Notes From The Field

A recent excursion yielded some keen insights from OP's tech guru

This Article Features Photo Zoom

tech tips elephant stampede
Little Vumbura Camp, Botswana, Africa; Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

For the past two-and-a-half weeks, my wife Kathy and I have been on an intense and fast-paced digital photography safari in Botswana with Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com). No matter how carefully you plan for such a rigorous photographic endeavor, you’ll need to find creative solutions for unexpected problems. Here are a few tips and observations from the field that can be applied to your everyday shooting—even if you aren’t tracking wildlife in 100-degree heat on the floodplains of Southern Africa’s rich and unsettled Okavango Delta.

There’s No Going Back

I didn’t have my one-ton camera bag on safari—the big Ford van had to stay home. Anytime you have to travel by air to the field, your photography will be limited somewhat by the gear you brought. So you need to be thorough and thoughtful in your preparations, considering not only the limits of the airline industry’s tolerance for photographers and their equipment, but also the conditions under which you’ll be working when you get there.

Before I left home, I thought about every possible photographic situation I hoped would present itself, and I talked to the guides and others about their experiences in the Delta so I’d know what to expect. Then I packed three Lowepro bags as carry-ons: a Nature Trekker AW II, which held the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, lenses, extenders, extension tubes, filters and other small accessories; a special long-lens bag that carried the 500mm with the 1D Mark III; and a smaller backpack, the Micro Trekker 100, that held Kathy’s 5D, two lenses and a small Canon HD video camera. Our fourth carry-on had essential personal items and the laptop computer with its cords and backup drives. I checked a hard case filled with a tripod, a monopod, battery chargers and a variety of smaller accessories. In Botswana, all the carry-on bags had to be stowed in the small luggage holds of the prop planes used to move from camp to camp in the bush. I’m happy to report everything made it there and back intact.

On safari, nearly all photography had to be accomplished from within a 12-seat Land Rover with the canopy top and its supports removed. Each vehicle carried three to four photographers and a driver/guide. Photographers had to carry with them, and keep organized and ready in their allocated space, everything they might need for that session. Once you’re out on a game drive, there’s no turning back.

Stay Ready

When the subject is wildlife, you can be sure the decisive moment will come quickly and, too often, won’t last long. So you have to be ready all the time. Set the camera to the prevailing lighting conditions, with the ƒ-stop and shutter speed appropriate to the anticipated action. Be sure you have enough card space in the camera (or film) to handle the action without fumbling with a replacement; it’s agonizing to hear your companions’ cameras capturing like crazy while you can’t even look up to see what’s happening. If the card is getting full, change to an empty one in advance of the action, as you did with film.

On this safari, some of the other photographers and myself always had two camera-lens combinations ready. One of my cameras had a 500mm tele attached; the other had a 100-400mm zoom. Often, the action would start a ways off and quickly move to close proximity, with no time to switch camera bodies and lenses. There were times that I wished I had a third body with a 24-105mm lens, but that’s when Kathy would yield her Canon EOS 5D and a wider zoom.

You Never Know What’s Next

On a game drive, along with being ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, you have to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. That means securing gear quickly and holding on as the guide maneuvers off-road to follow or intercept a big cat or its prey. To accomplish this, I had my Lowepro 500mm lens bag on the floor, wedged upright against the side rail of the vehicle. It acted as a holster for the camera body and 500mm with the lens shade attached. I could quickly and safely stash the rig as we bounced and lurched along, and it gave some protection from dust as well. I kept the second body in my lap or next to me on the seat, with a soft towel over it for protection from dust or under it to soften the bounces if we were in rough terrain.

We came upon a small breeding herd of elephants and decided to try to photograph them. The elephants were still a considerable distance away, and I was getting ready for the guide’s approach with the Land Rover when the herd began to run toward us. Led by a large cow with her baby right behind her, the entire trumpeting group charged the vehicle, and it became clear that there was no bluffing involved. See the photo! The guide had just enough time to start the engine, hit reverse and try to evade the charging "Mad Mama." She was faster than our reverse gear and totally enraged—you could see the muscles standing out in her widespread ears, and she began to tap the front brush guard of the vehicle with her tusks.

The photographers were firing away and trying to hold on at the same time, while the quick-thinking guide, driving in reverse with all his ability, threw a bottle of water at the pursuing pachyderm and hit her square between the eyes. She went down on her knees, giving us just enough time to flip the Rover around to the right direction and finally outrun her. We looked back to see her, with the baby glued to her right foreleg, waving his little trunk and seeming to say, "Way to go, Mom!" (Make sure you always return later to pick up any litter you leave at the site of an elephant stampede!)

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During all this activity, early on I placed the 500mm in the lens bag and switched to the 100-400mm (I could have used the wide-angle), and after the buffer filled on the 1Ds Mark III, I put the camera down next to me and held on. Some pictures you just bring home in your head.

The image here was relatively early in the charge by the female elephant, it's youngster and herd in reserve. I used the EOS-1Ds Mark III with a 100-400mm set to 235mm. The exposure had been preset—1/750 sec. at ƒ/8 with an ISO of 200. I thought I was ready, and for a few images I was, until the vehicle was in full reverse and all we could do was hold on and observe.

A Tripod For Many Spaces

A tripod that fits into many positions and configurations is a plus. This was the third time I used a Gitzo Explorer tripod (GT2540EX) in Africa, and each trip I’ve worked from a different kind of vehicle. On the first trip, the vehicles were completely enclosed; the tripod had one leg on the seat and two on the floor, maintaining a specific height out the window for long lenses. On the second trip, we shot from the open sunroof of Land Rovers, and here I spanned the tripod legs across the opening and had the equivalent of a .50-caliber machine-gun mount.

With the open vehicles used on this safari, the tripod was positioned with two legs on the floor and a third on the seat, or even in a pocket on the seatback in front of me. The articulating capabilities of the Explorer made it easy to maintain the positions needed to keep the 500mm steady and the images sharp, even with a 2x extender at times. I use this tripod for shooting out of the windows of my van’s extended top and from the uneven reinforced rooftop of the vehicle in the style of Ansel Adams. The Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead worked flawlessly throughout the trip.

Sunrise And Sunset

On a trip to a location like Africa, you make the most of the time you have, and starting early and ending late is the norm. In this season, sunrise comes early, sunset is late and the middle of the day is too hot for subjects and photographers alike. This means lots of opportunities to shoot in low-light conditions.

On this trip, abundant palm, acacia and baobab trees added interest to the skyline. A quick way to determine the optimum exposure for early and late light is to meter the colored sky in an area away from the bright sun. Although the sun may burn out, you need to capture the sky and any clouds with good detail and color. Bracket, even when you’re counting on the postprocessing capabilities of digital and RAW. As the sun gets closer to the horizon, the exposure will equalize, and you can attain some detail in both the foreground and the sky. Naturally, an interesting foreground adds a lot to the composition: Cue the zebras!

Don’t Stop Shooting After Sundown

The sunset is finished and it’s time to head back to camp. Not! Now come the opportunities for creative blurring and the use of high ISOs. You can shoot as long as there are opportunities, like running animals, by using a shutter speed of about ¼ sec. and an ISO of 1600 or even higher. The noise of the high ISO can add to the art factor in the images. Pan with the movement, and check the LCD and histogram. Today’s cameras can autofocus in low light levels.

Experiment! You may throw away a high percentage of images, but one keeper makes it all worthwhile. When the last light of the day is gone, then you can finally go back to camp—f.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit www.geolepp.com. If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at www.geolepp.com.

By George Lepp

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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