Shooting Digital in Kenya and Tanzania
Article & Images by Sandy MonizA trip to Africa for the average person can seem a dream come true or an adventure. Trips to Africa depending on what part of that United States you come from may add a bit to the air fare but not to the African Trip itself. As a single person it is sometimes a bit more expensive but when you weigh the experiences you find it is all worth it.
I have been to Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Egypt. Each has there own allure but for me going to see the animals in the wild is not only inspiring but offers me a chance to photograph animals in their natural habitat, being free. In the movie “I Dreamed of Africa” Kuki Gallmann's husband Paolo said that “it’s a different rhythm.” He was right, if you kick back and go with the flow you will enjoy the experience. Early morning game runs, relaxing in the sun or dip in the poor prior to the afternoon game run. Early breakfast, late to find a leopard in a tree or a lion waiting and watching for a kill or seeing the vultures swarming over something that died can be an adventure in itself.
My advice for going to Africa would be to take lots of digital media for your digital camera as you eventually will want to enlarge a great picture and if you didn’t shoot the largest format your camera offers you might be disappointed in the photo that you wanted enlarged. On one of my trips I met a couple who used the lowest setting on their camera in order to get three times more pictures. I told them that they might be disappointed when they wanted to enlarge a photo as it might come out looking rather poorly. They said that they didn’t care but about a month or so after the trip they emailed me to say that they took this really great picture but when they attempted to enlarge it into an 11x14 it looked terrible. I look at traveling this way, I may only get somewhere once and digital media is cheap compared to the price of the trip so if you can spend the extra money, get some extra media.
On my recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I shot “Raw” so that I could have the best possible opportunities to either enlarge my photo or submit it for publication. Along with my two Canon EOS10D’s plus lens, I took 20 gigs of digital media along with my notebook computer to download every evening. When I down loaded I created a folder with the date and location. When I used more than one media card I added a digit to the back so the folder name might look like “amboseli 5-30-05_1.” Since I took almost 40 gigs of photos I didn’t clear every media card after my download. Each morning I looked to see what was on a specific card and then decided if I lost my hard drive could I afford to lose these memories. Prior to going I did some research on small portable drives that I could take as backups but didn’t find anything until I returned. On my next trip I will pack 2 40gig. drives that will be double backups for my photos. The reason for my decision is because I was concerned with the amount of bumpy roads my equipment had to go over and held my notebook on my lap as added protection.
Taking pictures on the road can be hard on all of your equipment because of the different weather conditions along with different room temperatures. I travel with silicon gel that helps keep my equipment dry along with a very large towel to wipe everything down after a days shooting or upon returning from a game drive. Some outfitters such as Micato, carry small bean bags in order to help stabilize a camera while you are standing. With a long lens these don’t work but one of the drivers carried a larger one that worked very well but was extremely heavy. I don’t usually travel with a neck rest but I will purchase one made out of natural hypoallergenic buckwheat hulls or polyester beads as it will replace the small bean bag so my long lens will have the stability that it needs.
Most of the time you will be traveling by van with a popup top, so carry a towel and a lens cleaner while you are game watching so you can wipe off the dust from your equipment. Rain can stop a good photo opportunity if you are not prepared but a plastic bag with a hole for your lens will solve this problem. I carry three, two in my camera bag and one in my luggage for an emergency. My new jacket has zip off sleeves that I used when it started to rain as the arms were long enough to protect the lens along with giving me the freedom to be able to zoom in and out. Without the sleeve I wouldn’t have been able to capture a pride of lions with their cubs. I carry two cameras and lens for several reasons; first in case one breaks I have a spare, second I can use a different lens on both so that I don’t have to change lens in the field in order to avoid dust getting inside. Since I do carry two cameras I take the opportunity to use the continuous shooting mode a lot and while one is writing to my memory card, I can still be taking photos with the other one. A good example of this was in the Serengeti where I was shooting a pair of leopards in a tree using my 100–400 zoom with 2x converter. While the camera was writing to the media card, the male made a move like he was coming down. I quickly got my other camera that has a 100–300 zoom lens and was back in business. This got me to the point where I was able to later capture the leopard walking down a fallen tree branch.
With my camera I can see each picture that I have just taken along with a Histogram. For those who don’t know what Raw is, it’s a format that many Digital SLR Cameras use to capture a picture. Unlike JPG you can’t take it down to your local Photo Dealer and get if printed [Ed. Note: Kodak has recently launched a service to print directly from RAW files]. Using Raw allows you to get the most out of your photo but you will need to process it using Photoshop’s Raw Converter [Ed. Note: Adobe’s works well, but there are many options]. The Histogram tells you a lot about the photo especially if you have lost your detail in the shadows or have washed/blown out your light areas such as the sky. I have found that when I use the continuous shooting mode to capture action pictures that the Histogram doesn’t appear fast enough for me to make adjustments nor can I ask an animal to stop what its doing while I see if I got the photo that I really wanted. Sometimes you are shooting into the sun because that is where your driver parked and you have to make the best of it. When shooting the leopards in the tree, our driver said that he thought that he could do better and passed the other 10 vans in order to get us a better vantage point along with not shooting into the sun.
Animals can be amazing and as a photographer you have to always keep your eyes open for not only the obvious but not so obvious. On a morning game run I saw a herd of elephants walking and creating a lot of dust. I asked the driver to stop because I could see the exact place where the elephants would be walking in front of a tree, the elephants were not only in front of the tree but almost filled the whole frame. I actually took 5 photos as I started shooting just as they arrived in front of the tree, this gave me some unique photos as one elephant started to move towards the van. Because it was early in the morning I shot at ISO 400 at 125th, using my 28–135 lens set at 70mm, f6.7.
Watch the weather along with the animals. I was on an afternoon game run and watched the sun start to set. I looked ahead and saw a great shot, when we got to where I wanted to be I asked the driver to stop and the sunset with the acacia tree was outstanding. Since this was an afternoon run I brought along my 28–135 lens as it has a larger aperture so shooting at ISO 400 with a speed of 700 at f9.5 was just what the scene called for and I was rewarded with a sunset over Mt. Kilimanjaro. The next night there was a bull elephant walking towards the van and as he walked into the sunset I was able to capture part of the moment before my battery died, I had a spare. Amboseli National Park is renowned for its studies on elephant behavior and since I enjoy watching elephants this was a must for me. As of this writing the Kenyan Government has just reclassified Amboseli to a Reserve which might have further implications of the well being of the elephants who walk its plains but has now gone to the counts to decide.
One morning at Lake Manyana we saw some hippos fighting then found a black mamba snake in a tree. Without my 400mm lens I wouldn’t have gotten as close as I did but I wanted to get closer so I used my 2x converter. Here again we couldn’t get off the road to get closer nor could I leave the vehicle. If I get a chance to make another trip to Kenya and Tanzania I might consider purchasing an 800 or 1000mm lens because in these locations you can not go off the roads like you can in some game reserves. The only draw back to these lens is that they are large and bulky not only to carry but also to take in a small van or land rover. The 100–300 and the 100–400 lens that I speak of are the Pro Canon models with Image Stabilization and the downside of the 2x converter is that the auto focus is disengaged so I had to manually focus. Since this is real action, manually focusing was a bit tedious and I’m sure I lost some picture by take the time to focus.
Africa is not only about scenery and large animals but there are small animals and birds. Be adventurous and go out for a walk, with a guide of course. You can take your long lens but I took my 28–135mm macro lens that allowed me to get fairly close to a dung beetle.
If you want to be really adventurous, try taking a balloon ride over the Maasia Mara. First of all you get up before the birds. Climb into a basket with it lying down, hold onto your cameras then up and away you go. Sunrise if pretty nice along with starting to see other animals from the sky. We flew upon what I think was an African White Backed Vulture nesting in a tree and right as we got closer the birds flew off. Something that I might not have seen from the ground. Next it was time for a Hippo in the water then another swimming in a marsh. It was incredible the perspective the one gets in seeing various animals from the air. Close to our touch down point was a small herd of elephants just walking along and minding their own business. After we landed some of us went on a game drive and saw the same herd.
One thing that we all have to remember is that these are wild animals and not in a zoo where we are safe. Even though you are in a van or land rover animals have been known to charge. Gauge the animals and if the animal doesn’t appear to be distressed by your presence then hang out a bit more or lay on the roof of the van. Always remember that you are in their home and respect them. Watching lions and leopards in the Serengeti can be a chance of a life time but be careful that you don’t get into taking pictures so much that you put yourself in harms way. In the Ngorongoro Crater there was an extremely large bull elephant that was coming directly towards us. I used a long lens until he just got to close then I switched to a shorter lens until he got right on top of us then I just stood and admired him until he passed. If he was in musk and we annoyed him, he could have tipped us over as he also had the biggest set of tusks that I have ever seen. I mentioned earlier about the elephant coming towards the van during sunset, what I failed to mention was that we were in his way and he was getting rather annoyed. He started snorting, swishing dirt all over so we backed up rather slowly. As we were backing up out of his way I was still standing taking photos of this experience. I had already anchored myself in a corner and was in no danger of falling down.
Many pictures were taken during this trip by all that were with me in the van. I think each of us probably saw something different in each photograph.