How To Photograph Your African Safari

By Dani Blanchette on June 7th, 2016
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Going on an African safari is an amazing experience and you’ll want photographs to show it off back home. But photographing a safari is different than taking everyday photos, so here are some tips – for all photography budgets and skill levels.

The Gear


Make sure you have something that has fast shutter speed. This is the most important part. Seeing a scene then having to wait 3 seconds before the camera actually takes the image can mean the difference between the perfect shot and a blurry animal’s butt. You are also going to want something with fast autofocus (if you are not used to manual focusing), and good megapixels (8mpx or above which is pretty standard nowadays).

You’re going to want to capture the beautiful landscapes as well as large animals that can sometimes be quite far away, so having a great zoom and wide angle lens, or camera that can do both, are ideal. If you’re really serious and want to make absolute sure that your photos will come back safe and sound, bring a second camera. It’s horrible when your camera dies mid-trip (I’ve had it happen) and you can’t do anything about it. Sometimes mixing point-and-shoots and DSLRs are good; sometimes you want 2 high end cameras.

It all depends on your budget, your needs, and your photography level.

  • NOTE: Start thinking and planning your photography needs at least 2 months ahead of your trip, so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.


photo safari elephant
Now that you have all this extra gear, you need someway to download your memory cards each day, because trust me, you WILL fly through them!

I brought my computer and an external hard drive. Not only will you have extra space in case you need it, you can copy all your photos and videos on to the external HD so you have duplicates of everything.

  • NOTE: Try to never erase photos from your laptop during your trip, even if they are copied on to your external. I got home to find out some of the photos I had copied onto my external were corrupted (due to my laptop battery dying during copying). Because I also had the photos still on my laptop, I was able to recover them from my laptop and re-copy them onto my external properly. If I had erased the photos from my laptop after putting them on my external, I would have lost a bunch of great animal shots! Remember: Technology isn’t perfect!

I love the WD My Passport externals (and I always splurge for an extra hard case for them for about $20) because they are small, durable (when in the hard case) and they run using a single, included, small cable you plug into your computer’s USB port. (ie: No extra cables or outlets needed like on larger external hard drives).

BestBuy is always having great sales on My Passports, and they sell the hard cases too. Also check NewEgg.com to see what deals they have.

  • NOTE: Store your laptop and external in different places when traveling. On safari there are weight limits to what you can bring, so it’s usually best to bring 2 carry-ons, and to keep your laptop and external in separate bags. If you must check a bag during flights, keep both things on you, or pack your external tightly in your checked bag in a way it can’t get crushed or bumped around.

Planning a Gap Year? Want to include a safari?

Have a Universal Adapter!


This is the one thing I didn’t buy before I left and wished I had the whole time! I originally thought, “Hey, I can just buy a cheap universal adapter when I get to the Nairobi Airport.”

But you know what actually happens? You get to the airport and go, “OhMyGosh! I’m in Kenya! I’m in Africa! I’m going on safari! Where’s my bags? Let’s get through security! Where am I going? Where’s my guide?”

Buying an adapter will never once cross your mind until you get to your first hotel that night and need it. Buy one ahead of time on any major website or at your local electronics or travel store.

  • NOTE: Check your laptop plug and chargers before you go! If they have a 3-prong plug, make sure you get a 3-prong to 2-prong adapter. The 3-prong outlets that are common in the USA, are very uncommon everywhere else. If you find a USA style outlet, which some camps have, it is almost always 2-prong. Safari camps may have a USA to Kenya adapter, but they are almost always 2-prong (and the adapters are first-ask, first-get). Don’t get stuck without a way to charge your stuff!


photo safari leopard

Bring a Rain Cover


Rain covers are cheap, plastic bags that are shaped to fit any DSLR camera and lens. They are great to have as they protect your gear from rain, dust, dirt, mud, and so on. They fold up tiny, are only about $10 (usually for 2), and can save your camera in unexpected weather or dust storms (which are common in parts of Kenya).

Flash


Now, if you are the type of person who will want to photograph your rooms, all your food, and silly drunkenness around the campfire at night, bring a flash with a diffuser of some sort with you.

Realistically, you will probably never use it. You will mostly be photographing in bright daylight, and even in the early morning and late evenings, a flash will do you no good. Not only can they not alight the vast scene well, flashes and bright lights will damage many of the predator’s eyes. Even guides use a diffused red light at night around animals.

Plus you really don’t want to scare a lion or hippo with a giant flash in it’s face. That’s not exactly smart.


Tripods vs. Bean Bags


Tripods are another piece of gear that will rarely get used. Again, unless you plan on shooting your room interior, or if you know you want to do long-exposure night/low-light photos, tripods are best left at home. There is not much room for them in the jeeps (and not room to set them up), plus the roads on safari are bumpy. You’ll loose precious time, and miss photo opportunities, by needing to break down and set up a tripod each time you stop.

It’s better to bring a bean bag. You can steady your camera on a ledge, or better yet, call ahead to the safari company and see if they offer jeeps with ledges and bean bags. (Great Plains Conservation, which is founded by National Geographic filmmakers the Jouberts, offers amazing photographer perks at their camps, and all their jeeps are fitted with bean bags for photogaphers to steady their cameras on).


photo safari zebra

The Taking of the Photos


Having the right gear is not the end of getting great safari photos. You also have to know how to use the gear and tricks for snapping various types of shots.

Here are some of the tips and tricks you will need when on safari:


Practice Using Your Gear


Before you go, you need to know your gear! If you’re renting cameras and lenses, rent them for a week about a month before your trip. This way you can practice with your gear, and if it isn’t what you want (or you just don’t like it), you have time to try something else. The little you will spend renting practice gear is worth it!

Sometimes local camera stores rent gear too, so check with them as well. Download the manuals and practice using the different functions. You don’t want to be learning how to use your gear during your trip. You’ll miss too many amazing shots!


Practice Photographing Moving Targets


One of the hardest things to capture when on safari is the animals because they can move fast and are sometimes far away. Along with practicing using the gear, you’ll want to practice tracking moving targets with your camera. Head out to a wildlife area and try capturing birds, squirrels, or other small animals.

If you don’t have a wildlife area near you, you can use a toy race cars, kites, remote control planes, your neighbor’s dog, or a friend’s 2-year-old. Anything that won’t stay still and will constantly move various distances from you. This way, when you get to your safari, you’ll feel confident getting sharp-focused photos of the amazing animals you encounter.

Shoot at High Shutter Speed

To get really sharp shots of moving targets, you will want to shoot at very high shutter speeds (Ie: how many seconds, or fractions of a second the shutter is open). Keep your camera’s shutter speed above 1000 (and sometimes much higher) for daylight and animal photos. This allows you to get super sharp photos you can print large copies of. During dusk and dawn, when it is still very dark, you will have to adjust this and shoot at lower speeds, with higher ISO (we’ll get to that next). If you have a jeep with a ledge and bean bag, you can ask the driver to turn off the jeep (to stop vibrations) so you can take longer exposure photographs.

  • NOTE: If you have a lens with Image Stabilization, keep it on. Always. It allows you to shoot at lower speeds, or shooting zoomed in, without blur.


Film Speed


The ISO is the digital equivalent of film speed, lower ISO’s meaning the camera needs more light to get a good image. During daylight hours you can easily shoot at ISO 100 or 400 with a fast shutter.

The lower the speed of the ‘film’, the less grain (less ‘bad old movie look’). During dusk and dawn you may have no choice but to use ISO 1000-1600 (unless you are using a tripod and not shooting moving subjects), but you will see the difference in the quality of the photo. ISO 800 on many higher end DSLRs have little grain and are fine to shoot at.

I often shoot at 800 (because of my music photography beginnings), but the lower the ISO, the less grain your photos have if blown up big.

  • NOTE: The lower your ISO/film speed setting, the faster your shutter speed needs to be to get sharp-focuses images.


Shooting Manual vs Automatic


Point-and-Shoot cameras have limited manual functions, and it is usually easier to shoot everything in automatic mode. The Panasonic Lumix mentioned above shot great in auto mode for a point-and-shoot.

If you are shooting DSLR, it is always better to use manual IF you know how. Cameras are not our eyes and have inherent trouble knowing what we want them to focus on.

If you can, shoot using manual focus and exposure, but if you aren’t comfortable with it, there is no problem using auto-modes. Sometimes when tracking fast moving animals, it’s good to set your focus to auto to track your target as you take photos. (Do so by holding the ‘take photo’ button down halfway after you focus on your subject, then, as you are moving and tracking your subject, push the button down fully to take the photo.)

If you have the opportunity to shoot something really fast, like a cheetah running after prey, consider yourself lucky, even if the photo doesn’t come out perfect. Not many people (including me) get the chance to see a hunt as it happens!


Look For the Light


This is in every “How To Photo” manual, but it’s because it is important. Some drivers (like at Great Plains) are amazing at knowing how to position the jeep on a subject to get the best light. But never be afraid to ask your driver to move to another spot to get the light hitting the subject in the way you want. Drivers are there to make sure you have a great experience. They won’t say no, unless it will somehow harm or scare an animal.

photo safari sunset

Photographing Different Subjects


There are different tricks to photographing different subjects on your safari. The 3 major subjects are animals, people, and landscapes.

Photographing Animals


Photographing animals is probably the number one thing you will do on safari! Many animals are easy to photograph because drivers stay far enough away not to scare the animals, or they position the jeep so the animals lazily walk by. But animals move quite fast at random times, so always shoot at high shutter speeds to capture the animals in motion.

Remain quiet, even if approached by an animal. Many animals use their sound and smell over sight, and loud sounds (like you screaming) can scare them. If you’re driver is not nervous, you shouldn’t be either! When animals come close is when you get some really amazing photographs!

  • NOTE: Animals see the jeep as a single, large, moving object bigger than them. They do not see the individual people in the jeep. So as long as you stay in the jeep, and stay calm, you are seen as something too big for them to eat. Once you lean or get out of the jeep you become what we jokingly referred to as ‘cheetah chow’. Listen to your driver and you will be fine.


photo safari lion

Photographing People


Be nice. Smile. Engage with your subject first, even if it is with lots of hand signals and laughing. You will get much better photos with a little common courtesy and politeness.

Focus on the eyes! When photographing people, if the eyes are in focus, all else looks good. If your camera is trying to focus on the nose, switch to manual focus or adjust where the autofocus is set. (This is different for every camera, so read the focusing section of your camera manual).

It is always rude to photograph people without their permission, so don’t photograph anyone without asking first. Asking can be as simple as pointing to your camera and pointing back at them. Always respect their answer. And if using a digital camera, always offer to show your subject their photo after you take it. Treat everyone exactly how you would want a stranger treating you.

You may be brought to a village, or be given a welcoming/leaving ceremony in which you are told you can photograph the locals. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but these people have agreed to, and been paid for, you photographing them.


photo safari masai

Landscapes


You will want to use a wide angle for landscapes. Find interesting objects to place in the foreground, or on the horizon to help show scale and the vastness of the area. Sunrise and sunset make amazing landscape photography as the light is low and soft, and the colors pop! If there is a road, trail, or line of any kind, try to make it end in one of the corners of your camera.

If it is darker out, use a beanbag or tripod to allow for long-exposure shots. Unfortunately you can’t always get out of your jeep to take shots you want, but do the best you can with your limitations. When you do end up in places safe enough to get out, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT! Walk around, get landscape shots, create panoramas, even if it’s the middle of the day and the light isn’t ‘magical’. You’re on safari. It’s beautiful no matter what, so take photos!

  • NOTE: Rules are meant to be broken. And you will have to break a lot of these ‘rules’ on safari because there are limitations to how you can move and where you can wander safely. Don’t dwell over the photos you can’t take. Get over it and figure out how you can move, and what gorgeous photos are available to you!
  • ANOTHER NOTE: Get your face out of the camera! Stop staring at your LCD screen when the jeep is moving. Look around and enjoy your safari. Otherwise you will miss great views and many amazing landscape photo opportunities!


photo safari africa

Other Things to Consider


There are other things to consider when photographing a safari that have nothing to do with your camera. Many have to do with your health and safety, but are just as important to making sure you are in the right mood and comfort to focus on the photography.

Ask Drivers to Stop


Drivers are there to make sure you have the best experience, so never be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can take a photo. This is your dream trip. Don’t feel embarrassed if you want to shoot the way the sunset hits that single rock in the middle of the field. It could end up being your best photo!

Drivers will help guide you and get you to the animals, but those beautiful overview landscape shots are not to be missed either. Any good guide will be expecting you to ask them to stop randomly to photograph. (And some of the best ones understand “Ooooo” and “WOW” mean “I want to photograph that”).

Also, jeeps shake when the engine is idling. Ask your driver to turn off the jeep if you need. This way you can get sharp-focused photographs.


Take naps!


You will be on early morning and late evening safari rides each day. Not only is the light amazing then (“magic light” hours), the animals are more active. But this also makes you extremely tired. When you get the few hours off in the afternoon, download your photos, eat, shower, AND NAP! The first couple of days you may be too excited to do this, but waking up at 5am and falling asleep past 11pm, will catch up with you very fast!

Catching an hour of sleep in the afternoon revives you and helps keep you alert and in a good mood for the evening rides. When you are tired, you miss stuff. Don’t be tired!


Drink Lots of Water!


Staying hydrated is very important, especially in dry climates. Since it is not sweltering hot in Kenya, you may think you are ok, but it’s very dry on the plains, and dehydration can happen rapidly and without warning. Make sure to drink something (besides alcohol) every hour. Usually jeeps will come stocked with drinks, but always bring plenty of water with you!

Want to take an extended trip?

Eat Healthy


Eating healthy is very easy on safari because the food served is well-balanced and delicious! Just make sure to not skip meals, especially if you have become dehydrated. If you do find yourself dehydrated remember to eat something salty along with drinking water.

Always Charge Batteries & Empty Memory Cards


Running out of batteries or space on your memory cards is horrific! You will rush in a frenzy through photos trying to erase some (and missing photo ops in the meantime, or erasing photos that are good) or cry because you have no battery.

If you follow the above advice, you already have a bunch of extra batteries and memory cards, but don’t slack because you have extras! Each time you return from an excursion, charge your current battery, even if it’s not dead yet, and download your current memory card.

No excuses!

You should be doing this every afternoon and night, so you always have full batteries and empty cards. Also, check the jeeps and see what they have for chargers. Yes, some jeeps come with charging strips for your electronics! Check if, and what type, of outlet they use, and bring your chargers with you. But I recommend leaving your laptops at camp. The jeeps are very, very bumpy and can easily bounce around and ruin your laptop.

Another great thing to do each evening is copy all your day’s photos onto your external harddrive so you have duplicates on a different drive. If each night isn’t feasible, you should at least be doing this each time before you switch camps. When you move locations is when stuff is most likely to get lost or broken.

Always copy, never erase!

The most important part about photographing on your safari is to have fun. You will take better photos when you are relaxed and in a good mood!

Read more about safaris:

Photo Credits: Masai Man & Africa Landscape (shutterstock) All other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.