GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR WILDLIFE TRIP
We should consider ourselves fortunate to live in a beautiful country like South Africa. We have a wonderful selection of fauna and flora, and you don’t have far to travel to capture breathtaking scenery. There’s never a shortage of things to photograph, from flowers to trees to insects to reptiles to mammals to bats. We’re often lucky enough to be in the predicament of deciding what to photograph, because there is so much diversity.
One of the most important things, when it comes to going on a photographic safari, is to be prepared. This ensures you’ll get the best possible results and won’t miss that “once in a lifetime” photograph when it presents itself!
Before going on your trip prepare an equipment checklist. This will make sure you don’t forget essentials like tripod, lenses, extension tubes, batteries, filters, memory cards, flash, Lenspen, camera manual etc. It is always a good idea to have a laptop or portable digital storage device with you. This ensures that you can back up your memory cards after each session and you don’t need to worry about them filling up on the first day – you never know what’s going to happen. Digital photo storage devices generally come in sizes from 80 – 250GB and most of them have a variety of built-in memory card slots so you can download straight onto the hard drive. Many have an LCD screen as well, allowing you to browse through your images, which is always satisfying after a long day of photographing. Epson, Canon, Archos and Jobo are popular and reliable brands.
Next, research the area you’ll be visiting. Check the sunrise and sunset times so you can decide on the optimum locations for each time of the day. If you’re going on a game drive it is advisable to ask your game ranger for advice as they know where the best “photography hotspots” are. Most game rangers will gladly manoeuvre the vehicle so you can get your desired lighting direction and background. For dramatic photographs try photographing into the light as this can either silhouette your subject or provide a beautiful rim light, separating the animal from the background. This is best done during the “golden hours” when the light has warmth and the contrast is much lower.
Light is, without doubt, the secret ingredient in wildlife and nature photography. Good quality light can make most subjects look amazing and almost jump out of the photograph. Midday sun is harsh, sterile in colour and high in contrast. It is great for scouting locations but makes most animals look dull and lifeless. On an overcast day you can still get some great results, as the light is much softer (try to avoid including the sky in the photograph, as it will blow out a bright white). This type of light is great for bird portraits and for photographing close-ups while walking in nature, such as flowers, insects and reptiles.
The best light occurs early in the morning or later in the afternoon. This is also when animals are more active. These times are called the magical hours because the light is soft and golden in colour. It is also very directional because of the acute angle of the sun and this can be used to great effect. You have the choice of placing the light to the front, the back or the side of your subject. Each change in light direction will have a varying visual effect on the photograph and creates a distinct feel.
When you go on a game drive or settle down in a hide always be prepared. Have your camera and lenses ready and make sure all your equipment is working. The night before you photograph check / reset your camera settings (White Balance, ISO, exposure compensation, file size, quality settings, focus, metering mode). Make sure your equipment is clean and that the batteries are fully charged. Check that all your memory cards are working and that they have been formatted (only after they have been downloaded!). You can never predict when something amazing might happen.
Another secret is to be patient. It is impossible to speed up or slow down nature and without patience you will struggle to get good results. You often need to remain still for an extended period of time before the animal starts behaving naturally. Occasionally you’ll capture something unique at your first sighting of the animal but most of the time you just have to be patient.
Many photographers believe that an animal has to be displaying spectacular, unusual, comical or aggressive behaviour in order for a wildlife photograph to be interesting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Photographing normal animal behaviour in a natural environment can make a great photograph. Here it’s advisable to use a slightly wider lens to include the environment, which works particularly well when there is an amazing sunrise or sunset, or if the environment is very harsh, such as a desert scene. This sort of photograph adds diversity to your portfolio and tells a far greater story. Also keep in mind that an award winning shot can be taken of any animal – you don’t have to photograph only the big 5 for great results. Even the smallest animal, reptile, insect or flower photographed in beautiful light and in an interesting way, can make a wonderful shot. These are best explored on foot and most game reserves offer bush walks after your morning game drive providing an ideal opportunity to capture some close-ups of nature. Having a dedicated macro lens or a lens with a macro function will ensure stunning results.
On the technical side, accurate focus is critical. If the animal is looking in your general direction, make sure that you focus on the eyes and try to keep them unobstructed by out-of-focus branches or leaves. Inaccurate focus is one of the “destroyers” of good wildlife shots. The longer the lens you’re using, the shallower the depth of field, so focus is something you really need to work on as the focal length gets longer and longer. It helps to anticipate the animal’s behaviour which can make the difference between success and failure. Try to learn the habits of the animals you intend photographing by observing them. Practice photographing animals on the move and learn to predict their movements by practicing at the zoo, or even on your own pets. By knowing your subject’s habits you have a much better chance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. When the animal is moving or when there is action in the scene, try using the continuous shooting mode where the camera takes a series of photographs in quick succession, while you keep the shutter release button depressed. This ensures that you’ll get that award winning photograph, instead of being too slow to react to a moment and miss the shot.
When photographing wildlife with long lenses, always try and support the camera to avoid camera shake or inaccurate focus. This will help you get consistently sharp results, accurate focus and allow you to use slower shutter speeds than when hand-holding. If you’re in a hide then you can use a tripod – generally the bigger and heavier the tripod, the better. For quick camera positioning you can use either a pistol grip head or a ball head. A good alternative would be a monopod, which is great when you are hiking or doing bush walks, as it helps to support the weight of the camera and lens. You can also use it in a game vehicle to provide extra stability.
There are numerous other supports you can get for wildlife and nature photography. If you are photographing from a car you can get a window clamp, which attaches to the car window. Another popular choice is the beanbag, upon which you can rest the lens. It supports the weight of the lens as well as reducing vibrations. This can be placed on the windowsill of the car or on the edge of the game-viewing vehicle. These are also good for resting the lens on when you’re lying down on the ground. If you do not have something to support the camera and lens with, then try to brace yourself in a solid, but relaxed stance. When you’re ready to press the shutter release button then do so gently to avoid camera shake.
Pay attention to your camera positioning. When photographing smaller wildlife try to photograph from a lower camera angle to accentuate the animal’s size. Also consider how you’re holding the camera. All too often we stick with a horizontal composition but more often than not a vertical composition will add impact to any wildlife photograph. This works well for tall subjects such as giraffes and certain bird species. Pay special attention to the background as a busy background can distract from your subject. One of the greatest challenges is to simplify the composition. In wildlife and nature photography less is more. Don’t clutter the frame with unnecessary information that doesn’t add to the photo. This will help you create stronger images with greater impact.
Lastly, make sure you switch off your cell phone and distance yourself from the stresses and intrusions of modern living. Relax, be creative and have fun!
To learn more about wildlife, travel and nature photography consider doing our Outdoor Photography Course.