Often, an African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience - and one that you'll want to remember long after you return home. Photographs are one of the best ways to preserve your memories for posterity; but only if you're able to take a few half decent shots. There's nothing more upsetting than plugging your camera into your computer on the flight home, only to discover that most of your photos are of indeterminate brown dots surrounded by the vast expanse of the African savannah.
Instead, you want bright, clear photos that show your experiences as you remember them. In this way, you'll be able to impress your friends and family when telling them about your trip; and more importantly, you'll be able to recreate the magic when poring over your albums in years to come. If you're worried that your photo-taking skills may not be quite up to scratch, read on for a few basic tips on how to take the best possible photos of your African adventure.
Even the most experienced photographers can find shooting on safari tricky, thanks to a variety of unique challenges. The optimum times for game-viewing are at dawn and dusk, when light is often limited. In order to compensate, your camera will require a slower shutter speed, which can result in shaky images (especially if your subject is moving). Other potential difficulties include the fact that you can't position wild animals where you want them, and the fact that shooting from a bumpy game vehicle can make it hard to accurately compose your photo.
Choosing Your Camera
However, many of these issues can be at least partly overcome by choosing the right camera. The best camera for you depends entirely on your budget, and on how much cumbersome equipment you're willing to carry. Traditionally, DSLR cameras with a range of interchangeable lenses offered the best results, producing crisper images, a better tolerance for low light and the greater flexibility that comes from manual settings.
DSLRs also allow you to experiment with telephoto or wide-angle lenses.
However, compact cameras have now evolved to the point where the higher-end ones compete with DSLRs in terms of quality, while offering the convenience of being both lighter and less expensive. Before deciding on which option best suits your needs, do your research online, or seek the advice of a professional at your local camera shop. In terms of taking good wildlife photos, the essentials include a decent zoom, and the ability to take clear photos even in low-light conditions.
Composing Your Shot
Perhaps even more important than having the right equipment is having a good eye. The digital age has made it possible to shoot hundreds of photos at a time; but instead of blindly clicking away, take the time to consider the composition that will make for the most interesting image. Generally speaking, avoid shooting from above, opting to take photos from the same level or from below your subject. Where possible, frame your subject against a plain backdrop (e.g. sky or sand), instead of the confusion of the bush.
Close-up shots usually pack a good punch, while images that use the surrounding landscape to set the scene can add a sense of atmosphere and context.
If you choose a wide-angle composition, be careful to include all of the animal you're photographing in the frame, instead of cutting off an ear here, or a tail there. The Rule of Thirds dictates that your main subject should never be positioned exactly in the center of your image - see here to learn more about using this technique to help your images flow.
Accessories are a photographer's best friend, and can help set your images apart. If you're going to be shooting with a telephoto lens from the back of a game vehicle, consider buying (or making) a bean-bag for your lens to rest on when shooting out of the window. This will help minimise lens shake, whilst also preventing unnecessary damage. A tripod also helps to prevent shake, especially if you're shooting a still subject with a very slow shutter speed (a starry night over the Namibian sand dunes, for example).
Whatever kind of camera you choose, there are some accessories that are compulsory. African safaris are notoriously dusty, and even the tiniest particle of grit or sand can wreak havoc with the internal mechanisms of your camera. Consequently, a sturdy dust-proof case is a must for safari photographers. Additionally, you never know how long you might be out in the field (especially if you stumble upon a once-in-a-lifetime sighting). Therefore, bring backup in the form of extra batteries and memory cards.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you're planning on buying new equipment, it's essential that you set time aside to practice with it before you leave. Shooting in manual mode (if your camera allows it) often achieves better results, especially when dealing with difficult conditions. In order to do so, you'll need to understand terms like shutter speed, aperture, depth of field and ISO; and how to best to use them. Read the manual carefully, then head out to your local zoo to familiarise yourself with photographing wildlife; or simply practice on your pets at home.
Tailor Your Trip
For the best results, consider booking a place on a dedicated photography safari, with expert guides who can give you advice in the field. Otherwise, choose an operator that offers select safaris with limited group sizes, so that you don't have to fight for prime position whenever you want to take a picture. Although some countries (like South Africa) offer the freedom of self-drive safaris, going with a guide is a good idea if you want insider knowledge on the best places to spot (and photograph) wildlife.