The African Photo Safari

Yes, photo safaris are expensive. And you'll probably need a big lens to bring back great photos. Still, put it on your list of places to go and things to do.

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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. Now that we've got cable channels providing us with a steady stream of (often romanticized) wild kingdom footage, the urge is increased. 

Africa is a big place, so just where do you go? The big four in my mind are:

  • Tanzania's Serengeti and nearby Ngorongoro
  • Kenya’s Masai Mara
  • Botswana's Okavango Delta and Kalahari Desert
  • South Africa's Kruger (and surrounding private preserves). 

But hundreds of parks and preserves (some private) exist throughout Africa. Your best choices for a convenient safari are these: East Africa or Southern Africa.

East Africa is mostly about Kenya and Tanzania. These are 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 well more than 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 filmed in these areas. Both of these countries have a number of parks and preserves where safaris can be done, but the Big Two are the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya, which are adjacent to each other on the Kenya/Tanzania border. Both have well established tourism support, and this is the home turf of one of the largest remaining animal migrations on the planet (the wildebeest and zebra migration). Also in Tanzania is the convenient Ngorongoro Crater, which is a fantastic mini park, but also very much over-crowded these days. 

The great migration of wildebeest you've probably seen in nature documentaries crosses the Mara River from Tanzania to Kenya typically in August heading north. The two million herd of wildebeest, zebra, and some antelope then travels back to Tanzania beginning in October. By February, the wildebeests will be found in the Southern Serengeti (Ndutu area) for their calving season.

So, the height of the Eastern Africa safari season tends to be late July through late October. 

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Southern Africa mostly 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 and animals) 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 and Namibia. South Africa, like Eastern Africa, has a more close-to-civilization feel than Botswana. But South Africa is home to the giant Kruger National Park and a wide array of private preserves adjacent to the park's Western border. The South Africa private preserves are some of the best places to get close to wild animals in wild places, yet still have a comfortable trip.

If you've figured out that I like Botswana, you're correct. It's where I tend to teach all my African Safari workshops. The herd sizes tend to be smaller there (except, perhaps, for cape buffalo and elephants), so you don't tend to see the big overwhelming mass movements you do in the Eastern African parks. That said, Botswana has the second largest zebra migration on the planet. 

Most Botswana wildlife areas have limits on number of visitors at one time, plus you're much further from population centers, so there's much more of a remote feel to your trip. On one workshop I led there we went five straight days without seeing another group of tourists (and then only the occasional park or private vehicle). That's a lot different experience than seeing 28 Land Cruisers surrounding a sleeping lion in the Ngorongoro. (Yes, I've experienced that, too.)

A typical Botswana trip takes in the Okavango Delta, typically via the protected Moremi Reserve, then heads northeast up through Khwai, Savuti, and eventually ending in Chobe. Large elephant herds tend to congregate late in the season (August/September) in Chobe, as do the cape buffalo, because the Chobe River is the most reliable source of water by the end of the dry season. 

Unbeknownst to most, there's a big animal migration in Botswana, too. No one has an exact count, and the timing varies with the rains, but tens of thousands of zebras migrate back and forth between the Boteti River and Chobe River areas. The problem? It's difficult to see this migration directly, as much of it occurs during the wet season, and in areas that are tough to access (there are fly-in camps, though). 

No matter where you go, what will surprise you about Africa is that you didn't 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 of the more than two dozen in the antelope family alone. 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!).

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A typical safari is done in a four-wheel drive vehicle—traditional Land Cruisers and Land Rovers are the norm in Eastern Africa while 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 you'll encounter 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. In Kenya and Tanzania particularly, a lot of lower cost tours use four-wheel drive minivans with pop-tops, my least favorite of the options.

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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 either 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), or using a monopod. Alternatively, use a support designed for vehicles, like Kirk Enterprises Window Mount, or Really Right Stuff's dedicated safari gear. Bring the very best head you can afford, as you're going to readjusting your framing almost constantly. Monopods are also useful, as I noted. At a minimum, use Really Right Stuff's original suggestion (Bogen swivel head). Better, get RRS's monopod head

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One light beanbag alternative I sometimes use is just a Therm-a-Rest Compressible pillow (available at REI). Not only does it make a very light bean bag substitute in its compressed form, but you can use it to snooze in the vehicle on long vehicle repositioning. Bean bags are also useful, but fill them in Africa (go to a local shop and buy beans, maize, or maybe rice! Give the beans, maize, or rice to your guide at the end of your trip). In short, be prepared to use multiple, flexible ways to get support for your long lenses.

Full frame users usually need a minimum of a 500mm lens, preferably with a 1.4x or 2x extender available for times you can't really approach an animal. A fast 70-200mm zoom and your wide angle of preference should round out your basic kit. If you have an APS-C or DX camera, you’re going to find a reason to love that 1.5x focal length effect imposed by the small sensor. Suddenly your 70-300mm lens becomes a pretty good wildlife lens (100-450mm), and your 500mm is a eyeball-grabbing 750mm equivalent. 

Basically, you need a mid-range telephoto zoom and a long lens (zoom or fixed) for your animal shots. 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 DX choice is a D500 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and another D500 with a 500mm f/5.6E PF. You still need an occasional wide angle shot, so bring a good compact camera for that. Lately I've been using a small mirrorless camera for everything but the close-up animal shots, but even your smartphone might suffice.

Full frame users are opting for the D850 type of body (higher resolution, lower speed) over the D6 type (lower resolution, higher speed) bodies. Why? Because the extra pixels give them cropping flexibility and the D850 works decently in low light. Indeed, a D850 is a bit like having a D500 handy (the DX crop in a D850 is 19mp+). So, I'd pair two D850 bodies with a 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and maybe the 180-400mm f/4E or 500mm f/5.6E PF.

Why not 600mm or 800mm lenses? Two reasons. First, weight. You're going to find that weight restrictions start to play a part in an African safari visit, and the really long lenses bulk you up fast. That's one reason why Nikon's PF lenses are so popular: they give up very little over the same focal length fast aperture lenses, but are small and compact. That second bit—compact—is the other reason. You don't have a lot of room in a safari vehicle. Swinging around a 600mm f/4 lens is a lot different than the 500mm f/5.6E PF. All that said, my favorite lens in Africa is the 400mm f/2.8E, which is a pretty heavy and bulky lens. If I can get close enough that 400mm is the right focal length, that lens is phenomenal in its rendering, and the fast aperture gives me both low-light and background blurring options.

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All-in-one compact digital camera users are probably going to be swearing at their lenses and cameras on safari, as many don't have the absolute reach you'll need, while the one's that do aren't easy to hold still at maximum telephoto, even with stabilization (go ahead, try hand-holding a Coolpix P1000 at full zoom and keeping it steady with VR on). None have the aperture you'll need at full telephoto extension, and none have the focus speed you need for anything that's doing much moving. 

Speaking of that, animals are often moving, but you need to stop the vehicle and shut off the motor in order to take vibration free photos. It often seems as if you always need just a few more millimeters of telephoto, plus more shutter speed with compact cameras. That last part is the real reason why compacts fail as a telephoto safari camera: you often find that you'll need to shoot in the ISO 800-3200 range to get rock steady images, especially at the edges of the day when the animals are most active. The compact cameras just don't hack it at those ISO levels. Finally, I haven't seen a compact camera with a monster zoom that can follow focus on fast action the way a DSLR can.

Bottom line: Use two DSLRs or mirrorless ILCs and invest in (or rent) the longest telephoto you can find that you can carry and handle comfortable. Make sure to practice shooting animals with your lenses (hint: try the zoo) long before you arrive in Africa, as there are handling, framing, and focus issues you need to master. Remember, you can always rent everything you need (including bodies).

Most safaris spend a few days in one location, returning to a tent camp or lodge 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 least one fixed lodge along the way, 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 glamping, 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 you 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 or Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, South Africa for white rhino; also the private preserves in Africa are good for Rhino, as well.
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Must See and Photograph

  • 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 wild animals is a photographer’s dream. I once stood on a hill where a line of wilderbeest stretched from the horizon behind me to the horizon in front of me. Unforgettable. 
  • Elephants at Sunset. Sunsets in Africa are typically Sunkist-orange and spectacular. What better animal 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.

The Essentials

  • Multiple camera bodies
  • Mid-range and long telephoto options
  • Dust abatement and cleaning tools
  • Multiple, flexible support devices (beanbags, monopods, clamps, etc.)
  • Tons of storage (32GB a day can be the norm these days)
  • Power adapters, perhaps even solar charging ability
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Practical Advice

  • Bring large 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. Film 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 image 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. consider renting a 180-400mm f/4, a 500mm f/4, or even a 600mm f/4 and teleconverters if you don't already own them. 
  • Invest in a beanbag. A high quality bean bag can provide exceptional and versatile support options, allowing you to shoot out vehicle windows, etc. But note my Therm-a-Rest collapsible pillow trick.
  • 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 (unfortunately still a commonly prescribed malaria preventative) has strange effects on many people. I had hallucinations and personality changes every 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. Malarone is my choice of medicine these days, but it has to be taken each day.

Best Book for Photographers

With plenty of competition, I’d still say that Joe McDonald's Photographing on Safari [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.] 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 [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.].

Everyone going on safari ought to read a book from the guide's perspective: Don't Look Behind You [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.] and Whatever You Do Don't Run [affiliate link; As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.] are the best of the bunch, and hilarious reads.

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