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Closeup of Cheetah in a tree at the Namibia Cheetah Sanctuary

African Photo Safaris - Introduction and Ideas

For the Travel Photographer to have success capturing the images of Africa's wild animals on Safari, he needs to prepare well in advance. The right equipment, the right vehicle, the right local guide, and the right weather are all important to arrange. When you get there, being at the right place at right time, and of course luck - these are a little harder to predetermine, but are nonetheless crucial to your success on an African Safari. It costs a lot of money and effort to get there, and it would be a pity if you didn't come home with the photographs that you have been hoping for, so this short series of articles in the 'Tim's Tips' series discusses some of the ways that you can make the trip a success.

Lets start by looking at our expectations. When you get to the Game Parks of Africa, what photographic success will you have? This is down to a number of factors: primarily luck, and being in the right place at the right time. On the TV you might get the idea that the wildlife is swarming all around, just waiting to be photographed, but of course this is not the case. The TV companies invest a huge amount of time and money to assure success and video for the viewers. They will have watchers throughout the parks who will monitor and notify them when conditions are best for filming. As a photographer on a one or two week safari you will not have the time required to cover the ground, or the chance to access some of the areas that the TV crews can visit.African elephants gather around a water hole in Zimbabwe

Do not despair. If you are patient, and spend enough time on the game drives you will see a wonderful arry of wildlife. Just how much stamina do you have? How much time can you put in to see the animals you want? Because luck is such a factor on Safari, the more time you spend in your vehicle, the more game drives you can go on, then the more likely you are to get the shots you need. Its not predictable at end of day, and often down to luck, so putting the hours in is the best guarantor. An Overland driver who I have been travelling with recently, and who has spent many years with groups in Africa, recounted how on one occasion in a game park, his group saw 35 lions, and a number of kills. The next year he was there in the same park at the same time and same conditions, yet his new group had drive all day, and only saw one lion.

When to go? I will not attempt to answer this question directly, as each area has its best time, and the types of wildlife you can expect to see will also vary from month to month. Research is therefore important, and I strongly encourage you to ascertain just what you are likely to see before you book that trip, to save disappointment. A key consideration is: Will the season be wet or will it dry? This is a crucial regulator of which animals you can expect to photograph. In the dry season conditions for the photographer will generally be easier, as with little water about, the animals have to go to the known waterholes, often maintained specifically for this purpose, to drink. The photographer will spend quite a while at these waterholes, and see a large range on animals that otherwise you would not expect to appear side by side. In the wet season though, there is plenty of water all around the game parks and so they don't need to go to the waterholes as frequently as before. Some do still turn up and can be spotted, though, so keep a watch out.Kenyan ladies in traditional dress

A big crowd-puller, of particpants and observers, is the spectacular annual migration of animals heading south across the Serengeti towards better grazing. You may have visited game parks already, and seen a variety of animals over wide open spaces, but nothing will prepare you for the huge scale of the Serengeti, which just goes on and on, over seemingly limitless grasslands, rivers and forest. In keeping with all this space are the number of animals, something quite staggering too. One million wildebeest walking in a giant circle each year: its just got to be seen at least once in your life. The last time I was there, we were lucky enough to see the start of this annual migration, and the vast herds of zebra and wildebeeste preparing to trek south towards their food - something I've wanted to witness every since it was mentioned by John Cleese in episode 7 of the classic 'Fawlty Towers:

Mrs. Richards: [standing next to the window] And another thing: I asked for a room with a view.
Basil Fawlty: [aside to Manuel] Deaf, mad, *and* blind.
[to Mrs. Richards as he makes a show of inspecting the view]
Basil Fawlty: This is the view as far as I can remember... Yes... Yes, this is it.
Mrs. Richards: When I pay for a view, I expect to see something more interesting than that.
Basil Fawlty: That is Torquay, madam.
Mrs. Richards: Well, that's not good enough.
Basil Fawlty: Well, might I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The hanging gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically...

Basil at his sarcastic best. Wonderful stuff. If you wish to witness the migration yourself, then you must do your research and check just when it is likely to be in the area that you will visit. The dates aren't always the same, and even if they were, the animals don't stick to an exact timetable, but generally speaking, the decline of the spring grass in the Masai Mara is the signal for them to start moving south and south west.

Kumuka Overland truck in Namibia

Choosing the right group to go with can be very important, and greatly affect your chance of success. Are the people that you are travelling with there to see the animals, or are they just there as part of a more extended trip? People can get bored whilst you are waiting for that special shot. The days on Safari can be long and hot. Bored people run out of patience, begin to fidget, start to chat and generally make noise which will frighten the animals away. The driver may judge that the majority of his passengers have seen enough, and want to return to the camp, just when you were hoping for more time to take photographs. If photographs are critical to you, and as you are reding this article I'll assume that they are, then perhaps you should choose a trip specifically for photographers. The company 'Africa in Focus External link opens a new Browser window' has been recommended to me, though I have not had a chance to check them out for myself yet. Check out their Online brochure External link opens a new Browser window - it looks very interesting. If anyone has any comments about this company, please let me know.Local guide in uniform at the Sossusvlei Reserve

As an alternative to the photo-specific group, choose a smaller, rather than a larger group to travel with. By doing so, you are more likely to find people with similar interests to you. The disadavantage is that the vehicles used will be smaller, and you may have to spend a lot of time standing up. Also, the smaller vehicles will be lower to the ground than an Overland truck, and we all know the important advantages that height has when taking a good photograph. There are a variety of smaller vehicles, and given the choice, I would prefer the Land Rover or Land Cruiser to the minibus. The height is useful bu you will be able to remain seated during the day rather than standing in the roof hatch - this is better for the long endurance required when photographing wildlife. One advantage of the minibus is that is can provide a useful support for a long-lens camera with bean-bag (see below for further details of bean bags). When seated in a landrover, you will need to support your camera + lens by hand, which can be tiring. A monopod might be useful here, as there is unlikely to be room for a tripod. Sometimes you can use two legs of a tripod on the floor, and the third on your seat. There are some specialised window clamps available too.

Its not just about animals, especially if you are a Travel Photographer looking to collect saleable photographs. OK, so before you all run away, please hear me out. Wildlife photography is a very specialised skill requiring huge lenses, and lots of time an patience. Lots of people have pointed cameras to lions and leopards over the years, and they have taken better photos that you are likely to do in a short trip to a game park. So enjoy yourself having a go at trying to copy them, but don't try too hard. Leave some time to take photos of your surroundings, and the people you meet. Take photos of your lodge or campsites. Take photos of the food they are serving, and the handicrafts on sale. Take photos of the trees and plants and water and sky. You might not get the world's best lion photo, but you might get a whole lot more instead. And they'll be saleable, too.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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