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Safari Photo Tips: How to Capture the Best Images

You’re finally doing it! You’re going on safari! You’ve dreamed about this experience for years and years, and you cannot wait to see and photograph all the amazing wildlife.

There's just one problem: Wildlife photography is very challenging, even for professionals. Thankfully, with a bit of preparation, you can increase your odds of capturing beautiful images.

Let's go through the major photography challenges you can expect to encounter on safari, and how best to deal with them.

Challenge: The Safari Vehicle

Most safari vehicles have three rows of two seats behind the driver.

This means everyone gets a "window" seat, and there really is no bad seat in the vehicle. Still, it can be tricky to get a clear shot...especially when that majestic lion or adorable giraffe happens to be on the other side of the truck.

Solution: Go with a Great Guide and Great Company

Not only do experienced guides exponentially increase the odds of finding wildlife, they also understand important aspects of photography, like lighting and angles. The best guides are able to position their vehicle so everyone can capture their best shots—all while keeping you and the wildlife safe.

You could also get a group of friends to travel with you...especially friends who are knowledgable about photography. That way, everyone in your vehicle can work together to get the best photos. (P.S. Remember, we can do all the travel planning for your group, so you don't have to.)

You can also try a walking safari to get a different perspective. It’s a great opportunity to focus on the small details you’d never notice otherwise.

Challenge: Distance

When you’re on safari, the animals are often quite far away (so far away that you'll need high-quality binoculars to see them clearly). This is no problem for professional wildlife photographers who use super expensive monster zoom lenses, but the average safari goer has no need for a specialty lens like that.

Solution: Get the Right Equipment for You

You don’t have to invest in a pro-quality telephoto lens that costs as much as a (used) car. However, you do need a high-quality camera and lens with a zoom of at least 200 mm. No, your smart phone won’t do.

On my last safari, I decided to use two camera bodies so I wouldn’t have to change lenses in challenging conditions. For wide shots, I used my Canon 60D body with a 15-85mm lens. Here's an example of a photo taken at 85 mm.

Ostrich by the sea. Cape Town. Copyright Travel That Matters

I also rented a Canon 80D body and a Canon 100-400 mm lens (with image stabilization) in the hopes of getting really crisp wildlife photos. NOTE: Renting vs. buying saved me almost $1,500.

This is one of my favorite captures with the 80D. (Shot at 285 mm and cropped quite a bit in Lightroom.)

While I’m generally happy with my photos, most of them aren't as crisp as I'd hoped, which just proves that wildlife photography is hard! To see for yourself, go to Photo Gallery: Zimbabwe Safari.

The next time I go on safari, I don't think I will use the same camera setup. First of all, carrying around all that heavy gear was a hassle. Plus, I didn't use the 15-85 lens very often, and nobody else on the trip had such cumbersome gear...yet they were able to get some fantastic shots.

Here’s a list of the cameras they used:

  • Sony ILCE-6000 with 55-210 mm lens

  • Nikon Coolpix P1000

  • Nikon Coolpix P530 (no longer available to purchase new)

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XSi

In the end, it comes down to personal preference and choosing the camera you're most comfortable purchasing/renting/using.

Challenge: Movement

Not only are the animals in motion, but the safari vehicle jostles a bit as everyone shifts around trying to get the best shot. Not to mention, you’re probably holding a heavy zoom lens that’s hard to keep stable.

Solution: Fast Shutter Speed

In an ideal world, you’d be able to get out of the vehicle and set up a tripod, or even use a beanbag to stabilize your camera within the vehicle, but in my experience, neither of those options are realistic. So, the next best solution is using the fastest shutter speed possible without bumping up your ISO too much. (If you don't know what shutter speed and ISO are, see the next challenge.) The image below was shot at 1/640, F5.6, 400mm, ISO 400.

Challenge: Inexperience

For most people, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Everything about the experience is new and different, and the photography environment is unlike anything you can find at home.

Solution: Know Your Camera

Practice using your camera before your trip. You may not be able to create a safari-like scenario at home, but you can try photographing pets, birds, small children…anything that won’t pose for you.

If you’re a complete novice, consider taking a photography class. At the very least, you should understand the basic settings on your camera, including how, when and why to change them. Your safari photos will be much better for it.

If you’re renting a camera, try to stick with a brand you have used before, or schedule the equipment to arrive early, so you have time to learn to use it before you go.

Challenge: Unpredictability

You never know when or where wildlife is going to appear while you’re on safari. Imagine this: You return from a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river to find a family of elephants having dinner outside your safari tent. Or this: You return from a full day of wildlife viewing when your guide learns about a cheetah sighting. You jump back in the vehicle with all your gear, and your guide whisks you away to catch a glimpse of the cheetah before it wanders off into the night. (Both of these scenarios happened to us on our last safari trip.)

Solution: Always Be Present

They say the best camera is the one you have with you. This couldn’t be more true than on safari, so ALWAYS have your gear nearby.

That being said, there are some animal encounters that aren’t worth photographing. In the two scenarios above, it was too dark to get good photos. I admit it … I still tried, and here's the proof (taken from my phone). To see the best of my photos, check out our safari photo gallery.

When you realize the conditions aren’t right, focus on capturing the moment in your mind, rather than with your camera. After all, you’re on safari, and it’s incredible!

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