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How to Prepare for an African Photo Safari

photo-safar.jpgFor many, going to Africa is a once in a lifetime occurrence—a chance to see wild animals in their natural habitat, to experience new cultures and unique environments—and your opportunity to capture it in all its grandeur—so you want to make absolutely certain that you are well prepared to make the most of it.

I recently returned from a safari to the Kruger National Park, South Africa, one of the world’s largest and most spectacular wildlife reserves. I grew up in South Africa and have spent at least one holiday there a year for the majority of my thirty-nine years. Although I know what to expect from such a trip, it still takes a lot of planning to make sure I have the right equipment. Even with my knowledge, all my planning and extensive reading, there were mistakes made and valuable lessons learned on my most recent trip back there in July this year.

Here a few of those mistakes (and solutions) that will hopefully help you take magnificent photographs of one of the most spectacular corners of the earth:

THE RIGHT LENS FOR REACH

If money and my ability to carry these lenses around the world was unlimited, I’d probably have a collection of big professional glass—like the Nikon 200-400mm and Nikon 500mm f4—but alas, I have to make compromises. On this last trip, I ended up renting a few lenses which gave me the chance to try out different lenses without having to spend a ton of money. I cannot recommend the renting option highly enough, since I really only need really big lenses about two to three weeks each year, as I suspect, most of us do.

The first decision is on how much reach you need. I was tempted to rent the Nikon 200-400mm lens, but its size and rental cost put me off. I ended up renting a Nikon 300mm f4with a 1.7x TC. On my DX body that gave me the equivalent of a 750mm lens. I didn’t need longer than that and camera shake would be a real issue if I had used anything bigger. Some people recommend the 70-300mm, but performance at 300mm is reportedly weak, hence my opting for the prime lens.

CONSIDER TWO BODIES

You need to be quick: Animals and birds don’t hang around while you fumble with lenses…it seems to me that the more you fumble, the quicker they leave. Whenever I had my Nikon 300mm f4 with a 1.7x TC giving me maximum reach, I’d invariably come across an animal right next to the car. I managed to get the changes done quickly, but even with my wife acting as assistant, I often missed the action.

On my next trip I’m hoping I’ll own that essential second body or rent one. I’ll have my longest lens (likely a 300mm f4 with 1.7xTC) on one, and probably the Nikon 70-200mm lens on the other. Another benefit of this strategy is that I avoid changing lenses in dusty areas – dust is a real issue on safari and we quickly had a fine film of dust on everything.

STUDY YOUR CAMERA BEFORE YOU GO

Before you go, study your camera manual thoroughly and practice shooting with each of the lenses, flashes and filters you’ll be taking along. If you rent lenses, try to have them arrive a few days before you leave so you can get used to the feel and weight of them.

Don’t buy equipment last minute: electronics are most likely to fail in the first few days of operation and you don’t want to waste valuable photo time learning about a new camera.

TAKE A BEANBAG

Most of your safari shooting is from a vehicle, either driving yourself around or on a game-viewing truck. An essential addition to your equipment is a beanbag which gives you great stability when shooting. I found a piece of fairly heavy-duty material (thick cotton) and got someone to sew it into a bag with a zipper – roughly 8”x12” is about right. When you get to your destination, find a local supermarket and buy a bag of rice, beans or similar to fill it, on your last day you can leave the rice for the hotel cleaners! Sewing an old boot lace onto the bag also helps you retrieve the bag if you accidently drop it out the window or off the truck – just tie it to the door handle. You won’t want to be stepping out of your car in the middle of a pride of lions or herd of elephants.

COMPACT FLASH CARDS

photo-safari-1.jpgCompact flash cards can be difficult to buy in remote areas. SD cards are more common, since they are used by most point and shoot cameras. If you do find them, they’ll be expensive and probably some “no-name” brand, so take a good number of them with you. There is nothing more frustrating than not having enough memory to take that ultimate photo.

I lost a few cards while sailing in the British Virgin Islands (thankfully they were blank). I finally found a tiny general dealer in Spanish Town who sold me a 1GB “no-name” card for over $150. I also prefer 4GB cards rather than the larger versions – I’d rather lose a card with 4GB of photos than 32GB card.

FIGURE OUT A BACKUP ROUTINE BEFORE YOU GO

Volumes can be written about this topic, but it is essential to work out your field backup strategy and test it before you go. I don’t like those little portable devices that you plug your card into for backup – I had one crash on me and lost a lot of images. They don’t seem that rugged and I’ve read too many horror stories to be comfortable trusting them with all my images.

I use a portable drive which I plug into my laptop. I’ve set Lightroom to put a copy on the external portable drive and another onto the laptop when I import, plus, I keep the cards. There is always a possibility of your bag getting stolen, a good tip is to you keep these copies in different places: a hotel safe or (if you are traveling with someone else) have them carry a backup in their bag.

I only copy or backup images when traveling – never do any deleting or editing. I can do the editing when I get home and rather spend that valuable time taking photos and enjoying myself.

FLIGHTS AND BAGGAGE

The photographer’s nightmare… you have all this expensive equipment and you don’t want it to leave your side for a second (my wife calls my Nikon camera Niki – she says I spend more time and seem so much more concerned about Niki’s well being than anyone else in the family.) So, as you can imagine, the prospect of handing photo equipment to the airline makes me very nervous indeed.

Each airline has its own set of rules, and it depends on the agent as to how strictly the rules are applied. You may have to fly with small planes to get to the final destination. I flew on an SAA Jetstream 41 to get to the Kruger Park, and almost all hand baggage needs to be surrendered at the door. In this case, it really helps to have lockable hand luggage that is well padded. SAA did look after my gear… and I could watch it being loaded and unloaded.

South African Airways didn’t weigh my hand luggage, but in Asia this is becoming standard practice (usually limited to 8kg). You always need a backup plan in case and airline official forces you to check in what you’re carrying. One way to get around this is to wear a heavy jacket with lots of pockets, and distribute your heavier items in the pockets.

Check-in luggage for flights to South Africa shouldn’t be too much of a problem from the States, since both airlines (Delta and SAA) offer two pieces of 23kgs or 50lb each. Baggage on flights from Europe and some other destinations is much more limited.

Internal flights have much stricter check-in baggage limits (one piece at 20kgs or 44lbs on most flights in South Africa).

Here are a few tips which may help:

  1. Book all your flights on one booking. That way the airlines can see your full journey and generally will be more lenient on check in baggage for internal flights. SAA is a member of Star Alliance, so connections with United will be easier. This also helps with lost baggage and checking baggage through to final destination.
  2. It helps if you have kids and other family members to spread your photo equipment.
  3. Travel with a jacket (okay you might die of heat stroke), but you can stuff the pockets with lenses and other gear if carry-on is limited.
  4. Try to get status on the carrier your fly with. Having a premier status frequent flyer card will usually get you more leniencies. A Star Alliance Gold Card will usually get you 20kg (44lb) extra on check in and you get to board first.
  5. If carry-on is a problem, then keep the high value sensitive equipment (such as lenses, bodies, flashes and filters) and check in things like chargers, batteries, power convertors, etc. Worst case scenario you can replace those items when you arrive at your destination.
  6. Plan a day or two in your arrival city before you set off to game parks or remote locations. This way, delayed luggage has time to catch up, and worst case, you can find a good camera store to replace chargers, batteries or other miscellaneous items that go missing.
  7. Get some good travel and equipment insurance.
  8. Remember plugs and power converters – most chargers will accept 110-220v input, but check before you plug in – smoke and that strong electrical smell wafting in the air, are a certain result.
  9. I use cable ties to lock the zips on all my check in bags (some people prefer the locks that FAA can open – I find it a pain to keep track of keys and combination). Cut the tail off the cable tie once it’s tightened. It is very difficult to cut or break a cable tie so it is a good added deterrent. You’ll need nail clippers or ask room service for a knife so you can cut the cable tie at your destination.

BE CAREFUL OF AIR CONDITIONERS

Be very careful about leaving photo equipment in an air-conditioned hotel or lodge room. When you walk into the hot and humid air outside you lenses will condense and fog up.

Good luck.

Robert Koen is an amateur photographer who grew up in South Africa. Now living in California, he has travelled to more than forty countries. Learn more about Robert and read more of his tips and tricks at robertkoen.com.

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