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10 Camera Setup Tips for Your Photo Safari

Bushtracks specialist guide and guest blogger, David Bristow, shares his tips on setting up your digital camera to take stunning photos of African wildlife on your photo safari.

Modern digital cameras are extremely complex machines. In the “olden days” of film cameras you had to think of only a few camera settings namely, film rating (ISO or the old ASA), shutter speed, depth of field and focus (often manual).

The first step in getting great safari photos today is to get your camera set up correctly, but few camera shops show you how (you are supposed to read, and understand, the 100 or more page manual, haha). Following are 10 tips to get the best out of your camera. There are many makes, but since Canon and Nikon lead the field most settings refer to these makes.

An oxpecker on a giraffe near South Luangwa National Park in Zambia - Photo by the Bushtracks Camp company
1. Set the white balance (WB) to daylight

Setting it to auto results in bland images as the camera will try to reduce everything to mid gray. You can set it to cloudy if it is cloudy, or when you want to shoot a sun or moonrise or set. There are also settings for artificial lighting, which are important to use in the appropriate situation.

2. Set colors to vivid

It’s only in the first half or so after sunrise and before sunset that you get really saturated colors outdoors on your African safari. Let the camera help you here. There are up to 12 options here, such as Sepia and B&W, but these are best done in post-production with Lightroom, Photoshop or similar software.

3. It’s best to set ISO (or film speed) to auto

and let the camera’s computer find select the best shutter speed and aperture. If you want to play, you can change the ISO setting, pushing it up in low light or for moving subjects, and down in bright light and static subjects. Just remember to set it back to the average (around 200 or auto, is best).

4. Set the shooting mode to P (program)

Some people prefer using A/Av (aperture priority), but most with most cameras you can get the best of both worlds using P: you can dial in a preferred aperture while still shooting in P mode, to change the speed or depth of field. Canon cameras will revert to the original setting, but with Nikon you have to remember to change the setting back.

Bushtracks traveler enjoying photography during a safari in Africa
5. Use center-weighted metering

Light metering: there are three basic options on most cameras – evaluative, center-weighted and spot center. While you might want to expose for spot center with birds on your African safari, for example. But, the safe option is to set for center-weighted where the camera favors the central area of the image. For wide-angle images, evaluative is the best option. Modern cameras are so good at this, you have to be very experienced to out-think the camera.

6. Just about every image benefits from post-production cropping

(usually found in your software’s TOOLS option). Cropping helps you get the best composition and balance. Start by asking yourself, which part or parts of the image are empty space, then crop as much of that out as you can. You’ll be surprised once you start cropping, how much you do: so keep that in mind while taking your photos.

7. Take care composing shots

Make sure there is not a tree growing out of your subject’s head, branches or grass stalks across their face, dark shadow patches creating dead space. Take extra care with shadows, our eyes seldom see them but the camera always does, often with disastrous results.

8. Remember the corners

Don’t have dead or bright areas in the corners of your image. Or bits of something that detract from the main subject. Corners, like shadows, often go unnoticed when you are focusing on the main subject, so train yourself to see them. Move untidy objects, amazing how many photos are ruined by litter, dustbins, hosepipes and the like. Or move yourself (your point of view). At waterholes, do your best to obscure any man-made objects, such as cement walls, pipes, windmills and such like.

A hippo and baboons at a waterhole
9. Take some time, say on the plane, to go through the various menu and function options of your camera

You’ve paid a lot of money for them so learn to use them to take African wildlife photography. Not using them is like buying a sports car and never getting out of first gear. There are usually two classes of functions – the first is “settings” and the other is shooting functions, you need to get into your head which are which. Settings you usually fiddle with only once or twice; functions (on a dial wheel) all the time.

10. Shoot in RAW – or set to RAW and Jpeg

Image format and size – how much post-production do you do, and what are you going to do with images. For most people Jpeg is the best format, but you may as well shoot large, memory cards are cheap and plentiful. If you want to do a lot of manipulation in post-shooting, or print in high resolution, shoot in RAW – or set to RAW and Jpeg. For fb and e-mail, you should reduce the size of image to around 800 x 600 (pixels) at 72 DPI (dots per square inch), or else you’ll clog up your Internet hosepipe.

Bonus: Finally, don’t play with people who declare, “I never manipulate my images!”

That’s like using film and not getting it processed.

Plan your African Safari in November through March for exceptional savings and excellent photography.


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