As I am writing this post, I am busy packing for a photographic safari to the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa starting tomorrow. My level of excitement right now is sky high and I think that is one of the reasons why I decided to make a list of everything that has to be done and needs to be packed. Usually, I am not a to-do list guy, but I want to make sure not to forget anything. Coming all the way from Germany, I don´t get the chance to just jump into a car and drive out into the bush whenever I feel like it. Maybe that´s why I am always extremely cautious when packing for my safari trips.
Fair enough, you will know how and what to pack for your trips already. But I think preparation shouldn´t stop once you´ve locked up your bag. I hope this post will give you a few tips from which you can benefit before your next photographic safari.
To make this post somewhat easy to follow without using plain lists, I will divide it into three sections:
- Location scouting
- Portfolio development
Of course, the following is not a blueprint since it always depends on what kind of safari you are going and where, but a lot of points apply to everyone. So, let´s dive right in.
Cameras and lenses
While nothing is wrong with using your smartphone on a safari, most of us will have to think about which camera(s) and lens(es) to take. The final choice more or less depends on your findings during the location scouting and portfolio development thought process (More on that in the correlating sections of this post). Pilanesberg NP has large open areas in most parts and I´ll, therefore need some good focal length to compensate distance from the car to my subject. My portfolio is lacking some nice photographs of the big cats and I decided to put my main focus on portraits of lions, leopards and cheetahs.
From recent trips to the park, I also have a general idea of how far distances might be as we are travelling with our private car and have to stick to the given roads. I decided to go with my main body the Canon 7DMII and the Canon 7DMI as a backup. I´ll also take my Canon 100-400mm II together with a Tamron 18-200mm for a bit of variation and diversity. The 100-400mm in combination with the 7DMII will effectively give me 160-640mm (crop factor) as the camera has a crop sensor. That way I am able to cover some distance (which I think will be necessary more often than not) but at the same time, I am able to get some nice images of mid-range distances.
Needless to say, that your batteries must be charged before you leave your house and you shouldn´t forget your charger. Depending on how long your trip is you might want to invest in a backup battery.
Just like the batteries you need to make sure that all your cards are empty and ready to go before you start your trip. Also, make sure the work properly in advance. Finding out your card(s) isn´t (aren´t) working when it´s too late, can ruin any trip.
If you are not part of a photographic safari tour with vehicles customised for photography, you should always have a bean bag with you. After hours in the car using your knee or other body parts as a stabilizer, you will know why. I usually fill my bag with rice and it works perfectly.
Vital! I never go without them. Scanning a scene/possible subjects before moving closer, is so much easier with a good pair of binoculars. At the same time, they help you to find smaller species that you might miss otherwise. Bonus: With a few people in the car it´s always fun to scan the bush together and make a little competition out of it.
Some people might say that dragging along heavy books is impractical, but I always take a selected few with me. I love learning about animal behaviour and if possible, I´d like to do so immediately. “The Safari Companion” is a behaviour guide to African mammals that teaches you pretty much everything you need to know about African mammals. To identify any bird, I use “Roberts Bird Guide” and “Signs of the wild” always helps me to identify spoors and tracks.
Do you remember the last time you went to a place you have never been to before? It can certainly be a nice thing to take in a lot of new first impressions if you go and visit a new city. On a photographic safari, however, it often means wasting time or losing out on possible images. I always like to have a general idea of what the place looks like before I go for the first time. With Google maps, you can get quite a detailed impression of a place beforehand. Sometimes you can even use Google street view and drive around in the reserve from behind the screen.
The satellite cards also help you to understand what kind of area you will be going to. It´s important to see whether you will go into the thick bush (you need less focal length and possibly a lens that allows you to use a low aperture) or open plains (focal length might be very important). According to this information, you will be able to decide on what camera gear you need to take and what kind of image you can expect to get.
By searching for pictures of your destination you will get a good idea of what kind of image you might end up with. As stated above you can then make a better decision about the right gear.
I am sure you know those amazing coffee table books with plenty of amazing images. These books are also a great way for you to find out what your destination is like and what kind of image you can expect.
There are billions of images on social media these days. So why don´t you use those platforms for your preparation? Join groups on Facebook or follow accounts on Instagram and YouTube. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I browse through all those platforms to actually see what other people are seeing in the reserve at the moment. You will begin to see what is going on way before you are on your way to your destination. That way you can prepare for possible sightings that result from the information you got through all these images/videos. Bonus: You can ask the photographer who posted the image questions to get more information if necessary. Bonus-Bonus: I always get super excited for my own trip if I look at the photographs/videos of other people.
As a photographer, you want to develop not just your skill set but also your portfolio. Seeing the same kind of image over and over again makes no one happy. Going to different places from time to time will help you to develop a very diverse portfolio. In my eyes, you need to know, what image you would like to end up with on your next photographic safari. Going into a game park without any idea of what image you would like to take isn´t helping you in any way. Whether you want a monochrome landscape scenery with an elephant in it or a dramatic lion portrait, it will be easier to achieve the result with a clear picture at least in your mind. When it comes to the sighting you have imagined before you will definitely be prepared and know what to do.
With that being said, your choice of camera and lens also depends on the image you want. You can forget about that close up of a leopard’s head that is sitting in the tree when you don´t have enough focal length. As mentioned earlier, my goal on this trip is to get some nice photographs of the big cats. Therefore I chose a lens with a focal length of up to 640mm which allows me to cover some distance. If necessary I can still get some other motives where I don´t need as much focal length.
Make sure you know where you are going way in advance. Find out as much as you can about the area and the wildlife. A lot of choices in the packing process can only be made properly if you have an idea of what is waiting for you.
Have I missed something in this article that you find important to mention, then let me know.