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Expert Tips on Taking African Safari Photos

By David Bristow | Jul 29

David Bristow is a Bushtracks' Specialist Guide based in Cape Town. For 13 years David edited Africa’s leading travel magazine Getaway, and his colleagues dubbed him “the walking enviropedia.” Now a freelance writer, he continues to share this knowledge, primarily through storytelling. He is an environmental scientist and has written some 20 books that focus on the natural environment, culture and history of the region. His specific focus is the history of the Cape, its peoples, cultures, politics and how the natural environment has influenced human development there. The geological (including paleontological) and archeological record are among his abiding interests.

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In the olden days (the days of film cameras) you had to follow a few golden rules to get great photos. You had to hold the camera dead steady because film speeds (ISO) were so low, usually only 50 or 100, so camera shake was a big issue – actually it still is, but people seem to give it less mind now, largely due to image stabilizers built into zoom lenses. 

The other was light. What you shot was what you got and no amount of processing could change the exposure, or light and dark areas. To get the light right not only did you have to get the shutter speed right, but also the aperture. With digital cameras most people shoot on one of the auto settings (P or A), and let the camera sort out all the technical stuff. Note: unless you know better, always prefer the P setting.

But as things were made exponentially easier on the technical side, so digital cameras and auto-focus lenses introduced a few traps, mostly to do with center-weighted focus and light metering. This is one trap: you allow your camera to set the light metering and the focus at dead center, but that might not be where the critical area of the image lies.

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Odzala Ngaga Camp, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by Andrew Howard 

So one of the cardinal rules of digital photography is, use your own judgment to decide where you want to focus, and light meter, point the camera to that spot, softly half depress the shutter button, recompose the image then shoot. It’s a simple but crucial rule to getting images right.

The second trap with center weighted metering is that most non-professional photographers tend to put the face of a subject, person or lion, dead center in the picture. So again you have to outwit the camera and use your own imagination to see the image as it should be captured. Don’t cut off part of an animal’s body to get the face dead center. Rather focus on the face, half depress the shutter, recompose to get the animal comfortably in frame, then fire off.

One very (did I mention very?) useful function of most modern digital cameras is one that allows you to fire off up to 10 frames with just one push of the shutter button. When, for example, you see a raptor in a tree and there is a good chance it will take off as you approach, bang on the repeat function and chances are very good you will get the perfect takeoff shot. You need to find this one.

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But that brings us to the tricky part, the fine print if you like. Digital SLR cameras (as well as most of the better point-and-shoot ones, like the Canon SX50 that I use), offer maybe as many as 100 functions. So your very first job is to get the shop to help you set it up, or someone else who can. The other is to read the manual – yes, I’m afraid so: what is called RTFM. 

Failing that, go through your camera’s functions one by one, trying to get to grips with a) what each one can do, and b) which of those you are likely to want to use. As you get more familiar with your camera you’ll find you want to use more and more features, so that tends to come naturally.

The ones I suggest you start with, but are easy to overlook, are setting the white balance to auto. But knowing how to override this in low light can be a powerful tool. Then, set colors to vivid, so color saturation is maximized. Miss these two and you could get very flat colors.

Digital sensors tend to burn out bright areas, especially sky (what are referred to as “blinkies”), so extra care needs to be taken when exposing, to make sure there are no burned-outed areas in the image. A white area means there is no data in that area of the image, so it cannot be fixed by processing. Rather expose on the darker side and you can lighten up areas with software.

Software is a huge subject and I will touch on it only briefly here. Firstly, every good image has to be processed with computer software, so don’t buy the “it’s cheating” nonsense. Second, when doing your own processing (be it in Lightroom, Photoshop, Apple Preview or other), try to tweak each setting in the order given. If you have to push any variable beyond 30 or 40 %, that image is probably a binner anyway. Here, as with the camera, it requires a lot of playing to wax.

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Bushtracks Traveler showing a Samburu child how to use an SLR\ camera. Photo by Bushtracks Expeditions

Learn what your lens, or lenses, can do and make sure you work within their capabilities. We all tend to want a longer and longer zoom lens, but wide angle shots are just as impressive in nature photography. If you want professional looking animal shots, you can buy a book. Working on putting animals into landscape settings often yields much more pleasing results, as well as saving a lot of cash on lenses.

Once you’ve covered all of the above, the art of photography lies in using the available light to its full potential. Soft light, sunrise and sunset, soft clouds, rain storms, all offer opportunities to make golden hay while the sun shines. The thing is to play with light, don’t be afraid of shooting into the sun if it gives dramatic effects, or shooting in very low light. The great thing with digital photography is that you can shoot as much as you like and delete what you don’t like. 

In fact, finally, it is your discipline in deleting all images that are not a good (even blurred action images take considerable skill and practice to get right). Only by being tough on yourself will your photography improve, but you should have a lot of fun playing meanwhile.

PHOTOGRAPH INCREDIBLE
LIONS, LEOPARDS & CHEETAHS

Topics: African Wildlife Photography, Photo Safari

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