Tag Archives: workflow

2012 has seen me in Africa for 5 weeks in 2 trips – I had no Safari photography experience and so spent a lot of time researching what was needed before the first trip. The best article I found was Digital Safari Equipment Tips by Nathan Myhrvold and to be honest you need to read it as I am not going to do such a comprehensive job. However Nathan wrote this in 2007 so there are some issues due to the 5 years from a technology perspective plus I have taken a different approach in certain issues. After taking 15,000 photos (selected photos in gallery), in two trips and created 2 books I’d like to share my thoughts.

The keys issues in order of importance are:

  • Camera support
  • Autofocus speed and ability (less frame per second)
  • Dust
  • Reach – What Safari lens (and camera sensor size)
  • Shutter speed and Auto ISO
  • Backup and power

Note: I photograph in RAW and so should you. I use Lightroom … and so should you. Otherwise you are going to think about a whole host of other issues that I am not going to discuss.

The Safari Day

We spent our first trip in Botswana mostly on Concessions and then sometime in Chobe national park our experiences are similar to Nathan. On the second trip we drove ourselves in a Landrover Defender around Namibia; in which you can make your own day – it is cool being able to spend many hours by one water hole, often on your own, you see much more (I might do a blog one of these days). When driving yourself you initially miss the Safari vehicles openness and the skills of the guides to get your photo position right (where the animal will go next – get The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals, how to get level with the animals eyes, avoiding those mid ground bits of grass that mess up focus and the sun/shade).

Camera Support and Workflow

This critical! The vehicles are all different (some discussion coming) and the size and weight of your lens is important. Briefly jumping ahead, I did not use a large prime, I used a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and occasionally with x2 convertor, this works (see later), so I did not follow the gimbal head advice. I believe my approach would work with a large prime but I have not tested it at length – the guys at Robert White where fantastic and say the birding chaps use the method I will describe. All cameras had a Really Right Stuff L-Plate and I changed the 70-200 foot plate to a Really Right Stuff.

In general there are three safari vehicle types:

  • Self-drive 4×4 (we used Safari Drive – recommended)
  • Southern African open vehicles (in my experience these are in use in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, I understand it is also true of South Africa and Zimbabwe)
  • Northern African closed vehicles with opening roof

You need an easy fluid workflow, during which you don’t strain yourself, that lets you rest the lens/camera with a dust cover (I use a micro-fibre towel) and quickly gets you in position for the shots.

Self-drive 4×4 are easily addressed. You cannot get out of your vehicle so you have to reach to the back seat for the camera and bean bag. Yup you have to rest the bag on the half  Landrover Defenderraised glass. They do actually stay on even in rough terrain but the beans shake down and eventually the lens ends up on the glass. If you’re driving getting your vehicle position right is critical – then switch the engine off – I learnt this the hard way, you cannot get tack sharp pictures with the engine on – also if you have to move the 4×4 it draws attention to yourself. The monopod method (see next) is also OK in a Defender however there is too much manipulation and you end up hitting your partner with the monopod. Namibia Day 3I used a Stealth Gear Double Bean Bag from Wex couldn’t fault it. I used Haricot beans and took all the 500g bags the “supermarket” had in Windhoek, which was x5, I tried this in the car park but it was not enough so got x2 500g bags of another bean and really could have got another one in it.



Southern African open vehicles are great; the Concessions have no canvas roof but the parks do. You cannot use a bean bag. I was really tempted with the Really Right Stuff Andy Biggs setup – however in the end I felt it was a lot to spend so I made my own approach. I - 20120808 - 105805 - Ian Purvesused a carbon fibre monopod with twist grips (VANGUARD Elite CP-324 4-Section Carbon Fibre Monopod 167cm), with an Arca Swiss Monoball Ball and Socket Z1 sp with quickset device and took two ways of attaching the monopod to the vehicle;



  • Manfrotto Double Super Clamp from Camulet
  • Old bike inner tube cut in half without the valve

Both attachment methods worked brilliantly however the vibrations and dust are significant. Your camera cannot stay on the ballhead. I stopped using them quickly – you do not need them. The monopod is great without ridged attachment if you set the ball head such that the friction is such it will bend 60-70 degree the lens rests on your thighs (with towel or fleece hatcovering it) when not in use. The camera/lens can be up and straight AND level in a flash. On the Arca Swiss quickset I marked with inedible white pen the balance points for lens with and without convertor. I tested this briefly with a 500mm f4 and it worked great … except (see later).

- 20120810 - 092619 - Ian Purves - 20120808 - 104636 - Ian Purves - 20120812 - 172549 - Ian Purves

Northern African closed vehicles with opening roof it would seem a bean bag is the approach but I have no experience.

Autofocus speed and ability (less frame per second)

Wildlife photograph revolves around getting a tack sharp image of the nearest eye of the subject animal. This seems to be one of those rare unbreakable photography rules – where I have failed the image just isn’t “right”. So my focus approach is obviously auto focus with;

  • AF-C priority selection: Focus (D800 will do Release + Focus)
  • AF-S priority selection: Focus
  • Focus mode: Auto-Servo AF
  • Autofocus area mode: Single-point AF (should I trust Auto-area AF – see Nasim Mansurov)
  • Autofocus mode: AF-A (perhaps I should use AF-C – see Ken Rockwell)
  • Release mode: 4 fps

Animal movements and blinking necessitate taking a few frames per second to avoid disappointment however my observation is that if you go faster than 4 fps you just end up with more out of focus shots. Perhaps “Autofocus mode: AF-A” doesn’t flip to AF-C accurately enough? Once locked you are reliant on the camera/lens focus ability. In modern lens this is a camera issue. Also note that many cameras have a f/5.6 limit when used with convertor. The new D800 and D4 have a f/8 limit.

So what I am saying is that having a camera with leading auto focus ability is more important than frames per second. I noticed a big difference between my D7000’s and D800, although the D7000 is still pretty good. One area where both camera’s are similar is buffer capacity which is around 11 frames for the D7000 and 16 for the D800 – this another reason to keep fps down as the action, whilst possibly frenetic with a kill, lasts longer than a 2-3 seconds. You need a D4 or D3s if you are serious but in 5 weeks I possibly missed a few nice frames on four occasions and in three of the four I got some good ones, in one I missed the keys shots of the action.


Boy there is a lot of dust. To minimise the effect:

  • Take 2 bodies and have different reach between them to save any lens swapping
  • Take a pillow case for adding converters and keep the pillow case in plastic zip lock bag (in fact keep everything in plastic zip lock bags)
  • Cover your lens when it’s not in use (I use a micro-fibre towel … light brown). Before you cover it check for dust and finger prints on filter (no good checking just before you shoot as you’ll forget or miss the shot)

You still end up with dust so I carry;

  • Nikon Micro-fibre small cloths with lens fluid
  • Nikon Lens Pen
  • Giottos GTAA1900 Rocket Air Blower (hardly used successfully I wonder if canned air spray might be better?)
  • Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly 724 Brite (this occasionally smears dust so I use the swabs below)
  • Visible Dust 1.0x (for D800) and 1.6x (for D7000) Sensor Cleaning Kit (Vdust Solution and 4 Orange Swabs) – the instructions are not great so read up on their website before you go and keep the fluid to absolute minimum … don’t panic when it smears … it evaporates and use swab which is drying by then to remove any visible smear

Reach – What Safari lens (and camera sensor size)

I am just going to discuss Animal rather than Landscape (I mostly use a Zeiss 21mm Distagon T* f/2.8 for Landscape – look for later posts [addition: here it is]).

When I went on my first trip I spent ages reading and worrying what to do. At the time I had a Nikon D7000 which most people say is a perfect camera for Safari as it has decent focus ability, good high ISO capabilities, 16 Megapixels, good frame per second at 6 and DX frame giving x1.5 multiple on focal length of lens. Of course the multiple is a bit artificial especially if you have a FX with 36 megapixels (more of later). The D7000 is affordable, so I bought a second body and started worrying about the lens.

The options seemed to be

  • AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II with TC-20E III Teleconverter
  • 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S NIKKOR with TC-20E III Teleconverter
  • 500mm f/4D ED-IF AF-S II NIKKOR
  • AF-S NIKKOR 200-400MM F/4G ED VR II

The 70-200 is the only affordable one but the others can be easily hired with insurance for Africa. On the first trip we had limited luggage with 20kg on the small plane transfers. However in the end I had 10Kg clothes and 13Kg of cameras and we were never asked about luggage at all. Plus I read that with the concession you get really close and so a large lens is not needed? Anyhow the D7000 with 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II with TC-20E III Teleconverter has a theoretical reach of 600mm and so that is what I took. Generally the other D7000 had a 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX NIKKOR on.

In summary, apart from birds, it has been perfect and I would recommend the combination. The concessions are great – I have been 2.5 m from lions eating a Zebra they have just killed. In the parks you just don’t see what you’re missing but in Chobe you can drive by the river where most things happen (at least in dry months).

For Namibia I was more interested in Landscape and as mentioned I bought a D800 and a Zeiss 21mm. I only got these a couple of weeks before we went and so I stuck with my D7000 70-200 combo for wildlife and used the D800 with a AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G as backup for a bit of breadth or close-by animals.

Looking through the images on getting back I wonder if the D800 might have been a better option!?

  • The noise in higher ISO’s is radically better than the D7000 (which I thought to be superb)Namibia
  • The D800 has 14 stops of contrast … you can push and pull image in Lightroom amazingly
  • 4 fps isn’t that slow especially as the focus seems so much better on the D800
  • You can put the D800 into 16 megapixels DX mode … but then you can crop 36 megapixel image to DX frame with 16 megapixels …
  • D800 can manage focussing at f/8.0 so you could teleconvert a rented 500mm f/4.0 with a TC-20E III Teleconverter

Anyhow that’s another trip?

I met people with both the 300mm and 500mm both are beasts especially the 500mm. I feel that the shipping issues, the workflow problems, the back/shoulder strain issues and support problems really mean you have to be a pro that goes down the gym to use these lenses. The exception is birds – I have some nice shots but very few great shots. However does the bigger reach solve the problem? I suspect general Safari is not the ideal approach to birds and you need to go on a dedicated birding Safari and spend more time/technique getting nearer the skittish sharp eyed little buggers.

Shutter speed and Auto ISO

To get tack sharp images you need to use a high shutter speed with long reach lens, same number or higher (e.g. 200mm with 1/250s, 400mm with 1/500s).

At f/2.8 at 200mm with the subject 20m away you have only 50cm front and back depth of field (DoF), at f/5.6 about 1m as the distance drops say 10m it is f/2.8 – 14cm; f/5.6 – 25cm so you might need f/8.0 – 40cm to get a whole animal in focus.

I leave the camera in Aperture Priority and have Auto ISO on with max ISO 3,200 and lowest shutter speed of 1/500s (on the D800 it adapts to the lens which is great!) you have to keep a close eye on the ISO and always roll back to f/2.8 to get the least noisy image. It perhaps acceptable in the golden hours to have a slightly noisy image but daft using f/8.0 on a small animal at noon especially if the ISO goes over 800 on the D7000 (the D800 looks amazing at 3,200). This is the commonest mistake I made – forgetting to roll back to f/2.8 (or f/5.6 with TC). The other problem is knocking the mode dial on the D7000 from “A” to something else, say “S” and not noticing for several, critical, shots.

Backup and power

For backup I took a laptop (fast MacBook Pro with Retina display and 500Mb SSD) with two rugged USB 3.0 1TB drives. I used Ingestamatic to download to the MBP SSD and simultaneous backup to one of the external drives and then autoloaded into Lightroom 4.0. I used Ingestamatic because of better file labelling, GPS linkage but mostly x3 faster upload from the SD card than just using Lightroom. If had time I would pick and reject images in Lightroom and once done I would synchronise my Lightroom directory with the second harddrive using ChronoSync.

In lodges and camps they will have 240v some of the time (in the lodge not your room) and they are usually have UK or South Africa sockets. I took a power surge protected UK four block with a South African convertor and had no problems – except I only took one each of the required leads and I lost my USB to Mini USB cable and thus GPS Tracker on the first trip (second trip I duplicated all cables). I also took a double battery charger which was 240v/12v for my EN-EL15’s and had four batteries. This was a Pearstone Duo Battery Charger for Nikon EN-EL15 from B&H in the USA and cost a lot for shipping; I saw something similar in Camulet recently.

On the self-drive it was whole new can of worms. The Defender had a fridge and so a second battery but this was linked to the main starter battery! It only had one cigar lighter that was linked to the starter battery. So I rigged an extra fours sockets using:

  • TRIXES Car Battery Clip-on Snap-on Cigarette Lighter Socket Adaptor 12v for Cars, Caravan, lorry and Camping
  • Ring Automotive RMS4 Quadruple Multi-Socket Complete with Battery Analyser

I stuck an inline 10A fuse on the clip on and took spare fuses. I also took slow blow 8A 32mm glass fuses for the items with these in the male cigar adapter. We blew x2 10A fuses and x5 8A fuses in three weeks!

I also took a 100Wh Hyperjuice for 12v charging of the MBP both in the Landy with engine running and when the engine was not on. 85W is like leaving your headlights on and the MBP take 5 hour for a full charge. The Hyperjuice was brilliant and also had USB output as well.

As a backup I had a 100w invertor with UK socket which I never used but I lent it out to others.

Things I still need to learn and practice

Whilst I have some amazing tack sharp images …

Personal Learning Notes:

  • I need to try using other auto-focus settings (especially ‘Autofocus area mode’ and ‘Autofocus mode’) and experiment
  • I suspect a local birding spot would be the ideal as they are by far the hardest animals to capture.
  • And whilst I am at it perhaps I should practice approaching birds having reviewed this posting.
  • Have I got the right lens combination or should I hire something bigger?

Update 18 Jan 2013: See Wildlife photography technique post

Further update on autofocusing 01 Aug 2013 see blog

Gear List

This has got a big post … if you’re interested ask.

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