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A Photographer's Guide to Namibia

by Philip Greenspun, September 2007


Namibia is the African country for beginners to Africa tourism. It is mostly too dry for malaria. The spaces are wide open. The cities are uncrowded and safe. The roads are good and you can drive yourself from place to place rather than being shepherded.

Expect a lot of open space; Namibia is the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, yet home to only 2 million people. If you've been photographing the crowded urbanized environments of Europe and the American Northeast, Namibia will seem awesome. Folks from Arizona or New Mexico will ask "Why did I sit on a plane for 25 hours?"

Highlights

Namibia's unique attraction is the Namib Desert, perhaps the world's oldest and home to some of the world's highest sand dunes.

Namibia has a handful of places to see the charismatic megafauna more closely associated with Botswana and South Africa. Etosha National Park in the north-central portion of the country is an easy place to see big animals such as elephant, especially in the "very very dry season" (April-October) when they congregate around waterholes (the rest of the year in Namibia would be considered "very dry season" by folks from most other parts of the planet).

Southern Namibia is home to the Fish River Canyon, Africa's deepest.

Non-photographers will appreciate the range of adventure sports that are popular along the windy cold-water beaches. Namibia is popular for windsurfing, snowboarding down sand dunes, riding dirt bikes and four-wheelers, and skydiving.

When to Go

The best time of year is winter: April through October. The animals congregate more at water holes during this season, but mostly you're trying to avoid the brutal heat of summer.

Culture

Diamonds are formed deep in the Earth, where temperatures and pressures are high. Many of these diamonds were shot towards the surface by "Kimberlite Pipes" in Kimberly, South Africa. Over millions of years, the Orange River carried many these diamonds out into the sands of southern Namibia. In the 1800s it was possible to walk out in the desert, look for glints in the sand, and pick diamonds up off the ground (today you need to go offshore a bit and dredge up some sand to filter).

What do you call a country with minimal population, an important port, and lots of diamonds? An ideal colony! That's what Namibia was for Germany until 1919 and then for South Africa until 1990. The core of Namibia is not the place to see a vibrant native African culture. On the plus side, the German influence means that a lot of folks here learned how to run a clean hotel.

Compared to the more densely populated African countries, Namibians are well educated (85 percent literacy) and wealthy ($7,600 GDP per capita in purchasing power equivalent to an American). Religion is not a source of conflict, with most of the population adhering to some form of Christianity. It sounds great and it is if you are one of the handful of guys who own a diamond mine. It is pretty good if you are one of the 3 percent of the population working in a diamond mine. It isn't good at all if you're among the 50 percent of the population scratching out a living trying to grow crops or feed animals on some of the world's driest land.

See the CIA Factbook for more.

Getting Around

If you have more than two weeks, rent a car and drive everywhere. The scenery from the highways is beautiful and the roads are always reasonably good. Unless you enjoy being beaten up for hours on washboard surfaces, splurge on a big heavy Toyota Land Cruiser. Many of the larger vehicles will come with a rooftop pop-up tent, very useful for sleeping under the stars or when a hotel is fully booked and you don't want to drive 40 miles to the next one.

If you're tight on time, there are Cessna air taxis serving most of the better hotels. You are picked up at the international airport in Windhoek, get into a 4- or 6-seat Cessna, and arrive at your hotel one hour later. When it is time to go to the next hotel, the Cessna returns to pick you up and take you directly to the next sightseeing spot. With two people, expect to pay $500-1000 per leg. Charter flights become very practical for a group of 4-8 people.

If you have basic VFR skills, flying yourself around Namibia is a reasonable option. Convert your U.S. license to a South African one, rent a plane in South Africa, work your way through some bureaucracy to get permission to enter Namibia, and enjoy severe clear weather just about all day every day. Airstrips at lodges are usually more than 3000' long and well maintained. Remember that the commercial air taxi pilots often start with only 200 hours of experience; this is not Alaskan bush flying where you dodge clouds and land on gravel bars. Namibia has some of the world's loneliest terrain, so it is safest to follow roads in the event that are you forced to land. Make sure that you have a personal locator beacon and a satellite phone.

Sossusvlei

If you want to see or climb a big sand dune, Sossusvlei is the right place. The dunes are mostly within a big national park, accessible by a paved road, so all that you need to enjoy these are a rental car, a tent or a credit card for a nearby hotel or lodge.

A luxury option: Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp




Franco, one of the most experienced local guides...

Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp...

Swakopmund

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had their baby in Swakopmund, a tidy coastal town in central Namibia. Swakopmund is the best place in Namibia to take photos of people engaged in adventure sports.

Etosha National Park

I haven't been here yet, but I want to go!

More: Wikipedia page

Doro Nawas

Doro Nawas is a luxury hotel near the Twyfelfontein San rock art paintings.

More: Camp Web page within wilderness-safaris.com


Wildlife is scarce in this region that was cleared for ranching, but desert-adapted elephants can be seen depending on the season and various kinds of antelope may be photographed, but prepare to work at 600mm or longer as they are shy.

Welwitschia, Namibia's national plant:

Equipment Recommendations

Namibia has some game parks and some animals. The recommendations for long lenses and animal photography from photo.net's general safari tips will therefore apply to a portion of your photography. For the scenery, however, you will want to bring landscape photography gear:

  • tripod
  • ballhead
  • quick-release plate system
  • highest quality camera body, regardless of weight
  • wide focal length lenses, starting at 14-16mm on a full-frame 35mm format camera
  • hood for each lens to maximize contrast in an environment with lots of bright reflections

Arranging a Trip

You can get a guidebook, rent a car, and poke around. The hotels can be sparse and fully booked during the European summer vacation season; a tent is an important backup option if you don't want to stick to a rigidly planned schedule.

Painless and luxurious: contact James Weis at Eyes on Africa and let him book the entire trip (what I did). He is an experienced wildlife photographer and knows the lodges, the seasons, and the animals.

Guidebooks

More

This guide is just a beginning. The author hopes that reader comments, below, will add details and photos from other portions of Namibia.


Text and pictures copyright 2007 Philip Greenspun All photos taken with a Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review), typically with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, (compare prices) lens.

Article created September 2007

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Frantisek Staud , September 19, 2007; 11:47 A.M.

Namibia is a dream destination for photographers; you find all sorts of photo-opportunities out there - landscape, wildlife, people...
I found Bushmanland worth visiting

... hiring photo-friendly Cessna for an evening flight over the Namib Desert is not wasted money either
... and yes, Etosha is not to be missed
You can spend weeks and weeks touring Namibia and never get bored, Frantisek

Spud (the travellin' tuber) Potato Head , October 19, 2007; 01:59 P.M.

What a coincidence! I just got back 2 weeks ago after spending a month touring around on my own. Its a fabulous place.

If you're interested in seeing a short slideshow with sound, click on www.onevisionphoto.com and click RUN.

Image Attachment: Namibia-Title.jpg

Menachem Serraf , October 21, 2007; 01:41 P.M.

My recent trip

Hey all i was actually just now in Namibia, have a look at my photos in the recent work section http://photo.net/photos/Click%20here%20for%20Menachem''s%20portfolio

Jana Vanourkova , October 22, 2007; 02:38 A.M.


I have travelled more than 60 countries , but Namibia remains my no. 1 destination. We are organizing international PHOTOTRIPs there, max. 10 participants, a couple drives own 4x4. 2008 still places available. You may see my images from there in the folders Desertscapes, DUNES, TSOATSOA expedition or Africa - passion for life. My greatest fear is though, that the country starts becoming a major tourist destination, the infrastructure (roads, accommodation) is better every year, that means that the pure wilderness is in certain places slowly dissapearing. Jana Vanourkova (WWW.TSOATSOA.COM , email : janaonholiday@yahoo.com)

Andre Faul , October 23, 2007; 03:48 A.M.

Hey All! Living in Namibia I can confirm that it is an absolute wonderful place and the photographers paradise. The worthwhile places to visit are just too many to mention but my most favorite place must be Spitskoppe.

mike chen , October 29, 2007; 01:46 P.M.

hi folks out there!

just thought to mention that Nambia is more then just sand & safari. and i can only agree, it is a wonderful, CLEAN and safe country. and it has the ability to represent a country of the african continent in a positive way. find some different images on www.eyende.com and enjoy. best regards, mike chen

Michael Alger , January 11, 2008; 06:16 P.M.

Having been there in August and early September 07, I'd like to add some comments:

You will most probably arrive at the international airport of Windhoek, some 40 km outside of the city. Pick up your car at the airport and off you are. Skip Windhoek, it is plain boring. Any guest farm around will introduce you to Namibia more nicely.

Sossusvlei is actually the end of a 60km long valley with the dunes on both sides getting closer and closer. Have a look with google earth. The end offers two "vleis", the Dead Vlei and the actual Sossusvlei. The well known dead trees are located in the Dead Vlei. Access to the valley is possible only right after sunrise and you actually can drive the 60 km in 45minutes - ignoring the speed limit of 60kph, that is. So, for best morning light first go strait to the Dead Vlei and then, on your way back, climb on one of the dunes. You have to be back by sunset.

Bull's party close to the Ameib Ranch in the Erongo Mountains - wonderful place. 10 meter large sandstone bowls nicely arranged around the sand stone mountains. Close by: The Spitzkoppe Mountain. Also sandstone, equally worth some pictures.

Etosha: Bring the longest lens you have. There are plenty of lions but usually they do not bother to get very close to the cars. In the park you are not allowed to leave the car to get closer to the loins though.

One more thing: The winter is dry. Very dry. Very very dry actually, so dry that I urgently would have wanted some lip balm with me. Consider to get some before you arrive in Windhoek.

Peter Quaedvlieg , April 16, 2008; 02:31 P.M.

Was travelling Namibia + Botswana in sept+okt for six weeks. The most wonderful experience in my life, after seeing a lot all over this globe like jungle, svalbard, deserts, etc. Took all the gear I have and boy was I happy. 5D + 30D, 17-50, 24-105, 28-300, 100-400, 70-200, 50-500, 1.4x Tc, 2x Tc, Much CF. Made about 2000 keepers and grew my muscles. ;-)

Kim Walker , September 10, 2008; 01:20 P.M.


Bushmen on a porcupine hunt

Namibia is one of my favorite destinations! So much, in fact, that my husband and I lead small group photo tours there every other year--one fly-in safari to the northern regions and one overland safari to the spectacular deserts. The country is so vast that you really need a good 2 weeks to cover a region. A month is ideal. Some of my favorites include the surreal landscapes of Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, the amazing cultures and beautifully photogenic Himba and Bushmen people, lush Caprivi and Epupa Falls, seeing the rare desert elephants in Damaraland, and the wonderful opportunities to photograph leopards and cheetahs! If choosing a self-drive option when visiting, I'd recommend staying at least 2 nights in a given place because otherwise all you'll be doing is driving! The distances between the main tourist areas of Etosha, Damaraland, Sossusvlei require a good full day of driving. Other regions like Caprivi, Epupa Falls, Bushmanland will require many days of sloooow driving to reach on mostly unpaved roads.

Christian Goltz , May 08, 2010; 07:21 P.M.

Ah, yes, Namibia! I have moved (back) here about two years ago. Since then, I work as a freelance nature photographer, mainly for the Namibian government and the UN.

One of my favorite places is NamibRand/Wolwedans, the largest private nature reserve in Namibia/the most beautiful camp in Namibia.

 

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