Photo Safari Advice from Wildlife Photographer David Bernstein
It’s safe to say that an African photo safari is on most wildlife photographers’ destination wish list. It is a trip many will never get the chance to do due to the extensive travel and time requirements as well as the significant financial expense. However, for those lucky enough to set out on the incredible journey it’s not as simple as picking a destination, hotel, and plane ticket.
There is a significant amount of preparation and planning that must be done ahead of time. Borrowlenses.com advocate and wildlife photographer David Bernstein recently returned from his epic safari trip and graciously shared a few photography tips and travel tricks he learned along the way.
Bernstein started out using a humble Rebel series camera and over time grew into being what he calls a “photo-naturalist”, taking pictures of landscapes and wildlife with an affinity for birds. This article is meant to help you plan for an African photo-focused safari and address many of the things to consider before embarking on the journey of a lifetime.
Photo Safari Advice
by David Bernstein
If this is your first safari then do not plan it by yourself! There are many highly-rated travel companies that specialize in organizing African photo safaris. Their goal is to provide you with an unbelievable experience tailored to what you want and hope to see.
I always felt comfortable planning my own itineraries on photo excursions because of all my previous travel experience. However, I decided to use a travel company to plan and organize my first photo safari and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. They guided me to where the best chances of seeing specific animals would be and what the best time of year to visit certain locations was. A good company will customize the perfect trip around what you want to see as well as suggest some incredible places you may not have even considered or known about previously.
An important thing to keep in mind is to make sure the company you use is highly rated, reputable, and provides you with references from those who recently went on a safari with them. If you want to take it even further, you can contact the references and quickly pick their brain about how the trip was organized and whether or not the company followed through with their proposal.
Photo Safari Recommended Trip Length
The first thing to consider when determining how long your photo safari should last is how many days’ worth of game drives you want to go on. It is important to distinguish “days of game drives” from “total days of the trip” since there are many days lost to just traveling. If you are planning a trip for the experience and anticipate taking photos along the way then you could get away with a shorter (and less expensive) trip. However, you may not get a chance to see everything on your wish list.
I planned a trip with 12 days of game drives and 10-12 days total seemed like just the right amount of time for my photo-inspired safari adventure. I ended up with roughly 1500 photos after my first rough edit!
Private Photo Safaris and Getting the Most Out of Your Experience
Taking a private safari means you do not hat to share the vehicle with anyone besides your travel mates. We spoke candidly with our safari guide/driver about how surprised we were that it didn’t cost that much more to have the vehicle to ourselves. Apparently the shared expense of gas is the only major cost savings a company sees when there are more people in a vehicle.
The other major expense is daily park entrance fees, which are paid per passenger, thus there are no savings by having fewer or more people in the vehicle. Our guide told us that we probably used $1,000 in gas for the entire 12 days of driving, which confirms that the overall cost savings by having more people in the car are fairly minimal (compared to the total trip cost).
Get a Customized Experience
The first reason I’d recommend splurging on a private safari is the ability to customize the itinerary of the trip to see exactly what interests you. Having the vehicle to yourself puts you in control of everything you do and you don’t have to worry about what anyone else might want to see. I had a goal of seeing 400+ bird species on our trip. Our driver was well aware of this and would happily stop every time we saw a bird perched so that I could photograph it and try to identify it.
Control Over Pacing
The second, and more important, reason for doing a private safari (especially for a photographer) is that having the vehicle to yourself puts you in control of everything you do. Having control to stop the car when something piques your interest, taking the time needed for an event to unfold, or shooting a landscape that speaks specifically to you, are all crucial to the photographic experience. Often I would have to change lenses from super telephoto to wide angle and if we had other people in our car this would be incredibly annoying to them. I would have had to politely skip a photo opportunity only to have photographer’s regret later on.
By having the car to ourselves we could take the time to set up shots and ask the driver to move forward or back a few feet or into slightly better light. Furthermore, having the car to yourself allows you to bond with your driver and you find that you really become a team. Our driver ended up being intently focused on finding exactly what we wanted to see and acutely aware of the things we needed to get the right shot. This would never happen if he had to focus on the needs of everyone in the car and not just me and my wife.
Catch Unique Sightings
The following story is a perfect example of the benefits of a private safari. My wife and I waited over 2.5 hours for a leopard and her cub to emerge from where they were hiding. Many other vehicles were in the same spot. But our guide told us that the leopard would not emerge until all the cars left. So we waited. Some vehicles stayed only 30 minutes before leaving, while others would come, wait for a bit, and leave as well. We just placed ourselves in the best spot for when the leopard would emerge. We pulled out our boxed lunches and waited. Finally, after the last vehicle left, the leopard and cub emerged just as our guide said they would.
I captured an incredible photo of the mother climbing a tree! Her face was bathed by some mysterious ray of light underneath the shaded canopy. I never would have been able to capture this shot, let alone witness the beauty of one of the most elusive animals in Africa, if we had not done a private safari.
Other Benefits of Private Tours
The next best thing we did was remove the row of seats behind our driver. This creates a huge open space to lay out your gear, making it extremely accessible for your needs. I used a large, framed camera bag to hold all of my equipment. The bag was positioned by my feet, where the row of seats would have been. This gave me quick access to my cameras. I was able to snap shots of birds and animals before they moved out of the light. Furthermore, I was quickly and easily able to access additional bodies, lenses, lens blowers/cleaning cloths, etc. Not to mention, the additional legroom was great!
Experience is the Key to a Successful Photo Safari
You should consider requesting a guide who has numerous years of guiding under his/her belt. The more experienced the guide, the better the chances are for finding the animals you really want to see. More novice guides rely on radio communication with other guides in the park to know where activity is. An experienced guide will find you wildlife before other vehicles in the park have claimed the best viewing spots. Furthermore, you want a guide who specializes in what is of most interest to you.
As I mentioned earlier, I am an avid bird watcher and finding and ID’ing a large number of birds was extremely important to me. I specifically requested a guide with substantial avian knowledge and was paired with the perfect guide for my needs. This made a world of difference when it came to our sightings. The guide and I were able to relish in the excitement of a rare species. I most likely would have missed this had my guide not been as knowledgeable.
Planning for a great safari trip requires a lot leg work. Using a reputable travel agent will reduce the time and stress you have to put into planning details. This will you allow you to refocus that energy on properly preparing your gear for the trip instead. Remember, when scheduling your trip be sure to calculate travel days in between ‘game days’ to maximize your experience so that you’re fulfilled by the end of your adventure.
You might think going on a “private safari” is going to skyrocket the costs of your trip. For the trip my wife and I just returned from, it increased our overall trip cost by less than 10%. After experiencing the benefit of it, we probably would have paid 20% more if we had to.
When working with the safari touring company, make a point to request an experienced driver. This will give you better chances of seeing the wildlife you most want to see. Finally, if at all possible, see if you can remove the first row of seats behind the driver. This will better optimize storage space for the gear your will likely be reaching for far more often than not.