If you’re heading to Africa soon and looking for advice on how to take great safari photos, you’re in the right place!
Over the years, we’ve welcomed numerous amateur and professional photographers. In so doing, we’ve gathered 21 safari photography tips to help you plan ahead and get the most out of your safari photography.
These tips are a sure-fire way to make your vacation an eye-watering and visual success.
1. Go at the right time
No matter where in Africa you’re heading, the time of years will impact the game viewing and, therefore, your safari photography experience. Seasonality depends on the region.
In Zambia, for instance, travelling during the rainy season comes with amazing skies and green scenery. However, thick bush and difficult road access will limit wildlife sightings.
Coming in October will allow for exciting predator activity at the cost of extreme heat and dust – and monotonously brown background. And it’s not just the weather but also the type of wildlife and its behaviour that you must consider.
Is it denning time for the African Wild Dogs? Will Southern Carmine Bee-Eaters be nesting? Will there be baby impalas to photograph?
Read our Best Time to Visit Zambia blog for more travelling tips.
2. Select the correct safari photography equipment
There are a lot of blogs and literature out there that will talk extensively about the pros and cons of various safari photography equipment and what to pack.
Of course, this will vary depending on your photographic experience, your readiness to spend money on new items, and your itinerary and transport.
DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
A DSLR (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) is still to this day the preferred type of camera for professional photographers mainly because the image shown through the viewfinder is “real,” which means it is “trusted.”
A mirrorless camera creates the preview electronically. These cameras are gaining popularity due to their portability and lighter weight, and the selection of interchangeable lenses is getting wider for them too.
Bring a long lens
The usual recommendation is at least 300mm, which allows for more flexibility and less frustration.
But don’t leave the standard lens at home; you’ll need it for landscapes too. Some excellent zoom lenses now cover wide ranges of focals, making them versatile.
Camera support for stabilization
Tripods are incredibly bulky to travel with and set up in a safari vehicle, so we recommend bringing a beanbag or monopod, which is much easier to use. At Kafunta, we’ve got a few bean bags you can borrow.
You will be shooting A LOT. Bring at least two batteries and their chargers and plenty of memory cards.
There would be nothing worse than running out of space for your safari photographs, which makes extra memory cards a must!
Lastly, don’t forget to check which sockets are used at the various camps (at Kafunta, we use 3-pin UK-style sockets).
3. Don’t have it? Rent it!
Not everybody can afford to spend thousands on safari photography equipment and lenses on top of the safari cost. Renting is an option, and you can get much better gear at a fraction of the price.
This is especially true with enormous zoom lenses you wouldn’t otherwise use at home. Talk to your local camera store as they will likely offer rentals or recommendations.
Keep in mind that it is better to rent excellent quality equipment than buy cheap. It’s also common for avid photographers to rent photography equipment as a trial before committing to buying it.
4. The Best Settings
Our first handy tip is for you to use auto-focus! Modern cameras have fast and efficient auto-focus systems.
Also, make sure you use the continuous setting. Since the animals will continuously move, the auto-focus will come in handy. The exception is in a very bushy environment with grass between you and the subject. In addition:
Don’t use Multi Point Focus which lets your camera choose from multiple focus points (because the camera doesn’t differentiate a lion from a tree)! Instead, using a single focus point is usually recommended. And this doesn’t mean only the central focus point; it’s good to try various points depending on the scene and composition.
You can read more about Autofocus settings on this excellent blog by Ed Selfe, a South Luangwa-based wildlife photographer and guide.
This setting will primarily determine the sharpness of the image. If the animals are static, you would probably start with a speed of 1/400sec. But if they are running, or you’re shooting flying birds, then you’ll be looking at 1/3200sec.
This controls the depth of field of the image, and you can play around depending on your creativity. But this will also depend on the quality of the lens. A wide aperture (f4, f5.6) will reduce the depth of field, isolating the subject with a blurry background.
This controls the sensor’s sensitivity and is the third variable that will affect your speed and aperture. Using Auto ISO helps correctly expose the image using a good combination of the above. Just beware of grain caused by high ISO.
Most wildlife photographers will use the Aperture mode: you set the aperture for the desired result, and the camera sets the speed.
It’s essential to check that it is realistic (handheld vs. tripod, light, etc.) and, if not, simply adjust the ISO to reach the desired speed.
Ed Selfe has written another excellent blog on the basic settings. Read it here.
5. Shoot in RAW
It’s most likely that you will want to edit your photos (we all do), so you might as well shoot in RAW. It allows for complete post-processing.
Of course, this means you will need more storage space (remember those extra memory cards) and a lot of patience upon returning home. But it’s worth it.
However, if you don’t want to spend hours editing, JPEG might be right for you. In any case, let’s not get carried away with the sliders!
This is really about making the image visually appealing, which is a matter of personal taste, but there are a few guidelines to respect.
The main one is the Rule of Thirds. Envision splitting the image into nine rectangles (2 vertical lines and two horizontal lines) and use these imaginative lines to place your subject, line the horizon, etc.
Make good use of leading lines that point to the subject (a trunk, a path, the river bank). Don’t cut limbs or have the subject look “outside” or walk out of the image.
The image must have a nice flow and lead to the subject or the rest of the scene. Use nature’s features to naturally frame the subject (surrounding trees, canopy).
7. Break the rule!
Although the rule of thirds is the most common principle in composition, sometimes it’s fun to break that exact rule. It can lead to incredibly creative images. Develop your own style and see what works. But use it sparingly as it is most likely counterintuitive to the human eyes and brain.
8. Zoom in and zoom out
You can be very creative with your framing (or cropping), which will make your photos stand out.
You can choose an intense close-up and focus on the eye of the elephant, the texture of its skin, or the veins of its ear. Or you can shoot large and include the environment in which the elephant roams.
For each scene, try different framing options. You’ll be surprised at the results. This may mean changing lenses, and post-processing can also achieve sensible cropping.
9. The Right time of day
There is a reason why we get up before sunrise while on safari. You want to be out for the best light, and that’s before and after sunrise and sunset. Those are what we call the “golden hours.” This is when the light is the most beautiful and captivating.
Make the most of those short timeframes because the light will become flat or too harsh as the morning passes. Not to say you should put your camera away. When light is not great, but wildlife is good, think creatively. In fact, you could go for the black & white look. More of this below.
10. Get low and change seats
Most safari cars are usually high, and wherever you sit in the car will impact the angle at which you shoot. To add impact to your photos, try to vary by either going low to be at eye level with the animal (ask to sit by the driver) or have the subject overhead.
Change the perspective, be creative. When it is safe to do so, it may also be helpful to step out of the car and lie on the ground, which works well for sunrise silhouettes on open plains.
But safety first, of course!
11. Talk to your safari guide
Your safari guide is in control of the car and its position. So talk to them. They are likely to know this already, but sometimes they don’t “see” what you want to achieve.
Let them know your photo expectations, and don’t hesitate to communicate.
This will help with the safari photography tip about shooting angles and making the best use of the light.
12. Don’t forget to take photos of things other than wildlife
People can get carried away by taking pictures of just animals. Instead have a go at taking some beautiful landscape shots, pictures of your lodge or the people you met on your holiday. Often you can get a unique perspective on Africa. And when you go home to show your family and friends they’ll be thankful as well!
The odds are that you will meet natives of the region you are visiting. If you respectfully ask, most of them won’t mind being photographed. African people in traditional dress are very photogenic so it’s worth giving some African street photography a try as well!
13. Safari night photography tips
Our safaris use a spotlight after dark to find nocturnal animals. One of the biggest mistakes we often see is people pointing a light directly at the wildlife. Instead, experiment with the light slightly in front to give a more flattering look to your photos. In addition, consider these general night photography tips:
Using a high ISO: Using a high ISO will also help let as much light into your lens as possible. If you have a full-frame camera, try ISO 3200 or 6400 will still produce excellent photos. For an older crop sensor camera, try between ISO1600 – 3200.
Stabilisation: This is essential in the dark, so try to use a bean bag, monopod, or tripod, to get as stable a photo as possible. Sometimes it can help to zoom in less so your movements aren’t as exaggerated.
Aperture: Use the broadest aperture possible to let in as much light as you can; for example, f/2.8 for really dark situations means that your camera is getting as much light as is possible.
With these tips in mind, you’re well on your way to getting amazing wildlife photos during the night as well as day.
14. Think about the background
Having distracting backgrounds can ruin a photo. Instead, frame the animal with an interesting background or solid colour.
If the animal you want to photograph is the same colour as the background (e.g. a lion against the savannah grass), try and get yourself down lower than the animal. You can angle your photograph up, using the sky as a background. If the background is unsuitable for a good shot, then another option is to zoom right in and try and cut the background out altogether. Sometimes, the simple act of moving a couple of metres right or left can make the difference between a mediocre and a magnificent shot.
15. Try Black and White
Another tip to get some unique photos is experimenting with Black and White. If you’ve shot in RAW, this is something you can test once you are editing the images at home! But we like trying this out as some of the animals you are shooting can blend into the background and shooting in black and white can bring them out by focusing the eye on the textures and shapes instead.
16. Animals in their environment
With big zooms, we tend to try and take photos fully zoomed in to get as much of the animal as possible. But by getting the surrounding landscape, the image has a lot more meaning and context so give it a try on your next holiday!
Try to keep in mind the differences between a horizontal and a vertical shot. The background will make a difference in your decision. If you’re shooting a leopard up a tree for example, then a vertical image is probably better – so that you get the effect of the height.
Sometimes, the impact of the photo comes from the space and loneliness of the African plains. A herd of buffalo in the middle of a vast plain is often more striking than a close-up of a pack of buffalo with no background to relate to.
17. Protect your gear
Your photography equipment is delicate and needs care. Make sure to follow the tips below to keep your gear protected.
- When you’re on safari, there’ll be a lot of dust, which can ruin your photos, especially when changing lenses. Consider bringing a Camera cleaning kit and keep your lens changes to a minimum.
- If possible, make sure you bring along a lens cleaning pen. This handy little cleaning tool removes dust, grease marks, and other smudges.
- Ensure that you have a waterproof camera bag (Ziplocs work just as well) and use a rain cover.
- Lens caps are a must!
- Never change lenses without turning your camera off. The camera’s image sensors can attract dust due to the small electrical charge.
- Unless you are actively using or cleaning your camera, make sure it is safely in its bag at all times.
18. Learn about the animals you’re shooting
Learn about the animals you want to take photos of before going. Knowing their habits will help you predict when to snap the perfect picture. Asking your guide is always the best source of information because they are around the animals often.
Knowing your animal will also help you anticipate what settings will be needed on your camera for that particular shoot. You’re likely to know if the animal will be stationary or on the move.
19. Practice at home
Are you excited about your trip? Get some practice before leaving. This will help you get used to your equipment and camera settings.
Enlisting the help of a pet might be a great option here! This will enable you to experiment with shutter speeds, different angles and just taking photos in general.
Another essential factor is to practice changing lenses, etc. If you can do it quickly when out on your dusty safari, minimising the time your open camera is exposed to dust your equipment will be a lot safer and you’ll get more chances to get the perfect shot.
20. Don’t just go for the big stuff
While we all want to get a photo of the big five, don’t forget to focus on the minor stuff that often gets overlooked.
There will be times when you are ready to snap a fantastic picture, but there is just no big game visible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get some amazing photos! There are plenty of small things that make fascinating subjects.
Even a photo of a termite mound can be striking. Snapping these takes lots of patience, but you can get some fantastic shots.
21. Enjoy yourself
Even though taking excellent pictures is an essential part of your trip, look up from the camera once in a while and enjoy Africa! You can’t fully experience the majesty of a scene through a camera lens, so use your time to create plenty of mental snapshots and let Africa seep into your soul.
We hope the tips above will come in handy on your African Safari. Your African Experience is one you will carry with you for life. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for some people, so make the most of it! If you follow the 21 tips above, we’re sure you will have an incredibly adventurous and picturesque time!