African Photographic Safari, Part 3: 10 Tips for Making Memorable Photos

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Are you ready for some photographic tips for your upcoming African safari? In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the things you need to do to prepare for your trip. Part 2 delves into photo gear [every B&H Explora reader’s favorite subject]. And here, in Part 3, we share some essential tips for getting great photos once you have embarked on your safari.

Above photograph: Mother and Child. Giraffes walking in the Masai Mara at Sunrise; Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Canon EOS 5D Mark III; EF 400 f/4 DO IS USM lens; manual exposure, 1/125 sec at f/5.6; ISO 200; O EV

Photographing wildlife in Africa is not all about your camera settings—there are a number of factors that are as important, if not more, of which you should be aware.

Photographs © Linda LeNoir

Leopard taking its measurements between two tree limbs at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 5D Mark III; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; manual exposure, 1/800 sec at f/6.3; ISO 100; 0 EV

1. Get to Know Your Driver and Respect Them

On an African photographic safari, your driver knows more than you do. Do not ignore their advice. Most grew up in the wildlife park or in the area where you will be photographing. They are familiar with all of the wildlife and their knowledge is unequaled. They know all the animals, especially the ones you want to see. They know their habits, territories, and personalities. A good photographic safari company will have drivers that know how, when, and where to position the truck. If you find yourself in a position that you do not like, or if you think there is a better position, simply inquire and ask what they think.

Often, there is a reason the driver has chosen a position. They are familiar with the animal and have a good idea what it is up to, or know for a fact how skittish might be. Your driver will know if the animal is hungry, stalking, or perhaps getting ready to move their young to a new place for protection. Additionally, these parks often have rules concerning off-roading and, while you will see a lot of people do it, the rangers will stop your driver if caught, depending on the situation. Trust me—if a ranger stops your truck, you are going to be sitting there for a good half hour or so. Frequently, they will tell you to leave the animals you are photographing and wait for them in another area.

Running Cheetah at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/250 sec at f/2.8; IS0 100; 0 EV

2. Educate Yourself on the Wildlife You Will Be Photographing

It is beyond my comprehension why photographers—on what they consider to be a photographic journey of a lifetime—do not study the subjects they want to photograph. You learn that lions sleep for 16-20 hours a day, leopards are shy, and you will have to get over the fact you will have to photograph the leopard sitting deep in a tree surrounded by limbs and leaves. Wildlife is completely unpredictable. The more you can learn about the animal’s behavior, the better your photographs will be.

Solo elephant with half a tusk, but still amazing to see, especially flapping its ears to stay cool; Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400 f/4 DO IS USM + 1.4x ii lens and extender. aperture priority, 1/5000 sec at f/6.3; ISO 800; -2/3 EV

3. Practice Photographing Wildlife Before You Go

There are animals to photograph everywhere, from pets to squirrels to birds to cows, etc. Watch squirrels and try to track them with your camera and have your shutter speed set to catch them when they decide to climb a tree or chase another squirrel. Go visit your local zoo and spend some time watching and photographing African animals. The zoo is a great place to learn about the animals, as well as practice your imaging, and all the zoo employees are eager to share information.

King of the flies. A lion endures the flies of Ndutu. 

Canon EOS 1D X, EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; manual exposure, 1/800 sec at f/5.0; ISO 640; 0 EV

4. Composing Your Shot

You will usually have time to compose your shot unless you come along a stalk, chase, and kill scenario. Even in that situation, you may have time, especially with the big cats who can take a very long time following and stalking before the chase begins. Pay attention to what is happening all around the animal. Where is the animal looking or toward what is it walking? Be sure you have enough space in the photograph to show its intention, otherwise the photo might be flat and uninteresting. The best photographs are ones where the animal is looking straight at you or walking toward you. Always focus on the eyes.

Don’t forget that the background can always be a part of the photograph, as with elephants walking past trees, or Mt. Kilimanjaro, or even a sunset. However, giraffes can be tricky because they are so tall that there is a terrible break when photographing them against the horizon. It’s best to photograph giraffes against a full background of trees or make sure their bodies are not breaking into the landscape, unless you’re shooting at sunrise or sunset. Bokeh is a beautiful thing, so if you know the animal is going to be walking into a clear space, use it to your advantage.

The Guard. One of the Coalition of Five at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya keeping a watchful eye out for lions and hyenas that might want to steal their kill.

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f.2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/1250 sec at f/3.5; ISO 1250; 0 EV

5. Some Rules Are Made to Be Broken

Don’t get hung up on the rule of thirds and don’t avoid taking a photo because of bad light or anything else you have been taught. Often a photograph that is not correct by the conventional rules winds up being fantastic because of its content. The light in Africa can be maddening. You leave just before dawn and, by 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., the heat haze is often apparent and the sun is just pouring down glare. It is frustrating, but you will find it less cumbersome for your mental state by switching your camera setting to monochrome when it happens or just prepare to process in black-and-white. It gives you a different perspective on what you are photographing and distracts you from whining. Again, content can trump the rules, and when it is high noon and you are witnessing a cheetah chasing and killing a gazelle, you better be ready to photograph instead of lamenting your plight. In a nutshell, I will quote Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So do not hold back.

Samburu leopard prowling its territory

Canon EOS 1D X, EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/500 sec at f/3.5; ISO 1600; 0 EV

6. Go High or Low

One of the best things about an African photo safari is that you can stand on the seats of your truck and take photos from the roof. It is fun and works out well for wildlife that is off in the distance, or for capturing a bird in flight or sitting in a tree. Be careful though—everyone learns a hard lesson when they review their photos only to realize they were taking photos looking down on the animals. You must remember to go low when appropriate. Often the animals, especially big cats, will come right up to your vehicle and walk around. It is a fantastic experience to have a leopard walking straight at you and your camera lens, but you were so excited that you didn’t move low and just kept taking photos from the roof, aiming your lens on top of its head.

Parade of Elephants at Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X, EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + 1.4 x iii lens and extender; aperture priority, 1/320 sec at f/6.3; ISO 400; -1/3 EV

7. Close, but not too Close

Many photographers will bring a super-telephoto lens such as a 500mm or 600mm on their photo safari. For many, it is the first time using one and it’s exciting to play and shoot with a long lens like that, but it will not serve you well to only use that one lens. Again, you have to know your subject and realize that, often, a 500mm lens may produce a technically great photo but you are too close and the photo is flat. Always keep a smaller lens handy and be ready to switch over when something happens, otherwise you may get a flat, uninteresting picture that fails to tell a story. Also, make sure you are focusing correctly if the animal begins to run. If you are using a big lens, and your focal point is in the middle of your frame, you will virtually chop up the animal as it runs past you. If your subject is chasing something you might not even get that hunted animal in the photo, or just a body part.

Leopard taking a walk across the rocks at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya for all to see and admire

Canon EOS 5D Mark III; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; manual exposure, 1/320 sec at f/4; ISO 400; O EV

8. Go Raw or Go Home

Play on words, but it is true. Go big or go home, and that means shooting in raw instead of JPEG. I don’t want to hear about “the files are too big” and “the pictures take up so much space.” You have already gone big by planning a photo safari in Africa, so do not go small by shooting in JPEG. Shooting in raw produces higher-quality images. End of story. I shot in JPEG my first trip to Africa years ago and still regret doing so. I have some amazing photos in JPEG from that trip but if they had been in raw they would just have been phenomenal because I would have had more latitude in processing. You can handle raw for this trip and you will be so happy to have more information to edit with after you return.

Leopard descending tree at Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania) EOS

Canon 1D X; EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/1250 sec at f/4.0; ISO 1250; 0 EV

9. Shoot Manual all the Way

Work with your camera before you go and learn all your settings. You can’t really count on Auto for ISO, White Balance, etc. out in the field. You will save yourself some time post-editing this way and, once you get the hang of it, you will never want to go back. Don’t be afraid to try it. You will be with like-minded photographers and, as you already know, photographers are always willing to share information and will help you out.

Cheetah pondering its day in the early morning of Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV; EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/1000 sec at f/2.8; ISO 400; 0 EV

10. Be Prepared to Be Patient with Your Fellow Photographers

Patience in the field. Things can get a bit crazy out in the bush. As an example, I will let you know that leopards are the rock stars of a safari. It is pandemonium when one is sighted. Literally every vehicle no matter how far away, even an hour distant, will drive like mad to get there. Everyone wants to see the leopard and will do just about anything to get the shot. The scene, depending upon the park, can vacillate between coordinated chaos to flat-out hysteria. Both are difficult, very difficult. Drivers are maneuvering the vehicles to get in the best position and racing ahead to anticipate where the leopard is walking or, if it’s in a tree, trying to find a clear spot to photograph the leopard. People are yelling at other people in trucks to get out of the way, or a safari vehicle will accidentally cut off another truck or park in between a female leopard and her cubs. The leopard, cubs, and humans all freak out. It is not a pleasant scene.

Do your best to remain composed and, if any yelling needs to be done, let your driver handle it. I have been lucky enough to have drivers suggest we back off and wait from afar. We pull away from the fracas and just wait. Most of the vehicles causing the craziness are filled with mainstream tourists who are on a “Ferrari safari” and will quickly lose interest and drive away. We wait a bit, until things calm down and, about 60% of the time, the leopard will come out into the open again. It is worth the wait because nobody gets a decent photo of a leopard when there are 30-50 vehicles circling around kicking up dust and photo-bombing everyone.

Patience in the vehicle. You will probably be sharing a vehicle with one or two people. Each photographer should have his or her own row. These are close quarters and each row has its advantages and disadvantages. Usually you change your row daily unless an agreement is made between the photographers. One row might be better suited for a bean bag, while another works great with a clamp and swing arm. It just depends on the individual. You may lose a few shots because of the row you are in, but don’t become despondent about it and blame the row or driver. If you are meant to get the shot you will get it. Many photographers struggle with shooting from the third row, whether it be from the window or roof, but there are a few who adore the third seat. I received some great advice to calm my frustration shooting from my least favorite place: treat each row and position as if it were a piece of equipment and just figure out how to make it work as well as it can for you.

Patience with your vehicle mates. You are in tight quarters and everyone is probably suffering from jet lag and not quite themselves the first couple of days. Even though you have your own row, it takes a little time for everyone to realize that you have to move slowly in the truck when others are shooting whether you are seated or standing. Some people speak too loudly and have to be reminded to use their inside voice. Everyone wants a shot and there are times where someone will encroach, accidentally, into your space. Trust me, it is rarely intentional. Most photographers share so if there is an extraordinary shot that is only visible from a particular window ask to step in for a few clicks when they are done and vice versa.

No matter what country or countries you visit in Africa, you will have an incredible photographic safari adventure. Prepare ahead of time. This will translate into fantastic photographs. You will see the world differently after visiting Africa, and you will be a better photographer when you return. Go with the flow, make friends, trust your guide/driver, and you will be rewarded. Don’t forget to put the camera down and just soak it all in from time to time and try and journal the stories behind the photos. People are quite interested in how you got the shot and what was happening. You think you will remember everything but there is just too much.

Photographic safaris are small by nature and they want you to have a great experience. Photographers at all levels are great to travel with. They know when to talk and move and they know when to shut up and be still. Above all else, they love to share and exchange ideas and tips. A photographic safari will exceed your expectations in every department and exceed your dreams of photographing in Africa. 

For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, click for Part 1 and Part 2 of this three-part series with Linda LeNoir.

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!

Sunset at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/800 sec at f/4.5; ISO 100; O EV

4 Comments

Thanks for the comprehensive list..good photos esp the BW zebra. Have been to TZ many times on photo trips and hosted a number of photographers...several things I (gently) disagree with..setting of manual as your default setting..in the middle of the action (as so often happens) that is unexpected, manuel settings are just too much..better to use custom settings in most conditions that require special settings (action...running, BIF, etc.); I use !DX and 100-400 more than prime lenses because of flexibility..clothing color has never made a difference to me or groups...last, and probably the strongest disagreement is with the use of flash...every professional photographer I have been with has used flash (with flash extenders) extensively. Early and late shooting...poor lighting, and most especially, back lit..flash to my knowledge has never bothers any animal or bird..they simply don't pay attention...and that includes many leopards taken from a few feet distance. Again, thanks for all the information. Jim

Jim,

Thank you very much for your thoughts. Since you have been to Tanzania, I would definitely recommend you trying neutral colors, facts are facts tsetse flies especially are attracted to blue and black which is why you see blue and black flags flying in known tsetse areas. Neutral colors will not eliminate insects of any kind from landing on you or biting but it does reduce them. 

We have had different experiences regarding flash, even on my first safari as a tourist I was informed no flash in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. Every professional wildlife photographer I have been with will not use flash except for a nighttime shot and even then rarely. An external light will be used to light the scene but not a flash in the animals face. You may not see a visible reaction from the animal but a flash out of nowhere at night is going to take a bit of time to adjust to and if that animal is trying to hunt, you may be messing up its dinner plans.  I know photographers get upset with the light and the back lit times but treat the light you have in the field like a piece of equipment and work with what you have. The results are often unique and beautiful.

Manual, I began like everyone else and have nothing against custom settings but I rarely use them anymore because I know my subjects and have a really good idea what they are going to do. When I was encouraged by another professional wildlife photographer to shoot manual I was somewhat horrified but I agreed to give it a try and within just a few hours I was sold hook line and sinker. Huge difference. Letting the camera make all your decisions is too cookie cutter especially for wildlife.

I have complete respect for professional wildlife photographers that shoot manual and those that use settings. I just want everyone especially someone with an interest in photography and or wildlife to visit Africa at least once in their lifetime. 

Thanks again Jim, always fun to discuss experiences in Africa.

Thanks so much for all of this Linda.  It's great information to have as we plan our May/June 2020 Africa trip.  And your photos are stunning!

Elane,

So very excited you are planning a trip to Africa and many thanks for reading the articles and the compliment. I think it’s great you are planning ahead. You all are going to have a fantastic trip. What country or countries will you be visiting?

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