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among the best locations for wildlife photography in the world. There are many
national parks with plenty of mammals and birds that do not exist in the wild
outside of Africa. In particular, the Masai Mara National Reserve in southern
Kenya, along the border with Tanzania, is generally regarded to be the best of
the best. From the US, there are photography safaris which dedicate entire
two-week trips to the Masai Mara. However, for first timers, it is probably
better to visit several parks and get a flavor from different locations. The
disadvantage of visiting too many parks is that one would be spending a lot of
time packing and unpacking as well as traveling among destinations, thus cutting
into the time for wildlife photography and viewing. Moreover, some the roads in
Kenya are in very poor condition. It takes a major toll on the vehicles and gives
the passengers a very unpleasant ride.
Please keep in mind that this article is written from the point of view of a
serious amateur photographer. If your objective is to shoot high-quality wildlife
photographs, in my opinion you need to bring some long lenses and join a
photography-specific tour that go out early in the morning and stay till early
evening (with a long break at noon when the light is harsh). Moreover, since one
will be photographing from safari vehicles most of the time, it is important to
have no more than 3 or 4 photographers in each vehicle; otherwise, they will be
interfering with one another. There are more economical ways to travel to East Africa on a
more leisurely pace; you can still have a great time and take some good pictures
with a point-and-shoot camera. In fact, my favorite lion photograph from my trip
was taken at 10am with a 80-200mm zoom lens hand held from a vehicle cramped with
ten passengers. You can get lucky occasionally, but the odds are against you
under those conditions.
Our Trip to Kenya
In late August/early September, 1997, my wife and I went on a two-week
photography trip to Kenya, led by John and Barbara Gerlach, two professional
nature photographers from the US. There were 12 participants in our group which
used four Land Rover vehicles. Our trip traveled to five locations in Kenya:
Mountain Lodge, near Mount Kenya
Samburu Game Reserve
Masai Mara National Reserve
The Mountain Lodge is essentially a hotel built on the side of a waterhole
where a lot of animals frequently come by for a drink. (To be precise, it is
actually a salt lick, where the animals get their salt intake.) Visitors have the
luxury to watch wildlife right from their hotel rooms. Lewa Downs is a private
sanctuary with, among other wildlife, about 40 rhinos.
The other three destinations are more well known and are usually visited by
photo safaris. Samburu is in northern Kenya just north of the equator. Besides
lions, elephants, cheetahs, etc., some species specific to northern Kenya can be
seen there, such as the Grevy zebra, reticulated giraffe, and gerenuk. Lake
Nakuru is well known for its flamingo population. At the peak, there
can be up to 600,000 flamingo sitting on the lake. The Masai Mara National
Reserve is part of the Serengeti ecosystem. There are 700 square miles of
parkland savannah and acacia woodland with a lot of animals from lions, cheetahs,
elephants to wildebeests, topies, giraffes and gazelles, etc. On the average, I
can easily shoot ten rolls of film per day at the Masai Mara; it is a very
productive location as far as photography is concerned.
Tour Groups, Driver Guides, and Safari Vehicles
The success of a photo safari has a lot to do with the group of people one is
traveling with. To shoot excellent sunrise shots, it is necessary to get up early
every morning and be ready to leave at 5:45am. To take full advantage of the best
light, one might have a packed breakfast in the field rather than returning to
the lodge at 9am for breakfast. And one needs to wait patiently late in the
afternoon, when the animals become more active, rather than quitting early to
have a drink at the bar. If the main objective for your trip is to photograph
wildlife, it is very important to be traveling with a group of people with the
We were fortunate to have excellent driver guides in our trip. Some people
recommand renting a safari vehicle and drive it yourself. For first timers,
usually it is very difficult to find your way around game parks, especially at
places such as the Masai Mara where you are allowed to go off road. It is
important to have a good driver who is familiar with the geography and the
animals. Since some the predators are territorial, a guide who really knows the
area can identify the individual animals and locate them. Most safari vehicles
are equipped with two-way radios so that the drivers can communicate with one
another. If one vehicle finds some interesting animals, the driver will inform
the other vehicles to come over to share the view.
It is also important to have drivers who have worked with photographers. They
know how to position their vehicles to have the best light, and they fully
understand it when you ask them to move their vehicle forward or backward by a
foot or two to avoid some disturbing foreground or background. Some drivers I met
have worked with well known photographers such as Frans Lanting, Joe McDonald,
Boyd Norton, John Shaw, etc. It is also interesting to hear stories about those
"big name" photographers from the drivers.
In Kenya, most safari vehicles are either four-wheel-drive Jeep type vehicles
such as Land Rovers or Nissan vans. Nissan vans have a "pop up" type roof for
photography. The advantage is that when opened, the roof continues to shield the
passengers from the sun and the occasional rain. Kenya is right on the equator
and most of the game parks are at high altitude, thus the sun is very intense.
Most Land Rovers have three rows of passenger seats with three separate hatches
that fold to the front or back of the vehicles. In a photo safari, there should
be no more than three photographers in each Land Rover so that everybody can
shoot from either the right or left side depending on where the action happens to
be. There is also a passenger seat next to the driver, but there is no roof hatch
for that seat and that passenger can only shoot from his/her window. The
advantage of 4WD vehicles is a smaller chance for getting stuck in mud.
Another bonus for being in a group with several vehicles and extra seats is
that when one vehicle breaks down, the passengers can temporarily squeeze into
other vehicles to continue their journey while the broken vehicle is being
repaired. Unfortunately, in Kenya, some of the roads are really poor, and safari
vehicles tend to break down quite often.
Equipment and Film
Since there is wildlife such as lions, cheetahs ... around, it is illegal and
dangerous to walk around in most game parks. Therefore, most of the photographs
are taken from inside safari vehicles. As long as one can carry his/her equipment
onto airplanes and vehicles, the weight of all the equipment isn't that much of a
Camera Bodies and Lenses
bring at least two camera bodies so that there is a backup. At a minimum, one
should have a 300mm lens. For larger mammals, a 300mm with a matching 1.4x
teleconverter is probably ideal. For something really tall such as giraffes or
elephants at close range, a 80-200 type zoom is more appropriate. If one is
available, I would bring a 500mm or 600mm lens because sometimes the animals
aren't necessarily that close (in certain parks, the safari vehicles are
restricted to the roads; in some others, vehicles are free to go off road), and
it is excellent for bird photography too. It turns out that in the two days we
were at Lake Nakuru, the flamingos were staying very far off shore, and we needed
to use a 500mm lenses with a 1.4x teleconvertor to get some decent photographs. I
would bring at least one wide-angle lens for the occasional landscape shots.
Camera Support: Tripod and Bean Bag
By far the majority of my photographs were shot from the top of our Land
Rovers. Occasionally, I would roll down the window to shoot from a lower angle,
which is better for smaller animals such as the dik-dik (an antelope of the size
of a dog) and birds on the ground. I mainly used bean bags to support my lenses,
and I had no problems with 80-200mm, 300mm, and even 500mm lenses. Some people
prefer window mounts instead; it is a matter of personal preference. I find bean
bags faster to set up, especially when I switch between shooting from the right
and left sides of a vehicle.
A tripod is not that important for this trip, but it is convenient to have one
around for sun rise/sun set shots from locations where it is safe to get outside
of the vehicles. At Lake Nakuru, sometimes it is safe to leave the vehicle and
walk along the lake shore to photograph the flamingos. A tripod is also useful
I used about 85 rolls of film in our 14-day trip. Keep in mind that those 14
days included flights from the US to Africa and traveling among game parks. In a
good day in Masai Mara or Samburu, I can easily shoot 10 rolls per day. There is
plenty of sunlight near the equator, so medium to slow film is adequate. My main
film for the trip was ISO 100 Fuji Sensia II. I also had some Ektachrome E100S
and Elite 2. I find Sensia II a bit warmer than the previous Sensia; hence it has
become similar to the Ektachrome films. I also brought some Fuji Velvia for the
occasions when I need extra-brilliant color, such as sunrise and flower
close-ups. I pushed two rolls of Sensia II to ISO 200 in one evening when I
needed extra film speed to photograph a leopard at 6:30pm. The result is very
My wife brought a Hi-8 camcorder and shot about eight hours of video during
the trip. She used the camcorder also on a bean bag from the top of the vehicles.
However, a window mount with a fluid head is probably more suitable for filming
Tourism is a major industry in Kenya. The main game parks have very nice
lodges and/or tented camps for the tourists. All the camps we went to have two
nice beds and a private bath in each room/tent. The accommodation varies from
very comfortable to near luxury. Meals are well prepared. For first-time
visitors, the accommodation in Kenya is surprisingly comfortable.
However, there are wildlife around you. For example, there may be monkeys
sneaking into your tent looking for food, or there may be a baboon sitting on the
porch in front of your room. At the Masai Mara River Camp, we were waken up one
night because a large hippo was feeding on the lawn just outside, making a lot of
noise. These wildlife can be dangerous and tourists should be
Hot-Air Balloon Safari
Some game parks provide an optional balloon safari, where one gets to watch
the landscape and wildlife from several hundred feet above ground. It is quite a
unique experience. The balloon rides are usually very smooth so that one can take
pictures with wide-angle or even short telephoto lenses. Typically, they start
around sun rise and last for about an hour or so, but the breakfast after landing
and the ride back to the starting point usually take up the rest of the morning.
Unfortunately, hot-air balloon rides are very expensive. At the Masai Mara, the
price is US$350 per person in 1997. That is a lot of money to burn in an
Obviously, you should consult your physician about vaccinations and your
specific health concerns. Most people in our group had a yellow-fever shot and
took a type of Malaria pills called Lariam. A common side-effect for taking
Lariam is to have strange dreams, which, interestingly, most members in our group
experienced. Fortunately, I didn't have any other major side effects. However, a
few people got nausea and/or could not sleep. In certain cases they simply had to
stop taking Lariam. The side effects can vary widely from person to person. A
couple other common problems seem to be the common cold and diarrhea. So it is
useful to have some over-the-counter medication for those conditions.
Generally speaking, a Kenya photo safari is not strenuous. Most of the time,
one just sits (or stands) inside a safari vehicle. Some of the rides are a bit
rough though. Several participants in our group are in the 60's. A few of them
might have missed a couple of game drives to get some extra rest. Otherwise, we
all had no major problems.
Additional Comments and Experience
mean to start another auto-focus (AF) vs. manual-focus (MF) debate, but I found
out about the importance of AF in this trip, in which I brought both AF and MF
lenses. With focus assist, I can accurately focus a long MF lens; however, it
takes me 2, 3 seconds to do so. When I am photographing animals that are
constantly on the move, it is extremely inconvenient to re-focus and experience
that 2, 3-second delay over and over. I end up preferring my AF lenses in many
occasions even though my MF lens has the better focal length for those shots.
Many game parks in Kenya are dusty, so it is very important to keep camera
equipment clean; they should be covered up when not being used. Dust must have
gotten into the aperture diaphragm in one of my lenses, and eventually the
aperture got stuck in the maximum two f-stops. I didn't find out about that
problem until I had gone back home and realized that some of my slides were
Kenya and Tanzania are neighboring countries. In fact, the Masai Mara National
Reserve is part of Serengeti ecosystem in northern Tanzania, and a lot of animals
migrate seasonally between the two countries. The animals tend to concentrate in
Kenya from July to September; therefore, that is the busiest tourist season in
Kenya, while most tourists visit Tanzania in February and March when the animals
migrate to the south. Otherwise, the environment in the two countries is similar.
Unfortunately, among other reasons, since Kenya and Tanzania are competing for
tourists, there is some tension between them.
Quite a few companies organize photo safari to Kenya and Tanzania as well as
other eastern and southern African countries. For photographers from North
America, there are plenty of advertistments for these trips in the back of
Outdoor Photographer and Nature Photographer. Our trip was led by John and
Barbara Gerlach from the US and organized by the East African Ornithological
Safaris, Ltd. (EAOS) in Nariobi, Kenya. Booking is through the
Voyagers International in Ithaca, New York
[phone (800) 633-0299]. Besides being a satisfied customer, I have no other
connection with the above companies. I am sure that many photo safaris run by
other companies are also excellent.
Joe McDonald, who also leads photo
safaris to Africa every year, has written an excellent book called
"Photographying on Safari," published by Amphoto in 1996 (ISBN 0-8174-5440-3). It
provides a lot of useful information on the type of trips, equipment, when to go,
what to bring, etc. In particular, McDonald describes shooting and metering
techniques for each type of animal.
The "Insight Guides" series has a book called "East African Wildlife"
published by Houghton Mifflin (ISBN 0-395-67388-7). It contains individual
descriptions of the animals and the national parks in East Africa.
The Nikon School and
Frans Lanting have
produced a 40-minute video tape called "Masters of Wildlife," shot on location at
the Masai Mara. This viedo is suitable for beginning to intermediate-level
wildlife photographers with discussions on super-telephoto to wide-angle lenses,
camera support, flash and macro photography as well as some field techniques. It
gives the viewer a good idea how wildlife photography is done in Africa. Since
the tape is produced by Nikon, it heavily promotes their equipment. In the US,
this VHS tape (NTSC format) can be ordered directly from Nikon [phone (800)
55-nikon, which is (800) 556-4566] for US$29.95 plus shipping.
Additional photographs from my trip to Kenya are available on Duane Galensky's
Wild Light web site.