Time to pull the curtain back and let you in on the how-to of some of the photos from Africa. Every picture I took on this last trip I took hand held. Yes I carried both a tripod and a monopod and yes I had them with me whenever I was photographing but there was never an opportunity to use them. It’s impossible to set up a tripod in a safari vehicle when other people are also taking pictures and using the monopod by opening a door and extending the pod to the ground never was practical either. I tried a couple of times but it was a hindrance not a help.
Using a bean bag on top of the vehicle or draped over a window also wasn’t practical or effective- there is too much motion of the vehicle itself with people moving around for it to really work. I guess if I were by myself or with one other photographer it might work but it would still be difficult. Given all these conditions, hand holding was the best and only choice. When I could I asked for the vehicle to be turned off as well. This prevented the vibration from the motor to negatively effect my pictures as I brace myself against the vehicle.
The other thing that you must realize is that all these shots occur in but moments. There is a lot of driving around and watching but very little actual photography time. I spent maybe 15 minutes with the muddy elephants, 2 minutes with the twilight owl and 10 minutes with the lions in the tree. And during my time with any of these animals there are just a few precious times when everything is right- the background is working, the animal is looking in the right direction, the ears, tail, legs are good, there aren’t any other animals merging or distracting with your subject. A good example is the chimp in the giant fig tree. I spent a hour watching them (there were about 16) eat and move around the tree waiting for the very few moments when everything worked. My best shots were taken over about a 30 second period of time- the chimp sat in a good place, it was still, the light was good, background acceptable and there were no obstructions in my way. 30 seconds out of 60 minutes.
So how do you handhold and still get killer shots? You do whatever you can to crank up the shutter speed- use a high ISO and shoot wide open. I was often shooting at ISOs in the 1600 to 2500 range because when the light is nice the light is usually low and a high ISO gives shutter speeds of 500th of a second or more. Using the new Nikon 80-400 lens cranked out to 400mm necessitates high shutter speeds. The other technique that is very effective is to shoot in short bursts. Use your highest frames per second rate and shoot 4 to 8 images at a time- a burst. I do this every time I hand hold my camera no matter what lens I am using. Of the shots you take in the burst there will be one or two that are sharp.
By the way, the lions were about 25 feet away up in a tree right above our vehicle. Once we got the vehicle in the right place we had 10 magical minutes with them. They showed no discomfort and very little interest in us. Quite remarkable really. Then a thunder storm rolled in and down they went, disappearing into the brush. It was quite an experience.