Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Shooting in Tanzania - The Challenges and the Rewards

Getting ready for another photo safari to Tanzania.  For those who have not been there or shot in this situation, there are loads of questions.  How close to the animals do we get?  How long a lens do I need?  How do I save my digital files in the field?  Do I need to be in great shape for all the walking and any climbing we do? Is a good tripod needed?   Let me try to explain what is involved.

During the time we are in the field, which equates to time among the wildlife, we are shooting out of a vehicle.  These stretch vehicles have tops that open up to allow photographers to stand up and shoot.  We limit the number of photographers in each vehicle so that if something happens on one side (as it usually does) we can all shoot on that side together without any pushing or crowding.  Use of a tripod in the vehicle is next to impossible.  Along the roof of the vehicle is a bar where we place bean bags to rest our cameras/lenses.  This is sufficiently steady as long as people are not moving about.  When shooting, we use a common courtesy approach, like asking if it is OK to move when others are shooting.

Above is a photo of my friend Boyd Norton shooting with a bean bag and a 400/2.8 with a 2X.  If the bean bag is secure enough and steady enough for that thing, surely it will work with my lenses!

As far as physical conditioning, we rarely leave the vehicle except for meals and then ONLY when our driver/guides say it is safe.  Any other time you leave the safety of the vehicle you become an active member of what is commonly called the "food chain".

For lenses, I find that the ideal lens is a 100-400 or 80-400.  This range is really ideal for most of what you will shoot.  There are times I want longer and I do have a 2X with me all the time that I can use for those situations.  We also have people shooting with a 70-200/2.8 with a 2X or a 1.4X and this combination works very well.  If your interest is in bird photography a 600mm might be a good choice but remember, you have to get it there and back and you have to carry it!  Generally a 400mm lens on a crop frame body is an excellent choice for birds in Tanzania.

I also carry two camera bodies, using one as a primary and the other as a back up.  It would be especially sad to get all the way to Tanzania and have your one camera quit on you.  My suggestion, if you only have one camera body, would be to acquire a cheaper version of your camera line, like the bottom end Rebel in the Canon line or the equivalent in the Nikon series.  These can usually be had for about $400, cheap insurance in my mind.  I have several friends who shoot in Africa regularly with Canon Rebels and the top of the line lenses.  They call these things "disposable digitals".

The animals in the parks are accustomed to vehicles and consider them a non-entity.  There are a few species who will not let us get close but most are almost unaware of our presence.  We have had lions get up out of the grass, wander over and lie in the shade of our vehicle.

This guy seemed content to have a shady spot to sleep.  When we started the engine to drive off, he NEVER moved.  The driver had to take extra care not to run over his TAIL!

Will we see the "Big Five"?  That is a firm maybe.  My first few trips, we hardly saw a leopard.  Last trip, we saw 6, with 4 of them close enough to shoot with a 200mm lens.  The wildlife is plentiful, the roads are not crowded and we will be out EVERY day, ALL DAY!  There is a point about 4 days into the trip that you might actually tire of seeing zebra and wildebeest!  Sounds crazy but it could happen.  While on the subject of the wildlife, I have to keep reminding those on their first photo safari to East Africa to also shoot scenery.  There landscapes are nothing short of amazing and your friends back home will want to know what it looks like in Serengeti and the other parks we will visit.

Field storage is an interesting issue.  There are basically three options:
  1. Carry a laptop and sufficient hard drive space to store your images
  2. Carry a portable storage device (Epson, etc.)
  3. Carry a bunch of storage cards and take them home to download
We will have power at all the lodges and camps so no matter what you do, there is a way to get it done.

Batteries can be an issue if you don't have spares.  We tend to carry an extra set or maybe two of the rechargeable camera batteries.  You can charge them in your room/tent or if you have a 12V charger, the vehicles have 12V outlets arranged around the interior.

Tripods are really not needed unless you want to sue them at the lodges and camps.  If you know the others traveling in the group, you can sometimes share a tripod.  Weight restrictions are somewhat prohibitive especially on regional flights in Tanzania.  A small tripod can come in handy for star shots.  Talk about dark skies!  Lights and electricity are hard to find in most of Serengeti.

This is a night shot of the skies in Loliondo at one of the "camps" where we will be in 2013.  We had one tripod in the group and took turns using it.  

Watch for more information about the trip in subsequent postings.

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