Safaris In The Digital Age

Taking a dream trip to Africa to photograph the incredible array of wildlife there is more doable than you think

The action happens fast with hippos late in the day as they squabble with one another. Having a 500mm lens keeps you at a safe distance, and 1/750 sec. stops the action.
An African safari is an eye-popping, mind-bending, life-changing experience. Frankly, if your first African safari doesn’t alter the way you perceive the world and understand your life, you just aren’t paying attention.

For photographers and writers, the experience is even more intense. As artists and craftsmen, we’re, by definition, super-observant, seeking ways to document and interpret the environments and interactions that move us so that we can convey our impressions to those who view our work. A photo safari to the African continent places us in fantastic locations and situations, offering human, wildlife and landscape subjects—and stories—that we long to share with others.

In 2001, Lepp took his first DSLR to Tanzania, Africa—a Canon EOS 30D. The shoot was so successful that afterward he converted entirely from film to digital capture. Says Lepp: “I never looked back.” Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS lens with EF 2X tele-extender, equivalent to 1600mm on the D30.

There are lots of ways to visit the countries of Africa, and a host of adventure travel companies offer tours aimed at meeting the goals and budgets of world travelers. The safari business has evolved a lot since the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s much publicized hunts, when African wildlife photography mostly focused on documenting the wealthy, victorious hunter dramatically posed in his safari costume with his hand on his gun and his boot on the neck of a dead animal. After all, it was hard to get a live leopard to stand still long enough to get a good shot with a glass-plate, large-format camera, and pretty risky to stand out in the wild under a black cloth!

Now, the African photo safari is a dream achieved by tens of thousands of serious North American photographers—just like you—every year, who pack up the gear, board a day-long flight for Johannesburg, take another several-hour trip to a backcountry airport, hop a 12-seater plane to a dirt landing strip in the middle of nowhere and finally stand on the ground in a Southern African game reserve—a totally different world. There, you, your fellow travelers and your photo equipment are cheerfully greeted and transported to a lovely complex of tented buildings where, after a traditional cold fruit punch and brief orientation in the open-air lounge, you’re escorted to your spacious cabin with its soft bed draped with bright white linens, ceiling fan, modern plumbing, private outdoor shower and personal view of elephants, giraffes and antelopes at a nearby water hole. You have, indeed, arrived.

Next morning, there you are, sitting in the second of four rows of seats mounted stadium style on a tough little Land Rover, bouncing along a rutted dirt road before sunrise on what promises to be a hot, brilliant day in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The driver slows as the road dips into a shallow canal and the muddy water pours over the Rover’s bonnet, but the engine’s snorkel keeps it breathing and running without a hitch. You keep a firm grip on your gear while nervously searching the shadows for game. The noise of a thousand frogs is so loud, it can be heard over the sound of the engine. Your instructor/guide scans the flat horizon in the gray-blue twilight, and he spots a lioness walking across the plain. The driver turns the vehicle toward her, leaving the road and plowing through the low brush until the big cat is positioned between the photographers and the rising sun. Framed by backlit grass, the lioness seems to glow in the rising light, and you have just a few moments to claim what could be the best photograph of your life.

Forget about all those National Geographic photographers who came decades before you to this place. You have a better chance than any of them to capture this ultimate Africa shot. The power of digital photography is the second big thing—after ecotourism—that has made the photo safari a surefire great investment for photographers of all skill levels.

It’s important to travel with a safari company that understands the needs of photographers.

“People are more interested in photography today because digital systems give better results that can be seen immediately,” says Dana Allen, a wildlife photographer, teacher and guide for Wilderness Safaris and other agencies. “Safari guests are enthralled by being in such a beautiful area, able to capture thousands of images of active, exotic wildlife, getting immediate feedback on their photography and improving their skills on a daily basis. By the end of a digital photo safari, even relatively new photographers are taking fantastic photographs!”

Allen, who was born in California, traveled all over the world and now lives with his family in Zimbabwe, has been guiding safaris throughout southern Africa for 20 years. But it’s only in the past six or so—as DSLRs have become ubiquitous—that he has seen a complete transformation in how he leads such tours, not only as a photography experience, but also as intense photography education. An articulate man of many words, vast experience and knowledge, extraordinary patience and boundless energy fueled by a cola addiction, Allen views every safari as a personal mission to expand his charges’ photographic skills as well as their understanding of their wildlife subjects and the environmental issues affecting the reserves. For his “students,” it’s a rich learning experience.

A baboon family reacts to something out of range of the camera near Mombo Camp in Botswana.

There’s no argument that the age of digital has changed just about every aspect of the photo safari for budding photographers and pros alike. You’re in the animals’ natural environment; they’re free-ranging while you’re confined, and masked by the shape and smell of the vehicle that carries you, invisible to them. You’re seeking them out and looking for opportunities to catch them displaying their natural behavior. There’s the thrill of danger and a feeling of exclusivity.

“Safari images convey a sense of the exceptionalism of the moment without actually putting yourself or your subject in danger,” says wildlife photographer and educator George Lepp. “This is one of the best things digital photography has brought to the safari, extending our reach right into an animal’s personal space without it knowing, and extending the period of time we can photograph successfully to encompass the early and late hours of the day when many animals are most active.”

Many of today’s DSLRs feature high-resolution capture rates of more than 10 frames per second in hundred-image sequences, fast recording to media, extraordinary low-light capture capability and big-screen LCDs—all qualities perfectly suited to problem-solving in the African landscape. Digital SLRs with expandable ISO and internal noise-reduction software are the tools that make it possible for skilled amateurs and pros alike to photograph a pack of wild dogs hunting after sundown, rosy-pink flamingos flying across a sunset sky and a baboon family in intimate, early-morning light.

Be An Ecotourist On Safari
Be a responsible ecotraveler, and you’ll be amazed at how luxurious and comfortable environmentally sound operations can be. Before you book a tour, research tour and camp operators to compare their commitments to locally sustainable conservation. For the best experience and to make the least impact, avoid the so-called ecotourist circuses that cluster big lodges and lots of visitors and vehicles in a small area. Choose a schedule that uses small lodges conscious of their footprints in reserves that prohibit hunting, provide fair employment and health care to local people, and feature the work of local artists and craftsmen in their décor and shops. If you aren’t certain how to evaluate these important characteristics of a tour company or resort, check out the superior environmental principles and programs of Wilderness Safaris at You’ll learn a lot.


In the first light of morning on the Duba Plains, Lepp came upon one of the reserve’s famous big lionesses hidden in the backlit grasses. On photo safaris, photography starts at sunrise and continues until after sundown.

DSLR high-definition video offers another way to record animal behavior without being limited to the single-shot capture. And that big, bright LCD on the back gives you immediate feedback about composition, sharpness and exposure, so you can fine-tune your settings as you shoot. Each evening, you can download and edit your images and think about the changes you could make to improve your yield the next day. It’s eminently doable for anyone with the right camera-and-lens combination to bring back great pictures from a photographic environment as rich as an African game reserve if you go with supportive companions.

It’s not just the picture-taking that has changed in the era of the megapowerful DSLR. Whether you’re in Africa or Alaska or Yosemite National Park, the essential logistics of the photo field trip have become much more complicated. Lepp used to carry 200 or more rolls of film on an extended shoot, but now he hauls a computer, chargers, cables and external hard drives for backup—along with one or more backup DSLR bodies featuring different sensor sizes, a video camera, tripods, battery packs and projected flash attachments. With a tour specializing in digital photography, you’ll get some help with all this stuff while on safari, but you still have to get it to Africa on a commercial airliner, and that takes some planning. Lepp says one of the best investments you can make is to travel with a congenial cohort who’s not a competitor; that way, your travel partner can give you some of his or her baggage allocation. In Lepp’s case, that partner is me, so, although I seldom photograph with a long lens, I always count his 500mm monster as one of my two carry-ons.

The Importance Of A Good Tour Operator
You can choose from a broad range of African photo safaris, depending on your particular interests, physical abilities, comfort level, timing and travel budget. Remember, though, that if you’re heading for the photo trip of a lifetime, you want to travel with like-minded companions and put yourself in the hands of guides who understand your objectives. Look for generous weight allowances so you can take along your big lens, at least two bodies, your chargers and other accessories, and your computer and cables. (On our safaris with Journeys Unforgettable (, an affiliate of Wilderness Safaris, we’re followed around by a second small plane for in-country flights—just to carry all our gear!) Great tours are led by knowledgeable, experienced people who know the ins and outs, are cognizant of the risks, and maintain good relationships with the people at small outback airports and checkpoints, minimizing the stress for you and your gear. Photographers need power in the camps 24/7 to work on their images and charge their batteries. Great photography tours assure that vehicles are open-topped and accessible for gear and guarantee each photographer his or her own row of seats, offering unobstructed views ahead and to each side of the vehicle. You’ll want drivers who know how to get you safely in position for the best shots and guides willing to share their intimate knowledge of the wildlife and how to photograph them. One of the best we know is Dana Allen (

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The age of digital has altered the social aspects of the photo safari, too. Both Lepp and Allen mentioned that they miss “sitting around the campfire with your sundowners and telling tall tales,” a traditional interaction that disappeared with the age of digital. Now, the photographic day ends well past sundown, and every night, each photographer is intent on reviewing, editing and processing the day’s catch. Some of this camaraderie is reclaimed when a group shares a digital lab setup in one of the lodges, however, turning editing sessions into educational and social opportunities. And for Lepp, there’s a loss of the postshoot excitement he used to feel in the film days, when a week after a trip, he would open up 150 yellow boxes fresh from the processor and spend a couple of days reviewing everything he had captured in a place halfway across the world. Would he give up the power of digital to go back to yellow boxes, though? “No way.”

There’s considerable disagreement among environmentalists as to whether ecotourism, in general, and specifically, in Africa, is achieving its conservation goals. The respected Dr. Richard Leakey has broadly condemned the ecotourism industry in Africa as a mostly short-term, high-profit economic enterprise, and he suggests that the behavior of some animals is being permanently changed in reaction to hordes of human visitors with cameras. Others argue that without ecotourism, African wildlife would have been decimated by poaching, hunting and land development. To the extent that you sign on for a safari and contribute your funds and your vision to Africa, you need to be aware of these issues and sensitive to the positive and negative effects of ecotourism on local communities. As Lepp says, “Think outside the viewfinder. Look over the top of your camera and beyond the images you’re capturing.” Reflect on the miracle of what you witness on the African landscape, and the magic and privilege that made it possible for you to be there. And take away, in your images and your stories and your very being, the full meaning of the safari experience.

Longtime Outdoor Photographer columnist and contributor George Lepp and his wife Kathryn Vincent Lepp are the authors of the recently published book, Wildlife Photography: Stories from the Field (Lark Books), which features many images and stories from Africa. Check their website,, for details about their May/June 2011 photo safari to Botswana and Zambia.