Kenya Photo Strategies
This baby zebra is a genetic mix-up that made it turn out spotted, and dark, rather than white with black stripes. My Canon 600mm worked perfectly for this rare chance to photograph a unique animal.
I know of no other place in the world that offers the abundance and variety of both bird and mammal photography as the top game parks in Kenya. I have photographed in Kenya nearly every year since 1983 when I led my first photo tour and it has never disappointed. As I write this while completing my 2019 tour, I will describe the photo techniques I currently use. And I say currently because I continually evolve my photo techniques to help me capture better images while missing very few photo opportunities. I know my camera’s well and set them up to offer me tremendous speed and accuracy to help me capture those magical moments with wildlife.
How baby zebras normally appear!
Cameras I Used
In 2019, I used a Canon 1DX Mark II and a Canon 5D Mark IV. Sadly, the mirror supports broke while I was shooting the 1DX Mark II, so I only had my 5D Mark IV for half the trip and fortunately, it worked perfectly. There were a few times when I would have preferred to use the faster shooting speed of the 1DX Mark II but the 5D Mark IV worked just fine nearly all the time.
For both camera’s I used these settings.
A lilac-breasted roller is a great favorite for photographers on safari. Long lenses like my 600mm with a 1.4x bring this robin-sized bird up close.
Large RAW files only
I want the maximum image detail, so I only use the largest file option and I shoot only RAW as I prefer to process my images with the free Canon Digital Photo Professional software, but I am playing with Lightroom a little and will likely be using it more going forward.
Auto White Balance
It is a simple matter to adjust the white balance in a RAW file to the colors I prefer with no loss of quality, so I see no need to set different white balance choices – such as cloudy, sun, shade, etc. Using the Auto White Balance eliminates having to make the white balance choice while photographing. I have plenty of other things to do anyway.
The first shot I took on my way into Samburu. This leopard rested comfortably near sunset in the deep shade. I used a Canon 600 EX-RT flash to add light to the leopard.
It makes no sense to use One-shot AF in wildlife photography where the animal may be still one moment and then active the next. It takes far too much time to switch focus modes, so I always have my camera’s set to Continuous Autofocus. But that can create a problem. If you move the active AF point (points) off the intended spot where you want sharp focus, either accidently or on purpose to make a better composition, the camera refocuses on the new spot and likely throws the subject out of focus when you press the shutter button.
Toward the end of my 40th Kenya photo tour, this leopard enjoyed the setting sun in the Masai Mara.
To avoid that problem, I and many others have advocated setting your camera to back-button focus where a button on the rear of the camera initiates autofocus that is always set to continuous. Of course, to make it work to best advantage, autofocus must be removed from the shutter button. With the camera set up that way, point one or perhaps more active AF points at the spot where sharp focus is desired and press in the button on the rear of the camera assigned to initiate autofocus and the camera focuses the lens on that spot. Then to recompose and shoot, first let up on the button for back-button focus and recompose and take the image by pressing down on the shutter button. As long as the back-button focus control button is not depressed, autofocus is locked on the spot where it was last focused. Should the animal suddenly begin to walk, fly, or run, depress the back-button focus button down – hold it down – while tracking the subject as it moves and put the active AF points on the subject. Often this means moving the active AF point (s) to coincide with the subject to make a pleasing composition. In summary, holding down the back-button to initiate autofocus offers instant continuous focus while shooting images at the same time. Letting up on the back-button locks focus to let you recompose and shoot without causing the lens to focus on the wrong spot.
A ground hornbill flips its hapless prey up in the air to swallow it!
I have done my focus this way in Kenya and for most wildlife throughout the world with great success for more than two decades. It does work well. But, not to confuse things (I hope), I did not use any back-button focusing on my 2019 trip to Kenya. Since I do a lot of floating blind photography for water birds at my home in Idaho, back-button focusing does not do well as swimming birds continually change direction. Instead, I move a single active AF point around to coincide with the bird’s head. This keeps my thumb busy. And my thumb would be even busier if I was also using back-button focusing. Therefore, I use continuous autofocus and keep it active on the shutter button. In every case where it is possible, I quickly select an AF point that coincides with the animal’s head. Then when I fully depress the shutter button, the lens focuses on the head.
The shot I made I knew would not work. We found this lion out in the open with no flies on its face before sunrise. With my 600mm lens, to keep the ISO down, I used Auto ISO. To lower the ISO, I set the lens wide-open at f/4 and then dropped the shutter speed to 1/4 second. There is no way - I thought - that I could get a sharp image with 1/4 second using a 600mm on a bean bag. I shot a dozen shots carefully at that shutter speed, and most were not sharp enough for me - but two were excellent and that is one more than I need!! The law of averages work!! By the way, at f/4 and 1/4 second, the ISO remained at ISO 1000 - not bad!
However, my Canon cameras do not have AF points to select near the edges of the image, and sometimes that is where I need precise focus. To solve that problem, I set my AF-On button on the rear of my camera to AF-OFF. That means I point the active AF point at the spot where I want sharp focus, press the shutter button down half-way to make the lens focus on that spot, then hold down the AF-ON button to lock the focus, and recompose while continuing to hold down the AF-On button, and finally fully depress the shutter button to shoot the image. This works amazingly well for me and my focus accuracy is the best I have ever enjoyed. I do admit that sometimes I forgot that AF-ON button is now the AF lock button, but I did not make many errors and know in time this new method for me will become second-nature to me as I use it more.
While I don’t expect I will be using much back-button focusing going forward, in no way am I telling you to abandon it if you are doing it now. Back-button focusing is a very powerful technique for sharp focus, but I find my new way of focusing is producing more super sharp images and I suspect I will stick with it.
The lion cub was slightly behind mom, but as it caught up to the point where both were at almost the identical distance from my camera, I fired a burst of images and got both perfectly sharp. Whenever I have more than one animal, I wait for them to become the same distance away, and also favor more depth of field when I can.
I find Auto ISO with manual aperture and shutter speed and having the exposure compensation control assigned to the SET button on my cameras work super well for me. I do not limit the ISO that can be chosen by the camera. Many do, and that is there choice. But, the downside to limiting the ISO – perhaps an upper limit of ISO 2000 – means when the camera must go to ISO 4000 or above, then that choice is locked out and you get underexposed images. I would rather get well-exposed images even if that means I must contend with more noise. When I am shooting, I immediately notice dim light situations where the camera ISO will rise much higher than I prefer to use. I compensate for low light by going to what I call my “low light ISO strategy.” I open up the aperture, often as open as possible and also lower the shutter speed to slower shutter speeds than I prefer. By shooting many images using excellent technique with the camera steady on a robust bean bag, I get some sharp images even at shutter speeds that seem too slow. Indeed, on my 2019 tour, we found a male lion sitting out in the open before sunrise. The light is super dim, so I set the aperture on my Canon 600mm lens to f/4 and lowered the shutter speed to 1/125 second. Even then the ISO was over ISO 4000 – too noisy for me. So, I though what the heck and lowered the shutter still more and kept shooting images of the still lion. Eventually, just to find out where this trick of shooting multiple images at super slow shutter speeds does not work, I tried only 1/25 second at f/4. I knew nothing would be sharp enough for my standards at 1/25 second, but the ISO dropped to ISO 1000 and I am happy with that. Of course, a suitable ISO shot with too slow of a shutter speed that produces unsharp images is still worthless to me. So how did I do at 1/25 second? As expected, some were really soft because someone likely rocked the safari vehicle at the moment I shot. Others were almost sharp enough, and out of 15 shots, 3 of them were really sharp! I discovered when using solid shooting technique, and shooting many images, you can get some sharp images even with ridiculously slow shutter speeds for the long 600mm lens I was using. I will do this far more often going forward! And I am wondering if that could still work at 1/8 second…mmmmmm…..!
This 2019 tour was our best ever for leopards as we had at least nine of them to photograph during the entire tour! Samburu was especially good and that is where this one was photographed. It has an impala to eat!
Although I am a huge fan of manual exposure, I prefer Auto ISO with manual shutter speed and aperture because it keeps the shutter speed and aperture I set. When the amount of ambient light changes from shot to shot, the ISO varies. I do this on Kenya safaris because I am in a vehicle where it is easy to be photographing an animal in the sunshine one moment, then drive a few yards and find an animal in the shade of a bush where the light is three or more stops dimmer. The ISO adjusts instantly so I can shoot quickly. With a group of lions during my 2019 Kenya photo tour, I had several lion cubs to photograph at once. Some were in the sunshine, others in the shade of a bush, and others in the shade under a bush where the overhanging branches made it even darker. The ambient light varied at least four stops between the three situations, but Auto ISO handled it easily. Any other exposure mode is nothing but trouble in that situation. While it is true any exposure mode can give you a fine exposure once you adjust the settings, that takes time, and in wildlife photography shooting quickly is crucial to capturing the images you seek. Aperture-priority does you no good if you must open the aperture to keep the shutter speed from becoming too slow and it takes you several seconds and the subject leaves while you are fussing with camera exposure controls.
I was photographing the lilac-breasted roller when it took flight, so this is a lucky accident on my part!
The problem with aperture-priority is the shutter speed can become too slow for a sharp image, especially for animals in motion. Shutter-priority fails because you can run out of apertures for the lens to open up to and then you suffer from underexposure. Auto ISO solves both problems automatically – just be sure to monitor the chosen ISO and do what is necessary to prevent it from rising too high where noise becomes a serious problem. Of course, there are noise reduction tools to use in processing to somewhat negate negative noise effects.
I always have my long lenses set to Mode 1 for still objects or slowly moving subjects. When panning fast subjects, then I use Mode 2 as it stabilizes the lens only in the axis opposite the direction of the pan. If the animals are running horizontally, only the vertical axis is stabilized. If the animal is moving quickly and erratically, then I use Mode 3. On my Canon cameras, Mode 3 does not activate image-stabilization until the moment the image is shot. That means it is easier to pan with the animal as the image-stabilization is not trying to keep in stationary while panning.
I love the position of the two lions in the golden evening sun. I used a Canon 5D Mark IV and a Canon 600mm with 1.4x tele to capture them about fifty yards away.
AF Microadjustment of Lenses
All of my Canon lenses and cameras where I use autofocus are AF microadjusted to precise autofocus. I consider this crucial. You might get lucky and have a lens/camera combo that needs little adjustment, but about half of my lenses need significant adjustment for precise autofocus (more than plus or minus 5). I cover how I do the AF microadjustment in my Blog on my web site at www.gerlachnaturephoto.com. Note: Since autofocus is set at the sensor when using live view, no AF microadjustment is necessary if you use live view for focusing. But typically, animals are easier to track by looking through the viewfinder, and not at the live view screen. However, when I am photographing some still animals, I do use autofocus with live view once I have the composition set and the focus is terrific.
A pale chanting goshawk at Samburu is quite the bird predator. I put a single active AF point right on its face to get sharp focus, plus all of my lenses and cameras are AF microadjusted - that is crucial!!!!
I have used many of my safari drivers for years. I ask them how my tours are different from others and how I shoot compared to others. While much of my safari habits are similar to most tour leaders, two things stand out. First, my groups tend to photograph far more birds than other safaris. I enjoy photographing birds, can identify a few hundred Kenya birds, and know the ones that make appealing images. Second, I am an extremely quick shooter and typically do well in rapidly changing situations. For example, let me describe what I mean by quick. In my vehicle as it moves, I continually search for the next subject that will make a fine photograph. I don’t stop for critters in bad light, too far way, or in a poor situation. When I see a bird ahead of the vehicle in a great spot for a photo, I have everyone assume their shooting position, and then the safari vehicle moves in slowly. While underway, I am already composing the shot as we pull up to the bird (or mammal), I use my right thumb to move a single active AF point to the subject’s head, and when the vehicle ignition is turned off, I begin shooting. Often for the first and second shot, the vehicle is still vibrating, so those images are soft. But as soon as the vehicle becomes completely still, I am capturing photos. As a result, I capture many images where the birds fly away a second or two after stopping, or in the case of mammals, they turn away and walk offering nothing but the classic butt shot.
We drove up slowly to this pygmy falcon with everyone ready to shoot. When the landrover stopped and the ignition turned off, we fired. The falcon remained for a short time, and then flew away. It is crucial to be ready to shoot as soon as the vehicle stops!
Too many folks on a photo safari sit in their seat most of the time and don’t help the driver spot game. And only when the driver pulls up to a lilac-breasted roller, for example, do they jump up and swing their lenses to rest them on a bean bag while chattering away. This causes most of the subjects to flee before they ever shoot a photo. Kenya wildlife don’t care for human chatter and quick movements are instantly detected and many animals flee from rapid motion. After all, most predators move quick, so don’t act like a predator!
Long Lenses are Enormously Helpful
My long 600mm lens let me stay back from these impala fighting to avoid disturbing them.
I would not consider going on a Kenya safari without a lens of at least 500mm. While you can photograph big mammals – elephants, waterbucks, giraffes – with a 100-300mm zoom, you really need more lens, especially for small mammals and birds. I use a Canon 600mm along with a Canon 1.4x teleconverter when needed, and that is half of the time. I know this gear is expensive, but you have many less expensive options. Tamron makes a fine 150-600mm zoom lens (be sure to AF microadjust it). With a crop camera, long lenses seem longer as the smaller sensor covers a smaller field of view. With a 1.5x crop camera, a 400mm focal length is like a 600mm lens or the Tamron 150-600mm offers the field of view of a 225mm to 900mm lens! Indeed, I will soon own the new Canon 90D, and that has a 1.6x crop factor. Used on my 600mm lens, that is like having a 960mm lens!!!! And though you can crop an image in processing to make it bigger in the image, you actually get better quality by using a crop camera in the first place as the pixel density is greater and therefore you have more photosites on the subject.
A crocodile attacked this baby zebra swimming the Mara River. Though, this looks grim for the zebra, the croc missed and the baby escaped!
I live at Yellowstone that is known for wildlife photo opportunities, but they are meager compared to Kenya. Going on safari in Kenya will offer you an enormous amount of wildlife photo opportunities, while enjoying a completely different experience along with wonderful food and enjoying the company of the friendly Kenya residents. And like anything in life, the more you do something, hopefully, the better you get at it. May wonderful photos of wildlife soon be yours!
Isn't this baby zebra adorable? I was so lucky to get to photograph it. Hopefully, it survives the predators!