When I prepare to lead a safari group, I pack my safari photography kit with the minimal amount of equipment. With airline restrictions and limited space for bags in vehicles, I choose a medium sized bag and an assembly of lenses which will give me a good coverage range for the most likely subjects.
When I arrive at the lodge, by bag contains everything I need for the whole trip. Each day I reconfigure my bag to hold just what I need for that day and location.
For a Game Drive
The Bag: Guru Gear Kiboko 22L+ with butterfly closure for quick access either side
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with LensCoat body bag
Canon EOS 5D Mark 3 with LensCoat body bag
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens with Really Right Stuff LCF-52 foot and lensCoat protective cover.
Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
Canon EF 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens with Really Right Stuff LCF-54 foot
Canon EF 24-105 f4 IS USM lens
Nikon 10×42 Monarch 5 Binocular
Black Rapid RS-4 camera strap
Point and Shoot pocket camera
Extra camera batteries and charger
Extra memory cards
Hydro Flask water bottle ( 621 ml )
Sometimes with me on a Game Drive:
For a Night Drive
Canon Speedlite 580EX II with Visual Echoes FX3 Better Beamer
Gitzo tripod ( GT2531 ) w/ Really Right Stuff ballhead ( BH-40) with screw-knob style quick-release clamp w/ bubble level
Wimberly SK-100 sidekick gimbal head
Canon timer remote controller ( TC-80N3 )
This tripod setup is also perfect for capturing the wondrous night time starscape; capturing images of star trails and the Milky Way.
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM Lens
Items that travel on the trip with me but stay back at the lodge
Nexto DI ND2730 card reader and portable storage device -for doing backup
Lexar Professional USB 3.0 duel-slot card reader
13” Macbook pro
How Often will I need the Big Lens?
I took a look at the metadata in my Adobe Lightroom catalogue to see how many images I take with each of my safari lenses.
I reviewed this data after I had culled and rated my photos so this is a curated collection of just the “keepers” .
Please keep in mind that this data is from my South Africa safaris which combine private reserves and Kruger National Park and may not be reflective of other safari destinations or tours.
Lens % of images
16 – 35mm 4%
24 – 105mm 14%
100 – 400mm 58%
400mm 24% (with extender EF1.4 x 3)
Images Taken in Kruger National Park
16 – 35mm 5%
24 – 105mm 3%
100 – 400mm 53%
400mm 39% (with extender EF1.4 x 3)
From this, it shows that subjects in Kruger can be further away. We also tend to see some special bird species in Kruger.
My best advice:
Keep your camera bag streamlined with a thoughtful selection of lenses. Use a smaller camera bag because it will fit better in the vehicles and save your shoulders while carrying it. Less hassles in the airport too.
A Collection of some of my favorite Safari Story Posts
A safari is an adventure and like all adventures it is full of stories and special moments.
With or without a camera, it is those stories and having been there in that moment that make the vivid memories. The great photographs enhance and help tell the story.
Over the years of leading safaris, my guests and I have been present for many moments which culminate great stories. I have told many of these stories here in my blog. Here is a collection of my best African safari stories.
Stories from our 2017 September Safaris – One safari is One hundred stories
Learning to be a Leopard: A young cub must quickly learn to drag a kill up a tree and eat it up there.
A newborn elephant: We were present to celebrate a birth with the family herd. Just an hour old it was a very special encounter
Lions Hunting Buffalo: From the planning to the (failed) execution of the plan: we were there to see and photograph the exciting event
When a predator makes a kill and settles down for a meal, it is an invitation for many different players to come to the party: the hyenas who hope to steal it, vultures who want their share, jackals who just want to sneak a small meal without being noticed, and others.
Many vultures will show up to a kill sight. Of the many species, each has a specialized function and morphology at the carcass. Some vulture species can not eat without another species to first do their part.
To Go on Safari is to Return with Hundreds of Stories: Predator vs Prey, Survival, and Cooperation among Wildlife
Learning to be a Leopard
The Sabi Sands Reserve is famous for its resident leopars. Our guests were treated to a 4 leopard afternoon game drive.
An older female leopard called – Ingrid Dam – was watching her cub (unnamed) eating an Impala kill up in a tree, it was having a difficult time eating in the tree because of the position of the kill. The Impala kill and the young cub fell out of the tree. We knew and the leopards knew there were hyenas nearby wanting to steal this meal should the opportunity arise. Was the mother going to come down and take the kill back up the tree for her cub? We watched and waited. Though the cub seemed to be asking for help, mother decided on tough love and stayed in the tree watching as the cub learned to drag the impala kill back up the tree. It was a hard and physically challenging lesson to learn, but the cub had succeeded for the first time to save his meal from those who would steal it away. The effort involved with dragging a kill up a tree is the leopard’s way of out maneuvering scavengers.
As New as it Gets – A Newborn Elephant
We were on a game drive on a private reserve near Kruger enjoying some great lions, a buffalo herd, and a leopard up a tree when we had a radio call from another safari vehicle about a great sighting. We hurried over to find it was a newborn elephant calf. At first we could not see the little one since the calf was hidden among the large legs of the mother, her sisters, and the herds older children. They were all vocalizing and moving in small, strange movements as if dancing or chanting. The mother was throwing dust on herself and the calf. Soon the crowd parted and we could see the newborn. Cute, wrinkly, and very unsteady on the feet, it was obvious the calf had only been standing for mere minutes. We were very close and felt very privileged that the herd let us be this close and share their joy at the new arrival. The calf tottered and fell a few times and we worried until the little one struggled to stand again.
The next week, we had wonderful continuity when we spotted the herd again. It was wonderful to see the infant prospering, healthy, and nursing.
The Unicorn of Safari Experiences: Lions Hunting Buffalo
It was our last game drive on the last day of safari and getting to be the time to turn around and head back to the lodge. It was a great drive, but about to get even better. We spotted several female lions concentrating on a medium sized herd of buffalo.
It appeared the plan was to slowly move into positions around the herd to separate certain buffalo. The lions separately made their way around the buffalo herd. Suddenly something goes wrong – one of the lions must have blundered – and the buffalo started to run. Wait a minute; they are not running away, they are charging the lions! One of them was running for their life straight toward us.
It is hard for lions to give up when things do not go to plan. Some of the pride continued to run with the stampeding buffalo to see if there could still be a chance to salvage the hunt. It was not to be.
Still, it took a long time before the lionesses could let this one go – they continued to watch the buffalo herd move out of reach.
As I look through my images, my memory goes back to watching the events unfold in front of me. They are much more than the best image: it is the dozen images before and after that one great image that make up the safari stories that I will tell my friends and family. While images help to make the story real; nothing compares to having been there and witnessing it live.
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My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.! We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.
Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites. It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.
The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography. Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass. We had no trouble finding them in short order.
This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5
We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning. Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us. If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.
Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming. No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland. We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time. By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining. Some private time!
Giant Manta Rays
We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks. We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas. It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.
A Great Trip Out of the Water Too
We would return to the island in the late afternoon. It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time. We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.
The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway. It all ended too soon: this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.
I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year. They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.
Chinchorro Atoll (Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve) is the best place in the world to get close to American crocodiles. Located south of Cancun, Mexico and near the Belize border. The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is the largest stand – alone reef in the Northern hemisphere and one of the healthiest. Currently only 1,928 hectares of the 144k hectares are zoned for diving and fewer than one thousand divers get to see these remote and unspoiled dive sites per year. It teems with fish and other sea life, and contains more than 100 shipwrecks as well as the largest population of American crocodiles found in the Americas.
This July, myself and 6 guests traveled on a unique adventure to see American Crocodiles and dive these beautiful and remote reefs. This is a safe encounter with guides who have done years of experimentation and careful planning to make this safe. Our outfitter and guides in Xcalak: XTC Dive Center, were the first operator to organize croc encounters in Chinchorro and they remain the only dive operator with an official concession. They are committed to sustainable tourism and conservation.
We started out at the beautiful beachside resort in Xcalak for some amazing dives. The reefs are healthy and colorful with many fish. Some dives we encountered turtles. Manatees are resident and we were lucky enough to have a visit from one while on a dive.
The dives are shallows and some deep walls covered in healthy sponges and large stands of black coral. There are several wrecks and plenty of large and small fish species.
On the Chinchorro Banks, we stayed in utilitarian fishing huts on stilts over the shallow waters in a lagoon surrounded by the reefs: 36 nautical miles off shore and across from Xcalak, Mexico. (2 -4 hours boat ride)
Each morning we dive and while taking in the pristine reefs and marine life, we hunt lionfish. There is a duo purpose in this; to help eliminate the invasive lionfish population and to get food to attract the crocs. Guests are also invited to participate in the spear fishing of the lionfish and will be equipped and taught the safest techniques.
This is a remote adventure at its best: The fisherman’s’ hunts have no wifi, cell phone, mobile services, no running water, only marine toilets, and 2 or more hours from shore. Guests and I slept in hammocks in the huts and delicious food was prepared and cooked by our boat captains with the aide of a small generator and ice storage chests (all food must be transferred out with us). We also had the chance to buy fresh catch from passing fishermen to make a special, though rustic feast.
At Chinchorro, we are surrounded by water and 700 American crocodiles and a few fishermen. We photograph the crocs when they show up at midday (after they warm up) in the 1.2m deep water around our huts. We are able to maintain a level of safety even when we are getting up close due to the experience of our guides. A safety diver and guide are nearby with a pole to ward off any advances from excited crocodiles. We took turns two at a time. We had between 1 and 5 crocs close by with still more in the area during our sessions Generally they are extremely well behaved and tolerant of divers getting close. They are rewarded with the captured lionfish.
The Whale Sharks were Extra Special this year
We spent 4 days on the water and 5 nights on Isla Mujeres. Always a fun place with great food, we had nonstop whale shark encounters to keep us busy on our 4 days on the water. We also had a few manta sightings and 1 good photography session with them.
Find out more about the whale shark portion of the trip: Whale Sharks
Here is how I used Adobe Lightroom to get it ready for the cover.
Images taken underwater without a flash will have a color cast due to the loss of the red spectrum of light as it travels through water.
This is a method I use to process my photos that adds back in some of the red and corrects for exposure. I prefer to leave a bit of a blue cast to the images – they are depicting underwater after all. The trick is to correct it to a point between what your brain saw during the dive and what is technically “perfect” according to the color values.
I use the tools in Adobe Lightroom to do the initial work: they are great tools and easy to use. I might move later into Photoshop to utilize layers for adjustments to specific areas taking advantage of layers, masks, etc only offered in Photoshop. I definitely will do more detailed work on the image before printing it.
By the way, Lightroom tools are the same as in Camera Raw, but I find LR’s presentation of them easier and I have the bonus of all the organization tools in LR.
Analyze then Correct Exposure
The first step is to optimize the exposure. I like to eliminate the distraction of color so I can really analyze what needs to be brighter, darker, and more contrasted. To do this I temporarily desaturate the image to black and white using the Saturation Slider (Basic Panel under Presence)
Now it is time to analyze the image: The Histogram is the first step. According to the graph, there are clear shadows, midtones, and highlights, but the whole image is too dark: there are barely any areas registering on the right hand (bright) side of the graph.
Exposure: I move the Exposure slider up until the lightest bits of water read around 62 (pass the curser over areas and read the numbers under the histogram). The overall change was +.55
In Lightroom the group of tools under Exposure (Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks) are adjustments with smart logic behind them that helps the tool adapt and decide what is “whites” or “blacks” in this specific image.
For this purpose they are not doing exactly what I want so I will try the tools under ToneCurve first. Tone Curve is a degree more sophisticated and gives me the option of defining what I want to be considered Highlights, etc. In this tool, Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows are marked by regions on the tone graph. I want to adjust the pointers to change the default “definitions” of Highlights, etc.
The dark edges of the fins need some contrast between them and the lighter colored body. To do this I first measure the value of the darkest areas watching where on the graph this area registers by picking up the tool at the top left of the ToneCurve (“adjust the tone curve directly”). I want to define everything darker than the “spots” of the body as “shadow” so I move the marker at the bottom of the graph over to the this spot on the graph. Now the Darks tab needs moved to the left. Using the slider for Darks you can detect what it is adjusting – I want it to just do the spots on the body and tones on the fins. Same with the Lights tab. Lights should be working on everything light except the shark’s belly and some of the sand and fish. I have now defined my exposure areas. It is time to make the adjustments.
Now I add a touch of the Clarity slider to pop the midtone contrast – this really brings out the stripes on the tiger shark.
For spot exposure corrections, Lightroom has a Radial Filter tool which can brighten or darken an oval area in the same manner as a graduated filter or a free form brush type tool that can “paint” on adjustments. I find the radial tool better and easier to use than the Adjustment brush.
Correcting Color Using White Balance and HSL Panel Controls
Everything is brighter and more contrasted, the colors look more intense, but the color cast is still there. I use the White Balance eyedropper tool and pass it over the image. You want to choose a place that Should Be either black, white, or neutral grey. In the Navigation (on the left fly out panel) window it shows you a preview of the white balance correction if you click in that space. When I choose a spot on the belly of the shark it makes the correction, but it is too much for my taste. After the correction, I back off the sliders under White Balance a little bit back to the left toward the original cool tones.
Now I have the problem of the water not having as nice of a color – it has gone a bit dull – so I go down to the panel labeled HSL/Color/B&W tools. I like the presentation of the tool that they label Color, so click on where it says Color and the tool changes to show each color and all three characteristics under it: Hue, Saturation, and Luminance .
Dropping Saturation on the Aqua slider a bit helps the color cast and increasing the Luminance to +20 helps the contrast as well. On the Blue slider I increase the Saturation to make the blue water pretty again and then a decrease of the Luminance darkens the water and makes it a richer tone with more contrast to the whole image. I also push the Hue of the blue up a tiny bit without going too much or the water becomes purple. Since there is quite a bit of green in the image, I darken then Luminance on the green channel, desaturate it a touch then shift the Hue slightly to the yellow side of green.
A few final touches: use the adjustment brush on the shark with some desaturation and white balance adjustment to take some Aqua/Blue out of the shark. Also edit the first adjustment to the white belly and chin that you did earlier to add in desaturation to move the white closer to white. The final adjustment is a tiny bit of the Dehaze tool. This bumps up the contrast and intensifies the colors.
You can also add a bit of Post Crop Vignette to darken the edges.
My two May 2017 safaris were filled with special wildlife encounters, good weather, good company with some really terrific guests. I have presented below what I felt were themes present in each safari that made it special.
Learn about my Photo Safaris in South Africa on my website: http://www.AfricaWildSafaris.net
The Magic Effects of Africa:
I was delighted to have families and friends traveling together among my photo safari guests. They were fun and engaging and quickly fell under the spell of the South African bushveld thrilling at the huge expanse of stars at night, and the way South Africa and the wildlife had a relaxing and healing effect. Everyone enjoyed the tree houses and the fun and uniquely African touches like outside showers featured at the lodges.
Conservation and Education
Our guests are always very interested in learning about wildlife conservation and our rangers, guides, and hosts tell them the real story behind poaching in our area, wildlife rehabilitation, national parks, and how wildlife reserves operate. We want our guests to understand the animals they see and their role in a healthy environment. Also, it is necessary to understand the challenges faced by wildlife in South Africa. Our guests were so moved by a lion and rhino poaching presentation that we invited the founders of Flying for Rhinos to detail the work they do to help anti-poaching efforts. They returned with plans to have fundraisers to help this organization. They also were delighted to see several wild white rhinos in Kruger and were able to photograph a very rare encounter with a black rhino.
Our guests were surprised how close we can get to the animals: My longest lens is a 400mm, but I use my 70 – 200mm or 100 – 400mm for most images. Our drivers know their reserves very well and can track prides of lions, rhino, and herds of buffalo day to day. When we find the animals we can get close up and detailed images of elephants, big cats, and giraffes.
Sometimes we are too close for some of our lenses and have to back off, but we can also get some really great images that isolate different parts of the animal’s anatomy
Behavior and interaction
We highlight the relationships and interactions between species. When we see buffalo we will also see oxpeckers cleaning parasites off of the buffalo.
We were thrilled to witness an unusual coalition of 5 adult male lions who live, defend territory, and share female pride members. It was a bit intimidating to be so close to these large and intimidating beasts.
We were lucky enough to encounter several prides of lions with cubs. Most had cubs in a range of ages. We enjoyed watching and photographing the cubs playing and interacting with their parents. There were some great moments of a mother’s care and love for her cubs.
Young giraffes stayed close to their mothers and baby elephants were kept safely in among the herd by the older females.
Birds are very prevalent now that the weather has returned to normal and provided abundant food for them. We always see the spectacular lilac breasted roller. It lights on branches near the dirt roads so we can get images of this colorful bird with shorter lenses.
We also sighted the large predatory birds; Kori Bustard and secretary bird.
Hornbills are charismatic to photograph and we found the less common red billed hornbill and the even more rare grey hornbill.
We get great close up portraits of animals, but it is the wide shots that can translate the beauty and mood of South Africa: the sunsetting behind a giraffe as she eats and wildebeest feeding in the early morning fog.
Beauty is also in the small details like dew on a spiderweb.
It was a fantastically successful two safari groups with every guest returning with good images of a huge variety of species: more high quality sightings than they expected . I want to thank all of the guests who made these trips so much fun with good conversation, nights on the deck watching nocturnal animals, great questions, and most of all continuing friendships and forming new friendships. I sincerely hope they can all return again in the future.
Elephants are frequently our photo subjects while on safari. Their size, shape, intelligence, and trunk are just a few things that make them great subjects and very interesting. There are many opportunities for unique, beautiful, and descriptive images of elephants.
Elephants are very unique in shape and texture. Images showing the whole elephant(s) are great to show the elephant in its environment, but can not describe the all the unique features and details of an elephant. Taking close up images of the trunk in action, tusks, skin, eyes, and ears gives your audience a chance to focus in on details and discover shapes and colors and learn about elephants in more detail.
Using perspective and symmetry
Elephants come in all sizes and travel in herds so highlight these different sizes and ages in a way that gives geometric order and symmetry to your image. Contrast of size creating perspective lines vanishing into the horizon is a pleasing effect. Elephants will often line up and if you are patient you can grab moments when trunks, ear, etc are pleasingly arranged symmetrically.
Interaction with other elephants
Elephants are social animals and this gives many interaction moments to photograph. Sometimes the golden moment is a hidden detail in a wider image. Cropping can highlight this “picture in a picture” moment between two elephants. Elephants also have greetings, reassuring gestures, and rank showing moves that you can watch and wait for then highlight through cropping and framing the images
Interaction with other species
Showing how elephants interact with other species is capturing their role in their environment. Other species feel safe near elephants and trust their strength, awareness, and intelligence. You can photograph mixed herds, birds that groom elephants, and when they assert their dominance.
Obviously their size is a major feature of elephants. Showing large and small elephants together is not always enough to communicate their size. Try to show other animals such as zebra which are a familiar size to your audience to show how large they are. Manmade objects like vehicles are a good contrast as well.
Movement / Behavior
With their unique body form and parts, photographing how the elephant and its parts moves adds another dimension to your illustration of elephants. Also try to isolate and highlight unique behaviors of the elephants such as mock fighting, and the million ways they use their trunks for different things
Take the usual front view and side views to new levels
Front and 3/4
¾ is a flattering angle that has been drilled into us for portraits, but a straight on frame filling front view is eye catching. A creative crop creates interesting negative space and also increases the impact
Elephants have an interesting shape so a side view shows off this shape. Think about negative space and other elements to contrast the rounded lines of the elephant such as straight trees or grass
Elephant rears are unique and large with great tails. A nicely framed rear shot shows the elephants in and interacting with their environment. Walking off “into the sunset” communicates that these elephants are wild and free.
Personality / Cute Babies
Elephants appear to have individual personalities and we often can see some of ourselves in their movement, behavior, and interaction. Anytime we can photograph this connect to ourselves it makes a more impactful image. They show happiness, companionship, nervousness, and aggravation through their actions and interactions. Capture moments of joy when they are in the water or doing something crazy.
Elephant babies are very cute and are well looked after by their mothers and other herd members: it is not hard to capture intimate moments between mothers and babies.
Sometimes lighting on a safari is challenging, but taking bad lighting and turning it into a silhouette shot can give you a special image. Elephant’s unique shape works very well against a sunset.
When you get out on safari and see elephants, get to know them and capture some images that illustrate everything that is fun, interesting, and unique about them. There are not many subjects so expressive and charismatic.