What I Learned on My African Photo Safari

Some people who take my tours are getting ready to go on a photo safari. I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few myself and I really enjoy helping photographers get ready for these trips, knowing how much fun they’re going to have. While we’re working on shots similar to the type they’re going to find on their trip, I find that we often end up talking about gear. Specifically, they’re asking “what gear should I plan on taking on my photo safari?” 

Since I teach others how to take photographs, it may sound odd that I hire local photographers or guides when I travel, but I do. Just as I do for my customers in the DC area, they get me to the right spot at the right time of day and help me make the most of limited time on a trip. One of the occasions where I did just that was in South Africa. Here’s what I learned from my experience.

Elephants look best with their ears flared, wait for them to do that if possible

Elephants look best with their ears flared, wait for them to do that if possible

"The Kruger" versus Pilanesberg?

I had a quick trip to Johannesburg for a conference. Since I was flying approximately 16 hours to get there, I was determined to at least tack on a short photo safari while I was there. Kruger National Park is a 5-hour drive, or very short flight, from Johannesburg and was my first choice. I wanted to jump on a flight to Kruger directly following my flight from the US, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a flight departing Johannesburg late enough in the day to allow me adequate connection time. Apparently flights into Kruger have to land a few hours before sunset since driving in the dark in the park is highly regulated. I wish I had known that when I booked the flight from the US! Lesson learned – do some research before you book your flights!

 Pilanesberg Game Reserve was my second choice, and it was great! I hired a delightful guide to take me, Dave Moffat from Khakiweed Safaris. Irish by birth, African by choice, Dave chatted happily and engagingly about any topic, while simultaneously demonstrating his incredible skills at spotting wildlife. He taught me a few tips for photographing wild animals, was kind enough to loan me his lens when we discovered that we had the same camera, and gave me an SD card when mine was acting up. In short, he absolutely made my trip!

 In Pilansberg, we tried to check off finding the "Big 5": buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhino. They are so named because they are the 5 animals which, when wounded, will turn and attack the hunter instead of fleeing. We succeeded in finding leopard, rhino and elephant. The buffalo in Pilanesberg live up in the mountains where there aren't any roads, so we didn't have a chance of finding them. And sadly, the day we were there, all of the lions decided to stay hidden. Fortunately, the only shooting done these days in the National Parks is with a camera. And there was so much more to photograph – hippos, gators, zebras – I could keep going.

Curious giraffes! See all that dust in the air?

Curious giraffes! See all that dust in the air?

Tips for Photographing Wild Animals

What strikes you in Africa is just how big it is. Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. We didn’t stop to take panoramas, but in retrospect I wish we had. In January, everything was bone dry with a fair amount of dust in the air. So, make sure to pack a UV filter and be careful when you’re changing lenses. Turn the camera off when changing the lens and point it down to avoid letting dust settle on the sensor. The UV filter will help minimize the dust, but Lightroom’s dehaze option can also help you take some of the dust haze out of the air after the fact.

The other thing I learned is to expect the unexpected. You will, literally, come around a corner and find an elephant 2 feet from the path. Two seconds later, a leopard will pop up from his nap at the top of a rocky outcropping some distance away. That means a zoom lens is a must! You’ll be switching from close up to distance at least 20 times an hour. There’s no time to change lenses so leave that fixed focal length lens in your bag. Also, make sure you’re always shooting in continuous high speed mode, since wild animals move really quickly!

Napping Rhino and Wildebeest in Pilanesberg

Napping Rhino and Wildebeest in Pilanesberg

Photographic Gear to Take with You on an African Safari

#1: Which zoom lens?

It’s probably pretty obvious that you’re going to want the best zoom lens that you can afford, but what does that mean in practice? For most amateur photographers, that probably means a debate between a zoom lens with a maximum capability of 300 mm vs 400 mm. There is a huge difference in price! A 300 mm zoom (e.g. 75 – 300 mm) costs a few hundred ($200-ish), while the 400 mm (e.g. 100 – 400 mm) is about 10x the price ($2000-ish). There’s also a huge difference in size and weight. I can’t answer whether the 400 mm lens is worth the price difference for you, but I do know that I was lucky enough to borrow one and loved it. Unless you’re an avid wildlife photographer, consider renting a 100 – 400 mm zoom lens. They appear to be available for approx. $10/day. As mentioned, don’t plan on relying on a fixed focal length lens. Don’t bother with a low aperture lens, the sun’s pretty bright in Africa. Unless you’re taking most of your photos at very early dawn or late sunset, you’ll probably be shooting at f8 or higher.

 #2: Monopod, tripod or nothing?

There’s no denying the 400 mm is heavy and hard to control. Check on the conditions of your photo safari to determine if you should bring a monopod with you to help control the camera/lens combo. In Pilanesburg, I didn’t need it. Most of the animal spotting was done from the car, so I was able to use the car window frame to brace the lens by just rolling the window up half way. Also, Pilanesburg has game blinds built near the watering holes. Every blind we went to had a shelf conveniently built at the right level, perfect to support a heavy lens or binoculars. But if you’re in doubt, toss a monopod in your bag, you can get a decent one for $25-ish).

 #3 Ancillaries: storage and filters

As mentioned, bring lots of SD cards and at least a UV filter. You may also want to consider a variable density filter in order to be able to open up your aperture even wider (lower f-stop) to narrow down the depth of field (my low-low-low mnemonic).

Spectacularly photogenic zebra are everywhere in Pilanesberg

Spectacularly photogenic zebra are everywhere in Pilanesberg

Practice Before the Trip!

I had no familiarity with a 400 mm lens, and it showed when I tried to capture birds in flight. Each photo was a disaster! Don’t do what I did and practice in advance. Go to a local park or even a nearby airport and try quickly raising the lens and finding your moving subject in the air. You’ll find it’s a lot harder to do than you imagine, but with practice, you’ll rapidly improve.

Get comfortable with Aperture and Shutter modes on your camera. You’ll want to use Shutter mode to freeze action and Aperture to pop animals against the background. If you need help with that, contact me and I’d be happy to take you on a tour to help you brush up on your skills.

The leopard sighting only lasted about 2 minutes, I had to be quick with the camera

The leopard sighting only lasted about 2 minutes, I had to be quick with the camera

Recommended Photographic Gear Packing List

Here's my minimal packing list.  I'm keeping to a minimum since most small airplanes place stringent limits on luggage weight. 

  • Ask your local tour operator if there will be physical support for the camera lens, if not, plan to bring a monopod
  • Rent a 400 mm zoom lens and bring a different lens to swap out during non- safari hours
  • Bring a lot of SD cards! 
  • Pack a UV lens for dust and possibly a variable density filter
Pilanesberg is in an ancient volcanic crater, the old crater walls make for a good backdrop

Pilanesberg is in an ancient volcanic crater, the old crater walls make for a good backdrop

Recommended In-Field Camera Settings

  • Alternate between Aperture and Shutter modes depending upon the shot. In Shutter mode, shoot at 1/1000th or higher to freeze birds or moving animals
  • Adjust aperture mode based on time of day, but f5.6 or higher should be fine. Use auto-ISO.
  • Use the largest file format you can, because you’ll probably want to zoom the photos even more and blow up the photos when you get home
  • Shoot in rapid, high speed continuous mode.
  • Always focus on the animal’s eye.  An eye in focus will make or break the photo. Consider shooting in Auto-Focus tracking mode, if you have that capability.
  • Use evaluative metering to account for bright light and animals hanging out in shadows.

Have a great trip! 

Kerinia Cusick