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How To Photograph An African Safari

Getting a direct, head-on shot of an animal is far more effective than a side view one. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.


As a photographer, there are only a few things more rewarding and humbling than going on the wild side and coming face to face with nature’s many creations. Whether it’s capturing a group of elephants with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background or a lion chasing down a giraffe, there’s always an incredible moment around every corner when you’re on a safari.

When Charlen and I decided to go to Kenya for a safari in March of 2012, we both knew photography was going to be a priority and wanted to make sure we were extra prepared for the unexpected. One question I had though was, “How to photograph an African safari?” For the most part, I brought what I normally would on any trip, which I’ll discuss in detail below. Even before determining what camera or lenses to bring, you’ll have to decide what type and quality of photos you’re going to be satisfied with.

Chances are that this will be your first and possibly only safari trip in your lifetime; and if you want to make your family and friends back home a bit jealous, you’ll want to get the best possible photos to show them what they missed out on. In addition, most safaris are several days long (anywhere from 1-3+ weeks), where your tour guide will take you from one game park to another. There are even some that go across multiple countries, like Uganda (gorillas), Kenya, and Tanzania.

Hodge our wonderful tour guide posing in front of his van. Lake Nakuru, Kenya.

When we booked our Kenya safari trip, our tour guide Hodge of Pollman’s took us to the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, and Amboseli National Park. In addition, we had a few side excursions along the way, such as stopping by a few Maasai villages and taking a boat ride on Lake Naivasha. What all of this means is you’re going to get ample opportunities for some stunning images and the last thing you want is to be unprepared.

After spending thousands of dollars on the trip and traveling for 20+ hours on a plane, will you be satisfied with a point and shoot camera with limited zoom and low-light capability? Or even with an entry-level DSLR and lens, where the quality of color and sharpness are less to be desired? I’m not suggesting going out and getting equipment the folks at National Geographic use, where the camera gear can cost you easily $10,000+ and you’ll need a suitcase the size of the caravan you’re traveling in to carry everything.

However, if that’s along the lines of what you’re going for, all the power to you! I recommend getting a private tour guide where it’s just you and the driver. You’ll have all the time in the world and control of where you want to get your shot, as supposed to going with half a dozen other folks who may or may not be as serious as you when it comes to photos.

For what it’s worth, as much as I would’ve loved to go on a private tour, Charlene and I couldn’t be happier with the individuals that were on our trip. Big shout out to Marcia, Ian, and Dianne from Australia and Kristi from Texas, we miss you guys! Okay back to the photography tips…


A water buffalo looks on curiously as the herd feasts on grass in the background. Masai Mara, Kenya.

Camera body: Canon 5D Mark II.

It’s what I use for my wedding photography work (currently using the 5D Mark III as I write this), but I would actually prefer the 1D series as the focusing is much better, has a cropped sensor (so you can “zoom” more with your lenses), and is more durable. If cost is a factor, I recommend the middle-of-the-line DSLRs like the Canon 60D or 7D.

Chances are most of the images you take will be of still objects or with minimal movement. For example, zebras hanging out on the field or a leopard in the tree. Occasionally you’ll see lions or cheetahs running across your viewfinder. That’s where a camera body with a good auto-focusing and tracking system will be handy. The 5D does everything pretty well but not one thing super duper well. However, it’s really the best all-purpose camera body out in the market. From a safari to city landscapes and weddings to family portraits, this boy can handle them all.

Lenses: Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS with a 2x teleconverter.

The 24-70mm is my favorite and must-have lens for every trip, no exception. It’s very versatile with the range and can give you sharp, colorful images even in low-light, especially if you use it with a 5DM3 body and its high ISO capabilities. For a safari, the 24-70mm is perfect for all your landscape wide-angle shots as well as up-close portraits of individuals such as the Maasai Warriors. But for most of the day, you’ll be using your telephoto lens such as the 70-200mm to capture all of the wildlife.

I highly recommend purchasing a 2x convertor. You’ll lose 2 full stops of light, i.e. your largest aperture will go from a 2.8 to a 5.6. But the extra reach you get is more than worth this trade off. Your 70-200mm will now be a 140-400mm, which will allow you to get really close-up shots of the animals. Since you’ll be outdoors with plenty of light the whole day, not being able to shoot at wider apertures won’t be that much of an issue anyway.

A group of Maasai kids near Mara Sopa posing for the camera. Masai Mara, Kenya.

Flash: Canon 580EXII.

I brought this along just in case but don’t think I used it even once. You won’t ever need flash while out in the game park and rarely when you’re walking around the cities/villages. Plus it might draw too much attention with it on top of your camera (assuming your body doesn’t have a pop-up flash already, which I suggest you don’t ever use as the quality is nowhere as good as an off-camera flash).

There may be a time at night or if you’re in a dark area, i.e. inside a restaurant or house, and need to take images of subjects. In that situation, I would use the flash but you may be able to get away putting the subject near a light source or bumping up your ISO. Regardless, I would still bring a flash and have it handy in my backpack…just in case.

Computer: Apple MacBook Air.

I think this is THE perfect laptop for travel and performance, especially as a photographer. I have the 10”screen MBA which feels virtually non-existent in my backpack as it’s just a tad bigger and heavier than the iPad (at least it feels that way). The screen is big enough for me to do some quick culling and editing in Lightroom, but small enough that it won’t be a distraction when around others.

Battery life is pretty decent; I can cull for a good 3 hours on a full charge. The 500GB solid state hard drive along with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports allow me to work on a large batch of images (fits around 20,000+ RAW files) as well as back them up onto an external hard drive. The last thing you ever want is to not have a back-up of your digital files and worst, lose them all.

A group of lions devouring a water buffalo carcass after an intense battle. Masai Mara, Kenya.

Backpack: Think Tank Shape Shifter or The North Face Surge.

I used the former on my recent trip to Central Europe and the latter on the Kenya safari one. Both, along with a myriad of other amazing travel photography backpacks, have their pros and cons. I won’t go into the details in this post, but I do recommend a backpack that is more than just carrying the usual day-to-day stuff. It needs to be comfortable when on you, have enough space and pockets to hold your camera gear as well as miscellaneous items listed below. The nice thing about a safari is chances are you’ll be in your tour guide caravan for 90% of it, meaning your backpack will be on your seat than on your back.

Accessories: Batteries, 32GB CF cards, tripod, portable external hard drive, cables, chargers, converters, remote camera trigger, compass, and flashlight.

All of these are pretty self-explanatory. Make sure you always have enough juice in your camera battery and space left on your memory cards. You never want to miss a moment due to a dead battery or no space in your memory card. A tripod, like the flash, is not a necessity but comes in very handy for long exposure/night time shots and ones when you’ll have the time to set up things up.

I wish I could take every image on a tripod as the quality of the image is much better; unfortunately I only get to use my tripod maybe 1-3% of the time I’m taking photos. A compass is super handy, such as finding out the direction of where the sun will set and rise as well as getting your way around if you’re lost.


The barren African land. At times, a telephoto lens can be used to capture landscapes. Masai Mara, Kenya.

So now you’ve got all your camera gear packed and are ready to head out on the first day of your safari adventure! Don’t forget the other essentials like water bottles, snacks, comfy clothes and shoes, mosquito repellent, sunblock, etc. As far as shooting tips, I recommend:

Lighting is key; time of the day and year matters.

Before booking any tickets, be sure you’ve checked the best months to do a safari in the country you’re visiting. For example, the best time for a safari in Africa isn’t the same as it is in Asia. Nothing is worse than picking a month when the animals are hiding or have migrated away, it’s raining or cloudy all the time, or tourism is at its highest and you see more human beings than animals. In regards to time of the day, like with most types of photography, early-late mornings and late afternoons to early evenings are the best due to lighting from the sun.

Talk to your tour guide.

Let them know that you’re a professional photographer and you’d really like to capture some amazing things. Otherwise, they may assume you’re just an enthusiast and are happy going with the flow of the day. Maybe they’ll start the tour earlier or end later so you can catch the sunrise and sunset. Or perhaps they may take you away from the beaten path for something different from the other tours that are going on.

Really want to find that rare cheetah or leopard? Let the guide know and make sure you reward their hard work with a nice tip at the end of the day. The experience tour guides have gained from leading safari trips is the most invaluable resource you’ll have. You may not get a chance to see everything due to time constraints; so let yours know what’s most important to you.

A Maasai Warrior protects the Amboseli National Park hotel visitors from baboons. Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

Use two camera bodies.

I only brought one on my safari trip, but being used to shooting with two camera bodies at weddings, I felt half-naked and really wanted a second body. One would have the 24-70mm and the other the 70-200mm with the teleconverter. This may seem a bit too much and maybe even a distraction to the other folks in the caravan with you. But if you’re considerate enough and act professional, chances are they won’t mind and may even give you priority.

With two bodies, you’re less likely to miss something and also be able to use the desired lens/focal length. Perhaps you’re shooting a scenic shot of the Masai Mara fields with your 24-70mm when all of a sudden you see a hippo pop its head out of the water. Rather than switching to the 70-200mm, with two bodies, you can just take the other camera with that lens already attached to it and shoot away.

Watch out for foregrounds and backgrounds.

The easy and hard thing about going on a safari is for your safety, you’re not allowed to get out of the vehicle. This means if you see something interesting in the distance, you can’t just run out of your van and get up close with it. So you have to work just a bit smarter on getting creative shots. Watch out for things right in front of you and decide if they’re either a complement or distraction to your final image, i.e. road, bushes, dirt, etc.

Similarly, keep an eye on what’s behind the subject, i.e. a tree sticking out of the lion’s head. Move around the van if possible. A shot standing up with your head above the van opening at the top will look different than if you take a seat and shoot through the window. Experiment with various perspectives and vantage points, use different lenses, and maybe even show up at various times of the day (in the morning and once again in the evening before it gets dark).

Having a 70-200mm lens with a teleconverter and being extra steady and prepared made this shot possible. Lake Naivasha, Kenya.

Think of why and what you’re shooting beforehand.

I remember how I felt when I saw a zebra for the first time at the Masai Mara, I must’ve jumped out of my seat and shot 50 images of it. Just a few minutes later as we drove a bit more into the game park, I saw several dozen more and felt a bit silly. The goal isn’t to just shoot any and everything you see, but to be patient and pick your spots. You don’t need 5,000 mediocre images of water buffaloes, but maybe a dozen or so solid ones.

Perhaps a wide shot of a pack eating grass with the late afternoon light hitting them and an up close shot of one looking directly at you. Of course, if you happen to spot one of the rarer animals in the park like a cheetah, lion, or leopard, then you may not get a second chance. Act fast and do the best you can. This is where knowing your equipment inside out and what kind of a feel you want in your image will go a long way.

Capturing the smiles of the Maasai kids was one of the many highlights of our trip. Amboseli National Park, Kenya. 2012.

Visit the local villages near the game parks.

As much fun as it was to photograph the animals, my favorite part of the trip was going to a few Maasai villages, hearing about their way of living, participating in their games, and capturing the life of it all. One thing I suggest is letting them know up front that you’re a photographer and if it’s okay to photograph them. Chances are they’ll be fine since they’re probably used to the tourists’ cameras.

I wanted images where the subjects were not only performing their daily activities, but also up close and personal ones of them looking at the camera. I asked for their permission and informed them that I would give them some money in exchange for their participation. Most of these villages sell merchandise to tourists. They all looked fancy but I was more interested in taking photos of the Maasai Warriors. After the locals realized what my intent and offer was, they were more than happy and willing to oblige.


A parade of adult and baby elephants cross the grasslands with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Amboseli National Park, Kenya. 2012.

I hope this article has been of some help in photographing a safari. If you have any questions or would like me to elaborate on anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you’re on the fence of investing in a quality camera and lens, or even going on an African safari, don’t wait another day…go for it :). I assure you it’ll be an experience of a lifetime, and you’ll have some amazing photos to reflect upon it all. Happy shooting!

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