It’s safe to say that an African safari is on most wildlife photographers’ destination wish list. It is a trip many will never get the chance to do due to the extensive travel and time requirements as well as the significant financial expense. However, for those lucky enough to set out on the incredible journey it’s not as simple as picking a destination, hotel, and plane ticket. There is a significant amount of preparation and planning that must be done ahead of time. Borrowlenses.com advocate and wildlife photographer David Bernstein recently returned from his epic safari trip and graciously shared a few photography tips and travel tricks he learned along the way. Bernstein started out using a humble Rebel series camera and over time grew into being what he calls a “photo-naturalist”, taking pictures of landscapes and wildlife with an affinity for birds. This article is meant to help you plan for an African photo-focused safari and address many of the things to consider before embarking on the journey of a lifetime.
Planning for Safari: Photography Tips and Tricks
by David Bernstein
Travel Agents for the Win
If this is your first safari then do not plan it by yourself! There are many highly-rated travel companies that specialize in organizing African safaris. Their goal is to provide you with an unbelievable experience tailored to what you want and hope to see. I always felt comfortable planning my own itineraries on photo excursions because of all my previous travel experience, however, I decided to use a travel company to plan and organize my first safari and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. They guided me to where the best chances of seeing specific animals would be and what the best time of year to visit certain locations was. A good company will customize the perfect trip around what you want to see as well as suggest some incredible places you may not have even considered or known about previously.
An important thing to keep in mind is to make sure the company you use is highly rated, reputable, and provides you with references from those who recently went on a safari with them. If you want to take it even further, you can contact the references and quickly pick their brain about how the trip was organized and whether or not the company followed through with their proposal.
The first thing to consider when determining how long your trip should last is how many days’ worth of game drives you want to go on. It is important to distinguish “days of game drives” from “total days of the trip” since there are many days lost to just traveling. If you are planning a trip for the experience and anticipate taking photos along the way then you could get away with a shorter (and less expensive) trip. However, you may not get a chance to see everything on your wish list.
I planned a trip with 12 days of game drives and 10-12 days total seemed like just the right amount of time for my photo-inspired safari adventure. I ended up with roughly 1500 photos after my first rough edit!
Getting the Most Out of Your Experience: Private Safaris
Taking a private safari means you do not hat to share the vehicle with anyone besides your travel mates. We spoke candidly with our safari guide/driver about how surprised we were that it didn’t cost that much more to have the vehicle to ourselves. Apparently the shared expense of gas is the only major cost savings a company sees when there are more people in a vehicle. The other major expense is daily park entrance fees, which are paid per passenger, thus there are no savings by having fewer or more people in the vehicle. Our guide told us that we probably used $1,000 in gas for the entire 12 days of driving, which confirms that the overall cost savings by having more people in the car are fairly minimal (compared to the total trip cost).
The first reason I’d recommend splurging on a private safari is the ability to customize the itinerary of the trip to see exactly what interests you. Having the vehicle to yourself puts you in control of everything you do and you don’t have to worry about what anyone else might want to see. I had a goal of seeing 400+ bird species on our trip. Our driver was well aware of this and would happily stop every time we saw a bird perched so that I could photograph it and try to identify it.
The second, and more important, reason for doing a private safari (especially for a photographer) is that having the vehicle to yourself puts you in control of everything you do. Having control to stop the car when something piques your interest, taking the time needed for an event to unfold, or shooting a landscape that speaks specifically to you, are all crucial to the photographic experience. Often I would have to change lenses from super telephoto to wide angle and if we had other people in our car this would be incredibly annoying to them. I would have had to politely skip a photo opportunity only to have photographer’s regret later on.
By having the car to ourselves we could take the time to set up shots and ask the driver to move forward or back a few feet or into slightly better light. Furthermore, having the car to yourself allows you to bond with your driver and you find that you really become a team. Our driver ended up being intently focused on finding exactly what we wanted to see and acutely aware of the things we needed to get the right shot. This would never happen if he had to focus on the needs of everyone in the car and not just me and my wife.
Here is a perfect example of the benefits of a private safari: One day, my wife and I spent over 2.5 hours sitting and waiting for a mother leopard and her cub to emerge from deep within the grass they were hiding. Many other vehicles were in the same spot but our guide told us that the leopard would not emerge until all the cars left. So we waited. Some vehicles stayed only 30 minutes before leaving, while others would come, wait for a bit, and leave as well. We just placed ourselves in the best spot for when the leopard would emerge and then pulled out our boxed lunches and waited. Two hours later, 30 minutes after the last vehicle left, the leopard and her cub emerged just when our guide said she would. I captured an incredible photo of the mother climbing a tree, with her face bathed by some mysterious ray of light underneath the shaded canopy. I never would have been able to capture this shot, let alone witness the beauty of one of the most elusive animals in Africa, if we had not done a private safari.
The next best thing we did was remove the row of seats behind our driver. This creates a huge open space to lay out your gear, making it extremely accessible for your needs. I used a large, framed camera bag to hold all of my equipment. The bag was positioned by my feet, where the row of seats would have been, enabling me easy access to my cameras to snap shots of birds in flight or before animals moved out of light. Furthermore, I was quickly and easily able to access additional bodies, lenses, lens blowers/cleaning cloths, etc. Not to mention, the additional legroom was great!
Experience is the Key to a Successful Safari
You should consider requesting a guide who has numerous years of guiding under his/her belt. Different guides have different levels of expertise and the more experienced the guide, the better the chances are for finding the animals you really want to see. More novice guides rely on radio communication with other guides in the park to know where activity is. An experienced guide will find you the wildlife before every other vehicle in the park has claimed the best viewing spot. Furthermore, you want a guide who specializes in what is of most interest to you. As I mentioned earlier, I am an avid bird watcher and finding and ID’ing a large number of birds was extremely important to me. I specifically requested a guide with substantial avian knowledge and was paired with the perfect guide for my needs. This made a world of difference when it came to our sightings and the guide and I were both able to relish in the excitement of certain rare species that I most likely would have missed had my guide not been nearly as knowledgeable as he was.
Planning for a great safari trip requires a lot leg work but using a reputable travel agent to help you plan will greatly reduce the time and stress you have to put into planning details. This will you allow you to refocus that energy on properly preparing your gear for the trip instead. Remember, when scheduling your trip be sure to calculate travel days in between ‘game days’ to maximize your experience so that you’re fulfilled by the end of your adventure. You might think going on a “private safari” is going to skyrocket the costs of your trip but don’t be mistaken. For the trip my wife and I just returned from, it increased our overall trip cost by less than 10% and after experiencing the benefit of it we probably would have paid 20% more if we had to. When working with the safari touring company make a point to request an experienced driver to give you better chances of seeing the wildlife you most want to see. Finally, if at all possible, see if you can remove the first row of seats behind the driver to better optimize storage space for the gear your will likely be reaching for far more often than not.
Borrowlenses.com has complied some of our favorite recommendations we often share with customers who inquire about what type of gear they should take on their safari. You can find these convenient packages for Canon, Nikon, and Sony here. Stay tuned for David’s next installment of how he decided what equipment he brought on safari and a more detailed guide of getting the shot! If you would like to see more of David’s shots from his safari you can view them here.
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