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African Photo Safaris - What to expect on Safari
Whoopee - we've got here. Lets get out and start clicking! When you first arrive in the game park, the usual plan is to take a number of general purpose game drives, with the objective of seeing as many animals as possible. Everyone wants a range of photographs to go home with them, so it is only understandable that your vehicle will stop next to every dik dik, warthog, or gnu. Later on, when people are more interested to take photos of one or two specific animals, it is better to ask your guide if you can go to look for just these ones. The guide, always eager to help, will most likely know where they are to be found, or can radio around to the other vehicles in the park to see if anyone else is reporting any sightings.
The time of day can be crucial when attempting to photograph animals in the game parks. An African Safari is not for the person who likes a long lie-in in the mornings. Ideally, you should be up and ready just before dawn, and be in position at the water holes as the sun is coming up. The early morning mist so often present on the savannah will soon burn off, affording you some excellent shots as the animals come out to drink in the cool of the early morning light. You will have to stave off your own thirst or hunger pangs whilst watching the animals take their own breakfast - it is a good idea to take some small snacks to keep you going until there is time for a break, though don't forget that all snacks should be both quiet to open and quiet to consume: no rustly plastic bags (re-wrap in polythene) and certainly no potato chips or celery sticks!
Once the light has been up for a couple of hours, the trucks and jeeps will generally take a break for breakfast. Some of the organisers will have breakfast with you, and thus save the time required to go back to your camp or lodge. If this is the case, do make sure that there are possibilities for a toilet stop when required. In many parks you are not allowed to leave your vehicle, and in most it would be foolish to try, especially when the big cats are about. A good local guide will have encountered such requests many times before, and know the shortest route to a suitably safe toilet location.
Alternatively, a return to your lodge or campsite may prove a very welcome break after being couped up in a small vehicle for the last few hours. It does not pay to overdo too much at once, if people are to keep alert and awake for the best photo opportunities. An hour off for breakfast, around 9:00 oclock will give everyone a break whilst still providing time for a second game-drive before the light gets hard and the sun gets too hot, and the animals retreat to the shade during the middle of the day. This is a good time for a nap yourself, or maybe an opportunity to review the morning's photographs, recharge batteries, and clean the dust and grime from your cameras and lenses. In the middle of the afternoon, the trucks will head out for a longer game drive, that will keep you occupied until the sunset comes. The evening is generally an excellent time to take great animal shots, especially as the light loses it harshness and provides the background with a more interesting hue. The heat of mid-day will lessen, and the animals will come out to drink, hunt, or just lie on a convenient rock or tree limb whilst sizing up the situation and plan the night's activities.
When taking animal photographs at dusk, you should be constantly aware of the speeds your shutter is selecting. As mentioned in my Travel Photography Basics article, it is all too easy not to notice that the declining light is making your shutter speeds get to slow for the lens in use, resulting in a loss of important shots due to blurring.
A few points of note, specific to Safari Photography:
Digital cameras allow more photos at minimal extra expense, so switch your camera to burst mode, and snap away as the action changes. The difference in time from one frame to the other may make all the difference for that winning shot. More expensive memory cards will record the shots quicker, though the extra time gained is not always worth the extra expense. Cards sometimes fail - always keep a few spares handy.
When positioning yourself or your vehicle, look carefully where the light currently is, and try to anticapte where the light will be shortly, in relation to the animals you expect to see. Nothing is more annoying that to get a wonderful shot of a lion or leopard lined up, just to have the lens flooded with sunlight. A lens hood will help, of course, and should always be included on a packing list for an African safari, but it is much better if you can position yourself where the light will be an asset, not an enemy, to your photogaphy.
Keep on the alert - if animals are one thing, they are unpredictable. They might seem to be sitting quietly on a rock or tree branch, dozing in the shade, then will suddenly leap up to attack some prey in the grass that you haven't seen. Animals are always on the alert (its a jungle out there), and you need to be as well if you are not to miss some sudden and exciting action. Always have a camera in hand, and don't fall asleep - keep alert and be ready for every surprise.
Animals don't usually do anything very interesting and, often the most interesting activity is at night. You should therefore include a number of night game drives during your stay. Some game lodges keep an area such as a nearby waterhole floodlit at night. It doesn't seem to affect the animals or their activity at all, but it does make it easier for humans to watch. The floodlights are not *really* bright, though, and don't offer much help for the photographer. Flash should not be used at night, and even if it were allowed, it is unlikely to reach the animals at the waterhole, so if you wish to take photos you are limited to slow shutter speeds, big apertures, and higher ISO settings. Even if you don't produce saleable night images, they will still be a great reminder of the wildlife you were watching.
Lets talk now about drivers and guides: an indispensible part of your African Photographic Safari. Choose your driver and local guide with care: their skill will make a huge difference to your success behind the lens. A good guide will be totally familiar with the game-park that you are visiting, and will know where animals of different types will be found at different times of the day. A guide has the experience to spot animals in the bushes and long grass that you will have trouble even seeing at all. A good driver will have friends in other vehicles in the game park, and have radios to alert each other about the latest animal activity and movements. They will be able to post any special requests for sightings that you might have, but above all their experience of park activity over the years will pay dividends. English may not be their first language, so speak clearly and slowly, and double check that they understand any special requests by asking questions that can't be answered with yes or no.
How to choose a guide? Get it wrong, and your photo vacation may not be as good as you'd hoped. Ideally you have some friends who are experienced in Africa, and can recommend one. Personal recommendations are generally the most reliable way to go. Perhaps there is a Travellers Club in your local city - someone there may be able to advise you. If you live deep in the countryside, there are other options. In these days of the internet, we can do a lot of research online, hunting out the perfect guide that way. Online communities and bulletin boards can often help, though make sure it isn't the guide himself, prentending to be a tourist. A glance at their previous postings will generally highlight such people. Yet another alternative, and one many people choose, is to purchase a Safari package trip, with flights, accomodation, guide and driver included. The company's reputation rests on the staff in Africa they supply for you, so this is generally a safe and easy option.
Points to Consider: Your local guide is used to providing the best photo opportunities for his passengers, as he knows that this is the path to better tips at the end of the day. But in their rush to get the photos they think you want, some guides can get a little too enthusiastic, often at the expense of the animals. Leopards, for instance, can be quite hard to spot at times, and when a radio call is made of a leopard sighting, the poor beast is often completely ringed by vehicles struggling to get the best shots for their customers. It is at times like these, when the leopard is obviously stressed, that it is time to indicate to your guide that you do not wish to take a photograph that badly, and that you wish to back off for now, and leave the leopard photos for another occasion.
African Safaris are famous for one other alternative to the jeep or minivan: the Hot Air Ballon. Although often a very expensive way of seeing the African countryside, the views and the photos will be stunning, and the experience unforgettable. As the dawns breaks and the sky loses its rosy glow, the balloon slowly inflates before you. Before you have even started your flight, the big jets of gas flame against the colorful balloon envelope will have you taking photos. Soon you are floating silently above the awakening countryside, watching the wildlife and enjoying the amazing scenery of Africa. Except for when a burst of gas is burnt to gain height, ballooing is incredibly peaceful. At times, the animals or people below won't even notice you pass overhead. After an hour or so, the balloon will land under the careful control of the support staff in their retrieval vehicles. There is often a Champagne breakfast in the bush to follow. It certainly makes an extra-special end to your African safari. Ballooning takes place in Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, and Tanzania. Photography captured from a balloon will be mainly scenic - don't expect many closeups of animals, even with a telephoto lens, though you can often catch groups of elephants moving about the bush. If possible, choose to go up when there are other ballons in the air, as the photo opportunities will be that bit greater: a colorful balloon envelope against the African bush always looks stunning.
Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...
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