Tips For Taking Photos on an African Safari

Peter West Carey June 5, 2013 8
Sunset Clouds, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Sunset Clouds, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

It’s safari time and you are stoked for this once-in-a-lifetime trip! Maybe you are going alone or maybe you are bringing your family. Either way, we know your camera is going to be with you the whole time. Here then are some tips to help you get the most of your holiday.

Cards A Plenty

Bring. Plenty. Of. Memory Cards.

Memory cards are getting so cheap, it’s not worth the worry to limit yourself. If your camera has a high speed drive on it (3 frames per second or faster) you stand a chance of chewing through a lot of memory if you have active wildlife. Ask me about the 5GB of hippo fighting photos you will never see, but I just had to bring back with me.

I’m of the mind to bring multiple smaller cards rather than bank it all on one card. For sure, bring more than one card even if you don’t shoot a lot, because if that one card flakes out in the middle of nowhere, you won’t be taking any more photos.

I also suggest organizing your cards in wallets designed to carry them. Most wallets have some form of dust resistance and will keep your cards clean. I then use a simple method for knowing what has been written to (and likely full) and what is empty. When a card is full it goes into the wallet backwards (face down) so I know not to reach for it. This is easier than carrying cards in individual sleeves.

Back It Up

There are a couple of ways to backup your images while on the road. The simplest is to buy a device that does just that, backup flash memory cards. There are a number on the market (google “portable photo storage devices”) and they can be used without a computer, saving weight and worry on a trip. Turn the device on, insert a memory card and hit the button! Instant, up to 30 minutes instant depending on card size, backup!

Then there is the laptop solution. If you are already bringing a laptop I would suggest bringing along a portable harddrive, like the Western Digital My Passport devices. $75 gets you 1 TB of storage. Enough for multiple safaris worth of photos. You can copy the image from the memory cards to both your laptop (if you have space) and to your portable device.

Either way you plan it, do not erase or format your memory cards after you back them up, unless you are totally out of space and it is a must. The idea is to keep your memory cards, with their precious memories, on you at almost all times and then keep your backup copy in another location. This way if something goes missing, you have another copy.

Long Lens

Pack a long lens.

Pack a long lens.

To get close to the wildlife and birds you will encounter on safari, a lens starting at 200mm is almost a must. It can be a zoom and if you don’t want to invest in a whole pantheon of lenses, I would suggest, at bare minimum, an 18-200mm lens. If you are bringing an all in one camera, something with 20x zoom is most helpful.

That being said, go longer if you can. There are online rental stores and they are perfect for a safari as you can borrow a lens which retails for $12,000. Also be aware that a lens of that nature comes with its own carry case and you will want insurance. But it will give you unrivaled images. It all matters on how important the images are to you and your budget.

For the average hobbyist or casual photographer I would suggest the Canon 100-400mm L or the Nikon 80-400mm or the equivalent for Sony, Pentax and others. The Sigma 150-500mm is also an excellent option that works on various bodies. These long lenses will help you get close to the action. Your driver won’t always be able to get you right next to the animals (regulations in various parks are strict about that) so the lens bridges the gap.

Also don’t forget a wide to medium lens, like a 24-105, for panoramic shots and portraits. While you may be there for the animals, the people you meet along the way will also inspire your photography and a “walk around” lens is essential when not out looking for animals.

Don’t Forget Family

Speaking of family, don’t forget to take photos of them as well! I know this sounds obvious and you will likely forget it by the time you are on the plane, but try to remember to include your family in photos. And not just all the posed shots (Me In Front Of Stuff, I call them) but also candids of your family enjoying the scenery or wildlife.

Some quality time with family in the Serengeti.

Some quality time with family in the Serengeti.

Think about it this way: In 20 years, will you be more happy to have another 50 images of that lion looking proud on the savanna, after you already took 50, or will you be more glad that you turned from the lion and got a shot of your children marveling at those lions?

Expect A Crowd

This is one of those ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ snippets of advice. There will be times when you will be all alone with your guide and driver in the middle of seemingly nowhere. Not a car to be found. No planes overhead. The sound of grass rustling in the dry wind. And a tower of giraffes (yes, that’s what they are called, more animal group names here) lazily walks past your truck.

That may and does happen. But also plan for a lot of trucks and people. Not Disneyland-style lots of people, but when a carnivore meets an herbivore for dinner, trucks come swarming. The guides in various trucks keep in touch with each other via CB radio and when there is some juicy action, the call goes out….usually after the lead truck has allowed their guests to savor the moment alone. Big cats are known to draw a crowd and a leopard in a tree, trying to sleep, brought on the traffic jam you see below.

Rush hour in Africa.

Rush hour in Africa.

It’s not always like that, but I want you to know it can get buggered up sometimes. It passes quickly though as people tend to tire of watching sleeping cats.

Be Careful Of Hippos

Heck, be careful of anything. I hope you are traveling with a safety conscience company, but if not, know that a safari is not a theme park. Some safaris are indeed walking safaris but for those in vehicles, keep your eyes open when out of the truck. Even in camps the animals can do pretty much what they please. Baboons and hippos….I don’t trust them. Keep one eye and your ears open when shooting on the ground.

Take Notes

Your guide will likely be rattling off names of this animal or that plant or another nugget of folklore. Write it all down.

When you get back to camp, ask your guide to go through some pictures with you if you are unsure of what you saw that day. Note the image number and the name of the animal. Write it down in your native tongue and write down the local name. Learn a little while you are exploring and the trip becomes more colorful.

More than just noting the animal names, have each of your family member’s note their thoughts on the day. It’s great to have those other perspectives, especially if one of them is “Mom is taking too many pictures!”

Panning Blur

Here’s a fun trick when you have seen the same animals over and over for five straight days; Change your camera to Aperture Priority and crank the dial until you are at the highest f-stop number you can achieve. This will be f/22 or higher. Change your ISO to 100 and turn on your high-speed drive (maximum frames per second).

Now, when an animal is walking or hopefully trotting by, pan with it, at the same speed it is traveling and hold down your shutter release. It works best with a fast moving subject and it takes practice but you can take images where the background is blurred but the subject is clear, further accenting their movement.

For a more thorough explanation of this fun technique, I have written an experiment you can try at home, right now, to play with panning blur.

Get A Pop Top In East Africa

Different countries have different forms of safari trucks. Often in the Southern areas of Africa the trucks do not have sides and are pretty open all around. There you have less choice. But in East Africa there are two predominant types of trucks: pop-tops and roll-tops.

I suggest, for photography, hiring a pop-top truck. While this does create four corner posts which often have to be dealt with if the action is not broadside to the truck, the advantage is, in my mind, massive when it comes to all day comfort. The pop-top allows for the guests to be in the shade almost the entire time and that can be a luxury.

Don’t Always Center Animals

You are not taking photos for a catalog, are you? Then don’t worry about always centering the animals (or any subject, for that matter) in your frame. It’s natural to put the subject in the center, but not always an interesting solution, artistically speaking.

Do some research on the Rule Of Thirds before you go. There are many other composition techniques, but if you only learn one for this trip, start with the Rule Of Thirds. If there is an animal or person in the scene and they are looking in a particular direction, place them further to the opposite side, such as this photo of me being wary of hippos while taking notes (see how it all ties together?):

Don't Always Center Animals.

Don’t Always Center Animals.

Shoot After Dark

Sunsets on the savanna can be wonderful. Capture them whenever you can and throw in a silhouetted tree while you are at it. And don’t forget to include the family by popping up the flash.

But don’t stop shooting just because the sun has set. Have some dinner and wait for the stars to come out and then set up a tripod or prop your camera on a table or bench. If you are away from the city lights, which is likely, you will see more stars than you ever imagined, you city slicker you. It’s amazing and wonderful and many people want to capture them all.

Think of including some foreground objects and bring along a remote shutter release, something that can be locked down for a long time. Change your camera to Bulb mode and choose an open aperture (f/2 or maybe f/4 if your camera doesn’t go to f/2). Use a wide angle lens. Adjust your ISO to 400 or 800. And then have some fun.

Some cameras have a built in intervalometer and allow you to set a shutter speed timing. I would suggest starting at five minutes and seeing if you like the effect, then adjusting from there. If you want more star trails, go longer. The remote cable helps those cameras without this mode and you simply lock the shutter open with the remote. This image below is about seven minutes long.

But don't stop shooting just because the sun has set.

Don’t stop shooting just because the sun has set.

Go For The Eyes

Always focus on the eyes. Animals are like people and we connect with them through their eyes. Just be aware that many animals have a long snout and you may need to play with your focus mode to pinpoint the eyes.

Always focus on the eyes.

Always focus on the eyes.

Scottie, I Need More Power!

Now how do you go about charging all those gadgets you brought with you, the most important being your camera batteries?

I suggest a simple method that has treated me well. I bring a Monster travel power strip. This is a four outlet power strip that conveniently folds onto itself. I then bring an adapter to match the US style plug of the power strip to the various outlets I find while traveling. This method allows me to carry less stuff (one power strip instead of X number of adapters) and it has served me well in airports with full outlets. I simply ask one of the travelers if I can plug in my power strip so we both can have power. It’s a way to make friends when someone is looking for a power outlet as well.

Aside from that aspect of charging, if you are camping while on safari you will want to bring along a cigarette adapter for your charger. This may also require something known as an inverter, which changes the power coming out of the cigarette lighter into a form you can use with your US style plug. Solar panels are another option if you know you will be really out there. For the most part, charging at night should suffice (if in a hotel or lodge) and an inverter will top off during the day. Bring at least two batteries to have one fully charged at all times.

Bring A GPS, Maybe

If you are the geeky kind who enjoys knowing where you took every picture, consider bringing a GPS to log your location and then later you can geotag your images in the computer. There are also many smartphone apps (I love Motion-X GPS for the iPhone/iPad as I can download topo maps to be used offline as well) that will track your route and spit out a computer file ready for import onto your images.

This can be a fun thing but is not really needed. Oh, and there are small devices whose only task is to log GPS coordinates, called GPS loggers, that can be used by anyone without an actual GPS or smartphone.

Beanbag That Bad Boy

If you are bringing along a larger lens, I suggest bringing along a beanbag to support your lens (on trucks that have sides, mind you). The alternative is placing your hand under your lens and this gets painful if you subject is not doing anything for 10 minutes. It also saves wear and tear on your lens from resting directly on the metal of the truck. Bring the bag empty on the plane and then fill it with beans or rice when you arrive.

Put The Camera Down

Lastly, put down the camera. Speaking from experience, I received large smiles when I set down the camera(s) and hugged my daughter while watch the amazing wildlife we found on safari. If your family is with you, make sure their memories of the trip include something other than you looking at or through your camera.

Quick Bits

  • Lenses: 200-500mm range for animals. 10-22mm for landscapes. 24-104 for portraits.
  • Cards: Many. Ant then some more. My last safari was contained in 180GB of cards.
  • Bean Bag: Yes, but empty. A headrest pillow can also work if squishy enough.
  • Charging: 1 adapter, 1 power strip & maybe an inverter for the truck (some trucks have outputs).
  • Backup: Either a portable storage device or laptop (or both).
  • GPS: Optional, but can be fun.
  • Filters: A polarizing filter is always useful. If you are not into filters, just bring that one.
  • Batteries: A minimum of two.

8 Comments »

  1. Will Tang June 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    Awesome article that I will surely read again when I go to my first safari!

  2. Margaux Yiu June 5, 2013 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    Great article. Pretty much hit all the points from my experience in East Africa. One thing I would do differently is get a longer lens. I brought my 75-200 monster and added a 2x converter, and that still wasn’t nearly close enough at times (although, sometimes it was too long when the animals were right beside the vehicle!). I would look into renting a longer lens.

    The only other major problem that was hard to solve was the dust! Especially in certain places, such as the Ngorongoro Crater that seemed to be one giant red dust cloud, having two cameras would definitely be better than having only one and having to change lenses—like when the animals got too close!

    I’m guessing next time, I’d bring one DSLR and one compact 4/3rds.

  3. Lauren July 12, 2013 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    Wow, what a great article! Thanks for all of the tips and advice, I will surely be using this in the future.

  4. graeme hansen July 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm - Reply

    Great article,great advice,have to up date my equipment.

  5. Sandra August 1, 2013 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    I love you so much right now, lol! But seriously, I´m leaving for safari in two months and this is ex. what I needed. Thank you so much :-)

    Sandra/reisedagboka.net

  6. Kristin August 3, 2013 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    Thank you, wonderful article, and the last bit “Put the Camera Down” is excellent advice.

  7. Darian December 22, 2013 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Hi – great set of tips, thank you. what sort of monopole/tripod was the person using in some of those pics in the article please?

    • Peter West Carey December 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm - Reply

      Hello Darlan,
      It is by a company called Trek Tech and worked fairly well on this trip. Obviously it can be a little wobbly, but it held my heavy camera and works okay as a hiking stick.
      pwc

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