Part 3 of my knowledge-packed 5-part guide to safari photography. This time, I’m discussing a ‘state of readiness’ and a golden rule of safari photography. Over time, this entire series will be re-edited and refreshed. Bookmark it now, so that you can refer back to it later…
A quick tip before we get going
You’ve made it through international check-in. Your baggage has arrived safe and sound. You flew from Nairobi or Kilimanjaro with your camera bag and let the tour operator transfer your luggage. You’ve arrived! It’s hot. It’s sunny. The savannah lies before you… Now what?! Well, if you’re not careful, sunburn. I know, it’s probably overly parental of me to show this level of concern, but then again, I am a Tour Leader. Sunburn is no way to start your safari. So, my first tip is to pack your hat and sunnies in your camera bag and slap on the sun lotion. Do this before you fly.
Why? Because, on your drive from the airstrip to your lodge or camp, you may spot something that you want to photograph. Chances are, it’s going to be in the middle of the day. You’ll be sat there, under the scorching equatorial sun, skin frying. Then you’ll have to spend the rest of the week wincing and cowering away from the sun. Not a great start. I speak from experience. My first ever drive in the Masai Mara… Photographing giraffe and hippos on the way to camp. Then sunburn, quickly followed by annoyance and frustration. So, this is what my Essential Guide is all about. Not just photography tips, but much more…
First things first… upon arrival at your camp, you’ll be sat down (hopefully with a nice cold drink) and have your welcome briefing. As well as telling you about the layout and facilities of your accommodation, it’s the camp’s obligation to inform you of the potential risks. “Risks?!” Yes, there are certainly risks and dangers on safari that you need to be aware of.
Fundamentally, you’re now in the middle of a vast wilderness. An unfamiliar environment. You’re surrounded by hugely powerful, dangerous animals. You need educating. So listen. Even if you’ve been on safari before. Every camp has their idiosyncrasies, whether it’s a resident leopard or local hippo pool. Briefly, the main risk to your well-being is you. More specifically, your lack of experience and potentially naive ignorance of where you are and how to behave.
Know the risks
Most visitors to Africa are well aware of the obvious risks like malaria and drinking water. But, for some reason, even the most level-headed, intelligent people seem to forget themselves when on safari. As if by magic, they turn into infants, the moment the plane touches the airstrip. Please act responsibly and follow instructions and rules set down by the camps and guides. They are for your benefit, not theirs. They are in place to keep you safe.
Hippos and more!
Many of the camps in the Masai Mara are located in bushy scrub and woodlands bordering the Mara River or Talek River. Consequently, this means hippos! They emerge from the rivers at night, climb the river banks, wander through the camps and woodland and graze on the savannah. Hippos are lethal. Period. You do not want to come face to face with a hippo in the dark, or at any other time. Other animals that may wonder through camp at night include: Lions, Leopard, Hyena, Elephant, Buffalo. They can all put a swift sad end to your safari.
The single rule that applies to everybody (including us guides) is: Never leave your tent after dark, without an escort. The ‘escorts’ are local Maasai warriors known as “Ascaris” (pron. Ass-car-ree, translation. guard). They are warm, friendly people, keeping you and the camp safe from both man and beast alike. Needless to say, they’ve spent their entire lives side-by-side with these animals and know exactly what to do. Trust them and do exactly what they say.
It’s crucial that you stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. Dehydration is a serious issue. It might surprise you to know that the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem lies at an altitude of 1,500–2,180 m (4,920–7,150 ft). The air is dry and the days are hot. You can quickly dehydrate, without realising it. But, people are afraid of drinking water because they don’t want to get ‘caught short’ out on the plain. Please drink plenty of water. At least two litres per day. Most common cases of illness, out on safari, can be linked to dehydration – dizziness, light-headed, lethargy, headaches.
Most of the camps and lodges in the Mara-Serengeti are now trying to reduce the amount of plastic that they use. The camps I use, like Entim Mara, have central water coolers and issue every guest with their very own reusable water bottle – a stainless steel flask. It’s a great idea and I hope other camps catch on. When you see piles of plastic bottles washed up on the banks of the Mara River, you realise how pressing this initiative is. Safari vehicles usually carry cool-boxes and with a selection of chilled soft drinks and water.
For the shy and reserved Westerner, it’s the stuff of nightmares. You’re in the middle of an open plain, sitting with complete strangers, no trees or bushes, and you need to pee. Or poop. Urgently! What are you going to do?! Simply tell the guide. They will drive to the nearest area of trees and bushes. After the area has been checked for ‘wildlife’ you’ll be able to leave the vehicle and relieve yourself!
If there are no trees and bushes, then you will be asked to go around to the back of the vehicle. The engine is left running to disguise any ‘sounds’. Guides and drivers will keep an eye out for other vehicles and radio them if they are approaching. We always carry loo rolls and hand cleansers. It’s all very discreet and after a couple of turns ‘checking the tyre pressure’ or ‘marking your territory’, you’ll think nothing more of it.
The First Game Drive A.K.A. “The Shakedown”
When visiting the Maasai Mara, I always prefer to take the first available flight from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. This departs at approximately 10:30am. The flight is about 25-30mins, depending on which ‘stop’ you are. There are several airstrips in the Maasai Mara. The internal flights act like a bus service, stopping at each airstrip in-turn in a circular route, before returning to Nairobi. Once we’ve landed at our stop, grabbed the bags off the plane, we drive directly to camp in specialised safari Land Cruisers.
After the welcome briefing, some time to unpack and refresh, a spot of lunch, it’s time for your first game drive. There’s always butterflies. Sheer excitement and mouth-watering anticipation, for what awaits us out there on the savannah. Afternoon game drives leave camp between 3:00pm and 4:00pm, returning between 6:00pm to 7:00pm. Times vary with each tour operator, but you do have some leeway in this. If you only want gorgeous evening sunlight or you dislike the heat, then leave later. If you want to squeeze every second out of your safari, then leave earlier. It’s your call… unless you’re in a group. Then it’s decided by the Tour Leader.
I like to have my initial group briefing before the first drive. Although everybody is eager to get going, there is also a keen attentiveness. Really, I want to make sure everybody is on the same page: Ground rules for inside the vehicles; Photographer etiquette; General plan for the week ahead; Baseline settings for cameras and lenses; The spotting clock (front of the car is 12 o’cock, rear of car is 6 o’clock, etc).
The first game drive is the “Shakedown”. This is your chance to get to know the vehicle, your driver/guide, sort out where you will keep you gear, familiarise yourself with beanbags and beanbag placement. Importantly, be ready. Some photographers are rather complacent with their first drive. They never expect to be ‘that lucky’ to see something worth photographing on their very first drive. Big mistake. Huge!
I can’t remember the last time I didn’t see something great on my first drive. More often than not, a leopard. Yes. A leopard! Check out that leopard shot above. That was from my first ever game drive in Africa and we encountered a female leopard in a yellow-fever acacia, that then sauntered down and climbed this fallen tree. You’re just not expecting to be that lucky. Even now, after more than ten years of safaris, I am shocked with amazement. But, at least I’m ready for it. Below, you’ll find my essential tips to speed up your reaction time. Combine them into your daily game plan as they will save you critical seconds.
Something rarely discussed (although damn well should be) is photographer etiquette, i.e. each passenger’s behaviour and responsibilities in the vehicle.
So, the one thing that will irritate fellow photographer when photographing (more than anything else) is excessive movement. If you are going to change shooting position – from sitting down to standing up, or vice versa – then tell your fellow photographers in advance. If you need to stand on the vehicle seats, please remember to take-off your shoes. It’s just good manners and nobody wants to get a muddy butt.
Most importantly, please keep movement to a minimum when people are photographing. When you’re looking through a super-telephoto lens, even the slightest movement can jar the lens. In low-light conditions, it could mean the difference between a sharp shot and camera shake.
If the vehicle stops abruptly near wary animals like antelope and zebra, followed by a frenzy of ripping velcro and sudden movements, the animals will be gone in a heartbeat. Always approach wildlife calmly and quietly, with lens covers and lens hoods already removed. Keep voices to whispers and try not to gesticulate, point, and wave your hands outside the vehicle.
Another major irritant to other photographers is the ‘focus beep’. Please turn this off before you start your safari. You may think it’s quiet, but for your fellow passengers, concentrating on their photography, it’s like an alarm bell!
Most, if not all drivers and guides use the ‘spotting clock’. For example, the front of the car and dead-ahead is 12 o’clock, directly behind is 6 o’clock, and so on. It helps everybody, if you spot something, to add the clock direction, e.g. “Lion at 10 o’clock!” Local guides have remarkable eyesight and it always blows my mind, just how they manage to spot animals at such a distance, in long grass, while moving. It’s incredible.
As much as the driver and guide can and do spot wildlife, there are usually 3 or 4 pairs of eyes in the back, that could help enormously. I’m talking about you, obviously. Passengers that sit behind the driver have an elevated 360° view. It’s essential that you continue to scan and look for wildlife. You have the advantage in being able to look further to the side and behind, without needing to concentrate on the road or track.
Ready, Steady, Shoot!
When you’re out on your game drives, always keep your camera to hand, powered on, with the lens cap OFF. Keeping your camera packed away in a camera bag (to keep it clean, I guess) will cost you. It’ll take time, fetching it out, unzipping, wrestling with velcro partitions, removing the hood and cap… It’s time you rarely have. I can practically guarantee the zip will snag, or the lens cap or hood will get stuck at that critical moment. You’ll also lose sight of the subject, while you dive down into your bag. Again, costing you valuable reaction time.
If you’re worried about dust, invest in a lens rain jacket (serves just as well as a dust cover) or slip the camera and lens into a pillowcase. With afternoon rains (common for migration season, November, February, March), dust will be minimal and nothing to worry about. For my larger lenses, I use neoprene hood covers that slip off in an instant. There are no nasty drawstrings that are guaranteed to get snagged.
Ready to shoot. Always!
Whenever I head out on a game drive, my camera is ALWAYS switched-on and ready to shoot, normally with a fresh battery and empty memory card. It’s NEVER stowed away. There is ALWAYS a spare battery and formatted memory cards in my front pocket. It’s good practice to keep formatted memory cards close to hand. If you fill a memory card, then replace it, only to find there are already images on there, you’re going to waste lots of time deciding whether to: delete some, format the card, find another card. Tick tock, tick tock… Every time I leave camp, my camera is set-up with:
- Aperture wide-open (f/2.8 or f/4);
- Centre focus point pre-selected;
- Continuous focus (AI Servo);
- Auto ISO ready;
- Lens switches set and checked.
In fact, I go through this setup during the evening before. Then, I don’t even have to think about it in the morning. I know the camera is ready. If anything happens, I can grab the shot very quickly. I can experiment with compositions and refine the exposure, if the animal decides to hang around.
Nothing is more mystifying to me than photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, having paid oodles of cash for their safari, electing to stay in bed… Just to enjoy a leisurely breakfast?! Madness! Have a look at those shots above. They’re all shot between 6:00am and 7:00am. The vast majority of quality encounters occur in the twilight, blue, or golden hours. If you want great light and beautiful photographs, get out on the plains before sunrise.
If you’re still in camp, waiting for your fresh-cooked breakfast, by the time you hit the plains, it’s practically all over. The light will be fierce and the animals that haven’t already disappeared into the bush for shade, will simply stand around panting, until the late afternoon. Most camps offer picnic breakfasts, so there is no excuse for staying in camp, I don’t care how good the breakfast is. As the old saying goes…
“The early bird photographs the leopard and cubs in a beautiful acacia tree.”
In Broad Daylight
Once the sun is up and cooking (and it really can feel like somebody has opened the oven door), animals generally either seek shade or flop down in the grass. Passed 9:00am, plains animals seem to do very little apart from sleep, stand stock still, or chew the cud. The main drawback, for us photographers, is not the heat, but quality of light and the dreaded heat shimmer.
Unless it’s an overcast day, you’ll find that after roughly 8:00am, the light is harsh and blanching. As the morning’s haze burns away, the contrast increases and colour saturation decreases. Animal eyes appear black and lifeless and it’s all rather horrible. There are techniques for maximising your opportunities when the light is this fierce, such as hi-key and panning motion-blurs. I’ll discuss these techniques later.
With my photo groups, I’m usually back in camp for 11:00am at the absolute latest. That includes a picnic breakfast on the plains at around 9:00am and a slow drive back to camp. Full-day safaris are a thing of the past – they were rarely, if ever, productive and only made me tired and irritable. If I’m working on my own, I’m more inclined to finish earlier in the morning. I’ll breakfast at 9:00am, after squeezing everything out of the morning’s best light, then head straight back to camp.
Do I miss opportunities by coming home ‘prematurely’? Potentially. But you can never be everywhere at once. You will always miss out at some point. You just have to accept that. I prefer to prioritise the light. If I have a great sighting, I really want it to be with great light.
The one exception that’s guaranteed to keep me out on the plains, even in scorching sunlight, is the cheetah. Cheetah hunts are more about action than aesthetics. Yes, their eyes may appear black in this contrasty light, but this can be corrected in RAW processing (very easily) using the ‘Adjustment Brush’ tool. For me, it’s all about the stalk, the chase, and the kill.
Cheetahs can hunt at any time, day or night. It was thought, for many years, that cheetahs were purely diurnal hunters (active in daytime only). This has been proved to be an incorrect assumption. With the benefit of GPS trackers and starlight cameras, cheetahs have been recorded and documented hunting through the night. The cheetah’s predilection for daytime hunting is more aligned to the increased presence of lions and hyenas at night, than anything else.
However, it’s still reasonable to state that the middle of the day is prime cheetah hunting time. Especially where us photographers are concerned. Major plains predators (lions and hyenas) are either sleeping in the shade somewhere or back in their underground dens, respectively. During the day, there’s less competition and fewer animals willing to push full-grown cheetahs off a kill. But, it doesn’t take much. Even persistent jackals could eventually drive off a lone cheetah. I think that’s why I like cheetahs so much. Despite their size and speed, they remain the underdogs of the predatory hierarchy.
The significance of eye-level
The single, greatest move you can make, to advance your safari photography, is to change your shooting angle. It’s a golden rule. Arguably, the most important rule.
There is a temptation for most photographers to stand-up in the back of safari vehicles. All that long grass is in the way and you want a clear shot. Right? Wrong! I cannot stress the importance of this enough… Striking wildlife photographs are created from intimacy with the subject. You gain intimacy when you photograph a subject at its eye-level.
“Always photograph animals at eye-level or below.
If you’re below, then a large animal looks even more imposing.”
Take a look at the image slider above. Images #1 and #3 are taken from a standing position. The other images are from a seated position. It’s the same explosive scene. There’s behaviour, drama, and ferocity in all. However, the best by far are those taken from the seated position. The angle is lower. You’re at the same level as the fighting lions which pulls the viewer in much more intimately than the ‘overhead’ view.
Arguably, photographing from a standing position, looking down onto the animal will produce nothing more than touristy record shots. It’s unflattering for the animal and the background of scrubby grass is brought into sharp-relief. That’s not what you want. You want to strive for greatness. Aspire to be creative and artistic. Anybody can wave a lens at an animal and press a button!
When you sit down in the vehicle, you’re automatically at or near eye-level with the majority of animals on the savannah. OK, it’s not easy to be eye-level with a mongoose, but for big cats, elephants, antelope and zebra, you’re right in the ball park. With a telephoto, now aiming parallel to the ground, the background is automatically dropped out of focus. If you now focus the lens on the subject’s eyes and open the aperture wide (f/5.6, f/4), the foreground and background will be even more diffused. The subject is now isolated from the grass and ‘pops’ out of the image.
This foreground/background ‘diffusion effect’ is relative to the subject’s distance from your camera. Essentially, the closer the subject, the more shallow the depth of field, the more diffused the foreground and background, at a given aperture (f/number). The lion images above were all shot at f/5.6. You can see how much more of the background is in focus, depending on the focus distance. Here are two examples to help clarify:
- Photographing a subject 8m away, with a full-frame camera and a 500mm f/4 lens: At f/4, the depth of field would be 6mm. If the aperture is closed down to f/8, the depth-of-field is doubled to 12mm.
- Photographing a subject 16m away, with a full-frame camera and a 500mm f/4 lens: At f/4, the depth of field would be 24mm. If the aperture is closed down to f/8, the depth-of-field is doubled to 48mm.
This is the reason why many wildlife photographers prefer big cats on termite mounds. It lifts them up, out of the grass, and brings them up above lens level. You can now see straight into their eyes, not down through their brow. Importantly, along with elevating the cats, the background is also thrown far away and becomes a soft haze of colour with the sky.
Closing Tip: A slight change in camera height can have a dramatic effect on the position of the horizon – lift your lens and you lift the horizon, drop your lens to lower it. It’s helpful to know when you’re composing a portrait and the horizon is cutting through the animal’s head from ear-to-ear.