With any outdoor photography, there's a high degree of luck and unpredictability. These tips will help you minimize the variables and navigate your way to getting unique award-winning images.
1. ALWAYS Read The Fine Print
Irrespective of whether it’s a large international tour operator or a small local agent, photo safaris often exclude items in their pricing. Park fees, drinks, pre-departure consultations, etc.
Pay close attention to these hidden fees, they soon add up and the best tours include them.
2. Avoid the Crowds
Safari companies always push the busy periods. This is great for their commissions but terrible for photography. There’s nothing worse than missing a great image because of a blocked view.
Summer months are the times I avoid. It’s expensive and busy with groups of photographers ALL getting the same images.
3. Location, Location, LOCATION
Being in the right place at the right time to get the perfect shot should be your priority. The most expensive camps are often those in the busiest areas and the wildlife learn to avoid the crowd.
Ask to see images and the pros/cons of each recommended location. I have a selection of favorite camps and closer to arrival make my decision based on wildlife proximity.
4. Size Matters
Group size is a key factor in considering a tour. Large groups are great for profits but should be avoided. An average photo safari has around eight guests, the average big name safari tour has close to 15.
If you’re looking to learn how to get the best images and be in the right place, select tours that have NO MORE than six photographers per instructor.
5. Get What You Pay For
Budget safari operators and destinations are famous for filling every vehicle seat and having numerous large groups. This results in crowded parks which in turn, unfortunately, lead to harassed wildlife and terrible images.
I now shoot exclusively in East Africa where I can encounter more in one day than during a week in Kruger. Kenya also banned trophy hunting in the ’70s, which I believe has made the wildlife calmer and more photogenic.
6. Elbow Room, Please!
The number of guests in each vehicle is a very important factor. The average photo safari has three photographers per vehicle; the average package tour has six. Three photographers in a seven-seat vehicle will give each a whole row. However, when an animal moves to the front or back of the vehicle, only one or two photographers will get the shot.
You really want to be in a vehicle that limits the number of photographers to TWO. This means you ALWAYS have the opportunity to get a shot irrespective of how the vehicle is positioned.
7. Know Your Gear
On safari, conditions and situations change constantly. A lion can go from being in full sun to hiding in deep shade; a cheetah can go from being perfectly still to 100km/hr in a few seconds. You have to know your gear, how it performs and its limitations.
Very few photo safaris offer 1:1 instruction or image reviews. Almost none offer back up gear, gear rentals, etc. These are important points for a photographer, and if your tour doesn’t offer them ask yourself if they really know what a photographer requires.
8. How Big Is Big?
Wildlife and bird photographers love their big lenses. But remember, the important component of your photo safari isn’t your gear, it’s the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time.
My first safari was photographed with a second-hand Minolta DSLR and a $200 lens. Images from the trip were used by The Royal Photographic Society and published internationally. The 35mm slides are now in the archives of the Royal Geographic Society.
Over the past 15 years, 95% of my favorite shots have been at 400mm. If you can afford it, stick with your own camera brand lens. My current kit consists of an 80-200mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4 and, for variety, a 60mm f/2.8 macro and an 18-35mm f/2.8.
I recently tested the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6. The results were great for the price point.
9. Manage Your Expectations
Don’t assume you'll automatically come home with world-class images. There's a high degree of luck involved, but you can increase your chances by taking advantage of the points mentioned. Pick the right location, time of year, small group size and an experienced company.
10. Photographers Don’t Sleep
The Safari experience holds many opportunities beyond wildlife. Landscape, macro, portraiture and even specialized techniques such as infrared and star trails are possible.
Look for a safari company that doesn’t just cover the basics. Your photography will benefit, and if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, your experience will be greatly improved.
Bryan Pereira is the Director of Photography at Exposure Tours. He has over 35 years of safari photography experience along with numerous international awards, published images and articles. Visit www.exposuretours.com.