The Art of Travel Photography – Tips for Photography on African Safaris

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Being on safari in Africa is an exciting and exhilarating experience.  It is something that you want to remember and bring back to show your family and friends.  The pictures that we take while on safari are our best way to remember and share this amazing experience.  For this reason, you want to be able to take great safari pictures that you can.  Pictures that will really represent the experience well and WOW those that you show them to.

Like most photography, half the battle is putting yourself in the right position.  Since you are reading this, I assume that you have already made plans to go on safari in Africa or are in the process of making those plans.  So, you have done the really important work.  By reading this article, you will be armed with the tips and tricks necessary to take the best safari pictures.  All that is left is to go on your trip and make memories to last a lifetime!

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A giraffe stops to check us out in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.

For your convenience, I have separated my top safari photography tips into two sections.  In the first section, we will talk about the gear that you will need to make the most of your photo safari.  The necessary gear will help make sure that you are prepared to take the best pictures possible.

In the second section, we will discuss some of the photography tips that can really help you enhance the pictures that you take while on safari.  These tips can really bring your pictures to the next level and make sure they impress your family and friends.  Follow these tips and you have a great chance of coming home with some fantastic safari photos.

Have the Right Gear With You

Having the right gear with you when you are on safari is important.  Not just because the right gear can help you take some great pictures, but because the right gear can help you even be able to take pictures in the first place.  Before you depart for your trip, I would make sure you have the following gear in your camera bag.

Bring Plenty of Memory Cards

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Believe me, you are going to want to take A LOT of pictures when on safari.  Being on safari in Africa is a wildlife photographer’s dream come true.  You will be overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of amazing wildlife, all in their natural habitat.  There is just something magical about that.

The last thing you are going to want is to run out of memory cards half-way thru your safari experience.  For this reason, I suggest you bring more memory cards than you think you will need.  A general rule of thumb that I use is to guesstimate how many photos I think I will take, and then double it.  I want to make sure I have enough memory cards to take at least that many pictures.

You are also going to want to make sure you have fast memory cards, because you are going to want to take bursts of photos to capture animals in movement.  We will talk about some tips I have to capture the movement adequately later in this article, but for now it is important to make sure you have the cards necessary to follow those tips.  Look for cards with a write speed of at least 90 MB\s.  Anything over that speed and your camera should be able to write pictures to memory as fast as you will be taking them.

Bring Plenty of Batteries

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You are also going to want to make sure you have an adequate amount of camera battery power when you are on safari.  Like with memory cards, if you run out of battery power, you are going to miss a lot of great photo opportunities.  Don’t assume that you will be able to charge your batteries every night, because in Africa you never know when you will be out of power.  The power grids in much of Africa are unreliable, and power outages are not an uncommon occurrence.  This is especially true in many of the remote regions where you will be on safari.

I like to bring a battery for each day that I know I will be on safari, and I make sure all of these batteries are fully charged before I leave.  When I do find power, I like to charge my batteries that I have used, even if I am not sure I will need them.  There is no such thing as having too many charged backup batteries.  Especially when great safari photos are at stake.

A Good Zoom Lens is a Must

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A great zoom lens is an absolute must when on safari.  Many times, you won’t be able to get very close to the animals you see, so being able to zoom in to get the great shots you want will be essential.  Prime lenses (lenses that are of a fixed focal length) take great shots, but I would sacrifice them in favor of a good quality adjustable focal length zoom lens if you have limited space in your camera bag.  The flexibility that zoom lenses offer will be invaluable while on safari.

I would recommend bringing a lens with at least a 200mm maximum focal length.  For Canon users, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2 IS II is a great lens to have in your bag.  It doesn’t have quite the maximum focal length as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens does, but it is much faster and better in low light.  If you are looking for a good lens to bring that isn’t as costly, the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM Lens is a good, low cost zoom lens that I would recommend.  All three of these lenses are great options to have on safari.

Bring a Photo Journal or Use GPS

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A good photo journal is a great tool to have when you are taking pictures on safari.  You are going to want to document where you were and what you were seeing so that you can go back and reference that when you are going thru your pictures at home.  Even better would be to have your photos tagged with GPS coordinates when you take them.

If your camera has built-in GPS functionality, which most of the high-end DSLRs these days do, I would recommend that you enable this functionality before heading off on safari.  If your camera does not have built-in GPS functionality, most camera manufacturers make attachable GPS units that you can use to add GPS tagging to your photos.  Before I upgraded cameras, I used Canon’s GP-E2 attachable GPS receiver for years and loved it.

Bring a Camera Bean Bag

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Another really useful piece of gear to have in your bag when you go on safari is a camera bean bag.  Because of the limited amount of space in most safari vehicles, and the nature of the fact that your vehicle is moving much of the time, it makes using a tripod on while on safari a very difficult endeavor.

A camera bean bag is a great tool that you can use to steady your camera against the vehicle without a risk of your camera getting damaged.  I had one of these along with me when I was on safari in Tanzania and I absolutely loved it.  You can fill them up with a variety of different materials when you get to your destination, so transporting the empty bag is a breeze.

Have a Backup Strategy

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An important photography task that is often overlooked by travel photographers is regularly backing up photos.  It is easy to forget when you are having so much fun on a trip of a lifetime, but it can be disastrous if neglected.  I once lost a week’s worth of photos because I had a memory card failure during a trip and didn’t notice that my camera wasn’t saving the images to both cards.  I was absolutely heartbroken.

Many top end DSLR cameras include functionality that allows you to save pictures to multiple memory cards, which will cover you if you have a memory card failure.  Just make sure you double-check to ensure that this functionality is turned on.  If your camera doesn’t have this functionality, then something as simple as routinely switching out your memory cards, or saving images to a computer routinely, will suffice.

If you have the money to invest, there are a number of really cool memory card reader and players available that allow you to backup your pictures while on your trip.  You simply take the memory card out of your camera, place it in the device, back up the memory card, then put your card back into your camera.

What Do I Bring in My Bag?

In case you are interested, here is the gear that I would have in my camera bag when going on safari.  I typically bring a backup camera just in case something were to happen to my primary camera.  You travel all of that way to go on safari, I want to make sure I am able to take pictures.  I also like to carry a battery grip.  Not only do they allow me to use two batteries at once, which extends my battery life, but they also give me better access to the shutter button on portrait shots.

  • Primary Camera – Canon 5d Mark IV
  • Backup Camera – Canon 7d Mark II
  • Memory Cards (twice as much storage as you think you will need – 95mb/sec or faster)
  • Batteries (I recommend one per day you will be on safari)
  • Battery Grip
  • 200mm+ Zoom Lens with Lens Hood – Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • Wide Angle Lens (for landscapes) – Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
  • Surge Protector
  • Camera Bean Bag
  • Camera Rain Sleeve
  • Photo Journal

Tips for Safari Photography

Now that you know what type of gear you should bring with you on safari, lets talk about some of the photography techniques and tips that can be helpful.  I have found that the following techniques and tips have allowed me to capture the best images of the beautiful animals and landscapes I have seen while on African safari.  By following these tips, you should be able to capture some truly remarkable shots.

Use Shutter Priority With a Fast Shutter Speed

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Controlling your shutter speed is essential to being able to freeze the motion of the animals you photograph while on safari.  Much like these juvenile baboons in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.

This is a critically important tip.  Unless you are just shooting a landscape, you are going to want to make sure your camera is set to shutter priority mode.  If your camera doesn’t have a shutter priority mode, you will want to make sure it is set to the Action Shot setting.  This will allow you to freeze the motion of the animals you are shooting.  If you don’t adjust this setting, you will end up with blurry images.

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When on safari, make sure you use your camera’s Shutter Priority mode.  If your camera doesn’t have a Shutter Priority mode, I would suggest you use the camera’s Action Shot mode.

When you have your camera set to Shutter Priority mode, you are able to specify which shutter speed you want to use, and then your camera decides which aperture to use to get the best exposure.  If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of shutter speed and aperture, I have an in-depth explanation of what they are and how they are related in my article on taking pictures in low light situations.

Essentially, by adjusting how fast your camera takes the picture (the shutter speed), you are able to freeze the motion of the animals that you are photographing.  Depending on the animal you are shooting and what they are doing, you are going to want to adjust the shutter speed to get the shot.  For instance, if I am shooting a buffalo that is sitting still and grazing, I can safely use a shutter speed between 1/50 and 1/320 of a second and not have any motion blur.  However, if I am shooting a cheetah running, then a much faster shutter speed of 1/1000 to 1/1250 of a second will be necessary.

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You will need to adjust your shutter speed based on which animals you are photographing and what they are doing.  This table gives you a rough overview of the shutter speeds to use for different types of animals in motion.

Use the Rule of Thirds

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Using the Rule of Thirds is a great way to compose your photographs to make them more visually appealing.

A great general photography tip that can be especially useful when on safari is to always try and use the Rule of Thirds when composing your wildlife shots.  Instead of composing all of your shots with the animals you are shooting in the middle of the frame, try and compose your shots with the animals in either the left or right (or top or bottom) thirds of the frame.  By following this rule, you will compose shots that are much more interesting to the eye.

In my example below, I have taken two shots of the same elephant that we encountered while on safari in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.  In the shot on the left, I have centered the elephant in the middle of the frame, while in the shot on the right I followed the Rule of Thirds and positioned the elephant in the right third of my shot.  Judge for yourself as to which of the two photographs is more visually appealing.

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In the picture of the left, the elephant is centered in the frame, which isn’t as visually appealing. By using the Rule of Thirds to offset the elephant, we make the picture more visually appealing, as was done in the picture on the right.

Focus on the Eyes

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The cardinal rule for wildlife photography is to always focus on the eyes.

If you are going to remember just one of these tips when you are out on safari, then my hope is that you remember this one.  The cardinal rule for wildlife photography is to always focus on the eyes of the animals you are shooting.  Instead of just firing pictures when you see an animal, wait for the animal to look your way and then make sure you set your focus on their eyes.

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By focusing your shot on the animal’s eyes, you make your photographs more visually appealing.

By focusing on the animal’s eyes, you are giving the viewer of your pictures the perception that the animals are looking thru the photograph and at them.  This creates much more captivating pictures than pictures where the animals are looking away.  This is especially important when you are taking a closeup shot of an animal, as we did here with this shot of a lioness in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Don’t Miss the Golden and Blue Hours

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The Golden and Blue Hours of the day can be a magical time to take pictures like this one at camp in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

One of the best ways that you can enhance the appeal of your photographs is to take your pictures during the Golden and Blue Hours of the day.  I am not trying to discourage you from taking pictures during other times of the day, but the light during these periods is soft and the pictures you take will really grab your viewer’s attention.

In case you aren’t familiar with these terms, the Golden Hours refer to the hour right after sunrise and the hour right before sunset each day.  On the other hand, the Blue Hours refer to the hour just before sunrise and the hour just after sunset, when the sun is just beginning to show and just beginning to disappear each day.  During these times, the sun’s light is soft instead of too harsh, which is exactly the kind of light you should be looking for when you take your photographs.

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The Golden Hours are the hours right after sunrise and just before sunset, while the Blue Hours are the hours just before sunrise and just after sunset.

When you are on safari, your best bet is to let your guide know that you are really interested in getting sunrise and sunset shots before you depart.  This way, your guide will always have that in the back of their mind and will hopefully be able to adjust your safari schedule to compensate for some good photo opportunities during these magical times of the day.

Don’t Forget the People

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It is important not to forget to incorporate the people you are with into your photographs.

The final tip that I have for you is an easy tip to forget when you are surrounded by such amazing wildlife, like you can be when you are on safari in Africa.  Don’t forget to include the people you are with in your shots.  Too often we get too fixated on taking great pictures of the animals that we forget to include our loved ones in the shots.

Now, I am not suggesting people actually get out of the vehicle and interact with the animals to create a photo opportunity.  On the contrary, you should NEVER do that.  What I am suggesting is that you find ways to incorporate the people you are with into your photos.  In the shot above, I found a great way to get a picture of my lovely wife photographing a lioness with cubs in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.  It is one of my favorite pictures of my trip to this day because it combines the wonderful wildlife with someone I love and got to experience it with.


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