Ask the Experts: What You Need to Know About Photography on Safari

With abundant wildlife, breathtaking scenery, and an unhurried day-to-day pace, safaris are a photographer’s dream come true. We asked a few Extraordinary Journeys clients who are also avid photographers to share their take on what makes a photo safari so incredible—and how you can make photography a memorable part of your African adventure.

a pangolin crosses a bed of clay-red soil, its snout near the ground
Rare sighting of a pangolin at Tswalu in South Africa © JP Pollak

What Our Photography Expert Clients Had to Say

Which safari destinations have been your favorite for photography? And what about them is particularly special when compared to other places you've photographed?

JP Pollak: Tswalu! Tswalu is basically a photographer’s playground. The earth is deep red sand, the reserve is expansive, dunes and mountains serve as a backdrop, and the skies are endless, making for opportunities for all kinds of photography. I’ve never taken so many landscape photos on safari, and what’s better than a landscape shot with lions in it? Tswalu also offers plenty of opportunity to experience wildlife on foot, which allows for even greater opportunities. Photographing meerkats in the habituated colony, sometimes even inches away, is some of the most fun you can have with a camera. And of course the diversity of wildlife, even pangolin during the day, is amazing.

behind a camera, a safari-goer snaps a photo of a pangolin, mere inches away, as golden sunbeams cut across the dusty red landscape
Talk about a close-up! © JP Pollak

David Anglin: I took my first trip to Africa in 2015 and thought it would be "once and done." I was emailing Extraordinary Journeys to start planning our next trip to Africa from the departure lounge before I boarded the plane home.

Rwanda doesn't have the diversity and quantity of wildlife experienced in other African countries, but it does have incredible mountains, wonderful people, AND MOUNTAIN GORILLAS! Seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring encounter you will remember and talk about for the rest of your life.

Botswana's Okavango Delta is almost beyond description. The flood/surge cycle every year changes the landscape and attracts a diverse collection of wildlife. While the quantity may not match the Mara and the Serengeti, the encounters are plentiful, intimate, and great for photography. The diversity and quantity of wildlife is complemented by some of the best food, camps, and guides you will find in Africa. Botswana has a more remote feel than other areas I have visited in Africa with a natural serenity.

There are many great locations in Africa that provide unique experience every time you visit.

close-up portrait of a majestic mountain gorilla, light reflecting in its eyes, looking off into the distance
Eyes like these hardly need a caption © David Anglin Photography

Lee DeCovnick: The Serengeti/the Mara Triangle and Ngorongoro Crater.

Both have an abundance and variety of wildlife, combined with breathtaking landscapes. Every two miles there are fantastic geological features, habitat, and animals.

Gavin Werbeloff: Nothing is certain on safari, but Maasai Mara and Sabi Sands are pretty much as close to a sure thing as you can get. You can go multiple times and never have the same experience twice.

a cheetah is mid-sprint, closing in on its prey, a Thompson’s gazelle, in the savannah of Kenya’s Maasai Mara
Cheetah hunting in the Mara Triangle © Gavin Werbeloff

What's your #1 piece of advice for a casual photographer who wants to use a safari as an opportunity to learn and improve upon his/her skills?

JP Pollak: Spend more time watching animals and listening to your guide than taking photos (but have your camera ready). The more time you spend learning how animals behave, the more likely you are to be ready when the really photogenic (and Instagrammable) moments happen—think meerkats hugging, big cats yawning, giraffes and elephants spraying water, and so on.

David Anglin: You should know your gear before you begin the trip rather than trying to figure it out while on safari. Take some time for a trip to the local zoo or dog park and practice.

If you don't want to carry a lot of gear, consider one of the all-in-one zoom cameras from Sony (RX10 IV), Panasonic (FZ1000/FZ2500), or other vendors. These are great cameras that can produce beautiful results while being lighter and simpler to operate than an ILC.

Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people. I always encourage friends to put the camera down occasionally to experience the landscape, people, wildlife, smells, and joy of being in the outdoors. I have a lot more great experiences captured in my head than on memory cards.

Lee DeCovnick: Practice, practice, practice—locally at home, shooting birds and animals with your long focal length lens. Buy the best lenses you can afford.

Gavin Werbeloff: Get as comfortable with your camera as you can prior to your trip. Take it off the “green square” and experiment. Practice taking pictures of your kids, pets, local wildlife, or anything that moves quickly and unpredictably. This will make the adjustment to photographing wildlife easier and faster when you land. Also, you probably have a long flight. Bring your camera’s instruction manual.

Do you have any specific recommendations for what to pack (or what to leave at home) for a photography-focused safari?

JP Pollak: I hate changing lenses in the field (mostly because of missed shots, but also because of dust), so I pack so that I never have to switch lenses. That could mean relying on a lens with a wide zoom range, bringing an extra camera, or simply choosing one style of photography over another. If more cameras is the answer, check if your camp has rentals so you can save weight in your duffel. Don’t stress too much about making sure everything you have with you is the best. I’d rather have a lesser piece of gear that’s perfect for the moment than the best available camera with the wrong lens.

David Anglin: For a hardcore photography trip, 2 similar camera bodies, a lens combination that covers 24mm-400/500mm for private reserves, 24mm-600/800mm for National Parks and serious birders, 1.4x / 1.5x Teleconverter, lens cleaning supplies, good binoculars, lots of memory cards and a backup solution, tripod (if you are into astro), current generation phone with a good camera or compact camera to always have available, and a bean bag. If yours is a vehicle-based safari and you’re not interested in astro, leave the monopod and tripod at home. All your gear and clothes need to be balanced with the weight limitations of small camp aircraft.

an array of camera gear, including gloves, lenses in camo covers, batteries, and cables, is laid out neatly on a table
The art and science of packing for a photo safari © David Anglin

Lee DeCovnick: Use the military rule of supply: "Two is one, one is none." Bring two cameras, two of every cable, and two each of most photo accessories if they are mission critical. AND enough SD chips to shoot a thousand photos a day. Plus a backup. Bring two SSDs to back up your chips every night.

When you return home, you should have FOUR COPIES of every RAW photo stored on either chips, SSDs or the computer HD.

a lone giraffe stands in the savannah with a cloud-shrouded, snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance
Giraffe in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park © Lee DeCovnick

Gavin Werbeloff: Lots of memory cards, batteries and your charger. The fastest way photography comes to a screeching halt on safari is running out of memory or power.

Is there any other advice that would be helpful to fellow photographers?

JP Pollak: Find photos of your destination online to get a feel for how close you get to animals, what the scenes are like, and which types of photos you like best. It’s probably better to find amateur and hobbyist photos as opposed to NatGeo photographers whose shots aren’t really representative of what us mortals can capture. Sites like SmugMug are really helpful because the camera info is often available—so you can see what lenses were used, settings, etc.

Spending the minimum amount of time at a sighting definitely won’t get you the best shots. Beg or plead with your guide and/or fellow guests to stick around a little longer if you think the shot you want might happen.

If possible, wake up super early and have your guide take you to places where animals are regularly found at sunrise. They’ll know!

a male lion with grass in its mane yawns wide, displaying a massive mouth of sharp teeth and long canines
Good morning! Rise and shine! © JP Pollak

David Anglin: A private vehicle can make the difference between a good trip and a great trip for a photographer. A private vehicle lets you control the number of people in the vehicle, work with the guide for the best positioning, stay on sightings longer, and focus on your personal list of animals you would like to photograph. You should always listen to your guide, but don't be afraid to ask for what you want as long as you respect their rules and don't force any behaviors that impact safety or wildlife. If you are in a group vehicle, be respectful of others that may not appreciate you blocking their view just because you have a big camera and lens.

a photographer and his guide talk while sitting in a safari vehicle outfitted with camera gear
Learn from the experts © David Anglin Photography

A few shooting suggestions:

  1. Always be prepared to shoot both long and short.
  2. Being lower in the vehicle and not looking down on the animal provides a more natural, intimate feel.
  3. If you have a long lens (and a private vehicle) hang back a bit for a safety shot and a lower angle.
  4. Don't be afraid to crank up the ISO when needed on modern digital cameras.
  5. Try out photography from a helicopter or balloon if available and in your budget.
  6. Enjoy the experience and have fun!
safari-goers in headsets and sunglasses snap photos from a low-flying helicopter
For a totally different angle, enjoy your photo safari from a helicopter! © David Anglin Photography

Lee DeCovnick: Shoot 65% with your DSLR/mirrorless, 25% video with your handhelds, and 10% photos on your handheld devices. Your mileage may vary.

Gavin Werbeloff: Don’t experience your whole safari through the viewfinder. Remember to put the camera down and take in the experience.

8 Takeaways for Your Photo Safari

  1. Go to Rwanda for gorillas and Botswana’s Okavango Delta for an intimate and dazzling array of wildlife. (And two of our personal favorites are Kenya’s Maasia Mara and South Africa’s Sabi Sands.)
  2. Remember to listen to your guide and simply enjoy observing the wildlife.
  3. Pack extras of nearly everything, but bear in mind the luggage weight limitations of bush aircraft.
  4. Put the camera down once in a while, and remember to involve your friends and family.
  5. Practice, practice, practice—before leaving home for your safari.
  6. Get to know a bit about your destination and what to expect by researching how other hobbyist photographers capture the scenery and wildlife.
  7. Choose a private vehicle with a private guide if at all possible.
  8. Consider bringing two cameras (or renting a second from your camp) so you don’t have to change lenses while in the bush.

More from Our Featured Photographers

For gorgeous photography and to learn more about a few of our clients featured here:

Plan Your Photo Safari Today!

Ready to start planning your own incredible African photography safari? We make the process stress-free and enjoyable. Call or email us today to explore your best options for an adventure you’ll never forget!

Then, start packing that camera bag because we’ve got all the details covered.

CONNECT with your personal travel expert.

Have you started planning your safari on your own? Are you totally overwhelmed with all the information out there? Let us help you cut through all the conflicting information online and start planning a safari that is completely tailored to you. Get in touch with us and we can discuss your travel passions and help you begin the planning process for your dream safari.

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Jenna Stockman