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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Safaris In The Digital Age

Taking a dream trip to Africa to photograph the incredible array of wildlife there is more doable than you think

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The action happens fast with hippos late in the day as they squabble with one another. Having a 500mm lens keeps you at a safe distance, and 1/750 sec. stops the action.
An African safari is an eye-popping, mind-bending, life-changing experience. Frankly, if your first African safari doesn’t alter the way you perceive the world and understand your life, you just aren’t paying attention.
For photographers and writers, the experience is even more intense. As artists and craftsmen, we’re, by definition, super-observant, seeking ways to document and interpret the environments and interactions that move us so that we can convey our impressions to those who view our work. A photo safari to the African continent places us in fantastic locations and situations, offering human, wildlife and landscape subjects—and stories—that we long to share with others.

In 2001, Lepp took his first DSLR to Tanzania, Africa—a Canon EOS 30D. The shoot was so successful that afterward he converted entirely from film to digital capture. Says Lepp: “I never looked back.” Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS lens with EF 2X tele-extender, equivalent to 1600mm on the D30.
There are lots of ways to visit the countries of Africa, and a host of adventure travel companies offer tours aimed at meeting the goals and budgets of world travelers. The safari business has evolved a lot since the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s much publicized hunts, when African wildlife photography mostly focused on documenting the wealthy, victorious hunter dramatically posed in his safari costume with his hand on his gun and his boot on the neck of a dead animal. After all, it was hard to get a live leopard to stand still long enough to get a good shot with a glass-plate, large-format camera, and pretty risky to stand out in the wild under a black cloth!

Now, the African photo safari is a dream achieved by tens of thousands of serious North American photographers—just like you—every year, who pack up the gear, board a day-long flight for Johannesburg, take another several-hour trip to a backcountry airport, hop a 12-seater plane to a dirt landing strip in the middle of nowhere and finally stand on the ground in a Southern African game reserve—a totally different world. There, you, your fellow travelers and your photo equipment are cheerfully greeted and transported to a lovely complex of tented buildings where, after a traditional cold fruit punch and brief orientation in the open-air lounge, you’re escorted to your spacious cabin with its soft bed draped with bright white linens, ceiling fan, modern plumbing, private outdoor shower and personal view of elephants, giraffes and antelopes at a nearby water hole. You have, indeed, arrived.

Next morning, there you are, sitting in the second of four rows of seats mounted stadium style on a tough little Land Rover, bouncing along a rutted dirt road before sunrise on what promises to be a hot, brilliant day in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The driver slows as the road dips into a shallow canal and the muddy water pours over the Rover’s bonnet, but the engine’s snorkel keeps it breathing and running without a hitch. You keep a firm grip on your gear while nervously searching the shadows for game. The noise of a thousand frogs is so loud, it can be heard over the sound of the engine. Your instructor/guide scans the flat horizon in the gray-blue twilight, and he spots a lioness walking across the plain. The driver turns the vehicle toward her, leaving the road and plowing through the low brush until the big cat is positioned between the photographers and the rising sun. Framed by backlit grass, the lioness seems to glow in the rising light, and you have just a few moments to claim what could be the best photograph of your life.

Forget about all those National Geographic photographers who came decades before you to this place. You have a better chance than any of them to capture this ultimate Africa shot. The power of digital photography is the second big thing—after ecotourism—that has made the photo safari a surefire great investment for photographers of all skill levels.


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