Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...

I have been going on wildlife safaris for the past 12 years two or three times per year. Some safaris I have been alone, while on other safaris there have been a group of us up to as many as 15 photographers. Over that time I learned lessons on every one of those safaris. Sometimes I learned from the other photographers, but too often I learned some hard lessons myself that still plague me today. The good news is I try not to make the same mistakes too often. In theory I wouldn't learn the same mistake twice, but unfortunately I can't give myself that much credit.

I don't want to bore you with all ten mistakes and lessons on the same blog, so I will start with my mistake that I would rank at number ten and we'll count back. Hopefully this information will be helpful to those who are just starting out in wildlife photography and looking for some direction and answers...

Mistake Number Ten:
Thankfully I am not alone on this one. I have seen many photographers make this mistake. "Don't cheap out on equipment." Wildlife safaris are often quite expensive. If you can afford to pay two to thirty or forty grand for a safari, you can afford appropriate equipment.

Years ago, I was on a kayak off Vancouver Island. My dream at the time was to photograph an eagle catching a fish. I craved to capture the image of a wide wing span, the splash on the water, the animal interaction, the attack, the talons and the action. All of these aspects of this kind of picture intrigued me then and still catch my attention today. It sounded like a long shot, but on the off chance I had the opportunity to capture this sort of image, I would go home a happy camper. Well, we kayaked around for a couple hours, then came to a quiet eddy in the ocean. We stopped to watch a fidgety bald eagle in a tree. I got out my camera and he swooped down right in front of us. He was facing us as his talons hit the water. His wings were spread, he made a great splash and missed the fish, but it was still a spectacular "in the right place at the right time" moment. To this day, I still remember that exact moment. Unfortunately for me, I was using a cheap lens and my memory of that event is still much clearer than the picture was. 

My lesson? I skimped on the price of the lens and ended up with a fuzzy image. Now I can't guarantee that my picture would have been crystal clear if I was using one of the lenses that I use today. Many of my pictures today aren't crystal clear either. The difference is that there was no way that picture could have  turned out as I would have liked. I just didn't have the right tool for the job. The lens wasn't fast enough, images it produced weren't clear enough and it had no image stabilization capabilities and I was in a kayak!

What lens should you be using for wildlife photography? People ask me that a lot. Go for a lens with image stabilization and reach.People often skimp on camera equipment, suggesting that it isn't in the budget and yet will spend thousands on the safari. These people come home with fuzzy images of tiny little specs on pictures that represent bears, whales and other exciting wildlife. I am not trying to be critical. I have spent thousands on wildlife safaris years ago only to come home with yucky pictures. I also have friends who went to Africa a few years ago and spent an absolute fortune on a three week safari. They had a good camera, but neglected to buy or rent a good lens. Although they rave about their vacation, admittedly, their one regret is that they should have spent another 1700.00 for a great lens! This coming from people who don't claim to be photographers and don't want to be photographers, but experienced such amazing wildlife in Africa, that today they still regret not bringing a good telephoto lens.

My suggestion? Research the lens first. I am a canon guy myself. I love the IS L series white lenses and won't use anything else, but that is just me. Research the glass, then choose the camera that fits the glass. The lens is the most important investment of a photographer's arsenal. The camera is second. Now you may tell me that you can't afford it, but I would suggest that if wildlife safaris are what you enjoy and you enjoy wildlife photography, then I would suggest that you can't afford not to buy the appropriate equipment. I started with an EF 100-400mm IS f4.5-5.6 lens. Again, I am not suggesting that is what you should get, just that is what I bought several years ago. I love that lens and still use it regularly on safaris today. If you already have a good DSLR, and can't afford to buy the glass, then consider renting a great lens for a couple weeks while on safari.

I had much less money then than I do now, so I scrimped and saved and bought my lens one year and a great camera the next. In the meantime, I went on safaris that were inexpensive so I could afford the camera equipment. If you feel that you can't afford a good lens, there are lots of places I can recommend that people go in Alberta where you can camp at night and find bears, deer, deer fawns, coyotes, elk and a host of other exciting wildlife during the day. That way you can still save up for the good glass...but that blog will have to wait for another day...

Next blog from Lessons that I have learned. Mistakes and Lesson Number Nine: Be aware of people when you are trying to photograph wildlife!

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