Everyone loves our furry, feathery and scaly friends, and one way to show your love is to experience them on safari. But don’t be a menace with your camera, says BBC documentary cameraman and wildlife photographer Warren Samuels, or you’ll quickly turn from animal friend to foe. Mike Peake talks to him…
Keep it quiet
On reputable safaris, says Samuels, guests are asked to keep their voices down during game drives so as not to distract the animals. “Most wild animals have hearing capabilities that exceed our own by at least three or four times,” he explains, “and loud voices, as well as loud vehicle noises, will disrupt normal behaviour and possibly scare the animals into running away.”
Don’t try to call animals over
Worse than being slightly reckless with your chit-chat is actively trying to shout at an animal to get its attention. “Deliberate noise-making to prompt an animal into looking towards a camera is disruptive to any natural behaviour and considered unprofessional and invasive,” Samuels says. “Digital camera beeps should also be turned off as they are distracting, too, and upset the natural sounds of the bush.”
Hide your nibbles
Animals are, unsurprisingly, often attracted to food, and the first-time safari-goer might be tempted to fling a few crackers or “accidentally drop” some of that morning’s leftover bacon to entice the wildlife to come nearer. Don’t! “Habituating animals to cars and lodges using food results in the animals losing their inherent fear of man,” warns Samuels. “This can ultimately result in serious injury and, in some cases, death to both man and beast. It should be avoided at all costs.” Baboons, hyenas, monkeys and assorted other small mammals, he notes, have all been known to bite the hand that feeds them.
Don’t try to be their friend
Spying a playful group of meerkats might be so exhilarating for some that the compulsion to jump out and be amongst them is overwhelming. If you do, you’ll likely ruin the morning for the rest of the guests in your jeep. “People sometimes say they feel restricted by the vehicle or that they want a lower angle for the shot,” says Samuels, “but what usually happens if they jump out is that they are immediately identified by their human form by any animals in the vicinity whose fight or flight response will kick in.” In other words, the animals will likely scarper… or attack you.
Use large RAW files and zoom in later
“People often think they really need to get right up to an animal, inches away, for the perfect shot, but if they use RAW files they usually don’t,” says Samuels. The problem with getting too close, he explains, is that you will intrude upon the animal’s personal space, often leading to an aggressive response – or the animal getting up and walking away. While the latter might seem harmless, you’re upsetting the animal’s routine, and possibly forcing it to move out of a nice shaded area it had carefully selected.
If on a self-guided drive, learn about the animals
One big plus about guides in general and Samuels in particular is that their experience means they can anticipate animal behaviour, and this knowledge can be very useful to anyone in the vehicle who wants to compose great shots. “When out in the bush in your own vehicle,” the photographer says, “it’s a good idea to read up on animal behaviour first so you can better predict what might happen, and you can also prepare yourself for some great shots, such as when cheetahs climb up onto mounds and so on.”
Be respectful of the locals
Snap-happy tourists sometimes forget their manners, but they should remember that locals are not part of the wildlife: they’re people, and this is their home. “Some local tribespeople are particularly reactive to pictures being taken, as they believe it robs them of their souls,” says Samuels.
Give up on the idea of the “perfect shot”
“Photographers can be a guide’s worst nightmare when they put them under a lot of pressure in pursuit of a ‘perfect shot’,” says Samuels, who adds that if the guides are experienced they will know exactly how to best position clients correctly for the best shots – without interfering with the wildlife. “Don’t bully the guides or try and corrupt them with promises of lucrative gratuities which will inevitably result in bad behaviour and animals being scared away.” Something that over-eager photographers are often guilty of, he says, is wanting to follow lions or cheetahs when they are hunting – but it can cause all manner of problems, including the vehicle inadvertently alerting the prey and thus denying the cat its dinner.
And Warren’s top tips for the best wildlife snaps
1/ Choose your camp operator and guide carefully. Cheap ones sometimes equate to a lack of experience, poor attitudes to animal welfare and sub-standard vehicles, which could lead to lost time in the field waiting for repairs instead of photographing animals.
2/ Internal flights in Africa often have weight restrictions, so check your camera gear isn’t too heavy. If it is, you can sometimes hire photography kit in camp.
3/ When setting out for your daily drives, make sure that camera settings are all correct and that everything is primed for quick shooting. The best shots usually go to the snappers who are well-prepared and have fast reflexes.
4/ Don’t check your shots mid-drive: wait till you’re back at camp. Sod’s Law means that having a sneaky peek in the vehicle will mean you miss a great shot.
5/ Take a 1TB or 2TB hard drive and keep it at camp to download images onto when you get back.
Warren Samuels takes guests on a number of photographic tours in Kenya and Botswana with Africa Exclusive (www.safari.co.uk)