The Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris – Part 1

With over 13 years of professional experience as a Wildlife Photographer and 8 years Leading photo safaris, it’s fair to say that my kit and my techniques are tried and very well-tested. Thankfully, I remain flexible and open to new ideas, skills and techniques. I recognise that there is always room for future development.

Like any vocation, skills need to grow and evolve. You can look to this page as a repository for my experience and lessons that I’ve learned. Over time, it’s edited and refreshed, so bookmark it [⌘+D] and come back to it to help prepare for your own photo safaris. Any major changes will be announced to subscribers.

Just to be clear, this guide is written from the experience gained during East African photo safaris, i.e. The traditional and accessible savannah safari, where you stay in camps or lodges and driven about in specialised 4x4s. The majority of my experience was gained in the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. Many of the points here are equally relevant for southern African safaris too.

This guide is split into four instalments and you can navigate between them, once they are all live and published. Enjoy!


PART 1: PREPARATION, LOCATION, GUIDES, KEEPING IT SIMPLE

Poor preparation produces poor performance

(The 5Ps – I’ve obtained this saying from my brother. Thanks Mark!)

Practice really does make perfect. There is no shortcut – no matter what some YouTuber proclaims. If the only wildlife photography experience you have is from your annual photo safaris or the odd workshop, how are you supposed to improve? By the time you have re-learned your camera again and settled in, you will have missed half the trip.

Please, do yourself a huge favour and get down to the local park and practice as often as you can. Especially, when leading up to your photo safaris. Reconnect with your camera and familiarise yourself with the controls, before you arrive at the airport. You could also take part in a workshop just before the trip, so you can refresh your skills under tuition.

Just don’t leave it to chance that you’ll miraculously remember everything when you arrive. Not when you’ve invested so much money. That, is the definition of ‘folly’.

Who’s taking you on safari?

The tour operator will have a massive impact on your safari photography. The ‘best’ camps for your photo safaris are in key locations, have the most experienced guides with reliable, well-serviced vehicles… Not the fluffiest pillows and most extensive wine list. Sorry about that.

For our photo safaris we rely on well-serviced rugged Land Cruisers
An underestimated aspect of photo safaris is selecting the right camp with rugged, reliable vehicles | © Entim Mara

If you’re leaving the choice of accommodation to a third-party travel agent, get the accommodation details and contact the camp directly. Ask if they have experience with photographers? They could be geared towards family holidays and general tours. Rather than delivering on the expectations of a passionate photographer – one that’s willing to sit and wait all day for a leopard.

Most, if not all, tour operators maintain social media channels. Follow your shortlist and see the kind of photography they are producing. You might also get a handle on the personalities behind the photos and see if they’re compatible with your own. There are some real ‘characters’ out there. Just saying…

Location, Location

For the Masai Mara Great Migration, this is crucial. There are camps and lodges inside the Masai Mara National Reserve and in the surrounding Conservancies. For the majority of the year, this makes little difference. Whichever conservancy you are in, there will be lions, hyena, leopard and plains animals.

For my own private photo safaris, I’ve used Kicheche Camps (Main and Bush Camp) in the Mara Conservancies and can highly recommend them – their photographic guides/drivers are excellent, trained by the inimitable Paul Goldstein.

Map of the Masai Mara
Map of the Masai Mara from © Expert Africa

During the Migration season, your accommodation should be inside the National Reserve. Ideally, in a camp located within 30mins of the crossing points. If your accommodation is outside the National Reserve, you will have a long journey to and from the main crossing points.

Another thing to consider is time. If you find something good in the late afternoon, you’ll have to leave whatever it is (no matter how good) at around 5:30pm, just when the light is at it’s best, in order to get outside the National Reserve boundary in time. I’ve been there. It’s incredibly frustrating. Those staying within the National Reserve will have an extra hour of the best light and can photograph right up to sunset.

Photo Safaris: Mara Migration Camps

Inside the National Reserve, I’ve stayed at Freemans, Naibor Camp, and most recently, Entim Mara Camp. These camps all have excellent locations for the Migration. Naibor Camp is quite high-end and I stayed their when working with Oryx Photography. The guides were very good and the camp was luxurious.

Luxurious photo safaris don't have to break the bank - Guest tent at Entim Mara Private Camp | © Entim Mara
Luxurious photo safaris | Guest tent at Entim Mara Private Camp | © Entim Mara

Entim Mara was superb and among the best. I stayed recently with David Lloyd, whilst co-leading the Migration Safari. It has the perfect balance of location, comfort, facilities (like wi-fi, power sockets in your tent, studio tent with two iMacs) with some of the best guides/drivers that I’ve ever worked with. For David Lloyd safaris, we literally take over the Entim Private Camp, an annexe of 8 luxury tents, with our own studio tent and social area. It’s a fabulous setup.

Photo Safaris: The Guide

Your guide can be one of two things: The Tour Leader or Local Guide. If you’re travelling with a group, then you’ll have a Tour Leader, maybe two, depending on the size of the group. For ‘quality’ photo safaris, these should be professional wildlife photographers – like myself with years of experience.

It’s not just a matter of being a good photographer, either. A Photographic Tour Leader is experienced with equipment, logistics, health and safety, security (including firearms), emergency SOS and first aid, with the added experience of managing people.

The local naturalist guide/driver will be employed by either the camp/lodge or the ground agent. They are usually educated Maasai, skilled off-road drivers and experienced naturalists, with extensive living knowledge of the wildlife and habitat.

They will have good English with which to articulate and interpret the wildlife and behaviour. Some guides attain guiding qualifications: Bronze, Silver, Gold. Their eyesight is remarkable, being able to spot the flick of a tail in long grass several hundred metres away – it blows the mind, it really does. I love spending time with them.

On one of my photo safaris with local guide and driver.
Getting close to lions on one of my photo safaris with local guide and driver. Photograph by © Elliott Neep

From my point of view – operating and leading group photos safaris – the local driver/guides are my linchpin. I want to work with passionate guides. Guides that work as a tight team. Experienced and skilled drivers whom understand the fundamentals of positioning a vehicle for photography. Naturalists that  know their quarry in-depth. Warm natured, positive individuals that have good working relationships with other guides working across the Mara.

Photo Safaris: Do Your Research

From a safari photography point of view, some camps are better than others. Unfortunately, you cannot go by price alone. If this is a serious photographic safari, do your research and don’t leave it to chance. Find a reputable (ATOL Protected) tour operator, ideally recommended to you by somebody you trust. The guides’ knowledge of the location, wildlife and photographic insight will get you into the right place at the right time. They have the ability to transform a good safari into an unforgettable experience.

Help Yourself, Keep it simple

The photo safari Tour Leader is there: To give you creative direction; Teach you new techniques; Answer technical questions; Give you a baseline for exposures and other settings. But, crucially, once you’re in position, it’s down to you. It’s your brain, eye, viewfinder, and your finger on the shutter that captures the image.

So, what can you do to help yourself?

For starters, work simple. Cut down on the amount of camera gear that you carry. There is absolutely no need to have ALL lenses to cover ALL focal lengths. In the heat of the moment, this will just confuse you. The more lens options you have, the more time it will take to decide which lens is right for the situation. Before you have even put camera to eye, the moment will have passed.

Your camera bag might be full of clutter, with gadgets and accessories that you rarely use. Make sure you have a good sort out before your safari. Empty the camera bag completely.

On each game drive, keep one camera body and lens (usually your longest lens) out of the bag and accessible at all times. Your second body and short zoom can be stowed away, but still with the lens cap off. Have maybe just one other lens – a wide-angle – in the bag.

Your batteries and cards should be on your person and easily accessible, not tucked away in the bag. The only other items in your bag are a blower, lens cloth and alcohol wipes, just to keep the lens element in top condition – something to do when you’re sitting and waiting.

Here are some good tips to save you precious seconds:

  1. Have two camera bodies (same make and model), so there is no deliberation over which camera to use for the situation – saving you critical seconds;
  2. Have a telephoto on one body and a short zoom on the other. Not having to change lenses saves you time;
  3. If you have a molar beanbag in the vehicle, just leave it in place, on the door frame – more time saved;
  4. Always travel with your camera switched on, lens cap off – more time saved;
  5. Get into the habit of resetting your cameras to a quick response setting, for example Av, f/4, Auto ISO, centre focus point selected, AI Servo (Continuous focus) – more time saved;
  6. Stay alert and vigilant, so when the guide says “Lions at 9 o’clock” you know exactly where to look and are ready to shoot, even before the vehicle has stopped.

In essence, you want to be in ‘Quick Reaction Mode’ from the second you leave camp. You should be able to take a shot within a few seconds. Many encounters are fleeting, especially with shy animals like leopards and rhino.

Shadow in her tree No.1 (March 2008)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₄₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

You may only have the time it takes for the vehicle to stop and for the guide to turn off the engine. Then the animal stops looking at you, turns away and disappears. Unless you’re ready and prepared, you’ll miss that opportunity and have nothing to show apart from an ‘arse shot’. Sometimes, I don’t even wait for the vehicle or engine to stop before I take my first shots…

Coming next in Part 2 of my Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris… TRAVELLING WITH GEAR, DSLRs, LENS CHOICE, SUPPORT.

“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this first instalment of my Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris. I’ll be posting the next instalments, one per week, over the next month. There will also be seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ posted here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the form below. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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Elliott Neep

Currently based in Oxfordshire, UK. Experienced professional freelance wildlife photographer, writer, and photographic guide with portfolios from East Africa, India, Arctic, Antarctica and British Isles.