The Safari Experts

Photography in Africa


We believe that, with a little bit of advice and encouragement. anyone should be able to take sensational pictures in Africa.

In this section we are not going to list a whole load of expensive equipment that you need to bring along. If you are keen to capture some good images then simply bring the best equipment that you can. Whilst we do prefer to use large professional cameras ourselves ... we have seen some fabulous images taken on compacts. Good photography has as much to do with awareness, empathy and composition.

If there were one most common mistake, then it would be taking too many second-rate images of animals, whilst overlooking the other magical and often more subtle aspects of a safari. Often too much zoom and not enough context.

Below is a compilation of notes and tips from our experience in the field. Hopefully the effort required to read it will be outweighed by the photographic reward ...

Permissions ...

Not so many years ago it was very easy to find yourself being arrested and thrown in jail if you wandered around various parts of Africa with a camera. These days the authorities are much more obliging and amateur photographers are generally free to take photographs in most areas. It is still, however, possible to find yourself in deep water. The general rule of thumb is to avoid taking pictures or even letting your camera be seen in the vicinity of police stations, state facilities, army barracks and operational areas, checkpoints, airports, major bridges and ferry ports. If you do find yourself being accosted by officials then you should not dispute their right to pull you up. Generally speaking contrition is the way ahead. You need to remember that many countries in Africa suffer from high levels of corruption, it may be possible that the official is simply looking to extort some modest payment before letting you go. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to play that game. Ultimately it is very rare for any serious inconvenience to arise out of such situations, although they can be very frightening at the time.

Professional photographers may need to apply for permits, especially in national parks.

People ...

Many people in Africa object very strongly to having their pictures taken without permission. This may be because of deeply held traditional beliefs about cameras being able to steal their souls or it may be that they simply find it downright rude. In areas where people are used to seeing travellers, it can also be that they want to extract some kind of fee from you for the privilege. In any event, here are some of our own tried and tested solutions ...

... in villages and rural areas

The most important thing here is to take your time and show your humanity. If you roll into a village as a stranger and start snapping away indiscriminately then you are not going to make many friends and you are not going to get very good pictures. If possible you should arrive with a guide who knows the local people, or who at least speaks the local language. Start by showing some interest in the village as a whole, perhaps there is something small you can purchase, even just a Coke. That gives you the excuse to loiter and the chance to break the ice with one or two of the locals. Go out of your way to show yourself as a nice person, smiling, receptive and sympathetic ... rural people naturally view outsiders with a good deal of scepticism, especially if you are obviously foreign. They will usually be polite, but distant and it is up to you to break down the barriers. We often wear a rather daft hat or some other such device for appearing less serious and forbidding.

At some stage the camera has to come out. Children are often the best starting subjects, since you can usually steal a snap without making them angry. If you very quickly move to show them the image on the payback screen, then you should quickly start to make some friends. You have your toe-hold and photography should become easier from there. The key word is respect and the method is simply being friendly, sympathetic and approachable. By the time you leave, both you and the villagers should be feeling happy and rewarded by the experience. And the photos will be worth so much more to you.

... on roads and in town

The challenge in these areas is that there may not be the chance to stop and be intimate ... you cannot make friends with everyone along the roadside or in a busy market, although opportunities to do so should be sought out, as in the villages.

A key method here is to make it absolutely clear to any observers that you are taking pictures of the buildings and physical features rather than of the people. This can be done by looking up at facades, taking in the detail of a road surface, or obviously waiting for people to pass out of a photo before taking it. Once the locals understand that they are simply in the way of what you want to photograph rather than being the subject matter, objections tend to subside considerably. Whether you then abuse this situation by using your long zoom to take portraits of individuals is on your conscience ... we have missed so many wonderful photo opportunities because we could not bring ourself to break the trust.

On occasion, where we have been strongly confronted by locals, we always have our guide prepared with a back-up story. The most common is that we work for the Department of Transport and are here to look into the practicalities of 'the new road'. But we would only deploy an obvious deciept like this in order to diffuse a potentially difficult situation. Local people tend to be naturally respectful of officialdom, so it usually works a treat, in which case you then have the chance to pay back by exchanging some genuine pleasantries. One can't help wondering for how long after such a meeting the local people sit and discuss 'the new road'.

Another technique which is less satisfactory from a photographic point of view, but which works a treat in overcoming these issues is to shoot from the hip. Obviously you need to turn the shutter sound off. And it does not work on a proper camera which does still have a real mechanical shutter. We have found that if you take enough shots, there are usually a few interesting ones, especially in crowds or around markets.

... in lodges

The staff in lodges are generally much more willing to have their photos taken, but you should still take care. Obviously the front of house team ... guides, barmen etc ... should all be fine, but by the time you get to the laundry ladies and kitchen staff there can be a good deal more reticence and the techniques described in the village section above should be used.

Safari ...

If you want to take photos of animals then it is important to have a decent zoom lens.

The distance to which you can approach an animal depends upon their level of habituation and the means which you are using to approach. Animals are generally more habituated in areas where they are used to being visited, so generally the more busy the safari area, the closer the sightings.

The best way to get very close to an animal is to be concealed within a hide.

After that the best way is on a vehicle safari. It is rare for animals to be hunted or seriously harassed by vehicles, most of their bad experiences will occur with people on foot. So animals are often very relaxed to the approach of vehicles, to the extent that cheetahs actually climb onto the vehicles to use them as a lookout and some lions will climb underneath to take advantage of the shade or to hide whilst stalking prey.

Another great way to get up close to some animals is on a canoe safari, especially for crocodiles, hippos and elephants, but also for any other animals which happen to be on the banks.

On the whole walking safari does not involve really close encounters with large animals and photographic opportunities are more of landscape and detail.

There is no point in us getting into a discussion about image composition, since there as many opinions about this as there are photographers. The one thing that we would say, however, is that it is always worth seeking out a new angle on something. How many billions of photos have been taken from safari vehicles of lions lying in the middle distance? There are tens of thousands of photos on this website, it's probably worth taking a good look through before you travel in the hope of finding some inspiration. A good number of the best photos are not critical one-in-a-million sightings, but simple details or angles that could have been taken by anyone with the right eye.

Time of year ...

Most people choose travel during the periods of clearest, sunniest weather, but a keen photographer may choose to go out of season in the hope of experiencing a bit of weather. The main issue is that safari areas during the main dry seasons can become quite hazy and the light less polarised. As soon as their is a little more moisture in the air, the clarity and polarisation of light increases, often making for better photography. On the other hand, most people like to take photos during dry conditions, since this is the way that we tend to think of safari ... when everything is all green and verdant it seems somehow inappropriate.

But the bottom line is that there is no good or bad time to take photos in Africa.

Where to go ...

There is nowhere in Africa that we would be unhappy to take photos, there are opportunities at every turn. However, if you want to take photos of specific subjects, then try browsing the various categories above. Use the keyword links to go through to the relevant locations and you should soon be able to build up the outlines of a plan. Or just call our sales team and explain what you have in mind, there are plenty of keen photographers amongst us!

Equipment ...

The bottom line is that you should take the best quality equipment that you have available to you and that you are confident to use, whether this be a compact camera or a professional SLR with a full suite of lenses. Some people even take pictures and video with their phones or tablets, although it is unlikely that the results add up to much.

We mentioned earlier that if you intend to take photos of animals then you should bring as long as zoom lens as you can ... 200mm would be the minimum, 400mm and above would be great.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that it is now possible to hire lenses, which can give you access to specialist equipment that you might not be able to justify purchasing.

Be warned ... Africa eats cameras ... our reconnaissance department gets through 2 or 3 cameras every year, the biggest culprits being sand and water ingress, but there seems to be an infinite number of ways in which a camera can bite the dust. So our final and perhaps most important words of advice are ... carry a spare camera with you at all times.

One good tip is to take empty bean bags for your cameras, which can be filled at the other end with beans or rice, to provide a steady base from which to shoot, especially from safari vehicles.
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