A dedicated photographic safari is different from a regular safari. Of course, you will get some great photographic opportunities on a regular safari, but more serious photographers will want to consider a specialist photographic safari, dedicated to wildlife photography. This is a bit of a niche market and there are companies who specialise in offering photographic safaris, often with a professional photographer as host and coach. But even without a professional photographer as host, you can have a fantastic photographic safari with a bit of careful planning and these handy tips.
1. Choose the right season and destination
2. Bring the right equipment
3. Book a private vehicle
Sharing a vehicle with other guests who are not photographers is a recipe for frustration. Apart from having little space for your equipment, the other guests might move around while you are shooting, and will want to leave the sighting to go find the next animal when you are still getting excellent shots, or patiently waiting for some action. The best way to ensure total flexibility and freedom to focus on photography, is to book a private vehicle for all your game drives, with no other guests on board. It will cost extra, but it is worth the extra cost. Ask about flexibility with regard to game drive times and the option to depart earlier or stay out longer if necessary.
4. Communicate with your guide
If you have not booked a photographic guide as host, your driver-guide will be key in making your photographic safari a success. Don't expect that the guide will know your requirements as a photographer. Communicate your expectations, let him know what kind of shots or animals you are looking for, explain which direction you need the light to be, and tell him exactly where you want him to position the vehicle.
5. Know your equipment
It's important to know how your equipment works before you go on a photographic safari. Get to know your buttons and settings, make sure you know how to lock focus or exposure, how to change lenses and settings quickly, how and when to change your ISO, etc. On safari, Murphy's law for photographers says that the best action will happen while you are fiddling with your settings, trying to figure out your camera. If you are going to rent a camera body, don't rent an unfamiliar body. Don't buy a new camera body a few days before your safari, and use your expensive photographic safari to get to know the settings and buttons. Rather buy it several months before your trip, and take time to test it out and get to know it well.
6. Be ready to shoot
The biggest difference I have seen between amateur photographers and professional wildlife photographers on safari, is that the professionals always have their settings right and are ready to shoot at a moment's notice. When a cheetah bursts out of the bush at full speed, chasing an impala, the professionals aim and start shooting, while the amateurs are still taking off lens caps, changing ISO settings and fiddling frantically with their cameras. By the time they are ready to shoot, the action is over. You need to have your settings right and anticipate the shot. Be aware of the ambient light conditions and adjust your settings accordingly, in advance.
7. Basics: Get it sharp
If you get the basics right, you will have better results. To get your photos pin sharp you need to get three things right: focus, aperture and shutter speed. Be conscious of the focus point and auto-focus settings, and focus on the most important part of the subject (usually the eyes, but not always). If you use center point focus, know how to lock your focus so you don't lose the focus when you recompose. Understand how your f-stop or aperture affects your depth of field. At a very wide aperture (low f-stop) the depth of field is so narrow that you may find your subject's eyes are in focus, but the nose and ears are soft, or you lose texture on the neck and shoulders. But if you choose a higher f-stop, your shutter speed will be slower and you may lose sharpness due to camera shake or subject movement. For beginners, finding the right balance to ensure your photos are always sharp is a skill you may want to practice at home, before you depart on your photographic safari.
8. Basics: Composition
Another basic skill to learn for beginners is composition. For starters, ensure that you get your whole subject in the photo. Avoid cutting off the tail, legs, or horn tips. Don't zoom in too close. Rather take a wider shot and crop later. Most cameras today have such high resolution that you can easily crop your shots afterwards to get the desired composition. Consider the landscape, trees and other animals, and try and find a pleasing balance. Look for leading lines, naturally drawing the eye to the subject. Leave space for the animal to look into, don't crop it so close that your subject is staring right into the edge of your shot, or feels cramped.
9. Basics: Exposure
10. Getting the best light
Usually, to get the best light on your subject, you need to have the sun behind you. However, side lighting or back lighting can also provide interesting results. Early morning and late afternoon usually offers the best light conditions for wildlife photography. Make the most of the warm light provided by the early morning and late afternoon sun. This means you need to be out on game drive before the sun rises, as the first hour of the day offers the softest light. During the middle of the day, the sun is bright and harsh, and the contrast between sun and shade is usually too much. However, on a cloudy day you may still be able to get good results in the middle of the day. The colours will be a bit cooler but white balance can compensate for that. If you don't shoot in raw, make sure your white balance settings are correct. If you've always used auto white balance, experiment with different manual white balance settings.
12. Don't run out of battery power or memory cards
There is nothing worse than sitting at an awesome sighting, photographing a lioness fighting off hyenas at a kill, and then running out of battery power or memory cards just when the best action starts. Bring enough memory cards with you, and always bring your spare cards with you on game drive. Charge your camera batteries overnight and bring spare batteries along on each game drive. Find out about electricity supply at the lodge you have booked at, and remember to bring the correct travel adapter for your charger.
Have you been on a photographic safari? Please share your experiences and add your own additional tips in the comments below.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.