Tip #1: Use a Long Lens
This is one of the main factors that will determine whether you come back with great shots or good shots.
On many photo safaris, you will be quite a distance away from the animals especially if they are lions, leopards or cheetahs.
In order to capture those intimate shots where you can see the expression on their faces, you need a super telephoto lens. This is anything from 400-600mm.
This will allow you to get really close and capture the personality of the animal. I use a Tamron SP 100-600 G2 which is fantastic.
It is versatile and it allows to cover a great focal range for all types of situations. If you cannot afford or are unable to get a lens like this I suggest looking into Borrow Lenses to rent one or, at the very minimum use something that is 300mm or above.
If you are using something in the 200-400 range you can expect to get more shots that are of the animals entire body as opposed to that tight face shot.
Remember you can always crop the photo. There are some good affordable lenses in this price range.
Tip #2: Flexible Focus Points:
Capturing great photos, especially with long lenses, is all about sharpness. You could have the best photo in the world but if it is out of focus everyone will know.
And you can’t correct that in post-processing. One of the ways to almost guarantee something will be in focus, next to using manual focus, is to use the flexible focus points.
These are available on most DSLR’s and mirrorless cameras and this setting allows you to move the focus point via the controls on the back of the camera to a certain place in the frame.
I use this in the majority of situations unless the subject is moving fast (like a lion chasing prey. In this instance I would always use the servo focus mode.)
It definitely beats using autofocus modes where the camera could focus on the wrong part of the scene.
Tip #3: Use a Fast Shutter Speed
I have found it always best to start with a fast shutter speed especially when approaching an animal for the first time. That way you are ready for anything.
Depending on what camera you are are using it might increase your ISO a bit and add a little bit of noise but that is something that can be mitigated in post processing and it sure beats missing the shot altogether.
With today’s cameras, they handle noise much better than they used to so don’t be afraid of those higher ISO’s.
Always remember that your shutter speed should be at a minimum, the fraction of the focal length you are using.
For example; If I am shooting at 600mm then I would want my shutter speed to at least 1/600 of a second. Usually I will increase that to 1/800 to 1/1000 depending on the light. It is a great rule of thumb to keep things in focus. Remember to adjust this if you are using a teleconverter.
I personally almost always shoot in Shutter Priority mode or Manual mode so that I make sure that I am always within this rule.
Tip #4: Try to Shoot at Dusk or Dawn
This is basically a rule for most types of outdoor photography. It is when the light is at its best and gives you much more contrast which can really add to a photo. It is also the best time to find wildlife.
Most photo safaris are out very early in the morning, then return in the afternoon, then go out again in the evening.
A good rule of thumb is to position yourself between the animal and the light source, this being the sun. That way it will make it easier to expose the shot properly.
I always like to discuss this with my driver or guide. That way, when you get into a situation where there are other safari vehicles he can get you into the right position the first time.
One quick note: Make sure to turn off your flash before heading out. Not only will it scare the animals it will also be pretty useless in these situations.
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Tip #5: Focus on the Eyes
If you look at most of our most spectacular shots of wildlife they usually have a distinct focus on the eyes. This is what really draws the viewer in.
This can require a lot of patience and waiting for the right moment, so make sure your focus is in the right spot and wait for that moment.
I know this shot of the leopard was only because we waited until everyone was gone and that is when he finally looked up and into my lens. It makes for such a powerful shot and can be the difference between a good shot and a great shot.
Tip #6: Use a Bean Bag Camera Support
You are not going to get great crisp shots if you are trying to hand hold a 500mm lens in the back of a safari vehicle. That is why I recommend that you invest in a good bean bag camera support.
They give you the flexibility to switch from landscape to portrait easily and they can rest on the edge of a safari vehicle or window.
I have found that trying to bring a monopod or tripod, with other people in the vehicle, is just too cumbersome and not flexible enough. Especially if you are on an African safari in Kenya or Tanzania.
My recommendation is to get the Kinesis SafariSack 4.2 bean bag support that you can fill with dried rice or beans when you get to the destination. That way it doesn’t impede your weight restrictions for luggage.
Try and organize this with your photo tour leader beforehand.
Tip #7: Patience is the Key
As with all wildlife photography, patience is the key to capturing great photos. Whether it be waiting for a leopard to climb out of a tree or waiting for a lion to look right at you, you have to give things time.
Most of my great photos have come after everyone had left and we were the only jeep left.
By waiting and watching the animal’s behaviour you can usually anticipate its movement and catch it in action. The photographs that always stand out are the ones that show the animal interacting with its natural surroundings.
Tip #8: Know your Camera
I always like to stress this although it should be a no-brainer. Get to know your camera and practice similar situations before you are on in the safari vehicle.
You don’t want to be learning how to switch focus modes or shutter speeds while you are watching a lion chase a kill. You want to be ready for those moments and the best way to do that is to know your camera inside and out.
I always recommend practicing with a pet or maybe some birdlife in your backyard before you leave. This will get you ready for most situations and teach you how to adapt on the fly.
You wouldn’t show up to play ice hockey without knowing how to skate right? So take the time to learn the functions and nuances of your camera and lens. If you have any questions about particulars settings just ask your tour leader. They should be able to help.
With these 8 tips, you should be able to return home with some incredible images from your photo safari.