A photo safari to East Africa is surely one of life’s high points for any wildlife photography enthusiast, and a prime destination for many is the country of Tanzania. Located south of Kenya and including large parts of the Serengeti and the entire Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania never fails to deliver quality game viewing and photography. The fact that it’s politically stable and environmentally conscious makes it all the more appealing.
Good planning is essential to the success of any safari, especially when taking photos is involved. With airline baggage limitations, especially for domestic or charter flights within Tanzania, getting tighter and tighter, it’s essential to pack the right stuff (and just the right stuff) to have what you need without exceeding the baggage weight limits (at least by too much).
Although international flights usually allow two checked bags of 44 pounds or less, weight restrictions within Tanzania are much more stringent: one 33-pound checked bag and one or two small carry-ons. You can bring more stuff, but the prices for overweight baggage can be a bit steep, ranging up to several dollars per kilo (2.2 pounds), depending on the company (and the mood of the check-in agent). So travel light.
Essential Gear. Besides a good digital SLR (or preferably two), a long lens is the one necessary piece of gear for this kind of trip. I have an old manual-focus 500mm ƒ/4 that was my staple lens in the film era, but with the 1.5x magnification factor of my Nikon D200, I’ve been using my 80-400mm ƒ/4-5.6 VR zoom lens more and more for this work. It’s much smaller and lighter (albeit a stop slower) than the 500mm, and with the magnification factor, it gives me the 35mm equivalent of a 600mm at the long end. I miss the speed on occasion, but not as much as I had feared, especially with the VR helping out in lower light.
I always carry an empty four- to six-liter-sized waterproof sack with me to Africa. Once I arrive, I make a quick stop at a market to buy eight pounds or so of dried beans or rice, and voila, I have a large, stable beanbag on which to brace my shooting rig on the roof of the Land Rover. This is a much more elegant solution than carrying a ready-made beanbag from home, because you’re not using up your precious baggage weight allowance carrying beans from the United States all over Africa!
A beanbag is much more useful than a tripod or monopod because most of your game viewing in East Africa is done through the pop-top roof of a Land Rover, so there‚’s a ready shelf at just the right height on which to brace the beanbag. If your quarry isn‚’t moving (like, say, a lion that has just eaten or is resting), you’d be surprised at how low you can go in shutter speed with a long lens firmly braced on a large beanbag. This stability, along with the help of Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization technology, makes up quite a bit for the lack of a fast ƒ/4 or ƒ/2.8 aperture of the larger, heavier lenses.
Another essential piece of gear is a flash unit. Now, this is a little counterintuitive. Why would you need a flash unit for long-lens wildlife viewing? The answer is contrast, lots of it. And in many cases, only the flash will be able to tame that contrast and open up shadows so that they can be recorded with your camera.
True, you’ll probably be doing early-morning and late-afternoon game drives, but the sub-Saharan sun is strong, even at those times. If you don’t spot a pride of lions hunting in the early or late light, chances are you’ll see them sitting in the shade or turned away from the hot sun. Here’s where the flash can help you by opening up those shadows, even ever so slightly, and making them recordable on chip or film.
I found myself reaching for my flash for birds and monkeys in tree branches, as well as catching the bigger mammals in sunlight. Sometimes, the animals were actually beyond the flash’s range. (I didn’t bring one of the fresnel lens flash intensifiers that are used by a lot of birding photographers but will next time.) Nevertheless, even in those cases, the slight lightening of the shadows as well as the small catch light the flash provided in my quarry’s eyes were enough to justify its use.
But the flash isn’t only for animal pictures. Most safaris also include a visit or two to a Masai village. There may be the odd stand of trees and shade, but most likely, you’ll be out in the undiffused and brutally strong sunlight, with deep shadows and dark skin tones to contend with. During the brief visit, it was only the fill-flash provided by my Nikon SB-800 that opened up the shadows enough to make the chanting-and-dancing people pictures work. Since a visit to a Masai village is a high point on many safaris, it pays to be ready with a good flash unit to make the most of the contrasty situation.
Technique Tips. The techniques used for wildlife photography here in Tanzania are pretty much the same as you’d expect. Long lens, fast shutter speed, wide aperture and nondistracting backgrounds are the order of the day. In the Ngorongoro as well as the Serengeti, you have large plains of grass and few trees, which means soft backgrounds with your longer lenses. While the fast shutter speed/wide aperture combo will stand you in good stead for a large majority of your shooting, don’t get too locked into it.
You can add a sense of motion by dropping the shutter speed and panning with moving animals. Whether it’s an impala bounding away from real or sensed danger or a thundering herd of wildebeest in their annual migration, panning with a slower shutter speed can add some energy to your photography.
I find, with the really long lenses and fast-moving animals, that a shutter speed of 1/60 or even 1/125 sec. captures a feeling of blur with just the right amount of sharpness. These are somewhat higher shutter speeds than you might usually use for this, but keep in mind you’re working with much longer lenses and much faster-moving subjects than you might usually be when trying to pan with a slow shutter speed.
Don’t forget to look for the reverse scenario, where the background is in motion but your subject is still. One of my favorite shots of the whole trip was of a crocodile sitting beneath a set of rapids in the Grumeti River in the Serengeti. He was stock-still with his mouth open, allowing the rushing water to filter through his jaws with the hope that some errant fish would swim right in! With my 80-400mm VR braced on a beanbag and a 1/4 sec. shutter speed, I was able to catch the croc razor sharp with a swoosh of moving water all around him.
Other Points. Other important points to consider when planning a safari is how many people per vehicle your operator allows. Four people per vehicle (plus your driver and/or guide) is ideal; there’s plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Six or eight people per Land Rover isn’t uncommon, though, especially on the economy tours, and this makes it difficult to move and shoot as needed.
Although most drivers are trained to do this, don’t be afraid to ask yours to turn off the engine if you’re shooting. The vibration from those diesel engines are enough to cause camera shake even with VR- or IS-equipped lenses.
Take care with your air arrangements getting to Africa as well. London is a popular connecting point for flights to Africa. But remember, London’s Heathrow Airport has the strictest carry-on policies on the planet: one carry-on (and they mean one) of the dimensions of a small laptop briefcase, weighing no more than about 14 pounds!
This is completely unworkable for most photographers, and there’s nothing that can ruin a safari faster than having to check all your camera gear in the hold of the plane, so look for alternatives. For instance, I flew through Amsterdam, where the usual "one carry-on, one personal item" rule seemed to be fine, even though they too, officially, allow only one piece of cabin baggage. But if London is in your layover plans, be prepared to check your camera bag!
With some preparation and a little bit of luck, however, Tanzania will provide you with wonderful imagery and great memories—all you can ask from a wildlife safari.