Getting the most out of game drives

The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.

The one that got away...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:

What equipment do I need?

Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer. 

Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?

Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?

The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances. 

As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.

I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a  long shutter speed.

What else should I do before I leave?

Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother.

What should I take with me on the game drives?

If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.

What should I wear?

I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!

What camera settings should I use?

There's an old photographer's joke:

Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?

Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!

The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.

Exposure

The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.

Autofocus

Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.

White balance

You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.

Quality (RAW)

Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative. 

Other settings

One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:

  • Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...
  • Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)
  • Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need
  • ISO mode: auto
  • Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla
  • Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon
  • White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW
  • Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)
  • Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)

What should I do on the actual game drive itself?

Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:

  • Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.
  • Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!
  • Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!
  • Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."
  • Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!
  • Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...
  • Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.
  • Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!

What makes a good photograph?

Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.

That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!
  • Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.
  • Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.
  • Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp. 
  • Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.
  • Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.
  • Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.