Safari Photography - tips and tricks

Safari Photography - tips and tricks for first-timers

January 12, 2015

Going on safari in Africa can be a once in a lifetime experience and for photographers, both amateur and professional, the opportunity to shoot the continent’s legendary wildlife in all its wild and unbounded glory can be intoxicating. However, it is far from being a simple point and shoot ‘zoo’ experience. Not only are you dealing with long distances between you and your subject (imposed by park restrictions and the volatility of wild animal behaviour), but also being challenged by dust-generating jeeps, peak hour safari traffic jams, lack of charging power and rapidly changing light conditions.

If you are heading out on safari and new to the photographic experience, take the time to invest in some practical gear, plan a few ‘backing-up’ tactics, and prepare yourself mentally for the adventure you are embarking on. As a photographer, there are images you dream about capturing when you venture into the great African wilderness, and you don’t want equipment limitations, battery failures or stressful encounters to stand in your way.

Getting Prepared

Invest in a long lens

400mm Objetive is recommended for taking photos in a safari due to restrictions that you might not be able to get very close to animals.
400mm Objetive is recommended for taking photos in a safari due to restrictions that you might not be able to get very close to animals.

Unlike a zoo where you are able to safely get up close to your subject for intimate shots, with only a few bars separating you, on safari you are dealing with wild, untamed and uncaged animals, as well as restrictions which limit the proximity your safari driver is allowed to get you to the animals. This means that a long lens is necessary if you want to capture detailed and candid wildlife shots. This not only applies to shooting dangerous big game from an open-topped jeep, like prowling lions and yawning hippos, but also getting in-depth gorilla and birdlife portraits on walking safaris. A 400mm lens is advisable if you want to really capture the action, as well as the texture and patterning of animal skin, fur and feathers. The Canon 100-400mm L, Nikon 80-400mm or Sigma 150-500mm will all do the job and if you can’t afford to purchase one, then look into a short term rental plan.

In addition to a good zoom lens, pack a wide angle (10-22mm) and medium lens (24mm to 100mm) to get sweeping landscape shots and in situ animal portraits. If you have two bodies, keep a wide or medium lens on one and zoom lens on an alternate. This will reduce the need to change lenses in the field - the African dust that your jeep kicks up can easily get in and cause serious and expensive damage to the insides of your camera!

Bring a supportive bean bag

A camera supportive bean bag helps to reduce camera shake while tripod is not available. Photo by Grizzly.
A camera supportive bean bag helps to reduce camera shake while tripod is not available. Photo by Grizzly.

On walking safaris you may have the opportunity to set up a tripod, but on jeep safaris this can be difficult and clumsy, particularly if you are sharing the vehicle with other tourists. And if there are lions lurking in the surroundings, you can’t just jump out and set one up. Packing a bean bag to support and rest your lens on the side of the jeep will not only help reduce camera shake (often a problem with long zooms), but allow you to rest your hand while waiting for a cheetah to wake from its slumber or a croc to stealthily emerge from the water.

Back it up - memory cards, batteries and storage

Memory cards are so cheap these days that there is no excuse to not travel with at least a couple of extras. Not only does this mean you can keep shooting frames at high-speed (ensuring you capture every milli-second of the action without running out of space), but you will also have a replacement if one dies in the middle of nowhere. It’s also a good idea to carry at least one spare battery, particularly if you are camping out overnight and won’t have the opportunity to recharge. Alternatively, bring along an inverter to change the power from the jeep’s cigarette lighter into a form you can use with your plug, or a solar charger will also help juice your camera battery back up again in the field!

If you’re not travelling with a laptop and portable hard drive to backup your images each night, there are portable photo storage devices that can instantly backup memory cards when inserted, saving not only the weight of a laptop, but also the worry of travelling with excess expensive electronics. Always keep your memory cards and backups in different places though, just in case one goes missing or gets lost in luggage transport.

On Safari

Respect the wildlife

Threatening Hippo with open mouth
Threatening Hippo with open mouth

Wild animals can and will behave unpredictably. Listen to your guide and no matter how alluring an image may seem, don’t jump out of the vehicle unless they deem it to be safe. Hippos have been known to charge photographers trying to get the perfect shot! If you are on a walking safari, keep your wits about you and stay close to your guide. Many of them have grown up in the area and are highly in tune with the sounds and smells of the environment around them and any potential dangers that may be lurking in the near distance.

Peak hour hassles

Depending on the country you are having your safari, you cannot expect to be the unique tourist around when animals appear.
Depending on the country you are having your safari, you cannot expect to be the unique tourist around when animals appear.

There are times on safari when it will just be you and a herd of wild game positioned spectacularly against a setting sun, allowing your driver to get you in the perfect position to capture your subject with a silhouetted acacia tree off to one side and the sky illuminated a brilliant red behind. At other times it will be absolute gridlock as ten vehicles are trying to hustle in on the action of a lion kill or an elusive leopard hanging languidly in a tree. At times like these, you need to have patience. If you can’t get a good angle for your shot then just relax and enjoy being there in the moment, watching the action with the rawness of your own eyes. Safari drivers and guides have usually conducted hundreds of trips and know that their clients want great shots, so as soon as other vehicles move away (as people inevitably get bored watching the same animal for extended periods) they will elbow in for a prime position.

Carry a note pad

An image of a rhino portrays so much more if you know the exact species, its threatened status, or its behavioural traits. Knowledge gives substance to photographs and creates context for the viewer. If your guide offers a snippet of cultural insight, write it down, along with the local and common names of both animals and plants you encounter. If you can’t keep up during the safari, ask your guide to go through it again when you get back to camp, and reference the information next to the relevant image number.

Be creative with composition

Simply try your best, you always can come back for more!
Simply try your best, you always can come back for more!

The eyes are what draws the viewer into portrait images and this is no exception for wildlife. If you are shooting with a zoom lens, aim to focus sharply on your subject’s eyes to create entrancing shots. But don’t forget to be creative also with artistic shots that feature the animal within the context of their landscape. If they are looking off into the distance to the left, frame them on the right to create a sense of reflection or speculation. If there is a striking natural feature or tree nearby, position it to one side of the animal. Remember the Rule of Thirds when planning your composition and be aware of vegetation clutter immediately behind the animal which can easily distract from its prominence within the final image. If you can’t escape the clutter, switch to a larger aperture so it softens out of focus.

Shooting a dawn and dusk

Sunsets and sunrises are specially very beautiful in Africa.
Sunsets and sunrises are specially very beautiful in Africa.

Most safaris head out early morning or late afternoon as these are the times when the animals are at their most active. Take advantage of the low and soft light conditions to get some engaging and alluring shots, like animals silhouetted against their landscape or long exposure images that reflect the natural blur of their movements. Play with the changing light conditions as the sun slowly emerges or disappears, and observe the way it highlights objects on the landscape when it is just above the horizon. It’s times like these that a tripod is worth its weight in gold (if you are in a position to set one up), and images captured during these evocative times of day are often the ones that set great photographers apart.

Put the camera down

It’s so easy to get caught up in capturing through the lens every movement of every animal you encounter on safari that you forget to experience this incredible spectacle with your own eyes. As hard as it may be, force yourself to put the camera down for a few minutes during each safari and just take in the magic. While we do our best as photographers to convey the drama, beauty or intrigue of encounters through our images, there are some sensations that can only be grasped by living the moment first-hand, and you don’t want to leave Africa regretting this missed opportunity.

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