Wildlife photography in East Africa
Uwe Skrzypczak | Photography and Photographers | Published Aug 31, 2011
Nature and wildlife photography is a fascinating genre, but to achieve success in this field you need not only sound photographic skills, but also a sense of adventure, a good nose for a chase and, in more remote places, a well-developed survival instinct.
In the course of my career, East Africa has become my main area of interest. I feel at home in the bush and out there in the savannah, surrounded by enormous herds of grazing animals and their predators, the big cats. Nowadays, I am sensitized enough to properly judge the risks and dangers involved in working in the area. This is particularly important to me as a professional, because my way of working is very different to that of a tourist on safari. It is simply not possible for me to spend days and weeks at a time in the safety of a vehicle or holed up in a cosy lodge.
East Africa offers similar shooting conditions all year round - 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. The actual time of the sunrise varies by only 15 minutes either side of 6:30am in the course of the entire year, and predator activity is at its most intense before and just after sunrise. After 9am, when the sun is high in the sky and it starts to get really hot, the light is no longer at its best for taking photos. Nevertheless, this is the time at which we can start to track daytime hunters such as cheetahs and leopards. Lions, with their acute night vision, only hunt in the daytime if they are extremely hungry or if their prey presents itself on a platter. Otherwise, they would expend too much energy hunting in the heat of the day.
Relaxing is the only sensible thing for a photographer to do around lunchtime, as it is impossible to capture sharp images at a range of more than about 50 meters in the flickering midday haze. Once things start to cool down a little, a typical afternoon shoot mirrors the morning program, working toward sunset.
Unless the animals themselves approach your parked vehicle, it is forbidden to photograph wildlife from closer than 25 meters without a special off-road or pro photographer license. If you don't have permission, fines can be as much as several hundred dollars per person in your group, and even extend to exclusion from the area, which can mean the end of the safari for everyone involved.
If you want to capture your subject at a reasonable magnification from a distance using an APS-C camera, you will need at least a 300mm lens and, ideally, a 1.4x teleconverter in reserve. I recommend you use at least a 400mm (or even a 500mm) lens if you are shooting with a full-frame camera. I used to take about 80 percent of my photos using a DX-format Nikon D2x with a 200-400mm Nikkor, but nowadays I use my full frame Canon EOS-1 Ds III and the 800mm lens for about half of my work. I sometimes use the 800mm with an EOS 7D too, giving me a 1300mm (equivalent) monster of a lens. I also use a full-frame Nikon D3 with a 200-400mm zoom to shoot about 25 percent of my photos.
|Uwe Skrzypczak carrying two of his big lenses - one Canon, one Nikon - on |
location in East Africa
As you might have guessed from that list of equipment, wildlife photography is, unfortunately, one of the most expensive genres there is, and the combination of expensive gear and high travel costs are enough to put off even the most determined photographer.
When I was starting out and could only afford one long trip or two shorter trips per year, I had to carefully consider which lenses I could really use all year round. And remember - for the price of a prosumer telephoto and a teleconverter that spend eleven months of the year in a cupboard, you can easily rent a pro-grade super-telephoto for your major trips. If in doubt, rent. Don't risk an expensive purchase until you're confident that the equipment will prove indispensible.
Uwe Skrzypczak is a wildlife photographer based in Germany. You can see more of his work on his website www.serengeti-wildlife.com and read his blog at http://www.uweskrzypczak.blogspot.com. He is also the author of several books about wildlife and wildlife photography.