Digital Photo Safari

I’ve been a digital travel photographer for a long time, which is why some of my friends jokingly call me the "Godfather of Photography." One thing I’ve learned over the years: It’s not easy having fun. Yes, digital travel photography is fun, but it’s also a lot of hard work—especially when you go to remote locations.

In this article, I’ll share with you some of the important things I’ve learned about traveling on a photo safari with a digital camera. I’ll use some of my favorite pictures from several photo safaris to Africa. All of these tips apply to digital travel photography, in general, and some even apply to a one-day photo safari to a local wildlife park.

PLANNING: Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Canon 100-400mm IS lens


Well in advance of your tip, do Google searches on everything you can think of—weather, health precautions, carry-on restrictions, local customs, the political situation and photo opportunities. Advance planning equals fewer surprises on site.

Speaking of the weather, an important consideration is whether to make your trip during the dry or rainy season. Many photographers like to travel in the dry season, when the sky is clear and when sunsets and sunrises are spectacular, but stormy weather also can work to your advantage. I took the opening picture for this article in Kenya’s Masai Mara during the beginning of the rainy season, and it’s one of my favorite safari pictures. Without the rain clouds, and with a clear blue sky, the picture would have lacked drama.

At the peak of the dry season, I photographed a bull elephant silhouetted against a setting sun in Botswana. Here, it was the dust and the cloudless sky that added to the impact of the photograph.

Carefully consider the time of year, and know that it’s sometimes harder to get good pictures in strong, direct sunlight than it is when the sky is overcast; on sunny days, strong shadows and high contrast make it harder to get good exposures.


I try to "tell the story" of a location. Of course, you can do this by photographing many different subjects. You also can do this by varying your perspective from close-up to wide-angle.


These two images of a lion, taken in the Masai Mara, illustrate my "tell the story" point. The close-up portrait of the lion is nice, but it could have been taken at the San Diego Zoo. The wide-angle image, obviously, was taken on the plains of Africa.


The wider shot of the lion is actually a combination of two images taken seconds apart. For one image, I focused on the background, making the lion slightly out of focus. For the other image, I focused on the lion, which makes the background slightly out of focus. I combined both images in Photoshop to create an image in which both elements are in focus. If a painter would have seen this scene, he or she probably would have painted the lion and the background in focus.


Pack light. That’s all there is to it. Bring few clothes, and do laundry on site. Plan your photographs, and take cameras and lenses to meet those needs.

I took 90% of the pictures on my recent Masai Mara photo safari with a Canon 100-400mm IS lens on a Canon EOS 7D. I found that the zoom lens gave me the flexibility of cropping in-camera and the benefit of zooming out to avoid cutting off a body part of an animal.

PHOTOGRAPHING WILDLIFE: Canon EOS 7D, Canon 100-400mm IS lens

I took the opening image (the wide-angle shot of the elephant next to the tree) with a Canon 24-105mm IS lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. With two camera bodies—one with a telezoom and the other with a wide-angle to medium telephoto zoom—I’m able to "tell the story," which is something that I stress in all my photo workshops.

Consider traveling with a backup camera and lenses, if at all possible. I always carry a backup camera body, as well as a backup of my most important lens.

Pack your computer, charger, card reader and other items in your carry-on, too. Be sure to pack all this stuff in advance so you know it will fit in your carry-on bag, as you don’t want to put any photo gear in baggage at the last minute.

BEHAVIOR SHOTS: Canon EOS 7D, Canon 100-400mm IS lens


Speaking of bags, choose your bag or bags carefully, whether shoulder, roller or backpack. I usually carry my gear with me on the plane in a Lowepro roller because the gear is heavy. Stowed in my luggage, I have a Lowepro Pro Trekker backpack, which is how I carry the gear once I arrive at my destination.


Wildlife portraits are nice, but behavior shots are often more interesting. To get compelling behavior shots, you need luck and patience.

My photo of a baby elephant nursing is one of my favorite behavior shots. I was lucky, and I had the patience to wait for just the right moment.

I used Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4’s Duplex Filter and Frames to add an artistic touch to my elephants photograph. Yes! I was thinking like a painter.

LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm IS?lens


Sure, photographing animals is the main goal on a photo safari, but don’t overlook landscape opportunities.

For landscape photography, you’ll want a variety of lenses. For my Masai warrior/rainbow shot, I used a Canon 24-105mm lens.

When photographing a landscape, try including people in the scene to add a sense of place and scale to your image. For maximum depth of field, use a wide-angle lens and a small aperture, and focus one-third into the scene.


"Rain, rain, go away!" is what some photographers say when they go on a trip. I say, "Bring it on!"

EMBRACE THE SITUATION: Canon EOS 7D, Canon 100-400mm IS lens

You can get wonderful images before, during and after it rains. You may need to boost your ISO, but don’t worry about noise. If a picture is so boring that you notice the noise, it’s a boring picture. What’s more, it’s easy to reduce noise with software, and most newer cameras do a great job of reducing noise automatically.


After you’ve worked hard to get great images, it’s time to download and back up your files.

When it comes to power, plug your computer, chargers and other devices into a surge-suppressor power strip. That way, if the generators at your camp or lodge are switched off and on in the middle of the day or night, your gear will be protected against a power surge.

When you downloa
d, be extra-careful about file handling. Before you reformat a memory card, make sure all the images on the card are backed up in at least two places. I back up on my computer and on an accessory, portable 500 GB hard drive.


Sharing your pictures is part of the fun of being a photographer. Getting back to telling the whole story, try to take some fun shots, too! Share the fun shots along with your great shots. Make a blog post and/or photo gallery a "fun for all."

For fun shots, you may want to take a point-and-shoot camera. That way, all your fun shots will be on one card.

Rick Sammon teaches image-making at his workshops, including his Africa workshops. Visit with Rick at

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