This article is all about photographing on safari. Here’s how to handle unexpected challenges and take great safari pictures.
What to Expect on an African Safari
Late sunlight fell across the scrub forest and savannah of the dry Savuti scrublands of Chobe, National Park, Botswana. I was in a Landcruiser which idled slowly forward toward a pair of male lions.
The two enormous cats, siblings, were the dominant animals of a large pride. They’d used the privilege of their seniority to nap well into the late afternoon.
Even with dusk and their nocturnal hunting hours approaching, the two still looked drowsy.
We stopped just fifteen feet away, and the safari guide cut the engine. I raised my camera to my eye and composed a portrait with my 500mm lens and waited.
When one of the lions turned his eyes toward me, making eye contact, I clicked the shutter.
There was no threat in that gaze. Just a quiet moment of curiosity before his attention was drawn elsewhere.
That portrait of the male lion remains one of my favorites. Not because of the image itself, but because it recalls that moment of my first African photo safari.
It’s a good memory.
Africa surprised me. As an Alaska-based photographer, I’m spoiled by wildlife. On the photo workshops and wilderness trips I lead, bears, caribou, moose, and other northern megafauna are near-daily photo subjects.
Africa, I thought, was too photographed, too popular, and well, overdone. I’d stick to the north thankyouverymuch.
Within an hour of my arrival in Botswana, my air of superiority burnt off like a morning fog. Africa, it turned out, was truly in a league of its own.
The challenges of photography in Africa are very different from what I’m accustomed to. Getting close to animals is easy. Making images of charismatic wildlife in golden light, too, is easy.
The challenges were coping with the heat and harsh light, the dust, the rare opportunities to photograph the landscape. And finding perspectives that did not look like they’d been shot from the back of a safari vehicle (even though they were).
Making unique safari pictures of creatures photographed thousands of times was not easy. I wish I’d known some of these things before I made my first journey to Africa. At least I know them now and will not be so unprepared in the future.
Equipment for Safari Photography
No discussion of photography in a place like Africa would be complete without at least a mention of gear.
I’ll start right here: take two cameras.
Africa is a dusty place, particularly during the dry season. Since most of your time will be spent in the back of an open safari vehicle, that dust is a double-whammy.
Every time you change lenses, you’ll be opening up your camera to intrusion by the ever-present dust.
The less you swap the glass, the better.
Having two cameras ready with different focal lengths is a great way to minimize lens changes. My choice for my primary camera was a fixed 500mm. Any number of long primes or zooms will work.
Do you need a tripod? That’s a frequent question, and the answer is a resounding “maybe?”. The usefulness of a tripod depends on your interests.
If you are interested in wildlife, then perhaps not. Almost all of your shooting will happen from the back of a vehicle.
A final word on gear: Don’t overpack. You’ll be moving around a lot, and the more you have the more you need to carry.
I carried all my photo gear in a mid-size camera pack. After lugging that and the rest of my baggage through a half-dozen airports, on and off taxis, buses, and trains, I’m grateful I didn’t bring more.
Heat and Light
I live in Alaska. But I’ve spent a lot of time in the tropics. I’ve spent months photographing in South and Central America and I thought I understood equatorial light.
In the open country of Africa, the day brightens so fast and the light disappears so quickly, I was shocked. To say the hours of sweet light were brief would be an understatement.
Of my favorite images on safari, I suspect 90% were made within the first or last hour of the day. The many hours in-between, while still full of wildlife, were hot and bright.
During the dry season, when most travelers visit Africa, the days are often cloudless, with hours of harsh sunlight.
To be successful on safari, you’ve got to rise early. Each day, I wake before the first birds, rise from my tent and step outside into the darkness.
After a quick cup of coffee and a little breakfast, I climb into the vehicle, just as dawn breaks. The goal is always to be out in the field, among the animals, before the first sunlight hits the landscape.
Get up early, and be out during the evening golden hour. Every. Single. Day. Your time on safari will seem brief and a missed morning or evening session cannot be recovered.
That’s not to say, you shouldn’t also shoot during the heat of the day. Yes, most of my favorites were made during the golden hours. Several, like those here in this section of this article, were made in hot, bright conditions.
I find that a black and white conversion can be used to make the most of the harsh contrasts of direct, mid-day sunlight.
Consider the stories you want to tell. Remember that heat and bright light are as much a part of Africa (probably more) than the cool hours of morning and evening.
Seasons and Weather
Most of Africa is monsoonal with a climate defined by rainy and dry seasons. The dry season is favored by most travelers for a number of reasons.
These include clear weather, better road conditions, and easier access to photographic hotspots.
The drawback of the dry season, and for me it’s a big one, is the lack of clouds.
Clouds dramatically improve mid-day light and can extend productive shooting hours throughout the day.
They can also provide a dramatic backdrop savannah landscapes or wide format images of wildlife. But in many parts of Africa, clouds are rare things during the peak of the dry season.
There is no best time to visit Africa. It depends on the area you plan to visit, the seasonality of the wildlife, access, and your photographic goals.
In some areas, the seasonal grass grows very high toward the end of the wet season. It is impossible to see over, while in other areas, access may be impossible due to mud and flooded roads.
The best date for your photographic goals may surprise you. I plan to make my next trip to Botswana in the early rainy season, well outside the peak of tourism.
Landscapes and Perspectives
Vehicle-based safaris, are limiting. I’m accustomed to being able to lay down on my stomach for an image, kneel, or scramble atop something for a higher perspective.
On safari, you won’t be able to do any that. Your perspective, 90% of the time, will be limited to your perch in the back of a vehicle.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great angle, that allows you to see over tall grass, and is close to eye level for many of the larger animals. The same perspective, day after day, grows wearisome.
On safari, I often long for the opportunity to get out of the car, get down low, and create something new.
This is true when it comes to landscape photography too. As a landscape photographer, safari is a great challenge. The daily routine is so focused on wildlife (as it should be) that the opportunities to photograph the landscape are scarce.
And in landscape photography, perhaps even more than wildlife, your position is key to success.
During the rare times when you have the ability to move around, from time in camp to bathroom breaks during the day’s game drives, you need to seize the moment.
You also can’t be afraid to speak up and ask your guide to stop during a drive. During my first safari in Botswana we were passing a stand of Baobabs in the late afternoon.
The light was just starting to get sweet. Some scattered clouds dotted the sky. When I saw the potential for a sunburst dead center over the Baobabs, I yelled “Stop!”.
The resulting image is my favorite landscape of that trip.
Take advantage of every chance to photograph the landscape, and each opportunity to embrace a different perspective.
Finding Your Own Composition
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of iconic images of Africa and its wildlife. I’m sure any reader can immediately bring to mind a number of photos of lions, elephants, or leopards.
There is a real risk that a visiting photographer will imitate those famous images. The trick to successful photography in Africa, or anywhere, is breaking away from that temptation.
I spent the early days of my first African safari doing just that, repeating or trying to repeat images I’d already seen.
The excitement and abundance of wildlife lured me into a sense of complacency. I snapped away at the easy shots.
Later, I realized what I was doing and adjusted my efforts. I tried to make images that were my own, rather than a repeat of what someone else had already done.
The photos made during the second half of that trip include blurs, wide angles, and animals in habitat shots.
These are, in my opinion, far better than the up-close portraits, and derivative shots from the start of the safari.
Grab inspiration from the work of others. But be sure to make images that are your own. In the end, they will mean far more to you.
When I reflect back on a photographic moment. There is something I wish I’d done differently. A slightly different composition or adjustment to the exposure that would improve the images I made.
When I reflect on the moment with the lion, when it turned its golden eyes toward my camera, I don’t want anything different.
It’s not because the image is perfect. It’s because the photo recalls my time in Africa.
We can spend hours discussing how to improve our images, and we should. We should consider the places we visit, the times, the gear we need, and the compositional and lighting challenges.
In the end, what matters is how we feel when we look at a photo, and the experience we had while making it.
In Africa, the opportunities to create memories, and photos are more abundant than most places. That’s reason enough to go, and to be prepared for the challenges.