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PHOTO SAFARI NOTES

     When asked, most nature photographers would say that an African photo safari would be the ultimate trip. The word safari in Swahili means “journey” and a well chosen safari should take you on just such a journey to experience and photograph Africa’s wildlife in all its abundance and magnificence. There is no better time to visit Africa than now before it lost to the hand of man.

     That said, what sort of safari options should you look for in order to make your African experience the best possible, particularly if you know nothing about the options available? The following information should help you answer some of your questions. While the information is based on Tanzania as the destination, many of the points brought up will apply to safaris in other locations in Africa and around the world as well.

   Types of Safaris

 

     Safaris can differ not only in their itineraries but also in their locations, wildlife availability, level of accommodations, and learning opportunities. The photographic trips to Tanzania that I personally lead are designed toward photographers who wish to increase their photographic abilities and techniques while being immersed in a rich photographic shooting environment. They are also looking for a trip that fosters personal growth while providing them a lifetime of memories. The environment of my safaris is one that involves other kindred spirits but follows a path not trod by the average tourist.

   Vehicles

     Contrary to popular belief, not all safaris take place in a 4WD vehicle. Some of the most rewarding photographic experiences are attained by safely approaching game from ground level. All of my Tanzania trips afford us some opportunity to shoot wildlife (and landscapes) away from a vehicle. That said, some wildlife experiences can only (and legally) be achieved via the safety of a Land Rover or a Toyota Land Cruiser. A number of these vehicles have been stretched to accommodate large numbers of people. Problems arise exponentially when a large number of photographers and their gear are together in one vehicle. The fewer photographers in the vehicle, the better will be your experience. Less is more. I limit my safaris to a maximum of three photographers (and a REASONABLE amount of gear) per vehicle. Non-photographing participants are welcome and usually (along with myself) positioned up front with the driver.

     As a general rule, you get what you pay for when it comes to vehicles. Budget safaris many times result in poorly maintained vehicles and inexperienced drivers. Also, be wary of safaris using minivans as they are more likely to have a larger number of people in each vehicle.

   Clothing

     While pith helmets are out of style, brimmed hats and sunglasses can make your safari more enjoyable by offering a bit of shade during the day and helping to relieve eye strain. Even though we are close to the equator, outdoor conditions are regulated as much by altitude as they are by temperature. In that regard, it is a good recommendation to wear earth tones, primarily because the dirt does not show as much as a white shirt would. Clothing that can keep you cool during the day and a layer that helps to keep you warm at night are advisable. Walking shoes rather than the heavier constructed hiking boots are best. Sandals also work well. Do your research before departing, to see what to wear and what works best for you.

   Accommodations

     While in the field there are three basic types of safari accommodations. Each has its advantages and disadvantages depending upon the criteria you chose for your safari experience. The better lodges tend to be the highest price option but afford you hotel-like sleeping accommodations and in-suite bathrooms. With this service also comes more people and a loss of personal attention. Another disadvantage of a lodge is that the game (generally quite migratory due to water availability) might not be located anywhere nearby resulting in either long drives or missed photographic opportunities.

     On the other end of the price scale are the adventure tented safaris which is like camping out. While they tend to be near concentrations of game, you may be required to pitch and break down your own tent. Check details carefully as each trip of this nature varies in the amenities and services offered.

     My personal favorite, and the one used for the Tanzania safaris, are the luxury tent camps. These combine the high living standards of the lodges with the ability of the adventure tent camps to get you close the wildlife action. As the tent camp has limited capacity, personal service is maximized and food quality is extremely good. Each tent contains either beds or good construction cots along with changing rooms and a private bath/shower and bathroom.

   Power    

     With the use of a luxury tented camp comes the need to address your power requirements. As a photographer, particularly those shooting digital, the ability to recharge batteries is limited. Most camps will only have a generator running for a certain number of hours each day or during the evening making long term charging difficult. There are a number of backup options available. The first is that there are now a number of quick charge devices available that can completely charge a set of batteries in just a couple of hours. The second option is to use a small solar powered charger that can handle up to four batteries and be left outdoors at the camp while you are in the field. The third option comes in if the safari vehicle is being used. Taking turns with the vehicle’s cigarette lighter will help you to keep a set of charged batteries always at hand.

   Medical and Insurance

     For health and financial safety, you will need to be current on your immunizations, visas and travel insurance. Immunization requirements are constantly changing. A quick check with your physician will help to determine what will be required. Do plan on taking anti-malarial medicine before you leave. Do not wait until the last minute as medical and visa preparations can often take weeks to complete. Insurance for lost or stolen photo equipment is strongly advised. Major airlines do not cover much, if anything. I have found that all-risk camera insurance on a homeowner’s policy is a good way to be insured. I have chosen to separate out my photography business insurance from my home owner’s policy, as working photography professionals often do not meet the requirements for that type of insurance.

   Photographic Equipment

     Photographing wildlife in the open savannahs and woodlands of northern Tanzania requires long focal length lenses. In order to have a reasonable chance of having your subjects fill a comfortable portion of the frame, I would recommend a minimum effective focal length of 400mm. You should definitely take along the longest focal length lens you can afford without sacrificing optical quality and speed. If you are shooting with a digital camera that has a lens factor of x1.6, a 400mm lens turns into a 640mm supertelephoto. While the open areas of northern Tanzania are better lit than heavily forested jungles, maintaining sufficient shutter speed to stop constantly moving animals is also a factor to consider in selecting which lenses to bring along.

     To maximize your safari experience keep in mind that there are more images to be captured than just closeup head shots or animal portraits. Capturing the landscape and the essence of the environment in which the wildlife lives, should not be overlooked. Don’t forget to bring both wide angle and medium focal length lenses as well. With the superb optics available in today’s zoom lenses, I find that I can take just four lenses with me covering a focal length range of 16-400mm which allows me to take advantage of the range of shooting conditions that will be encountered while on safari. These are: 16-35mm, f/2.8; 24-70mm f/2.8; 70-200mm f/2.8; and a 400mm f/2.8. By adding a 1.4X or 2X teleconverter, I can extend this range all the way to 800mm. (Note: My Canon camera bodies are all full frame.) Minimizing the number of lenses also lets me reduce the amount of baggage that follows me on the trip. This is important as one camera bag is easier to keep track of in airports and doesn’t take up much space in the Land Rover.

   Shooting Stability

 

     My safaris to Tanzania emphasize a range photographic opportunities and shooting conditions. These can vary from landscapes at sunset, to walking to a nearby pool to shoot elephants, and to capturing the wildebeest migration from the top of a Land Rover. Even with image stabilization technology, hand holding a 5-12 pound lens for any length of time is impossible. To help you get the sharpest images possible, I recommend two support systems, one for ground-based photography and one for vehicle-based photography.

     Take along a compact, lightweight and sturdy tripod outfitted with quick release capabilities to allow you to change lenses or cameras quickly for the times you will be shooting at ground level. As I pack mine with the clothes in the duffel bag, it really does not take up any extra space.

     While great for shooting in the open, a tripod in a closed vehicle is counter productive. While there are a number of excellent roof/window mount support system on the market they are just another piece of equipment that has to be packed and their design do not allow them to quickly adapt to rapidly changing shooting condition (like an elephant who has decided to come over and investigate the hole in your vehicle roof). The most adaptable camera/lens support for shooting from a vehicle is a bean bag. The ideal bag should be: big enough to support your largest lens; flexible enough to mold to a variety of surface shapes; and be able to be packed empty to minimize space and weight issues concerning your luggage. I prefer the Kinesis Safari Sack (www.kinesisgear.com) as the bag can be folded flat for travel and refilled at my destination. A quick stop at the local market for beans or rice does the trick and they can be given to one of the locals when you leave.

For more information on Mark's Wildlight safaris and photo trips send your request to: info@wildlightnaturephotography.com

 

 

 

 

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Phone: (612) 804-7377      email: info@wildlightnaturephotography.com

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