How to Photograph from an Open-Roof Safari Vehicle in Africa

April 8th, 2011 by Andy Biggs

Editor's note:  Welcome Andy Biggs to the blog! Andy has been a long time supporter of OPG, and is the designer and manufacturer of the wildly popular Gura Gear Kiboko bag.  In addition to running Gura Gear, providing commercial stock images and teaching workshops, Andy conducts incredible photo safaris to Africa.  Andy heads overseas six or more times a year, covering nearly every accessible part of the African continent.  Having traveled with Andy myself to several stops in southern Africa, I can tell you that Andy's safaris are first class, and that you'll have the photographic experience of a lifetime.   You can find out more about Andy, see his images and learn about his safaris at his website www.andybiggs.comWe look forward to more articles and videos from Andy in the future! –Chris

There are many different types of safari vehicles in Africa, and this is the first in a series of videos to try and explain what the vehicles are like. This video specifically describes what the pop-top, or open-roof vehicles are like in east Africa. There are other vehicle types in east Africa (Tanzania and Kenya), however this video specifically addresses the open roof type. I'll shoot similar videos in Botswana and in Kenya later on this year, and my goal is to use these videos to visually explain what the vehicles are like before travelers get to Africa.

You can find the Kinesis Safari Sack described in this video in the OPG Store here.

How to Photograph from an Open-Roof Safari Vehicle in Africa Video Transcript

So I’m here today to talk about how to photograph out of a Land Rover in Africa. Here we have one of my vehicles that we use in Tanzania, and the vehicles are very similar in Kenya as well. But these are what we call pop top, open roof vehicles. Some vehicles do not have a top. I prefer the ones that provide shade because you’re out in the bush all day long, and that sun just beats you down. So I’d really prefer to have one of these tops, these canopies.

The main location you’ll photograph from will be from the standing position. You’ll be in your vehicle. You’ll find your game, what you want to shoot, and you’ll stand up. Here we have a generic bean bag underneath my 200 to 400 lens. My preferred bean bag is from Kinesis. It’s their Safari Sack. It’s kgear.com is their website, and what makes this bean bag really great is it’s got the ability to cinch it to the posts here and keep it in place. You could put a bean bag on one side of the vehicle and another on the other and just leave them there all day long.

When I mount my lens or I place my lens on the bean bag, a lot of times I am using the lens foot. I have a replacement lens foot here from Really Right Stuff, and the reason why I like to use the replacement feet is because they’re typically lower, a lower sense of gravity. You’re not creating a big pendulum on top of the bean bag. That’s my recommendation there.

If my subject distance isn’t changing very much, I do prefer to move that lens foot around to the side or to the top so I have more surface area to hold the lens. The downside of that is that you can’t tweak your manual focus very well, and it’s also hard to zoom if you’re using something like a 200 to 400, a 100 to 400, just some other type of zoom. But for the long zooms, the focusing ring and the zoom ring really do get in the way, so I do like most of the time to just leave the lens foot in place on the bottom.

Now, this is really the best place to photograph if your subjects are farther away. But if your subject is very close, you’re going to want to be shooting from a lower position. And here on the bottom of the vehicle I have a 70 to 200 mounted on top of another bean bag and just sitting out of the window. This is great for those big cats and subjects that come really close to the vehicle because you don’t want to shoot down on your subject. You really do want to shoot at eye level, if at all possible.

This also allows a different view where you can get things and your subject in your frame, like the horizon. I find that is a good storytelling item in an image. The second thing is that if you’re shooting at the same aperture up here, like let’s just say F8 versus F8 down here given the same length of lens, you’re going to have more shallow depth of field, i.e. a blurred background from shooting from a lower position. Why? Because your background is physically farther away from the lens.

I also have two bean bags stacked here in the middle of the vehicle. This is really great where, maybe, if you’re uncomfortable and you need to create a little bit more height but you still want to shoot from a lower position, this can work well. The caveat with that is that if you’ve got some sort of predator walking by the vehicle, you’re not going to want to have that bean bag fall out. That’s a really bad time.

Here is a Land Rover from East Africa and how we shoot from them.

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