Imagine a herd of elephants splashing across the Chobe River a few metres in front of you, a lioness stalking her prey across the Serengeti plains, thousands of wildebeest thundering past you in the Masai Mara, or carmine bee-eaters taking flight in Luangwa… and then capturing those moments with pin-sharp perfection on film or, rather, a memory card.
The wish to capture these special moments has always been an intrinsic part of any safari, but now there are an increasing number of specialist tours for people who want to, er, focus on their photography.
From bring-your-own-camera safaris designed with photographers in mind (but without a photography guide on board), to an all-swinging-and-dancing experience that includes a 360-degree swivel chair in a custom-designed open-sided vehicle (or boat), top-of-the-range equipment at your disposal and professional tuition to hand, the world of the photographic safari offers a multitude of options for the keen photographer.
Most operators take people of all abilities. And while it is obviously helpful to have a good grasp of how your camera works before you go, some tours are guided by professional photographers who will help you to maximise your equipment for wildlife photography.
But, whether bordering on professional or a hopeful beginner, what should you look for if you are planning to venture into the bush on a specialist photo safari?
Expert guides for one thing, who know the area in which they operate like the back of their hand. Seek out one led by a professional photographer who’s experienced enough to help you to set up the equipment in the optimum way, and who will know where to position the vehicle for the ideal angle.
Success in wildlife photography is not so much about how to use your camera – though of course that’s important – but rather the art of field technique: anticipating the best position to get yourself into, composition, how to use the light and, crucially, animal behaviour. For instance, knowing that birds tend to return to the same perch, so if you miss it the first time stay focused on that branch awaiting its return.
As Lou Coetzer, founder of pioneering photographic operator CNP Safaris, says: “The essence of taking good animal pictures lies in an acute perception and understanding of animal behaviour.”
To all intents and purposes, you’ll be on a typical safari, but with like-minded people and a small group (no more than six is recommended, preferably three to a vehicle so you have the freedom to move around to try different angles and the opportunity for more hands-on tuition). Private one-on-one and small group trips are also available.
“A photo safari often follows a similar routine to a normal safari day, but with the intention of maximising the early morning and late evening when the action happens and the light is best,” explains Edward Selfe of Edward Selfe Photography. “Morning safaris often leave camp earlier – before dawn sometimes – to catch the very best of the light.”
There is the possibility to go out for the whole day – some vehicles come with power points so you can keep your gear charged while you are in the field – but the afternoon is often best served for one-on-one advice, discussing particular techniques and reviewing photos.
“A photographic guide will assist you with the best camera settings, making suggestions throughout the trip to ensure you are prepared for each sighting as it unfolds,” says Selfe. “The guide will also point out interesting light and situations, helping you build a range of images in different styles, which incorporate back-lit subjects, textures, animal-scapes and action shots.”
But, don’t forget, it’s your safari, so the trip can be tailored to your requirements. Prepare a list of what you want to learn, and what you want to improve, before you set off.
So how long should you go for? A week, maybe three? Anything is possible, but James Gifford of James Gifford Photography finds 10-day trips prove popular because, he says, “it gives plenty of time not only to learn about your camera and the technical aspects but also to practice on a wide variety of subjects, so that by the end of the trip changing settings becomes more instinctive”.
As with any safari, your guide is key. Check that they have comprehensive experience of the area and of the type of wildlife/wilderness areas you want to photograph. And, as Gifford says: “Not all good photographers are good teachers, so do your research first.”
Travel Africa has worked with the following specialist photographic operators:
CNP Safaris (www.cnpsafaris.com)
Edward Selfe Photography (www.edwardselfephotography.com)
James Gifford Photography (www.jamesgifford.co.uk)
Photos & Africa (www.photosandafrica.com)
CNP Safaris offers a specialist Mentorship Programme so you can access expert wildlife photography tuition at home, at any time throughout the year. For more information visit www.cnpsafaris.com/product/mentorship-program-2
For more ideas, check out our Photoschool section