An African photo safari is the dream trip for most photographers. My dream came true recently with a trip to South Africa, an adventure I will never forget. I prepared as you probably would by reading everything I could get my hands on about photo safaris. There were magazine articles, blog posts and information from travel and photography websites. I learned a lot from seasoned pros and amateurs alike. Even so, there were some surprises – circumstances I didn’t anticipate. I’d like to share those surprises with you before you head out for your first safari.
What to Expect
You’ll stay in a safari camp. What I didn’t anticipate (surprise number one) was that the camp would be surrounded by a high fence to keep the animals out. Of course, that makes sense in hindsight because it wouldn’t do to have predators prowling around the camp grounds stalking tasty tourists. But one of the consequences is that your movements are confined to the protected grounds and you won’t be taking sunrise walks into the African bush on your own. You also won’t get much exercise.
Typically, you will have two game drives each day. The morning drive will start a bit before sunrise and last until mid-morning. The afternoon drive will start mid-afternoon and typically end an hour or two after sunset. Most of the rest of the time you’ll spend eating. The morning drive is preceded by a light breakfast of fruit, cereal, yogurt and pastries. When you return from your morning safari you are treated to a “full” breakfast of eggs, waffles and pancakes, breakfast meat, potatoes and more fruit and pastries. Lunch is served around 1:00 and usually consists of several entrees, salads and dessert. Catatonic from all those calories, the time between lunch and the afternoon game drive is good for a nap or reviewing your morning pictures if you like. But you won’t have too much time until – high tea. That’s right, the evening game drive is ushered in by more snacks. Often these are native treats and sweets and they are hard to resist. After tea, it’s off to the evening game drive. Most of it is in late afternoon light. As the sun is setting, your ranger will stop the bush vehicle (usually a Land Rover with open sides and seating for 6-12) for a “sundowner,” a little libation and accompanying snack of nuts, dried fruit and dried meat. You’ll then continue the game drive for another hour or so in the dark, with the ranger or tracker (if you have a separate one) shining a portable spot light here and there looking for nocturnal animals in the trees and on the ground. When you return to camp, it’s time to freshen up and have a cocktail, followed by dinner. In the camps I stayed at, one of which was fancy and the other more mid-line, dinner was a four course affair, with appetizers, salads, main courses with sides and dessert. As you can see, surprise number two was the enormous quantities of food that are available to you during the day. The lesson I learned very quickly was that despite how tasty the food was, I needed to seriously meter what was going in my mouth.
You can visit either a private game reserve or a public park. I did both. The private game reserve was one of the largest in South Africa. There were dirt roads all over the place and the ranger would often head off-road for a better view of the animals. There were only two or three safari vehicles out at a time and it was rare to encounter more than one other vehicle. Surprise number three was how close we got to the animals in the private reserve. We were often less than thirty feet from a pride of lions munching on a Wildebeest or a herd of elephants uprooting trees or bevy of preening impala. Kruger National Park was a very different experience. The safari vehicles generally carry more people and are limited to travel on the paved roads and the few dirt roads. Because of the limitation on off-road travel in the Park, you are often viewing the animals at a distance. The rangers are in constant radio contact with one another and when an animal is sited by one the location is broadcast to all who then race there at breakneck speed. The result is often half a dozen or more vehicles crowding around an animal or group of animals. So the experience of the private reserve and the public parks are quite different.
What to Take
Preparing for the trip, I read a lot about what clothes to pack, what lenses to take and about camera supports. I packed light, as I usually do. April in South Africa is the beginning of fall and the high temperatures were forecast to be 80, with lows in the mid-60s. Seemed like shirt-sleeve weather for the most part. Of course I took a rain jacket and “just in case” of an anticipated cold snap, I packed a light fleece. What I didn’t take into account was the breeze created by traveling in an open air safari vehicle before sunrise and after sunset. In those conditions it felt closer to 45 degrees. Surprise number four – I wore my fleece with the rain jacket over it nearly every morning and evening and I threw the blanket provided in the safari vehicle over my legs. Next time, I’ll pack a heavier fleece and take fleece gloves and a fleece hat like the native rangers do.
As for camera bodies and lenses, I took two bodies, a Nikon D800 and a D700 as backup. Occasionally, I had a tele lens on one and a wide lens on the other. But most of the time, I just used one body. I would always take two bodies on trip like this, even if you have to rent the backup. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on this trip and the extra few hundred it would cost to rent a backup body is cheap insurance. My workhorse lens was the Nikon 70-200mm f.2.8 VRII and I used the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 for wide shots. The other lenses I took weren’t needed and I wouldn’t take then next time around. I used the tele zoom for 75% of the shots, often with a 2.0x tele-extender, resulting in a focal length of 400mm. If you’re camera has an APS-C sensor, 200mm with a 2.0x tele-extender reaches to 600mm, more than enough for nearly all situations. Often, 200mm on the full frame Nikon was more than enough because we were much closer to the animals than I thought we were going to be. See surprise number three – the amazing proximity to the animals.
Nearly everyone suggests not taking a tripod because you can’t use them in the safari vehicle. I agree with that advice. I did take a beanbag support. It was essentially an empty bag and my plan was to fill it with seeds, hulls or rice. But I never found anywhere to purchase the filling and frankly never found a situation where I felt the support was needed. But, if you have a beanbag, take it with you. If you don’t, I wouldn’t worry about it.
Finally is the issue of flash. I was surprised by the number of times we were photographing animals at night. Often the animal was lit by vehicle headlights or the tracker shined the portable spotlight. However, that doesn’t produce a pleasing light for photography. I used the built in flash on my camera on occasion, which worked OK when the animal (a leopard, for instance) was close at hand. However, it would have been better to take a dedicated flash that will work with your telephoto lens to a distance of 30 or 40 feet.
Being out in the bush photographing the African animals, the lions, elephants, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinos (the “Big Five”) and the giraffes, hippos, zebras, impalas, Kudu, Wildebeest, Waterbok, to name a few, is overwhelming at first. It’s so novel that your finger can’t seem to stay off the shutter button. The first night I reviewed the day’s photos and was pretty pleased and, still high from the unique animal encounters, was convinced I had some great shots. On day two I was still trigger happy. However, that night I looked more critically at the photos and realized I had mostly been shooting the backsides of these strange creatures as they were grazing or walking away from me. I’ve photographed a fair amount of wildlife over the years and should have known better. The way to connect the viewer with the animal is to photograph the eyes. While photos of animals in their habitat are nice, either with a short tele or a wide angle lens, the special photos are of the animals looking directly at the camera with eyes clearly in focus. After that realization, I concentrated on shooting the animals as I would any portrait, watching that the light accentuated the roundness of the features, looking for catch lights in the eyes and, of course, making sure the eyes were sharply in focus. I slowed down, shot less and made far better images. So, surprise number six (which shouldn’t have been a surprise at all) was that hundreds of images of the butts of elephants, rhinos and lions weren’t very interesting.
Surprise number seven was how low the light was – much lower than I expected. Sometimes it was overcast or the animals were shaded by trees (or both), which reduced available light. More importantly, for half of each game drive the sun was at a very low angle to the horizon, having just risen or getting ready to set. I found myself shooting nearly wide open much of time and that wasn’t a bad thing because I generally wanted the background to be soft. But even then, the shutter speeds were perilously slow, particularly if the animal was moving at all. Bumping up the ISO helped. While I preferred to shoot at an ISO of 400, that wasn’t possible most of the time and, I was instead shooting in the 800-2000 range. Image stabilization helped a lot. I found I could get three and sometimes four extra stops on the 70-200mm and was pretty amazed and grateful that I could make acceptably sharp images at 1/100th of second. The lesson of the low light in this shooting situation was to think carefully about how to balance aperture, shutter speed and ISO, taking into account image stabilization.
The Best Surprise of All
My first African safari was an amazing adventure. I am now a veteran of more than two dozen game drives. As an experienced photographer, I thought I had anticipated a lot. What I experienced instead was one surprise after another. However, the biggest surprise of all was after I got home and sorted through all the images, editing them down from a few thousand to the few dozen I was most proud of. I have been happy to share these images with many people. Each image is now a treasured friend and each has a unique story about how it came to be that I can share with others and will never forget. I wish you luck on your first African safari.