African Photographic Safari, Part 1: 17 Tips for Preparing for your Adventure

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African Photographic Safari, Part 1: 17 Tips for Preparing for your Adventure

Have you ever pictured yourself photographing in Africa among lions, giraffes, and elephants? The best way to realize this vision is on a photographic safari. Photographic safaris are for amateurs and professional photographers alike. There is no need to be intimidated by your skill level or camera equipment. It is a one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be obtained on a mainstream non-photocentric safari. You are also guaranteed to be in the company of like-minded travelers who all want the same thing—great pictures, videos, and experiences.

Above photograph: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Beautiful blue eyes. Leopard walking straight at me, in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya 
Canon EOS 1D X; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/640 sec at f/5.6; ISO 500; 0 EV

Photographs © Linda LeNoir

In this three-part series, I discuss considerations for choosing and preparing for a safari, thoughts about cameras, lenses, and other photographic equipment, and finally, some tips for getting the African safari photographs you want to print and show your friends and family.

In this first part, we cover the most difficult part of the process—determining which photographic safari to choose. Below are some essential tips to help you get started, as well as prepare for a safari, based on my own experiences.

1. The Safari Website

Details are critical. A reputable company should be able to tell you all you need to know just by viewing its website. This includes description, itinerary, transport and lodging, FAQs (what is included and not), payment and booking, and cancellation. How long have they been operating? What are people saying about this company? Scour the Internet. Sometimes, you will see a photographer guide you want to travel with, but unless you read the fine print, you could be surprised upon arrival to discover he or she will not be accompanying you. Read testimonials, reviews, trip reports, and make sure you like the photographer guide’s images. Do not be shy about emailing the photographer and/or the company with any questions. No question is foolish.

2. Time of Year

It is important to decide what time of year to visit. Many African countries have two seasons—the rainy season and the dry season. In Eastern Africa, the rainy season is April to June (commonly referred to as the “long rains”) and the dry season is July to September. Tanzania and Kenya also have a smaller season known as the “short rains” from October to December. In Southern Africa, the rainy season is November to March and the dry season is April to October. The dry season is always preferable because the grass is short, water is scarce, and the animals are forced to share remaining water sources. The rainy season has its benefits because you will see young animals and flocks of birds. But there are challenges: traveling to Africa in the rainy season is cheaper, but you face obstacles of flooding and high humidity producing more insects and bad roads, or very high grass that can completely obstruct your view of wildlife, let alone being able to photograph the animals.

Zebra face-off at Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens; manual exposure, 1/1600 sec at f/5.0; ISO 400; 0 EV

3. What Type of Safari

Make sure the safari is what you think it is. Is it a workshop safari where you will have assignments to produce specific-type photographs and the game drives will be designed to accomplish this? Is it a safari that intends to follow one group of animals—for instance, a particular pride of lions around all day, with no option to move on? Is it a safari where you will be able to take the photographs you want with the option of reviews by your photographic tour leader and peers? Usually, a photographic company will provide a sample of an ordinary day, or trip reports.

4. The Itinerary

Where are you going? How are you getting there? How much time will be spent traveling between camps? Regional air and ground transport have their challenges and both are time consuming. If you are only going for a week, you will want to know if you will be spending 2-3 days traveling without much opportunity to photograph. If you are going specifically to witness something like the wildebeest migration along the Mara River, you will definitely want to know where the camp is located and how much time it will take to drive back and forth from the river. If the camp or lodge is 1-2 hours away, you could miss good light in the morning and late afternoon because you have to return to the camp before dark.

Meeting of the minds. Elephants of Tsavo West National Park, Kenya

Canon EOS 5D Mark III; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM; manual exposure, 1/2500 sec at f/5.6; ISO 500; 0 EV

5. Camps

In which camps will you be staying? A website that cannot produce information for this category is cause for being leery. A “luxurious tented camp” might not be what you envision—find a description with more information. Does the camp operate on generators that they turn off for hours during the day and at night? Does it have Wi-Fi? Will you be able to charge your cameras and computer in your tent or will you have to go to the main tent? Are there en-suite bathrooms and showers? Or will you be using bucket showers and a hole in the ground? Most camps, lodges, and hotels in Africa have websites. Find out where you are staying and what facilities are available.

6. Vehicles

How many people will be on this tour? More specifically, what kind of vehicle will be used and how many photographers will be in each vehicle? How many photographic guides on the tour? Will your driver be just a driver or an experienced driver/guide? Having a hard top roof on the vehicle that pops up might not be ideal if you’re trying to capture birds in flight, or a leopard high up in a tree. A roll top would be perfect. How many rows of seats per vehicle? Do the windows open wide or slide halfway? Are the vehicles open on the side with no windows? There are several types of vehicles used widely on safari in eastern African and they are somewhat different than those widely used in southern Africa. All this information will be key in deciding what camera equipment and accessories you will need and questions to ask of the company if needed.

Grey Crowned Crane at Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/2000 sec at f/3.5; ISO 100; 0 EV

7. Inclusions and Exclusions

What is included and excluded on the tour? Inquire about internal flights, park entrance fees, road transfers, meals, tipping, laundry, photo tuition, Wi-Fi, bottled water, meals, soda and alcohol, visas, travel, and emergency insurance.

The paperwork and details will be your responsibility on most photographic safaris to Africa. Do not wait until the last minute—there is a lot to do.

8. Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is mandatory. Sometimes, the safari company will have it available and you can work through the agency they use. Of course, you may need or prefer to have your own. Many companies are available and you can get a policy online. Make sure you have included, in addition to the obvious (flight, lost luggage, etc.), medical care and evacuation. Most companies you book with will require this and want to see proof of insurance.

Lioness standing around in a tree at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; aperture priority, 1/4000 sec at f/2.8; ISO 200; 0 EV

9. Passports/Visas

Check each country you will be visiting for requirements including blank pages and the expiration date of your passport and current photographs. Not all countries are the same. The same applies to visas. Your safari company might say that you may obtain your visa when you enter the country if you are traveling internally between places. But, to save yourself some time, you might get it done beforehand. Crossing borders in Africa can be confusing and crowded with very long lines requiring a lot of information and paperwork.

10. Vaccinations

Make an appointment with the CDC or a travel clinic to insure you have all the proper immunizations necessary for the countries to which you are traveling. You may be getting a lot of vaccinations. The good news is many of these vaccines/immunizations will last for years. You should do this as soon as possible after you have booked your photographic safari. Vaccination shortages and adverse reactions to those vaccinations can be a challenge and might cause you to miss your trip. A sampling of the vaccinations include, but are not limited to, Yellow Fever (required in some countries upon entry), Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, Meningococcal, and Tetanus. Carry an updated medical record with your passport.

Black-lored Babbler at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + 1.4x iii lens and extender; manual exposure, 1/1250 sec at f/5.6; ISO 640; 0 EV

11. Money and Credit Cards

You will want to have some cash on you. U.S. dollars are widely accepted throughout Africa. Counterfeiting is common and most camps, lodges, and tented camps require U.S. dollars that are fairly new—post 2010. On my most recent trip, there were problems accepting $20 bills printed prior to 2010. If you are traveling from the United States, just ask you bank to order you the newest bills available in 20s, 10s and 5s. Do not wait to do this because banks often will have to order new currency and that can take a few days to a week. Larger bills are more difficult to use—not to mention you will likely not be getting change back in U.S. dollars. Lastly, tented camps and Wi-Fi can be tricky and there are offline times when the camp is unable to process a credit-card purchase.

12. Gear Insurance

Make sure your camera equipment is covered by insurance if it is not already. Travel in Africa in bumpy, dusty, and hard. It is just common sense.

Lion of Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, eating an elephant in deep dark bushes

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; manual exposure, 1/160 sec at f/5.6; ISO 500; O EV

13. International/Regional Flights

Try and book flights sooner than later. Depending where you are traveling from, there are all kinds of ways to get to Africa, but not always seats. Even if using a travel agent, do some research on your own about the best way to get from one place to another. There may be direct flights available that cost the same, or slightly more than a set of flights taking you through other airports. Sometimes you will need to travel regionally back to your point of arrival in Africa to connect to your international flight. There are two things to keep in mind if your safari company does not include the flights: 1) Ask them if they can arrange it and add it to your bill. If they do not, inquire about scheduling issues for a regional flight. Then you can either book the flight yourself or have your travel agent do it. 2) When you check into your regional flight, ask them to check your baggage through to your final destination. As long as you do not have something terribly valuable or mind having it delayed, this is easier than going back through customs in an African country—not to mention taking a cab to another terminal to catch your connecting flight. I have never had a problem checking my luggage through to my final destination. It doesn't mean delays or missing luggage will not happen, but remember your travel insurance will cover you if something happens to your luggage on your way home.

14. Packing: Weight Restrictions and Luggage

Make sure you know what the weight limit on checked and hand luggage is before you travel. Some African airline regulations are incredibly stringent and unforgiving. You should avoid rolling bags. They are bulky and extremely hard to pack in the safari vehicles and bush planes. I am seeing more and more rolling bags on safaris, but they often cause major problems. I recommend soft-sided duffle bags.

Masai Mara, Kenya Coalition of five cheetahs in the process of suffocating and getting ready to eat this wildebeest

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens; 1/2000 sec at f/2.8; ISO 1600; 0 EV

15. Packing – Considerations for Photo Gear

Keep in mind, while you may have the perfect setup for carry-on airplane travel in your home country, many of the regional and bush planes are much smaller and your carry-on size will matter. Ideally, your safari company may send your baggage by car to the camp but, if you have to take bush planes or regional flights around Africa, you may have issues if you have more than one carry-on and/or do not want to check your camera and electronic equipment. Generally, no one likes to check their cameras but sometimes you have no choice—especially with big telephoto lenses. Check with your safari company about the flights and what they recommend (you may be able to purchase an extra seat or pay upfront for additional weight). While there are weight restrictions with carry-on bags, I have found that they are not really enforced as long as you look like you are carrying your gear without a problem. It is the size of the carry-on that matters. If you find yourself traveling with a huge lens like a 600mm, I recommend using a hard case, then placing it into a duffle bag with some clothes or padding. This makes it less obvious that it is expensive camera gear.

16. Packing Clothing

Do not bring more than you need. Truly, you only need 2-4 sets of clothes, including the outfit you wear on the plane. Laundry service will be available at most of the camps except for “small” i.e. undergarments. Hiking/travel shorts and pants are great. Pants work best, especially the ones you can zip off or roll up for shorts. Pack neutral colors like khaki and green. Bright colors attract the insects and Tse Tse flies are attracted to blue and black. Bring a wide brim hat, a rain jacket, a fleece or down vest and jacket, and a scarf to keep you warm and also provide respite from dusty roads for yourself. Layers work best on safari. Most mornings (any time of year) and evenings are cool and riding in an open vehicle is downright cold. Clothing with pockets are great because you can use them for extra camera batteries, memory cards, glasses, etc. while out in the field and not have to fumble about in your camera bag.

Lilac-Breasted Roller taking flight at Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Canon 1D X; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + 1.4x iii lens and extender; manual exposure, 1/4000 sec at f/5.6; ISO 800; 0 EV

17. Packing Toiletries

Keep your prescriptions safe and travel with them in your carry-on. In addition to Malaria pills, bring some Cipro for the off-chance you need it. The last thing you want to do is miss a game drive because of stomach problems. Take an array of over-the-counter medications like cold medicine, stomach remedies, eye drops, Band-Aids, insect repellent, sunscreen, etc. Most camps provide soap and shampoo but not usually conditioner. Additionally, there is no corner drugstore. So, do not think, “I will buy it when I get there.” Also keep in mind you will often be out in the bush without toilet facilities and will have to “mark your territory” behind the truck or behind a bush after your guide/drive has made sure it is safe to do so.

It seems like a lot of information, but you will have the time of your life with just a little preparation. Once you pick a safari company that meets your needs the rest will fall into place—especially the paperwork. 

For more advice on the topic of African Safaris, click for Part 2  and Part 3 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!

Two young gazelles at Samburu National Reserve, Kenya

Canon EOS 1D X; EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM+1.4 x iii; manual exposure, 1/100 sec at 5.6; ISO 200; 0 EV

About Linda LeNoir

Houston-based Linda LeNoir has been photographing African wildlife for seven years. Her first experience in Africa was a bucket-list vacation that changed her life. There is a saying in Africa: “I was not born in Africa but Africa was born in me.” As soon as Linda returned from Africa she had already planned two more trips and began the process of turning her life completely upside down. She untangled herself from 30 years in the boring business world to begin her next adventure as a wildlife photographer. LeNoir has a lifelong passion for the animals of Africa and their conservation.

She now spends 3-4 months of the year photographing the wildlife in Africa and has been on more than 19 photographic safaris. While she often travels on her own with a private truck and driver, she also joins group photographic safaris, saying that, “You never know who you will meet and what you will learn from other photographers. I have never come away from a photo safari without forming at the very least one lasting friendship.” See more of her photos on Instagram @lindalenoirphotography and Facebook at LindaLeNoirPhotography.

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