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Game Spotting Tips and Tricks

Game Spotting Tips and Tricks

Old Oct 14, 2005, 9:47 am
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Right, let me start with game viewing on foot, which comes in various guises :

1. the obligatory “optional walk” offered by most private game lodges.

These generally take place on a full stomach after breakfast/brunch, in the heat of day. No recommended, unless it is a cool overcast day or mid winter. Not much ground can be covered in the allotted hour or so, these walks therefore don’t amount to much more than an amble around the lodge. Could nevertheless still be interesting, you never know what you might chance upon.

2. morning or afternoon walks.

Most SANParks rest camps in the Kruger National Park (KNP) offer these, and they are available in other parks as well. A short drive to a suitable area is followed by a walk of three or four hours, returning to the vehicle for a drive back to camp.

Private lodges specializing in walks also conduct these walks, but they are generally a bit more flexible. The lodge can for example provide an extra driver or vehicle for a pickup, so that the walk need not end back at the starting point.

3. multi-day safaris / wilderness trails.

These either operate from a fixed base camp (e.g. the KNP trails) and conduct morning and afternoon walks each day for the duration of the guests’ stay; or guests spend each night at a different (fly) camp, or sleep under the stars.

A couple of general observations.

The cardinal rule of game viewing on foot : the fewer the merrier!

The reasons are too obvious to enumerate. The ideal number of participants is one, plus the guide makes a total of two. Group size on walks is usually restricted to six or eight, to which the two guides should be added. That’s really far too many. A disadvantage of the KNP trails as well as the morning walks from the larger KNP rest camps is that these are almost always fully booked. Put eight people together and there is a very good chance that a couple of them just can’t resist the opportunity to spend half the walk discussing the price of airline tickets or whatever.

The other rules are few and simple, and will be explained by the guide before the walk.

Morning/afternoon walks tend to focus on the novice hiker, which is really great if you are one. It is most interesting to learn which leaves are the best substitute for toilet paper, and which twig you should use to brush your teeth, but once you have heard these things approximately 96˝ times you start wishing the guide would just shut up and keep walking. At a prvate lodge there is a greater chance that there will be fewer people. On plenty of occasions I have been the only one, to my great satisfaction.

Walks are not dangerous. In fact, I contend that walking in a game reserve is one of the safest activities around. Certainly a lot safer than crossing busy urban roads, that’s for sure!

Walks are not strenuous. An average 3-4 hour walk will cover maybe 6 kilometers, and difficult terrain will generally be avoided. Heat can sometimes be a bit bothersome in summer, especially towards the end of a morning walk. Afternoon walks are perhaps best avoided when temperatures are really high. A game drive will often be offered as an alternative.

Many novice walkers have the wrong expectations. Large and dangerous animals are not waiting behind every second bush, ready to expose themselves at close range for your viewing pleasure. Guides focus on a very broad range of facets of the natural environment, just about everything from spoor (tracks), scats, insects, birds, trees to mammals small and large. These same guides are nevertheless well aware that most guests really do want to see big game, and will therefore do their best to locate at least a few. White rhinos are especially suitable, as they are dim and docile enough to allow a very close approach if conditions are right. Many other large animals, especially those that normally have little to fear (e.g. elephants, lions) will actually allow a very close approach as well (although this varies a lot with the individual animal and the circumstances), but a sensible guide will keep a safe distance anyway. The key to enjoying walks is a relaxed attitude, taking your time to enjoy the silence (defined as the absence of manmade sounds), the fresh air, the whole natural environment, all the while knowing that unexpected encounters may produce a sudden adrenaline rush at any time. You just never know. I have been on plenty of walks where I have seen only a few head of general game, but I have also had three close encounters with lions in one single walk.

It is a good idea to dress appropriately, i.e. preferably in muted khakis, greens and browns. Bright colors and (especially) white clothing are to be avoided, but medium or dark blue will do in emergency. Theoretically, camouflage clothing would be ideal, but apart from the fact that this is illegal in certain countries (e.g. Botswana), you will probably feel almost as ridiculous as those who turn up in a pith helmet (this happens, really). Suitable headgear is recommended, as is a pair of binoculars.

Wear old clothing. The African bush is full of thorny trees and shrubs, wet vegetation will leave nasty stains, dust may fill the air, and it could even rain.

As long as the temperature is not too far below 10°C and it is not too windy, I walk in a short-sleeved summer shirt, shorts and hiking sandals. I may wear a light sweater at the outset, but temperatures soon rise in the morning, and I feel a lot happier when my feet are not in socks and shoes, nor my legs in long trousers. Sure, after the first morning a quick look at my shins will tell you what I have been up to, but a few superficial scratches are nothing to worry about. A long thorn embedded itself in my leg once and took six weeks to work itself out; and I was bitten by a spider or scorpion (never discovered which) one time. My ankle was swollen for a month and a half. Ticks can be a bit of a nuisance at times, but the guide(s) walk point and will pick most of them up. Snakes are rarely seen, and make a quick getaway on the few occasions they are encountered.

If I were forced to pick one lodge to walk at, it would have to be Plains Camp in the Muthlumuvi concession in the KNP. A very nice camp, a great area for walking, and excellent game.

I’ll be pleased to answer any and all questions on this subject.

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Old Oct 14, 2005, 5:55 pm
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Thanks for the beautifully descriptive information and now I really want to take a "walking safari." We did an afternoon walk from our camp in Botswana that was very enjoyable but brief and there were 6 of us(luckily, all quiet) but it was quite windy and our guide was somewhat nervous and cut it short. For my next Africa trip, whenever that may be, I hope to do a lot more walking.
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Old Oct 15, 2005, 4:42 am
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Originally Posted by Jac747
it was quite windy.
Wind impairs the sense of hearing, and can make animals subject to predation a bit edgy. Not really anything to worry about, unless you are tracking black rhino in a sicklebush thicket.

I often hear "too much wind" as an excuse for poor game viewing, both on foot and by vehicle. There is a bit of truth in this, but not much. It is of course convenient to blame the weather, I have heard every conceivable weather condition being blamed, with the sole exception of excessive snowfall.

Originally Posted by Jac747
our guide was somewhat nervous
A sure sign of this is when your guide develops a sudden and inexplicable cough, or an equally surprising need to clear his throat repeatedly.

Was your camp in Botswana in a national park, or in a concession area? Firearms are not allowed in the former, which means that guides there don't carry them. I actually prefer that. If you don't carry a firearm you can't possibly shoot any animal. The lack of a firearm also instills a modicum of caution. I've had guides in Botswana armed with a stick and an axe respectively. Not sure how much use they would have been. Especially the guy with the axe, who stood on a small rise whilst we were swimming in the Delta, on the lookout for hungry crocodiles.

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Old Oct 15, 2005, 5:07 am
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Originally Posted by johan rebel
...with the sole exception of excessive snowfall.
It's been known to snow in SA on the odd and very rare occasion! Powdered sugar actually...

Thanks for the info about the walking safaris. I will definately look into them. I hope this also helps the OP! Although it just might confuse things more...

I've also only ever experienced walking during the optional hour-long, sun-at-its-highest after lunch. The only time it was enjoyable was when I was me alone. Otherwise, there seems to be lots of impatience to get out of the heat. One guide did mention once that they encountered a male lion on one walk, who came quite close, and scared the guests half to death.
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Old Oct 15, 2005, 8:09 am
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Lebombo Eco Trail

Comprehensive information on this trail will be found on the SANParks website.

Although I have contempleted doing the trail, two reasons have stopped me from doing so :

1. The fact that participants need not only a 4x4 vehicle, but also need to be fully equipped for five day's camping. Take a look at the Equipment and Accessories Guideline on the link above! Not a problem for SA residents who already have a suitable vehicle and gear, or can borrow what they lack from friends and family, but if you come from overseas you will need to rent everything from a local specialist, at considerable expense. Not so bad if you can split the cost four ways, but rather steep if you are traveling alone.

2. The number of participants is limited to 20 per trail, in five vehicles (plus the ranger's car, which makes a total of six). SANParks claims this "affords the groups some exclusivity". Perhaps, but my idea of visiting remote areas of Kruger does not include driving in a convoy, with other vehicles in view all the time. When driving on public roads in the park I not only plan my route to maximize my chances of good game viewing, but also to minimize my chances of encountering other vehicles. My record so far is driving just under four hours before meeting another car.

Having said all this, I must say that I have only read and heard positive things about the trail. The guide I walked with the other week recommended it warmly, and he should know, since he is one of the guides who runs it. I may yet get around to it one day.

The trail runs from April to October, and given its popularity advance bookings are essential.

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Old Oct 15, 2005, 10:15 am
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We were in a private concession so yes, the guide in the front did carry a rifle while the guide at the rear did not. It was mid-August so the weather was delightful and though we saw no big game, it was a very enjoyable(albeit short) walk and so nice to be out walking rather than riding in the vehicle only!
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Old Oct 15, 2005, 2:52 pm
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Game Spotting Tips and Tricks

I've posted this somewhere before, but here goes again.

The basic rules are pretty simple:

  • come prepared

  • drive slowly

  • look carefully

  • concentrate

Concentration is as important as it is difficult. If you don't focus completely on what you are doing, you will overlook animals, both large and small. Daydreaming or discussing the price of airline tickets with your companions is therefore not a good idea.

Speed is always a compromise. Drive slowly, and you will miss less, and thus see more. Drive faster, and you will overlook more, but because you cover more ground you could end up seeing more anyway. The right speed will depend on numerous factors, such as the time of day, the time of year, climate, weather, visibility, vegetation, your (lack of) familiarity with the area, what particular species of game you are looking for, etc. This also means that your speed will constantly vary as circumstances change.

When the road crosses a donga (dry river) many people have a tendency speed up on the downslope, so that they will not have to shift gears driving up the other slope. Not a good idea! Instead, you should slow down and preferably come to a full stop at the bottom, and then look carefully up and down the donga in both directions. Although animals that are subject to predation don't feel comfortable in dongas, those that do the killing like sleeping on the cool sand in the shade of a large riverine trees, as do rhinos. Elephants dig for water in seemingly dry rivers.

Many people have a tendency to increase speed in open areas where visibility is good, such as grass plains. This sounds logical, but remember that you may need to do several scans to cover a given area, focussing on the near, middle and far distance in turn, and therefore need to adjust your speed accordingly.

When planning a game drive, you should allow an hour for every 10-20 kilometers you intend to travel. Allowing for time spent stationary viewing animals etc., your average speed will probably be between 20 and 30 kilometers per hour, although this is only a very rough guideline. Driving faster than 40 km/h is generally not advisable, not even in the few reserves where it is actually permitted, such as on tar roads in the Kruger National Park, where the maximum speed is 50 km/h. There may be a few occasions when driving at 50 will be necessary, like when you have got your planning wrong and are running late for the gate, but these are rare exceptions.

Looking carefully is also easier said than done, there are many factors to take into account :

- Remember that although your eyes are located at the front of your head, the latter is mounted on swivel, and can actually be turned in all sorts of directions. A proper scan starts by looking back over the one shoulder, and then turning the head until you are looking over the other shoulder. Repeating this process continuously whilst driving at a suitable speed, minimizes your chances of overlooking game. This of course assumes you are in a seat where you have a more or less unrestricted forward view. If not, you will obviously have to modify your scan. If you are in the back seat of an ordinary sedan, you have little choice but to concentrate on the side you are sitting on. If two persons are sitting in front they may agree to concentrate on one side each.

- The more experienced game spotter should not forget to include the rearview mirror in his scan. Certain animals (especially leopards, blessed with both camouflage and cunning) may hide on the approach on a vehicle, and then cross the road as soon as it has passed. To increase my field of view I tuck in the wing mirrors, but try to make sure that the remaining mirror is in my peripheral field of vision on each scan.

- If you are in a closed car, drive with all your windows open . Not only because it allows you to see better, but also because it allows you to hear and smell better. Even in inclement weather it should be possible to have the windows open on at least one side of the vehicle. If it is windy or rainy, rather wear a sweater, jacket, cap and perhaps even gloves than close the windows.

- don' forget to use your other senses. You can be five meters from an elephant, and still not see it. Chances are that you will be able to smell or hear it instead. The smell of putrefaction may well be somewhat unappealing to humans, but many animals find it irresistible. Any foul smell warrants a thorough investigation!

- Don't stare. Along with not turning the head, staring is a mistake I commonly observe, usually in combination with the former. Many people will look out the window at a certain angle, fix their gaze at a specific distance, and let everything else pass in a blur. Not a good idea. Use your eyes actively, focussing on the near, middle and far distance as circumstances and conditions dictate, as well as looking up into trees, down into the shade under bushes, and through the branches and leaves of the vegetation.

Also, don't stare at things in the far distance along the road. Either stop and look with your binoculars, or continue your normal scan until you get close enough to make an identification. This goes both for distant specks that might be animals, as well as other features of interest such as water holes.

Don't stare at the water. I don't know how many times I've seen people drive up to a drinking place, look at the water and drive away again, never noticing the pride of lions under the tree a few meters away. Always scan the entire area around a water hole, whether there are animals drinking or not. If there are none, there may a very good reason for absence, even though it is not readily apparent.

- Use your peripheral vision. This is especially important at night, when you are focusing on the narrow beam of the spotlight, but even in daylight you should try to observe the terrain ahead out of the corner of your eye. This allows you to plan ahead and decide if there are any features up ahead that warrant your special attention.

- Always look the other way. Just because there's an elephant on the left, it doesn't mean there isn't a pride of lions on the right. Just because there is a water hole on the right, where animals might be expected to drink, it doesn't mean the veld on the left is devoid of game. Every time you stop at a sighting, you should check the surroundings in all directions.

- When in doubt, check it out. If you see something you can't identify, stop and use your binoculars. For the novice this can be very time-consuming and frustrating, because the veld is full of African wild rocks and African wild logs that take great pleasure in impersonating all sorts of interesting animals. As you gain experience, this will become less of a problem.

- Look for tracks and signs on the road. Not only of animals but also vehicles. If there is a vehicle ahead of you and you see that is has suddenly come to a screeching halt and then reversed some distance, you may not only infer that they have been driving too fast, but also that they may have spotted something. Even though there may actually have been nothing to see, or the animal has long since moved on, it is a good idea to slow down a bit and look even more carefully than usual. You never know. Identifying which animals have crossed or walked along the road is also extremely useful. Even a novice should at least recognize the pug marks of carnivores and the tracks of elephant.

A male lion pug mark looks like this

Come prepared. At a minimum, you should know which animals occur in a particular area or reserve, and what they look like. Being familiar with their behavior and habits is also highly recommended. Knowing what to look for, and where and when to do it, makes things a great deal easier. Once you recognize the characteristic and incessant swishing of the zebra's tail, these animals can identified with the naked eye at distances well exceeding a kilometer, to give but one example. There are various publications available which can be studied before going on safari. Peter Apps' Wild Ways is perhaps the most accessible. Richard Despard Estes' books are probably the most comprehensive and detailed guides written for the lay public. Make sure to bring a pair of good binoculars and a field guide illustrating the common mammals of the area. If you have special interests (birds, insects, trees and shrubs), you will want to purchase and study the relevant field guides.

Plan your game drives carefully. Make sure you have good maps, read all you can about the reserve you are visiting, speak to staff and other visitors upon arrival, etc. Get all the information you can and then sit down each evening and plan the next days game drive(s). The plan need of course not be adhered to rigidly, it should adapted as and when circumstances require.

Enlist the help of the animals, they have better senses than you, not to mention more experience and a vested interest in staying alive. Alarm calls are particularly useful, especially those of monkeys. These tend to scramble to the tops of trees when frightened, from which they stare at the perceived threat, calling loudly all the while.

Enlist the help of other people. If you are driving along a road, flag down the first oncoming vehicle you meet, and exchange information. If you see one or more stationary vehicles, and it is not readily apparent what they are looking at, don't be shy to ask. Even when you think you know what they are looking at, you might be mistaken. I've had people drive past because they assumed I was looking at that boring giraffe, whereas I was actually watching a leopard walking through the grass, and that's only one of many examples.

A novice wishing to improve his game spotting skills as quickly as possible is well advised to select a small reserve (or a particular section of a larger one) and to visit as often as possible. Being well familiar with a certain area makes game spotting a lot easier. Not only will you not waste your time trying to identify all the wild logs and rocks, but when you are intimately familiar with the terrain, vegetation and animals in an area you will immediate notice things that deviate from the normal state of things. That which others would never notice suddenly becomes glaringly apparent. Where is that herd of impala that always hangs around this stretch of road? Why has that tree trunk suddenly changed its shape? Why does the outline of that rocky outcrop suddenly look different? Why is that troop of baboons not roosting in its usual tree?

Next time you are amazed by your tracker's and ranger's astounding spotting skills, you should remember that not only is it something they do every day, but they also know the area they work in better than the backs of their respective hands. When they point out that Giant Eagle Owl roosting in the deep shade of the canopy of a leafy tree 500 meters away, it may not be proof of their supernatural visual acuity, but rather of the fact that they know from experience that this particular owl regularly roosts in that particular tree.

Finally, a word on night drives. If you are not operating the spotlight, don't follow the beam, it's a waste of your time. Look at the stars or close your eyes and relax. When the spotlight operator finds something of interest, he will let you know.

If you are operating the spotlight, you may find the following hints useful :

- although you should keep your eyes glued to the beam, you need to use your peripheral vision to study the approaching terrain. This allows you to plan where to shine the light next.

- you should strive to covered the terrain on either side of the vehicle at least twice, from different angles. This is especially important in vegetated terrain, as it will allow you to shine behind as many shrubs and trees as possible. It is therefore better to do two fast sweeps than one slow one. I know that fast sweeps tend to annoy other people on the vehicle, who have a hard time following the beam and fear you will overlook things, but the truth of the matter is that you will not miss much even if you move the light quickly.

- the assumption that animals at night are always spotted by the reflection of the light in their eyes is not correct. You need to look for shape and movement as well. Many animals with bright eyes are also bright enough to close them, or avert their gaze, when somebody shines a 1,000,000 candle- power light at them. It is also a good idea to shine diagonally behind the vehicle whenever possible. Some animals will hide, but get up and look at the vehicle again when they believe the danger is over. Leopards spring to mind once again. There are also large animals with small eyes that hardly reflect any light at all, such as elephants and rhinos.

- you can not identify animals by the color of their eyes, the color changes with the reflection angle. On the other hand, it may be possible to identify many animals by the way their eyes move (or don't). In other words, how do they react to the light? Do they just stand and stare? Do they crouch down? Run away? Bounce around and jump from tree to tree?

- if the eyes are very distant, a number of clues can aid identification. Is it solitary animal? A pair? A herd? Are the eyes closely spaced? Are the animals bunched together or spread out? Standing, moving or lying down? Bobbing their heads? And so forth.

- in very open areas, it is generally pointless to shine in the far distance. You will only spot lots of eyes so far away that identification is impossible, which is a waste of time. Rather shine your beam no further than 50-100 meters.

- learn as much as you can about nocturnal animals and their behavior. Different animals have different peak activity times, so which animals you are likely to encounter also depends on what time of night you are driving at. In most game reserves night drives start around sunset and last only a couple of hours, which means that species that only become active late evening are rarely seen.

It will be a pleasure to answer any further questions.

drewguy likes this.

Last edited by johan rebel; Jan 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm
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Old Oct 18, 2005, 3:29 pm
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Excellent advice - thank you!
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Old Feb 21, 2006, 8:52 pm
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For those with access to U S books, I recommend one in particular (no, it is not a picture book, it has black and white silhouette-type illustrations and text that give you the behavioral clues you need to quickly and easily identify many African mamals.) Better yet, to understand the many behaviors you will observe. For example, you know it's a rhino with her young - but which one? Quick! If you know in which species the mom rhino precedes or follows her young, even a quick glance and you know. Or, that rhinos keep middens...)

No, I am not sure anything explains why warthogs love chocolate... but "Bwana Diki" is one of the world's foremost mammologist, and this book is seasy for the layperson to understand and enjoy. IMO, far better than a pictrue field guide, though one of these is a nice adjunct. (Before the companion was published, Lady JDiver, I and my then-young nephew and nieces spent some time camping in Tanzania with "Bwana Diki" - the book is almost like having him there explaining it all.)

In Africa, you can usually get much more than you paid for this book at home - or make a very valuable gift to your guide or camp. And in South Africa, you will find a plethora of very good books on trails, spoor, fauna, flora you can not even imagine in the USA, so be sure to "book" some time in a bookshop.

(And if you don't think much of "jerky" you must be sure to try some biltong - perhaps ostrich. It's like comparing a beat up Ford Pinto to a Lexus. Lekker! er, Yummy!)

The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates (Paperback)
by Richard D. Estes, Daniel Otte (Illustrator)

Paperback: 458 pages
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing Company; Rev Expand edition (December 1, 1999)
Language: English
ISBN: 1890132446
Product Dimensions: 9.0 x 6.0 x 1.1 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds.

Uh, there used to be a lighter field-guide version of this, if I recall, but it may be 'way out of print. One review of this book is:

[The Safari Companion] will foster a deeper appreciation of Africa's wildlife by teaching people on safari to be better observers and to understand how animals interact with each other and with their environment. This book is more than a field guide; it is a valuable tool for conservation.

-Kathryn S. fuller, President, World Wildlife Fund (USA)
For those insatiable people who want to now more:

The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, Primates (Paperback)
by Richard D. Estes, Daniel Otte and Edward O. Wilson

Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; 20th Anniversary Edition edition (March 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0520272978
ISBN-13: 978-0520272972
Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 6.3 x 9.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)

Last edited by JDiver; Sep 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm Reason: add second book
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Old Apr 8, 2006, 1:08 pm
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Photographing that game? Sure - and here are some tips that might be helpful.

Some tips for those would-be game fotoggers...

For reasonably good game photography, lenses up to 300mm and as bright as you can get them are the best. For birds, up to 600mm. Some zooms these days are nice, and longer lenses are more easily had with image stabilization - the game shooter's friend! (Very few "point and shoot" cameras have sufficient focal length for halfway decent game photography; do not ever count the "digital zoom" as part of usable focal length - "digital" merely narrows down on a portion of the photo, so you have fewer pixels, and a crap photograph. That being said, I have seen folks get some very good shots with 200mm... and wide angle gets you those dramatic scenes (35mm equivalent would be 28mm or better.)

Don't forget the macro - "small stuff" like the ants emerging from a host acacia thorn, insects, flowers, interesting patterns in a tree trunk, etc. add a dimensionality to your photo journal.

The usual rule of thumb for handheld shooting is to have your shutter speed at least match the lens focal length, e.g a 200mm lens is handholdable when your shutter speed is 1/250 second or above, a 300mm 1/250th if you are very good, or 1/500th. An IS lens allows you to drop a couple of shutter speeds from this rule, e.g. 200mm lens 1/60th if you are careful, a 300mm at 1/125th or so. IS (Image Stabilisation) will allow better usually - one or two stops better.

Handholding your camera with long lens (even with stabilized systems) means taking a very stable stance - prone or seated is better than standing - bracing your body, and the camera with locked arms tucked into your body. Use any immovable object you can as a brace - beanbag, tabletop or mini-tripod a tree, fence, rock... and be sure to have the driver shut the engine off! Practice breath control - if you have ever shot a firearm in the military or competition, those are the skills you use - get your stable stance, try to keep arms close to your body centre if you are standing, get relaxed, inhale, begin exhaling, hold your breath and squ-e-e-eze the shutter button slowwwwly.

Arms apart, feet together, breathing fast because this lion is the ultimate, jam down on the shutter button - you will have a shaky, blurry unsharp photograph for your efforts.

Tripods - it's hard to use a large tripod from a vehicle rooftop hatch! I take my "shooter's buddy" when I go game viewing / photographing. This is basically a trouser leg end, preferably of soft material like corduroy. I sew one end shut, use a zipper or "Velcro" at the other end, and sew it to allow use of a ZipLoc or similar bag. Travelling, it weighs next to nothing and takes no room at all, but when I arrive, I can use rice, millet or whatever seed is available and make myself a "bean bag" I can rest the camera on when the bean bag is in turn lying on the vehicle roof / coaming. At the end of the trip, you can "recycle" the seed to your driver or feed the birds...

A lens shade will help - protect the lens from damage, and your photos from the light, since you are less able to control light angles from a vehicle. And filters are very useful - every lens needs a filter to protect it, usually a UV... but for some scenics you might like a polarizing filter to minimize reflections / darken skies and waters. Don't get the cheapest filters - a fine lens filtered through crap glass gives you guess what kind of imagery? And of course, keep them clean - I have seen expensive lenses take lousy images because the filter was allowed to gather grunge.

If you use film, select a variety of ISO speeds - to estimate what you will lneed, think of the "rule of sunny sixteen." In bright sun, your film ISO can be your guide for selecting yrou shutter speed (assuming no meter and a front-lit subject.) ISO 25 film with a 300mm lens... let's see, f16 and 1/30 is OK, f4 at 1/500th will give you handholdability and put the focus emphasis on the critter / target, in full sunny bright conditions. Dawn, dusk, you will need to add at least three more stops of light, so select film accordingly, as some animals are crepuscular and you definitely want to take advantage of the dramatic "golden hour" lighting before dawn and dusk.

For relative ease at airports, some of which do NOT like to hand inspect your film and may have poorly adjusted x-ray machines, I load all my film into clear (Fuji) containers and carry them in a plastic sack. Most of the time, a smile and handing over the sack(s) will do it - but I have had one or two pills at places like London Heathrow and iirc Jo'burg smile back and run it through the x-ray; at least with the plastic see through, they didn't stop it to zap it all lengthily to see what was in the lead-protected bag. And NEVER put film in your checked luggage - the CTX machines they use in many airports have a high possibility of fogging your film. (What is this "fillum" stuff, anyway? Anyone still using it? Yes!)

Redundancy: Take more film or memory chips than you think you will need; twice as much is not too much, as you will learn. You may find local prices exorbitant, dodgy brands or film that is past-dated or poorly stored. Handle it all carefully - no fingerprints on the memory chip conductors, a small cloth insulated cooler for film, take care of your image media and it will take care of yor imagery. Take extra lenses that can fill in, and if you are serious you will of course have a spare camera body. Take plenty of fresh batteries - rechargables are the best, of course, but be sure to take a multi-voltage charger and adapter plugs - even a 12v auto lighter plug is handy.

Protection: DUST is a big enemy of camera gear in Africa and other safari destinations. You will likely travel on unsurfaced roads, and the dust can infiltrate and jam up your gear, land on the sensor, etc. Take ZipLoc bags for everything (dust and moisture protection,) an ear syringe and fine brushes, lens tissue and fluid. You will find yourself using these from time to time, even if you don't at home. Be sure to protect from water - rain , high humidity, etc.

Also be sure to provide cushioning, as jouncing around in the Serengeti for ten hours can be harsh on cameras. A good camera bag is padded, convenient to use and seals enough to keep most dust out. And provide protection from theft - your gear can be stolen and fenced for what a local might make in three years, but I have seen tourists steal and scam as well. I could do an entire post on securing your gear...

Tools: Basics would include a rubber jar unscrewing pad for filters screwed on too tight, an eqar syringe and lens tissue, plus a reliable lens cleaning fluid, and a camel's hair brush to keep it all clean and dust-free. A dark bag for film cameras to remove a torn film can be improvised with a couple of heavy jackets nested inside each other at night. A small screwdriver to screw the rare occasional screw becoming dislodged by use and vibration.

Subjects: Animals generally do not hassle you, but they do not cooperate either, so be patient, if you have the chance sit and observe a while to get interesting action like "flehmen" behaviours, etc. ANY critter can be interesting - baboon spiders, reptiles, birds, the bats hanging over the bar at Ndutu Lodge, night critters in the tree next to your tent, that vervet monkey stealing someone's hardcooked egg by the waterhole... Night photos are great, but be aware there are proper, and improper, times to use a high-powered strobe (and a point-and-shoot flash will NOT illuminate that elephant thirty yards away at the waterhole.)

Scenery doesn't move around too much either... but some scenery is often a "NO! NO!" in many countries, especially those where we go to see game animals. Usually, any "military structure" is not wise to photograph: this would obviously include a military barracks tanks, vehicles... but could include bridges, airports, aircraft at airports (yes, even airliners,) the nation's flag. And even in countries populated by FTers, immigration and customs halls are generally verboten for photos. Read up, ask your guide, check travel sites before you shoot - or suffer the possible fate of a group of British air enthusiasts who photographed airliners in Greece - and had an "enforced holiday" of nineteen days in jail. Imagine if they had been shooting military aircraft in a country with armed hostilities going on or imminently possible with the neighbours...

People - some may not like being photographed, or in some very touristy areas may demand to be paid. Be careful of adults / kids asking to be photographed - it might be they just want to be in your memories, it may be they will demand money after the fact, when you have little control over the asking "fee." Ask your guide, or ask your would-be subject; some guides will arrange your permission and / or pay a reasonable tip on your behalf. If they say "no" leave it at that; it is better to miss a photo than trying to deal with a hostile crowd, stones, or even a spear chucked at your lens. And in most safari countries, do NOT photograph people in uniform (military, police, etc.) A medium tele/zoom can get you some very nice intimate candid photo shots.

Addendum: I spent some of summer 2007 in the Baltic, and took some seminars from National Geographic, etc. freelance photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski or visit www.nationalgeographic.com, who passed on some very good information, and later Southeast Asia with Tom O'Neill (NG Senior Writer) - which I will now pass on to you.

For digital photographers: NEVER attempt to edit or delete your images whilst in the camera; the viewfinder / viewing area will not give you a substantial enough image to do so, much less to determine sharpness, and messing with the directory can end up costing you all of your hard-won images. To repeat: deleting some photos on a chip to make room for more is to court disaster.

If you use memory chips, take the highest capacity you can, and fast enough to keep up with your camera's video and photo write speeds - there are several good manufacturers out there. Keep them protected - moisture and dust are the enemy. If you get a chance somewhere, you can have them backed up to one of the new very small portable hard drive devices you can download to without a computer on hand, or (less desirable but better than nothing,) DVDs before you go home.

Choose reliable memory you have formatted individually before beginning to shoot and keep scrupulously clean – e.g. avoid fingerprints on the chip contacts. When you are done with shooting and get home, re-format the chip before using again. (Hint: I format, then add a photo from my computer - basically a photo of my screen with name and contact information - as "photo #1.") If at all possible back your images up - there are small portable hard rives out there that do not need a computer, and DVDs / CDs are another option.

Shoot the highest quality image possible - it will take more memory to do that, but quality is important - RAW format or the highest you can, TIFF preferable to lossy JPG, thank you. You and your viewers will appreciate that care later.

If you shot film, you were taught to underexpose; with digital, what you do not record you can not add to / enhance later; some overexposure is better than some underexposure. You can adjust the brightness later. Or, as many cameras allow for autobracketing, why not?

With digital cameras, your histogram is your light meter and your friend. You want to see the photo information as a mountain in the middle of your histogram display, or at least not see “clipping” at the origin and end of the histogram.

Be aware – JPG is a “lossy” compression process, and every time you open that JPG shot, when you close it, it will re-compress inexactly, and you will degrade the image a little more every time. Better: as soon as possible download the images - using as little "intermediary" software as possible (the computer's operating system is best,) and make archival backups you will never open and close. If at all possible, use software like Adobe Lightroom (extremely safe and you can batch process, add information, etc.) and convert your images to PNG format. (The other formats may not remain standards for long - National Geographic, Adobe, etc. got together and agreed to establish the new PNG format as THE archival solution.) (Adobe Lightroom is good for many things, including cataloging your images; get Scott Kirby's book for best use.)

Archive your images on the absolutely best media you can - DVDs should not be generic ones, but rather the best quality - some are gold-washed - for enduring image preservation. Use only the best and you should use the lowest speed available to write the disc. Speed kills... images when they are improperly written, even if you use the Verify function. And if at all possible, use an external CD / DCD burner - burning generates heat, so pros avoid using the computer's drive. (Remember, these hints are from people who make their living and reputation from images they shoot.)

I'll read this over later and maybe add - but if you see anything that needs to be corrected or added for the amateur photographer's comfort, please fill in...
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Last edited by JDiver; Sep 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm Reason: addendum and some minor edits
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Old Apr 8, 2006, 2:42 pm
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Thank you so much for this great thread Johan and JDiver. I'm sending it to my son who will be our designated photographer on our upcoming trip.
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Old Apr 9, 2006, 5:58 am
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Help with autofocus

I echo the thanks to johan rebel and JDiver for the incredibly useful information.

One thing that befuddles me is how to convince the autofocus that I want to focus on the creature in the mid-ground, and not on the grass or brush in the foreground. Here is an example of what I'm talking about: when I press halfway down on the shutter, the focus box/boxes appear to be on the zebra, but in fact they're focusing on the twigs in the foreground. I'm using a Panasonic FZ5, probably set to automatic shutter speed and focal length.

Suggestions, tips, etc?
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Old Apr 9, 2006, 10:48 am
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Originally Posted by wideman
I echo the thanks to johan rebel and JDiver for the incredibly useful information.

One thing that befuddles me is how to convince the autofocus that I want to focus on the creature in the mid-ground, and not on the grass or brush in the foreground. Here is an example of what I'm talking about: when I press halfway down on the shutter, the focus box/boxes appear to be on the zebra, but in fact they're focusing on the twigs in the foreground. I'm using a Panasonic FZ5, probably set to automatic shutter speed and focal length.

Suggestions, tips, etc?
That's a tough one. I put my camera in spot metering mode so only the center AF sensor is in use. I then aim for a unobscured portion of the subject, get the focus lock, recompose and shoot.

I'll do this several times since the camera not infrequently grabs the wrong spot to focus on and the image comes out like your example.

If the scene is fairly static and you have a tripod you can reduce the aperature and change the shutter speed appropriately. This will increase the depth-of-field and more of the scene will be in focus.

Google depth-of-field and you will get lots of hits.
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Old Apr 9, 2006, 11:56 pm
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Some autofocus systems will seek on strong, contrasting parallel lines oriented in certain directions, or something closer and sharper - if the sensors are center weighted, sometimes the answer is to center-aim the camera elsewhere and focus on something unobstructed, press the shutter button halfway to lock the focus and then swing the camera back to your subject. It's a bit of a PITA, but when the camera refuses to "cooperate" it can work.

With your specific zebra, I'd have tied centering the lens and focusing on the zebra's head with the oxpeckers (it seems freer of acacia branches,) hold the focus and move the camera to frame as you wish, then shoot. Basically, what birdstrike said, in other words.

Originally Posted by wideman
I echo the thanks to johan rebel and JDiver for the incredibly useful information.

One thing that befuddles me is how to convince the autofocus that I want to focus on the creature in the mid-ground, and not on the grass or brush in the foreground. Here is an example of what I'm talking about: when I press halfway down on the shutter, the focus box/boxes appear to be on the zebra, but in fact they're focusing on the twigs in the foreground. I'm using a Panasonic FZ5, probably set to automatic shutter speed and focal length.

Suggestions, tips, etc?
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Old Jul 19, 2006, 1:07 pm
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The one advantage of having more people in a game walk is that just in case of an attack, your probability of becoming food is much lower:-)
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