Camera Support on Safari

By in , ,
Camera Support on Safari

Camera Support on Safari

by Kevin Dooley Idube Photo Safaris

Camera Support on Safari

This subject is a huge undertaking, with a lot of answers. Depending on the type of safari you are on, the safari vehicle, the mode of travel to and from the safari area. Even the type of camera gear you use will make a big difference when it comes to safari camera support. With so many various scenarios involved with safari photography, it's hard to pin point the absolute best way to go about it. With years of trying different types of camera support on safari, I can share with you my personal favorites and why I prefer these.

Without a doubt, professional safari arms are the best choice. However they are not always available, especially on fly in safaris.  Your safari operator may have them, provided your safari is booked with a company that specializes in photography safaris.

Let's start at the beginning, you have thoughts of going on safari, a lifetime of dreams and thoughts of an African photo Safari. The ultimate bucket list adventure, especially for a wildlife photographer.

African Safari, Where do you go.

Camera Support on Safari

Making that decision is a whole new article, however when it comes to camera support, it gets down to the question of weight. Do you go to a place where travel restrictions limit your gear or a place where this is not a concern. A fly in safari will often limit your weight to approximately 40 pounds. This includes clothing, personal items, and camera gear. This is a difficult task for the dedicated wildlife photographer to accomplish. As a safari operator I have put a lot of effort into working out ways to get additional transport for my guests, just for luggage. However some locations do not have roads leading into camp. Hiring an additional plane for just luggage becomes very costly and not a plausible option.

Self Planned Safari or Professional Photographic Safari operator.

Camera Support on Safari

If you are doing a self planned and non specialized photographic safari, you will need to put a lot more effort into this subject than if you are going with a professional photographic Safari operator.

The professional photographic safari operators will have solutions for you that will be discussed as part of your planning and preparation. If you are a serious wildlife photographer looking for a safari that places wildlife photography as a matter of importance , you should highly consider a safari operator that has your photographic concerns as a top priority. Camera support on safari will be a major concern of professional safari operators that specialize in photography.

Hand holding your camera on safari

Camera Support on Safari

Today's cameras can produce stunning images at higher ISO's. This combined with built in image stabilizers in both cameras and lenses, increases your chances of getting sharp images while hand holding your camera.

The general rule of thumb is that you can not hand hold a lens at a slower shutter speed than the maximum focal length of the lens. In other words, a 600 mm lens should not be hand held at a slower shutter speed than 600th of a second. This theory can work out fine with shorter lens such as a 50 mm lens, however most wildlife situations require a telephoto lens, minimum shutter speeds of 300th to 600th of a second or faster are the norm. Your goal is to have a fast shutter speed that will compensate for any movement in your body and your camera.

A few helpful techniques that can increase your success at hand holding cameras and telephoto lenses.

Hold your elbows tight against your body and create  a sturdy foundation for your camera. This is a great technique for any type of hand held photography and especially important with telephoto lenses. Not only does this technique even out the weight of your camera and lens, it helps cut down on the fatigue that can occur from heavier gear. While on a photographic safari, you will be shooting mostly from a safari vehicle that is not in motion. If you do shoot while the vehicle is moving, remember to increase your shutter speed appropriately.

Fatigue can quickly cause camera shake, that leads to blurry unsharp images. Create a strong foundation by tucking your elbows into your body, keeping your back straight, and your posture in a sturdy position.

Your hand placement on your camera and lens can be an important factor in accomplishing your goal of creating a sturdy hand held support system.  Keeping one hand on the bottom of the lens in a flat and secure way will allow the placement of the lens onto the palm of your hand. This is a great way to support your lens without your grip interfering with the auto focus system.  If you need to use your zoom function, remember to keep your fingers free of the focusing barrel. Use your other hand to hold the camera grip.

As you release the shutter button roll your finger over the button in a gentle smooth motion. Try to avoid the firm downward pressing on the shutter release button. This will help to prevent the downward thrust that the camera may experience when releasing the shutter.

Breathing technique is another strong factor to consider. Try to time your breathing with the creation of your image. As you breath in and out, your body support will move up and down. I know many people who will hold their breath just as they release the shutter, minimizing any camera movement.

The larger the lens, the more difficult this technique will become. A 70 to 200, or a 100-400 lens can easily be hand held under the right conditions. However, the bigger zooms and prime lenses are a much larger challenge to hand hold in the best of lighting conditions. I have in a pinch, used a friends shoulder, as a lens rest. However you may be taking turns if they are also doing photography.

I have seen many great safari photographs composed with the hand held method. It is a great way to photograph wildlife when the conditions are good, however during the early morning and late afternoon hours it can be very difficult. A very high ISO and or a minimum F stop will be required for the slower speeds that would normally be required during the low light hours. If you have a lens or camera with stabilization, this will help some. Wildlife photography can require faster shutter speeds and a stable support, I suggest that an additional type of camera support is taken into consideration. Safari Photography is at its best in the early and late hours of the day when daylight is not as bright.

Safari Bean Bag

Camera Support on Safari


I have had great success on safari using bean bags for camera support. That being said, I have discovered that all bean bags are not created equal. Bean bags come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and colors. Of course color is just a personal preference. However, Size, shape, and functional capabilities can make or break your safari experience.

Bean bags come in several sizes. I prefer the bigger versions which will provide better stability. If you are using a small camera the smaller bean bags my be fine, however the larger DSLR's with big lenses will require the larger bags.

The larger beanbags will most likely include a tripod head mounting screw and support plate. This plate rests on the top portion of the bag allowing the user to attach a tripod head to the mounting screw. This is a vital part of using a bean bag on a vehicle, unless you plan to just lay the lens on the top portion of the bag.

Attaching your ball head or gimbal head should bring your camera to approximately eye level.  I can not recommend the gimbal head enough. The ball head is more difficult to use under these conditions as they have a tendency to buckle when lose and this can lead to soar fingers.

I am a huge fan of the Promediagears Katana and Katana jr gimbal head. The quality is outstanding. Mention my name and they will take extra special care of you.

Seating position will make a big difference when using a bean bag. Most safari vehicles will accommodate 10 people plus the guide, or 9 guests plus a guide and a tracker. Three rows of three seats and the passenger seat next to the driver/guide make up the seating configuration. Bean bags will not work from the middle seats as there is no place to position them.

Camera Support on Safari

The bean bag is normally designed in a U shape and will hang over your arm rest, door panel or roll bar. Straps with connectors are used to secure the bean bag, it is almost impossible to get these straps tight enough where the bean bag will not have some movement, however they do rest securely on the arm rest, leaving the straps to add additional security and support. Due to the constant movement of the safari vehicle, I strongly recommend always keeping a hand on your camera as an additional security.

Camera Support on Safari

The front passenger seat will require a different type of mounting for the bean bag. The bag can be placed over the door panel, my choice, or can be placed flat on the dashboard or windshield. Most Safari vehicles travel with the windshield folded down over the hood.

Bean bags can be filled with rice, beans and even sand. I normally use rice. It will require at least 14 KG's of rice to fill up a larger size bean bag. It's very important to make sure the bag is full, or it will settle and become unstable. Compress the rice in the bag by using your fist to compact the rice as you fill the bag. I normally stop at a grocery store on my way to the safari lodge and pick up enough rice to fill my bean bag. If you are doing a fly in safari, make sure to arrange rice at the lodge for your arrival. If you decide to use sand to fill your bean bag, be very careful that the bags zipper does not get ruined and jammed up from the sand. It is best to fill up zip lock bags with the sand and insert those into the bean bag.

The Best seats on a Safari Vehicle

Camera Support on Safari

A lot of folks ask me which seat in a safari vehicle is the best. I have found that the back seats will give you a higher vantage point and better visibility, especially in areas where the bush is very thick. However the back seats are also the roughest ride. Being directly over the rear tires and springs. All the seats are normally good, guides work very hard to make sure that everyone gets a position and opportunity to create images. The front seat next to the guide can be the most comfortable but least desirable spot for photographing wildlife. It is much lower than the back seats and has very limited movement and visibility. Often the tracker, Assistent guide or tour leader will take this seat. Allowing the back seats to be taken by the photographers . However the passenger seat next to the guide is the only place where a bean bag without a gimbal or ball head support can be used with any consistency.

Mono Pods on Safari .

Camera Support on Safari

A good quality monopod can work quite well in a safari vehicle. Especially with lenses in smaller focal lengths such as a 70-200 or even a 100-400. However the larger prime lenses will normally need something a bit sturdier than a monopod. Especially during the early morning and late afternoon hours when the light is dim and a slower shutter speed is required. When using a monopod it is best to stabilize it as much as possible. I have seen photographers stabilize monopods by holding them tightly between their knees and practicing good hand and breathing techniques. I have also encountered different types of clamps and even elastic bands that can attach the monopod to the vehicles roll bars or seat arm rests.  A great way to clamp your monopod to the piping in the safari vehicle. Monopods without additional support can be very wobbly and unstable. Really Right Stuff makes a very nice safari clamp that will attach to their monopod by using the safari clamp rig. This is the best way I have found to stabilize a monopod to the safari vehicle. However It does require the Really Right stuff monopod with a special mounting screw head. I have seen a lot of pro photographers have great success on a safari vehicle using a monopod.

They seem to work a lot better when the vehicle is not in motion. Monopods are great for GoPro and lighter cameras when you want to get a high vantage point. I have on many occasions attached my GoPro to a monopod and extended it to get the highest view possible.


Safari Camera support

I personally find that tripods are very difficult, if not impossible, to use on Safari vehicles. The wide spread of tripod legs will not generally fit between your legs and the seat in front of you. I have seen photographers use tripods by keeping the legs pressed together in the compressed mode. This method normally leads to a lot of frustration and a non sturdy camera support. I have also witnessed Hi Hat or small tripods used by placing them on the dashboard, however this is not a trustworthy solution.

You may want to keep a tripod in your camera bag. Mainly for photographing Landscapes, macro, and stars. It's a good idea to first check with your guides and make sure they will allow you out of the vehicle for this type of photography. If you do get the chance to photograph outside of the safari vehicle it will be limited and most likely strictly controlled. The safety restrictions in your safari area and the predator populations will have a huge impact on photographing outside of the vehicle. Most Safari camps have great locations around camp to photograph the night skies. In fact I have found great photographic opportunities on safari without ever having to leave camp.  For these types of safari photography a tripod is a great addition to your kit. However I suggest another approach for camera support on the safari vehicle.

Professional Supports and safari arms.

Camera Support on Safari

Image Above. Idube photo Safaris Camera Support Safari Arms with Pro Media Gear's Gimbal Katana Heads. .

Your Safari camp or guide may provide some sort of camera support for you. However this is not the normal practice. Especially with fly in camps.

The most common camera support we see that can be supplied by the camp is the bean bag. However these will almost always be the kind that do not have a mounting screw for your tripod head.

A few select safari camps offer safari vehicles  that are outfitted specifically for photographers. This is normally at an additional cost and special reservation.

As a safari operator we do everything we can to help with advice and some provision of camera gear support. However do to the extreme costs and transport issues this is not always possible. Professional safari arms are very heavy and difficult to transport. I have only been able to purchase them in Africa, and they can be very expensive.


Gimbal Heads

Camera Support on Safari

A good quality Gimbal Style tripod head is a must have for great safari photography. I prefer the Pro Media Gimbal heads. The quality is superb, they have two sizes for both drive in type safaris and fly in safaris.

I am a huge fan of the Promediagears Katana and Katana jr gimbal head. The quality is outstanding. Mention my name and they will take extra special care of you.

Quick or Supper Clamps.


Of all the support options, I have personally found these to be the worst choice. These clamps are designed with a clamp on one end and a mounting screw on the other. Photographers will clamp These on the roll cage or other piping and attach a camera or lens to them. I personally have found these to break very easily. They may be ok for a very lightweight setup such as a remote video camera. If you do decide to try this method I would suggest always keeping a good grip on your camera and lens. These clamps are not normally designed for the weight of a full size DSLR with a large telephoto lens. I have tried this support system and it Brooke with in minutes. If I had not had a hand on my camera, it would have been a disaster.

A rough ride.

Camera Support on Safari

Most safaris take place in remote locations where four wheel drive roads are the norm. These roads can be very rough, dusty and bumpy. Camera gear can get knocked around quite easily. By having a good support system for your gear you will reduce the chances of having your gear damaged by an accidental fall. Even the best support systems should be constantly monitored. The rattling and vibrations of the vehicle can cause your support system to become lose. By checking the knobs, straps, and fasteners on a regular basis you can prevent an accident from happening.

I also find that is a good idea to always keep one hand on your camera when traveling. This will provide the extra assurance that your gear is secure. Also keeping you ready for those unexpected photographic opportunities that often happen on safari.

As a summery I would say the the Safari Arm is my favorite type of camera support with the bean bag coming in second. My least favorite being a super clamp. We often outfit our photo safaris with a combo of Safari arms and bean bags. If you have interest in purchasing a Professional Safari Arm, please contact me at Idube Photo Safaris.

Camera Support on Safari

Thanks so much for reading.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions.