Born and raised in the Hudson Valley of New York, Don Shay graduated with a degree in English Literature from Rutgers University in 1967. His first book, Conversations – a collection of interviews with such iconic film actors as Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston - was published in 1969. After serving 13 years in the Air Force, Shay founded and began publishing Cinefex – a quarterly film magazine devoted to visual effects that is recognized by industry professionals and film aficionados as the bible on the subject. In addition to having written extensively for Cinefex and other publications, Shay has authored books on the making of Ghostbusters, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. The latter topped The New York Times best-seller list for several weeks in 1993.

Endangered Liaisons, a collection of photographs, colorful reminiscences and insights about the safari experience, is Shay’s only book on Africa.

 
 
 
 
       
Most of your previous writings have involved motion picture production and visual effects.  What made you decide to write a book about Africa?
 
 
Endangered Liaisons is not a book about Africa, per se.  That's a far bigger topic than I'd attempt to tackle.  Rather, it's a book about the safari experience.  An African wildlife safari is like no other travel adventure.  I've visited many places around the world, and done a lot of exciting things, but nothing comes close to the seductive allure of an African safari.  A safari is not the kind of vacation you can easily leave behind and slip back into your daily life at home.  It's an experience you want to share with friends and family and anyone else who will sit still long enough to look at your photos and listen to your stories.  My wife, Estelle, and I have taken that 'sharing' aspect to heart, enticing many of our friends to join us on our safaris through the years.  It's created a special bond among us all.  No one returns from Africa unchanged.
 
 
Not everyone who goes on safari feels compelled to write a book.
 
 
Well, I've been a writer all of my professional life – and an avid photographer since I was a kid.  It was the photography, more than anything, that prompted me to start thinking about a book.  I think every serious photographer yearns to have a book of his own sitting on the coffee table.  I have a lot of African wildlife books – just about everything that's been published on the subject in the twenty years I've been going there – and about ten years ago I began to realize that the best of my photos were starting to compare pretty favorably with those I was seeing in a lot of these books.  Not that I’m comparing myself with the masters – the Frans Lantings and the Jonathan Scotts and the Art Wolfes – but even with them, every once in a while, I would say to myself, "Hey, I've got a better shot of that than this one."  When I managed to compile a selection of photos that I thought stood up to the best of them, I knew I was ready.  Of course, for every photo in the book, a thousand – literally – failed to make the cut.  But that’s the nature of wildlife photography – or photography in general.  As is often said, the best photographers are those with the biggest waste baskets.
 
 
There's a lot more text in your book than in the average coffee-table book.
 
 
That's the writer in me.  There are a lot of very good African wildlife books.  Most are produced by professional photographers, many of whom have spent years in the bush accumulating a wealth of extraordinary images.  But these guys are, by and large, photographers; and the text in their books is often limited to a short introduction or a few brief passages.  Photo books with more extensive text are often written by someone other than the photographer – usually some learned authority on the subject – and, frankly, the writing can be rather dry and academic.

As a writer, I wanted the text to be as vibrant as the photos. And as, essentially, a tourist, I wanted to evoke the safari experience from the tourist perspective. Anyone could have the experiences and photo opportunities I've had in Africa – though I have an advantage over most by having spent, cumulatively over the course of twenty years, more than nine months on safari. Although the book has a lot of information about the animals and places I've seen, my primary intent was to entertain. Endangered Liaisons is a very personal account that I believe will resonate with people who’ve been to Africa and those who have not. And the scope is vast, since there are major sections on a variety of species, endangered and not, and ecosystems ranging from savannas and wetlands to mountains and deserts.

 
 
What are your favorites destinations in Africa?
 
 
Each has its own allure.  There are some very specific environments that I find magical – the volcano rainforests of Rwanda and Uganda, for example, where mountain gorillas live, and, at the opposite extreme, the parched desert dunes of Namibia.  But those are not destinations likely to attract the person embarking on a first safari.  Those seeking a more iconic experience will usually travel to either East Africa or southern Africa.  Although there are vastly different ecosystems within each of these two regions, East Africa offers the plains and savannas one tends to think of when contemplating a safari – vast open space with enormous numbers of herd animals and an abundance of predators.  Kenya and Tanzania are the two principal destinations in East Africa, and both are wonderful – though I tend to prefer Tanzania because there are typically fewer tourists there than in Kenya.  Southern Africa is a different experience.  You don’t have the vast open spaces and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of animals on the plains.  But there’s still plenty of wildlife, and the experiences are very intimate.  Run-amuck tourism is not a problem in southern Africa where the camps are small and widely dispersed – and usually much more expensive than those in East Africa.  Of the southern Africa countries, Botswana is far and away my favorite.
 
 
What kinds of camera equipment did you use?
 
 
Every photo in the book was taken with a Minolta.  When I first went to Africa, Minolta had the only camera with an integrated autofocus system, which I thought, wisely in retrospect – was a good thing to have on safari.  I bought two camera bodies and a couple of lenses, and I upgraded them as new and better models came out.  I think I had about four Minolta models in all, through the years.

Unfortunately, Minolta failed to maintain its technological lead – supplanted in time by Canon and Nikon – but by then I had some very good, very expensive Minolta lenses, and I resisted making the change, even when Minolta failed to get into the digital SLR market.  When they finally did, I got their first and only model before they gave up the ghost and sold off their camera business to Sony.  Only one of my 14 safaris was documented digitally, so the vast majority of photos in this book were taken on film.

 
 
What lenses did you use?
 
 
Everyone thinks you need super-telephoto lenses on an African safari.  You don't.  Almost all of the photos in this book were taken on the short side of 300mm.  My favorite and most versatile lens was 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom – a very good lens, but not that powerful.  When I needed more horsepower, I used a 200mm f/2.8 with a matched 1.4X or 2X tele-extender to take it out to 280 or 400mm.  I almost never used the 2X.  There are some great 300mm and 400mm zooms, but the fast ones are very large and bulky – and very expensive.

The question I'm asked most when people look at my photos is: "How close were you to that?"  Often you can be very close – ten or twelve feet from a lion or an elephant.  Of course, you’re in a vehicle at times like that.  But the first-timer's natural inclination is to shoot eyeball-tight closeups of the animals they encounter on safari – which tends to produce wildlife shots that might just as well have been captured in a zoo.  The more I went to Africa, the more I came to appreciate the wider shots, where the animals are seen in the context of their environments.  My favorite shots in the book are those kinds of images.

 
 
What camera gear would you recommend to someone going on a safari?
 
 
I think brand-name is a personal preference.  But I would certainly recommend a good digital SLR – with an extra camera body.  You don’t want to be on safari without a spare.  Lens-wise, get a good short zoom and a good long lens – something that will get you out to 300 to 400mm.  Unless you want closeups of birds, that’s usually plenty of lens power.  Your lenses are really more important than your camera – and less likely to become outdated – so get the best-quality, fastest ones you can afford.  Speed is important.  Most of your best wildlife encounters will take place early in the morning or late in the evening, when light is sparse.  Without a fast lens, it’s hard to maintain image sharpness at full telephoto.  An image stabilization system – either in the camera body or the lens – is also a huge boon to low-light wildlife photography.  Tripods are not very useful in a safari vehicle, but I would definitely recommend a good beanbag.  Anything you can do to stabilize your camera will give you better pictures.
 
 
So, after twenty years of Africa travel and a book to sum it up, there’s no reason to go back, right?
 
 
 
You think?  Actually, Estelle and I have another big trip planned next year to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary.  We'll be traveling with friends to Botswana and Zambia – revisiting some of our favorite places and checking out a few new ones.  One thing about the safari experience – it's different every time you go.  We never tire of it, and we’re as excited about this upcoming trip as we were about our first one.  Safari is addictive.  Don't go to Africa if you’re not prepared to go back.