Choosing a photographic safari

I’m often asked for advice about choosing a photographic safari so here it is in writing based on my own experiences as well as feedback from friends who sometimes had false expectations.

By photographic safari, I mean some form of trip led by a photographer. There are lots of these on offer so I want to give you some tips about things to consider when making your choice. Note that this article is not about deciding where to go or when to go. Rather it is about choosing who to go with and what to expect from them.

First, it’s important to be aware of the difference between a photographic safari and a safari photography workshop. A photographic safari is mainly about giving you the opportunity to take great photos under the guidance of a professional photographer.

If you’ve made a good choice of photographer, they should help you with problems, answer questions and provide a few tips. They might even be willing to review a few of your photos in the evening or show you how they process their images. But, unlike a workshop, formal instruction or review sessions are not part of the deal. If you want someone to teach you the basics and give you lots of feedback and help with processing your images, then you should be looking for some kind of workshop rather than a photographic safari.

You may be wondering what you will get out of a photographic safari and how it will help you produce better images. As I already said, it’s mainly about the opportunity and this means being in the right place at the right time. Of course, there are never any guarantees with wildlife and it is amazing how even vast herds of wildebeest can vanish from one day to the next.

A guide who understands the behaviour of wildlife and is really familiar with the local area will increase your chances of getting good sightings. Being with a wildlife photographer should take you one step further in ensuring that you not only see something special, but that you are in a good position to photograph it. Lighting is everything and the position of your vehicle can make a huge difference. Timing is also important, and they will know what makes the best image. It won’t be the lions mating, but the lions snarling at each other as they finish mating.

You can also learn a lot by just watching a professional. When do they get their camera out? It’s probably not for a sleeping lion at noon. It might be for a spectacular event, but it might just as well be for interesting lighting or heavy rain. What lenses are they using? Are they low down or high up? Is their camera in portrait or landscape mode? I’ve also found the discussions with them over the dinner table or during drives an extremely valuable source of information about wildlife, equipment, processing, printing and even photographer gossip.

Most professional photographers work together with a local guide. The local guide will drive and do the main spotting, while the photographer works with them on choosing the best position for the vehicle. Some photographers will sit alongside the driver, while others will sit in the back together with the clients. The former has the advantage that the photographer is not competing with clients for space in the vehicle. The latter has the advantage that you will probably get more information and guidance from the photographer if they are sitting next to you.

Rarely, you may have all roles rolled into one with a photographer who is also a guide and spotter. Note that, unless you are on a private photographic safari or on a trip with multiple photographers, it is likely that the photographer will have to be shared across more than one vehicle, which means that you will not be with them on all drives.

So how should you choose your photographic safari? If you are interested in a specific place, species or event such as a migration, then of course this will limit your choice and you should start by searching for photographers who offer safaris that match your requirements. If you have no special interests, then the Masai Mara in Kenya is a good choice as you are likely to see a wide variety of wildlife, including all of the big cats, and there are lots of photographic safaris on offer.

When it comes to selecting a photographer, my first piece of advice would be to look for someone who is a professional wildlife photographer and spends a lot of their time on safari. This may sound obvious, but there are many photographers out there trying to make a living by offering all kinds of workshops and tours. You will spend a lot of money to go on a photographic safari, so make sure you will gain the most by going with someone who is a great wildlife photographer and knows the location. Would you want to go on a safari with a wedding photographer? Would you prefer to go with a photographer who spends months every year on safari or one who goes to Africa one week per year? These are the questions you should ask yourself.

My second piece of advice would be to check the websites of photographers. If you feel that the images of a photographer are not much better than yours, then you’re unlikely to learn much from them. Not all professionals are great photographers. If you think the images are good, but you don’t really like the style, they are probably not the best choice for you. If you find yourself saying “Wow! I wish I’d taken that image”, that’s probably a photographer you want to spend time with.

Personal recommendations are really valuable as they can tell you what a photographer is like personally as well as the good and bad things about how they organise their trips. However, personal recommendations can’t always be taken at face value. For one thing, it’s important to know how many safaris they’ve done. Everyone says that their first safari is great. If they have nothing to compare it with, then their recommendation doesn’t count for much.

I once talked to someone who told me that their safari had been fantastic, but they only talked about how wonderful the lodges had been. When I asked what wildlife they’d seen, it turned out that she was really disappointed as they hadn’t seen a single big cat. So it’s important to ask questions. You should also try to have a look at some of their images. While you can’t blame the photographer if the images are really bad, it does give an indication of the person’s level of expectations and therefore how much to value their recommendation. At the same time, it will also give you an idea of the quality of the sightings.  I’ve had someone recommend a trip and then show me a set of images that left me speechless with horror. I mentally crossed the photographer who led that trip off my list of possibles, even though this might be unfair to them.

Once you have a list of possible photographers, there are also some practical things such as the size of group and type of vehicles that you should check. Ideally, you might like to have the photographer all to yourself and many do offer personal, customised safaris. But most of us don’t have the kind of bank balance to afford this, so we book on one of the trips offered on their website. The larger the group, the less time you will have with the photographer. How often you will be with them will of course depend on the size of group and also how many people they put into each vehicle. Some photographic safaris are run with a group of photographers rather than one, so each vehicle as one photographer in it.

The vehicles can vary a lot and the most important thing is that you are in one designed for photographic safaris. The sides and roof should be open to allow you to photograph higher up or lower done. It is common for vehicles to have either two or three rows of seats in the back. Fewer people means more room to move around and it’s great if you can have a row to yourself so you can easily switch from one side to the other. Some vehicles have banked rows of seats which may give better viewing if you are sitting still, but restricts how photographers can move around. Personally, I try to avoid such vehicles, although in some countries they tend to be the norm.

There are many variables and each option can have pros and cons. Information about the size of the group, the vehicles and time spent with the photographer leading the trip should be given in the details of the trip given on the website. If not, then you should ask so you will know what to expect when you arrive.

I hope these tips will help you make a great choice for your first or next photographic safari!