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Photo & video tips

Camera body & lenses
Choose a reflex camera with manual override and lenses covering up to 400 mm

If you just intend to take pictures with your cell phone, then you can skip this section. But many people who were never really interested in photography take the opportunity of a safari to buy a decent photo gear and practice their skills. Or maybe it's the other way round, those who have always been curious about photography sooner or later will go on safari. In any case, there is much to learn and much to photograph in Kenya. Here you will find some hints from a devoted amateur.

Since the previous version of Kenyalogy, many things have changed in the photo world. Digital cameras are now the standard, they are affordable and lenses of all prices are available. The time when more than one camera body was required to carry different ISO films has passed away. Now the ISO can be adjusted at each shot, so you can do with just one camera.

Bring a good reflex camera body, like a Nikon, Canon or Sony/Minolta, with manual overrides for all automatic functions such as shutter speed, aperture (f-number), and ISO, and with the possibility of multiple shots, which is great for scenes in motion. If possible, choose a camera with a shutter release cable or remote. And forget digital zooms; for good safari pictures you will need optical zoom lenses.

Concerning lenses, you will be willing to take full panoramas of the wide African landscapes, but you will also love your close-up shots of animals. Keep in mind that you will be watching animals from a distance, and your shots may be disappointing if you don't carry a long telephoto. Ideally, your lenses should cover a focal length from 18 mm to 400 mm. Avoid zoom lenses that cover a huge range of focal lengths, such as 28-200 mm. You'd be better off with a couple of lenses such as 18-70 mm and 70-200 mm, plus a 2x teleconverter to turn your 200 mm into 400 mm. Otherwise you can carry a third zoom lens for the range 200-400 mm with an aperture of at least f 5.6. If your 2x converter can bear with it, combining the two will give you an 800 mm for great close-ups and bird photography.

Try to spend a little more on the camera manufacturer's original lenses, since there is a great difference in optics quality and brightness compared to cheaper brands. Also, whenever possible choose lenses with vibration reduction to avoid blurred close-ups when using your tele. The old catadioptric (mirror) lenses, which were designed for achieving longer focal lengths with a more compact (and cheap) design, have almost disappeared from big brands in digital photography, with the exception of Sony/Minolta. However if you use this brand, bear in mind that this kind of lens renders annular shapes in out-of focus bright points, which is quite unnatural and annoying.


A window clamp mount and a bean bag will suffice

You will need to have some supporting system for your camera. Even with digital cameras that allow bigger ISO numbers for faster shots, bear in mind that you will get grainy pictures if you set a very high ISO. It's preferable to keep your camera steady for sharper images than to strain your ISO selector.

A tripod is generally not the better choice for safari, since you will be shooting most of the times from inside a vehicle. Only at the lodges or in places like Treetops or The Ark you will make good use of a tripod.

For taking pictures from the car window, the most useful mount is a window clamp that allows you to use your car as a 'tripod'. The clamp has two screws, one to fix it to the window and a second one for the head mount that attaches to the camera. I use a Manfrotto clamp with a quick-release ball head which can also be mounted on a tripod. An alternative to this is a suction cup that sticks to the window, but this system loses performance when the glass is covered with dust, which is usual on safari.

The second support system you will need is much simpler, but very effective: the bean bag. It is just a cloth bag that can be filled with any loose material (clasically beans) and zipped with a velcro. You just lay your lens or camera body on it and shoot. The bean bag is specially useful for shooting from the rooftop hatch, but it also allows for rapidly changing the angle or switching from one window of the car to the opposite. A monopod can also be useful for shooting from the roof hatch.

In sum, a clamp mount gives better stability, while the bean bag provides greater mobility. Carrying both will give you the best chances for superb wildlife pictures.


Try to keep a low ISO and select slow speeds for waterfalls

Professional nature photographers usually shoot with very low ISO for sharper images. Remember that the higher the ISO, the grainier the picture. Try to keep your ISO below 200 when there is enough light. However a digital camera will allow you to take pictures with low light at dawn or dusk with higher ISO numbers.

For rapidly moving subjects, the latter rule does not apply. If you are lucky enough to catch a kill or the migration across the Mara river, you will need fast shots. Adjust your ISO to 800 or higher and select multiple shooting.

Try to do some bracketing, that is, taking serial shots changing the camera settings. Do not rely solely on the automatic mode, sometimes you will get better images if you explore the possibilities of your camera. Set the shutter speed and try a range of f-stops, or the other way round, set your f-number and test different shutter speeds. The latter is specially useful for achieving all-in-focus pictures, since a smaller aperture (higher f-number) increases your depth of field.

Switching to manual mode will also allow you to take great images of flowing water, for instance waterfalls. Switch the camera to full manual mode, select your smallest aperture (highest f-number) and try different slow shutter speeds. Your camera's photometer will indicate which is the right speed, but don't trust fully on it and do some bracketing.


You will hardly need anything else except spare batteries and plenty of memory

Since I started using digital photography, I no longer use lens filters. The reason is that any filter will steal some light from your lens, and you will need all the light you can get. So why use optical filters when you can achive similar effects when processing the images with Photoshop or any other image software.

Many people use a lens hood for eliminating that whitish glare produced by direct sunlight on the lens. Well, forget it. When as a travel journalist I had the chance to work with pro photographers, I was surprised to find out that they didn't use lens hoods. The reason is that the Sun is stubborn, and it just won't stay right at the precise point in the sky to be blocked by your hood. Hence, they are mostly useless. From the pros I learned a simple trick that works much better: since you will be using a camera mount, one of your hands will be free. Just block the sun with your free hand.

A good flash can be as expensive as your camera, but you will probably not really need it. Unless you plan to do some serious night or indoor shots, your built-in camera flash will suffice for fill flash with shaded or backlit subjects.

Try to get a shutter release cable or remote control to reduce camera vibration when shooting.

Remember that safari is a dusty business and dust will stick to your lenses. But you'd better not use your shirt. Bring some cleaning stuff, preferably a squeeze bulb for blowing air, a good microfiber cloth and some alcohol. Do not pour the alcohol directly on the lens, but on the wipe, and clean in concentric circles starting from the center of the lens. If you have no alcohol at hand, a puff of breath will do.

Don't forget to bring spare batteries and plenty of memory cards. You will probably shoot hundreds of pictures every day. A laptop or tablet can serve as a backup disk for transferring your pictures on the move.


Keep your clips short, steady and lively

There is no single best bet when choosing a camcorder for safari. Most cams now have discarded removable media such as tapes and DVDs, using instead memory cards and internal flash units. This is okay in terms of quality and even more when most of them record in high definition, but it will force you to edit your videos, which is not desirable for everyone. Mini DV cameras are still available at some places and provide a long-lasting medium to store your safari memories while eliminating the need to edit.

Anyway you choose, make sure that your cam has a good optical zoom. Digital zoom just won't do for shooting animals at a distance. Also check that the cam has a screw at the bottom for attaching a tripod. Ideally, a camera with night vision will allow you to film nocturnal wildlife if you go out on a game drive after dark (which is not permitted within national parks and reserves).

Bear in mind an important rule for video recording: things look different when you are shooting than when you watch your clips back home. First, in terms of camera motion. Any camera movements that seem natural when you are filming will become terribly annoying when watching your movie. Even if your camera has a steady-shot function, you might use a small tabletop tripod or a monopod when shooting from the vehicle's roof hatch.

Second, while filming on the field you lose all sense of time, and most video amateurs shoot endless clips that when seen on the TV or the computer are boring even for themselves. Refrain your enthusiasm and keep each take to a reasonable amount of time. Zooming in and out and changing the framing may help to produce a more dynamic movie. Also, your live voice comments over the movie will add some enjoyment.

As said for photo cameras, bring spare batteries and plenty of memory.


Be patient with animals, do not hiss or wave at them

Be careful when pointing your camera in Kenya. It is usually said that some bans apply for photographing certain subjects, such as the president of the Republic, military facilities, police stations, national TV buildings, or uniformed policemen. However I've tried to find the legal frame supporting such presumed bans, to no avail. Some sources also state that the Maasai tribe and perhaps the Turkana are protected by law against anyone taking unwanted pictures of them, but again I haven't been able to find a legal text mentioning this. Whatever the case, just be sensible when photographing people. Ask for their consent and be prepared to negotiate a price.

When photographing wildlife, please do not harass the animals to take a good picture. Your hissing and waving not only can stress the animals and scare them off; it will also be irritating to other travellers (for instance, me) that may be sharing the scene with you from another vehicle, specially if it's them who have found the animals first. Just be patient and keep in silence. You'll hardly pass unnoticed for the animals, since most of them will see and smell you. But if you stay quiet, they will quickly get accustomed to your presence.

Concerning the latter, you will tell that not all animals react equally to your presence. Each species has its own 'personality': dik-diks usually run away, as do some forest antelopes. Plains game like zebras and wildebeests will pay no attention to your passing car, but if you stop, they will probably turn away. You will even find out that a single species will behave differently depending on the place. Amboseli elephants live in the open and are used to see vehicles come and go, while elephants in Aberdare spend most of their lives amidst the forest and are much more irritable.

Try to practice manual focusing. The noise produced by the camera's autofocus system may scare the animals away. In fact, sometimes you will find out that manual focusing is more handy for shooting animals when there are bushes or grass between you and them.

Use your camera's built-in flash as a fill flash when photographing a bird on a tree branch, or the head and neck of a giraffe or an ostrich. Otherwise your camera's photometer will adjust the automatic light settings to the background and your subject will be obscured.

If you are looking for a good nature photography field guide, try "John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide", published by Amphoto Books, Crown Publishing Group, 2001. It is available from Amazon (paperback and Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (paperback and NOOK eBook).


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