additional costs applied, plus layovers and connecting flights. It’s a false economy. British Airways flies to every destination that I regularly visit, directly, without layover and connections. The one exception is Svalbard, where I fly SAS.

Not only does BA have an extensive network, they command enormous resources when it comes to aircraft. For example, I was on a 747, expecting to push-off from the terminal, when we were told to leave the aircraft. Annoyingly, the cargo doors had been ‘accidentally damaged during freight loading’. BA managed to re-task a 747 in just 45 minutes. That’s impressive.

I’m not insisting you fly BA. Just consider your choice carefully. It’s more than just the price of a ticket alone. Will your carrier be weighing your hand-baggage? Do they fly direct? Will you have to pay for hotel during a stop-over? If you have connecting flights, are they well-timed? What resources do they have, should your aircraft develop a fault, or if there is poor weather and the inbound service is massively delayed?

Time v Price

If you miss your airline’s sale, there are still opportunities to buy a cheaper airline ticket. Check out this useful site from SkySkanner. With most airlines, there is a specific time period where they drop prices, before ramping-up closer to departure. For example, if you’re flying London to Nairobi, it’s cheaper to buy your tickets 7-9 weeks ahead of your intended departure date. Here’s another breakdown from Forbes, for my readers based in the U.S.

Know your seat

If you’re like me, then you always check-in online, so you can avoid some of the queues and just drop your bags off at the check-in desk. However, before you confirm your check-in and seat allocation, have a quick look at SeatGuru. This is an excellent resource for frequent flyers and tells you which are the best seats on the aircraft for a ‘quiet flight’. SeatGuru can also tell you if your seats will have AC power for your Macbook/laptop. While you’re there, have a look at the Guru Tips. It’s full of useful travel tips!

The dreaded check-in

I know people who are literally stricken with panic when they arrive at the check-in desk. “What if I’m over-weight!?” What if they want to weigh my hand-baggage!?” “What if they insist on sending my camera gear to the hold!?” Well, it pays to know the official guidance from your airline – another reason that I fly BA, because I know where I stand.

I’ve never been asked to weigh my hand-baggage or place it in the baggage gauge – that metal tubular frame that you see near check-in. I put this down to the fact that my carry-on is always a backpack. Wheelies automatically draw the attention of ground staff – much more than a similar-sized backpack. I can’t comment on other carriers, but I definitely feel more assured of a hassle-free check-in with BA, especially when their own guidelines state 23kg for a cabin bag.

Considering my standard travel kit is one modest-sized backpack and one laptop bag for my MacBook Pro, I never feel any stress going through check-in and that is actually worth paying for. Long-haul travel can be a stressful business, but I manage to remain as calm and serene as a Hindu cow. Here’s my process:

  • All baggage contents are checked-off a checklist (I use the Reminders App on my iPhone);
  • Check-in online (or via the BA app) 24 hours ahead of departure;
  • My hand-baggage and check-in baggage are both carefully weighed at home with this;
  • My camera gear is with me always, never left in the car boot, never checked-in;
  • I arrive on time, with plenty of time to spare, with minimal queues at check-in;
  • I queue with the quiet calm usually reserved for the Dali Lama;
  • My bags are checked-in and I move on to security;
  • I know where everything is. iPad and Macbook are out and ready for their own tray;
  • I pass through security, plug-in my Bose QuietComfort headphones and it’s on to YO! Sushi to enjoy a tasty meal before boarding.

Lithium Batteries (Li-ion)

A quick note about batteries. There are rising concerns regarding Lithium (Li-ion) batteries transported in the aircraft hold. Damaged Li-ion batteries can ignite and create a rapid burnout. So, the best advice is to carry all Li-ion batteries in your hand-baggage, with any spares kept in their original case with terminals protected from shorting-out. The reasoning behind this: If they do short out in your hand-baggage, at least you will be aware of it and able to do something about it. You may have not even given it a second thought, but it’s serious enough for the FAA to issue guidance. Here’s the latest from the FAA:

“Spare (uninstalled) lithium-ion and lithium metal batteries must be carried in carry-on baggage only. When a carry-on bag is checked at the gate or at planeside, all spare lithium batteries must be removed from the bag and kept with the passenger in the aircraft cabin. The battery terminals must be protected from short-circuit.” View the PDF FAA illustrated guide

Weight Restrictions (Internal flights)

Now, this is the really tricky bit… The light aircraft used to ferry us tourists to and from the Masai Mara and Serengeti are understandably smaller than a 747. Well, duh! The turbo-prop aircraft range from the Caravan to the Dash 8. Actually, my first internal flight from Lake Nakuru to the Masai Mara was in a Sesna!

The Dash 8, which is most common aircraft for the Mara transfers these days, have very narrow overhead compartments and no leg room to store hand-baggage under the seat in front. The Caravans have no overhead compartment at all. Carry-on baggage is left at the back of the plane as you climb onboard.

Crucially, these scheduled flights limit your maximum total baggage allowance to just 15Kg! And that’s for everything – camera gear, clothes, toiletries, everything! Most photographers’ camera bags weigh 15Kg+ alone. And this is where most visiting photographers come unstuck. You’ve happily travelled from the four corners of the globe, with oodles of kit, now you hit a brick wall. So, you have three options that need careful consideration, well in advanced:

  • Option 1: Pay the premium for excess baggage, on arrival. This is risky and you’ll only be given this option if there is capacity on your flight;
  • Option 2: Pay for a freight seat – this can usually be arranged through your Tour Operator and/or ground agent. In essence you are paying for an additional ticket, just for your baggage. If you go for this option, make sure you arrange this well ahead of your departure date;
  • Option 3: Use a Tour Operator that transfers your check-in baggage via road, allowing you to fly with just your camera gear. Genius.

If you are travelling with a group, your total baggage is weighed and divided amongst you. It doesn’t matter whether the person next in line is 100Kg+ and you’re only 65kg. It’s the baggage weight that counts. If the average baggage weight is above 15Kg per person, then you may have an issue. It can get messy, with people arguing over who brought the excess weight… It’s not a great to start to any trip. So, either pay for a freight seat or choose the Tour Operator wisely and ask for their advice on this issue, well before your departure.

Mind your manners!

If your camera bag is a bulky backpack or wheelie, you will be asked to ‘check it’ into the hold. Don’t worry about it and, for goodness sake, do not get aggressive! The airline employees aren’t trying to make your life difficult and it is not personal. Being aggressive and stroppy gets you nowhere. They know that your bag simply won’t fit – that is all. The hold on these small planes is not a large space and the bags are handled with care, primarily because you can stand there and watch them load the bags. I’ve never had an issue checking my backpack into the hold for an internal flight, so please don’t be grumpy about it. It’s truly embarrassing, for everybody.

Backpacks & Cases

For years, my go to backpack was the LowePro Vertex 300 AW (now discontinued). It was near the maximum dimensions for international carry-on and I could fit my 600mm VR f/4, 70-200mm VRII f/2.8, 16-35 VR f/4, plus two D800 bodies, with batteries and grips – all the essentials. The hood was packed separately. That’s still a lot of kit and basically all I need.

On the rare occasion that I did need to check-in some kit, I packed my 600mm f/4, 16-35mm, and two bodies into a Lowepro Lens Trekker, the rest (either a 200-400 f/4 VR or 300mm f/2.8) into a Pelicase 1510, using extremely tight-fitting foam. I then place the padlocked Pelicase 1510 in a padlocked holdall or suitcase, to hide the fact that it’s a Pelicase – which SHOUTS “Expensive items inside! Please steal me!” In addition to the padlocks, you can also invest in a PacSafe bag protector – a metal mesh guard that wraps around your Pelicase to act as a deterrent.

Camera Gear: Tenba Solstice Backpack 20L

Tenba Solstice Backpack 20L. The bag has a large main compartment with rear access for added security

Downsizing

With my FujiFilm GFX50s mirrorless Medium Format system, sporting just two lenses, I now use the Tenba Solstice 20L Backpack. I really like this backpack with its slimline construction – so you don’t get caught on gates or turnstiles. It’s relatively narrow (compared to a very broad Vertex), with a generous front pocket for my iPad, batteries, and cards plus room for my Bose QuiteComfort headphones, sunglasses, and more in the top.

The main feature of the Tenba Solstice is the ‘through the back’ access, so you lay the waterproof front on the ground and access the camera compartment through the back of the Solstice, in between the shoulder straps. So many other backpacks have the traditional front access, meaning you have to lay the webbed back section on potentially muddy ground, then you have to wear this against your back. Yuk.

Nairobi – A hunting ground

Sadly, Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has become a hunting ground for thieves, airside – meaning it’s the employees of the airport! Pelicases have been broken into, padlocks smashed, and camera gear stolen. The first thing you know about it is when your case appears on the carousel, with the locks broken. Thankfully, this has never happened to me, perhaps because of my ‘disguise’ tactic mentioned above. But, it has happened to clients and they are devastated, as you can well imagine.

Photographer Insurance

So my next recommendation is for good insurance, should the worst happen. My current insurer is PhotoShield (underwritten by Liverpool Victoria Insurance Company Limited) as they cover your equipment in the aircraft hold – as long as it is “securely contained in a Pelicase or similar case“. They also cover ‘new for old’ equipment, shipping-out hire or replacement kit.

When I’m travelling for work, this ‘continuance’ cover is essential. I can claim and receive a new item within a couple of days, practically anywhere, thus insuring my commission or assignment continues with minimal interruption. Antarctica, might be an issue, but with international flights arriving into Nairobi and Kilimanjaro several times a day, and several internal flights to the Masai Mara and Serengeti, receiving replacement equipment is not a problem.

It’s not your everyday travel insurance that covers you for continuance. So please do investigate specialist photographer insurance and see what cover you can get. In short, however, DO NOT check-in your camera gear into the hold, if you can possibly avoid it.

 

“Pack clever, pack light, and carry-on!”

Some thoughts on DSLRs

For a really thorough look at the essential camera gear – read my special guide here.

This might come off as a bit of a rant, but stay with it… I’m a selective photographer and always have been. I cannot understand this ‘machine gunner’ approach to wildlife photography. Hundreds of frames fired on a puffin that is standing stock still. Same with a lion that’s just lying around. It boggles the mind. It’s the metaphorical equivalent to throwing mud at the wall and hoping something sticks.

One of the problems (yes problems) with many DSLRs is the high frame rate. In my opinion, this can make photographers very lazy. Some DSLRs shoot in excess of 10 frames per second (FPS). With this in mind, I have some rhetorical questions:

  1. If you shoot 100 frames in one moment and a single frame is ‘the shot’, can anybody really say they’ve “Nailed it”?
  2. Who is going to want to edit hundreds of practically identical images?
  3. Do you want to grow and improve as a photographer, or just get a high enough hit rate to put something on social media?

I recently used the Nikon D500 Digital SLR. For a camera under the GBP£2,000 mark, It’s an impressive piece of kit. It shoots an incredible 10fps on a 20MP sensor. For me, personally, 10FPS is just ridiculous. It’s not that I’m old-fashioned (feel free to comment…), it’s the workload. Even shooting selectively, pulsing the shutter, I have so many ‘similars’, from this camera, the process of editing through them all is just a pain in the arse and a waste of my valuable time.

I do understand the attraction to high FPS cameras. Sincerely, I do. If this is your once in a lifetime trip, you want to make sure you go home with some shots. If you’re a press photographer, streaming JPEGs across the digital ether, directly to a picture desk, you’d want to be sure you captured ‘the moment’. I get it. However, if you really watch nature and the animals – and I mean really watch them – you’ll be able to interpret the behaviour and anticipate the moment, timing your shots far better than if your eye is permanently attached to the viewfinder, your finger glued to the shutter release.

Perhaps, this is where the true value in a skilled Photographic Tour Leader is found. Experienced professional wildlife photographers can articulate the “how, what, and why” as they are photographing the subject, so you can key-in to their experience.

“It takes no skill whatsoever to press a shutter button.
It takes all the skill you can muster to intentionally capture
a moment worth keeping.”

If you have a high FPS camera, why not consider pulsing your shots? Rather than leaving your finger down on the shutter? Pulse the shutter button, so you are shooting in 2s and 3s, rather than in batches of 20s and 50s. At least then, you’ll be able to glance around, and see what’s going on. You never know, you might see a situation develop, anticipate the outcome, and genuinely nail that shot with just 2 or 3 frames. Rant over.

Camera Bodies

I always recommend at least two camera bodies – one for a telephoto lens plus another as a grab camera with either a mid-zoom or a wide-angle lens. Having a second body means that you can grab fleeting landscapes and contextual images, without the need for swapping lenses. Ideally, your camera bodies should be the same make and model, so there is no mental struggle (and time-wasting) as you decide which body you’d rather shoot with. In the past, I have had two different DSLRs. I would struggle to decide which I would prefer to shoot with – usually favouring the bigger, better, cleaner sensor. The deliberation cost me opportunities as I was busy pondering, or then rushing to shoot the encounter.

Realising my mistake, I decided to upgrade in pairs, purchasing two bodies at a time – the same make and model, with a 3rd older/lesser body for backup. This started with a pair of Nikon D3s, then a pair of Nikon D800 (subsequently replaced by the outstanding Nikon D850). With two matching bodies, my decisions simply came down to lens choice – close-up and into the action with a 600mm, or capture the context with the short-zoom or wide-angle. The decision was a snap. With my current medium format setup, I now shoot with two bodies, but each system is specific to a particular style. The medium format is my wide-angle and context system, whereas any hired DSLR and 400mm combo is my detail, action and portrait system.

Whichever avenue you choose, shooting two bodies side-by-side, will not only minimise reaction time, but also prevent wear and tear on the lens contacts (because you’re not swapping lenses every five minutes) and protect the sensor from unnecessary exposure to dust. If you’re not experienced, exacting, and decisive, opt for a pair of matching DSLRs, even if you have to hire one.

Point & Shoot or SmartPhone

Ever considered making a photo diary on your safari? It’s great for social media, plus it adds some candid material – behind the scenes shots – that can often prove just as interesting as your slideshow/portfolio of beautiful animal images. I used to carry a Canon PowerShot G10 with me, but now I just use my iPhone for candid shots within the vehicle and video snippets of my encounters.

“I pretty much keep to only three lenses in my bag now and I’ve not missed any that are not there. I’ve also eschewed filters almost completely and left most other peripheral devices at home. The result is now I consider the picture more than the gear, the composition and, of course, the subject itself. It’s an entire thought process eliminated.”
(David Lloyd, Wildlife Photographer & Tour Leader)

Lens Choice

Prior to my recent system change, there was always a super-wide zoom like a 16-35mm, mid-telephoto 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom, and 600mm f/4 prime. Along with the camera bodies, this was my standard safari/travel kit and it went with me everywhere. As long as you have a wide-angle and a zoom/telephoto, you’re in business. Don’t have a good quality telephoto? Hire one from Lenses For Hire or Fixation.

“Interested in lens hire? David Lloyd Photo Safaris has a selection of 400mm f/2.8 lenses and 300mm f/2.8 lenses for both Canon and Nikon. These are available to hire as part of your Masai Mara photo safari. It’s a great concept – you can try these pro lenses and save yourself the worry of carrying them on long-haul and internal flights.”

Wide-angle lens (24-70):

For landscapes with huge skies and for those moments where the animals approach really close to the vehicle. Also great for turning the camera inwards into the vehicle and catching those behind-the-scene shots. It’s easy to get carried away with the telephoto – shooting frame-filling portraits – but remember to photograph the animals in their environment. A portrait rarely says nothing about the animal’s habitat. The 24-70mm (used above) or 24-105mm is a good range for ‘animals in their environment’. We’ll discuss this more later.

Mid-range telephoto Zoom (70-200):

Gives you the flexibility to photograph herds, packs, prides, and landscape details. Good examples are the classic silhouette of an animals on the horizon with rays of light through a thunderstorm. The 70mm end is also great for panoramic ‘stitching’, so you can build a panoramic vista, whilst maintaining a closer perspective. The 200mm end is great for panning running herds, especially with the addition of a screw in ND filter to slow the shutter.

Super-telephoto (400+):

To get you into the action, for portraits, frame-fillers, and bird life. For years, I’ve used a 600mm f/4. It’s a gorgeous lens, but usually way too much glass for most situations. Big cats and herd animals are often too close for anything other than abstracts, although I do enjoy that challenge. The sheer physical length of the 600mm f/4 (with its bucket-sized lens hood) makes it rather unwieldy, especially within the confines of a safari vehicle. The 400mm f/2.8 would now be my ‘go to’ lens to hire for a safari.

Remember, telephotos also make great landscape lenses. You will see features in the landscape and animals walking along ridges. At a distance, they photograph exceptionally well as isolated compositions. Note: You do have to be careful when shooting distant animals during the heat of the day. They will often blur or appear smudgy because of the heat shimmer.

“I recently used the Nikon 300mm f4E PF VR lens in the Masai Mara, with the Nikon D500 – a superb combination giving an equivalent focal length of 450mm f/4. The 300mm Pf weighs in at a mere 755g and carries the same 77mm filter thread as the 70-200. It was compact, light, sharp, and fast-focussing. If I was on the market for a new 300mm, this would be a serious contender.”

Hoya 77mm Pro ND 64

The Hoya 77mm Pro ND 64 Filter reduces the amount of light entering the lens by up to 6+ stops, without affecting the colour balance.

Lens Filters

I only recommend two types of filter – a circular polariser and ND filters. Polarising filters reduce glare and saturate colours, as well as deepening blue skies. The downside to using a polariser is that you lose 2-stops of light, slowing your shutter speed.

Graduated neutral density filters help to correctly expose bright skies and preserve exposure for the ground/foreground. The typical setup is with using square 100mm filters in a slot-in holder by Cokin (cheap and good) or Lee Filters (expensive but arguably the best).

Screw-in ‘solid’ or non-grad ND filters are a great option when you want to slow the shutter speed to capture motion blur. Without an ND filter, you would need to drop your ISO to its expanded minimum (L.03) and close the aperture right down to f/22. This will reveal every speck of dust on your sensor – a nightmare to clean off in post-processing.

A 6-stop ND filter is just sheer enough to see through and compose your photograph, while dropping the shutter speed 6-stops. An exposure of 1/60th sec becomes 1 second. A 10-stop ND is basically opaque and not practical. These screw-in filters come in a range of densities and sizes to suit the lens’ filter thread. They work especially well with the 70-200mm f/2.8. There’s a useful buying guide to ND filters on TechRadar.

Camera Support

Critically sharp images require high-quality glass, appropriate shutter speed and (the often forgotten) support. These are the support solutions that have served me very well over the years…

The trusty beanbag

CAMERA GEAR: LensCoat LensSack Pro Bean Bag

LensCoat LensSack Pro Bean Bag

The double-beanbag is a great accessory and my go-to ‘support’. Take one (preferably more) flat-packed in your luggage and ask the camp/lodge to fill it with beans or rice. Do not travel with a filled beanbag!

The larger molar-type beanbags offer-up enough support for even the largest lenses and can be left in position, on the car door, all day. Some of the better camps and photographic safari tours will even provide beanbags for you – obviously check before flying out.

My only (small) issue with the trusty beanbag is when it comes to panning – rotating the camera to track a moving subject. The material gets caught-up on the lens foot and the lens-barrel rolls over, producing skewed horizons. There’s a cheap fix for this in the form of a ‘panning plate’ which screws into the lens foot and a metal base plate. The whole rig then sits on the beanbag. The panning plate enables a smooth rotational movement.

You could also invest in one of these £100+ LensCoat beanbags, with removable mounting plate. The plate features a 3/8”-16 mounting screw, allowing the attachment a gimbal or the panning plate mentioned above. Alternatively, you can do what I do… learn to pan smoothly handheld. It requires no gear, just practice!

Panning Plate

If you already have a decent molar beanbag, but want something to improve your panning, then have a look at the Skimmer Ground Pod or the Visual Echoes panning plate. Both accessories can be placed on top of the beanbag and allow free range of lateral movement.

Super Clamping

An alternative to the beanbag is the Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp. It’ll bolt on to almost anything. With one or two in place, you can screw-on your favourite panning head and leave it in position. For less than £20, you have a solid, mobile tripod-head. With its large lever, you can detach it and move it around the vehicle. They sound good, but the significant downside is that they are slow to move. I would always use them with beanbags that can just be thrown about.

Tripod & Monopods

Tripods are not advisable, especially if you are sharing the vehicle. The only exception here is with the open-style safari vehicles that have no window-sill or roof on which to place beanbags – and even then only if you have exclusive use of the vehicle. These open vehicles are much more common in the southern African nations. In these vehicles you will need a tripod or monopod clamped to the seat in front.

By all means take a tripod for landscapes or time-lapse when you’re allowed out of the vehicle. Monopods can be very useful as some safari vehicles don’t have suitable window heights. This is something for you to ascertain by contacting the tour operator or the camp/lodge directly. If you physically suffer with your back or restricted in your range of motion, the monopod is more comfortable. I invested in the Gitzo Carbon Monopod Series 4 6S with a maximum height of 154cm and a maximum load capacity of 30kg. This monopod packs small with a minimum length of 44cm, nice and light (670g), strong, with a large stabilising foot.

The main constraint for any camera support is weight and tripods simply weigh too much. Remember your 15Kg limit! This is why empty beanbags just win hands down.

Continue with Part 3

Podcast Interview with Escape The Zoo

Escape the Zoo - Interview with Elliott NeepBeing the classic introvert, I don’t often participate in talks or presentations, but I am working on it and hoping to do more.

A few weeks back, I had a very enjoyable web-chat with Daniel Clarke @ Escape The Zoo. We talk about my time photographing tigers, expeditions to the polar regions, flamingo hunting hyenas, also my life with depression and mental health. The interview is now available to listen on podcast.

I talk about encounters that have both enlightened and horrified me. It’s not all pretty pictures and smiles. I’m brutally honest!

Links to all the ways you can download and listen to the podcast below.

Link to the podcast site
Link to the podcast on iTunes
Link to the blog post / show notes
Link to the YouTube interview (audio only)

The Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris | Part 1

Welcome to Part 1 of my knowledge-packed 5-part guide to safari photography. This time, I’m discussing your preparations, locations, safari guides, and the importance of keeping things simple. Over time, this entire series will be re-edited and refreshed. Bookmark it now, so that you can refer back to it later…

Poor preparation produces poor performance

(The 5Ps – I’ve obtained this saying from my brother. Thanks Mark!)

Practice really does make perfect. There is no shortcut – no matter what some YouTuber proclaims. If the only wildlife photography experience you have is from your annual photo safaris or the odd workshop, how are you supposed to improve? By the time you have re-learned your camera again and settled in, you will have missed half the trip.

Please, do yourself a huge favour and get down to the local park and practice as often as you can. Especially, when leading up to your photo safaris. Reconnect with your camera and familiarise yourself with the controls, before you arrive at the airport. You could also take part in a workshop just before the trip, so you can refresh your skills under tuition. Just don’t leave it to chance that you’ll miraculously remember everything when you arrive. Not when you’ve invested so much money. That, is the definition of ‘folly’.

Who’s taking you on safari?

The tour operator will have a massive impact on your safari photography. The ‘best’ camps for your photo safaris are in key locations, have the most experienced guides with reliable, well-serviced vehicles… Not the fluffiest pillows and most extensive wine list. Sorry about that.

Customised safari Land Cruiser

An underestimated aspect of photo safaris is selecting the right camp with rugged, reliable vehicles | © Entim Mara

If you’re leaving the choice of accommodation to a third-party travel agent, get the accommodation details and contact the camp directly. Ask if they have experience with photographers? They could be geared towards family holidays and general tours. Rather than delivering on the expectations of a passionate photographer – one that’s willing to sit and wait all day for a leopard.

Most, if not all, tour operators maintain social media channels. Follow your shortlist and see the kind of photography they are producing. You might also get a handle on the personalities behind the photos and see if they’re compatible with your own. There are some real ‘characters’ out there. Just saying…

Location, Location

For the Masai Mara Great Migration, this is crucial. There are camps and lodges inside the Masai Mara National Reserve and in the surrounding Conservancies. For the majority of the year, this makes little difference. Whichever conservancy you are in, there will be lions, hyena, leopard and plains animals. For my own private photo safaris, I’ve used Kicheche Camps (Main and Bush Camp) in the Mara Conservancies and can highly recommend them – their photographic guides/drivers are excellent, trained by the inimitable Paul Goldstein.

Map of the Masai Mara in Kenya

Map of the Masai Mara in Kenya | © Expert Africa

During the Migration season, your accommodation should be inside the National Reserve. Ideally, in a camp located within 30mins of the crossing points. If your accommodation is outside the National Reserve, you will have a long journey to and from the main crossing points. Another thing to consider is time. If you find something good in the late afternoon, you’ll have to leave whatever it is (no matter how good) at around 5:30pm, just when the light is at it’s best, in order to get outside the National Reserve boundary in time. I’ve been there. It’s incredibly frustrating. Those staying within the National Reserve will have an extra hour of the best light and can photograph right up to sunset.

Photo Safaris: Mara Migration Camps

Inside the National Reserve, I’ve stayed at Freemans, Naibor Camp, and most recently, Entim Mara Camp. These camps all have excellent locations for the Migration. Naibor Camp is quite high-end and I stayed there when working with Oryx Photography. The guides were very good and the camp was luxurious.

Client safari tent at Entim Private Camp

Client’s tent at Entim Private Camp in the Masai Mara National Reserve

Entim Mara was superb and among the best. I stayed recently with David Lloyd, whilst co-leading the Migration Safari. It has the perfect balance of location, comfort, facilities (like wi-fi, power sockets in your tent, studio tent with two iMacs) with some of the best guides/drivers that I’ve ever worked with. For David Lloyd safaris, we literally take over the Entim Private Camp, an annexe of 8 luxury tents, with our own studio tent and social area. It’s a fabulous setup.

Photo Safaris: The Guide

Your guide can be one of two things: The Tour Leader or Local Guide. If you’re travelling with a group, then you’ll have a Tour Leader, maybe two, depending on the size of the group. For ‘quality’ photo safaris, these should be professional wildlife photographers – like myself with years of experience. It’s not just a matter of being a good photographer, either. A Photographic Tour Leader is experienced with equipment, logistics, health and safety, security (including firearms), emergency SOS and first aid, with the added experience of managing people.

The local naturalist guide/driver will be employed by either the camp/lodge or the ground agent. They are usually educated Maasai, skilled off-road drivers and experienced naturalists, with extensive living knowledge of the wildlife and habitat. They will have good English with which to articulate and interpret the wildlife and behaviour. Some guides attain guiding qualifications: Bronze, Silver, Gold. Their eyesight is remarkable, being able to spot the flick of a tail in long grass several hundred metres away – it blows the mind, it really does. I love spending time with them.

Safari guide/driver up close with a lioness

Photograph by © Elliott Neep

From my point of view – operating and leading group photos safaris – the local driver/guides are my linchpin. I want to work with passionate guides. Guides that work as a tight team. Experienced and skilled drivers whom understand the fundamentals of positioning a vehicle for photography. Naturalists that  know their quarry in-depth. Warm natured, positive individuals that have good working relationships with other guides working across the Mara.

Photo Safaris: Do Your Research

From a safari photography point of view, some camps are better than others. Unfortunately, you cannot go by price alone. If this is a serious photographic safari, do your research and don’t leave it to chance. Find a reputable (ATOL Protected) tour operator, ideally recommended to you by somebody you trust. The guides’ knowledge of the location, wildlife and photographic insight will get you into the right place at the right time. They can transform a good safari into an unforgettable experience.

Help Yourself, Keep it simple

The photo safari Tour Leader is there: To give you creative direction; Teach you new techniques; Answer technical questions; Give you a baseline for exposures and other settings. But, crucially, once you’re in position, it’s down to you. It’s your brain, eye, viewfinder, and your finger on the shutter that captures the image.

So, what can you do to help yourself?

For starters, work simple. Cut down on the amount of camera gear that you carry. There is absolutely no need to have ALL lenses to cover ALL focal lengths. In the heat of the moment, this will just confuse you. The more lens options you have, the more time it will take to decide which lens is right for the situation. Before you have even put camera to eye, the moment will have passed.

Your camera bag might be full of clutter, with gadgets and accessories that you rarely use. Make sure you have a good sort out before your safari. Empty the camera bag completely. On each game drive, keep one camera body and lens (usually your longest lens) out of the bag and accessible at all times. Your second body and short zoom can be stowed away, but still with the lens cap off. Have maybe just one other lens – a wide-angle – in the bag.

Your batteries and cards should be on your person and easily accessible, not tucked away in the bag. The only other items in your bag are a blower, lens cloth and alcohol wipes, just to keep the lens element in top condition – something to do when you’re sitting and waiting.

Here are some good tips to save you precious seconds:

  1. Have two camera bodies (same make and model), so there is no deliberation over which camera to use for the situation – saving you critical seconds;
  2. Have a telephoto on one body and a short zoom on the other. Not having to change lenses saves you time;
  3. If you have a molar beanbag in the vehicle, just leave it in place, on the door frame – more time saved;
  4. Always travel with your camera switched on, lens cap off – more time saved;
  5. Get into the habit of resetting your cameras to a quick response setting, for example Av, f/4, Auto ISO, centre focus point selected, AI Servo (Continuous focus) – more time saved;
  6. Stay alert and vigilant, so when the guide says “Lions at 9 o’clock” you know exactly where to look and are ready to shoot, even before the vehicle has stopped.

In essence, you want to be in ‘Quick Reaction Mode’ from the second you leave camp. You should be able to take a shot within a few seconds. Many encounters are fleeting, especially with shy animals like leopards and rhino. You may only have the time it takes for the vehicle to stop and for the guide to turn off the engine. Then the animal stops looking at you, turns away and disappears. Unless you’re ready and prepared, you’ll miss that opportunity and have nothing to show apart from an ‘arse shot’. Sometimes, I don’t even wait for the vehicle or engine to stop before I take my first shots.

Continue with Part 2

EXPLORE WITH ME

Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

CONTACT ME

SEND