Let’s face it – unless you have a PhD in optics and electronics, wading your way through the myriad options when faced with buying a camera is near impossible. The plastic box full of bits of wire and glass with a pretty screen at the back and a big eye at the front is pretty much unfathomable but for the famous brand emblazoned on the side.
Thank goodness for Mike Myers then.
Mike has been photographing wildlife since the pin-hole camera was in fashion. The words that follow are Mike’s tips on taking award-winning pictures of the wildlife you see in the wild. If you are worried about making your first (or tenth) camera purchase or are just about to head out on a budget-breaking photographic safari, keep reading.
The tips below were written with the amateur photographer in mind. They are no more than guidelines and we hope they are of some use.
Before we get onto equipment let’s give you the Mike Myers law of wildlife photography:
The number of great photographs you get is inversely proportional to the amount of gear you carry.
Mike says, ‘how often I have seen serious amateur and professional photographers miss great photographs because they are trying to decide which piece of equipment to use. The ability to react instantly to what happens around you is a very important part of wildlife photography – just behind your own imagination and knowing your equipment.’
This great quote comes from the Online Photographer website:
‘Photography isn’t about cameras and lenses. Technique is a lot more important than what camera and lenses you use, and your taste is a lot more important than technique, and having something to say is a lot more important than having good taste, and working hard and following through is more important than having something to say.’
With that said let’s break this down by type of camera. (Have a look at www.dpreview.com for excellent reviews on the web for all digital cameras and lenses.)
Compact cameras come in many shapes and forms. If all you want is to have photographs as memories of your safari then any one of the small, compact, all in one type cameras will be perfect. At the top end there are great offerings from all the manufacturers, dpreviw has an excellent comparison here.
The compact superzoom camera will give you longer telephoto lenses needed for photographing wildlife. It is slightly bigger and heavier but still an all in one solution. You will find an excellent comparison here
The EVIL Camera
Isn’t this name great? It stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens – also called the Micro 4/3 for Panasonic and Olympus, or the NEX 3 and 5 for Sony. These are excellent cameras with better image quality than the compact group of cameras. Panasonic and Olympus conform to a standard and the lens mount from both manufacturers is the same. Mike has a Panasonic GF 1 with a 20mm pancake lens which he carries everywhere with him – ‘I love it’ he says.
There are excellent telephoto zoom lenses available for these cameras. These cameras are an excellent alternative to DSLR’s (The big boys – see below), take great quality images and make for a light and easy system to use.
DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) – Cameras
Modern high-resolution digital cameras are outstanding and give superb quality images. The traditional brand leaders are Nikon and Canon, though Sony is now a strong competitor in the field. Mike’s advice is to buy the best you can afford and don’t rule out buying used equipment – a Canon 40D takes better images, in Mike’s opinion, than the new Canon 7D.
Match the camera body with two zoom lenses:
• a wide angle to mid range zoom like an 18mm – 55mm for a cropped frame sensor, or a 24mm – 70mm for full frame; and
• a 70mm – 300mm telephoto zoom.
Mike prefers not to use Teleconverters but if you want to then stick to a 1.4x converter (to dummies, this will increase the zoom by 1.4 times).
A second camera is a worthwhile consideration, as digital cameras do occasionally fail. Apart from providing backup, it is ideal to put a wide-angle zoom lens on one and a telephoto on the other.
Spare Batteries, Recharging Facilities and Additional Storage
Spare batteries are essential and a back up storage device of some sort is strongly recommended. If you bring a laptop computer, an external hard drive is essential. Otherwise a portable storage device like an Epson 7000 will allow you to sleep easier at night.
Make certain you have enough card storage – most people take more photographs than they expect to. Compact flash cards are continually dropping in price – 16 and 8 GB memory cards are the norm these days. Also try investing in the newer generation UDMA cards as they write data so much faster.
Safari camps and lodges have facilities for recharging batteries. Strips for charging more than one device are suggested for more serious photographers.
On the back of a safari vehicle a monopod is a compact, light-weight solution for providing additional stability for longer telephoto lenses. Image Stabilisation and the better high ISO (light sensitivity) ability of modern digital cameras means that hand holding of cameras is more the norm these days – as Mike said at the beginning of the blog, the ability to react quickly is a great advantage.
Protection from the elements
Camerabags are the ideal way to transport all your camera gear. Out on game drives remember to carry something to cover your camera gear and minimise dust – a sarong or Kenyan kikoy does the trick perfectly.
A Petzl headlamp packed in your camera bag is a good hands-free idea for changing settings after dark and packing up your gear after night drives.
A Giotto Rocket Blower or small new paintbrush is excellent to remove unwanted dust from a camera for general cleaning before doing any lens changes in the field.
A rain-proof cover for your camera bag is a wise investment particularly for African safaris in the rainy season, when afternoon thunderstorms are frequent.
General Photography Tips
1. Knowing your equipment is vital – how many times do people arrive at the airstrip on the first day of the safari and something amazing happens on the drive to camp? By the time you come on safari using the camera must be second nature – you need to make your adjustments with the speed and accuracy of a concert pianist.
2. Ask your guide to help you anticapate what animals are going to do – e.g. when you see an eagle in a tree drop a pellet, it is about to fly and you can be ready.
3. From a composition perspective find out about the Rule of Thirds and apply it – great subject with bad composition is a bad photograph.
4. Take photographs in Aperture Priority – most professional photographers shoot this way as controlling Depth of Field is key. Try not to just shoot on automatic.
5. In poor light don’t be afraid of using higher ISOs – you will read lots about noise at higher ISOs but there is nothing more important than getting the photograph.
6. Learn about post processing of pictures on the computer – if you know what can be done on the computer after you have taken the photograph it helps you think at the critical moment. It is incredible what can be fixed on a computer without ‘cheating’ on the photograph.
7. Try not to be obsessed with the subject – look around the frame to see what aspects of the environment you can include in the image to make it better. NB the rule of thirds.
Wilderness Safaris camps are geared to looking after photographers. Private vehicles can be booked at extra cost but this is certainly the best way to persue great photographs. An alternative is to book a small group of six people where everyone has the same interest – patience is so important for good photographs.
Have fun and good luck!