Pro Photographer David Cardinal offers a taste of his safari photography insights in a Q&A with Sigma’s Jack Howard:
David, whether you’re at a local park, the zoo, or in the plains of Africa, the fundamentals of a great nature photograph remain the same. What advice can you offer to photographers who want to bring their nature and wildlife to the next level?
Remember that it’s about the animals. Learn about them, including their behaviors, so you’ll know what to expect and what types of shots might be possible. Think about the sun, shade and shadows, and how you’ll get good backgrounds, as you prepare for an outing. Let the camera do the work whenever possible. If you can make autofocus, automatic metering, and auto white balance work for you, you’ll have that much more time to concentrate on your subjects and lighting, instead of fiddling with the controls of your camera.
For many, a trip to Yellowstone, Alaska, or the Serengeti may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. What advice do you have to make sure photographers make the most of the trip? Do you have any examples of what not to do or what not to forget based on your own misadventures?
First, get to know your gear before you go. It’s not fun to be stuck trying to decipher a camera manual while you’re trying to photograph a herd of elephants. The local zoo can also be a great place to get practice. I’ve set up a special web page with some links to give you some ideas. Second, bring more digital film than you think you need, as well as backups of whatever you can afford (in cost and weight), as there aren’t too many camera stores that deliver to the wild. Finally, relax and enjoy the experience. If you’re frustrated with your photos at some point, put the camera down and take a deep breath. Remember, your memories will last a lifetime too!
What Sigma lenses do you find yourself gravitating to while out and about making photos?
Without a doubt, the Sigma 120-300 F2.8 is one of the world’s best wildlife lenses, and perhaps the world’s best when it comes to shooting from safari vehicles. The combination of fast F2.8 aperture – allowing focusing in low-light and great subject isolation – along with its rugged build and customization capability make it a natural for shooting from a beanbag or clamp in a vehicle – or from a tripod if there is room. It can be hand held, but most people will find it a bit heavy for that.
For those on a smaller budget, the Sigma 120-400 F4.5-5.6 is the best sub-$1,000 lens for wildlife shooting. If your focus is more on birds, the 150-500mm gives you a little more reach. If you have a bit bigger budget and hate changing lenses, the Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 takes pro quality photos across an amazing range. For flight photography, the Sigma 70-200 F2.8 with a Sigma 1.4x teleconverter is a great value – half the price of the Canon or Nikon equivalents, and very close to the same image quality. When I want to capture the full scene, I love my Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 wide angle zoom.
You use Datacolor for your image calibrations, right? Do you enhance the color quality of your safari images? If so, why and how?
Though the goals may be different, color management is just as important in wildlife and nature photography as it is in the studio. Animals seem healthier and friendlier when they’re showcased in warmer tones. It may seem strange, but those who view your images will have more of a connection to your subjects in warmer tones. Also, saturated sunsets and gorgeous blue skies usually communicate the landscape photographer’s emotions more effectively than an accurate rendering of what might have been a thinly colored horizon.
Think about the story you’re trying to tell and take care to properly expose the image. Also, before you edit your images, be sure to use profiled monitors and printers that are calibrated with a tool like SpyderSTUDIO.
Fisherman have fish tales about the one that got away, and many photographers have stories about the photo chance that lives on only in the memory? Do you have one of these?
Plenty. It is one great reason to keep going back! Perhaps the worst for me was a trip to Denali with the then brand-new Nikon D1X in 2001. I got a great sequence of a wolf pack hunting. Unfortunately, digital was fairly new then and we didn’t realize how much more susceptible digital cameras were to water damage than film cameras, so my images were lost when rain shorted out the CompactFlash card.
Tell us about a happy accident, a photo that wasn’t planned and expected, but that turned out to be a real surprise winner for you?
It wasn’t entirely serendipity, but I was pretty fortunate capturing the photo of a mother bear and cub that won a fist place in the 2012 National Wildlife Federation photo competition. We knew that mothers with single cubs often played with them, as if they were almost siblings, but it was definitely lucky that the cub decided to play “peek-a-boo” with its mom while we were there and ready to take the shot.
Where are you headed to next?
I’ve led two workshops in Alaska, focusing on Grizzly bears, Puffins, and landscapes, for 12 years and I’m just about to embark on the 13th trip with my students. I hope some folks can join me next year but, in the meantime, my next major safari is to Cambodia and Burma later this year – although the focus there is primarily on people, temples and culture. For wildlife, next year will also see me back in Texas for bird photography and in Africa.
And finally, what are your top three tips for making the most of a photo safari?
First, know yourself. Be realistic about your budget, stamina, and expectations. Second: Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Certainly, learn from them, especially your pro leader, but you might be the one with the unique perspective, so don’t sweat it if other folks are approaching a subject differently from you. Finally: Ask questions! That’s why you’re there with a pro leader. It’s hard for them to read your mind, so be clear about what you are looking for. Be as specific as possible about what you need to help you get the shot you’re looking for.