“Safari” Gear & Settings

Safari is a Swahili word that means journey.  In the “bad old days” a Safari was all about big game hunting, fortunately to a large extent those days are past and now Safari has come to mean a vehilcle based wildlife watching/photography trip and whilst the concept of a Safari orginates in Africa, Safaris can now been indertaken in many parts of the world often in search of specfic species, for example Tiger Safaris have become huge business in India.

From a photography perspective there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account if you are going to get the best from a Safari and capture the best possible images.

I have undertaken a good number of “Safari” trips now and each time have added to my knowledge to the point now where at least from an equipment and technique perspective I have a pretty good idea of how to give myself a reasonable chance of capturing decent images.

Safaris are almost invaribly undertaken in “jeep” type vehicles, in Africa these will tend to be based on a purpose built extended base Toyota Landcruisers and may be open or closed sided (with sliding windows) and with a pop top. In Asia the vehicles are more likely to be converted pick-up trucks, either Toyota or Mahindra, and will almost always be open sided usually with a roof that can be rolled back.  Regardless of vehicle type the one thing that all Safaris share is that they tend to be bumpy and dusty, neither of which is great from a photographic perspective.

The biggest issue you face as a Safari photographer is that you are completely constrained in your viewpoint.  It is invariably the case that you cannot get out of the vehicle and only have limited ability to adjust your position and height, if you are sharing a vehicle with others this is even more the case, if you have your own vehicle you can at least be more demanding of the driver and of course always ask the driver to kill the engine whilst you are photographing to minimise vibrations in the vehicle.

To combat the lack of mobility you need to be able to vary your focal length quickly and easily and given the need to do this at speed and in often dusty conditions this means a good flexible zoom lens will always be the best way to go.  In most circumstances something like a 100-400mm (FF equiv) lens will be ideal for probably 75% of what you will want to photograph.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Photography from a Safari vehicle can be a real challenge – clear views are not always available.

With a 100-400mm zoom lens most mammal shots will be covered both in terms of shots of the animals in their wider environment and semi close-ups.

For more detailed close-ups of mammals, perhaps for more distant shots and for birds a focal length of greater than 400mm is nearly always required.  For such subjects a focal length of at least 600mm or even 800mm for smaller birds can be needed. Now given my previous comments about dust and the need to be able to switch focal lengths speedily it will be self evident that switching lenses is frankly a non-starter, rather it is far far better to have a second camera on which a longer lens is mounted and ready to go.  I have found it best to hold one camera on my lap and have my second camera in a small open camera bag at my feet, I leave both cameras switched on and set up in identical fashion with lens hoods extended.  I tend to take my camera straps (Peak Design) off whilst in the vehicles as they can get caught and be more trouble than they are worth.  If it is very dusty I have a small cloth that I just loosly wrap around the lens hood and always have my rocket blower to hand to remove any dust that does get on the lens.  In some circumstances a bean bag can be useful although I tend not to bother as the image stabilisation is so good on both my cameras that I rarely need additional support.

With this in mind for my recent Sri Lanka trip (much more on that to come) I went armed with my Olympus OM-D EM1 mkII on which I planned to mount my Zuiko 300m f/4 Pro lens (600mm FF equiv), using this lens on the Olympus body gives the best possible image stabilisation which is essential at such long focal lengths.  As a second body I planned to use my Lumix G9 mounted with my Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8 Pro lens (80-300mm FF equiv), as this lens does not have optical image stabilisation there is no real penalty in using on a Lumix body with more than adequate stabilisation being provided by the in body stabilisation of the G9.  With both of these setups the 1.4x and 2x converters can be used if extra focal length is required.

In terms of camera settings the key thing with this type of wildlife photography is that you need to be able to react very quickly when something presents itself, in practice this tends to mean that often you will only have time to concentrate on getting your focus point on the subject before you start shooting, if the subject then remains cooperative you then may have a chance to start adjusting exposure settings to maximise image quality. In order to operate in this manner you need at least intially to hand over exposure control to the camera, I do this through the use of a custom mode (C1).

On an m43 camera (and maybe any digital camera) it is always the case that the lowest possible iso should be used, however this needs to be moderated in that with wildlife subjects typically being moving subjects a sensible shutter speed needs to be set in order to avoid motion blur.  It is also worth bearing in mind that Safaris tend to be more productive when the animals are active i.e at the beginning and end of the day, which of course tends to mean that light levels are often lower than ideal which in turn means that it is crucial to have your camera set up correctly.

With this in mind I typically start with a custon mode that enforces a minimum shutter speed of 1/250s subject to an iso of up to 6,400 or 3,200 by use of auto iso. In virtually all cases this coupled with the lens set wide open at its maximum aperture and the camera in aperture priority mode (one of the advantages of m43 cameras is the good depth of field that you get even with the lens wide open such that for wildlife photography there is rarely a need to stop down). So the camera will use the lowest iso it can (iso200) whilst maintaing a shutter speed of at least 1/250, as the light levels fall the iso then automatically rises up to the set maximum (3,200 or 6,400) only then once the max iso is reached will shutter speeds be allowed to slow below 1/250s.

In this way I believe I have the best chance of capturing low noise images whilst avoiding motion blur (noise from high iso can be dealt with in post production, motion blur cannot).  In addition to this primary custom mode I also have a second custom mode (C2) where I allow the shutter speed to fall to 1/100s which I will use if I am likely to be shooting more stationary subjects.

Regardless of which custon mode I use I have the rear dial on the camera mapped to adjust exposure compensation should it be required perhaps after the first few shots have been captured.

In terms of focussing I invariably have the camera set to continuous auto-focus and use a single small focus point so as to ensure that I can focus on the eye of the subject, in any wildlife photograph the nearest eye of the subject (and preferably both eyes) must be sharp so it is no good using a large focus point that might for example focus on the bill of a bird or the nose of a leopard at the expense of the eye, all be it that with m43 the increased depth of field does give some flexibility in this respect.  I do not use back button focus as I do not believe it helps when shooting wildlife.

When it comes to drive modes both the EM1 mk II and the G9 have a trick up their sleeve which is ideally suited for wildlife photography and therefore something I tend to use alot. With the EM1 this is called “Pro-Capture” or with the G9 “SH1(2) Pre”, both are in essence similar technologies although the implementation is far better on the EM1 .

With the Pro-Capture drive mode selected the camera starts a rolling buffer of images as soon as you half press the shutter button and focus locks, with the EM1 it buffers up to 35 frames.  You are able to set the speed at which the camera buffers images with a maximum frame rate of 15 per second whilst maintaing auto-focus (Pro-Capture L) or 60 frames per second with focus locked from the first image (Pro Capture H).  I prefer to use Pro Capture L with the frame rate set at 10 frames per second which gives me a rolling 3.5 seconds of pre-buffered images (35/10 = 3.5).  Once you then fully press the shutter button the 35 buffered images are written to the card and the camera then continues shooting at the set frame rate until the buffer is full.  In reality you are able to capture more than enough images even when running as I do at 10 images per second rather than the maximum of 15.  What this means in practice is that you can, for example, focus on a bird with a half press of the shutter button and then wait for the bird to do something e.g turn its head, fly off or something else (see image below), you then fully press the shutter button knowing that you have captured all the action from the previous 3.5 seconds thus enabling you to in effect capture an image that in a normal shooting mode you would have missed – this is a truely fantastic and very innovative feature of this camera.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Timing is everything ! Nothing gets missed with Olympus Pro Capture

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