On our trip to Namibia, we spent the first two days in Etosha National Park.  This is a large national park in the north of the country, home to many species of African wildlife. This was my second safari; we’d done several while in Tanzania after our summit of Kilimanjaro. We only had two days and the animals were a bit sporadic, but we did have some major sightings that I was really pleased with.

Throughout this post and in line with the main idea of Postcard Intellect, I want to share some of my experiences and give my thoughts on taking photos while on safari; hopefully you’ll get some ideas for taking better wildlife pictures.  At the bottom of the post I have 5 tips for better Safari Photography.

First off, the golden rule of photography (whether you’re on safari or not) is to make sure you get the best light.  We were in Namibia during winter (in the southern hemisphere) so we were fortunate to have access to better light.  The picture above was taken from our camp at sunrise – I underexposed the photo to make the trees a silhouette, and also took some of the clarity out of the photo to create a bit of a hazy image. One problem that I have on trips like this is that I’m not on my own time.  What I mean by this is that we’re on a tour, with other people, and a guide, so it’s not like my wife and I can control our own destiny.  We were up early enough (hence the photo above) but by the time the group was ready to go it was an hour after sunrise.  Not the end of the world, but sometimes frustrating.  I was able to capture a few pictures below on the way to the park that still caught the good light.

I particularly loved seeing zebras.  I find them to be amazing animals for various reasons; their stripes, hugely noticeable to human tourists, tend to confuse predators when the animals are in flight.  And the fact that they’ve stubbornly maintained their “wildness” in light of their highly domesticated cousins is pretty unique.

We also saw other ungulates while on safari – including wildebeest, giraffes, and antelope.  In Namibia the “antelope du jour” is the Springbok, which is very common.  By the end of the trip we had seen so many of them that we sort of drove by and barely glanced at them without taking a picture.  Imagine that – me not taking a picture! 🙂

For all of the pictures above, I generally use the same camera setting – I set the camera to aperture priority mode and maintain an aperture anywhere between f/5.6 and f/8.0 or f/9.0.  This makes sure that I get the bulk of the image in crisp focus but due to the zoom of the lens I also get some blur in the background.  I shoot with the focus in One Shot AF, which means that when I press the shutter button halfway the autofocus kicks in but it doesn’t track.  If you look at the photos above, these animals aren’t moving (at least not moving fast).  So One Shot AF works fine and is my preferred setting for the stationary animals. Later in the day we saw some elephants at a great watering hole near Halali.  They honestly came in droves and it was a beautiful location; we had shaded seats to watch the big guys walking around.

This brings me to another point when doing safari photography, and that’s the challenge with composition.  Unless you’re paying insane amounts of money, you’re generally sitting in a jeep of some sort, with other people, and restricted to certain roads, watering holes or rest stops (if you work for the BBC or are a professional nature photographer, you’re reading the wrong blog!)  This creates a challenge when it comes to composition.  Ideally you’d want to get a picture of an elephant with more than just a natural background – you’d want to be standing close to it, take it from the ground looking upwards (I know, a bit frightening…) or do something else clever. Since I’m limited in situations like this, I focus on getting pictures as sharp as I can and then think a lot about the magic word – CROP.  All of the images above were cropped to create a more interesting composition.  I take full size images with my camera to ensure a relatively high quality when cropping; this isn’t required and requires a bit more diligence (as an example, you have to be willing and almost aggressive in deleting pictures that you’re not going to use, or else your hard drive will fill up too fast).  In the photos above I cropped close on several images to get the elephants skin up close; the wrinkles and texture really add a prehistoric look to these pachyderms.

In addition to the big mammals, we were fortunate enough to see some birds as well.  I love the picture below of the Lilac Breasted Roller – this has to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world, and I love how sharp this picture came out.

We also saw some other birds on our trip, including this “Bustard” walking through the grass.

And this picture of the hornbill – it was kinda funny to see these guys flying around, it’s almost like the huge banana on their bill is so non-aerodynamic that they look out of control as they get airborne! And finally probably my favorite photo of birds, is these two owls that we took at the famous Okaukeujo Watering Hole; I think they’re Cape Eagle Owls.

This picture absolutely required a tripod – I tried numerous times to get the shot but the exposure time was a few seconds and it never failed that the owls would move ever so slightly to create a blurry image.  So I bumped up the ISO and kept trying, eventually capturing one that was satisfactory.  And when I first started shooting I didn’t even realize there were two in the tree!  I just love owls – I really do think they have an aura about them as being wiser than other animals.  For a close up of the image above just click on it. The watering hole where the above picture was taken is incredible – it was walking distance from our camp, so I spent a lot of time there and was able to capture the two images below of these beautiful white rhino’s stopping for a drink.  I particularly like the reflection in the first image.

The picture above was actually taken at an extremely high ISO – 25,600.  My new camera handles noise pretty well, but when jacked up that high it was definitely noticeable.  I used noise reduction through Lightroom and that cleaned the image up nicely. We were also extremely lucky on our safari to see one of the most elusive animals in Africa – the Leopard!  And we saw one in broad daylight, slinking from one shady spot to another.  Here’s an image of him walking, and then he posed very nicely for me to capture the next image.

It’s funny when taking pictures of carnivores, especially the big cats.  I just want to see them hunt SO BADLY.  I picture myself as Jon Attenborough, communicating with a helicopter overhead to co-ordinate the photoshoot in line with the animals hunt.  Instead I sit in a roasting car, waiting for the lazy cat do do anything! 🙂 We also saw a lion on our trip, which is posted in the first photo opening this series.  Did you notice the lion, on the right hand side of the picture?  It’s a male lion with a mane that’s still being developed (similar to a young guy trying to grow a mustache a little too early!)

Thing brings me to another point of advice while doing safari photography, and that’s the zoom reach of your lens.  You MUST have a whopping zoom, or you’re constantly going to struggle in getting “close” enough to the animals.  I’m fortunate in that my friend Alan let me borrow his lens, a 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 L series with IS.  This lens is absolutely perfect for safari.  I also have my own lens, a 70-200 f/4 L IS, but I chose not to bring it because the 200 mm simply isn’t long enough.  I’m also shooting on a full frame camera, so I’m really only getting 400 mm.  When I used to shoot with my Canon 50D, which is an APS-C size, I would be getting closer to 640 mm because it automatically “crops” due to sensor size by a factor of 1.6.  I try not to change lenses; if I want to take a wide angle photo I use my S100.

I’ll close out this post with some other pictures that I took and I thought were worth sharing.  There’s then a summary of best practices for successful safari photography, and finally some links to my favorite images in case you’d like to purchase a print.

The two pictures above were taken at watering holes during our various camps.  The one above is one of my favorites as you can see the incredible night sky that Namibia is famous for.  I took a TON of photos of the night sky, trying to perfect some star trail photography so I’ll be sharing that in another post.

Five Photography Tips while on Safari

  1. Use a long zoom lens – I believe that at least 400 mm is required, although some will get by with 200 or 300 mm.  Image Stabilization or Vibration reduction will help a lot.
  2. Shoot in Av or A mode (Aperture Priority) and keep the aperture around f/5.6 up to f/9.0.  As with anything it depends on what you’re shooting, but generally on an African Safari you’ll have sunny conditions and won’t need to open up your lens all the way.  Keeping the aperture at a middle range also ensures that you get more of the animal in focus.
  3. For stationary shots, keep the camera in one-shot mode.  If you’re fortunate enough to capture a Cheetah running or something like that then by all means switch to AI Servo, but for the conditions I’ve been in on safari I find that those situations are pretty rare.
  4. To stabilize the camera, I DON’T use a tripod.  In a car or jeep the tripod is too bulky. Generally you’ll either be standing in a jeep where the top gets moved up, or you’ll be in a car shooting out an open window.  Either way you’ll be able to support your camera from the car, on the windowsill for example.  The one thing some people suggest is a bean bag, to act as a cushion between the car and the camera.  I think this is yet another thing to bring and add to your bag – instead use a sock or a t-shirt that you wore the day before.  Does the same thing and it’s one less thing that you need to pack.  Some people do use a monopod; again I think this is a bit much but if you can find out in advance what kind of car you’ll be in you can make your own choice.
  5. As mentioned above, composition can be a challenge.  While taking pictures, think about not just the image that you’re seeing in the frame but also the possibility of how you could crop that image for a more interesting composition.  Taking pictures of the animals is easy enough, but getting pictures of them doing interesting things or an image that draws the viewer in is a real challenge in safari photography.

Finally I’ll close with a few images that I think are the better ones.  If you click on any of these it will take you to my SmugMug portfolio where you can purchase the image.  I hope you like this first write-up on Namibia – we did a TON of stuff so I’m sure this trip will keep me writing for quite some time (as I process the photos that is!)