Photographic Risks and Rewards on Safari: A Guest Blog Post by Todd Gustafson « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Photographic Risks and Rewards on Safari: Guest Blog Post by Todd Gustafson

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African Lion cubs at play. Nikon D3, 600mm f/4, and 1.7 converter. 1600 ISO. Matrix metering at zero in aperture priority: 1/400th sec. at f/6.7. Image copyright 2011: Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.

Photographic Risks and Rewards on Safari: A Guest Blog Post by Todd Gustafson

Let the Photo Come to You

By Todd Gustafson

Being a proactive nature photographer and letting the photo come to you need not be mutually exclusive concepts.

As a photo safari leader I see people caught up in the event of being in East Africa and missing the actual experience of making great photos. So many photographers (amateurs and veterans alike) own lots of high end photo equipment and have the energy and know-how to make crisp, well composed photographs. When they finish their safari they have a lovely portfolio of representative images of Africa. My goal as a leader and teacher is to teach them to move beyond those initial successes and put people in position to make not only beautiful portraits but to be able to capture the decisive moment and images that reflect the human condition.

The best way for me to do that is to teach folks to understand these elements of natural history and geometry:

1: What is my chosen subject capable of doing?
2: What is the subject most likely to do?
3 Where do I want the action to take place? Consider the background, the foreground, and the direction and quality of the light.
4 Where do I want and need to be at the decisive moment?

Some people move constantly (and sometimes thoughtlessly) while trying for a better angle on a subject while others stay rooted in one spot because they have a good view of the subject at the time. I prefer to photograph some of the action and get a feel for the subject’s behavior. If it’s a fluid situation, as with these lion cubs, I will move to the place with the best situation and the most open view and wait for the action to come my way. If I try to move when the peak moment arrives, I inevitably miss the shot.

This image of the lion cubs playing at first light (above) was captured because of a proactive move made well before the decisive moment. I had made lots of images of the young cats playing in a half-way decent situation, but what I didn’t like was the angle of view; we were looking down into a grassy creek bed six feet below us the safari van. A bit farther down the creek there was a flat, clear space with no brush and a green background that I thought would make an ideal setting for the same behavior. I opted to move to the better setting. Leaving the cubs playing in the creek bed was a difficult decision that was rewarded 3 minutes later (and right on cue) when the cubs climbed the bank and resumed playing, this time in a far better setting while bathed in soft early light . (Note: Todd often knows what the animals are going to do before the animals know….)

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African Lion cubs at play, blur. Nikon D3, 600mm f/4, and 1.7 converter. 800 ISO. Matrix metering -1/3 stop: 1/25 sec. at f/16. Image Copyright 2011: Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.

Having captured lots of great action in the perfect situation I was able to safely gamble on a higher risk set of shots. The cubs were practicing take-down and kill behaviors by chasing each other around the banks of the creek. Low light and fast moving subjects are the perfect recipe for creating pleasing and dramatic blurs. Note: Todd contributed several spectacular blurs to A Guide to Pleasing Blurs by Denise Ippolito and yours truly; each is accompanied by a short write-up. Note to Todd: it is best when creating pleasing blurs at slow shutter speeds to reduce the ISO to 100 or lower if possible. This will allow you to use a much wider aperture. As a result, dust bunnies (like those in the upper right corner here) will be either minimized or eliminated. As we suggest in the Blur Guide :).

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Leopard cub at play. Nikon D3. 200-400mm at 200mm. 640 ISO. Matrix metering at zero: 1/1000th sec. at f/4 in aperture priority. Image Copyright 2011: Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.

Chasing leopards can be frustrating. If they are intent on a destination their movements almost always have a certain momentum to them. They usually are not going to stop and strike a dramatic pose just for you. Chasing them rarely offers many good chances. Being proactive by moving away from the subjects along a hoped-for route can often give you enough working distance to execute a dramatic shot. In this case a mother leopard and her 3 week old baby were out for a stroll near a safari track. As is often the case, vehicles in the area congregated to see these beautiful and elusive cats. Rather than joining the traffic jam we positioned the vehicle 500 meters away adjacent to what we hoped would be their path. Five minutes later they did in fact walk past our vehicle 10 feet away. Shooting out of the lower window offered this eye level view of the cub. Who would have guessed she would have chosen that exact spot to stop and play with a grasshopper?

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Jackal with fur. Nikon D3. 600mm f/4 and 1.7 converter. 640 ISO. Matrix metering at zero: 1/800th sec. at f/6.7 in aperture priority. Image Copyright 2011: Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.

If you are seeing a theme of risk and reward here you are indeed correct. In the image of a silver-backed jackal above the principle of risk and reward again holds true. The “real action” was a team of hyenas that killed a wildebeest calf in the predawn. When the jackal made off with this scrap of wildebeest fur I saw an opportunity. As he reached a safe distance from the kill he carefully bundled the fur in his mouth and proudly trotted off. Anticipating a golden sunrise and taking advantage of the pause in the jackal’s movement, we had been able to move quickly into position so that all were able to capture this tiny slice of life.

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Zebra dance. Nikon D3. 200-400mm lens at 400mm. 500 ISO. Matrix metering at zero: 1/1250 sec. at f/4 in aperture priority. Image Copyright 2011: Todd Gustafson/Gustafson Photo Safari.

Single zebras are graphically beautiful subjects simply because of their stripes but a large herd of zebras can offer dramatic behaviors that can be a challenge to photographic well, yet these situations can deliver huge rewards if the photographer is able to capture the action. It is important to be proactive on a safari drive. Don’t expect your driver to spot all the action for you. Scan groups of animals for any signs of neat behavior that might occur. When a group of young zebra stallions starts nipping and kicking, have the driver stop the vehicle and see what develops. Here a group of zebras were sparring in the cool of the morning. It was impossible to guess which two stallions would go up on their hind legs and really go at it. The best bet was to move the vehicle to a spot with an unobstructed view of an open area. These two zebras ultimately chose that spot and jousted for a short three seconds. I opted for a 400mm shot that captured the dance-like quality of the interaction. Again, chasing the subjects would have resulted in many missed opportunities. Being proactive and then waiting for the photo to come to me was the key to success.

Thanks a stack Toddi for guest-blogging for me :). Todd is the author of A Photographer’s Guide to The Safari Experience. If you head to Africa for the purpose of photographing the animals there without having purchased and studied this great guide you are making a huge mistake. To learn more about Todd, to see more of his great images, or to explore the possibility of joining him on safari or elsewhere, visit his web site here.


Safari photographer Todd Gustafson is the on-screen expert in one of the three segments on episode 105 of Nat Geo’s “Wild Case Files”. The show features riveting narrative interviews, HD video footage, and stunning still photographs. Watch as Todd tells the story of the 2007 mass wildebeest drowning at the Mara River. A must-see for nature lovers and photographers. This episode will air on April 11, 2011 at 9:00pm eastern time on Nat Geo Wild. Synopsis: Investigating a mass squid invasion on the California coast; Australian mouse plague; mysterious wildebeest deaths in Africa.

You can see the promo here. I clicked on a few of the promos and all that I can say is that I will be TIVO-ing the series! I gotta find out about the Montauk Monster.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that Todd uses regularly. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Nikkor 600mm f/4 VR II lens. There is no link for this product as for all practical purposes members of the general public are unable to purchase this lens.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II lens. This is a newer, sharper version of a very versatile lens.
Nikon D3 S Digital Camera Body. This professional body has replaced the D3.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo GT3541XLS Tripod. This is the tall man’s tripod. At 6′ 8″ Todd loves his!
Wimberley V2 head. Todd uses the Wimberley head full time with his 600.
Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable.

15 comments to Photographic Risks and Rewards on Safari: A Guest Blog Post by Todd Gustafson

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Jay e-mailed and stated that he had been on the same trip and in the same vehicle as Todd and had a similar image.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Clear Ken, The newer 200-400 is sharper. Not sure of any other differences. If you have a camera that can be micro-adjusted, then all lenses should be Lens Aligned…

  • What is the difference between the old Nikon 200-400 lens and the new 200-400 lens.

    With the 600 nikon lens, does it have to be lensaligned.



  • Jay Justice

    Those two zebra’s look familiar, except for a very small difference in angle, almost like it was taken from the same vehicle.:)

  • Bill Richardson

    Hi Todd, nice post! Everyone, Todd’s book which Artie mentions above is unlike any other safari book I have seen. I highly recommend it to anyone going on or dreaming about a safari.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Joel, Not sure if it will work but replying this way is much more difficult for me…. I do put the person’s name to make it relatively easy to know who is saying what….

  • Joel Haas

    In your blog, could the comments/replies be “reversed”, i.e. comments first, your replies following, time ordered ? Some longer interchanges are hard to follow.

    Perhaps I don’t understand your needs, but I love the blog.

  • […] Photographic Risks and Rewards on Safari: A Guest Blog Post by Todd Gustafson […]

  • OK, that makes sense.

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Johan, Me bad. The correct aperture for the lion cub blur was f/16. (Too much cut and pasting.) I have fixed the brain typo in the post.

  • Artie, I believe Todd was shooting wide open at f6.7 in the blur photo. f4 with a 1.7x = f6.7, I think. In this case, would you still lower the ISO? Thanks!

  • Shooting at the CFR (Canadian National Rodeo Finals), some newspapers use panning to create great blurs. I have tried a few pans but not really great at it yet, if ever, but with animals, using a 5.6 or F4 aperture and a shutter speed of 1/60 or 1/125 – a person would have to experiment with the shutter speed and may have to be lower, but the whole idea is to pan with the animals, being careful to keep your follow-through after you have stopped shooting. With panning one wants to gets the focal point in focus and the rest will be blur to some degree. The background goes out really well. But if you are stopping too much action you just go one shutter speed slower and try again. There is no set formula because the lighting conditions, speed of the animal will have a great effect with the ISO so ISO will have to be adjusted as well. Anyway, it’s a lot of fun and one never knows what will evole. Oh yes before I forget you shoot with a high frames per second rate.

  • Dena Proctor

    Hi Arthur, nice idea to share your blog. Todd, Great reading your article. Your pictures are superb! I just ordered your new book and am looking forward to reading it.

  • All fantastic images but the sense of motion and playfulness really comes out in the blur of the 2 cubs.