I’m writing this article because I remember the mixture of excitement and bewilderment at tackling my first African photography safari in 2008. What to take? What to leave at home? What to prepare? What clothing, money, insurance, visas? All these questions and more I’ll attempt to answer here.
Going away on your first photography safari is an incredibly exhilarating thing to do, but it can present a bit of a headache from a practical point of view. I run safaris in Kenya’s Masai Mara and this blog post has a nod towards Kenya, but really, most of the advice is good for a photo safari anywhere in Africa.
How should I pack for air travel?
For aircraft travel, I tend to make sure all my important and expensive stuff is with me in my hand luggage. That’s whether I’m going to Africa or anywhere else in the world. I don’t think I’d ever trust it in the hold. Hand luggage can actually be quite large and heavy and I use a camera case that has specially padded sections inside it. You don’t need to do this if you don’t have so much gear, but I find that solution very convenient and safe. The key thing is to take cameras and lenses in hand luggage so you know where they are at all times. I’ve often thought that if I have my main camera gear and a spare pair of underpants, all will be well if the rest of the luggage goes astray.
What are the airline weight allowances and are there any costs for excess baggage?
As a photographer, the heaviest part of your luggage probably consists of your camera(s), lenses, tripods and other photo gear. Excess baggage is unlikely to be a problem on international flights to African countries, but may well be if you’re transferring to regions within the country on smaller aircraft. Let’s take the journey from the UK to the Masai Mara as a good example. The international flight from the UK will have a hold luggage allowance of something like 20-23Kg plus a pretty generous hand-luggage allowance. The latter is often not weighed and the restrictions are more around the size and shape of the hand luggage and whether it fits into the over-head lockers. This is why a) it’s essential to check the specific airline for their specifications (they all vary) and b) it’s a great idea to put all your expensive, heavy stuff in the hand luggage!
So, the international leg isn’t likely to be an issue. However, when you get to Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, Kenya, you’ll have to transfer to the smaller Wilson airport in order to fly into the Mara. Typically, the aircraft (run for example by Safari Link) are much smaller than the ones you’ll have arrived on at Nariobi. In fact, so much smaller, that your luggage allowance plummets to 15Kg including hand luggage. Yes, I did say including hand luggage. So that’s everything you have – no more than 15Kg. This is why it’s essential to plan ahead and book an extra allowance. The standard way of doing it with Safari Link for example is to book an additional child seat, which gives you an extra 75Kg. In practise, this isn’t actually another seat – that would also be one humungously heavy child! – but this allowance factors in the extra weight and bulk of additional luggage on the flight. When taking a group to the Masai Mara, I always make sure I book enough child seats to cater for the additional baggage of the entire group.
Either that or take your camera stuff and live in the same clothes for a fortnight. Just please don’t sit near me!
Softly does it
There is one other consideration for these smaller aircraft, the hold-space is small and often a funny shape internally due to the construction of the plane. For this reason, the airline might request that you bring soft holdall type of cases so they can fit them into the awkward hold space easier. They warn that if they can’t fit your case into the hold, it may end up on the next plane. Or the one after that… This isn’t ideal for us as photographers and might require a bit of ingenuity! Fear not if you’re coming on one of my trips as I’ve already checked with Safari Link that the extra baggage I’ve ordered can include typical roller camera cases and tripods, but it’s certainly something to be aware of in advance.
Anyway, bear these possible limitations in mind when packing and if in doubt, contact the airline to check.
Which lenses should I take on safari?
Ideally, all of them! But that’s not usually practical from a weight point of view. I’m not renowned for travelling light (ahem) and there’s always something I want to take that doesn’t make the final list. This ‘something’ is often my 600mm f/4, but if I can get away with it, I will. You’ll probably find that most of your shots are taken between 200-600mm on a safari and teleconverters and crop factors (see below) will help you out here. Longer lenses are undeniably useful, but the biggest ones will often tip your baggage allowance over the edge, so there’s a compromise to be assessed.
Don’t rule out wide lenses for landscape shots and you may get a chance to do some macro, too. For flexibility, zoom lenses are the best, although be aware that cheap zooms can be far from good quality. I tend to think of lenses in terms of ranges and make sure I’ve got the following covered (based on a full size sensor):
- ultra wide often including fish-eye: e.g. 14 – 24mm zoom, 20mm prime, 16mm fish-eye
- wide to normal: 24 – 70mm zoom, 50mm prime
- short telephoto: 70 – 200mm zoom
- macro: 60, 105, 180 or 200mm
- medium telephoto: 200-400 zoom or 300mm prime
- long telephoto: 400, 500 or 600mm prime
I’m not saying you should rush out and buy the above list! One or two reasonable / good quality zooms will cover pretty much everything you’ll need.
A practical consideration is a shorter lens with a teleconverter, but do try this combination before you leave; many lenses don’t let enough light in to enable a teleconverter to work with them and you’ll find the camera struggles to find focus, or fails altogether. Indeed some teleconverters are designed to only fit on lenses that the manufacturers deem good enough to cope with the loss of light. Some cheaper or older teleconverters are, frankly, crap. They’ll often soften the image too much and cause aberrations, so do check reviews of the exact one you’re considering or try it out. Teleconverters typically come in 1.4x and 2x magnification – although there are others available – and they cut the amount of light transmission by half and a quarter respectively. This is important because camera autofocus systems are rated to a specific f-stop, meaning for example that your camera simply won’t focus with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f/8. You may not think this is a problem with your current lens, but let’s take a typical lens as an example to illustrate.
Say you have a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L. This is undeniably a good lens (unless you’ve got one of the Friday afternoon ones) and the maximum aperture at the 400mm zoom end is f/5.6. This figure tells you the maximum amount of light that the lens can let in. It would be very unusual to find a camera body that couldn’t focus quickly with an f/5.6 maximum aperture lens. However, as soon as you stick a 1.4x teleconverter on this lens, its maximum aperture at the long end becomes f/8, which is a lot dimmer, even if you do get a very useful 560mm. Some cameras will struggle with this lack of light. Now consider a 2x teleconverter on the same lens: 800mm – awesome! But at what cost? Well, f/11 actually, which all but top end cameras will fail to focus with, so beware. You can manually focus in these circumstances, but you’ll be looking through a dim viewfinder and will find it difficult unless there’s a huge amount of light.
Because lenses’ focal lengths are listed as the number of millimetres when used with a full frame sensor (i.e. a sensor that’s the same size as a 35mm film camera), all of these lenses will give you greater reach on an APS-C sized cropped sensor because the latter is physically smaller. Cropped sensor camera bodies form the greater part of the non-professional gear line-up, so most people will benefit from a multiplication of focal length of between 1.5 and 1.6 times. Keeping with the 100-400mm lens as our example, the same lens on a typical Canon body with a cropped sensor will actually deliver 160 – 640mm, which is a radical improvement. Those physical pixels won’t be as big and therefore aren’t usually as good quality those on a full frame sensor, but the practicality of the extra reach is a boon for wildlife photography.
The light in Africa is generally excellent, although if you’re going to a heavily forested area you may find yourself very short of light. On the whole, the Big Five, big cats and Great Migration type of safaris are not short of light.
Having said that, it’s worth explaining why large lenses look like rocket launchers rather than big pencils. The width of the front element of the lens is what gathers the light and the bigger the diameter, the more light is let in. A large amount of light helps with autofocus and also has the pleasant consequence of allowing a larger maximum aperture, which gives a lovely background blur.
If you fancy treating yourself to a big prime lens for your trip, there is an industry that has sprung up around offering short period hire on all manner of expensive kit. Just type in “lens hire” into Google and a whole raft will pop up.
Which camera body should I take?
This will be a rather academic question if you only have one and that’s the one you’re taking regardless. However, if you’re in the market for a new camera, or have more than one to choose from, it’s my opinion that you should have prioritised your spending on good quality lenses first and camera bodies second. A good lens can make an average camera stand out and a crap lens will make a good camera look awful.
Having said that, if you do have the option, bring / buy / hire the best camera body you can afford. High resolution isn’t the be-all-and-end-all it’s often touted to be, although more pixels on a sensor will allow you to zoom in more digitally after the shot has been taken. Be careful though; the physical size of each sensel (sensor element – or pixel to you and me) is often inversely proportional to the ability of that sensel to record high quality images. In fact the best, top of the range digital cameras for wildlife photography have fewer, but larger sensels on the sensor than cheaper models and they produce images with better noise control and higher dynamic range than their more densely-packed brethren.
Ok, with the health warning out of the way, the light in Africa for most safari purposes is amazing and abundant, so high ISO values are less of an issue than if you’re heading off into the darkest jungles.
Probably more important than astounding ISO performance in bright conditions is drive speed, or the ability to take multiple, quick-fire shots in a row. There are a few factors at play here. Firstly, there is the ability of the camera to physically take a high number of shots per second. Secondly, there is the speed of the camera’s processor that has to deal with all these shots and put them onto the media card. Thirdly – and this is often the one that catches people out – there is the buffer.
The buffer is an area of fast memory that the camera writes images to as soon as they’re taken. This memory is needed to put the queue of images into while the processor writes them to the media card, which is often much slower than the ability of the camera to take the shots in the first place. Buffer-lock-up / lock-out happens when the camera refuses to take any more pictures in a sequence because it hasn’t had a chance to write all the images in the buffer to the media card. The main factor that affects lock-up is the size of the buffer and more expensive cameras will have larger buffers than cheaper models. It’s also worth noting that media card speeds vary a lot and it’s worth checking the optimum speed for your camera. The slower the card is, the slower the camera will be able to write to it.
Ironically, having said that about fast drive speeds being more important than ISO abilities in bright conditions, fast burst speeds and good noise control and high dynamic range at high ISOs tend to go hand-in-hand on the top-of the-range cameras.
Should I take more than one camera body?
If you have more than one and you have the space and weight allowance, then yes, definitely. The main reason for this is that you can have a different lens on each body, which gives you immediate flexibility when shooting different subjects. It also gives you a backup if one of the bodies should fail, although that’s unlikely these days. Another reason that two bodies is useful is that sensor dust can be an issue when changing lenses and if you have two lenses on two bodies, the necessity for lens changes is significantly reduced.
Should I take a tripod, or other support?
If you can fit it in your luggage, I’d definitely recommend some kind of support.
Full of beans
On a typical photography safari, most of the photography you’ll be doing will be from vehicles, so a bean-bag of some sort is very useful. You can bring this empty, to be filled at your destination. I usually fill mine with small polystyrene balls, which are virtually weightless – the type that fill the sort of bean bag you sit on, although this does take up some room in your luggage. Polystyrene balls also eventually compress and need to be replaced. Indeed they’re not as solid as rice or other heavy fillers, but they do make an excellent alternative to filling the bag on arrival. A double bean-bag is best if you have one because the lens rests in a channel between the two bags. An attaching string is always a useful feature on a beanbag and will make a fallen beanbag recoverable even if there’s a lion two feet away!
Tripods and monopods
Tripods are perhaps a bit less useful as they’re quite cumbersome in a vehicle. Having said that, you can hang them out of the vehicle and rest them on the ground. If you’re going to shoot any video, a tripod is an absolute must! I found this out to my cost the first time I filmed in Kenya from a vehicle: the suspension of the jeep picked up every tiny movement and transmitted that directly to the footage. If in doubt, bring a tripod if you have the space. The usual adage about tripods applies: if you bring it, you’ll not need it; if you leave it at home, you’ll wish you’d brought it.
If you’re bringing a tripod, you’ll need a head for it. In general I find the best heads for large lenses are gimbal heads like the Wimberley. A shorter lens can be supported on any other type of head. For video, you’ll need a fluid video head.
A monopod is a good compromise on weight and portability, but obviously isn’t free-standing. It can still be useful for hanging out of a vehicle, or using collapsed within the vehicle.
For a more detailed article on camera supports, see When to use a tripod, monopod, beanbag or other camera support.
What other camera equipment is useful?
I tend to take a flash with me wherever I go, just in case. You never know!
Make sure you have plenty of batteries (with their chargers) and media cards for the entire duration. If in doubt, bring more than you need.
If you’re into filters for landscape use, then bring them for that. It’s unlikely that you’ll need any for wildlife, although a polariser can reduce reflections on water and wet foliage at the expense of cutting down two stops worth of light.
I always have some kind of tape with me – in fact I’m rather known for it! A small amount of gaffer tape can fix a multitude of things in the field.
If you’re shooting video, don’t forget to include an external microphone, as onboard sound is rubbish. It’s beyond the scope of this article to cover video because the amount of equipment needed to do it properly seems to multiply every time I press ‘record’.
How do I keep everything clean?
A soft lens-cloth is essential to keep the front element of your lenses clean. As mentioned above, if you have two camera bodies, you immediately cut down the possibility of dust entering into the system. If you do have to change lenses whilst out and about, try to do so inside a plastic bag and use a rocket blower to gently blow the back end of the lens and camera lens mount. If you find that your sensor has spots on it that can’t be removed with a rocket blower, you’ll need something that directly cleans the sensor. I find Visible Dust’s Arctic butterfly a great piece of portable kit for sensor cleaning. It’s lightweight and small and can be used without much fear of damaging your sensor – although please read the instructions before you attempt a cleaning operation. The ingenious piece of kit uses static to attract dust particles from your sensor.
If you find you have more stubborn marks on the sensor, you may need to wet-clean the surface. This involves buying sensor swabs and special sensor cleaning fluid. This shouldn’t be undertaken without reading the instructions for the swabs and if you’re in doubt, leave this to a professional to clean your sensor. Having said that, it doesn’t help you if you’re stuck up the Congo!
A quick tip if you have a dirty sensor and can’t clean it immediately is to only use wider apertures such as f/2.8 – f/5.6 so that the camera doesn’t ‘see’ the sensor muck as much. i.e. it looks straight through it. Sensor dirt is most noticeable at small apertures where the depth of field is greatest.
A lens cover for rainy conditions is essential, although in the dry season will seldom be needed. A cheap plastic shower cap can be used to guard against dust and rain and is easy to pop onto the end of your lens at a moment’s notice.
Should I bring a computer and/or backup device?
The first thing to do is to make sure you have plenty of storage media: SD cards / compact flash. Don’t be too tempted by massive capacities as it’s probably best to take more smaller ones than one big one that, if it goes wrong, takes your entire trip’s worth of images with it.
Standard USB 2 is dead slow with large raw photos and particularly video crawling onto your computer from the card reader. If you can, use USB3 or Apple’s Thunderbolt to transfer your files.
I do fret a bit about backups. Under normal circumstances, I have my laptop and a couple of external USB drives. This is the extent of my photo / video library and is portable enough. I then make sure I have two independent backups of all this storage, one in my office and one at home. That caters for most eventualities. But what about in the field?
When I first started travelling with photography gear, I used a Jobo Gigavu backup / viewer device. It was ok, but eventually broke and would’t have nearly enough storage for my needs these days. I think I’d be hard pressed to find an all-in-one device like this now and they have been superseded by laptops or even tablets and phones.
I did do one safari with an iPad. I cleared off everything I didn’t need and connected the compact flash reader via an adaptor. The iPad then allowed me to copy all my raw files onto the device and view them there. Phones can be connected in the same way. The nice thing about using tablets and phones is that they have a good screen with which to view your images – many even catering for raw files directly. The down-size is lack of storage. If you’re in Africa for a week or more, that’s a lot of photos to backup and it’s extremely unlikely that any tablet or phone will have enough memory spare to take all your raw images.
I eventually bought myself an Apple Macbook Pro 13″, which is a great size for travelling: it’s portable, lightweight, powerful and a has a beautiful retina screen. To be honest, it’s enabled me to travel with a laptop properly, as the entire machine is about the same weight as my last laptop’s power brick – no kidding. At the time, I looked into the latest version of iPads, but they just seemed too much of a compromise. The laptop allows me to connect USB3 portable drives to it and I have terrabytes of storage on hand to take any amount of photos from a trip.
What clothing do I need?
It’s warm or hot during the day in most parts of Africa, but be aware that it can get cold at night at altitude. Specifically for Kenya / Tanzania, the Great Rift Valley, which contains the Mara – Serengeti ecosystem, is actually quite an elevated plateau at 1500m+ above sea level. For those early morning starts and evening / night drives it’s definitely worth taking a fleece or other warm clothing. I’ve found that lightweight walking trousers are good on the bottom half and a t-shirt or shirt on top during the day. A lightweight rain coat is useful in the wet season.
Bring a hat to ward off the sun.
What documentation do I need?
You’ll need a valid passport to travel to anywhere in Africa and it must have at least 6 months to run after the end of your trip, as is standard advice in most places in the world. If you need to update your passport, it’s best to do this in non-peak holiday periods to avoid the rush. If you’re running a bit late, you can pay extra to expedite a passport renewal, but you’ll have to visit a specific passport office in person.
There are so many different countries in Africa that I couldn’t possibly list all the visa requirements; not least because it depends on your nationality as well as where you’re visiting. The best place to start looking (if you’re coming from the UK) is the Foreign Office Travel Advice portal.
If you’re visiting Kenya, visas are not a problem and are simply bought for about $US 50 on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta international airport, Nairobi. Make sure you’re carrying some US dollars though. Also for Kenya, you’ll need a valid yellow fever certificate in your passport.
Other Practical Stuff
- Mosquito repellant with a high DEET content
- Mosquito net if your accommodation doesn’t have full screens
- Sun cream
- Books, apps on wildlife and countries visited
- Chargers / mini power generators
- Maps, compass, GPS if you’re not going with a safari company
- Anti-bacterial hand wash
What Insurance do I need?
Travel / holiday insurance?
Yes. If you’re coming with me, I have public liability insurance in case of my own negligence (e.g. if you trip over my tripod!) but you’ll need to cover yourself against any problem that may happen, such as if you become ill, the flights are delayed, someone nicks your camera, or your luggage is delayed. That’s not an exhaustive list and travel policies vary quite a bit. Travel insurance tends to come in two flavours: one that is for your holiday only and the other is an annual policy. The latter can be surprisingly cost effective if you travel abroad more than once and this is how I cover our entire family. If you’re not sure what you need, talk to a trusted travel agent or insurance broker that specialises in travel insurance.
Do I need camera equipment insurance?
That’s entirely up to you, but I’d definitely recommend it. If you don’t have specific photographic insurance, chances are your household contents policy will cover you at least in part. It’s essential though to check with them that your camera equipment is actually covered away from home and specifically on the trip you’re about to embark on. I would never rely on my own household insurance and have specific photo insurance, but your home insurance might be more comprehensive.
Check the country you’re visiting as each has its own recommendations. Anti-malarials are recommended for many countries. I personally find Malarone the best tablets and Boots and other pharmacies offer a cost effective treatment course.
You may need travel vaccinations for your destination. Kenya, for example, requires you to have a yellow fever certificate in your passport. The easiest thing to do is visit your doctor or a pharmacist that offers a travel clinic and they’ll advise on what you might need.
Again, the Foreign Office Travel Advice portal is useful here.
For Kenya, the most useful currencies are US dollars and Kenyan Shillings (KES). I would take the bulk of your money in dollars and a smaller amount in shillings. The schilling exchange rate can be found here.
What electricity will be available?
It’s the same as the UK at 240v and 50Hz, with the same three-pin plug sockets. If you’re traveling from a country other than the UK, a UK adaptor can be used. Check with the camp / operator you’re using as the availability of electricity may vary depending on the time of day. It’s worth asking whether your room / tent will have power to it or just to a communal area. Either is fine, as long as you know in advance.
What time of year is best?
August! Well, I would say that, as I’ve scheduled my own safari for this month. Actually, any time of year is good but August is in the dry season when the grass isn’t too long to hide the animals and they are more likely to come to waterholes to drink. All good for visibility and great photos. The Great Migration should be happening at this time, although being a natural phenomenon, it’s impossible to predict. The wildebeest will follow the rains around the Mara / Serengeti ecosystem and hopefully we’ll see the spectacle of tens of thousands of animals on the move and possibly witness a river-crossing.
What’s the weather like?
Kenya is pretty dry in August and very pleasantly warm, with comfortable humidity. Even though Kenya lies on the equator, the Masai Mara is at an altitude of about 1,500m, so you can expect mid 20s celsius during the day and about 10 at night. Early mornings can be quite chilly, so it’s worth bringing a warm top for early starts.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and that the information has been useful. If you fancy coming on one of my photography safaris, check out: photography safaris.