How To Photograph An African Safari :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Photograph An African Safari

by David Peterson 6 comments

It’s a dream for most photographers to do an African Safari. With so much wildlife right at your doorstep, it’s downright humbling. Even if you aren’t heading off to Africa anytime soon, the tips is this article are still useful for capturing wildlife pictures while you’re moving around in the wilderness. The key is to develop quick photographic reflexes so you can get the shot before it’s gone. I’ll show you how.

I’ll mention this before you book your safari trip. Try to go on a safari that leaves just before the sun comes up. I can’t tell you how many of these trips are geared towards late risers. That’s really unfortunate because, as you know, the best opportunities happen at sunrise. If you’re going on a Safari to do what every other tourist does, that’s one thing. But it’s going to take some resolve to get up early and get the really good shots.

Practice At The Zoo Before You Go

You’ve already got a safari in your own home town. It’s called the zoo, and it’s a great place to get some practice shooting animals before you shell out some serious money for your trip. Practice framing animals, finding which camera settings work best, and focusing.

For example, in the portrait above, you have to focus on the lion’s eyes first. When you’re in a Jeep, this can be kind of tricky because everything is shaking and you have to use a telephoto lens. Take your longest length telephoto lens (high mm number) with you to the zoo and see what kind of portraits you can get at 200mm to 300mm focal lengths. See if you can replicate the photograph above.

Lenses And Camera Gear You Will Need

Some of you might not be familiar with telephoto lenses. They are basically long lenses that allow you zoom in very far. Most digital SLRs have lower end telephoto lenses that give you about a 4x magnification, and aren't too expensive.

On safari, you will be likely doing most of your shooting from a Jeep. So you will need a good digital SLR camera. There simply is no way around this. Point and shoot cameras just won’t allow you to zoom in as much as you need to. When the lion you want to photograph is far off in the distance, you’ll be wishing you had your neighbor’s camera.

I suggest, at the very minimum, a lower end digital SLR like the Nikon D40x with two lenses. Get the 18mm to 55mm lens and the 55mm to 200mm. You can buy both of them together for a low price, and they cover most of the photographic spectrum. It’s a fairly minor investment, compared to the cost of the trip, and it should only set you back less than $1,000.

There is a cheaper option. I know a lot of photographers who rent even better telephoto lenses for a safari trip. It makes sense. You only have a few days out there, and you want to bring gear that will perform at its peak. The more expensive telephoto lenses give you much better reach while making it easier to get the challenging shots. I’d rent them if I didn’t already own the gear.

Shooting From The Jeep

There’s another thing about safaris. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the Jeep. Most of that time will involve moving around and shaking. This is unavoidable. It’s part of the charm of going on a safari. Unfortunately, you’ll need to take multiple shots of the same subject, because more often than not, the shaking will have pointed you in the wrong direction. Keep double checking your work.

A few photographers go to some pretty extraordinary lengths to keep their cameras stable while on safari. I’ve been with people who bring special tripods and sandbags with them. The sandbags keep the tripod stable so it doesn’t jostle around on the floor of the Jeep.

I encourage you to try this, but realize that Africa gets pretty warm and bright. Also, most safaris happen in the middle of the day, so you’ll be able to use fast shutter speeds anyway, so unless you're out in the early morning, you shouldn't need a tripod. If you’re there to enjoy yourself as well as take pictures, lugging around a tripod and sandbags might not be your idea of a good time.

One final note. I’m going to say this again because I just want you to have a good time. Bring a digital SLR and not a Point and Shoot. Don't be the tourist who’s yelling and screaming at their camera because it pauses in between every shot and keeps missing the good ones. Don't pay a bunch of money for a Safari neglect to make the relatively small investment in a good camera. If you’ve been on the fence about upgrading your camera, going on a safari is the perfect reason to do it.

Are you going on Safari soon? Did you just get back? I want to know. Send me your pictures, or tell me about your trip!

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  1. Dallas Raines says:

    I returned last October from two wonderful weeks in Kenya, and went on many safaris, both early and late. While I agree with many of your points, my experience doesn't support some of your comments. I packed my DSLR with several lenses, including a 135-300mm zoom. My wife took a super-zoom point and shoot. First of all, I can't imagine trying to shoot from a moving vehicle, nor was it ever necessary. The guide should stop at every photo opportunity, and SHUT OFF THE ENGINE. Most vehicles I saw had open roofs, and while you are not allowed to exit the vehicle (especially around animals) visability and positioning for shots were usually excellent. In fact, the long telephoto was actually too long in many cases and struggling to swap lenses while a herd of elephants walks by within a few feet caused me to ask my wife to take over the shooting while I tried to 'back-off' a few mm's. Her point-and-shoot turned out to be more versatile, especially in lower light. So, unless you're fortunate enough to have a really fast long zoom for your DSLR (and I'm not) then a good bridge camera with a long zoom is ideal, especially if it has a larger sensor. To be fair, some of her point-and-shoot images did not stand the enlargement test, but she did got some shots I couldn't make. And the bean-bag was indispensable, not for resting your camera on the floor, but for resting it on the roof of the open-top van while shooting. A proper bean-bag would have a zipper that allows you to take it empty and fill it with rice, or beans, when you get there. Leave it in the van and it should never be a packing problem. I agree that a tripod is an unnecessary burden.

    Everyone's Safari experience may differ, but hopefully, my comments provide another perspective. Your tips are always worthwhile and thought-provoking. Keep up the good work.

  2. Wayne Duke says:

    I did my first safari in Namibia Africa and I must say it was amazing, even more than I anticipated. There were 4 of us of which mostly only two took photographs. I mainly used my 200-400 Nikon f4 on an D800 and on occasion changed to my Nikon 70-200 f2.8. With a pop up top on the vehicle it was easy to rest the lens into a beanbag for stability. I am now in the process of planning my return to branch out further both in exploring and equipment. This trip will see me also using my Nikon 600mm f4 for those long reaching shots. The planning is much easier this time around with knowing something about the region, however Botswana will be all new especially in the Delta areas for Hippos, Crocs, and Water Buffalo. Can't Wait.

  3. Evanne says:

    We live in South Africa and recently spent a month visiting various Game reserves in the country and went on a photographic safari in the Timbavati. I took the most amazing photos with a Canon SX 40h - nothing else! Beautiful leopard, hyena and bird shots. It is an amazing bridge camera and I wouldn't take anything else to the Game reserves.

  4. Merle says:

    My husband and I retired to Natal on the west coast of South Africa, We have stunning game reserves on our doorstep. well almost, the best are a few hour away so we the great privaledge of getting into the bush every few months with awsome photo oportunities. For us nothing surpasses being out at five in our stunning African bush, with its teaming wildlife and endless photo opportunities. How priveledged we are to live in Africa.

  5. Grant Murphy says:

    I live in South Africa, and we have an abundance of game parks and game reserves. My family and I try to visit one at least once a year. All decent places will be geared towards - and prefer - game drives (safaris) that leave early around 05h30 to 06h00. Even in the winter months, these drives leave early, and people are advised to dress warmly. Blankets are often provided as well for legs whilst on the vehicle. These places will also offer evening drives that leave just before sunset, and return a couple of hours after total darkness. The benefit of the evening drives is that you catch the nocturnal animals as they begin their quest for food.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.