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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Scouting Report: Tanzania

Getting the most from a safari demands careful planning given today‚’s baggage restrictions

Essential Gear.
Besides a good digital SLR (or preferably two), a long lens is the one necessary piece of gear for this kind of trip. I have an old manual-focus 500mm ƒ/4 that was my staple lens in the film era, but with the 1.5x magnification factor of my Nikon D200, I’ve been using my 80-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 VR zoom lens more and more for this work. It’s much smaller and lighter (albeit a stop slower) than the 500mm, and with the magnification factor, it gives me the 35mm equivalent of a 600mm at the long end. I miss the speed on occasion, but not as much as I had feared, especially with the VR helping out in lower light.

I always carry an empty four- to six-liter-sized waterproof sack with me to Africa. Once I arrive, I make a quick stop at a market to buy eight pounds or so of dried beans or rice, and voila, I have a large, stable beanbag on which to brace my shooting rig on the roof of the Land Rover. This is a much more elegant solution than carrying a ready-made beanbag from home, because you’re not using up your precious baggage weight allowance carrying beans from the United States all over Africa!

scouting reports: tanzaniaA beanbag is much more useful than a tripod or monopod because most of your game viewing in East Africa is done through the pop-top roof of a Land Rover, so there‚’s a ready shelf at just the right height on which to brace the beanbag. If your quarry isn‚’t moving (like, say, a lion that has just eaten or is resting), you’d be surprised at how low you can go in shutter speed with a long lens firmly braced on a large beanbag. This stability, along with the help of Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization technology, makes up quite a bit for the lack of a fast ƒ/4 or ƒ/2.8 aperture of the larger, heavier lenses.

Another essential piece of gear is a flash unit. Now, this is a little counterintuitive. Why would you need a flash unit for long-lens wildlife viewing? The answer is contrast, lots of it. And in many cases, only the flash will be able to tame that contrast and open up shadows so that they can be recorded with your camera.

True, you’ll probably be doing early-morning and late-afternoon game drives, but the sub-Saharan sun is strong, even at those times. If you don’t spot a pride of lions hunting in the early or late light, chances are you’ll see them sitting in the shade or turned away from the hot sun. Here’s where the flash can help you by opening up those shadows, even ever so slightly, and making them recordable on chip or film.

I found myself reaching for my flash for birds and monkeys in tree branches, as well as catching the bigger mammals in sunlight. Sometimes, the animals were actually beyond the flash’s range. (I didn’t bring one of the fresnel lens flash intensifiers that are used by a lot of birding photographers but will next time.) Nevertheless, even in those cases, the slight lightening of the shadows as well as the small catch light the flash provided in my quarry’s eyes were enough to justify its use.

But the flash isn’t only for animal pictures. Most safaris also include a visit or two to a Masai village. There may be the odd stand of trees and shade, but most likely, you’ll be out in the undiffused and brutally strong sunlight, with deep shadows and dark skin tones to contend with. During the brief visit, it was only the fill-flash provided by my Nikon SB-800 that opened up the shadows enough to make the chanting-and-dancing people pictures work. Since a visit to a Masai village is a high point on many safaris, it pays to be ready with a good flash unit to make the most of the contrasty situation.

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