Lessons Learned: My First Safari
On Monday I posted images from the safari I did this January. It was an incredible trip, even if I’d never created a single frame I’d have come home excited. Being out on the Serengeti is an experience; being among the big cats, elephants, giraffe – just too cool.
It was my first safari and there was a learning curve, but I’ve often found the best images come at the steepest inclines of that learning curve because we’re pushed beyond the edges of what’s familiar and we begin to see things differently.
I packed way too much for this one, treating it like a usual travel assignment. I could have brought much, much less stuff. Our safari guide, not a photographer, had one small bag for his clothes. I had 2 carry-ons a peli-case and a large North Face duffle. Next time, half the clothes, and half the gear.
I shot primarily with a 300/2.8 IS lens, often with a 1.4x or 2x on it, and a second body with a 70-200/2.8 IS lens at the ready. This was a great combination. A single body with a single lens would have been a greater challenge.
I began shooting with my 300/2.8 on a Gitzo carbon fibre monopod, but it was unwieldly and got in the way. By half-way through the safari I’d swtiched fulltime to my Kinesis beanbag, I think they call it the Safari Sack. I love that beanbag and if there’s one thing I’d recommend for anyone doing a safari, it’s the Kinesis beanbag. It’s big and solid and far sturdier and softening than a monopod. Arrive with it empty, then put 10lbs or more of lentils in it. And put a piece of tape with your name on it so you don’t lose it.
I don’t know what other safari vehicles are like but ours allowed us to stand up and where the roof separated from the pop-top there was a strong metal lip all the way around the passenger area where we’d put our beanbags. Next time I’m bringing a Super-clamp and extra ballhead to secure my second body to this. Would make managing a second body really easy. As it is several of us just hooked the tripod mount on our longer lenses over this lip and it worked nicely.
Not shooting from a monopod also gives the advantage of getting low and shooting through the lower windows. When you stand up in a safari vehicle and shoot down on the critters you don’t get nearly the wild perspective you can when you get closer to eye level. I was up and down a lot trying to vary my perspective and often the best one was the lowest one. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. In your photography if you want to change the viewers perspective on things, you must first change your own.
The Gura Gear Kiboko bag gets raves on this and I’ll do a whole other review on it later. As I’ve said before I’m a huge fan of Think Tank Photo and their gear goes with me everywhere. But for this trip I wanted the advantages of the Kiboko and it did not disappoint. Highly, highly recommended. I just got back from Senegal and the Kiboko fit perfectly, fully loaded, into little CRJ and Embraer 170 overhead bins. Well done, guys.
I knew going into this trip that I would have a hard time adapting my vision and my usual way of expressing that, to something so different. Buffaloes and birds, for crying out loud! And I’d resigned myself to trying to create a series of really close pictures of really beautiful animals, even if they weren’t, per se, really compelling images themselves. But animals in the their context are not so different than people in their context. You look for contrasts, moments of humour, and for gesture. Jay Maisel says “everything has gesture” and he’s absolutely right. Don’t settle for a close shot of an animal anymore than you’d settle for merely a close shot of a person. Wait for something, a look, a gesture. Or seek scenarios in which the animal is themselves a great foreground in front of a great background.
I learned wildlife photography is hard. Really hard. And my estimation of the best wildlife and conservation shooters went up immensely. Of course I feel the same way about great wedding photographers too. It’s not easy, and there are fields of mediocrity out there, but the best ones? They amaze me.
FInally, safari lifestyle is a thing all it’s own and if you’re looking to shoot some great lifestyle/adventure images there is plenty of occasion to do it. One of my highlights was a hot air balloon ride early one morning. Beautiful light, and a chance to shoot something I don’t normally. Safari is more than just lions. There are long full days to shoot in, and the landscapes are stunning. The lodges are beautiful, and if you’re looking for local color, you’ll find lots of it. Models for portraits? You’ll find those too.
I’m counting the days until the next one in January 2011. Who’s coming with me?