One of the best parts of my year is when I get the opportunity to go back to Africa to lead another photo safari. It never ceases to amaze me how many incredible photo ops there are while driving through the Serengeti or other national parks in Tanzania. However, even though there are a lot of wonderful moments, knowing how to capture those amazing moments is key to the safari photographer’s success.
Timing Your Trip
Depending on where you go on safari, make sure you visit at prime animal viewing times. This will vary from country to country, and I would suggest that you do some research online to determine the best time of the year to see the kind of animals you seek to photograph.
The safaris I run in Tanzania take place in January, February and March for the calving season and in August to coincide with the wildebeest and zebra herd crossings at the fabled Mara River. During calving season, there are roughly 8,000 wildebeest born each day, and that means great timing for cute baby animal photos as almost all the animals give birth at this time of year. Plus, the predators like the big cats are out in full force with easy pickings more readily available. For the river crossings, it doesn’t get more exciting than this. The massive herds are challenging yet so much fun to photograph.
Other countries will have different times best suited for taking wildlife photos. Be proactive, and do your research. Ideally, you will be going on a photo safari where your operator has taken all this into account, but it is always best to get some idea on your own before booking your trip.
Go With A Pro
For most people, doing an African photo safari is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While I’m sure it would be fine to go with a regular safari group, going with a company that specializes in photography will pair you up with other passionate and motivated photographers and provide you with a pro photographer leader who knows his or her stuff. This can make all the difference in the world when it comes to the images you take while on your safari adventure.
Patience Is Required
This is not the place to rush or be impatient. You’re blessed to be in Africa on a dream trip for photographers, so take a moment to breathe, relax and prepare yourself to wait for the perfect shot to find you. Once you see a potential wildlife subject, get your settings straight on your camera(s) and pay close attention. You may only get a split second to react for a once-in-a-lifetime photo.
Often, you also will have to wait for that shot … and wait, and wait. There is, however, a true moment of reward when all that tedious waiting pays off with a burst of adrenaline when a magical scene unfolds in front of you, and you find yourself perfectly prepared to fire the shutter to capture your prize-winning photo.
Lenses For Photo Safari
I’m certainly not a gear hound, but I am a fan of having the right gear for the gig. Safaris are particularly specific in terms of what gear you’ll need to capture awesome wildlife shots. On safari, bigger is often better.
You’ll want to have a super telephoto lens as this will be your go-to glass on safari. Ultra-fast telephoto lenses that are 300mm or longer paired with a teleconverter will significantly increase your chances of getting superior in-focus photographs. All camera brands have some decent choices, and there are even really good third-party lens companies that make excellent alternatives. Canon and Nikon definitely lead the field in terms of telephoto lens choices, especially with fast ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4 lenses in the 400mm to 600mm range. Sony also offers a 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4 for its mirrorless system, which is a perfect lens for safaris.
I’m currently using Fujifilm cameras and lenses, and my choice in this system is the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (150-600mm 35mm-equivalent), but while I like that lens, especially when paired with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter, it is a bit slow compared to the Sony, Nikon and Canon lens lineup of high-speed glass.
While you do not need to have a fast prime or zoom to get amazing safari photos, it certainly does not hurt to have one.
My lens lineup for safaris (35mm-equivalent) includes the following:
Wide Zoom Or Prime
16-35mm zoom or a prime in this range
While you may not use this lens all the time on safari, there may be a few times where you’ll want to capture the “big picture” unfolding in front of your eyes. A wide-angle lens will be able to help you convey the majesty of what you’re witnessing. No need to go super wide like 14mm or less, and I do suggest zoom lenses over primes for your shorter lenses. That being said, if you don’t have a wide-angle lens on a safari, you likely won’t miss it. If you’re looking to pack light, leave this one at home.
24-70mm or 24-105mm
This is my “don’t leave home without it” lens. While not my favorite lens, it sure is ideal for capturing a good portion of my keepers.
Short Telephoto Zoom
I love this lens for wildlife shooting. It is always affixed to one of my camera bodies while on safari. I would say that this is the most versatile lens in the safari shooter’s kit. It’s easy to handhold, fast, sharp and adaptable to multiple points of view from normal to telephoto. Trust me, you want this lens in your kit.
Super Telephoto Zoom Or Prime
This is where I find that there are so many good choices, and I’ll break it down a bit more with respect to zooms and primes.
For a zoom, you want something like a 200-400mm (or longer), and pair this along with at least a 1.4x teleconverter. Getting close perspectives on your stunning animal subject matter will knock your socks off. Trust me, while the three previous zooms I mention will get you some beautiful images, if you do not have a super telephoto lens, you will be eating your heart out as you look at your safari companions’ images shot with super telephoto fast glass.
When selecting a prime super telephoto, go with at least a 400mm, and, if you can afford it, get the fastest lens possible. If you are on a budget, there sure are good alternatives, so don’t worry. With newer camera sensors, cranking up the ISO to 1600 or higher to compensate for slower apertures is not an issue with regard to image quality.
All the pro camera companies make 1.4x and 2x teleconverters that allow you to turn that super telephoto into a mega-super telephoto lens. You’ll want one of these (or both) on your trip.
With all three zooms I am suggesting above (other than the super telephoto), I would recommend the ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 versions when possible. As with so many different kinds of photography, sunrise and sunset light are the absolute best for safari photography. At these times, the light is beautiful and soft but also weaker than in the middle of the day, and as such you’ll want a faster lens to be able to capture moving subjects with as little digital noise as possible.
I do realize that some of the suggested super telephoto lenses are crazy expensive, but you always have the alternative to rent instead of buying the ultra-pricey glass.
While the long lenses are great for shooting, I also strongly recommend using a good pair of binoculars for spotting and casual viewing. You don’t have to break the bank on these and can get a good pair for under $300. I have a pair of 10×42-powered binoculars and love them. They are compact enough and bright enough for my needs.
Additional Gear Tips For Photo Safaris
Forget the safari clamps and fancy-pants “safari” gimbal attachments. You’ll just be spending money for nothing when a simple bean bag is all you need to brace your camera on the roof of your vehicle. Unless you have the safari vehicle to yourself and can set up clamps and gimbals on both sides of the vehicle for your use only, you will slow yourself down and get in the way of the other guests in your vehicle. You do not want to be that person—believe me, this is not the way to make friends.
Tripod Or No Tripod?
Leave the tripod at home. I am always using a tripod on my travel shoots, and that is how I have made a name for myself over the years, but safari shooting is a completely different animal—pardon the pun. You will have no use for a tripod or monopod on your safari, so unless you will be following the safari with a trip to a location where you’ll be shooting landscapes, leave the tripod at home or at your hotel or camp.
On my safaris, I strongly discourage tripods, monopods and even safari clamps. These are all just cumbersome tools that will likely prevent you from getting your shot as opposed to actually helping you. I suggest using bean bags to stabilize your camera and lens in your safari vehicle. They are ideal for quick movement and small so as to not get in the way of your vehicle mates.
Bring lots of batteries and chargers. You will shoot more than you think. If you run out of batteries, just remember that I told you so.
Memory Cards & Backup
This is another item you want to have in abundance. Memory cards are relatively cheap these days, and if you run out, you will not be a happy photographer. When shooting rapid-moving subject matter at fast continuous shooting rates, you will find yourself taking thousands and thousands of photos. Be prepared for that. Fast cards (read/write speeds) are a must. Waiting for your cards to record while magic happens in front of you is not an experience you want.
To make sure that your images are backed up and safe, I always suggest bringing a laptop and external hard drives to store images. I bring two drives and keep them separate, just in case of loss, theft or damage. If you want to travel lighter, and your camera has two memory card slots, use one as the backup card. If you do that and want to safeguard your files, again, store the cards separately and bring a lot of cards. Having at least two copies of your once-in-a-lifetime images will put your mind at ease.
Camera Settings On Safari
This is where you’ll want to use Auto ISO, as light can change drastically if your animals walk or run into the shade or if they turn around and become backlit. Having the camera set to Auto ISO will help you keep your shutter speed high enough to assure sharp images. If not using Auto ISO, be certain to check your settings frequently. You should also always check your ISO every morning as you may have had it set it for the conditions of the previous day’s shooting conditions, and they won’t likely be the same the next morning.
My recommendation for this is to have your meter set to Spot Metering. You’re likely going to want to focus on one animal in your frame and have the photograph exposed for the animal rather than the overall scene. You may have to sacrifice your sky or background detail to properly expose for the animal, but that’s well worth it in the end.
Especially in situations where you’re faced with high-contrast scenes, I suggest bracketing with three frames at 1.5 to 2 stops plus and minus exposure compensation. On safari, you’ll be faced with some once-in-a-lifetime situations, and it is worth firing off some extra frames to ensure that you capture the perfect (or near-perfect) shot.
If your camera or lens has image stabilization (most do), use it. Safaris are the perfect environment for this feature, especially when you are set at a slower shutter speed or are hand holding off the beanbag. When placing the camera on a bean bag, be sure to test this feature by turning it on and off to see the difference. I use a mirrorless Fujifilm camera these days, and in the EVF I can sometimes see the image jump around slightly if I use image stabilization on a tripod or if it is set on a beanbag and very stable. When I see that happen, I turn off the stabilization for better results.
Every camera and camera manufacturer has unique AF settings for specific shooting conditions. Study this well before you go on your safari and learn how to manipulate the autofocus settings to your advantage.
I hear you—this is confusing and at times intimidating, but it is up to each individual photographer to get to know their camera and how to best use it. After all, it is the photographer who takes the photograph, not the camera.
Study the manual to start, but then I have a bit of advice that may help you immensely with regards to this and other educational needs when it comes to your gear: Use YouTube as a resource and type into the search box your camera make and model and the words “autofocus settings.” You should then see several instructional videos on how to best set up the AF settings on your camera. Look for the videos with the highest view count, as those are likely to be the best ones.
Slow & Steady
Depending on your camera model, and if you have a booster or battery grip, your camera will be able to shoot anywhere from a relatively slow 3 frames per second to a head-spinning 20 fps or even faster. While the 14 to 20 fps has advantages, it can also become a negative if used too much. You’ll run out of memory card and hard drive space much quicker if you use this high-speed shooting all the time, and, secondly, you’ll have a heck of a time when it comes to image selection later on.
If something incredible happens in front of you, such as a chase or a stampede at a river crossing, then you may want to use the ultra-high speed for short bursts of exposures. Do remember to switch back to a slower continuous shooting rate when you don’t need the speed and to be more selective of when you hit the shutter. During one of my safaris, it is not uncommon for my guests to shoot 20,000 frames or more. If you took just 5 seconds to review each of the frames, you’d be looking at close to 28 hours of image selecting.
See The Light
As in any kind of photography, lighting is everything. Reading the light and knowing how to manipulate your camera to different settings applicable to each situation is of paramount importance.
Early-morning and late sunset present the challenge of having beautiful soft golden light but at a much lower intensity. At these times of day, be prepared to crank up the ISO, open up to lens’ larger apertures, and brace yourself with a bit more certainty than during times where the light is strong, and you shoot at fast shutter speeds. Some of my best shots come from this time of day, including the image of the lion coming out of the green brush in this article. That was a foggy morning at sunrise, and I had just a few seconds to get the shot at a high ISO in low light.
Keep your fingers crossed for soft light and cloudy days. Having clouds not only will make the light hitting the animals more subtle and less contrasty, but also, when including skies in your photos, clouds add drama to your photographs.
When there is no cloud cover in midday situations, you may want to look for close-up shots or animals in the shade. Many of the animals will seek shaded shelter at this time as the sun can get quite intense. Don’t expect the animals to be very active in intense light and heat. Take a break during these times and have lunch, return to your camp for a rest, and be sure to wear a hat and stay hydrated. There are plenty of exceptional photo ops waiting for you later in the day.
Instead of explaining this technique myself, I refer you to Russ Burden’s excellent article on the subject, “Backlit Wildlife” which does a great job in covering this fun topic, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it.
If you want to be serious about your photography, you absolutely need to be shooting in RAW to get the most detail from your image files. The high dynamic range and lossless format of RAW files are just two of the many reasons to use this mode. You will have to learn how to post process those files to take advantage of them to the fullest, and if that doesn’t interest you, JPGs are fine but certainly cannot compare to a properly edited RAW file.
Try Black & White
While I love shooting in full, bright, vivid color most of the time, there is something timeless and classic about black-and-white safari photos. Apart from the images looking great in black-and-white, you can get away with shooting in harsher lighting conditions when you convert your images to black-and-white. Lightroom and Capture One do a nice job on your RAW conversions into black-and-white, but don’t forget Silver Efex Pro and Tonality as other excellent options for converting your color files into stunning monochrome final images.
The Eyes Have It
Just like in people photography, when we look at photos of animals, we look at the eyes. It is hard-wired in our DNA to focus on the eyes of all animals. In order to make that connection with the animal and the viewer of your photo, you’ll want the eyes to be sharp. Some cameras have facial recognition or eye detection features. Try using them to see if that helps get your subject matter’s eyes in focus. Otherwise, be aware that you’re going to want to try to focus on the animal’s eyes as much as possible.
Emotion & Relationships
I shoot a lot of other types of travel imagery, but it is very rare to capture pure raw emotion like when I’m photographing wildlife in Africa. Whether it be an intense hunt or a warm moment between mother and child, those types of images are usually the ones that captivate the viewer more than others. Look for animal pairs or trios, as those are most often the ones where you’ll capture a connection or relationship between animals. Groups are tougher to capture, but if you can get a larger group to all look good in one photo, then you’re doing a great job.
Connect With Your Environment
Every once in a while, please put your camera down and soak in the majesty of your environment. Take a deep breath, scan the horizon, look at the animals with your eyes, heart and soul, and realize how truly blessed you are to be able to be living this incredible experience. Share these moments with your travel companions in a deep way. You’ll look back on these moments fondly when you look at your photos in the future.
We are possibly one of the last generations in human history to be fortunate enough to be able to witness some of these animals in their natural environment. I take time on each safari to be mindful of how blessed I am to be able to share this beautiful planet with so many other incredible animals. On safari, like in no other situation I can think of, we get to encounter and view so many species of animals that I can barely keep track. I don’t think I’d have as deep and meaningful of an experience if I spent the whole time on a safari taking photos and only thinking about getting the next shot.