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 2â‚¬/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.