Ultimate Safari!

Preparing for and demystifying African safaris for American photographers

African elephants, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

When it comes to exotic photographic destinations, most Americans have one place in mind: Africa. The cradle of man is a wildlife and landscape photographer’s paradise. But as an exotic paradise half a world away, Africa can feel out of reach to the average photographer. It shouldn’t. There’s enough tourism infrastructure, much catering specifically to photographers, that an African safari can be as easy as any vacation. If you’re considering your first photo safari, who better to learn from than acclaimed National Geographic photographer and veritable Africa expert Frans Lanting.

Leopard licking cub, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

Lanting can’t even begin to count the number of visits he has made to Africa. “The number of countries,” he says, “doesn’t even fit on the fingers of two hands. Days of my life would add up to quite a number of years.”

Lanting’s goal is to demystify Africa for the average traveler (see the sidebar for his take on popular destinations), and his advice boils down to three primary considerations: Where will you visit, how will you get there, and when will you go?

Where To Begin
“People ask me about planning their first African trip all the time,” Lanting explains. “Do you have a particular country in mind? Is there something that really intrigues you? Do you want to go really off the beaten track? Every country’s got its own flavor. The easiest thing is to consider a country that really speaks to you. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see Victoria Falls or go to the Okavango Delta because you’ve read about it. I try to understand their tolerance for other people, their budget and how adventurous they are. Would they really want to have a once-in-a-lifetime unique experience with nobody else around, or would it be fine to go in a bigger group and to see other vehicles and share the glory of Africa with other folks? That’s a big decision.”

How To Get There
When contemplating an African safari, consider your place on the spectrum of travel styles. It spans everything from pampered luxury to do-it-yourself minimalism. The most important consideration is to determine the balance that’s right for you. Considerations from outfitters to guides, vehicles to traveling companions, form the fundamental nature of your experience. It’s also where budgetary requirements are most visible.

“Everything comes at a price,” says Lanting. “If you want somebody to organize it all for you so that all you have to do is show up, that’s one way to go. You can also just fly to Nairobi and pick up a rental car, buy a map and find your way to the parks and camp out. That’s another extreme. I recommend surfing the Internet, reading some books, and you’ll end up with different outfitters and different camp possibilities. That’s where things get a little bit more nuanced.

“You can also try to organize it all yourself,” he says. “For those who are on a real budget or who have real customized needs, in every country in Africa there are outfitters who cater to those needs. From the professional photographer who says I’ve got three weeks and I want to do this, I want to do that, and I want to do it by myself, to the budget end where countries like Kenya and Namibia have enough support services that you could fly in and pick up a rental car to drive yourself around.

Zebras and wildebeests, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

“What’s your tolerance for uncertainty?” Lanting asks. “If you’ve never been to Africa before and you would arrive with a serious amount of camera gear, you really want to think twice before you take it on yourself. Are you prepared to drive and figure out exactly where to go? On location the reality is that you’re mostly practicing photography from a vehicle, to drive and shoot at the same time—that’s a lot of balls up in the air. So if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you might want to team up with somebody else of like interests, find a partner or go with a couple of friends.

“In the end, you get what you pay for,” he says. “If a safari is expensive, it’s usually because you end up staying in very nice camps and the guides are really high quality, the vehicles are high quality, and they cater to a different kind of client. If you look at the cheapest packages in Kenya, you’ll end up in a minibus with eight other screaming people.”

Guides And Companions
“The crucial factor that makes a difference in the experience,” Lanting says, “is who you end up with—who will be your guide, who will be your driver. That often ends up being the same person. If you book yourself into a camp or a lodge and people from those camps or lodges take you out, you’re going to be in their hands. And there’s an amazing amount of expertise out there. Local people who have been doing it for decades, who have taken out many photographers before, who can get you into the right position—they know the behavior of the animals so you can focus on photography.”

Sable antelopes, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

It’s not just guides and drivers who impact your experience. Those “eight screaming people” he mentions may be a real burden. You’re at the mercy of the group, and if the group isn’t interested in waiting for a shot, you may find yourself quickly frustrated.

“I would urge people to think about their tolerance for other companions,” Lanting says. “If you’re a serious photographer, you want to choose the people you go to Africa with instead of taking potluck. Consider putting a small group together of like-minded friends or family and go to an outfitter and let them choose the best trip for you. Not knowing who you’ll be in a vehicle with can be an unwelcome surprise. And ideally you want to be in a vehicle with one or two other photographers, at the most. If there are any other partners or spouses who are not photographers, they should be of the patient kind who enjoy sitting there looking through binoculars. The more people, the more the vehicle shakes; if you end up working with long lenses from rooftops or window mounts, that makes a big difference. You need to be sympathetic with your fellow travelers, and you need to have overlapping goals. That translates to how early your fellow travelers want to get up and how long they want to stay out, as well.”

If you’re in an open vehicle, it’s great to be able to shoot in all directions, but you’re also going to get fried by the sun. The ideal vehicle has a canopy or roof with hatches to allow easy access to shoot in any direction. Online research will help you determine not only the types of vehicles an outfitter uses, but whether the service is geared toward serious photographers or vacationers.

“You really want to check out their vehicles to get a sense of whether you would end up in an open vehicle,” says Lanting. “Is it a minibus, or an enclosed Land Rover, or is it an open vehicle? Depending on that, you need to prepare yourself with gear—the kinds of devices you want to bring along include clamps, beanbags, monopods, window mounts, all of those things. They’re all really vehicle-specific.”

Giraffes at sunset, Okavango Delta, Botswana.

When To Go
With the destination and approach in mind, the last piece of the puzzle is nailing down the best time to visit. Lanting strongly suggests that by far the best photographic experience will be had if you go against the flow.

“Avoid high season at all costs,” he says. “Not only is it going to be much more expensive, it’s going to be much more crowded. June, July and August in Africa, you’re not just dealing with American visitors, but the European visitors for whom Africa is a lot closer and cheaper as well. It’s amazing what a difference it makes if you avoid those months.”

Adds Lanting, “The big rhythm in Africa isn’t the four temperate seasons we have here, but whether it’s wet or dry and where you are vis-à-vis whether the rains have just happened or whether you’re going into the rainy or dry season. At the beginning or the end of the rainy season, you’re going to get a totally different experience. It will be more adventurous because there will be mud and unexpected rain episodes, but it’s going to be a lot more exciting.

Elephants and impalas at a waterhole, Chobe National Park, Botswana.

“Then there are specific phenomena,” Lanting says. “The wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara, which so many people want to see for themselves, that coincides with the high tourist season. Yeah, there will be a lot of wildebeests, but there will be a lot of vehicles, too. On a good day—or you could call it a bad day—there can be 100 vehicles parked at a river crossing. A phenomenon that everybody has heard about has every photographer showing up thinking that they’re going to get the shot that has never been done before—which, of course, isn’t going to happen when there are so many other vehicles, people are screaming, and they’re interfering with the movement of animals. It’s a zoo, but it’s a human zoo. There are other times of the year when you could go to the Masai Mara and you would see five percent of the vehicles. That’s a huge difference.”

Safari Equipment
You’re in Africa, in an ideal vehicle on an off-season day, ready to shoot. Typical excursions are early in the morning and late in the afternoon when animals tend to be most active, and the light is better, too. Did you bring the best gear?

“If you’re casual, really casual,” says Lanting, “you can get away with a consumer SLR with a single zoom lens that gets you into the equivalent of a 200mm range because you can shoot animals in landscapes. If you’re a serious amateur, you want to go with the longest zoom lens you can lay your hands on. That can be a 200-400mm Nikkor or equivalent Canon lens, or any of the Tokinas and Sigmas that go between 100mm and 500mm. Extend your range by bringing teleconverters, and bring one wide-angle zoom. If you’re really serious, you bring a midrange zoom, like a 70-200mm, as well. You don’t need a flash, and you don’t need a tripod. What you do want to bring is beanbags and perhaps a clamp or a window mount so that you’re equipped to deal with any vehicle situation.

“The best way to be out there is to have all your gear in a photo pack that you can put on the seat next to you,” says Lanting. “And maybe you have one long lens in a special long lens bag. A monopod isn’t a bad idea because you can use that by bracing it outside of the vehicle and then you have a very steady platform that’s independent of the wiggling caused by people inside your vehicle. A number of companies make specialized gear for safaris, too. Really Right Stuff makes really good brackets.”

African Countries For Safaris

To help plan a successful safari, Frans Lanting offers insights into a number of popular African destinations the first-time traveler should consider.

KENYA: “Even though it’s very popular and you run into crowded situations, Kenya is still the easiest place to go and in a way still the most wonderful all-in-one experience. Because there are parks that are really accessible, there’s lots of expertise with supporting photographers both in groups and as individuals, and there’s an amazing range of places and subjects. I would say it gets more visitors than probably all of the other countries combined. It can be an amazing experience.”

ZAMBIA: Far less visited than Kenya, Lanting says things here are “more like Kenya used to be 30 years ago, and reasonably priced Luangwa Valley is a great destination.”

NAMIBIA: “Namibia is far less visited, and there’s an escape component that’s really very precious. Namibia is very sparsely populated so there are many places there where you’re going to find you’re the only person and the only thing you hear is the blood in your ears. And then it becomes a totally different experience. It’s more wilderness punctuated by wildlife, except for some hot spots.”

BOTSWANA: “Botswana is fantastic. I helped blaze trails there that are now very well trodden, and it has become really expensive because they really try to cater to fewer people and give them all a high-quality experience. That means the price for lodging and guides is all kept pretty high.”

ZIMBABWE: “Because of the political upheaval, Zimbabwe attracts very few visitors. But the parks are still there, the animals are still there—you’re just going to have to cope with more unpredictable situations.”

RWANDA: Lanting says Rwanda is a destination to be added to a Kenyan trip rather than the singular focus of a first-timer’s visit. Photographing Rwandan mountain gorillas can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

CONGO: “If Kenya is the best traveled path, I would say the opposite is to go to the Congo. But I wouldn’t recommend that to someone who has never been to Africa before.”

SOUTH AFRICA: “South Africa is a great destination. It’s extremely diverse—both for landscapes and wildlife—not to mention there are some pretty sweet beach destinations and wine-tasting opportunities. If your once-in-a-lifetime safari needs to please your partner in life as well, and you want to make it more than just a hardcore photographic or wildlife opportunity, South Africa is a great destination. You can go from urban delights in Cape Town to great wildlife experiences and everything in between.”

Adds Lanting, “We haven’t even talked about the 25 other potential destinations, ranging from Ethiopia to Morocco to Mozambique, but if I had never been to Africa before, I would consider one of the countries above.”

See more of Frans Lanting‘s incredible Africa imagery at www.lanting.com.