For many photographers, the opportunity to photograph wildlife in Africa is a pinnacle experience. For more than a century, adventurers went to Africa to track big game — and, originally, to slaughter it in great numbers. Today, hunting is banned in most parts of Africa but, for the modern-day adventurer with a camera, tracking and photographing the continent’s legendary big game is equally thrilling, and makes for a compelling adaptation of the African safari experience.
Just as the 35mm camera replaced the hunting rifle, a new technological revolution is taking place on the savannah: digital capture. Digital SLRs are beginning to equal the quality rendered by the wildlife shooter’s favored 35mm transparency films, such as Fuji Velvia and Kodak E100VS. Although film remains solidly entrenched in many wildlife photographers’ bags, digital capture has matured into a real alternative.
I recently spent 16 days shooting wildlife in Kenya, all digitally, with several other Northwest-based photographers, including renowned nature photographer Art Wolfe. We photographed primarily in three locations: the great Maasai Mara game reserve, which forms the northern border of the Serengeti; Lake Nakuru National Park, famous for its millions of migrating flamingos; and the hot, arid twin reserves of Samburu and Buffalo Springs, in Kenya’s northern game country.
Shooting digital over an extended period of time in a place like Africa still presents unique challenges compared to shooting film. Preparation and planning are essential. By sharing what I have learned, I hope that readers may benefit from my experience. Even if you are not planning a trip to Africa soon, you may face similar issues with other outdoor digital photographic experiences.
Consider storage needs
The first thing to consider when planning a digital safari is the amount of storage you will need. You will make potentially thousands of images in the course of a one- or two-week trip, and you must have a way of storing them all and backing them up. Your equipment requirements will be dictated by the number of images you expect to shoot, the size of the image files produced by your cameras and whether you will shoot RAW or JPEG captures (or both). I chose to shoot RAW plus a small embedded JPEG, a feature of my Canon EOS-10D cameras. Working from a RAW file ensures the highest-quality results once the files are processed on the computer.
Start by estimating the amount of film you might shoot. In my case, I figured 15 to 20 rolls per day, or roughly 700 exposures. My EOS-10D bodies produce roughly 150 RAW captures per gigabyte (GB) of storage, which translates into a hard-disk budget of nearly 4.5 GB per day of shooting, or between 50 and 60 GB over a two-week trip. If you have a higher-resolution camera, such as the Canon EOS-1Ds or Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n, your need for space will be even greater.
Because it is impractical to carry enough CompactFlash cards to handle all that information, you will need to download images to a hard disk of some kind. I quickly ruled out use of my laptop computer as a primary storage device; its 20GB hard disk was just too small. And even if it were big enough, what would I do if it failed? I could buy a pair of external FireWire or USB 2.0 hard drives but, again, these would be useless if I dropped the laptop.
The answer for me was a pair of “digital wallet” devices. I chose the Tripper, made by Aplux Communications in Taiwan (aplux.com), one of a number of similar portable storage units available from online sources such as insidecomputer.com. These devices give you great flexibility. They are battery-powered for use in the field, and they allow you to download images from your flash cards directly. They also double as both external hard disks and CompactFlash card readers when plugged into your laptop via the high-speed USB 2.0 interface. I ordered my Trippers with 80GB capacity, but they accept standard notebook hard disks and can be ordered in less expensive configurations.
Develop a workflow
A typical safari day consists of game drives in the morning and evening, with rest in the middle of the day when the sun is high and the light is harsh. Using the Trippers, my daily routine was to carry two EOS-10D bodies and four 1GB flash cards on each morning and evening game drive. Each 1GB card holds about 155 RAW image files from the Canon (a little more than four rolls of film).This equivalent of 16 to 17 rolls was plenty of capacity for each half-day shoot. Even so, I carried both Trippers just in case I needed to download a card while in the field.
To prevent catastrophe, I downloaded each flash card independently to both Trippers before I erased and reused any card. That way, I was protected in case either one of the devices failed. Using the Trippers, I would often have all my cards downloaded before we even returned to camp, if it were not too dusty. While other photographers were busy setting up their laptops, I could be sipping a Coke on the veranda.
Another decision I made was to forgo the idea of processing the RAW images in the field. When converted to 16-bit TIFF files, RAW images become five to six times larger, and I distrust doing critical color corrections on a laptop display. Instead, I used the computer to review the images that I had shot each day to verify my technique and the proper functioning of my equipment, as well as to present “slide shows” prepared from JPEGs extracted from the RAW files. This proved to be a good decision, as I was often able to get a good night’s sleep while my colleagues stayed up into the wee hours working on their files.
Electricity & batteries
It goes without saying that without batteries, your digital photo safari will come to a bad end. Carry enough spare batteries to last you at least a full day of shooting, and plan to recharge them between game drives.
Electricity is a scarce resource when working in remote locations. In the tented camps typical of safari accommodations, electricity is provided by generators or, sometimes, by solar power. The generators run only at certain times of day for two or three hours at a time, and do not run overnight. Remember, charging batteries takes time. You may need to charge batteries concurrently to charge them all in the time available, so carry at least two chargers for every type of battery you have. This also ensures that you will have a backup if one of your chargers should fail.
Photographinng with digital gear does not have to be more difficult that with film, provided that you think ahead and plan for your storage, power and contingency needs while in the field.
Your other power lifeline will be the safari vehicles. If possible, select equipment that can be powered directly from the 12-volt accessory sockets in cars, so that you can recharge in the field. For rechargeable AA batteries, I selected Maha Powerex MH-C401FS chargers, which come with 12-volt adapters (mahaenergy.com). Another strategy is to bring a quality power inverter for use in the vehicle, which allows you to plug in AC-powered equipment directly. Radio Shack offers a choice of several models.
Finally, if you just secured that big assignment for National Geographic and plan to trek across the wilderness for months, solar-powered battery chargers are available, but they will not be necessary on most guided safaris.
Dust, dust and more dust
While on safari, dust is everywhere, especially in dry locations such as the Samburu in Kenya. This is bad enough with film cameras, but it can be disastrous with digital cameras. You have to be rigorous in your cleaning regimen. To clean your sensor, bring a bulb blower (not a brush) — the ones sold in baby stores for evacuating mucus work well. Check and clean your cameras before each game drive. At the end of the day, shoot a blank frame of the sky and look at it on your laptop when you get in. You can see immediately whether you’re getting dust and that it’s time to clean.
Minimizing how often you change lenses in the field will help keep the dust down. It also helps to put caps on your lenses and to cover your equipment while driving among shooting locations. For my Canon EF 300 f/2.8L IS, I took the hardboard shell out of the Canon leather drawstring lens cap and used it as a dust cover over my lens hood. This was easy to pack and far quicker to get on and off while bouncing along in a vehicle.
When planning a trip, select a tour company that understands the needs of serious photographers. Our trip was organized through East African Ornithological Safaris, a small company that is accustomed to working with photographers. Instead of the ubiquitous seven- or nine-seat white minivans that shuttle tourists about the game parks, we worked from customized Land Rovers, with three or four occupants to a vehicle. Our drivers were willing to position the vehicles for the best light, and to stay with a group of animals for as long as the photographic situation warranted. If you are traveling with a larger, more casual group of tourists, you will not be able to obtain this level of cooperation.
Collapsible accommodations are part of the safari experience. We stayed mostly in comfortable tented camps, which capture some of the flavor of the African safaris of a century ago. Instead of permanent structures, sleeping quarters and, sometimes, even the camp dining room are housed in canvas tents.
The food in the camps and lodges ranges from good to great, and generally is safe to consume. You must, however, drink bottled water only; it is provided in some places, but you must purchase it in others.