Photographing in the Bush

Your Guide to Great Photos with Crocodile Camp Safaris
(Editor's Note: This article is provided as a historic archive. It was written after my 1998 trip. Croc Camps has long since been acquired and I'm now working with Wilderness Safaris and of course switched from film to digital almost a decade ago, but many of the points still apply)--David
For many of us the urge to capture our adventure of a lifetime in Africa is irresistible.  After all, we will have years to enjoy the memories and share them with our friends if we can only capture them on film.  Photos will never be as good as being there, but with a little preparation and planning your photos can help others imagine what it was like.  But far too often the results are just a poor shadow of what we saw.  This article is designed to help you get the best photos you can from your African Safari with Crocodile Camp.
There are many general purpose books on nature photography, wildlife photography, and even on African safari photography, that are worth reading if you have the chance.  I maintain a list of them on my Photo site at  If you have the time I’d suggest looking through one or two of them for ideas and tips.  The trouble with general purpose books, however, is that they never seem to take into account the specifics of the trip you are on—the altitude, the transportation, the light, the vehicles, or the animals you might see.  For that reason, Crocodile Camp asked me to write a custom guide to photography on their Safaris.  Using these tips I took many of the pictures you see on their website,, and on my own.
The first and most important rule is to practice.  You’ll only get once chance at your Safari photos, and you won’t see the results until you’re home.  To get your best shot at getting the pictures you want, practice taking them before you go.  Practice with the identical equipment you’ll bring, the identical film, the identical lab, and if you can—take a trip to the local zoo and practice on some of the same animals.  Practice loading film, rewinding film, changing lenses, focusing on moving targets, and adjusting focus and exposure in dim light. 
Practice has many advantages, including:  making sure your equipment works and that you know how the film you are using will look, helping you get faster at doing the exact tasks you’ll need to perform quickly when there are live animals in front of you, and helping you see the results of your composition, exposure, and focus decisions.
Okay, so you don’t have a $6,000 zoom like the photographers for National Geographic.  That’s actually okay, as you probably couldn’t fit it on the Cessna you’ll be taking if you fly into the Okavango.  Top photographers charter their own planes to maximize their flexibility, but we’ll be making due with the standard luggage allowance of about 23 lbs (10kg) for checked baggage and whatever you can carry with you.  Since it is impractical to use a large tripod on the trucks anyway, most of that equipment will be cameras and lenses.
Your first choice will be what format camera to use.  While many of the techniques here can be applied to point and shoot cameras, I’m going to assume that you are a little more fanatical than that and at least decide to bring a 35mm system with inter-changeable lenses—typically a Single Lense Reflex (SLR) version.  As long as the equipment is quality it doesn’t matter what brand.  I use Nikon cameras with Nikon and Tokina lenses, so that’s what I’ll be referring to in this article.
Camera bodies
If you can, bring at least two camera bodies.  By having two bodies, you can have two different lenses or two different films available at once.  In addition, if something happens to one of them you’ll have an instant backup.  Obviously, so that you can share lenses it is important that the cameras have the same mounting system and be from the same manufacturer.
I found having three camera bodies to be quite useful, so that I could leave one loaded with very slow film for scenic shots and use the other two while shooting animals.  If you’re going to take three bodies you’ll need to pack pretty light on clothes!
If your camera bodies are identical it will be easier to alternate between them, but it may not be practical for you to have two matching bodies.  More likely you’ll have your current and your old camera, or yours and your spouse’s or a friends camera.  That’s perfectly fine, but practice with both of them so that you don’t make an expensive mistake.
As far as specific features, there are two extremes.  The most advanced electronic cameras (for Nikon examples are the F5, the F100, the N90/N90s, and the F4) have the most to offer in the way of fast auto-focus and balanced fill flash.  But some of the oldest and simplest cameras (for Nikon these are the old standbys the F and the F2) are nearly indestructible, operate even with dead batteries, and can be used as hammers when needed (well, not really).  Current consumer quality SLRs like the Nikon N70 are also perfectly fine.  For bird photography in the Okavango Delta in particular, a fast auto-focus camera will be very helpful.  For scenics, something simple is fine.  The most important thing is that you know how to use your camera and its metering system before you get there.  I was floored by how many people were asking me during their trip to show them how to operate their camera.
If you need to buy a camera body before you go, you can get a Nikon N70 for about $400, but if you don’t already have lenses to go with it you’ll spend quite a bit more on “glass” to go with your new body.
Aside from you, lenses are the most important equipment you’re bringing.  Everyone knows that lenses come in different focal lengths (wide-angle lenses are those less than about 50mm, “normal” lenses are those from 50mm to 70mm, and telephoto lenses are those from about 70mm on up), but did you also know they came in different “speeds”?
The speed of a lens is governed by its maximum aperture.  A f2.8 lens can let in twice as much light as an f4 lens of the same focal length, and the f4 lens can let in twice as much light as an f5.6 lens of the same focal length, and so on.  This speed is important for several reasons:  First, the camera focuses with the lens wide open so that it and you can see better to focus when using a faster lens; Second, by letting in more light the faster lens gives you the option of using a faster shutter speed, so that you can freeze motion more easily; Third, and probably most important, the wider the lens opening the less the depth of field—this makes wide apertures perfect for isolating animals from their backgrounds.
As lenses get faster they also get heavier and more expensive.  As a general rule of thumb get the fastest lense you can at a given focal length within your budget and that you can still carry and shoot comfortably.  Since lens quality (typically measured as sharpness, various kinds of distortion, and contrast) is also important don’t sacrifice too much quality (normally but not always brand names lenses are higher quality) just for the specs.
Wide-angle Lenses
What focal length will you need?  For scenic shots a wide angle lens such as a 24mm is great.  It can either be a fixed focal length lens (called a “prime” lens) or one end of a zoom lens.  Nikon makes a nice and fairly affordable 24mm-120mm zoom which is a good general purpose lens for scenics and portraits.
“Short” Telephoto Lenses
For large mammals and groups of smaller animals a mid-range zoom is perfect.  The Nikon 80-200/f2.8—a pro lens--is an awesome lens.  Incredibly sharp and with a quick auto focus it is nearly ideal for portraits and nearby mammals.  It is a little large and heavy, and pricey at about $800 though, so a very economical alternative is the consumer quality Nikon 70mm-300mm lens.  It is fairly sharp, very light, offers a little more length and won’t break your budget.  However it isn’t as fast as the 80-200, so it won’t make the animals “pop” out of the background quite the same way as the larger lens.
Long Telephoto Lenses
For photographing birds or distant mammals a longer lens is needed.  Either a 400mm or 500mm is ideal.  I love the Tokina 400mm/f5.6.  It is sharp, inexpensive, light, and pretty easy to handhold for such a long lens.  With the Tokina I sometimes used a tele-extender, also called a doubler, to get my focal length over 600mm.  If you’re going to use a setup like that to capture animals quite far away or small birds—make sure you practice!  With that long a focal length almost any vibration will affect the picture and you don’t have very much light to see through to focus.
Super-Zoom Lenses
I saw many people traveling with “super-zooms” these zooms offer incredibly long ranges so they appeal to travelers who want to take only one lens.  The problem is that they give up quite a bit of quality to get that extra range.  In general you’d be much happier with a 70-300 and a small 24mm prime lens than trying to get great pictures from a single lens which tried to cover the entire range.
The first thing to decide is whether you’ll be shooting slides—also called chromes—or print film.  The biggest advantage to print film is that it is very forgiving about your shooting, so that you don’t need to have your exposure as accurate as with slide film.  (You’ll hear this referred to as print/negative film having a greater “exposure latitude”).  The biggest advantage to slide film is deeper and more lifelike colors.  The biggest disadvantage to slide film is that it is extra effort to make prints, so that if you want a bucket of snapshots, negative film will be more practical.  The biggest disadvantage to print film, besides the staggering cost of printing the thousands of negatives you might shoot on Safari, is that they don’t work for slideshows!
If you can live with the hassle of getting prints made later, slide film is the way to go.  I use Fuji Velvia, Kodak E100S, Kodak E100SW, and Kodak E200 (all pro slide films).  I also brought some high speed negative film (Kodak PJ800) for shooting tribal dances at night—where I thought I might need the more forgiving exposure latitude of print film.  When I needed slides shot at faster than 200 ASA, I “pushed” the E200 to speeds up to 1000.  If you don’t already know about pushing film and the increased contrast and decreased color it causes Africa is probably not the right place to start experimenting.
Bring plenty of film!  If you’re serious, you can easily shoot 8-10 rolls in a good day—although not every day is likely to be that exciting.  You can always leave the film there as a gift for your guides.  To save on packaging space, take the film out of its plastic canisters and then put handfuls of rolls into a plastic bag or similar container.
Don’t check your film on your flights, with or without a lead bag!!  New X-Ray machines may cause you serious trouble.  Instead, ask for a “hand-check” of the film bags you are carrying with you.  In the US they are required to provide this.  In Africa they might, or they might insist on running the film through the hand baggage X-Ray machine.  A couple trips through most modern hand baggage machines won’t hurt anything.
Other Equipment
A large tripod won’t fit in the cute little bag you’re supposed to use for your checked luggage—and it won’t be much help on the truck in any case.  But a small tripod makes a great platform for taking those sunrise and sunset pictures around camp.  I use a Gitzo 0011 “tabletop” tripod, but Bogen and others also offer perfectly useable models.
For walking safaris a monopod is very handy, but they also won’t help in the truck.
Getting Sharp Shots on the Truck
More important is what you bring to stabilize your camera on the truck.  There are two ways to go about this:  bring a beanbag and rest the camera on it, or clamp the camera to the rails running around the top of the truck.  I used both methods with great success.  In some cases I got the only useable shots of distant animals because I’d clamped my camera onto the truck instead of handholding it.  Obviously the trick to making this work is to get everyone in the truck sufficiently still so that the truck isn’t rocking while you’re shooting!  You’ll also want to use some type of remote or cable release if possible, so you don’t shake the camera when you depress the shutter.
While in the wonderful dugout “Mokoro” canoes you’ll need to rely on your camera holding technique to help you get the best shots.
Botswana is several thousand feet in altitude, so I always shoot with an 81A warming filter.  At higher altitude film “sees” the light as being more blue, and this filter counteracts that.  I also bring circular polarizers for my lenses, to deepen the sky and cut glare in the middle of the day.  You can also have fun with graduated filters, to help darken a bright sky against the dark ground, but make sure and read up on how to use them and practice before you go!
Bring a flash unit, both for dawn and dusk shooting of nearby animals and for portrait shots after dark.  During the day fill-flash can also be used to add color to shaded animals.
There won’t be any spare batteries on safari, so bring plenty—especially anything non-standard.  Use photo or Lithium batteries in equipment that will work with them.  They will typically last longer and help your flash recycle more quickly.
Cleaning Supplies
There is plenty of dust, so bring your cleaning supplies for your camera and lenses.  Make sure and wipe your camera off at the end of each day to help keep dust and dirt from finding their way inside.
Ideally you’ll know everything you need before you get there, but if you think you might forget some unusual function on you camera—bring the manual.
Packing and Traveling with your Gear
Ideally you should go on at least one dry run with your gear packed.  That way you can make sure you remembered everything.  Standard advice includes taking plenty of film and batteries.  You could shoot as many as 10 rolls per day in the bush if you have a quick trigger finger and see lots of animals!  Since you can’t put much in your baggage, you’ll need to carry most of your photo gear.  I use a Lowepro Orion AW, which is a 2-section pack with rain cover.  The hip pack (lower portion) carries two camera bodies, several lenses, small binoculars and a flash—while the upper section is a day pack suitable for your books and snacks for the airplane.  Once you’re out in the bush you can take just the lower pack along, or stow both sections on the truck.
Probably the most important rule of photo travel is not to check your film in your luggage.  Carry it on with you.  The hand baggage X-Ray machines are pretty safe, so don’t panic if the security guards won’t let you pass your film around them, but the checked luggage machines are often not safe at all for film, and should be avoided at all costs—lead bags don’t help anymore.
Once You’re There!
Okay, so all that was just to get prepared.  Once you’re in Africa the fun really begins.  You’ll be happy you practiced when that elephant or lion is doing something priceless a few feet from the truck.  As you quickly adjust and focus your camera—and then fire off a string of memorable shots—your comfort with your equipment will be repaid many times over.
If you’re deeply involved in taking that perfect sunrise shot your likely to hear the impatient voices of your safari companions as they anxiously await you in the trucks to drive off for game viewing.  Or perhaps you’re after the one last picture of a lion yawning while everyone else is ready to move on.
While most safari-goers bring cameras, many are not very serious about taking pictures.  They are more interested in seeing as many animals as they can—nothing wrong with that!  There are a couple things you can do to help make things easier on everyone.  First, get an early start.  If you’re going to shoot the sunrise, be ready before others are having breakfast so that you can take quick advantage as it occurs.  Second, be prepared when you do see an aminal in a unique environment or behaving in an unusual way.  If your cameras are out and ready, and you can use them quickly and accurately, you’ll have plenty of pictures even before others have taken their couple shots.
Most of all, remember that you’re there to have fun, see the country and the animals, and bring back great memories.  Don’t spend too much time behind the camera—and make sure you are enjoying yourself when you are!  When it is too dark to photograph towards the end of the evening game drives it is a perfect time to just plain relax.