I had the extreme pleasure of embarking on a classic safari while on a recent visit to Tanzania. It was everything I had hoped and more, both from a photographic standpoint as well as having the chance to share it with my daughter. Today we’ll be sharing some fantastic tips on how to prepare for this type of photography trip.
Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in July of 2010.
As you might expect, an epic trip of this nature required a bit more planning than a roadtrip to Yellowstone National Park might. To get the most, photographically, from a once in a lifetime trip like this, I’ve compiled some obvious (and not so obvious) tips. I found that these helped me enjoy the experience and bring back some wonderful photos. This advice should apply to any location of safari on the continent of Africa.
Guidebooks, Maps And Videos
I’d highly suggest getting a wide variety of guidebooks when starting the planning stages, along with maps. My experience showed me that no single guidebook had all the information I really wanted. For one thing, there can be hundreds of tour operators in any given location and the process of narrowing them can be daunting.
This is the same for the folks writing the guidebooks. Each guidebook can only review a slice of those available so it’s best to get more than one opinion. And before you rush off to the bookstore, I’d suggest a quick trip to your local library first. The library is a wonderful place to start your search as you can get a feel for different guidebooks (some don’t list prices, some have a lot of photos, etc).
Maps are another must have in my book. I’m a bit of a map nut (just a warning), but without maps, we’d all be lost! When I started planning our trip to Africa I really had no idea just where all the National Parks we wanted to visit were located in reference to each other or, frankly, anything else in the country.
Is it physically possible to drive between point X and Y in a day? How far away from airports are our destinations? And what does the terrain look like (mountains, lakes, etc)? A map will help you get a handle on all these questions. Plus a map can help you understand the backgrounds and directions you may want to shoot at different times of day.
Lastly, videos can be a great way to get accustomed to your destination (and they are perfect to pique children’s interest!). I found a number of videos made by a husband and wife team for the parks we were visiting. While the large budget National Geographic videos are astounding and captivating, I found these videos to show a more realistic view of what we eventually saw in country. Again, the library can be an invaluable resource to view the videos for free.
Photo storage can be a big issue while on safari but it is no different than most travel situations. Odds are you won’t have an Internet connection for most of your trip (although this is changing constantly) so your storage solution needs to travel with you. There are a few ways to handle this:
The multiple cards path can often seem the easiest, but it has its downfalls. For one thing, you only have one copy of each picture so if a card goes missing or corrupt, you might lose a large part of your trip. Also, organizing them can be an issue, making sure you keep the cards that have images on them separate from those ready to use and correctly identified requires a system.
An External Storage Device
If you bring an external storage device, one of the devices that does not require a computer but allows for direct download from your cards, you can reduce the total number of cards needed. Although, if you both increase the number of cards to cover your total anticipated photo needs AND purchase an external storage device, this can present a safe backup system if the cards and device are kept separate (and on you/in your carry-on baggage) while traveling. These devices can add weight and the added need for batteries during a trip.
A Laptop Computer
Lastly is a laptop computer. While they obviously add a lot more weight and cost than the portable device, there may be many other reasons to bring one. If it’s just for photo storage during a trip, I’d suggest the external device. But if you plan to share photos and check in with email and those back home while traveling, a laptop makes sense. Just make sure the hard drive is large enough to store all the photos.
Combining all three options is the safest method to making sure your digital memories come home with you. I often travel with all three but sometimes will leave the laptop behind when I don’t want to worry about theft or the added weight.
Picture this scenario; It’s day six of your safari. The sun has been off the horizon for only 20 minutes and you’re standing on the brink of a small river. The bend in the water course before you has caused the water to slow and pool up making it a haven for hippos. Hippos are fairly active in the mornings and often can be found out of the water at this time.
Safely in your safari vehicle, you hear a crashing noise behind you and turn with your camera in time to snap off a dozen shots at high frame rate of a mother and baby hippo returning to their pool (and avoiding your vehicle once they see it). Before you’re even done “ohhhh”ing and “ahhhh”ing over their cuteness, a fight breaks out in the water below you. Two big hippos showing their massive, foot long teeth and thrashing in the water. You hold down the shutter for only a second before your display lets you know, “Card Full”.
Quick! Before the action stops you reach into your camera bag and unzip the one pocket containing all your unused cards. Or are those your used cards? Who put the SD card in with the compact flash cards and why is there a Kingston card mixed with the others? No time – grab a card and throw it in your camera only to have it tell you, “Card Full” again!
Card identification and organization can be crucial to capturing a fleeting moment like the one described above. But more than likely, it’ll just help you stay sane when looking for a new card in any situation.
Try labeling your cards and making a habit of using them in order. If you only have one camera this makes things very easy. Just pulled out card #4? Grab #5 and keep shooting. Some people will also bring two containers for cards, like those small hard cases that help keep the dust out. Don’t be afraid to take a permanent marker to the outside to make it clear which holder is for used cards and which is for new. I’ve also seen people place colored stickers on the cards and then rip then off when the card is full. This can work if you have really good adhesive.
Whichever system you work out for identifying used and new cards, practice it at home a few times to make sure you have the system figured out well.
One bit of advice that hasn’t changed much from with the switch from film cameras to digital is that of lens selection. Most animals you’ll spot on safari will be at a distance, especially if you’re lucky enough to experience a chase on the open savannah. Your main choices here are between a telephoto zoom or a prime lens.
Prime lenses are those with a fixed focal length. In this case, think 300mm or longer. Those lenses will get you close to the action and have the added advantage of a larger f/stop than their zoom counter parts. This means more light can make it to your sensor and thus, you can use a lower ISO with less grain. You can also choose a faster shutter speed to stop fast moving cats or hippos (yes, hippos can move very fast).
If you do choose a prime lens, you may want to bring a secondary camera. I know this isn’t always possible, but changing that lens out on the savannah, with all the dust from 4x4s and animals swirling in the air, can quickly dirty your sensor. Plus, when that ‘friendly’ big cat comes walking close to your vehicle, you’ll be zoomed in too far with the prime lens.
If your choice is to go with a telephoto zoom lens, pick something that starts at at least 100mm. The 70-200mm lenses that are popular with the wedding shooting crowd are fine and will work, but if there is an opportunity to go longer, do it. A 100-400mm lens would be ideal for this type of trip.
And don’t forget to factor in the advantage during a safari of owning a cropped sensor camera. Those cameras with a 1.4x or 1.6x crop factor effectively give you more zoom for the dollar. Your 70-200mm lens is now a 112mm-320mm lens with a 1.6x crop factor camera body attached. This makes a big difference when out on the plains and the animals are far off.
If you don’t currently own any of the above types of lenses, don’t fret! While it is true that the more you pay for your lens (typically) the better the lens, purchasing a 300mm prime lens can make a large dent in your pocketbook. But there are many options on the internet and locally to rent a lens. Sites like BorrowLenses.com will ship you a lens or three and include return postage.
Let Your Operator and Driver Know Your Intent
Communication will be the key to any successful safari, and this starts before you send a single penny to your potential tour operator. Ask a lot of questions before and tell them your intent for photography. Let them know if you’re just on the trip for some sightseeing or if you’re very serious about bringing back a frame worthy cheetah shot. But be warned that the person on the other end of the line (or email) may not pass on your requests to your guide.
When you do meet your guide, go over with him or her what you’d like during the trip. Most guides are happy to make sure you get what you paid for and can tailor the trip to help you find that cheetah. If they know your desires ahead of time, they can let you know you’ll need to be getting up extra early or staying a bit late depending on your desires.
They can also concentrate on areas where you’re most likely to find your favorite animals. Plus, guides talk to each other all the time when passing and via two-way radio. So if they know what you’re looking for up front, they can keep their ears open as well.
Camera battery charging can be an issue when on safari. Ask your operator if a power inverter will be made available. This is a device that takes the DC voltage vehicles run on and converts it to AC current (typically 110V but often 240V) that can be used by standard plugged items (again, often North America style plugs but Europe can be found as well).
Some of the nicer outfitters have plugs near each seat in the vehicle, which is quite handy as you’ll be spending a lot of time in the vehicle. If the operator does not supply inverters, ask if you can bring your own. They can be found at may electronics or automobile stores.
Another consideration is where you’ll be staying. If in lodges, ask if they have solar charging facilities. While some lodges are located close enough to hooked up to rural electric grids, the majority exist ‘off the grid’ and either survive on solar panels or no power at all. It may be that one or two camps or lodges on your trip will have power, such as Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, but others will not.
If you will be long stretches between outlets, you have basically two options: (1) Purchase additional batteries. Just like more memory cards, this is as straightforward as it sounds, but can add a lot of weight. (2) Bring a foldable or rollable solar panel to charge while in the bush. The solar panels can range from small units costing no more than one or two batteries for your camera, to units that are well over $500US.
Notes – Time To Write
Having time to write and take notes is vital to staying organized on the trail. Things go by fairly quickly at times as you suddenly spot a cheetah stalking its prey. Your driver stops and out come the cameras, focused intently on the action in the grass. Then the chase is on and dust is flying everywhere as some of the fastest animals on our planet replay a millennia old tale of survival. And it gets your heart racing too!
After all of the excitement, there’s the down time between spottings. Most safaris have some downtime when you are transporting from one high activity spot to another. During these times it’s extremely handy to have a notebook handy to capture your fresh, raw thoughts about what’s going on around you.
If you plan to share the photos with others back home, jot down some of the things they won’t be able to see, such as the smell of the grass, the blast of the wind coming through the open windows as you hunt for your next photo opportunity, or the taste of dirt that has coated you through for the past five hours.
Not only that, a notebook will help you capture names of animals, locations and other tidbits. I have a list of Swahili names of at least a dozen animals from Africa in my latest notebook. Write down your emotions, and what it feels like where you are. What’s going through your head and heart when you look through the lens?
You’ll be taking in so very much during your trip that even by the end of a five day safari, it’s wonderful to look in a notebook page from day one and realize you had already forgotten small details you cared enough for at the time to write down. It’s wonderful, because you know you now get to take all of it back with you.
Pop-Top or Roll-Top
This last subject is something I never thought to ask before heading to Africa. What type of roof top does will your vehicle have? There are two basic types.
One is the classic roll top canvas top. This top is ideal if you’re into birds and want to have an unobstructed view of the sky. The down side? Not much shade and they can make a racket when on the road if not battened tight.
The other type of roof is one that raises up on hydraulic legs and remains above you. As you can imagine from the photos here, more shade is provided but the viewing area is more limited. It’s not hugely limited, but you do have to work around the posts and looking at things flying overhead, like vultures, gets tough. Decide what you’re mainly interested in shooting and go with a company that can match that with their vehicles.
Preparing for what is often a once in a life time photographic safari to Africa can seem like a daunting task. I certainly had a lot of worries when I started planning my trip. But I’m hoping this advice will help steer you in the right direction and take away some of the unknown about planning such a trip.
While there is a world of advice that can be handed down for taking award winning photographs of the animals you’ll see, that’s best left for another article!