On Safari In Tanzania

Exotic wildlife and landscape photography awaits in East Africa
On Safari In Tanzania
Wildebeest and Rainbow, the Serengeti, Tanzania
Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR, Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II, ƒ/8, 1/500 sec., ISO 1000

Participating in a safari to East Africa is high on the list of experiences for many wildlife photographers. Whether you’re a first-time traveler to East Africa or a seasoned pro, there are universal challenges to be addressed in the planning and execution of your trip.

I spend roughly two months every year in Africa. What I’ll share with you comes from a background of hard-earned experience. Having grown up in Tanzania in the 1960s, I have a deep love for the country, its people and the stunning array of wilderness locations to photograph. The year 2016 officially marks my 30th year of leading photographic safaris to Tanzania, so it’s with great pleasure that I write this article dedicated to photographing wildlife in Tanzania.

Following are the top considerations that will directly affect the success of your adventure. The first line of questions inevitably deals with camera gear. Here are some ideas that help keep me comfortable, safe and ready to execute to the best of my ability when photographing on safari.

On Safari In Tanzania
Cheetah and Cub, Ndutu, Tanzania
Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR, Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II, ƒ/8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 1000

Equipment to Bring
Most photographers on a serious photo safari will use top-of-the-line professional equipment. Brand doesn’t matter—they’re just tools to help you reach your desired goal. About 95% of the shots I keep from a safari are taken with a 600mm lens and often with a 1.4x, 1.7x or 2x teleconverter. I never photograph from blinds or feeders, and don’t bait animals, so this equipment gives me the best chance to capture intimate moments of animal and bird behavior.

I have a second camera body paired with a 100-400mm lens for a wider view. There are also rare chances to make effective fisheye shots, so I carry an 8-15mm for those. I don’t take a flash, and I never bring a tripod. Beanbags tend to fall on the floor or out of the vehicle in bumpy conditions, and they always seem to be under the seat or in the other vehicle just when they’re needed. I use a Todd-Pod roof mount with an original version Wimberley head for all safari vehicle photography. It gives the best angle of view and the smoothest pan for following fast action.

Typically, people tend to bring much more equipment than this. The problem: Lots of equipment equals lots of choices. While you’re making the choice and finding the right combination, you’ve just missed the fleeting moment of peak action. On one of our photo safaris, the seven-seat, four-wheel-drive vehicles only have three photographers each, so everyone has ample space for equipment, access to two side windows and their own roof hatch. With your camera bag on the seat beside you, it’s easy to grab the proper gear for each new photo situation.

Elephants at a Pool, Tarangire, Tanzania
Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED VR, ƒ/11, 1/1000 sec., ISO 1600

Packing Tips
Make sure your camera bag is within airline-size standards, and never put your big lens in checked baggage. That goes for main camera bodies and medicine, as well. Ask yourself, “If my checked baggage is lost, can I still have a successful photo safari?” Your camera bag will be heavy, but don’t look like you’re struggling with it. Smile and be polite to the airline staff.

There are lots of different options for safari vehicles. Stay away from vans. They’re too small and have limited access to rough terrain. Four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruisers are my favorite vehicles, but make sure you don’t get one that has a pop-up roof. The roof will give you shade, but the roof supports are guaranteed to be in the way and affect your shots every day.

Choosing Accommodations
When it comes to your choice of accommodations, there are hotels, luxury lodges and permanent or mobile tented camps. All will have comfortable beds, in-suite bathrooms and showers, laundry facilities, attentive staff and good food. With prior notice, the cooks can accommodate dietary needs.

Camps operate off of generator and solar power. If there are specific hours of operation, they will do their best to accommodate photo groups’ charging needs. Most equipment we bring charges at both 110- and 220-volt. East Africa uses the UK plug style with its three big square prongs. Keep in mind that people will have lots of the same equipment, so it can be difficult to identify your gear at a community charging station. I put a colored sticker on each piece of electronic gear. Most accommodations also will have some form of Internet access.

Lion Hunt, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Nikon D4, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR, Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II, ƒ/8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 1000

Photographing on Safari
You’ve arrived, have all your gear and are officially on safari! A typical day will begin at 6:30 a.m., with cookies and coffee or tea before you start your game drive. Having cleaned and charged all of your equipment the night before, you’re ready for anything!

Your main goal is to scout for interesting subjects to photograph when the light comes up. Midday should be spent editing and resting. Afternoon safari drives are typically from 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. New photographers often will want to stop for anything that moves to get a “record shot.” That’s fine, but get it and move on. In the evolution of a safari, those stops will become a thing of the past.

I often see safari photographers frustrated early in the trip. One of the main culprits is the burning desire to get every shot available so their photo safari of a lifetime can be a success. There are often unrealistic expectations of filling a portfolio in the first few days of a safari. Relax—let the safari come to you. In East Africa, there are so many dramatic subjects in perfect situations that if you miss one opportunity, there’s another just around the next bend in the track. Be ready for it.

Hyena and Cape Buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
Nikon D2X, AF-S NIKKOR 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR, Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-17E II, ƒ/8, 1/60 sec., ISO 3200

Hiring Drivers and Guides
With all of your cameras and lenses within reach and some of the world’s finest wildlife subjects just outside your vehicle, consider the most important factor in your photographic success: your driver. He’s the one who will get you safely to the best vantage points to capture the peak of action and take care of your daily needs every step of the way.

It’s vital that you establish a cordial relationship that can foster mutual respect and trust. Ask about his family. What’s his favorite animal or bird species? On most safaris, drivers take tourists to see the animals and the idea is to get as close as possible. That’s not always the case with big-lens photographers. It’s not a bad idea to have him look through your long lens so he can better understand your photographic view and properly place the vehicle more quickly. You need to be able to trust your driver to get you to wildlife situations that interest you, and he needs to trust where you would like him to safely place the vehicle.

After shooting in one spot for a while, if the action slows down, I’ll often ask my driver if he can see a better place for us to be. Usually, he’ll say, “Yes, there is more action over there….” An example of drivers trusting our decision: There were two lions sleeping on a lakeside meadow. Our driver wanted to show us flamingoes in another location. I saw 1,000 wildebeest coming at a run. “Wouldn’t it be great if they ran right to the lions and there was a chase through the water?” Our driver trusted us, stayed, and the resulting pictures were stunning!

Understanding Animal Behavior
Knowing what your subject is likely to do in a given situation can give you a huge advantage in knowing where to be for the next dramatic action. A cheetah with four babies was resting in bushes. Vehicles were positioned to give clients a view that was partially obscured. We stayed away so we would have a view when she moved. She got up, stretched, went to the open space and gazed down at one of her cubs.

Before you go on safari, you should have an idea of what images you would like to make. Here are two very different lists of hoped-for safari shots.

List #1: Elephants, a lion, a cheetah, zebras, a rhino, birds, a giraffe.

List #2: Dramatic animal behavior, animals interacting, mothers and babies, well-organized groups of birds and animals that show more than a pile of feathers and fur, storytelling images that capture the viewer’s attention.

If you can previsualize, you’ll be more prepared when the hoped-for situations arise.

Final Piece of Advice
Enjoy the experience. As I said, let the safari come to you. Have fun, and remember you’re on holiday and you’re going to bring home great photographs from what may be your first of many “trips of a lifetime” to East Africa.

Tips For A Successful African Adventure
1. An in-focus, well-exposed photo that includes a great subject isn’t necessarily a great image. If the photo you’re taking is a portrait, strive for the best head angle, facial expression and eye contact.
2. If you have a group of animals or birds, look for interesting head positions and eye contact.
3. The most effective photos of two or three subjects will contain two or three sets of eyes.
4. Add enough grass on the bottom of the frame to provide space for “virtual legs.”
5. Remember to check the edges of your frame for unwanted distractions.
6. Sometimes the best angle of view is from the lower window of your vehicle.
7. Edit your images after every game drive—then back them up.

Todd Gustafson owns and operates Gustafson Photo Safari, and he has escorted thousands of photographers to Tanzania, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Brazil, India, Costa Rica, Patagonia and Namibia. Much more information is available in his book, “A Photographer’s Guide to the East African Experience” at gustafsonphotosafari.net, where you also can learn about upcoming tours.