Photography / Tips and Solutions

12 Tips for Choosing Your African Travel Destination

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During my photographic travels in Africa, I meet a lot of international tourists, most of whom are on the popular traveler circuit of Cape Town and Victoria Falls, followed by a wildlife bush experience, which is generally recommended by a travel agent.

A cheetah chose this vehicle as a lookout point in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, giving new meaning to getting “up close” to your subject. Safety is of highest importance, yet safari rules dictate not to intrude on an animal’s personal space, allowing it to approach on its own terms. Canon 1D Mark III; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

A traveler’s first introduction to Africa is usually an eye-opening and surprising experience, and most new visitors to the continent vow to come back again soon. Others who have previously travelled to Africa are more interested in specific destinations. Regardless of past experience, everyone I meet always agrees that Africa is a large and diverse continent, with so many places to see it would take many lifetimes to experience it all.

The petrified trees of Deadvlei, in Namibia’s Sossusvlei region, are an iconic destination for landscape photographers. Stargazing excursions can also be arranged from Sossus Dune Lodge, allowing you to photograph there after normal gate-closing times. Canon 5DS R; Canon 11-24mmf/4 lens.


Choosing photographic destinations

Consisting of 54 countries, Africa is more than three times larger than the USA. With equatorial glaciers on the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, tropical rainforests, mountains, deserts, white beaches, and endless savannahs—to name but a few options—this vast continent offers exceptional wildlife experiences in every ecosystem and habitat.

It contains many natural wonders that are unique in every season, so a wildlife photographer must prioritize what to see and photograph. Here are a few of my tips for choosing a photographic destination in Africa to suit a wide variety of needs.

Open landscape and abundant animal life make Kenya’s Maasai Mara a wildlife photographer’s paradise. This low-angle photo was made using a “pole-cam” technique, hanging a camera and monopod outside the vehicle so as not to disturb the animals. Canon 1D Mark III; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

If you have never travelled to Africa before, I would recommend starting with a visit to a small or even “touristy” game reserve, where you can see most of the iconic animals in a short time. This will get the urge to see the “big five” out of your system.

A trip to Namibia is not complete without a visit to the town of Swakopmund, which lies within the 5-mile-broad dune belt of Namibia’s coastline. Here, morning fog creates specific conditions for unique creatures, such as this sidewinder. Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Once you’ve got these “record shots” under your belt, the larger and more remote wildernesses are what you want to experience. These are best appreciated when slowing your heart beat to the rhythms of nature—don’t expect to chase sighting after sighting. Exclusivity means not having other safari vehicles around to report sightings, so you’ll have to wait for nature to reveal itself at its own pace. These iconic destinations are where you can really focus on expressing your creativity through stunning photographs. Consider some of the following more accessible destinations.

Accommodations for your African safari cover all budgets, from low-cost backpacker style to luxury camps like this one in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. It’s important to match accommodations to your comfort level, allowing you the freedom to focus on your photography without distraction. Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Located in the heart of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, this oasis is fed by the mighty Okavango River. It is a wildlife paradise, boasting some of the most beautiful woodland islands combined with savannahs among the delta waterways. The comforts of luxury camps and exclusivity of private concessions make this a photographer’s paradise, as well. It is wild and untouched, where you are likely to see predators like lion, leopard, and wild dogs in a beautiful setting. Stunning birdlife, large herds of buffalo, elephant, zebra, and giraffe complete this photogenic destination.

In Namibia’s Namibrand region, the Namib Desert meets grass fields and mountains. Summer there offers a chance to capture the brilliant colors of red dunes, green grass, and blue sky in one frame, and perhaps even a rainbow after a thunderstorm. Canon 1D Mark II; Canon16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

Namib Desert, Namibia

Often described as the most beautiful desert in the world, the sand dunes of the Namib desert in Southern Namibia make this a landscape photographer’s dream. Although cooler temperatures make winter the most popular time to visit, in the heat of summer, (i.e. February and March), the clouds and thunderstorms make this landscape come alive for photographers.

Witnessing and photographing the drama unfolding at a river crossing in Kenya’s Maasai Mara is a huge thrill. It’s easy to understand why the wildebeest migration is considered “the greatest wildlife show on earth.” Make sure you bring enough memory cards on this photographic safari! Nikon D3S; Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens.

Maasai Mara, Kenya

When 1.5 million wildebeest make their annual migration over the plains of the Maasai Mara and negotiate the crocodile-infested waters of the Mara River, the area earns its description as “the greatest show on earth.” This phenomenon occurs annually from July to October. If you want to escape the hordes of tourists, choose intimate private safari camps located inside the reserve.

A congregation of two million Lesser Flamingos is one of Africa’s must-see wildlife spectacles, offering a wide variety of photographic options. When approached on foot, the flamingos initially retreat, but with stillness and patience they slowly return to offer close-ups. Canon 1D Mark III; Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Flamingoes of East Africa’s great lakes

More than two million Lesser Flamingoes live on the lakes of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, making their way from lake to lake, in search of food. If one of the lakes experiences a bloom of blue-green algae, conditions might favor a mass congregation in a spectacle of pink. This can occur in any season, and has happened in recent years at Lake Bogoria, Lake Logipi, and Lake Nakuru. These places are relatively remote, so it’s best to get a safari operator to handle your logistics from Nairobi, as well as to identify the location of the majority of the flamingoes.

In the Republic of Seychelles, two million breeding pairs of Sooty Terns land on Bird Island every evening in May. Canon 1D X; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

Bird Island, Seychelles

Tropical islands with unspoiled white beaches and birds with no fear of people are not uncommon along the equator. What makes Bird Island in the Seychelles so special are the two million breeding pairs of Sooty Terns that return from the ocean to nest each May. For a bird photographer, being able to point your lens in any direction to capture a photo of a bird is sensory overload. This tiny island is a protected reserve with only one lodge, making it the perfect destination for a travel partner seeking an exclusive beach holiday.

Any mass wildlife congregation, like these Sooty Terns from Bird Island in the Seychelles, is not only impressive to view, but also offers a lot of creative image-making choices. Here, I pointed a wide-angle lens at the sky to superimpose many birds in the frame using a long exposure and multiple flashes. Canon 1D X; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.


Research and planning tips

After experiencing any of the abovementioned safaris, I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with Africa and yearned for more. So, for more experienced travelers seeking to venture off the beaten track and explore other hidden gems, here are some research and planning tips that will help you to make good choices.

Wildlife photography is not just about recoding your memories, it’s also a way to express your creativity. I love the sense of movement created by slow-motion panning, so I photographed these running springboks in South Africa’s Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park using a long lens with a slow shutter speed. Camera: Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 600mm f/4 + 1.4x lens.

Don’t try to see too much in too short a time

When your aim is wildlife photography, I recommend staying a minimum of three nights per location, even if it’s your first trip to a new area. Not only does that give you enough time to unpack properly, it balances time-consuming travel days with a full day that can be dedicated to intensive, high-quality photography. Remember, getting one top photograph from a trip is better than a dozen average ones.

Photographing the flamingos of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley is a huge thrill for any bird photographer, and will require long lenses. But twilight colors also provide great opportunities for landscapes along the lake shores, so don’t forget your wide-angle lenses. Canon 5D Mark II; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

Study the logistics of getting to and from your destinations

If you have limited time or budget, it’s important to understand all the travel logistics before booking your trip. Remoteness can be an enticement, but this usually involves either costly private charter flights or long bumpy road transfers.

The flamingos of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley move from lake to lake in search of food. In early 2011, a blue-green algae bloom at Kenya’s Lake Bogoria caused a congregation of two million flamingos. Such a spectacle looks best from the air, so a scenic flight over the lakes is a definite must. Camera: Nikon D3S; Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens.

Choose the right accommodation for your comfort and budget

There is usually a variety of accommodation options in national parks and nature reserves, which range from luxury camps to backpacker-style hostels. The price of an accommodation is a good gauge of quality, but it’s also advisable to check brochure photos and read Trip Advisor reports, so you don’t get any nasty surprises.

Africa has some of the most beautiful and colorful birds, like this Yellow-billed Oxpecker, photographed in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. After a game drive, safari camps and picnic spots are ideal locations for close-ups of birds that are habituated to human activity. Canon 1D Mark II N; Canon 600mm f/4 + 1.4x lens.

Be responsible, but not paranoid, about safety

The media often creates the wrong impression about a country or destination. A recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, had no impact in Southern Africa. In fact, Paris is closer to West Africa than Zambia is, yet people were concerned about travelling there! You should, however, be responsible and choose travel destinations with safety in mind. Solid research and a thorough review of Trip Advisor comments are good starting points. Common sense is essential; for example, avoiding dodgy dark streets at night is a good rule to follow in any locale. Typical destinations for wildlife photography are sparsely populated by humans, which makes diseases like malaria and yellow-fever a low and manageable risk. Good hygiene, insect repellent, and wearing long sleeves at dusk and dawn should further limit your risk.

You cannot leave Africa after a photographic safari without a cliché photo of a yawning hippo. Luckily, wherever you find water, you’ll likely find hippos and crocodiles, as in this view of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. So, keep your camera handy. Nikon D4; Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens.

Get stuck on one place

If you find a favorite African destination, it will be worth visiting over and over again. A first visit to a new destination merely gives you an idea of what to expect. With additional trips, you start to “learn” a place; you get to know what equipment to take with you and what to look for. Only then do you start to make your best photographs.

Each subject has a best place

My last piece of advice is that if you want to photograph something specific, make the most of your safari by knowing the best place.

The open plains of Kenya’s Maasai Mara make an ideal habitat for cheetah, which need to run down their prey over long distances. They also need to observe potential prey from an elevated position, such as the termite mound pictured here. Nikon D3S; Nikon 200-400mm f/4 lens.

If, for example, you want to see cheetah hunting gazelle, you’ll find that the guidebooks say this happens almost everywhere in Africa. Yet, I know of only one place with consistently good sightings, and that is on the open plains of the Maasai Mara, in Kenya. The abundant population of cheetah and the open terrain offers a realistic opportunity to photograph this spectacle on your first safari.

Carmine Bee-eaters are stunning birds, but hard to photograph on the open savannah. Yet, when thousands arrive to breed on the banks of the Okavango River, the ease with which you can photograph them from the top of the river bank makes you feel like a kid in a candy store. Canon 1D Mark III; Canon 300mm f/4 lens.

Other examples for ultimate photographic destinations include:

• Carmine Bee-eaters nesting on the banks of the Okavango River each September and October

• Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve has the most relaxed breeding herds of elephants in Africa. You can even photograph them up close and at a low angle from a special sunken photographic blind, next to a waterhole.

• Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, close to Mfuwe Lodge, is the most consistent location to find lions hunting buffalo each October.

• One of the most beautiful, secretive, and sought after birds for wildlife photographers is the African Pitta. Each December, they can be observed from the Bushcamp Company’s camps, also in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.

The underground elephant blind at Botswana’s Mashatu Game Reserve gives visitors a unique, close-up view of Africa’s largest land mammals. This perfect low angle is so sought-after in wildlife photography that photographers quickly fill their memory cards when these giants arrive. Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens.

Now that you have a little more insight into choosing your next African destination, I hope to meet you somewhere exciting there soon, and chat about seeing all the natural wonders this continent has to offer!

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Prudence is essential if you will be traveling about by bush plane in that there is a weight limit of 20 kg or 44 lbs, and a size limit for the one bag you are allowed. Plan ahead for it is easy to meet these limits IF you think through what you need before departing. 

We booked our safari with the local zoo here in Oakland, California. Small group of 15 people from the bay area. The director of the zoo, who is also a big animal vet, led us on a fantastic jouney through the Masai Mara and surrounding areas. He leads a trip every other year and has 15 under his belt. Did I say it was reasonably priced and well planned? I recommend checking with your local zoo to see if they have a trip awaiting. You won't regret it.

We have visited Kruger National Park in South Africa, and Etosha National Park in Namibia on our own using a camper from Bobo Campers. The vehicles were great, and the driving was fairly easy. You have to be patient, and talk to people in other vehicles to see what they have seen recently. In Etosha, we would leave the camp as soon as the gate opened in the morning, and go sit by a water hole. We would sit in our camper and have some breakfast, a little tea, and wait for the animals to come to us. If you do some planning, you can see lots on your own.

About the 5th photo, the one in black and white with a sidewinder snake on the sand. I don't see any track from the snake arriving there, however there is a small one behind its tail tip, meaning that the sand is not hard. Was it "planted" for the photo?. How did it arrived there without marking a track on the sand?. Please don't take your readers for fools. I'm sure that you have a lot of good photographs to show and get enough clients for the safari, without doing this kind of things. Roberto Oromí

Greetings Roberto, thanks for your comment and the inquiry about the sidewinder photo. I've forwarded your question to Isak and am pasting his response below:

I can understand this gentleman's concern. A viewer never wants to feel cheated, so if I present something as wild and authentic it should in be that, and not an animal setup or “photoshopped” image.

My first response would be that it can’t be photoshopped, simply because I don’t know how to do that.  As someone who doesn’t like editing anyway I want to make photographs perfectly in camera so I don’t have to edit them. My aim is to portray wild animals in their natural environment.

This photo was taken years ago, so I can’t remember the details and the conditions of the sand etc. However, I had a look at the image sequence leading up to the photo that was published. In the prior frame, one can clearly see the snake moving and not being placed. Perhaps it’s the nature of the black & white conversion or of my image framing it to exclude the marks that raised the concern.

These sidewinders are tiny snakes, a mere 20-25cm long, and they can easily be found in the dune belt along the Pacific Ocean close to Swakopmund in Namibia, where thick morning fog creates a unique environment.

Best regards,

Isak Pretorius

overview safari/s: Overseas Adventure Travel to Tanzania/Kenya or the Southern States Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa: prices are very reasonable, accommodations are in the B plus category, guides are excellent and you get lots of opportunity to practice taking photos...

I highly recommend traveling with Isak Pretorous who is an excellent photographer and a gifted instructor.

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