Ever since we’ve had cameras, the top of the pile for many aspiring wildlife photographers has been the African wildlife safari, a usually quite expensive, probable once-in-a-lifetime adventure. During the last ten years or so, a subset of wildlife safaris has emerged – those specializing in photography, which for the reasons of the logistics they require, tend to be even more expensive still.
The rise in wildlife photography in recent years parallels with the ambitions of many people to replicate what we've seen in magazines like National Geographic and BBC Wildlife, leading to photo safaris being advertised in almost every travel and photography magazines today, where at one time there were virtually none.
Long held dream
My own interest began in 1996 in Zimbabwe where I ful lled a long held dream, then stepping up a little more in 2004 where addiction finally set in with one, two, then three journeys a year to southern and eastern Africa. Then, in 2011 I found myself on the flipside – organising and running photo safaris for others, primarily to Kenya’s Masai Mara: one in the first year, two the next, then 14 in 2013.
If there were any two constants I learnt during the years until 2011 when I was a client in search of the ideal safari experience, it was probably the inconsistencies of what was offered, and the inconsistencies of how expectations were met. Although the Maasai Mara represents one region within one country, much of what follows can be applied Africa-wide, even worldwide. So, here is my quick ready reckoner for anyone thinking of embarking on a photographic safari anywhere.
Location is personal taste – your choice of wildlife would dictate that. Your first safari is likely to be shorter than long, maybe little more than a week, so you’ll need to maximise the odds of photographing the wildlife you’re seeking. High wildlife density locations such as the South African parks, Ngorongoro in Tanzania, or any of Kenya’s reserves and parks are good places to begin.
There is rarely a substitute for local guides – they are the ones who will know the area and know its wildlife implicitly. Supplementing a lifetime’s knowledge, local guides also appear to operate on a sixth sense, which could only ever be acquired over many years of living and guiding in one place. If at all possible, if your choice of location enables it, choose a local guide.
Paramount to any photo safari is your host – the photographer who has put the safari together, often in cooperation with a participating travel company or local camp. The experience and objectives of your host, together with local guides, are the in influences that can ultimately dictate the outcome of your safari.
Only you can decide whether your host’s personal photographic style is something that inspires you, but a good host should be able to respond to anything technical and offer plenty of creative guidance as well. Your host’s responsibility is to see you return home a better photographer than when you first arrived, or at the very least see you take away a collection of pictures that you could not have managed on your own.
A good host puts your photography before theirs, ensuring that you get your pictures, not to get theirs at the expense of yours. Guides will always be keen to add pictures to their portfolios too, but it should never be at the expense of a client’s pictures.
Look out too for those safaris (often one-off), which exist solely to monetise the trip for the guide. It is unlikely you will gain too much attention if the guide seeks to photograph for himself only. By the same token, consider carefully guides taking clients to places they’ve not visited before.
A vehicle can make or break a safari. A four-wheel-drive will traverse places and cover ground or a shallow river far easier than a transit van or similar small vehicle ever would. You do not want to spend your safari pushing your driver’s van out of a hole, or viewing a long desired sighting from the wrong side of a stream.
Window size is important: small tight windows can restrict a wide sweep of view when using long lenses, while larger windows allow beanbags and gimbal heads. A roof hatch is a prerequisite too, although a good guide may suggest shooting from window level is better in most cases anyway.
You may be sharing the vehicle too; a crowded vehicle makes for frustrating photography, while a vehicle with minimal numbers provides more room for your gear and far more manoeuvrability. Some operators provide a whole row of seats per photographer so that you have options of photographing from both sides without having to worry about bumping into anybody else.
Cost is the omnipresent factor, and the range of costs for photographic safaris is wide. Some are reasonably well priced, with other apparent equivalents costing up two or even three times more. If you are going to pay for a photo safari, don’t be afraid to pay a little more for the important things.
Of course, satisfaction also depends on the wildlife present during your visit, which of course no guide can in influence, and the weather will play a part too. There is probably no two hosts or two guides alike, and every camp is different. Then there is the inescapable element of luck – an even balance of luck, combined with perseverance and a good measure of preparedness, will almost certainly get you there.