Mara land… is Cheetah land (part 4)

How to prepare for a safari: camera settings

So you’ve got everything prepared and are ready to press the shutter on your (almost) perfect camera for that shot you’ve been waiting for since you started planning your safari journey. You take the shot and …

In my case, this usually ends up in some form of disappointment, especially at the beginning of my photography trip. There’s a handful of parameters you need to juggle with before you take the shot, and I often seem to be needing a couple of hours for my ‘photography memory’ to come back to me. For example, when I was shooting the leopard during the very first day of our Mara trip, I was holding my 600mm super telephoto lens on the side of the Land Cruiser instead of on one of the bean bags. Main reason was my experience with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) mechanism & settings in combination with hand-holding this lens or on a tripod. And I managed to get only a few tack sharp shots from that leopard, to my surprise. Later on, I discovered that bean bags actually work quite well in combination with VR on the 600mm f/4E set to ‘normal’ as long as you keep your shutter speed away from 1/1000 s. So no need for ‘sport’ especially at higher shutter speeds, remarkably.

Then there is the ‘regular parameter combo’ of ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and Depth of Field (DoF) settings. To get the exact shot you have in mind when you’re in full manual mode (as I’ve been using for the past 5-6 years), you’ll need to set these parameters in such a way that they not only work for your shot, but also not impact each other negatively. Let’s take an example:

  • I usually set my aperture based on the DoF (and blurry background/bokeh) I’m looking for; however within the limits of available light (not impact ISO too much) and required shutter speed (too fast means less light)
  • Then, I need to decide whether it’s a ‘below 1/1000 s.’ or ‘above 1/000 s.’ shot – thanks to Nikon’s VR mechanism which apparently operates  at that same frequency and can really mess up your shots if you choose 1/000 s.
  • While I’m considering the shutter speeds, I am aiming for the lowest ISO possible, to help me get that sweet DR of my sensor. The higher the DR, the better I will be able to retrieve shadows and highlights in image editing.
  • However, shutter speed is off course also directly related to the object your shooting. If you’re aiming to capture images of a cheetah in action, for example, you better go for the highest possible shutter speed; but off course limited again by your required minimum ISO and aperture settings…

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/640 s., ISO 100, -0.3EV exp. comp.

To make all this work most modern (semi) pro cameras do have an ‘auto ISO’ setting. Without auto ISO it would all just become too complicated and you’d find yourself computing – and missing, rather than taking shots. But again there is a catch here as well: it’s important to set the ‘maximum ISO’ to the value which is still acceptable for you in relation to the DR you can get from your camera. In most cases: cheaper cameras show relatively low DR at higher ISO and more expensive cameras show relatively high DR at higher ISO. Traditionally, Nikon’s pro-level DSLRs and their latest mirrorless cameras show relatively high DR at higher ISO compared to other brands. By the way, you would assume that these cameras show higher DR at lower ISO, which is true in most cases – weird exception is Nikon’s flagship D5 pro DSLR which shows relatively poor DR at lower ISO unlike for example the excellent D850 and D500 DSLRs.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/8, 1/1600 s., ISO 720, +0.3EV exp. comp.

And then there is the exposure compensation setting, which is dependent on the amount of light in your overall composition vs. on your subject, the position of your focal point in relation to your aperture settings and DoF, and… and so on. Too much to cover in a boring article and much better to explain in real life during a wonderful safari trip! ) So if these stories and images strike a cord in the coming weeks… drop me a note at: as I’m currently planning to organize a safari trip later this year for a small group of photography enthusiasts and share some of these experiences and best/personal photography practices.

In my next articles I’ll be moving on to the Mara lions… we had some very scary but most amazing and beautiful encounters with them. Stay tuned…!

One Comment on “Mara land… is Cheetah land (part 4)

  1. Pingback: Nikon D850 vs. D500 vs. 600mm f/4E vs. (NATO) fighter jets: takeoff! | Life/Nature

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