Tips For a Successful Self-Driving African Safari

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Many photographers dream of the opportunity to photograph Africa’s famed wildlife in its natural surroundings. The ease with which you can find and photograph large mammals in some areas of the continent is incomparable and its landscapes are often striking beautiful. While the thought of traveling there may seem intimidating or unattainably expensive to some, in reality Africa is more accessible than it may feel from the comfort of your armchair. African Safaris come in two basic types: self-driving and guided. Guided safaris involve being driven by an experienced driver, often in a specialized vehicle and usually with other guests (private tours are often also available but can be quite pricey). While having an experienced guide can help you locate wildlife, self-driving gives you control over exactly where you go and how long you spend there and also means that you won’t be fighting with other guests for the best angles to photograph from. I also find that it provides a sense of adventure and discovery that doesn’t come from guided tours. In this article, I hope to provide a starting place for planning a photography-based self-driving African safari.

African Safari (1)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 320, 1/640, F5.6
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia.

Planning Your Trip

Where

The two most popular parts of Africa to take safaris are East Africa (mostly in Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa (mostly South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe). Both regions have abundant wildlife and are home to lions, leopards, elephants, giraffes and other of Africa’s most famous species. East Africa is home to the famed Serengeti Savannah while Southern Africa’s landscapes range from densely vegetated bush-veld to massive sand dunes.

The majority of people who drive themselves choose to go to South Africa or Namibia. These two countries are not only filled with beautiful public and private reserves that teem with wildlife but they also have well-developed infrastructure that makes them easy to travel in. Main roads are generally good, high quality accommodation is readily available and car hire is easy to arrange. Overall, it is possible for travel here to present little more difficultly than it would in North America, Europe or Australia. Of course, if you are looking for more adventure you can easily find it as well.

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A self-drive safari in East Africa or the more remote parts of Southern Africa is certainly possible and can be tremendously rewarding but you need to be prepared for some adversity and you should be fairly self-sufficient. In these areas, the roads are often in poor condition and driving becomes more challenging (think swerving to avoid rhino-sized potholes while simultaneously dodging minibuses driving straight at you at 100km/h). To travel here, you should have at least basic car repair skills and supplies and it is usually better to travel in a group with more than 1 vehicle. Ultimately, where you choose to go will be a trade-off between remoteness and ease of travel. Rest assured, whichever location you choose, you’ll be able to have a fantastic trip and get some amazing photographs.

African Safari (2)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 50mm F1.8 @ ISO 100, 1/500, F5.6
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. Well-developed roads and tourist infrastructure combined with spectacular parks make South Africa and Namibia excellent choices for a self-guided safari.

When to Go

The ideal time to go depends largely on two factors: weather and crowds. Seasons in Southern and East Africa are divided into a hot and humid wet season and a dry and warm dry season. Exactly when these arrive varies with location but in Southern Africa the dry season is roughly between May to October and the wet from November to April. In East Africa, the wet season lasts from about December to June with the heaviest rains coming between April and June. Each season has its advantages and disadvantages and conditions will vary year to year and place to place. In general though, wildlife congregates around waterholes in the dry season making it easier to find and photograph but, particularly in Southern Africa, this time of year can be very dusty and the landscape can look rather bleak. Dust is usually less of an issue in Eastern Africa and landscapes there are, for the most part, gorgeous year-round. However, the dry season tends to be the most crowded in both areas, meaning that at times your wildlife photos will be framed by a ring of safari vehicles. If you go during this season be sure to book well in advance (several months or more). During the wet season, wildlife spreads out over the savannah, making it harder to find and the weather can get quite hot. However, crowds thin out considerably, plants flower and many animals give birth to their young, providing unique photographic opportunities.

African Safari (3)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 480mm, ISO 200, 1/640, F5.6
Etosha National Park, Namibia. During the wet season, animals spread out over Savannah making them harder find but providing pleasing backdrops when you do track them down.

How to Get Around

The vast majority of self-drivers will be hiring a car rather than bringing their own. Keep in mind your car will also be your blind/viewing platform/camera support since you typically cannot leave your car while in parks except in designated areas.

The main decision here is between a 2-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive vehicle. A 4-wheel drive will allow you more flexibility to travel on rougher roads and provides a higher platform to view animals from but is more expensive to rent and fuel. Another factor to consider when choosing your vehicle is whether you plan to camp or stay in lodges. It is possible to rent a fully equipped 4-wheel drive truck like the one pictured below. These can be rented complete with tents, sleeping pads, a stove and even refrigerators. While this is great if you are planning on roughing it, it is of little use if you prefer to stay in well-appointed lodges and have others prepare your food.

African Safari (4)
Nikon D600 + Tamron 15-30mm F2.8 @ 15mm, ISO 1600, 30 sec, F2.8
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia. A fully-outfitted 4×4 such as this one is invaluable when seeking out more remote locations.

What to Bring

Lenses

Unfortunately, animals are unlikely to sit down and pose next to your car so you are going to need a lens with some reach. A focal length of at least 400mm is a must for full frame but longer is better. The prime super telephoto lenses favoured by professionals have exceptional autofocus capability and image quality but tend to be unaffordable for all but a select few. However, good quality and (relatively) affordable super telephoto zoom lenses from Tamron, Sigma and Nikon are now available and do an admirable job. Renting one of these lenses is inexpensive and is a good option for those who don’t own one. In addition to your super telephoto, you will, of course, need to bring a selection of other lenses for landscapes and other subjects.

African Safari (5)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 480mm, ISO 250, 1/500, F5.6
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia. A super telephoto lens is a must in order to isolate even larger species of wildlife.

Camera

If you have a DSLR you should be fine to just bring the camera you own. For mirrorless cameras, you’ll have to have a recent, higher-end model with a capable autofocus system. Using a crop sensor camera can be helpful in providing extra reach and top of the range cameras with advanced autofocus systems are certainly nice to have but most modern DSLR cameras will be able to get the job done. If you are concerned though, you can always rent a camera. If you do, be sure to pick it up at least a few days before your trip so that you can practice with it – the last thing you want is to miss shots because you’re trying to figure out how to work your camera.

African Safari (6)
Nikon F90X Tamron 200-400mm F5.6 on Fujichrome Velvia 100
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Although the latest and greatest gear is nice to have, a camera with a reasonable autofocus system and a super telephoto lens are all that is really required.

Camera Support

This is one of the key differences between how most of us shoot at home and how you’ll shoot on safari. Generally, you’ll want to shoot with your lens supported to reduce camera shake but you won’t have room to set up a tripod especially if you’re the one driving. There are 2 main options for supporting your camera: bean bags and window mounts. Window mounts encompass various contraptions with clamps or suction cups on which you can attach a ballhead or gimbal. While some of these are very solid and best mimic shooting from a tripod, they often require at times lengthy setup after which your window will need to remain open. This means that you and your gear will quickly become choked with dust. Beanbags, on the other hand, are simple to throw over an open window and plop your camera on allowing you to drive with you windows closed and to easily change the side of the vehicle that you are shooting out from. Also, they pack very small when empty and are inexpensive. While you can buy them with a fill, I wouldn’t bother since you can save lots of space by bringing them empty and can easily fill them when you arrive. They can be filled with dried beans, lentils, rice or even pasta – just buy whatever is cheapest.

Extra Batteries (at least 2x) and Charger

The ease of finding a power supply to recharge batteries will vary with how remote your trip will be. Most major parks provide power outlets at campsites and lodges will almost all have them as well. However, for more remote trips, you’ll need a car charger.

Be sure to check that your charger is compatible with the voltage used in your destination (generally 230-240V as in Europe). You will likely need an adapter for the plugs as well (in South Africa and Namibia, they use a type ‘M’ plug which is not generally used elsewhere but adapters are available at most supermarkets in these countries).

Other Useful Items

Lens and sensor cleaning gear is a must. Even in the wet season, your gear is going to be exposed to dust and you’ll need to keep it clean. It also comes in very handy to have a device with a decent-sized screen to look though your images when you’re back in camp or taking a break.

African Safari (7)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 70-300mm F4-5.6 @ 145mm, ISO 100, 1/125, F8.0
NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia. Frequent dusty conditions mean that supplies for sensor cleaning are important to bring.

When You Are There

After all of your careful preparation, it is important to make the most of your time on safari. Below are a few tips that may reduce some unexpected frustrations and help you to focus on getting the shots you want.

Shooting From a Car

As mentioned above, when within park boundaries, you are generally not permitted to leave your car unless you are in designated (and usually fenced) rest areas or campgrounds. While this does present some challenges, it has the considerable advantage that you are much less likely to be eaten. Also, the animals will generally be quite accustomed to cars and will often allow you to slowly approach them in your vehicle.

The main challenge to shooting from your car is that the front windscreen gets in the way limiting you to taking pictures in about a 90-degree radius on either side of the car. This means that a fair amount of maneuvering will often be required to get into position. It’s a little easier if you as the photographer are in the front or rear passenger seat but taking pictures as the driver is certainly possible too. You’ll want to be sure to keep your camera and bean bag immediately at hand (I usually have my camera on my lap and bean bag under my feet). You never know when an opportunity will present itself and you’ll want to be ready.

African Safari (8)
Typical set up with camera + bean bag. Here the car’s side mirror gets in the way necessitating a hand hold.

Finding Animals

Many viewing opportunities are based around waterholes, particularly during the dry season but there can still be many see things on plains or in the bush. How much of your time you spend staying put at a waterhole vs roaming around the Savannah is a personal preference and success will depend on the time of year and, most of all, luck. It’s best to just experiment and see what works for you. Many people will spend most of their time hunting for large predators like lions, cheetahs and leopards but the smaller animals and more common herbivores can provide great photographic opportunities. These are much easier to find than the large predators and often allow you to get closer. Remember that a close up of a zebra, meerkat or colorful bird is likely to make a more compelling picture than the backside of a distant lion.

African Safari (9)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 125, 1/400, F5.6
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. Smaller animals such as this meerkat can be fun to watch and provide compelling subjects.

Timing

Dawn and dusk not only provide beautiful light but also tend to be the times when animals are most active. However, park and camp gates typically only open at sunrise and close at sunset. This means that much of these ‘golden hours’ will be spent photographing near your camp so you will need to plan where you stay accordingly. Although tempting, staying out past the time that gates close is not recommended and is likely to end with you paying a hefty fine. In flagrant cases, can even end with your removal from the park. In the end, you’ll likely spend much of the day taking pictures in light that isn’t perfect but can still make for great images.

African Safari (10)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 160, 1/250, F5.6, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. Camp gates close at sunset meaning that you will have to keep an eye on the clock when photographing at the end of the day.

Review Your Pictures

I highly recommend taking some time each day to review the shots you’ve taken. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of seeing and photographing wildlife especially near the beginning of the trip. Taking time to carefully and critically review your images each day will allow you to fix errors in technique or composition that you otherwise might only notice when you are back home. This can be especially true if you don’t get the chance to take wildlife photos regularly.

In the picture below, I was too concerned with making sure the cheetah was in focus to notice that she is cramped to left side of the frame. The image was ultimately salvageable but needed heavy cropping (included below). A review of my photos that day help me to realize that I needed to think beyond just getting a snapshot of an animal and start to think about capturing images that conveyed a sense of space and emotion. Review of the EXIF data also helped me to realize that when I was moving the camera on my bean bag, I was inadvertently nudging the zoom ring so that I was sometimes shooting at 460mm or 480mm rather than 500mm.

African Safari (11)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 480mm, ISO 200, 1/200, F5.6, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa.

Reviewing your images lets you improve your technique as your trip progresses. Here, a poorly composed photo of a cheetah requires heavy cropping:

African Safari (12)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 480mm, ISO 200, 1/200, F5.6

Don’t Get Discouraged

During their first day or two most people will be filled with wonder just seeing the common animals such as zebras, wildebeest and antelopes but for some it can take a while before they see some of the other animals on their list, especially the big predators. If this is the case, the long days of searching can become a bit discouraging. If this happens to you remember that even if you don’t end up getting that majestic close up of a lion, you will almost certainly have an amazing adventure and some great looking photos to show for it. Also, beyond just wildlife photos your trip will likely provide a chance to photograph beautiful landscapes during the day and dark skies during the night.

African Safari (13)
Nikon D600 + Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 400, 1/250, F5.6
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. This young lion arrived at the end of a long, otherwise unremarkable day just as I was about to head back to camp.
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