Top tricks of a wildlife photographer
I'm often asked for tips on how to make a successful photo safari... Here are 15 of them!
Find a good travel agent who will offer you a good tour operator at your destination. For example, in Tanzania, some tour operators will limit the amount of petrol allowed to you on a daily basis... As a consequence, your guide, without telling you, will limit the trips, and will pass over interesting places. My Montreal agency is https://www.espaceselect.com/. Vincent Bolduc, the friendly owner, has travelled all over Africa, knows well the popular wildlife destinations in Africa and is probably one of the biggest photo safari sellers in Montreal.
Travel with an experienced guide and/or photographer. For example, in Tanzania, the best guides are trained at renowned institutions such as the College of African Wildlife Management. These guides know the savannah and wildlife well and will happily answer any questions you may have. And they all have lynx eyes that will help you find the leopard at 300 meters... In the tree over there, yes yes, look carefuly!
Dust is your equipment enemy. With the vehicle roof open and driving on dirt roads, dust becomes a problem. It is de rigueur to have a light scarf to cover your mouth and nose and my trick for my gear is to put each case in a sleeping bag cover bag. The camera will be protected and easy to access when it's time to get the shot of the hunting cheetah going from 0 to 100! Look for accommodation as close to the park as possible or even in the park when possible. Parks are accessible to outside visitors after and before sunset and sunrise, but if you stay in the park, you can be close to the animals at first light, which will provide you with beautiful images. And the closer you are, the easier it will be to take a nap or relax in mid-day when the light is less beautiful.
A safari is a rather expensive trip... Don't skimp on the photographic equipment, otherwise you will regret it... Bring two cameras to avoid a week without pictures if your only camera breaks. And bring the widest possible focal length spectrum... From wide angle to the longest possible focal length. And if needed, don't hesitate to rent a quality lens from your favorite retailer. For my part, here is my equipment of choice for an African safari. I bring three camera bodies (yes I'm a little crazy!). My Canon 5D Mark III is mounted with a small lens like the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM for landscapes or to make an image of an animal in its environment. My Canon 1DX Mark II is mounted with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, and is a perfect kit for animals that are relatively close or for shooting animals in action (with its 14 shutter releases per second!). And finally, I use the Canon 7D Mark II which offers a crop factor of 1.5 (it magnifies the lens by +50%) with my big Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM, which gives me an equivalent of 750mm for close-up portraits of animals. I also bring in my bag two Canon extenders (the EF 1.4X III and EF 2X III), to further increase the range of my big lens, to shoot smaller animals and birds.
Find out about the animals you are going to see. The better you understand their behaviour, the better you will be able to anticipate situations that will allow you to take better pictures. Forget the tripod or monopod. It's impossible to enjoy them in the vehicle that will be your main shooting point. Instead, go for the beanbag (a bag filled with rice or beans (dry!). You will be able to put it on the roof of the vehicle and put your longest lens down. This will give you the best stability for your photos to be in focus. And when photographing, ask your guide to turn off the vehicle, to avoid vibrations (and take in the sound of the animals!). Go for the eyes. Whenever possible, try to photograph at animal eye level. You'll find that it's often the best angle to create a beautiful image and a sense of true communion with the animal. Tell the whole story. Close-ups, yes, but it's a good idea to present the animal in its environment as well. A lion drinking from the stream, the leopard in its tree, the zebras in the beautiful savannah are images as strong as an animal's intimate close-up view. Be patient! A sleeping cheetah may be hunting in 15 minutes... Give nature a chance to show you its most beautiful images. The Big 5, yes, but so is the rest! Yes, the level of excitement is high when you meet the presence of a big male lion resting proudly on a rock in the middle of the savannah... But a colony of baboons offers just as many magnificent images! Memory! You will need several memory cards, a computer and a portable hard drive to backup your photos everyday. When traveling, keep your computer and portable hard drive drive in two separate places to make sure you bring your beautiful images home no matter what. Animals can be very active: be prepared to react and make sure your camera is always ready for a quick shot. Aim for the fastest possible shutter speed (1\1000 seconds or faster) to freeze the action. Many photographers will use an aperture priority setting and adjust to the widest possible aperture, which will give you the fastest shutter speed available at any moment. I personally work with this mode and in manual mode. Don't be blinded by your camera... Photographers who keep their eye glued to the camera all the time can't enjoy the beauty of the landscape and see situations develop... Respect the wildlife. Observing wildlife in the wilderness is a privilege. Here are some tips on wildlife viewing and photographic etiquette. Observe wildlife at appropriate distances, stay away from nests and dens, don't yell and whistle, limit your viewing time so as not to stress the animals, never feed the wildlife... And of course respect the rights of other photographers in the field.