DPS 4-10: Safari Trip Reports, Canon 30D and 100-400mm USM Zoom Lens Review, Software Activation Rant


Digital Photo Safaris:
Africa and Alaska

I've been behind in publishing DPS mostly because of a whirlwind of safari trips, first to Botswana for African wildlife and most recently to Alaska for the ever fascinating browin ("grizzly") bear. All of the trips yielded thousands of images for our participants and in between the shooting sprees we kept them up to speed with instruction in digital workflow (so they could keep up with their images) and in how to use Photoshop and other tools to make the most of their images.

Also, Canon lent me a 30D and 100-400 USM lens for some of the trips so I could get a feel for what has clearly become a very popular camera and lens combo for mid-level safari shooters. I was duly impressed and have included a review in this issue. I've also included some quick "safari tips" to help you on your next photo safari whether it is to Africa or ot your local park.

Botswana, May 2006:
Leopards, Lions and Wild Dogs, Oh My!

Leopard Cub

I'll probably never think there is such a thing as "too many" leopards, but we sure had a lot of success photographing leopards and their cubs on our most recent trip to Botswana. Among many great moments one of the highlights was a small leopard cub just venturing out the den, and another was photographing a leopard which I had previously been able to photograph as a cub last year.

Unlike lions, leopards thrive on their secretive nature. Not strong enough to defend their prey head to head from lions or hyenas they rely on being able to hide any kill they can't eat, often in a tree. We were fortunate enough to discover a kill hauled up into a tree by a mother leopard, which provided many hours of interesting photography as various other predators including hyenas showed up to try to claim it.

One of the most important elements of the trip were the color management tools provided by Colorvision, one of our sponsors. Several of the participants had purchased brand new Thinkpads which by default were showing their images as very washed out. They were getting frustrated with their cameras and thinking they were doing something wrong until we profiled their systems using Colorvision's Spyder2PRO. Once their monitors were calibrated and profiled their images popped nicely with good saturation.

Female leopard stalking a Francolin Nikon D2X, 200-400mm

One highlight of my trip was being able to photograph this leopard who I had last seen as a nearly full grown cub last year. Now she was out on her own and apparently quite successful as a hunter. Our guides were expert at using the alarm calls of prey around the area to help us track predators like this leopard. Here, like with other animal photography, the key is moderation. Once we'd spent a little time photographing her we moved on. If vehicles spent too much time following her and interfered with her hunt she'd tend to become shy and avoid people altogether. A good reason to work with organizations in private concessions who have a long-term vested interest in preserving the wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities for many years to come.

Male African Lion
Nikon D2X, 200-400mm

Along with the leopards highlights of the trip included photographs of male lions in nearly perfect light--even shots close enough to feature their eyeballs--and a pack of wild dogs greeting each other and heading off for a hunt. We also had a surfeit of raptors and some normally hard to photograph Kingfishers, including the colorful Malachite and Pygmy species.

The secret to getting male lion action shots in the daytime (when they normally like to sleep) was to photograph them both while they were guarding a kill and while they were squaring off against a herd of cape buffalo.


Baboons are an often under-rated animal. While safari-goers often rush past them to look for more exotic species, they have a fascinating existence with complex social order in their troops and lots of photogenic antics. This trip we were fortunate enough to be able to photograph the very young baby baboons, often called "pink ears" for obvious reasons.

Baboons have the annoying habit of posing nicely while the truck nears them but turning away when it stops. I started snapping off a frame or two while the truck was still moving. Thanks to the awesome VR on my 200-400 and 70-200 I was able to get a surprising number of good images this way.


By using private concessions exclusively we were able to continue our safaris after dark. This rare shot of a giant eagle owl in flight at night was made possible because we could return to camp late and spotlight on the way back. We also saw many other unusual nocturnal mammals this way, including the african wild cat, genet, spring hare and others. Obviously the guides need to be attentive enough not to shine the spotlight directly at the animals' eyes or to leave it on too long to highlight them to predators.

My camera of choice for this night time shooting was my Nikon D2H with its large pixels and good light sensitivity, along with my 70-200VR wide open at f/2.8, an SB800 flash and Better Beamer flash extender. I was surprised at how effective the combination was at ranges up to 100'. For faster recycle time I often used a Nikon SD-8a battery pack with 6 rechargeable AA batteries.

Photo by Dana Allen 

Each night participants gathered for a photo critique from guest pro wildlife photographers Mike Myers, Dana Allen and myself.

We were particularly fortunate to have Mike and Dana along on the trip with their long history in the area and lifelong experience of southern African wildlife photography.

The Draper Traveler screen, courtesy of Draper, was a huge hit, and worked much better than the "generic" screen we used on a previous trip.

Of course these are just a very few of the images captured on the trip. If you'd like to see a little more of the scope of what we saw and captured, I've posted a gallery of images.

NOTE: There are still a few openings on our November trip. We'll be visiting three of the top wildlife camps in Africa, staying 4 nights at each to give us plenty of time to explore and photograph. For those who tire of shooting from the trucks, walking, boating and mokoro (dugout canoe) safaris can also be part of their days.

African Safari Tip:

Conventional wisdom says that a tripod is useless on a safari truck. But thanks to the clever innovation of one of my partners, Steve Rimer, we've had great success with tripods on many occassions. The key is using a rachet strap to hold down the tripod by fastening it to a lower steel support in front of the row of seats. Without IS/VR this would be only part of the solution, but with IS (VR) this solution is very effective. Many of us who are traditionalists are still happy with the traditional beanbag or hand-holding, but in particular for new shooters the tripod solution is very helpful.

Alaska, July 2006: Grizzly Bears the safe way

For the seventh year I returned to Alaska to photograph one of my favorite large mammals, the "Alaskan" brown bear--aka Grizzly Bear. This time I led three groups, a family and my regular two photographic sessions. This year was our best ever for bears, and many days we photographed twenty or more, including quite a few sets of mothers and cubs. The great bear photo year was helped by a very late spring. The bears came out late and hungry, determined to make up for lost time. The berry crop is also late and the salmon haven't started to run, so the bears were focused on the broad grassy coastal plain where they are easiest to photograph. And their enthusiasm for food seemed to be high enough that they tolerated being much closer to each other than usual.


Grizzlies (aka brown bears) spend much of their time eating various plants. Along the coast their primary spring and early summer food is grass. They can easily consume over 30 pounds a day of grass and plants like the "beach peas" this female is happily munching.


Grizzly bear mothers (sows) will protect their cubs against almost any eventuality if they can, but still nearly 50% of the cubs don't survive their first year. Most of them are killed by large male grizzlies (boars). This makes the mothers especially wary of other bears. To see a mother and "spring cub" (a cub born this spring and with little ability to run from a large boar) out on the mud flats digging clams is rare, as they are quite far from the woods and safety.


This young bear smelled a shark carcass on the beach and was proud that he had driven off the juvenile bears that had previously claimed it. We'd watch him eat his fill and try unsucessfully to bury the shark under the sand. After the tide washed it up again a female and cub would have at it and bury it--only to have it stolen later by another young male who'd drag what was left off into the grass.

Participants usually worked in the field but
sometimes shot right from the ATVs 

The key to bear photography, like to most wildlife photography, is understading your subjects. We work with guides who have wildlife biology degrees and years of field experience with the bears. We keep our group quite small, stay together as a group, hang back and let the bears approach us if they want. And of course we still never let them get too close. The result has been years of very successful trips for photographers without stressing the bears.


The late summer made puffin photography difficult, but instead we were rewarded with some incredible rafts of common murres--numbering many thousands visible at one time--and a few great opportunities to photograph bald eagles.

We were even treated to a great session with a porcupine who chose to waddle back and forth across the grassy area.

NOTE: We've just announced our 2007 bear trip dates. Our 2006 trips sold out, so you might want to get a deposit in early if you're planning to go. It promises to be another great year and the lodge keeps making nice improvements so our stays get better and better. This year we added wireless internet for participants and a large monitor with card reader so it was easy to show images for the group (we already had a projector and screen for group presentations and a computer with card reader and CD burner for participant use). I also guided a family this year in a "custom" trip to see and photograph the bears, which went very well, so if you have a family or group interested in a customized trip, please let me know and we might be able to work something out.

In the meantime, I've posted some of our highlight photos from this July.

Alaskan Safari Tip:

We work hard to make sure our Alaskan safari participants invest in a pair of hip boots or waders. Hip boots in particular are inexpensive and easy to find at a discount in Alaska, but we get more questions about them than about anything else. "Why hip boots?", people ask. The truth is, that whether it is hip boots, waders, or just wearing sandals and shorts on the beach in Florida the key is being ready to get the shot. In the mud that grizzly bears frequent in Alaska, hip boots are ideal for tracking them, and ideal for kneeling down to get that perfect perspective without ruining your pants or getting you cold and wet. In Florida sandals and shorts might provide the same flexibility. In either case the key is to make sure that your outfit gives you the tools and flexibility to work your subjects and get the shots you want.

Cardinal Photo Safaris Update:

Grizzly bear female
Alaska bear safari

Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin trips, July 2009:
(These trips always fill up, so make your plans soon!)

Our 2008 sessions all sold out but we've just announced our two trips for 2009, so learn more or sign up soon. We'll have plenty of Alaskan Brown "Grizzly" Bears, as well as visit rookeries for Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres and Kittiwakes. We're also likely to have some good Bald Eagle photographic opportunities and of course scenic shots of mountains, coastline and lovely flowers. This is a great trip for couples or non-shooting companions as the lodge is in a beautiful setting on the coast with plenty of opportunity for other activities.

Leopard Cub
Botswana Safari, 2006

Africa : Botswana, November 14-26, 2009
(10 photographers maximum --
our 2008 trip SOLD OUT so book early

Our trips feature plenty of mammals & birds. We'll see lions, elephants, giraffe, leopards, cheetah and quite a few varieties of antelope along with several dozen other species of exotic animals. For more details or to reserve your space now.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Asia Photo Safari, January, 2007

Burma and Cambodia, December 2009:

We're excited about returning to Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia. The main trip will be divided between the temple areas in Cambodia (especially the Angkor temple complex including Angkor Wat) and Burma (including historic Mandalay and the plain of temples at Bagan, as well as the capital Yangon, nee Rangoon). Learn more. We'll also have an optional post-trip extension to Laos, featuring Vientiane & Luang Prabang.

We just finished a second very successful 2007 trip (and about to head off for our 2008 trip) and are ready with what we think will be an even better itinerary for next December, 2009. Learn more about the trip now.

Crested Caracara
South Texas Safari, 2007

South Texas Birds, April 12-18, 2009
(6 Photographers Maximum, filling up quickly)

After a great safari this year I'm anxious to get back to "The Valley" in south Texas and join a few of you to really focus on bird photography for a week again next year. There is no better way to improve your shooting skills, hone your flight shot technique and come home with lots of great images than by spending a week with us at these awesome Lens & Land properties.

We have some great upgrades for 2008, including luxury accomodations at a brand new game lodge close to the ranches. The small trip size (maximum 6 shooters), private ranches, and full service structure (all your local transportation, room, meals and drinks are included!) make this the premier trip to South Texas for bird photography. Learn more or get your deposit in now.

Read what past participants have to say
events updated 7/26/2008

Beauty comes in small packages:
Review of Canon 30D and 100-400 USM lens

I've always been envious of the Canon shooters on our photo safaris for their 100-400mm lenses. Sure, I love my Nikon 200-400mm f/4. At a constant f4 it is slightly faster and the VR on it is great, but it is quite a big lens to hand hold from a truck all day. More importantly, for participants who may only spend a couple weeks a year on safari, the price tag is a killer. So the Canon 100-400mm USM with IS is a very popular alternative for our Canon shooters. Coupled with the new 30D the combo seemed like a killer pairing for most safari situations.

Female Grizzly Bear
Canon 30D, 100-400 USM IS
Unretouched (but resized) JPEG

But what about the images? They sure looked good on the participants' laptops around the evening fire, but I wanted to try for myself. Fortunately the folks at Canon were willing to lend me a 30D and a 100-400 for one of my grizzly bear trips. The other reason I wanted to spend a week shooting with a 30D was to get up to speed on it. Nearly half of our safari participants shoot Canon so it's important for me to be familiar with both systems and the latest cameras in each.

In short, I enjoyed using the 30D. I've never been a fan of the big wheel in the back of Canon cameras, nor am I likely to learn to prefer their controls to Nikon D-SLRs, but the addition of a small joystick for selecting AF points and some other nice control improvements made the 30D very user-friendly and the images were great.

Obviously it is a mid-level camera so you don't get the blazing speed of a 1D Mark II or the ultra-high resolution of the 1Ds Mark II, but at only

Juvenile Grizzly Bears in Alaska
Canon 30D, 100-400 USM IS Unretouched (but resized) JPEG
Grizzly Bear cubs Wrestling
Canon 30D, 100-400 USM IS
Interesting over-exposure on this sequence
Unretouched (but resized) JPEG

The only odd thing I found about the 30D and 100-400 combo was periodic overexposure for some images in a sequence of a scene. The only common thread when I looked at the shooting data later was they were all zoomed fully to 400mm. But other shots before and after had the correct exposure (this was on evaluative, using the center AF). It only happened a few times, but we saw it in Africa as well, so there is clearly some small mystery here that I haven't figured out.

Pros & Cons

Even a couple weeks is really too short to determine all that much about a camera, since of course during that time you don't come across every shooting situation, but it was enough for me to come up with some general thoughts about using the 30D.

I liked:

I didn't like:

"Training Wheels": A-Dep mode & Safety Shift

The 30D provides two very nice features which I'm sure some pros will scoff at and many will never use, but are really helpful for those just trying to master the nuances of metering, focus and depth of field (DOF). They are its Auto-Depth (A-Dep) mode and the Safety Shift Custom Function (C-Fn 16).

A-Dep mode is similar to the more traditional Aperture Priority (Av for Canon, A for Nikon) mode except that the Aperture is automatically set based on the subject(s) under the AF sensors. If at all possible the camera will try and keep everything under the sensors in focus. This has two incredibly useful benefits. First, as a teaching tool. Second, for times when you're not sure about the Aperture you need to keep an entire scene in focus [we've taken to handing out pre-printed laminted DOF cards to all safari participants to help them get familiar with this somewhat arcane process] the A-Dep mode can do some of the mathematical heavy lifting for you. It is not a perfect solution, of course, as you may not want everything under all the AF sensors in focus, or your subject may include areas outside the AF sensors, but it is a unique and valuable tool for group shots--whether they are of a school sports team or a pride of lions. A-Dep mode is far from perfect however. When I focused on a family of bears in the grass, for example, it wanted to keep all the grass as well as the bears in focus, and set my f-stop to a tiny f27. If the subject had been a field of flowers, that would have been perfect, but for the bears--where I didn't need the grass in focus--it meant an unuseable shutter speed of 1/10th of a second.

Safety Shift is not a new feature for Canon, but one I want to revisit here because it too is very valuable in workshop and photo safari situations. Some participants are just learning the basics of exposure and metering. The "easy" thing to do might be to let them use Program mode. This has three dis-advantages however. First, they aren't going to be learning much while in Program mode. Second, Program mode on almost all cameras (including the 30D) starts making the aperture smaller at very low shutter speeds. Unless you are shooting in very bright (and therefore usually not very good) light that means that your shutter speed will likely be much too low to capture any action or photograph any active subject such as wildlife. Third, on the 30D for example, if you use Program Shift to over-ride the chosen Aperture your selection is canceled each frame, so you'd go nuts trying to make it work in an action situation. So I'm a big proponent of getting participants to use the more "advanced" modes of Aperture Priority (99% of the time) and Time/Shutter Priority (Tv for Canon, S for Nikon). However, if they inadvertently set their Aperture to a value that the camera can not accomodate for a given scene they risk over or under exposure. This can be easy to do in the heat of the moment when an exotic animal appears suddenly and is lit differently than whatever they were looking at previously. Safety Shift is designed for just this occassion. It changes the Aperture or Shutter speed as appropriate to bring the scene back within correct exposure. The result is a good learning experience for participants and beginning photographers without sacrificing photo opportunities.

Educational DVDs:

Speaking of training wheels, some of the new users of the Nikon D200 who didn't have a lot of experience with D-SLRs found the Blue Crane DVD on the D200 very useful. I noticed they have one for the 30D as well. I haven't seen either but for $12.95 at B&H one might be worth a look.


Obviously for the discounted price of $1249 (current B&H price) you don't get the blazing speed of a Canon 1D Mark II or the high resolution of a Canon 1Ds Mark II, but the 8.2MP Canon 30D is a great mid-range camera which holds its own for image quality and ease of use with other similar models. The combination of the Canon 30D and 100-400 USM lens provide a nice safari combination for under $3000 total. The equivalent Nikon offering would probably be the D200 + 70-200 AF-S VR and a 1.7 Teleconverter. (The Nikon 80-400 is an alternate lens option, but its slow focusing speed is a drawback).

Software Activation Rant -- Adobe Photoshop Failure

I've gotten used to the various activation requirements each time I upgrade a hard drive, buy a new computer, or perhaps just because I'm cautious enough to use a RAID arra of disks. Windows, Norton, Office and Photoshop all have to be coddled each time I happen to tweak a system. Perhaps all our books should have us phone the publisher when we move them to a new shelf?

More seriously, I do understand the need to protect software development investment, but many recent activation schemes are set very aggressively to detect nearly any change in hardware as a new system. Most recently, I upgraded my laptop hard drive to a nice new 160GB Seagate before leaving for Africa. I was ecstatic about the space and performance, and after re-activation all applications worked fine.

However, when I needed to reboot my machine during the African trip, Photoshop CS2 suddenly decided that my "license configuration was invalid" and refused to start. Of course I couldn't activate from the bush, so I was stuck without Photoshop on that machine. This handicapped my productivity and my ability to teach--and of course didn't win Adobe any friends on the trip. After my return home and 30 minutes with Adobe support they pointed me to a license manager patch (not one that downloads automatically with updates or that can be searched for, unfortunately) and all seems to be well.


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