The safari is booked. Your camera gear is packed. And a lifetime spent ogling issues of National Geographic has you dreaming of returning home with epic images of big game in spectacular landscapes.
Who knew you wouldn’t be able to charge your camera batteries at night because the lodge generator turned off at bedtime? Or that your 1,000-gigabyte memory card would be filled on the first day? Or that you’d be stuck in the middle seat of a cramped safari vehicle beside a hat-wearing tourist blocking your every shot?
Avoid common pitfalls and return home with the wildlife photographs of your dreams with these 10 field-tested tips.
1. Bring twice as much storage and battery power as you think you’ll need
This is one shot you don’t want to miss because your battery’s dead. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
When you spend an hour or more photographing a wild cheetah nursing her four cubs right next to your vehicle, as happened to me in Namibia, or videotaping a herd of elephants frolicking in a shimmering waterhole in Botswana, you burn through batteries and memory cards fast. Don’t risk missing the shot. Bring extra memory cards and batteries.
2. Get the right vehicle
You don’t want a window or another passenger to block your shot. (Photo: Thinkstock)
For reasons of safety, getting out of your vehicle in game parks and reserves is prohibited. So whether you drive a rented vehicle or opt for a guided safari, having a four-wheel-drive vehicle with large windows that open fully or can be removed, a pop-up roof, or tiered seating is essential for great wildlife photography. Be sure to ask about seating and windows when booking.
3. Slow it down
The key to getting great pictures: patience (Photo: Ellen Barone)
Turn the engine off at a water hole and just sit and wait and look. Engage your senses: smell, sight, hearing. Pay attention to the light, and position your vehicle to produce the best photographic effect.
4. Stay in park lodges
Animal sightings and “magic” light are at their best at sunrise and sunset, when park gates often open and close. While those who lodge outside the game reserves are queued up at the entry gate at sunrise or racing to exit before sunset, those who stay in park accommodations are already busy shooting at first light and can remain shooting as the sun dips dramatically beneath the horizon.
5. Leave at sunrise, return after sunset
Take full advantage of the magic hour. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
While 5:15 a.m. wake-ups might not be your idea of a vacation, it’ll be well worth the effort to be at the rivers and watering holes at sunrise. Lions and leopards are often seen in the early morning when they come to drink. Black rhinos, too, can arrive early before settling down for the day in the shade. Similarly, many of the animals return again at sunset to drink and bathe when the setting sun creates dramatic reflections and silhouettes.
6. Customize for photography
Go on safaris that cater to photographers. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
Standard safari tours leave most photographers wanting more. Plan to stay a minimum of seven to 10 days and craft your trip, or sign on for a tour, that’s specific to a photographer’s rhythm and pace.
7. Bring a zoom lens
If there’s ever a time to bring a serious zoom lens, this is it. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
Some wildlife sightings are close by while others are farther away, so while a huge fixed lens might seem impressive, with a zoom you won’t miss the shot when a lion decides to walk straight toward you. Avoid changing out lenses by carrying two DSLR cameras, but one body or even a point-and-shoot model with a powerful optical zoom, like the Panasonic Lumix FZ200. You can also rent professional cameras and lenses. Check out BorrowLenses.com.
8. Watch the herbivore and bird behavior
If you want to get a great photo of the carnivores, you need to watch the birds. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
Twice, during a photo safari in Namibia, we were alerted to the presence of carnivores by noticing the behavior of herbivores and birds. In one instance, it was the chattering alarm call of helmeted guinea fowl that led our guide to notice a leopard stealthily approaching a water hole. While the other vehicles parked at the water hole were oblivious to the big cat, we were busy getting the rare shot.
Another time, a herd of impala all standing still and looking in the same direction alerted us to the presence of a cheetah and her four cubs crossing the plain, well-hidden in the tall grasses. Without that cue we could easily have driven past what turned out to be a trip highlight.
9. Use a beanbag for stability
Be sure to get a straight and level shot. (Photo: Ellen Barone)
Using a tripod in a vehicle with other passengers just isn’t a practical form of stabilization on a safari. But a beanbag draped over the car window or other available surface will do the job. Watch your horizons, though, as it can be easy to nestle your lens into the bag without noticing that it’s not level.
10. Be prepared for nighttime photography
Make your photo safari a nighttime affair. (Photo: Thinkstock)
One of the most magical experiences on a safari is sitting at a camp watering hole after dark, quietly waiting to see what wanders in. It can feel like you’re watching a dreamy theatrical performance, where animal species enter and exit in a slow dance choreographed by nature. Needless to say, nighttime wildlife viewing provides fabulous photographic opportunities. But without the right equipment (tripod, remote cable, flash extenders, etc.), you will be limited in what you can shoot. So if nighttime imagery is important to you, be sure to bring the right equipment.
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