Photo Safari Tips: Make the most of your African photo safari

by Sep 18, 2021Photography

African Photo Safari Lake Nakuru Kenya

10 essential photo safari tips to ensure you get great photos on your African photo safari. It’s less about the camera than you may think. 

Surprise: You don’t need the most expensive camera setup and perfect settings to get great wildlife photographs on an African safari. Coming home with wow-worthy shots has more to do with a little preparation and taking a few intangible concepts to heart, such as practice and patience.

Vervet Monkey Samburu Kenya

Read on for 10 photo safari tips that will help ensure you are ready to make the most of your photo safari.

10 African photo safari tips to take to heart

Learn about the wildlife you plan to photograph. The more you can learn about an animal’s or a bird’s behavior, the more likely it is you’ll be able to capture an amazing photograph. Want that winning photo of a bee-eater in flight or the lilac-breasted roller after capturing its insect prey? If you know a bird’s habits, you will be one step ahead. For example, if you know a bee-eater will often fly off from and then return to the same perch repeatedly, then you will be more prepared to take the photograph you want. Looking for a great photo of lions? If you understand when they will most likely sleep and lounge, when they are most active, and when cubs might appear will help you get the photo you want.

Lilac Breasted Roller Grasshopper Maasai Mara

Practice photographing wildlife before your trip. If you have a zoo relatively near you, head to the zoo. Not only will it be a great place to practice photographing African wildlife, but you’ll also be able to learn a bit about each animal’s behavior. No zoo? No problem. Practice taking photos of squirrels, birds, deer, or raptors … practice tracking them with your lens, playing with different focus settings, and trying different exposure settings as preparation for Africa.

Rhino Mom Junior Solio Rhino Preserve

Know how to shoot in manual mode. This will take practice so begin well before your trip. Once you know how to adjust your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, along with your white balance and other exposure settings you will never go back to auto modes again. Take some time to learn when and how to use Auto ISO and “exposure compensation” in manual mode, too. And never fear: If you find yourself unsure of a setting when on your photo safari, most other photographers (like those with you on the trip) are more than willing to share information, camera settings, and even teach you a thing or two if you ask.

Wildebeest Line Amboseli

Shoot in “raw” format. Choose “raw,” rather than JPEG, as the file format in your camera. JPEGs are processed and compressed, meaning you lose creative and processing ability, while raw images are not processed and hold more tonal and color data. You’ve spent all this money on a photo safari, so why on earth would you compromise the quality of your photographs from the start? Bottom line: Shooting in raw produces much higher-quality images.

Compose your shot before pressing the shutter. Try to pay attention to the full scene, and not just get excited about the hyena that just appeared. Where is the animal looking? If it’s moving, where is it headed? What is its body language? A female lion staring at an approaching male may mean a snuggle … or perhaps a fight… is about to break out. Be ready and be sure you have enough space around the lions to keep them in the frame if the dust starts to fly or bigger movements happen. When focusing on an animal, be sure to focus on its eyes. The most memorable photos are typically those where the animal is moving toward or gazing directly into the camera. Always be sure there is sufficient room in the shot you have framed for an animal to move, i.e., you don’t want an elephant’s trunk pressed up against one edge of your photo while you have miles of space behind its tail. Having sufficient space will also give you cropping ability.

Cheetah Prowling Maasai Mara

On the other hand, don’t get too caught up in all the composition rules. If the action starts in front of you, the first rule is to get the shot. Sure, composition will turn a good photograph into a great photograph, but if you don’t have the photograph at all, you’re just out of luck.

Simply capture the action unfolding. For example, if a crocodile suddenly grabs a wildebeest crossing the Mara River during the Great Migration, push your shutter button and just get the shot, as Therese did below for this amazing capture of the moment a giant crocodile attacked a wildebeest. Worry about cropping and post-processing for better composition later.

Photo Tips Be Ready Crocodile Wildebeest

Shoot from a low angle whenever possible, but high sometimes, too. The vehicle you will be in for your African photo safari will typically have a pop-up roof as well as side windows beside the seats that roll up or down or slide open. While it may seem like the very best view is standing on the seats and peering out and down on the wildlife from the roof, that also means your photographs will show the tops of animals. If you are more at eye level, you have a better chance of getting an animal’s eyes locked on you powerfully. For that, you need to get low and shoot from window level. Shooting from the roof position is best for shooting animals and objects in the distance, taking photos of birds perched in nearby trees, or if you need to avoid taller grasses blocking a scene.

Leopard Shot From Above Kenya

This photograph would have been so much better if I had been shooting low at the time. Unfortunately, I was out of position, which sometimes happens, and this was the only shot I could manage.

Respect and trust your drivers. Your African photo safari driver absolutely wants you to get the best photograph possible in every situation that arises – a lion kill, a brightly colored lilac-breasted roller, a yawning hippo. By all means, let them know the shots you would most like to get during the day. In the end, though, you need to trust them … completely … and not tell them what to do.

In Kenya, for example, guides are members of the Kenya Professional Safari Guide Association and earn gold, silver and bronze badges representing varying levels of knowledge in wildlife, photography, animal behavior, botany, and more. The guides are way more familiar with the wildlife park and areas you are in than you could possibly be — and often have grown up in or near a park themselves.

Hyena Cub And Mama Maasai Mara

Our driver on this day, Charlie Boy, knew I really wanted a photo of a hyena cub. We had learned the 1-week-old cub was likely to be coming out of its den for the first time and Charlie Boy got our Land Cruiser into the perfect position just in time. Shooting low captured the moment … and the watchful stare from mom.

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If you are not happy with a position your driver has set you up in to photograph from, ask them about it, but politely. I can assure you that there is a reason your driver has chosen the position you are in, though they may also agree that moving is ok, too. On a recent photo safari, there were any number of times our driver stopped and turned off the engine in a spot I thought was less than ideal at the time, only to realize he anticipated exactly where, for example, a leopard was walking and had positioned our vehicle perfectly in its path.

You also need to understand most national parks have rules concerning off-roading and, while you will see plenty of other vehicles chasing after an animal well off the road (which is just not cool even if the rules allow it), rangers can stop your driver and put him in serious trouble if he’s caught.

Stay calm, stay cool. There will be countless times on your photo safari where things will get a bit frenetic. Wildebeest are crossing the river right now, or a leopard has been spotted in a tree, or a cheetah has just made a kill. In those instances, vehicles from all over the park will drive pell-mell to get to the spot (they all have radios to communicate), with drivers jockeying for the best position for their clients. It can feel like pure pandemonium. It is in this instance that you need to steel yourself, get in touch with your inner Zen photographer, and remain calm and patient. If a vehicle cuts off your vehicle, or moves into and blocks your shot, let your driver handle it. And remember to hang on!

Samburu Leopard In Tree

Never express anger or dismay or frustration toward your driver because you’re not getting the photo you want. Your driver knows you want these shots. Often, just when you think the shot is totally lost, your skilled driver will move your vehicle into a better, perhaps more distant position, out of the scrum of vans packed with safari tourists toting smartphones, precisely to where, for example, the rhino with its baby will reappear.

Be patient and kind to your fellow photo safari photographers. Unless you booked your own vehicle and driver for a personal photo safari (lucky you) you will be sharing your vehicle with one, two or three other photographers. Typically, on a photo safari, each photographer is allotted his or her own row, with the passenger seat next to the driver often counted as a row. Also, if in a larger group, you will rotate to different vehicles throughout the safari (and choose different rows) to keep things balanced and fair. Even though you will have your own row, it can be a bit cramped inside a vehicle with all the photo gear, bean bags, and people. And each row has its pluses and minuses depending on the vehicle configuration. Your job will be to figure out how to adapt and get your best shot no matter where in the vehicle you are seated – front passenger seat, front row, middle row, or back row. Sometimes, getting the shot will not work from the seat you are in. So, you can either ask your fellow passengers if they mind sharing their space for a few photos or, as I sometimes did, you just put your camera down and enjoy the moment. It’s not such a bad thing to simply enjoy what you are seeing.

Land Cruiser Inside Vehicle

Inside a typical photo safari vehicle – this photo taken while on a photo safari with the California Center for Digital Arts. Pop-top roof open for shooting high. Three rows with one photographer per row — I was shooting from the front row for this outing. The back row here is a bit cramped with the cooler in the middle, but we all learned to work around it. That’s a bean bag in the sliding window, to help stabilize a lens for sharp photos.

Finally, remember you are in a shared space, one that bounces and jiggles with your every movement. Meaning if you need to move, let fellow photographers know before you move so your shifting of weight does not unintentionally blur someone else’s potentially award-winning photo because you rocked the boat. Realize, too, that while you may want to shoot cheetahs and only cheetahs, there are other photographers who may want to shoot elephants or black-chested snake eagles. Everyone needs to compromise and be patient with one another. That means getting your cheetah shots but be ready to move on to find another animal when others express a desire to do so.

And that pretty much sums up the basics. You’ll notice I really didn’t mention photography gear at all. Yes, it matters too, but not as much as the 10 tips above. I guarantee you will see the world a little bit differently after visiting Africa. And I am confident you will be a better photographer, too, ready to dream about your next African photo safari the minute your plane returns home.

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