Wildlife Safari in Africa – Planning a Photography Safari

Whilst seeing the Big 5 in Africa (lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo and rhino) is on many safari wish lists there is far more to the wildlife in this vast continent than you may think. Looking for the more unusual or smaller wildlife and the intimate landscapes can lead to some really special surprises and amazing photography.

Planning a photography safari needs time to ensure that you are in the right place at the right time. Having an understanding of the range of wildlife encounters and options available on safari will help shape your decisions. A photography trip is different to a traditional safari as you need time to watch the wildlife, be present at the right time of day and not be on a tick list mission.

If you really want to make the most of an African photography safari then not fixating on a wish list of animals but going with the flow, getting away from the madness of the big tours and seeing what else is out there can result in a more peaceful adventure, far better photo opportunities and different lasting memories from all the others who explore Africa.

How to Choose the Right African Safari

For many people this is a once in a lifetime experience and so you need to get it right. There are a few things that you need to consider so you get the experiences that you want, see the animals that you want and come away with the memories and photographs that will last.

Decide on The Wildlife and Landscapes you want to see

As there are so many options for the wildlife in Africa, you need to decide what you want to see. Are you only interested in the Big 5? Do you want to see great white sharks or the mountain gorillas? Are you wanting to see the timid and elusive meerkats? All of this will determine where you go and the type of tour that you will take.

If you are wanting to see a specific event such as Tanzania’s Great Migration then you will need to plan to visit at the correct time of year. Planning an African safari with Naturetrek would help you to pinpoint when these events will happen and an experienced guide or company will ensure you are in the right place at exactly the right time.

As well as the wildlife you may want to see other things like the Skeleton Coast, Ngorongoro Crater or climb Mount Kilimanjaro so looking at companies that incorporate this into their programme will make for easier organisation than trying to fit the jigsaw of logistics together yourself.

Decide when you want to go

Planning a safari takes time to do and getting it right is essential. Many safaris are booked months in advance and if you are wanting to see a specific animal or migration then you may need to plan even further in advance.

The best time of year for safari is during the dry winter months between June and August. The wildlife congregates around the water sources making it far easier to find what you are looking for.

Elephants at a watering hole taken on film and scanned

In the summer months the landscape is much greener. The animals are not congregating as much and some are harder to find without experienced guides. However, at this time of the year the safaris are quieter and the prices are lower.

Decide where you want to go In Africa

Once you have decided on the wildlife you want to see on your safari and have identified the time of year you wish to travel, then it is time to find the country.

There are safaris in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania as well as a number of smaller countries.

When you are planning your safari you also need to consider vaccination requirements and visa status. These take time to sort so it is better to investigate before your planning progresses too far or you find you don’t have time to fulfil the requirements.

As well as pre-arrival requirements you may want to investigate other factors including the type of accommodation in each place, availability of water or healthcare. If these are important criteria to you then you do need to factor them into your planning.

Decide on The Mode of Transport For Your African Safari

Whilst the traditional open sided 4×4 is the expected mode of transport there are now so many ways to experience the wildlife in Africa that you will have a range of choices.

A walking safari will allow you to get up close to the wildlife and look for the smaller and more elusive species in Africa. Whilst travelling in comfort in a jeep may seem the best option, you are missing out on being within the wilderness. A walking safari allows you to experience the landscape away from roads and civilisation and really get into the animals domain.

Water safaris allow a more unique experience. In the dry season birds and animals flock to water sources and being on the water allows you to view these moments from a completely different perspective. This is usually from a small boat or an even more basic canoe allowing you to safely navigate even the shallowest of rivers and lakes.

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In the north of Africa it is possible to explore the Sahara by camel. While the wildlife experiences are less it is more than made up for by the stunning sand dunes and wild landscapes. Some game reserves also offer horseback safaris and if you really want something amazing then a hot air balloon over the Serengeti cannot be beaten for memories and photography opportunities.

DEcide on your level of support

All safaris will require some level of support and organisation from someone with local knowledge and experience. However, the level that you need will depend on your experience and your social preferences.

Some people prefer the full itinerary planning and organisation where every detail is planned by your tour company and you sit back and enjoy your holiday. This could be as part of a group or booked as a private tour and some include a professional photographer to help you improve your skills.

If you decide to book a group tour, look carefully at the group sizes and the age group of customers from the company profile. Most companies will tell you the type of customers they have booking and some will even tell you a rough demographic of the people already booked on the safari you are interested in. You will be spending the entire trip with these people so you need to be sure that it will work for you.

Private tours are more expensive but you get to decide what you want to see and what is your priority. You are not having to go with the flow of the group which can be frustrating if there are dominant, vocal characters running the group trip as if it is their own personal tour.

Self-drive safaris can be the perfect option if you are more independent and just want support with getting organised in an area that you don’t know. Some game reserves do not allow self-drive safaris so you do need to look at this when you are planning. You will also need to think about accommodation, food and fuel as well as planning your route.

How to ensure your safari is Sustainable and responsible

The range of safaris available is immense and it is easy to be drawn into the website and everything they are offering but it is good to step back and make sure that your options are best for the wildlife, the local economy and the landscape.

  • Find a tour company that is clearly focussed on responsible travel. Check that their accommodation choices employ staff from the local communities and pays them a fair wage. Make sure that they pay the local park management and conservation fees as part of the tour costs.
  • Check that the camp you are planning to use has verifiable sustainability credentials. This can include ecotourism certificates or membership to recognised organisations. Don’t just believe what they say on their marketing materials. Check the awarding bodies to see the actual criteria and their listings.
  • Find out whether the tour or the camp has any wildlife conservation projects associated with their safaris. Do they support projects such as collaring and monitoring of wildlife or encouraging smaller walking tours over large vehicle tours. There is also a need to educate the local communities as human wildlife conflict is an increasing problem. Does the company support local children and help them to engage with the wildlife they live alongside? This type of community project has been shown to have long term benefits to conservation in the area.
  • Does the tour or camp support the local community? While it is good if the tour supports the wildlife, the local communities should also benefit from the tourism that their landscape and home provides. Whilst employing local staff is the first step, supporting the whole community should be a consideration when looking at your safari.

Planning A photography safari in africa

If you want to focus on photography during a safari then you need to make sure you book a photography specific tour. Most safari tours will be more focussed on a tick list of encounters.

READ MORE: PLANNING A PHOTOGRAPHY ROAD TRIP

To get stunning photographs on safari you need to make time for the magic to happen. If you are on a schedule with 12 other people who have a tick list you really aren’t going to have a chance to take the photographs you want. Talk to the company before you leave to get the most suitable tour for your goals and talk to your guide when you arrive. They want to make this the best experience for you, but unless you ask they won’t know what you want.

Photography gear for a safari

As well as planning the logistics of a safari, if you are going specifically to photograph the wildlife and landscapes then it is better to plan in advance what photography gear you will be bringing with you. You may need to save up to buy the lens you want or book to hire a lens in advance so some planning is needed.

Camera body and Lenses

A zoom lens is vital for capturing wildlife photos on safari. It is much easier to have a zoom lens than to ask your guide to get you closer to the wildlife. A DSLR is not essential, even a point and shoot camera can give you fantastic images from a safari.

If you do have a DSLR or camera with interchangeable lenses then bringing a range of lenses is ideal if you have the luggage allowance. I will always sacrifice clothing for camera kit!

Bring two camera bodies with a lens attached each day. You do not want to be swapping lenses in the dry dusty environment of a safari jeep. This will also provide a back up if one camera dies halfway through the trip. It really doesn’t bare thinking about the disappointment of a dead camera on day two of a week on safari.

For most safaris a 100-400mm zoom lens will provide a good range, but if you have a full frame camera you may want to look at a 500mm lens or more. As well as this, a short zoom lens from 24-70mm would make a good alternative allowing you to take photographs of the animals in their environment.

Whatever camera you choose to take you will need a wide aperture. The best photographs are taken at sunrise and sunset when the light levels are low. Having the option to photograph at f/2.8 will mean you can keep the shutter speed high and the ISO low given good quality images even in low light conditions.

Make sure that whatever camera body you bring you have enough batteries for a day of photography and possibly charging. Some places may have limited power so you may not be able to rely on overnight charging. Always make sure that you have enough charged batteries to last the day plus a spare.

Accessories

The accessories you take on safari can vary depending on where you are and the transportation methods you are using.

To support your camera and lens some vehicles will just need a bean bag to hang over the body of the vehicle while others are more open and will have space for a monopod or even a tripod. It may also be possible to take a gimbal head and clamp it to the body of the vehicle. One of the smallest and the one I use is the Lensmaster Traveller gimbal. If you are considering going along this route, don’t forget to bring the clamp with you as well. It is best to find out in advance what style of vehicle you will be travelling in and the space available.

Dust protection is another consideration. You may want to take a cover for your camera and lens to prevent dust collecting while you are travelling and photographing. If you are in the mountain jungle then rain protection needs to be a consideration to prevent damp causing damage to your gear.

While you are on safari you will be producing 100’s of photographs each day. You need to make sure that you have enough space each day on a memory card and somewhere to back them up each night. I tend to travel with a number of smaller 16GB memory cards and a laptop or ipad and external hard drive. Large 128GB memory cards are available but I prefer to have smaller cards so less images are lost if the card is damaged or lost.

As well as camera gear, binoculars and head torch should be part of your camera bag packing list. There will be times when you need to look for the wildlife and waiting to have your turn with the binoculars is beyond frustrating. Head torches can help if you are starting or finishing your photography day in the dark. Always choose a head torch with a red light to help with keeping your night vision as good as it can be.

Planning your dream african safari

Planning a safari can seem daunting, but give yourself time to plan and you will find that it will come together. This is just an overview of the steps you need to take and you will find that as your formulate your plans it will all start to make sense and become an amazing reality.

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