The number one issue with photography in the field is getting images that are sharp. I have been asked by a number of clients what I recommend in the tripod line and this is some of my thinking. It would be great to hear from anyone who can recommend any particular models that they have found useful?
Gitzo and Really Right Stuff are renowned for great tripods and heads. Wimberley and Kirk are the ultimate brands when it comes to heads. Then comes Manfrotto and the others follow. The ultimate tripod setup with head and body is going to cost more than $1000, but there may very well be other options that I do not know about.
If you know what you want you could also look on e-bay.
What you choose is really a personal decision based on budget, but here are some notes that may be useful to you.
A tripod is going to be useful for
carefully composing landscapes and setup shots so you can consider horizons, etc more carefully
for longer exposures which are often needed for better depth of field and in low light conditions.
for action work when its just too heavy to hold a heavy lens and keep it steady.
doing macro work when you need very small apertures and long exposures.
for panning birds and animals in action
for setting up and leaving you hands free in game drive vehicles and in boats.
When choosing a tripod consider
the weight of the camera and lens that you are using. Most tripod manufacturers will give guidelines about this.
the number of sections in the legs. A four section tripod folds up smaller for travelling but does require more effort setting it up and taking it down than the traditional three section models.
the height it will rise to. For architectural use or shooting in the field it should come to at least eye level. For photographing from a vehicle, or doing macro work, a smaller tripod will suffice.
the weight of the tripod. If you are flying or carrying the vehicle a smaller hiking tripod made of graphite will be much more convenient than larger, heavier models.
the quality of the tripod. Some models are rather flimsy so go for a good make such as manfrotto, gitzo or really right stuff. You can really feel the difference.
When choosing a head consider
the weight lens you will be using. if it isa wide angle or standard lens then you can use three-way lever models which are fairly inexpensive. If it is a heavier lens (300mm 2.8 and up) consider using a sturdy ball head. Kirk, Manfrotto, Gitzo and Wimberly* will all give weight bearing limits.
the kind of photography you will be doing. For action photography, there is little to match a wimberly type head that makes the lens weightless (this sort of head is only suitable for lenses which have rotation collars). For all round usage a ball head which offers a panning ability can give you the options to do both panning, rotating and be suitable for most usage. Note that you can buy an attachment for good quality ball heads that will convert it into a Wimberly system. This is called a side kick and can, if your lens is less than 500mm f4 give you the best of both worlds. there are also tripod heads specially designed for panoramas so that images get perfectly lined.
How it secures to camera. The arca system is quick and convenient and regarded as the best system. You will need to buy plates for your various cameras and lenses.
* I recently purchased a Benro GH-2 head which is a knock off of the Wimberly that is made in China and is about two thirds of the price.
Other tools for stabilising include
A monopod is also very good for stabilising in vehicles and on foot and in some ways is even more convenient. If you do use one make sure that you also buy a head for it or your movement will be seriously limited.
A beanbag is also very stable and useful particularly when you have a good platform to use it. I always have one in addition to my tripod and monopod. Beanbags can be filled in camp — let me know if you need me to arrange beans.
A strap (the kind that secures surfboards on rooftops is ideal) can also be used to secure the tripod to the game viewing vehicle.
1. If you want crisp, dramatic images there is no substitute for ‘fast glass’. For this reason, spend money on a good lens first and a camera second. You are going to get a much better result using a R2000 camera with a R10 000 lens than the other way round. Lenses date far more slowly than cameras do – and don’t be afraid to buy them second hand.
2. When buying a lens, the rule of thumb is to look for the widest aperture that you can afford. This corresponds to the smallest f-stop (in the case of professional lenses this is usually f2 8 or f4). The wider the aperture, the more light can be ‘sucked’ into the lens and the better the result in low light conditions. A fast lens allows you to make use of faster shutter speeds and, when you’re shooting at wide apertures such as f2 8, to blur out the background and create more foreground interest.
3. For general wildlife photography you will need a 200mm or 300mm lens or, better still, a 400mm. If you intend concentrating on birds, you should seriously consider going for a 500 mm or 600mm lens. A professional zoom lens will operate at the same f-stop (f4 or f2.8) throughout the range of the zoom, whereas a smaller, cheaper lens may start at a relatively decent f5.6 at 70mm, but decrease to f11at 300mm and this can render the speed of shooting and the quality of the image almost unusable. The difference between the 300mm lens that can fit into your pocket and costs a few hundred rand and the 300mm torpedo that is the same price as a small car boils down to the size of the bit of glass at the front of the lens.
4. Image stabilization, which allows shutter speeds 2 to 4 stops lower (or exposures 4-16 times longer) , than traditional lenses is a real asset for wildlife photography. These days autofocus is old hat, but the best zoom lenses have a motor built into the lens that allows focus with blistering speed.
5. Tele-converters can magnify your lens power by factors of 2, 1,4, or 1,7. A word of warning: a 2x converter will cut out two f-stops turning an f2.8 300mm lens into a f5.6 600mm lens. If you have a lens which offers 300mm at f8 you will get 600mm at f16 which is virtually unusable.
6. A mid-range zoom, of say 70 – 200 mm is ideal for portraiture and also for general photography. It is also ideal for shooting from game drive vehicles when animals are relatively close to the vehicle.
7. Standard lenses for full frame cameras are usually in the range from 24 – 70mm when using. For cameras with a cropping factor you will get the same effect from a lens with a wider frame of view such as 18 – 55mm.
8. You will also need a wide-angle lens. For full frame cameras a 20 mm lens is usually sufficient; for cameras with a cropping factor you will get the same result from a 12 or 14 mm lens.
9. Macro lenses allow close focusing and also give you a great deal of creative opportunities with smaller subjects. They are typically 1:1 which means that the size of the image on the sensor is the same size as the subject that you are photographing. But they are also defined by their ability to focus from very close distances. 100mm is perfect for a full frame camera. If you have a crop factor you may want to go for a 60mm. 180mm macro cameras can give you a closer view and very dramatic results but are also quite tricky to use.
10. The Japanese term bokeh is used to describe the background of an image. Most photographers would like the background when using a telephoto or macro lens to appear indistinct so that the main subject stands out as much as possible. With a lens that provides poor bokeh this will not be possible
If you have any questions about buying wildlife lenses please post them here and I will try to get back to you with a suitable answer. Or other readers will do so
What you will need at a glance (* = optional)
- SLR camera body (and backup*) – lenses (300mm+; standard, wide*, macro*) – flash*, flash extension cable* – tripod, monopod* – shutter release cable* – batteries and manuals – at least 3 storage cards – cleaning gear – laptop computer (less than 2 years old recommended) – external hard drive – card reader – Adobe Lightroom 3 (30 – day trial available), Adobe Photoshop * (CS5 or Elements) – plug adaptors.
The products which follow are targetted at the serious “prosumer” with a substantial budget. If you are starting out then you may wish to aim at entry level equipment. Products change frequently. If you are wanting to do a product check find out more information on the web using such sites as dpreview. Its also useful to get product comparisons through google by typing, for example, D700 vs D7000 and getting detailed comparisons. There are people out there who go to considerable trouble broadcasting their research.
Digital SLR bodies
Its always a good idea to have at least two digital bodies. One as a backup and also to minimize taking lenses on and off. Often useful to have one full frame and one cropped to give different options. Nikon and Canon are the two makes that I would recommend although Sony and others are making great strides. The benefit of choosing from the two leaders is that you will always be able to hire lenses and have a wide choice. The defining feature of the latest bodies is that they have excellent sensors able to be used at very high ISO and in low light with very little noise.
If you are looking for pin sharp images at low light, there is no substitute for fast glass. All of the best lenses have f2.8 or f4 and this is fixed throughout the zoom range. The sharpest lenses are usually fixed focal lenght such as 300mm or 400mm, but zoom lenses are often more convenient. Whatever you decide you should have lenses that cover the range 24 – 70 mm for standard work, 80 – 200 for mid range action and something in the 300 – 400 mm for birds and game. I only recommend the use of 1.5 and 2 x converters for lenses that are f2.8 or f4. They reduce aperture by the amount of their magnification and using them with f8 and f11 lenses renders almost unuseable images.
A wide angle lens (12 – 24) is very useful for landscapes and creating abstract images and is a useful addition to the bag. Also consider getting a macro lens. These give a 1:1 view of your subject and allow you to get very close so they are great for making insects and smaller details come to life. Macros come in 60, 105 and 180 magnification. They become increasingly tricky to use and also rewarding in the upper range.
Tripod and supports
See more about tripods here. The best tripods and heads are made by Gitzo, Really Right Stuff, Manfrotto and its worth investing in gear that is sturdy enough to support your lens and also light enough not to make it too much of a drag to lug about. A tripod is invaluable for low light photography, panning and also for shooting with long lenses. If you are using a 400mm or ar above then a Gimbal type head is worth considering such as the one made by wimberley opposite. These have a free head which makes the lens feel like a feather. A monopod is also very useful for more cramped vehicle conditions or game walks but make sure that it has a head which allows you to rotate the camera through 180 degrees. Beanbags are also great for lenses up to 400mm and you can bring them empty and fill them with beans when you get to camp. There are some good debates on which tripod is best on my site.
Light dissipates rapidly outdoors and an external mounted flash is essential for night shooting on game drives and also for putting a twinkle in the eye of game in gloomy conditions as well as illuminating birds. Having said this, when conditions are right, the most rewarding shooting at night is done by spotlight. When using a flash at night having an extension arm or setup that allows you to shoot with the flash in an “off camera” position allows you to reduce the amount of red eye in your animal subjects and avoid flat, front on lighting. It is also very useful having off camera capabilities when you are shooting macro subjects.
Computers and memory
On a workshop the idea is to spend time working on our images, selecting, processing and comparing resuts. So please bring a computer — ideally one that is not so tiny that you can work on it comfortably — and that is not so slow that you never get a chance for a siesta. Lightroom uses lots of RAM so make sure that you check that your computer is running the program effectively. If it is not and you do not plan to buy a new one you may as well leave your computer behind. Also make sure that it has at least 80GB of free hard drive space. Also bring along a spare external hard drive so you can backup as you go along. I recommend Lacie but these days they are all pretty good as long as you don’t drop them (I have personal experience on this one!) . We do our processing on the workshop using Lightroom which works on both mac and pc and if you do not have it and want to try it out you can download a trial version on the Adobe site. I suggest you bring an external download device and plenty of flash cards. I recommend bringing 8GB or 16GB cards.
I wish there was one perfect bag, but there is not. I have a variety of bags for different circumstances. These include a bag that I have had custom made that takes my 200 – 400 lens with the body attached and it stays on my lap in the vehicle. I think there are bags best suited for travelling and others great for game drives and in the field. I have a Think Tank Airport Bag which has wheels and is custom designed to fit into airport overhead lockers. I like the way it does not look like a camera bag! I also have a Lowepro bag with comfortable straps that I use for trekking. In retrospect I would have gone for the Think Tank without wheels — wheels are not useful in the bush.
Keeping Gear Clean and dry
Most cameras these days clean the mirror when you switch on, but if you get a really hefty something on the screen you may need some physical intervention. The Arctic Butterfly is a really excellent invention. You switch on a little motor and the tiny hairs spin round creating static. Then, switch off and brush the mirror. It works like a charm. You will of course also need a lens cloth and a blower brush. Conditions can be dusty on a game drive so try to avoid taking off lenses. Its also useful to take a bag to put right over your lens and camera while driving. Usually I have one or two cameras on my lap or on the seat next to me for quick access.
We have had scientists, journalists, academics, doctors, surgeons, computer analysts, bankers, dentists and housewives on the trips all with varying degrees of photographic experience. Some of the photographers are so skilled they could seriously consider giving up their day jobs! Less experienced people have told me that they were a bit intimidated by coming on a workshop because everyone else would be very skilled and have fancy equipment. My experience has shown that more experienced photographers are very patient and noone should never have reason to feel intimidated. Also, the less that you know the more that you are likely gain. Its wonderful for everyone in the group to watch new photographers grasp skills.
You are very welcome to bring a partner or friend even if they are not photographers, but we have negotiated very low single supplement rates, or none at all, knowing that many of our clients are single travelers who enjoy the company of like-minded photographers.
Mostly the trip is about having fun in a great place and we all have lots of laughs especially at sundowners when the beers and G&Ts come out. The trip is focused very much on visual elements so it’s not ideal for anyone with birding tick lists. It is highly recommended that photographers do have SLR cameras with at least 300mm lenses.
Someone once asked me how long it took to take photographs… In those days the answer was about 200 kilometres of film. Today the answer is perhaps not in distance but in megabytes. We learn as we go and some learn faster than others. My role as a photographic teacher is to assess each photographer in the group and help them in the areas where they are most needful of assistance.
All workshops are different. Some are very intensive from an image gathering point of view (eg Best of Kenya) while on other trips there is more down time and opportunity for discussion and workshopping. Whatever the trip : the primary goals are to learn, make the most of opportunities and have fun.
Everyone on a workshop will come out with an understanding of
Camera functions and settings
Downloading images, storing and basic workflow including rating and selecting adding keywords, etc.
Developing images in Lightroom and exporting them into a usable file format
Shooting from a game drive vehicle
Theories of composition, design and colour
Advanced landscape, wildlife, bird and macro techniques
Low light shooting
Shooting with flash
Making panoramas, HDR, and great black and white techniques
We also look at lodge and food photography, books and selling and presenting your work.
I have so often stood on hills enjoying sundowners and heard people say that Africa and in the bush is where they truly belong. In addition to this great sense of healing which Africa provides, you can be sure of leaving the trip with a whole bunch of memories, new photographic friends, and fantastic images.
There is no typical day. Every day in the bush is wonderfully, remarkably different.
Having said this it usually begins early – about an hour before sunset – with a light tap on your door. Then everyone meets for coffee and a light breakfast at the campfire before heading out to find something interesting before the sun is up. Everyone in the vehicle is there to take great photographs so we are very clear about early starts. “You can have a holiday when you get home” we sometimes joke.
On a workshop we don’t rush from sighting to sighting. If we find something interesting we tend to stay with it to photograph animal behaviour and get the best possible angles. I will work closely with the driver to make sure we are in a great position for shooting and will often chat to the group about the settings that I am using, or interesting angles to consider.
There are quiet periods in the bush too. And, at times, we will look for interesting photographic opportunities that may be less obvious, such as a flower, a dung beetle, or an insect. These sessions are hugely creative and often where people learn the most about lighting, depth of field and composition techniques.
When we return to camp in the late morning, everyone is encouraged to process their images promptly and then present at least 10 images for viewing and assessment.
These daily evaluation sessions are conducted before and after brunch and they are invaluable as they give insights to different ways of seeing, workflow skills, images processing techniques, and also fuel critical analysis.
Everyone is encouraged to have a short siesta before afternoon tea and heading out for the shorter evening game drive. Usually we try to end off in a good spot for sunset landscape photography and for a well-mixed G&T. We return to camp with the spotlight and hoping to photograph some nocturnal cats, owls or nightjars.
Back at the camp, we shower, have dinner and sometimes show more photographs. Then we head for bed promptly mindful of the fact that we will be waking up early again the next day.