Safari Photography: Supporting a big lens

in Shooting reports, Technique, Travel, Wildlife Trip Reports by on May 30th, 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to visit South Africa a couple of times now, and knowing what gear to take is always the big question before I leave. In discussing this with other photographers, through my blog, and on forums, one question that people often ask me is what sort of camera support system they should be using whilst on the safari vehicles.

Often the initial thought is something along the lines of, ‘I’m taking a big camera lens, therefore I need to take the heaviest tripod that I own in order to support that lens.’ A logical way of thinking if you are intending to sit in the bushes for a day to wait for your prey to approach. Problem with that in Africa is if you sit in the bushes for any length of time, you’re likely to get eaten by a lion 🙂

You might also think that the safari vehicles will have enough space to mount a tripod. However, even if you are lucky enough to have a whole row to yourself, mounting a tripod is not going to be practical. Asides from the fact that there isn’t enough space in the footwells to put the tripod up, the rough ground you may be traveling across will quite likely throw the tripod outside of the vehicle, lens and body along with it.

So what is the solution? Well, you will probably be either shooting from the window of a 4×4, or traveling along in a typical safari vehicle such as the one in the following image (passenger normally not included….)

As you can see from the construction, it is a very open setup, designed to give the most flexible vision in any direction. You may be sharing your row with one or two other people, or you may have it to yourself. The way I work, when shooting with one of my big guns, such as the 200-400mm or the 600mm, is to take along a couple of bean bags with me. The most useful one I have is around 20cm (8″) square, and has a velcro fastening on it. The first day I arrive in Africa I go to the local supermarket, and buy around 2.5kg of maize or dried beans, and fill the bean bag up with this. They only cost around 2€/3$, so it’s not worth taking up 2kg of my luggage allowance to bring them with me from home. I then have a very flexible solution that I can use to support the lens, either on one of the chair supports, or on top of a fellow passenger body part. It is very easy to quickly change from one side of the vehicle to the other, without having the hassle of moving a tripod, monopod, or other support system, and easily gives enough support to get sharp images.

The bean bag solution also works well if you are shooting out of a car/4×4 as it will rest on the opened window, or, if you do have the chance to shoot from outside the vehicle, on top of the car roof. (Edit: the following image was not taken standing outside of a vehicle, as I value my limbs too much….)

All animal shots in this article taken with the D3/600mm, using a bean bag support, at the Krugersdorp game reserve, Johannesburg, South Africa.


First steps into HDR

in General, Technique by on January 10th, 2009

Clipper Nelly
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

According to wikipedia, HDR is “a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range of luminances between light and dark areas of a scene than normal digital imaging techniques. The intention of HDR is to accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to shadows.

Digital has made the creation of HDR images a lot easier, since many cameras now include an auto bracketing mode, which allows the photographer to make many images of the scene using different exposures. It is not uncommon for an HDR photographer to blend together 3 or even 5 images to create an image that is able to give good representation of both the light and dark areas of the image.

I’ve always been a bit of an opponent to HDR photography, for no other reason that I believe(d) that it should be possible to get an aesthetically pleasing shot without the need for excessive post processing in digital imaging software afterwards. Additionally, many of the early users of HDR techniques maybe didn’t understand what they were doing, so ended up creating unrealistic, over the top representations of a scene, giving the whole HDR scene a bad name (at least in my opinion).

However, a friend of mine, Philip, who goes by the name of milliped on Flickr, has been a long time user of HDR, and the results he comes out with aren’t that bad (in fact, they’re mostly very impressive!). Recently we were out together on a recent photo trip around Rotterdam harbour. It was a pretty grey day, and ‘normal’ photos were coming out a bit dull, so I decided to give HDR a go…..

Quack Quack

As mentioned above, modern cameras make HDR photography (or at least the image capture part) very easy, and all I really needed to do was set my Nikon D3 to 5 shot bracketing, and expose 5 shots, each at a different exposure either side of the original exposure reading. With earlier versions of HDR software it has always been necessary to use a tripod to ensure that the images actually line up once they are combined in the digital darkroom, but whilst discussing the latest version of Photomatix Pro with Philip in the car on the way to Rotterdam, he informed me that it was now able to automatically able to realign slight deviations in image alignment, so, combined with the high frames per second speeds of the D3, I figured I could get away without using a tripod.

I chose to use Aperture Priority Mode on the camera (which I typically do for most daytime photography) and exposed at -2, -1, 0, 1, and 2EV deviation on the base exposure reading. This left me with 5 shots of each scene, and when I reached home, all I would need to do would be to combine the images in Photomatix, and I would be able to create my HDR image.

I have been a long time follower of Trey Ratcliffe’s Stuck in Customs blog, and I knew he had an excellent tutorial on how to get started, so I downloaded a copy of Photomatix, paid my license fee, and read the tutorial. (Incidentally you can get a discount on the purchase of Photomatix if you visit Trey’s website and use the discount code he has there)

Railway and Fence

It turns out creating the HDR image is a lot easier than I had thought. Once you open Photomatix, you choose ‘Generate HDR image’ from the menu, and Photomatix allows you to choose the images you want to combine. Clicking OK takes you to an options screen – normal usage seems to be to leave everything unchecked, although I enabled the ‘Align Source Images’ option, and chose Adobe RGB as my colorspace.

The generation of the HDR image can take a while, especially on a slower computer, and once it has been generated won’t look that impressive. The next step however is to click on ‘Tone Mapping’ in the main menu, which will start the main work to get the HDR looking good.

The options available here are numerous, and Trey’s tutorial provides a lot more detail on how to use them than I will write here, but suffice to say, you can have a lot of fun playing around. So far I have not needed to do much more than up the strength to between 80 and 100, increase saturation a bit to maybe ±70, and adjust my white and black points to improve exposure. Sometimes I will play with luminosity, or adjust smoothing to High or Very High, and from time to time the other settings may be changed also, but there is no real right or wrong way of going about it – just play until you find a mix that works for you!

Once the image looks good in the preview window, all that is left to do is click on process, and choose to save the image. This can then be further improved in Photoshop or Lightroom, although typically I find that not much more needs to be done.

In order to show the improvement HDR can make to an image, I have posted two images. The first one shows the train signal with the standard Nikon matrix metering exposure choice. As you can see, it was a pretty grey, uninteresting day weather wise. The second shot shows the same train signal, but after having gone through the tone mapping procedure in Photomatix. Of course, everyone has their own opinion as to which is the better image, however I think the HDR treatment in this case has created a much more dynamic, more intriguing to look at image.

Train signal
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

So after making a couple of shots and converting them back home on the computer, my impression of HDR imaging has changed. Although I won’t be using it for every shot I make from now on, I can definitely see uses for it, and will be keeping it in my toolbox as one more tool to use to improve the results I am able to get out of my camera.

(As a side note, all shots in this blog entry, with the exception of the first shot of the Clipper Nelly, were taken using the Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D Fisheye lens. One of the lenses I thought I would miss most when moving over from DX format was the 10.5mm fisheye, but it seems the 16mm is able to offer the same excellent images as his younger DX brother. This was my first major outing with the lens, and I think I will be using it a lot more in the future.)

Use of flash in wildlife photography

in Technique by on June 19th, 2007

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

One accessory I found myself using more than I thought whilst on safari was my flash gun. I use a couple of Nikon SB-800, and love the capabilities of the Nikon CLS system, together with the intelligence of the TTL-BL mode, which provides perfect fill every time……

Now, in my opinion, there are three main things that flash can be used for in digital photography – i) providing light where there isn’t enough ii) providing fill light for heavy shadows, and iii) stopping the action.

When I don’t have enough light in the wild, it is generally time to call it a day and go home, as the effect you get by trying to light up the darkness (especially at dusk) is very artificial, and doesn’t really work (*), but the other two situations lend themselves to flash very well.

There are a number of ways you can use flash to provide fill. Firstly, as in the case with the cobra photograph here, a small flash will take the darkness out of the shadow areas on a subject, and provide just enough light to make the subject pop. With animal photography, this light will normally have the added bonus of a catchlight in the subject’s eye. In these sort of situations, I will set the camera in aperture priority mode to provide the appropriate amount of depth of field, and use a spot of negative flash exposure compensation, normally around -1 to -1 2/3 stops so that the flash doesn’t overpower the shot.

King Cheetah

A second example of using fill is shown in the king cheetah shot. Here, the subject is backlit, and a normal exposure would leave the cheetah’s face in shadow, however by using fill flash, the SB-800 automatically works out the correct amount of illumination to get the exposure correct.

The third example of using flash is to stop motion. Because the duration of a typical flash is very short (anywhere from 1/1000 to 1/50000 of a second) it can be used in combination with a slower shutter speed to freeze the action in a frame. I used this method in my shot of the leopards in the tree to give the viewer the impression of movement in the frame. Here I chose a slow shutter speed (around 1/50s), together with flash. Then during the shot I panned the movement of the leopards ascending the tree. This gave the result that the background was blurred, due to my panning, but the short duration of the flash froze the action of the animals, giving a dramatic image. The ghosting behind the animals also adds to the image. Note that if you do want to have movement ‘streaks’ behind the subject, it is important to set the flash to rear curtain sync, so that the flash freezes the movement at the end of the exposure, as oppose to the start of the exposure (which would lead to the blur being in front of the subject)

Chase me!

The use of flash is a very creative tool in modern day photography, and is a skill that I am only just starting to appreciate. If you have an opinion on this, I would love to hear it……

(* there are definitely situations where the use of flash in complete darkness can be useful, but this typically requires a little more thought than simply placing the flash in the hotshoe, and is not a situation that I have had the chance to be in yet)


Gear to pack on a safari

in General, Technique, Travel by on June 14th, 2007

Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

I recently came back from a photo safari at Tshukudu Lodge in Hoedspruit, South Africa, organised by FotoCampus. In the first of a series of articles about the safari, I thought I would write about the photo gear that I took with me, what was useful, and what was not so useful…..

Due to the current luggage restrictions on airlines, it was necessary to be a little bit careful with what I carried with me. So I decided to purchase a Think Tank Airport International roller case to take my hand luggage on the plane with me. I figured that since my hand luggage would be weighing around 16-18kg, anything I could do to make it look lighter would help. And since rolling 16kg around on wheels looks a lot more effortless than carrying it on your back, that helped my decision…..

So then I was left with the decision of what to take with me on the plane, and what to have in my hold luggage. Obvioulsy my main lenses and camera bodies would stay with me, and I opted to put all chargers, cleaning equipment, batteries, monopod etc in the hold. This way I figured that if my hold luggage were to get lost or delayed, at least I would still be able to shoot, and there would be enough other people there who I could borrow chargers from if necessary.

I packed the following gear:

2x D200 bodies, both fitted with MB-D200 battery grips – I think the battery grip on the D200 makes handling so much better, and makes it a lot easier to take photos in portrait format. Definitely a worth €175 upgrade

200-400mm F/4G VR lens – this was almost permanently attached to one of the D200 bodies, and was used for around 45% of the shots

70-200mm F/2.8G VR lens – this was attached to the second D200 and was also used for around 45% of the shots

The above two lenses are, in my opinion, invaluable on a safari, since they give a good coverage of the range you will likely to be shooting at. 200-400 is especially useful for birding shots, but it is important to support the lens well. Since there was no space in the safari vehicle for a tripod (in fact I didn’t take one with me) I had the choice between using a bean bag, or a monopod. I filled the beanbag with around 4kg of sugar beans, and found this to be a perfect solution. The roll bars on the vehicle made a good support, either sitting or standing, and by putting the bean bag on top, I found I could rest the 200-400 lens on the bag and get sharp shots.

The 70-200 can be used hand held, and at a stretch can be fitted with a TC-17e to give a reasonable alternative to the 200-400.

17-55mm F/2.8G lens – Used for some landscape shots, and when I had the opportunity to get closer to some of the animals (jn Tshukudu they have some animals as part of breeding programmes, and it is normally possible to get fairly close to them, albeit with a fence in between. Also good for ‘atmosphere’ shots of other participants, and for when the elephants charge the vehicle…..

10.5mm F/2.8G fisheye lens – Used a couple of times, but could have been left at home, not really a safari lens. However, due to it’s small size, it doesn’t cost any space to take it with, so it invariably finds it’s way into my bag. Used for a couple of landscape shots.

12-24mm F/4G lens, 85mm F/1.4D lens – Didn’t use either of these lenses, next time I will leave them at home….

TC-14e and TC-17e teleconverters – I really expected that I would use my converters, but didn’t take a single shot with them. Wouldn’t leave them at home, as they are always useful as a last resort…..

SB-800 flash – Used more than I expected to provide fill to darker subjects, or for freezing the movement of some subjects. I used this in conjunction with the Nikon SD-8a battery pack, which supplements the in flash battery power with 6 additional cells, and found this to provide a welcome improvement to flash recycling times.

Monopod – as mentioned earlier, good camera support is vital, and I used my Gitzo 1578L for this

Bean Bag – I took a bean bag that I had purchased for €10 locally, and then filled it with beans once I arrived. Mine is around 25×20 cm, and I found this to be just the right size. If you make your own, you will probably find using a zip to close it works considerably better than velcro or other fastners.

Cleaning kit – My sensor actually remained relatively clean, but I took my Eclipse fluid and sensor swabs with me just in case. I also took a microfiber lens cloth, and a rocket blower to clean the gear at the end of each day

Photo vest – A good photo vest with a number of pockets is useful. Each drive I carried my cameras in my hand, and put all the other accessories, lenses, and flash in the photo vest. There isn’t really space to take a camera bag in the vehicle, so best to avoid taking one

Memory – I had 4x 4Gig cards with me, and this was more than enough for my two bodies. At the end of each drive I would copy the contents of the cards to two external 120Gig drives, via my MacBook Pro.

Batteries – I took seven EN-EL3e batteries with me, but found I didn’t use more than four in a day shooting…..

All in all, the equipment worked fine, and I was happy with the results that I achieved. I had a couple of issues with the D200 bodies and blinking battery syndrome, but was solved by switching lenses between bodies, and the wheel fell off the Think Tank. However when I returned, Think Tank were very apologetic and are sending me a replacement wheel kit. The problem shouldn’t have occurred in the first place, but at least it was rectified through good customer service.

So did I forget anything? I think the gear I took covered pretty much all of the photo opportunities that I had. However I think taking a polarising filter would have been useful, as this would allow for better saturation in some photos. A tripod would have also been useful for some long exposure/night time opportunities, however it’s use would have not been possible during the day drives, and would have been a hassle to transport through the airport (and the extra weight would have definitely ended up in having to pay for excess baggage….)


Dust Bunnies and Sensor Cleaning

in Technique by on April 18th, 2007

Dust Bunnies
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan.

One of the negative sides of using a digital SLR for photography is the effect of dust bunnies. This is a condition that occurs when particles or specks of dust end up inside the camera body and on the sensor. Unfortunately it is very difficult to avoid getting dust on the sensor, since unless the lenses are changed in a class 10 clean station, dust is going to get inside the camera body, and ultimately on the sensor.

The effect of dust can be greatly magnified, depending on the aperture that is used to take the photo. With a very wide aperture (i.e. f/1.4 – f/4) the effects generally won’t be noticable, but as soon as the aperture is changed to give greater depth of field, for example in landscape photography, the dust particles become more evident, and can often be seen in a light blue sky on a bright day…..

One area of digital photography that has a big problem with dust is macro photography. Since depth of field is greatly reduced the closer the focusing point is to the object, macro photography requires the use of a narrow aperture, often in the range of f/16 – f/22, in order to get enough of the image in focus, and then the dust bunnies start intruding into the image. This is evident in the first photo in this blog entry, which was shot at f/18, where each of the small black circles are caused by particles on the sensor (you might need to click the photo to see a larger version where the dust is more evident).

Now of course, a photo like this could be fixed in post processing (take for example the shot here, which was taken the same day, and had the same problems with the dust spots on the raw image, but was fixed by playing with levels and using the heal tool in Photoshop) but that takes time, so it is better to start off an important photo session with a clean sensor……

First to check if your sensor needs cleaning – find a white wall, set your camera to f/22, and take a photo of the wall in good light. Then look at the picture at 100% on the computer, and see if you have any dust bunnies as with the photo above. If you do, chances are cleaning the sensor will help you….

The first way to clean the sensor is to use a air blower, like the Giotto Pocket Rocket, which can get rid of many of the looser dust particles. Technique here is important though – if your camera has a mirror lock up function, use it, or otherwise use the bulb exposure setting, and make sure you hold your finger on the shutter button as you are cleaning to make sure the mirror is out of the way. Then hold the camera with the sensor pointing downwards, and squirt a few puffs of air into the chamber. It is important that your sensor is pointing down, as this will help any dust particles to fall out of the camera, as opposed to just being moved around inside the camera. ***NOTE*** Do NOT use canned air to clean the sensor – this is actually liquid air, and will cause more damage than good…..

Now take another test picture of the wall – if the dust bunny situation has improved, great, otherwise you might need to use a more intensive method to clean the sensor.

The way I do it is to use is Sensor Swabs/Pec Pads (see picture), with Eclipse optic solution, which is a methanol based solution.

(Edit 2008: Some newer cameras, for example the Nikon D300 and D3, now use Tin Oxide coatings on the sensor. You shouldn’t use the standard Eclipse fluid for these cameras, instead use Eclipse E2)

Sensor Swab

If you buy the swabs, there are instructions on the packet, which I advise you to read, but in short the procedure is to put a few drops of the fluid on each side of the swab, then lift the mirror as before, and clean the sensor with a reasonable amount of pressure by moving from one side to the other of the sensor in one sweep, and then back again, using the other side of the swab. This should be enough to get the sensor clean, but remount your lens, take another test shot of the wall, and if that hasn’t helped, clean the sensor again.

A note of precaution – cleaning the sensor using a liquid sounds risky, and of course it can be – a single scratch on the sensor is going to make the camera pretty much unusable, so it is important to take care when cleaning it. Only use sensor swabs once – they come in sterile packages, and should only be opened when they are about to be used. Also make sure you buy the correct size sensor swab for your model camera (for Nikon D series this is Sensor Swab size 2), as using a swab that is too large could damage other parts of the camera, and using one that is too small won’t do the job properly….

But realistically the hot mirror filter that is in front of the sensor is pretty rugged, and it would take quite some effort to be able to scratch it. Give it a go – you will be impressed how easy it can be to get your sensor back in tip top clean condition…….

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