Luck Favors The Prepared

When you’re ready for anything, good photographs tend to come together

An iconic African baobab tree provides an anchor for the spinning Earth in this composite of 320 consecutive 30-second exposures. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm lens at ƒ/4, ISO 400, composite created in Photoshop using Lighter Color Blend mode

We’ve just returned from a three-week digital photo safari in Botswana and Zambia with a wonderful group of advanced nature photographers. As always, when dedicated photographers interact, a number of great questions and ideas came up while we pursued and processed our wildlife and landscape images in the subject-rich Okavango Delta and Victoria Falls areas. Here are some of the best tips gleaned from the trip; you can use them for extended photo shoots anywhere.

Be Ready
A photo safari is fast paced and intense. Throughout the day, you’ll be changing your camera settings to suit the lighting and action. That means you’ll probably finish the day with your camera at maximum sensitivity in after-sunset conditions. With recently released high-end DSLRs, expanded ISO capabilities are critical factors in achieving sharp low-light images of wildlife with long lenses. And if you spent the night photographing the Milky Way, the 3200 ISO you used in the dark isn’t likely to be the right choice in the warm light of morning. You don’t want to waste your first captures with erroneous settings, and you don’t want to miss that first great lion yawn of the day while you set up your camera.

Here’s a basic checklist that you can use to keep your camera ready to capture varying subjects under the different lighting conditions you’ll encounter each day.

Check batteries. As you prepare your equipment for the day, check your batteries. We hope you actually removed them and recharged them overnight. If so, don’t forget to put them back in, because it’s a real bummer when you’re ready to take that first shot and discover you left your batteries back at camp. Even worse, you shoot Nikon and everyone else in your vehicle has only Canon batteries, so no loaners!

Check capture media. Along the same lines, be sure you’ve inserted and formatted capture media in your camera because you probably removed your card to download the previous day’s images, and it might still be sitting in your card reader. It’s really important to set your camera’s custom function to not fire without a card. Otherwise, you’re left with only sweet memories of all those could-have-been captures.

Preset for prevailing conditions. Preset ƒ-stops, shutter speeds and ISO for the conditions you anticipate first thing in the morning. From that base, it’s easy to make adjustments for particular situations, such as flying birds or backlit subjects.

Bring your accessories. Consider your experience from the day before, and all the subjects you hope to capture today, and bring along all the accessories you might possibly need to do the job right. A cable release, filter or loupe to check the LCD will be of no use if left back at camp.

Composition Matters
As the trip progressed, the group became more aware of the compositional requirements for good wildlife photography. It’s hard not to photograph everything that moves the first time you’re surrounded by exotic wild animals. After a few days of critiques from the leaders and the chore of editing thousands of unusable images, you become more selective. Our group began to edit images in advance of capture, recognizing an impossible photographic situation before expending effort and pixels on a fruitless quest. What were they looking for?

The ideal wildlife image portrays an alert, fearless, healthy animal engaged in natural behavior with the lighting optimizing its personality, features and surroundings. So you want that beautiful male antelope with the well-formed horns posed ears forward, eyes visible (preferably with a highlight), looking into the light, and possibly even looking into the camera. Be sure he’s standing erect and the legs are positioned so that all are completely visible; if the legs are obscured by deep grass, include the area of grass where the legs would be if visible. Natural, interactive behavior between species, or between parents and offspring, or among youngsters, always adds interest and a storytelling aspect to wildlife photographs. And if the behavior occurs in the context of a visually stimulating environment such as crossing water, all the better.

The Camera Never Sleeps
It’s hard to find a darker place than Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and because rain is scarce, the skies are usually clear. The vista of stars is enhanced by African landscape icons such as baobab, palm and acacia. A drawback of photography in this environment is finding a safe place to photograph for an extended period at night, when those aforementioned animal subjects are out looking for dinner.

The members of our group took advantage of this unusual opportunity by photographing from within the camp. But one night at Mombo Camp, where the rule is that no one can be in the field after dark, we developed a scheme to photograph star trails around our favorite baobab tree (affectionately named Bob by the staff). At sunset, each participant’s camera was clamped to a rail on a single Land Rover, which was left in position while the cameras took a continuous series of 30-second exposures. The vehicle and cameras were collected by an authorized staff person several hours later, and we processed our images the next day. Should you find yourself in a similarly dark location, here’s how you would go about capturing the skies.

With recently released high-end DSLRs, expanded ISO capabilities are critical factors in achieving sharp low-light images of wildlife with long lenses. And if you spent the night photographing the Milky Way, the 3200 ISO you used in the dark isn’t likely to be the right choice in the warm light of morning.

Milky Way. You need a base to your image, so choose an interesting foreground that will be rendered as a silhouette or painted with light, with the Milky Way flowing through the background. Choose a fast wide-angle lens, preferably an ƒ/1.4, at its widest aperture; a 24mm ƒ/1.4 Nikon or Canon lens is ideal. The sensitivity of the camera is critical, so an ISO of 3200 is important, but going higher will add a lot of noise that interferes with the rendition of the stars (what’s that green planet there?). Due to the rotation of the earth, the exposure can’t be any longer than 30 seconds or your pinpoint stars will become streaks of light. The ending result is an interesting foreground with a brilliant sky filled with far more stars than the unassisted human eye can see.

Star Trails.
Once again, you need a foreground that will anchor your image and emphasize the movement of the stars through the frame. To generate a circular star trail, you need to point the camera to the north in the Northern Hemisphere (the North Star is the best guide) and to the south in the Southern Hemisphere (the Southern Cross). For our Mombo adventure, we used an iPhone app to locate true south. Ideally, we’d like to portray the stars’ apparent movement (we know it’s really the earth that’s moving) during a long exposure that generates a single circular line, but doing so increases the amount of noise generated by the digital camera. A way to accomplish a similar result with less noise is to use an intervalometer to capture a series of 30-second exposures at one-second intervals over a several-hour period (or until your battery dies). The series of images is blended together in Photoshop using the Lighter Color Blend mode to achieve a single image with complete star trails. Be sure that Noise Reduction options are turned off during the capture because this will increase the interval between captures to 31 seconds, long enough to cause a break in the trail.

Collegiality, logistics and location are essential elements for a successful group photography expedition, and on this trip we had the best of all. Sincere thanks to our wonderful companions on our African adventure (you know who you are), and to Journeys Unforgettable ( and Wilderness Safaris (, who made it possible.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit 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

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.