10 Tips to Photograph An African Safari

african-safari-photography
An African Safari may be a once in a lifetime experience and one that can be really fun for photographers. If you are planning a trip to Africa some time in the future there are some thoughts that you should consider before you go. I’ll share ten tips from my experience as a guide in Africa.

Preparation

1. Know where you are going, and what to expect photographically

It is so important to have a good idea of what to expect. Involve a good travel agent or communicate directly with a tour operator in Africa. Make sure your trip mixes it up a bit. Not just lions and elephants the whole time. And remember that different wildlife situations give different viewing opportunities. Some places you may drive around for a couple of days and see very little. Other areas you drive right up to lions sleeping near the vehicles. Also know about photographic polices, such as those if you visit great apes and specific wildlife rehab centers. Of course, some of the best advice you can get if from friends who have been there.

2. Plan your travel, equipment transport

As you plan how you are going to get around, consider the logistics of the equipment that you are going to carry around. This includes your flights to and from, small flights (with strict language limits,) driving yourself around, moving in towns with high crime rates and so on. Get the best advice possible. You don’t want hassles like this. At some airports there are often problems with lost language. You want to minimize the risk involved with this. I know of some people who buy their big lenses in South Africa on the way out to Safari and sell them again on their way back. This is risky (be careful of not getting yourself into a tangle about import taxes….) and can be really expensive, not to mention the preparation involved in trying to make sure you get it sold at the end.

3. Plan your gear

For wildlife a long lens is the standard peace of equipment. You need a dslr (or other cameras which take exchangeable lenses) and at least a 300mm lens. 400mm is much better and longer may be even better. Consider, however, that you may be in a vehicle with others, in areas where you can’t get out of the vehicle to set up a tripod. So shaking can be a problem. You often have clear open days, with bright light, so you can take really fast shots (less time for shaking,) but still, anything over a 300 you really don’t want to hand hold or get shaken while taking pictures.

You don’t want to change lenses to much, so if you have a standard lens and a long lens, you may want to take two bodies. Otherwise, make a rule that in the field you just don’t change lenses. A dusty sensor is going to give you a headache. And you certainly don’t want to clean that out in the field.

Be aware of flashes. Respect wildlife while in Africa. Don’t use flashes at a waterhole at night or on game drive. There are some nice techniques that you can use to take photographs at night, such as using your guides spotlight to paint a wildlife scene in a long exposure.

You may want to take a nice digital point and shoot for going into areas where there are people, and that may be risky for carrying a large lens and camera around. Remember always that in people centers in Africa, a large lenses and camera shout “rich and easy”.

Are you going to do any boat trips? Or diving? Consider what equipment you want for that.

Also consider memory. You may want a small portable hard drive. They are also great for viewing images. Even though you can store so much, don’t keep too much. You probably will never find the time to view them, let alone sort them out if you arrive home with 5000 images!

Power may be an issue. Take enough charged batteries. Try to get a car charger for your batteries as well, and perhaps your guide can charge it for you in the vehicle while you drive.

It really can be a series of compromises, which is why a clear idea of where you are going and what experiences you are likely to have become so important in knowing what you are going to take.

4. Africa for travelers

Generally being a tourist in Africa means different things depending on the area. Some places are highly tuned in to tourism, and provide a lot of services. Others are less well prepared and take some thinking on your feet to manage your experience. In general, the more familiar a place sounds, the more they are geared towards tourism. But that is a good thing and a bad thing.

Consider whether you are going to join a tour, book a tailor made trip, do it self-drive, or do a flying around trip. Budget makes a lot of that kind of decision for you. But there are all sorts of options these days. I would really recommend private tours for photographers, even if it means that you should stay at some of the cheaper places.

Also, give yourself time. Rather do fewer stops and give yourself time to take it in and enjoy it. Learn what’s there and you will come away with better images!

Techniques on Safari

5. Long lens

As I mentioned earlier, long lenses are a must. A 400mm will give you a good opportunity to shoot wildlife at a distance. This gives you two advantages. Firstly, you get to shoot the pictures that others can’t (or do the lion that fits in the auto focus ring in the middle type of shot.) But secondly, it allows you to get the animal in a position where it is not reacting to you. The “nature” shots. The candid shot, if you would.

Another advantage of the long lens is that you can take images of birds and small mammals. There is so much color and life in the smaller animals that are so often ignored on many Africa trips.

6. Stability and tripod

I really would encourage anyone who is serious about photography in Africa to take along a tripod. Perhaps your tour operator can organize one for you (depending on the type of trip that you are doing.)

If you are driving yourself, or if you will be doing a private tour with a guide in a closed vehicle, you may want something like a window mount.

You can also use an image stabilizer (some are in lenses, and some are in the body.) I for one find it hard to trust something like that. Perhaps that is just from being taught early on that better photographs are taken with a camera that is secured.

7. Composition

Look all over your viewfinder. If you are accustomed to taking photos in a controlled environment, the ‘clutter’ of the bush can make composition a challenge. Sometimes you are shooting fast, but when you have time to set up your shot, really hold the camera steady and have a look around the viewfinder. Trust me, good photographers still get trees sticking out of elephant’s ears. Remember that the depth of field doesn’t look the same in the viewfinder as the final image. Consider if you need to flatten the depth of field (larger aperture) to cut on background clutter.

8. Thoughts on people

I don’t want to give blanket advice for how to photograph people in Africa. But it is important to point out that there are different attitudes to being photographed. Don’t assume that everyone wants handouts in exchange for being photographed. Some people still have religious issues with it. Find out from your tour operator or guide what the right procedures are, and respect them.

After your tour

9. Store and share

If you are a pro you may simply be aiming to sell your images, and would already have a good idea of what to do with them. If you are an amateur, there are many things that you can do with your images. You may want to touch them up in Photoshop (or Gimp if you like a rather good, but completely free image editor.) You can use a program like Windows Movie Maker to create a nice slideshow (or PowerPoint) You can share with flickr, or if you did a slideshow, Youtube, or many others on the internet.

I do find, however, that it is important to sort them right away as you download them on your computer. Otherwise you end up with a rather full “download” file, and never find the time to do what you planned. You may also want to ask others to do the organizing for you, such as creating a slideshow to share with your friends.

One final thought

10. Put your camera away and enjoy the experience

I have been guiding for years and I find that it is really important, from time to time, to get the photographers out from behind their cameras. Pull yourself into the experience. Share with your traveling partners, (especially if it is your wife,) the magic that is and African Safari.