Photographing an African Safari

Taking the family on safari in South Africa had always been a dream – taking a camera was the icing on the cake! In this blog I’ll cover the kit I took with me (& why!) as well as some of our daily routine.

The Kit

Camera body – Out in the bush it can be dry & dusty – not the best place to be changing lenses – so for this reason alone, if at all possible, take two camera bodies! You’ll want to have one set up with a telephoto lens so you can zoom in on animals that are further away and the other with a wide angle to capture not only the amazing vistas you’ll see, but also to get the larger animals when they’re fairly close to you.

It hadn’t been too long since I’d upgraded my camera body to a full frame and I still had the older crop sensor body available at home, so for me it was a no brainer to take both. If I’d not have had the older camera body I’d probably have had to deal with just using one – but would have missed many shots whilst waiting for dust to settle in order to change lenses or risked dust getting onto the sensor and ruining even more shots.

Lenses – You’ll want a good telephoto lens with you to get in close on the wildlife…a lot of sightings are in early morning or late evening, so a fast aperture is good – I used a Sigma 150-600c lens which at 600mm focal length has an aperture of f/6.3, not as fast as I would have liked but it was manageable. You’ll also want a fairly wide lens for the closer animals – I took a Canon 24-70mm f/4L IS USM with me which gave me a good range. I’d also taken a 50mm lens with me (as it had a fast aperture of f/1.8) and a 16mm Samyang manual focus lens (for night shots) but didn’t really use these much.

Which lens on which camera body? There’s pro’s & cons for each way – putting the telephoto lens on the crop sensor body gives much greater reach but as I had a lens up to 600mm anyway, greater reach wasn’t such a major factor for me. My full frame body (a Canon 6d Mk 2) has much better capability in low light situations than my crop sensor body (Canon 1200d) – so I wanted that to host a) the lens I’d be using the most in low light, which I anticipated being the telephoto lens and b) the slower lens, which happened to also be the telephoto one with f/6.3 at 600mm…therefore I went with the wide angle lens on the crop sensor and the telephoto lens on the full frame body. When we stopped for sundowners etc, I did swap lenses when the dust settled so that I could use the better low light capabilities of the full frame body with the wide angle to get some of the sunsets.

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Resting Power

Supporting the camera - A sturdy tripod is great for when you park up for sundowners or morning coffee – don’t forget to use the timer on your camera to take some shots of yourselves in the bush, these are the memories that will last a lifetime! If you’re into night-time photography, you’ll know that a tripod is pretty much essential for this – and the night skies over the African bush are some of the darkest you’ll get given the lack of light pollution, so take the opportunity whilst there (if you’re not into night photography, this is a perfect place to give it a try!). I'm currently using Travis from 3 Legged Thing which is easy to transport around and gives great stability.

I also took a monopod with the belief that it would help inside a vehicle but in reality it didn’t prove to be that great. You’ll have vibrations from the vehicle engine coming through until the ignition is turned off (at which point you often get a bit of a vehicle shudder) – and often the sightings are fleeting so by the time the engine is turned off, the moment has passed (often on these momentary views of the wildlife, the engine may even be left running). I also found that the monopod was quite cumbersome when trying to change view point from one side to the other – so after one drive with the monopod, I switched to hand held which offered much more flexibility on shooting direction and my body provided some dampening of the vehicle vibrations when I brought everything in tight (one hand supporting the lens with the arms tight in against the body and if I was able to position my foot up on a footrest in front of me, I could rest my elbow on my knee for more stability)

Storing the shots - Take a couple of SD cards to store the photos – trust me, you’ll take a lot more shots than you anticipate before going and you don’t want to run out of storage space midway through the trip. If you have the space to take a small laptop, this can help with the storage of images as you can download them each day (and even back them up to an external drive too), thereby freeing up the space on the SD card in the camera.

Other items - Don’t forget to pack your battery charger and a spare battery for your camera – unless you’re camping for a prolonged period away from somewhere with mains power, this should be sufficient to keep you charged up (as a general rule of thumb I always charge my batteries when I return from a shoot – that way, I have a fully charged one in the camera plus a fully charged spare with me when heading out)

A camera strap is useful to free up your hands – I use one from Black Rapid, it’s worthwhile investing in a good one, I tried one of the cheaper brands before, but they just break too easily.

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The Routine

Our safari was based at the Madikwe River Lodge in South Africa – we’d picked Madikwe as the reserve to be in as it’s malaria free, which just made things a lot easier (rather than trying to get kids to take anti-malarial tablets for weeks). We organised this with the help of Ben from Tourdust who did a fantastic job of ensuring we got the place that was just right for us.

The lodge offered both a morning & evening drive – when the wildlife is most active. The morning drive meant getting up before dawn, grabbing a quick coffee & some cookies before driving for maybe an hour or so then stopping for another coffee and a stretch of the legs. Another couple of hours game drive before heading back to the camp for some breakfast (and on a couple of occasions, breakfast in the bush which was a spectacular way to end the first drive of the day!).

The rest of the day was at leisure in the camp – giving me some time to download shots from the camera to my laptop & recharge batteries, plus time for the kids to enjoy the pool and the Sun lovers the chance to top up their tans.

By around 4pm, time to get ready for an evening game drive – this time out for a couple of hours before stopping for Sundowners, one of the great pleasures of an African Safari. A final hour or so drive as darkness falls, using search lights to find wildlife, before arriving back at camp for a well deserved dinner.

We were very lucky to have two amazing guides for the game drives – Amos & Benson were so knowledgeable and only too happy to share this with us, doing a terrific job of simplifying things to make sense for the kids too. Their tracking skills enabled us to view all of the big 5 plus much more besides.

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A book of some of the stunning images taken during this fantastic trip is available to buy – click here to take a look.

More images from this most amazing safari can be seen here & good luck on your own safari!

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