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  African Photo Safari

Yes, photo safaris are expensive. And you'll need a big lens to bring back decent pictures. Still, put it on your list of things to do.

  Version info:
2/11/04: removed Amazon link for Lanting's out of print book.
7/25/07: did some rework and rewording
It's built into our genes. Many centuries ago, our ancestors wandered and hunted the African landscape amongst an overwhelming abundance of wild animals. In each of us is a primal urge to experience Africa for ourselves, even if it is from the safety of a Land Rover and the luxury of private, room-sized tents.

elephants at sunset Elephants at sunset. Nikon N90s, 20-35mm f/2.8, Sensia, Singh-Ray graduated filter. Note that this is the same waterhole where the cover shot of Frans Lanting's Okavango book was made. Different time, different photograper, different look.

Africa's a big place, so just where do you go? The big three in my mind are Tanzania's Serengeti and nearby Ngorongoro, Kenya’s Masai Mara, and Botswana's Okavango. But hundreds of parks and preserves (some private) exist throughout Africa. Your basic choice is this: East Africa or South Africa.

East Africa means Kenya and Tanzania and the primary locations that most people think of and visit when they say they "went on safari." Safari trips are extremely well established in these countries, readily available, and easy to access. That also generally means crowds, though. It's not unusual to see a dozen or more vehicles around a kill site or exotic animal. Many of the classic safari movies (remember Hatari?) and television specials (e.g. National Geographic) you've seen were done in these areas, though.

South Africa means South Africa (duh) and Botswana (normally I'd add Zimbabwe to that, but current political conditions there are something we should discourage by not bringing in tourism dollars, in my opinion). Zambia (animals) and Namibia (scenery) are two oft-mentioned extensions, but usually aren't visited as a sole destination. Safaris are well established in South Africa and readily available, slightly less so in Botswana. South Africa, like Eastern Africa, has a more close-in-to-civilization feel than Botswana.

If you're getting the idea I like Botswana, you're correct. The herd sizes tend to be smaller there (except, perhaps, for elephants), so you don't see the big mass movements you do in the Eastern African parks. On the other hand, most Botswana wildlife areas have tighter limits on number of visitors at one time, and you're much further from population centers, so there's much more of a remote feel to your trip. On one trip we went five straight days without seeing another group at one point. That's a lot different experience than seeing 24 Land Cruisers surrounding a kill in the Serengeti.

No matter where you go, what will surprise you about Africa is that you didn't even realize there was such a variety of animal life to photograph. Take hoofed mammals, for example. You can probably name zebra and impala, but there are also dik-diks, elands, gazelles, gerenuks, gnu, oryx, topi, and waterbuck, to name just a few. Buffalo, hyena, hyrax, fox, jackal, mongoose, warthogs, and wild dogs probably don't roll off the tip of your tongue either, and we're just getting started. In short, get ready to be overwhelmed (and bring a good identification book!).

A typical safari is done in a four-wheel vehicle—Land Cruisers and Land Rovers are the norm in Eastern Africa (more open vehicles are used in South Africa)—moving between tent camps and the occasional lodge. Your vehicle may have as many as eight other folk in it, though the best tours try to restrict photographic safaris to a maximum of four shutterbugs per vehicle (two is perfect, three is perfectly acceptable in a Land Cruiser). Some of the vehicles are open seating, but many are more traditional, with “moonroofs” that can be flipped or rolled back to allow for photography or closed to keep dust out during drives.

Shooting from vehicles is an art in itself. You need a wide range of focal lengths to maximize your possible shots, and even with support, you and your vehicle-mates will need to develop protocols to keep from shaking the vehicle while someone is shooting. Beanbags work well for support on all but the open vehicles, but I found that I got the best support by splaying the legs of a small tripod flat across the roof opening (I tend to gravitate towards a rear corner, so I can do this out of the way of the others). Alternatively, use a support designed for vehicles, like Kirk Enterprises Window Mount. Bring the very best tripod head you can afford, as you're going to readjusting your framing almost constantly. Monopods are also useful if outfitted as Really Right Stuff suggests (Bogen swivel head). In short, be prepared to use multiple, flexible ways to get support for your long lenses.

35mm users need a minimum of a 500mm lens, preferably with a 1.4x or 2x extender. A fast 80-200mm zoom and your wide angle of preference should round out your basic kit. If you have a Nikon digital SLR, you’re finally going to find a reason to love that 1.5x focal length effect imposed by the small CCD sensor. Suddenly your 70-300mm lens becomes an almost perfect wildlife lens (100-450mm), and your 500mm is a eyeball-grabbing 750mm. Basically, you need a mid-range zoom and a longer lens (zoom or fixed). And you'll probably want them permanently mounted on two bodies, as you don't want to be constantly changing lenses due to dust. My current choice is a D2xs with a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and a D2xs with a 200-400mm f/4 VR. That leaves me a little short of where I'd truly like to be (500mm) at the long end, but for more reach I just crop rather than risk dust entry by putting on a TC. You still need an occassional wide angle shot, so bring a good compact camera for that, or a third body with one of the 18-x zooms.

All-in-one compact digital camera users are going to be swearing at their lenses and cameras on safari, as virtually none have the reach you'll need, none have the aperture you'll need at full telephoto extension, and none have the focus speed for anything moving. Because the animals often are moving, but you need to stop the vehicle and shut off the motor in order to take vibration free photos. It seems as if you always need just a few more millimeters of telephoto, and most all-in-ones have none to give. Shooting at f/5.6 or f/6.3 at long telephoto distances makes for shutter speeds that aren't good enough, which makes you bump ISO up; again, a weakness of the compact cameras. And finally, I haven't seen a compact camera that can follow focus on fast action the way a DSLR can.

Bottom line: Use a DSLR and invest in (or rent) the longest telephoto you can find, but make sure to practice shooting animals with them (hint: try the zoo) long before you arrive in Africa, as there are framing and focus issues you need to master.

Most safaris spend a few days in one location, returning to a tent camp each night, then move the whole operation to another area and repeat the process. On two-week safaris, most tours book a stop at a fixed lodge midway, while shorter tours usually end up at one. While camp conditions range from upscale backpacking to oh-my-god-this-tent-is-bigger-and-fancier-than-my-bedroom-at-home, you should expect to rough it, at least a bit. That means everything from being ready to pack up quickly to putting up with some dust and bugs.

But the pictures you'll bring back are worth every bit of “putting up with” you have to do, and you'll come home with renewed respect for your ancestors.

Why Go?
It’s better than Out of Africa even begins to hint at, and you’ve been dreaming about going since your were a kid watching Tarzan films (or Lion King for you younger folk).

Lucky Shot
Rhinos are rare, so any shot you get of one in the wild is a huge bonus. However, to optimize your chances, try:

  • Etosha, Namibia for black rhino
  • Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, South Africa for white rhino

 

Must See and Photograph

leopard in Okavango

  • The Big Cats: leopards, lions, and cheetahs are surprisingly easy to find and photograph, though getting pictures of them hunting or with a kill is a hit or miss proposition.
  •  Herds. Seeing a herd of cattle on a farm is one thing, but standing at the edge of thousands of animals is a photographer’s dream.
  •  Elephants at Sunset. Sunsets in Africa are Sunkist-orange and spectacular. What better to photograph in silhouette against that dramatic sky than the real lord of the land?
  • The Forgotten Animals. Monitor lizards, hyenas, wild dogs, asps, chameleons, and a much wider range of birds than you'd expect are all there if you look hard enough in the right places.

 

 

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The Essentials

  • Multiple camera bodies
  • Midrange and longrange telephoto options
  • Dust abbaitment and cleaning tools
  • Multiple, flexible support devices (beanbags, monopods, clamps, etc.)
  • Tons of storage (16GB a day can be the norm if you're lucky)
  • Power adapters, perhaps even solar charging ability

 

 

Practical Advice

  •  Bring zipper-lock bags to keep your camera in between shooting sessions. Dust is omnipresent and small enough to crawl through every gap in your camera’s body. 35mm users: bring a dust brush and check the pressure plate and rails on your camera every time you load a roll of film. Digital users: dust on the CCD sensor is a quality killer that requires expensive cleaning, so be extra careful with your camera, especially when changing lenses. Likewise, use trash bags to cover your entire camera case.
  • Bring the longest telephoto you can afford. 35mm users: consider renting a 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 and extenders if you don't already own them. D1 users: you can get by with a 400mm, especially if you bring a 1.4x extender. Coolpix users: The Nikon 3X only gets a Coolpix 990 up to about 350mm (35mm equivalent), and you're going to want 500mm or 600mm equivalents. I've tried the Kenko 8x spotting scope on my Coolpix, which gets me to over 1000mm, but the quality isn't as good as I’d like and focus is a real headache.
  •  Invest in a beanbag. A high quality bean bag can provide exceptional and versatile support options, allowing you to shoot out vehicle windows, etc.
  • Get a car adapter for your recharger. But check first with your tour operator to see what voltage their vehicles produce. I've encountered both 12 and 16 volts.

Special Travel Advice

  • Check the CDC’s Web site to find out what shots and medications you need, and get them as early as possible (except for those that are only effective for short periods, such as gamma gobulin shots).
  • Larium (the most commonly prescribed malaria preventative) has strange effects on some people. I had hallucinations and personality changes on the evening that I took my weekly pill. If you're taking the medicine correctly, you'll know that well before you get on the plane, giving your doctor a chance to prescribe an alternative.

 

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Best Book for Photographers

With plenty of competition, I’d still say that Joe McDonald's Photographing on Safari is the most informative for someone trying to make the most of a photographic adventure. McDonald's advice on metering off various animals is spot on, and hard to find anywhere else. Unfortunately, this book is now out of print (though you can often find used copies in Amazon's Z-Shops). A photo book by McDonald that's inspirational and still in print is African Wildlife.

 

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