14 Tips on How to Prepare for an African Wildlife Photo Safari

Hippo splashing water in Botswana

One of the most spectacular photographic opportunities on the planet is an African safari. I wish I had the skill to properly convey how amazing it is in all the ways one would dream about. And how impossibly inspiring it is from dawn until dusk. But even as I read this I know my description falls tragically short.

Lovers of wildlife and photography, this will be your nirvana. Yes, it can be pricey. Yes, if you live in the States it’s a lot of time on a plane. But I’ve never heard anyone complain after the fact. The experience is just that special!

For those who are already sold, see below for some advice on how to prepare.

1. Arrange passports, visas and shots

You’ll need a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond your stay and contains at least two facing blank pages, for stamps.

Tips for Taking Amazing Wildlife Photos on a Safari Adventure--Panning shot of wildebeest running in the Masai Mara in Kenya

If you’re want to photograph the Great Migration this summer, Kenya requires a $50 entry visa for travelers from most countries. To find out if the country you wish to visit requires a visa (for U.S. citizens only) you can go to my travel resources page for a lot of great information.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control to learn about required shots or any recent health alerts that might affect you.

Giraffe standing in the Masai Mara in Kenya

2. Pack light but enough to dress in layers

Between July and October, the average temperatures can range from the low-50s to mid-70s, depending on the time of day. Because you won’t want to miss the stunning sunrises, and because animals are most active in the early morning and just before sunset, you’ll want to dress in layers. I always bring my Uniqlo light feather down jacket with me. It’s lightweight, very pack-able (I keep it in its little sack in my carry on bag and use it as a pillow), and it’s great on its own but even better under my safari coat.

Scar the lion in the grass in the Masai Mara, Kenya

3. Bring more memory cards than you think you’ll need

Africa is rife with stunning landscapes, amazing wildlife and light that can make an ugly stump look magical. That fact alone will cause you to fill up your cards. And if you want to take images of animals in action, you’ll burn through a lot of memory on burst mode. So don’t get stuck, nothing is more frustrating than using up your cards with days left on your itinerary. Bring more than you think you’ll need.

4. Bring a backup device

If you want to safeguard your images, bring a backup device to download your photos. If you lose a memory card or, God forbid, you have to overwrite a used card, you won’t lose any pictures. I love my Silicon Power 2TB  external hard drive. It’s sleek, lightweight, durable, and affordable. If you’re super Type A about your photos like me, you’ll bring two drives so that you have an extra backup of all your RAW files.

For even more convenience, Samsung’s Portable 2TB external drive is the size of a credit card. The bad news, it’s more than twice the cost of Silicon Power.

(I do not have a relationship with any of the companies listed here but if you should purchase something through the links in this post I may make a little $$) 

5. Buy or rent but Invest in a long lens

There a many times you’ll be surprised at how close you can get to wildlife, but if you want maximum flexibility you’ll to bring a long lens. Will it kill your experience if you don’t have one? No. But if you’re a major photographic enthusiast, you’ll be happier with one. If you don’t own a long lens and you’re not eager to buy one, consider renting. Companies like borrowlenses.com give you access to great lenses—and camera bodies for that matter—for a fraction of the price.  Or if you’re traveling as part of a photographic tour, look for companies that offer equipment rentals to their clients, such as Wild Eye Photographic Safaris. No need to lug heavy equipment while you travel; they’ll have everything you need when you arrive. I rented the Canon 200-400mm f4L with an internal 1.4 converter and I loved it. It’s heavy (around 8lbs) but it gave me a lot of wiggle room to shoot in a variety of situations.

Photographer Susan Portnoy, with a Canon 200-400mm lens and 1DX
Canon 200-400mm f/4 x 1.4

6. Consider some additional lenses

On safari, I use a long lens the majority of the time but a great wide-angle is good to have for landscapes, and a good portraits lens is important if you include cultural visits in your itinerary. I  bring my Canon 16-35mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8, and if I feel like lugging one more, my 24-105mm f4 or my 35mm f1.4.

7. Find out whether your lodging has open or closed vehicles.

Open vehicles are commonplace on safari which means that you’ll have a fantastic field of vision but there are no sides to speak of. Therefore,  you may want to bring a monopod if hand holding for long periods of time is not an option.

Closed vehicles provide more surface area (window ledges and a pop up roof) on which to steady your lens, but the field of view is reduced. You’ll want to ask what you’ll be using before you hop on a plane so that you’re prepared.

Lions pass by two vehicles while on a game drive in Botswana--An African Safari is it Right for You? A Guide to an Ultimate Dream Holiday --The Insatiable Traveler
Lions pass by two vehicles while on a game drive in Botswana

8. Adhere to luggage requirements

Once in Africa, it’s likely that you’ll take a small plane into the bush which will have strict luggage restrictions both in weight, size and structure. For example, in Kenya you cannot exceed 15Kg (approximately 33lbs)—that’s for everything, you’re camera bag, clothes and carry on.  And you’ll need a soft bag, meaning no wheels. Depending on how you pack, or if you have a lot of camera equipment, pounds can add up quickly. Exceeding the limit can incur costly fines and, in some cases, bump you off the flight until one is available that can accommodate you and your gear. Many camps offer free daily laundry service, which makes it so much easier to pack light, but you’ll want to double-check with your travel agent, camp or tour provider to make sure.

Herd of elephants walking toward camera in Amboseli, Kenya

9. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat

The sun can be wicked strong in Africa. You’ll want a high SPF and a hat with a decent brim for when the sun is hits you from the side. Don’t forget to dab SPF on your ear tips and back of your neck!

10. Pack a power strip

Even in the most luxurious accommodations, outlets can be scarce. Don’t waste time switching out chargers for your camera batteries, computer, or smartphone. A travel power strip makes a bothersome process, painless. I use the Simran SM-60 universal power strip. It’s not particularly attractive but I like the 3 plugs which leave plenty of room for large camera chargers. I also like the short cord which helps when the outlet is in an awkward location.

11. Bring a small notebook

You’ll see a wide variety of  wildlife while on safari. Many of which you’ll know and plenty you won’t. Take a small notebook with you, it’s a great way to keep track of what you see each day and a great resource to reference once you’re home.

Tips for Taking Amazing Wildlife Photos on a Safari Adventure--female cheetah and cubs on a mound in the Masai Mara

12. Double-check for Wi-Fi

If you can’t stand being off the grid or are a social media hound, you’ll want to double-check that your camp has wi-fi. Not all are equipped and those that are often have weak signals. If it’s important to you, check with your lodgings beforehand.

13. Take care of the people who take care of you

It is standard to budget at least $15 to $25 for each person in your group, per day, in tips for your guide. He puts an enormous amount of time and effort into making your experience extraordinary. His knowledge of animals and the bush will ensure that you’re front row center to the best sightings. It’s not mandatory—but it is somewhat customary—to give $5 to $15 per person/per day to the staff as a whole. You’ll usually find a box located in the main area of the camp where you can place your money; the employees will split it evenly.

14. Indulge in a little inspiration

I found looking at the images taken by professional wildlife photographers helps me to figure out what I am looking to achieve and up my game skill-wise. Whenever I’ve had a question about a particular photo, I’ve found 90% of the photographers are very forthcoming about how they got the shot, which I find very helpful.  Gerry van der Walt and Alison Buttigieg, below, are two photographers whose work I love and who always answer my questions. You’ll find many more inspirational photographers on pages such as AfricaNature  and Nat Geo’s Yourshot.

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71 thoughts on “14 Tips on How to Prepare for an African Wildlife Photo Safari

  1. Melissa G. Theil says:

    Susan, I really enjoyed this article. My friend, Ed Braz, is speaking to our senior citizen camera club (Granpaparazzi..don’t you love it?) this afternoon. I may just have to join him on his next trip which will be to the Serengeti and surrounds. Safaris are, indeed, addicting for wildlife photographers.

  2. Whitney says:

    Dear Susan,.

    As always, I so enjoy viewing your lovely captivating photographs and posts…especially those from your safaris! Your safari photos bring me back to our Kenya trip last summer and help to sate the longing I have to go back. Thank you.


  3. Kristyn Taylor says:

    So glad you wrote this!!! I’m off to Botswana and Namibia in August, so you’ve give me lots to consider! Will bookmark this one!

  4. usfman says:

    On a non photographic topic, on our Kenyan safari a few years ago, I was unprepared to see a “kill” take place. I love animals too much to watch the weakest of a species be gored in front of my eyes. Watching the dangerous wildebeest crossing of the river, with hungry crocodiles awaiting them was my worst nightmare.

  5. francetaste says:

    I lived in Kenya for a few years, and I would say that if you aren’t a professional photographer, you should first of all enjoy the safari. Trying to nail professional-quality shots just to add to your IG is going to detract from your experience. (I have even taken trips without any camera, just to force myself to be in the moment and not try to get the shot.) Professionals have to spend many, many hours, stretched over many weeks, even months, to get that fabulous photo. If you are on vacation, don’t try to replicate that; you can still get some great photos that you can blow up and frame for your home, but above all, enjoy what you are seeing.
    And thank you for mentioning tipping. Staff are paid a pittance. They truly love sharing their knowledge and the parks and wildlife with you. They are committed and hard-working. Tip as much as you can.

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Totally agree.. important to enjoy what you’re doing. But I have to say, I’ve not had the luxury of spending weeks or months in the bush at a time and I really like some of the photos I got, so I think everyone has to navigate their own level of commitment in the moment. For me, as with some other photographers, both novice and pro, the challenge of the capture is intricately connected to my overall enjoyment. But should anyone put undo pressure on themselves or go after it in lieu of enjoyment? Absolutely not.

I would love to hear from you! What did you think of the post?