Lenses as long as rifle barrels protrude from jeep windows, trembling fingers fiddle with switches and eyes squint through foggy viewfinders in the early morning chill. It can only be Sharp Shooter on safari, live from South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
For the average punter, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Many people around me have invested huge amounts of hope and expectation, not to mention cash, in the dream wildlife holiday.
A lot of them also seem to have decided, wisely, that a single-lens reflex (SLR) upgrade is the order of the day, the better to extract some unforgettable pictures from their one safari trip. For sure, they’ve got a better chance than the folks pointing their camera phones at distant giraffes. But I’m not convinced that all that technology or cash is wisely invested.
Anyone with serious aspirations to shoot wildlife has to think in terms of their “first” safari. Leaving aside the uncontrollable nature of hunting big game, once in a lifetime certainly won’t be enough for me—not after getting to shoot a herd of African tuskers wandering out of a waterhole and almost tripping over a trio of lionesses who’d been enjoying an afternoon snooze in the long yellow grass, all within 10ft of my car window.
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My last name isn’t Trump or Ambani, so I cut corners. Kruger offers the tantalizing prospect of being able to drive around on dirt roads and park beside waterholes from dawn to dusk, so I’m doing it in my own rental car instead of forking out for expensive game drives. At night, I sleep in backpacker hostels outside the park, where there are always willing wildlife spotters ready to share fuel costs. As a result, I’m spending less in a week than some folks spend on a night in Kruger’s deluxe private lodges.
Above all, I’m using my ordinary camera gear, most of which has been around for five years or more. I’ve got zoom lenses that range from a super-wide 17mm (great for landscapes featuring those up-close elephants) to a super-telephoto of 400mm, which becomes a 600mm on my ancient Canon EOS20D back-up body—long enough to capture the curl of a zebra’s eyelashes. Shooting at this length means virtually guaranteed camera shake, so I minimize the risk by resting the lens on a small beanbag which sits on the car’s windowsill.
Safari shoot: Kruger National Park offers the tantalizing prospect of being close to wildlife.
My rig isn’t the latest and greatest, and it’s unlikely to win me any awards this time around, but at least the lessons I’ve learnt about safari shooting—about really checking that there are no dead branches or blades of grass or leaf shadows mucking up the shot of that zebra’s face—have been cheap ones. And in the heat of the moment, when I’m crunching through six frames a second as the full-grown elephant billows his ears in warning at the lion crouching 6ft from my car, I know I can happily throw it all on the back seat and accelerate the heck out of the way.
No 5kg lenses, no costumed attendants, no frills. Let all that wait until I’m rich and famous.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia.
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