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Old Dec 2, 11, 4:08 am   #1
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A few safari photo questions

I've never been on safari and I'm slightly above a novice photographer. I enjoy photography and like getting good stuff, but I'm not going for NatGeo quality. I have some questions on

- How essential is it to have a body with a vari-angle LCD screen? I much prefer to shoot through the viewfinder than use the LCD. In the jeep, is it ever difficult to use the viewfinder such that having a swiveling LCD is useful?

- I'm doing both Northern Tanzania and Ugranda/Rwanda (gorillas/chimps). I've got the Canon 100-400L, and I'm concerned that this isn't a fast enough lens for the gorillas since people say there is low light. Any tips / recommended camera settings for shooting the gorillas using the 100-400L? Bringing a second, faster tele lens isn't an option.

- What's the best inexpensive (~$30ish) beanbag-type solution for the jeep?

- What's the cheapest reliable portable storage device for backing up memory cards? I don't need to view the images; just to safely back them up.

- Any tips on camera settings for the safari (whether to use standard or vivid mode, auto-focus modes, etc.)?

- Would I want to spend more time in shutter priority or aperture priority mode? And what's the minimum shutter speed that I'd want to use to not blur the animals (does it need to be even slower than 1/focallength)? I'm not fully comfortable in full manual at this point, but do experiment sometimes.

Thanks for all the advice.
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Old Dec 2, 11, 10:08 am   #2
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I haven't been on a gorilla hunt but have a lot of safari experience, so can offer a few comments on your questions. As in all things, circumstances are different and YMMV.

Eyepiece v. screen: I virtually only use the eyepiece, and make really sure that I've blocked any light leaks that might be around. In the jeeps, you have to stay pretty much in your seat (no standing or holding cameras way up in the air) in order not to startle the animals (who just see the jeep, not the passengers unless you make yourself evident.) So using things like the swivel screen (which I also have on a Nikon) just doesn't come up.

Shutter/aperture: I'll pass on this one; no one solution works universally. However, I find it important to use high ISO settings in low-light conditions mainly so that I get some depth of field leeway. I would absolutely recommend that you try out your camera/lens combination in numerous low-light situations to see which settings give you the best and most reliable autofocus, almost irrespective of shutter speed. Especially at long-ish zoom settings, I've found that a balky autofocus will ruin more images than any other element, and in low light - using either the eyepiece or screen - you can't tell how it's doing that quickly, so you have to trust the equipment. There's no point in freezing motion if it's out of focus to start. Assuming you have vibration reduction (either in the lens or the camera itself) then rely on it, but make sure your autofocus is as fast and reliable as you can make it, and choose your shutter/aperture settings accordingly.

If your camera has fast and reliable bracketing settings, USE THEM and bracket everything by +/- 1 or 2 f-stops or shutter speeds. Memory cards are cheap.

Beanbags, etc: Don't know, don't use 'em. Something really cheap would be my guess, or possibly a unipod instead (you can use it on the floor of the jeep as well as on the ground when you're on foot.)

Safaris are fantastic experiences; I'd practice, practice, practice with my gear before going so that it's intuitive and on autopilot in the field.
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Old Dec 2, 11, 11:47 am   #3
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Very helpful; thanks Gardyloo. Re your comment that you don't use beanbags on safari -- does this mean you handhold the camera or you're using a mono/tripod in the jeep?
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Old Dec 2, 11, 12:09 pm   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by $1500forGLD View Post
Very helpful; thanks Gardyloo. Re your comment that you don't use beanbags on safari -- does this mean you handhold the camera or you're using a mono/tripod in the jeep?
Yes - often you can use the door sill or some such, but equally often you don't have time to scrunch into position, so hand-holding becomes the norm.
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Old Dec 2, 11, 8:04 pm   #5
 
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What Canon body are you using?

Have you looked into rental options for a faster telephoto lens? For a once in a lifetime shoot, this often works out.
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Old Dec 4, 11, 3:37 am   #6
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by $1500forGLD View Post
I've never been on safari and I'm slightly above a novice photographer. I enjoy photography and like getting good stuff, but I'm not going for NatGeo quality. I have some questions on

- How essential is it to have a body with a vari-angle LCD screen? I much prefer to shoot through the viewfinder than use the LCD. In the jeep, is it ever difficult to use the viewfinder such that having a swiveling LCD is useful?

- I'm doing both Northern Tanzania and Ugranda/Rwanda (gorillas/chimps). I've got the Canon 100-400L, and I'm concerned that this isn't a fast enough lens for the gorillas since people say there is low light. Any tips / recommended camera settings for shooting the gorillas using the 100-400L? Bringing a second, faster tele lens isn't an option.

- What's the best inexpensive (~$30ish) beanbag-type solution for the jeep?

- What's the cheapest reliable portable storage device for backing up memory cards? I don't need to view the images; just to safely back them up.

- Any tips on camera settings for the safari (whether to use standard or vivid mode, auto-focus modes, etc.)?

- Would I want to spend more time in shutter priority or aperture priority mode? And what's the minimum shutter speed that I'd want to use to not blur the animals (does it need to be even slower than 1/focallength)? I'm not fully comfortable in full manual at this point, but do experiment sometimes.

Thanks for all the advice.
Having shot both chimps in Tanzania and gorillas in Rwanda (albeit with a Nikon camera), I think the 100-400L is doable. The 1/focal length shutter speed rule is something of a simplification and I have managed to get quite decent shots at 400 mm with 1/30 sec. exposure (the Nikon 80-400 mm does have VR, though).

The somewhat surprising thing to me was that especially with the gorillas we got so close, the 80-400 mm lens was rather too long at times. A fast 50 mm prime actually worked quite well in many occasions as we were literally meters away from the big fellas. I also had a 105 mm prime with me at times and that worked out quite well.

But do consider adding a fast prime to your arsenal; it can make a big difference at times.

I can't say much about monopods as my experience with them is limited, but a cheapo bean bag is useful in a jeep. Most safari lodges can lend you one so that you don't have to lug one around.

I normally shoot with aperture priority mode but with wildlife shutter priority with Auto ISO would also make a ton of sense.

Here is a little something to whet your appetite (gorillas are from PNV in Rwanda, others from Katavi NP in Tanzania):

A young gorilla horsing around (105 mm, f/2.8, 1/125 sec):


Having Fun by monojussi, on Flickr

A silverback in deep thought (400 mm, f/5.6, 1/30 sec)

Let Me Think by monojussi, on Flickr

An ornery buffalo (400 mm, f/5.6, 1/125 sec)

Mud is good by monojussi, on Flickr

A tree-climbing lion (400 mm, f/5.6, 1/400 sec)

We can climb, too by monojussi, on Flickr

Enjoy your trip!

Cheers,
T.
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Old Dec 4, 11, 1:46 pm   #7
 
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Great shots! My wife has been wanting to do a safari and that has provided more incentive.
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Old Dec 4, 11, 3:06 pm   #8
 
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Which body are you using? What is your opinion/aversion to image noise/grain?

Generally, if I want to control DOF, I use aperture priority, and motion blur use shutter speed. With IS, you will be able to do better than 1/focal length for CAMERA motion, but that assumes your subject is perfectly still.
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Old Dec 8, 11, 6:30 pm   #9
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Nice, Thalassa! Love the "gorrilla my dreams" and the "African mud buffalo" .

Bean bag for $1500forGLD - I take a trouser leg from an old worn out trouser, preferably soft like corduroy, cut it so it is 12 - 14" long, sew it shut on one side after hemming or on the inside turned inside out; use hook and loop closure on the other end after hemming (like Velcro). It packs down quite well, and even serves to protect items from scratching, etc.

I also take a number of zip closure bags - one gets local cheap stuff, like millet, rice, whatever is cheap in the local market, loosely packed into the bag, which then goes into the trouser leg beanbag. This works well on the hatch coaming or roof of a safari van or Land Cruiser (I doubt too many Jeeps are seen in Africa!) and provides some good cushioning, takes up little room.

Cost? Often a few shillingi or whatever local currency for local grain, which can then be given away at the end of safari or used to feed the birds, and less weight and space taken up. These have served me well in Africa, South America, etc.

Of course, be sure to ask the driver to shut the bloody engine off! (Pet peeve...)

Also, I recommend a hood for those close-to-the-sun shots, filters for everything and - more zip closure bags, particularly if one is going on an overland safari, because you can not imagine how much dust there is, how fine it can be and how it can find its way into almost everything. An ear syringe (manual blower), some lens cleaner and tissues or faux chamoix / shammy. I have seen entirely too many decent photos spoilt by a dirty lens!

Not to mention twice as many memory cards than you think you might need, plenty of batteries (rechargable with the requisite adapters, particularly a 12VDC automobile cigar lighter socket if on an overland trek or the like - check www.kropla.com for voltage and prong style used in various countries) . Get them as fast as you can practically but do not pay for much faster than your camera can actually use. Two National Geographic photographers I have travelled with and learned from (Tom O'Neill and Tomasz Tomaszewski) have suggested strongly not to delete photos in camera - wait until you get home and download to a computer. (Some will argue with this, but I won't argue with these guys, whose livelihood depends on their work.)

Oh, don't take photos of "military" stuff in much of Africa - this can include bridges, airports, any genuine military or police buildings or equipment, and people in uniform. Really - I have seen cameras confiscated and trouble form this issue. At Jomo Kenyatta / NBO, I had permission from one guy to shoot another came and harassed me - why? "You might photograph an aircraft carrying our President and photographing our president is not allowed." (And that is merely one example over the years in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa.)
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Last edited by JDiver; Dec 8, 11 at 6:42 pm.
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Old Dec 9, 11, 1:10 am   #10
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The system gave me an ad for a GorillaPod!
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Old Dec 12, 11, 9:24 pm   #11
 
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Just did Kenya/Tanzania with a Nikon D3100 body and a 55-300mm Nikkor Lens. Even that was too much at many points, since two of the parks we went to allowed off road driving and we got REALLY close to the animals where I had to resort to a point-n-shoot and even an iPhone 4S (which took some pretty stunning pictures, believe it or not). I never bothered changing to an 18-55 lens during the trip - there was rarely enough time, and you risk dust in your camera.

I did handheld shooting the entire time (no bean bags) and rarely had issues. The driver should stop the car and turns off the engine to reduce vibration...

Most of the newer Land Rovers also had chargers built-into the car, so no worries about running low on juice (carry your charger with you). I did entire 10+ hour outings, on a single, fresh battery. Most high-end safari camps will have bean bags in the car as well.

I shot mostly in aperture priority mode f/5.6 (except during sunset, or into the evening when the camera chose slow shutter speeds creating blurry photos).

Definitely shoot in RAW format so you don't have to worry to much about exposure settings... During the daytime, I usually shot at ISO200 or 400, amping that up as the night time came around.
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