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Kenya Photo Safari

by Shun Cheung, 1997


Kenya is 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:

  1. Mountain Lodge, near Mount Kenya
  2. Samburu Game Reserve
  3. Lewa Downs
  4. Lake Nakuru
  5. 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 same objective.

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 concern.

Camera Bodies and Lenses

I would 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 there.

Film

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 satisfactory.

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 video.

Accommodation

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 careful. 

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 hour.

Medical Concerns

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

I don't 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 over-exposed.

Tour Companies

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.

References:

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.

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Article and photographs © Copyright 1997 Shun Cheung

You can contact the author via e-mail at shun@worldnet.att.net

Article created 1997