Photography equipment for a safari

As we got ready for our first safari, figuring out the photography equipment was a real challenge. With no previous safari experience, how do you know what to bring? If you forget something or break or lose something, there’s no nearby camera store.

three lions in tree
Three lions in tree

Here are my thoughts, the equipment we took, and what we used and didn’t use.

Regarding camera gear, it’s highly individual.

  1. The best camera is the one you have and that you know how to use. If you buy a new camera or lens for the safari, practice at home so you know how to use it. Animals and sunlight won’t hold still for you to read the manual. For some of our most interesting photos (running cheetah, mating lions), I only had time to compose and shoot one photo, so you need enough practice to be able to work quickly.
  2. The best camera/lens depends on the individual. After your safari, a photo acts as a memento or souvenir to better recall memories and experiences of the safari. How vivid or detailed does the photo have to be for you to do this?
  3. How much interest and experience in photography do you have or want to have? Cameras can get expensive and complicated, so you’ll need money, interest, and time to learn how to use the camera and lens. Be realistic, and let this moderate your expectations of how good photos have to be.
  4. If you take a long telephoto lens, take a second body or another camera with a normal lens.  Sometimes there isn’t time to change lenses.  Also, you want a backup in case one camera is lost or damaged.

As for my situation, I like photography and want to improve, and there’s certainly a budget. A safari is expensive. We didn’t know if we’d go on another safari. I had a 4-year-old DSLR Canon 40D with lenses that top out at 200 mm. I used the 40D camera body and purchased a longer telephoto zoom lens.

Here’s the equipment I took and what I used.

  • Canon 40D DSLR.  I know how to use my 40D, an advantage. On the other hand, there were shots with low light when I needed the more sensitive sensor of a more recent model. I decided to use the 40D for the safari and wait to purchase the new model replacing the 7D.
  • Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens.  I took this general-purpose lens but used it for less than 10% of the photos.  Most useful for photographing people.
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS lens.  A very popular lens for serious wildlife.  Used this lens almost all the time. Unless the animal is close to your safari vehicle, most photos were at 300 – 400 mm, so buying a 400 mm telephoto lens was right. With the APS-C camera body, the effective focal length tops out at 640 mm.  I bought the telephoto lens for the safari, and I was pleased with the safari photos. Before the safari, I practiced in my backyard.  It took several rounds of taking pictures and examining the photos to figure out how to take a picture that’s reasonably sharp and in focus. This lens is slow, so a camera body with a faster ISO than the 40D would have helped for the low light of dawn and dusk.
  • Canon EF 1.4x II Extender.  I had this and brought it.  I used it twice, for distant stationary animals — tree-climbing lions and shy klipspringers that usually ran away. It worked for the lions but not the klipspringers.  For the klipspringer photos, the autofocus didn’t function (light was too low, apparently), and those photos weren’t in focus.  😦  It’s small so I’d bring it again, practicing with low light first.
  • Monopod and monopod head. Purchased for riding in open vehicles on safari or for bush walks, I didn’t use them.  The camera and telephoto lens are heavy, about 5 pounds, but I was able to support the lens on the vehicle or hand-hold it on bush walks.
  • Canon S100 camera.  A point and shoot that we purchased a month before the safari.  We learned how to use it in a few scene settings.  Better performance in low light that the 40D.  This worked best for landscapes, low light, or animals close to the vehicle. The GPS tells you where you were. Taking a video using these small cameras is very difficult — you have to hold the camera steady for as long as you’re taking the video.
  • Charger and spare batteries for cameras.  Used all the time.
  • Laptop with Lightroom and memory card reader.  I downloaded photos to the laptop daily, to make a second copy of the photos and to review the photos. My laptop is old and heavy, but I felt better taking an old laptop on a safari than a brand new one. With Lightroom you can select and reject photos, zoom in to check the sharpness of a photo, and rate photos.  Other software packages do this too. I bring a laptop on all long trips.

In summary, I’d bring everything again, except for the monopod and head. In the future, I plan to replace the camera body and laptop with newer models. The more sensitive sensor on the newer camera body will help mitigate the slower speed of the zoom lens, and this would be good enough for me.

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Our last game drive

This would be the last game drive of our safari, from our camp in the Maswa Game Reserve to a lodge just past Ngorongoro Crater.

We drove through the acacia woodland and discovered the cheetah mother and four cubs at the edge of the acacia woodland.  We were happy that they had made it back to the woodland safely from the gazelle kill.  The mother was taking the cubs somewhere — alternately walking and waiting for the cubs to follow.

mother cheetah and four cubs walking
mother cheetah and four cubs walking

They walked past a downed tree, so of course the cubs had to climb it as the mother kept walking.

cheetah cubs climbing the tree
cheetah cubs climbing the tree
more climbing
more climbing

Now we’ve seen what herding cats means. 😉 The cheetahs continued walking. We saw this cheetah family on three different days. Amazing luck and skill of our guides.

We started a long game drive along the boundary of the the acacia woodland and the short-grass plains.

Some jackals were looking at Thomson’s gazelles, but the gazelles had spotted the jackals and were careful.

jackals looking at thomson's gazelles
jackals looking at thomson’s gazelles

Later these two thomson’s gazelles were fighting (butting heads).

gazelles fighting
gazelles fighting

A pregnant spotted hyena showing us her long, yellow teeth.

pregnant spotted hyena
pregnant spotted hyena

In the Ngorongoro highlands there are Maasai villages and tropical trees.  Looking at the vegetation, you can see that the highlands get a lot more rain than the Serengeti plains.

Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
Maasai boma overlooking the Serengeti
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands
lush vegetation in the Ngorongoro highlands

We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch.  The lodge felt somewhat antiseptic after 8 nights in camps, but we did savor the long showers, electricity in our rooms, flush toilets, and internet.

At dinner we each talked about our favorite experience on the safari.  Mine was the cheetah family before the thunderstorm and the harrowing drive back to camp on the flooded dirt road.

The next day two people left for gorilla tracking, four for Zanzibar, four for South Africa, and three for home.

We had a blast. The safari was a fabulous experience that we’ll always cherish. We had great guides who found a wide variety of animals and parked so that we’d have good light for photos. They told us about the animals. They patiently answered our questions and told us stories. They put a very positive face on Tanzania. We enjoyed traveling with our fellow safari clients. I appreciate everyone’s patience with me as I clicked away with my camera, or more frequently, waited for an animal to turn its head just so.

Day 3 at Serengeti camp – wildebeests and cheetahs

Near our camp in the Maswa Game Reserve, this group of wildebeests walked along the alkaline lake in the early morning. Our guides had told us that with the recent rain, the grass would grow quickly and the herds would return. On our drive the day before, we had seen columns of wildebeests migrating toward camp.

wildebeests returning after the rains
wildebeests returning after the rains

This group has six adults and one baby. I expected more babies — by late February, the calving was complete. Our guide said that about 80% of the newborn wildebeests don’t survive the first year: approximately a quarter die in the first few months, a quarter die crossing the rivers west of the Serengeti, and a quarter die in the Masai Mara. The west and Masai Mara both have rivers with crocodiles. The western Serengeti rivers have the first crocodiles encountered by the young wildebeests, and wildebeests aren’t prepared for the river crossing. The crocodiles get much of their annual food from the migration, so they gather and wait.

We noticed there were a lot more flies than before. Had a thousand flies hitched a ride with every new wildebeest that migrated here? Our guide explained that flies lay eggs in the dung. When the eggs are moistened by rain, baby flies emerge. So the wildebeests migrating into the area didn’t cause more flies.  The recent rain triggered both the new grass (causing wildebeests to migrate into the area) and newborn flies hatching.

Driving on the savanna, we saw three cheetahs: a mother and two 1-year-old cheetahs.

cheetah mother of two
cheetah mother of two
two one-year-old cheetahs
two one-year-old cheetahs

We waited to see if they would hunt the nearby wildebeests and gazelles.  But they only hid in the tall grass, so we drove on. In the photo below, there’s a cheetah head sticking up on each side of the photo.

two cheetahs hiding in the tall grass
two cheetahs hiding in the tall grass

At noon we found a cheetah mother and four cubs with a gazelle kill. It was the same cheetah family we had seen two days earlier. Our guide compared the two cheetah families.  One family has four month-old cubs ; the second family has the two year-old cheetahs.  The family with the older children has fewer children. Is this normal? Some cubs will not survive their first year, despite the best care of the mother. Yes, half the cheetah cubs surviving their first year is normal. 😦

Back at camp we saw this marabou stork.  They’re large (up to 1.5 m tall) and not pretty.

marabou stork at camp
marabou stork at camp

On the evening game drive we saw a mother and baby striped hyena.

striped hyena mother and baby
striped hyena mother and baby
striped hyena baby nursing
striped hyena baby nursing

The family that preys together, part 2

At noon on our third day at Serengeti camp, we found the cheetah family that we had seen two days earlier, just before the thunderstorm. They were in the acacia woodland earlier. Now they were on the savanna about a mile from the acacia woodland.

The mother cheetah had killed a thomson’s gazelle, and the safari land cruisers found the cheetahs. In this photo, four safari vehicles are very close the the cheetahs, and there are more vehicles. The mother cheetah is reacting to the tight circle of vehicles surrounding her four cubs. The short grass provides little cover. This photo was taken at 100 mm focal length.

cheetah mother and cubs surrounded by safari vehicles
cheetah mother and cubs surrounded by safari vehicles

Right after this picture was taken, our lead guide radioed all the guides to give the cheetahs more room.  Remarkably, every vehicle except one moved back.  Because we moved back, most of the remaining pictures were taken at 400 mm, four times the magnification of the first photo.

cheetah cubs eating
cheetah cubs eating
cheetah mother eating
cheetah mother eating
cheetah mother licking her nose
cheetah mother licking her nose

The cheetah mother tried to drag the gazelle, but she was too exhausted to drag it far.

dragging the kill
dragging the kill

The cheetahs stopped feeding. We had watched for an hour.  We drove back to camp for lunch.

cheetahs and gazelle
cheetahs and gazelle

Back at camp, our lead guide told us what happened that morning.  Another guide had watched the cheetahs before we arrived and told our guide.  The cheetah mother went hunting.  She couldn’t take the cubs while hunting, so she left them in the woodland, where they could hide from predators.  After killing the gazelle, she went back to the woodland and brought her cubs to the kill so they could eat and she could protect them.  She had dragged the kill toward the woodland but she was too tired to drag the gazelle the remaining mile.

Day 2 at Serengeti camp – the great migration, at last

During our safari in late February, the great migration is normally in the southern Serengeti. But so far there has been little rain so the wildebeests and zebras came, ate the grass, and moved to the north, where there was more rain and grass. We had seen few wildebeests and no herds of wildebeests.

On our second day at Serengeti camp, we woke early for a long drive north to see herds of wildebeest and zebra. We would enter the Serengeti National Park, where we would have to stay on roads.

Early in the morning this giraffe was eating its favorite food, acacia leaves.  Acacias have long thorns.  We see how giraffes use their long, dexterous tongue to grab the leaves while avoiding the thorns. The giraffe’s tongue is wrapped around the branch to strip the leaves.

giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves
giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves

Here’s a closeup with more detail.  See the long thorns to the left and right of the giraffe tongue. The thorns are a lighter green than the leaves and branches. At 7:18 am, the light was dim.  Like the night before, the ISO was maxed out and the lens wide open, and there still wasn’t enough light. Learning my lesson, I increased the exposure from 1/400 to 1/250 second, while shooting at 400 mm. The rule of thumb is that the exposure time is less than or equal to the inverse of the focal length, or 1/400 second for a 400 mm focal length. The photo looks clear enough despite the longer exposure. See the giraffe’s eyelashes?

closeup of giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves
closeup of giraffe tongue grabbing acacia leaves

A half hour later we stopped to see this jackal.  We were far away — these photos were taken at 400 mm.

common jackal
common jackal

A couple minutes later we learned why our guide stopped and waited.

jackal eating a bird
jackal eating a bird

Here’s a closeup.  It looks like the jackal’s eating a bird with long black feathers, perhaps a secretary bird.  Breakfast before 8:00 am.

closeup of jackal eating a bird
closeup of jackal eating a bird

When we entered the Serengeti National Park, we stopped to file papers.  This superb starling was in the parking lot. The iridescent top feathers and orange breast are very pretty.

superb starling
superb starling

At noon we finally found herds of zebras and wildebeests. Not the million animals that we had read about, but many herds of animals.

zebras
zebras
zebra and wattled starlings
zebra and wattled starlings

We saw a leopard and its kill, shown in my post.

leopard in tree
leopard in tree

We were happy.  Our safari was nearing the end, and we had not seen a leopard.  The leopard completed our seeing the big five animals.  As it turned out, this was the only leopard we saw.  It was almost 2:00, and we headed for a late lunch.

But of course we had to stop to see these baboons on the side of the road.

baby baboon playing
baby baboon playing
baboons grooming
baboons grooming

After lunch we drove along a river and saw hippos. There was much more water here than at the Alamana hippo pool, so these hippos were more comfortable.

hippo approaching
hippo approaching
hippos humping
hippos humping
hippo yawning
hippo yawning

Here’s a closeup of the hippo jaws.  Note the hippo’s enormous mouth and sharp, ivory canine teeth.  Hippo teeth are sharpened during use, and the canines can reach 20″.

hippos jaws
hippos jaws

We saw lions mating.  See my post.

We started the long drive back to camp. We had started early, and we were all tired.

Our guide saw some vultures landing and taking off in the grass so he stopped to look where the vultures were landing.  No other vehicles were stopped.  We didn’t see anything where the vultures landed.  Finally he told us to look to the left, far away.  We finally saw some brown spots in the grass.  Still in the National Park, we couldn’t drive off-road to get closer.  The following photos are with a telephoto lens at 400 mm. Here’s the initial photo.

brown spots in the distance
brown spots in the distance

Soon there was some movement.

lion moving the kill
lion moving the kill
lion with wildebeest hoof and head
lion with wildebeest hoof and head

And a closeup of the lion.

closeup of lion with wildebeest hoof and head
closeup of lion with wildebeest hoof and head

Looks like a wildebeest.  Our guide told us that the lions had probably killed the wildebeest and dragged it away.  The vultures were landing at the spot of the kill. Our guide is amazing at finding animals.

At dusk we saw these storks roosting in a tree.

storks roosting
storks roosting

Back at camp, we heard a loud elephant trumpet as we got out of the vehicle.  A large elephant was walking between two tents, about a hundred meters away from us.  The elephant was taller than our tents.  The guide said to climb back in.  After the guides said it was clear, they drove us back to our tents.

We later learned that this adult elephant is a frequent visitor to the camp.  Our lead guide saw it and shined a flashlight into its eyes. The light in elephant’s eyes ruins its night vision, so it moved away.

Mating lions

On safari in Serengeti National Park, our guide had heard that two lions had been mating since the day before. Some background from wikipedia: “during a mating bout, which could last several days, the couple copulates twenty to forty times a day and are likely to forgo eating”.  “As with other cats, the male lion’s penis has spines which point backwards. Upon withdrawal of the penis, the spines rake the walls of the female’s vagina, which may cause ovulation.”

When we arrived, the lions were lying on the road.

lions on the road
lions on the road

The female got up and walked away.  The male followed.

female walks away
female walks away
male follows
male follows

Of course, all the vehicles followed the couple. This vehicle was too close and not from our safari.

land cruiser invading the lions' space
land cruiser invading the lions’ space

The lions continued walking and stopped again.  The land cruisers followed.

female waits and male yawns
female waits and male yawns

The female got up and walked off, with the male close behind.  Our guide said that the time is right.

male lion following closely
male lion following closely

The land cruisers tried to follow. The male mounted the female.  After our vehicle stopped, I had time for only a single photo.

climax
climax

It seemed like it was over in an instant. Reviewing photo capture times, 20 seconds elapsed between the male following photo and the climax photo.

See the female reaching her head back and snarling.  Evidently it hurts a lot when the male withdraws his penis and the backward-facing spines rake her vagina. I’ve read on another blog that the male makes a quick exit because the female might hurt him while in pain. Thirty seconds later, the female is resting.

male lion looking at female
male lion looking at female

Twenty-five minutes had elapsed since we first saw the lions on the road; the next cycle would probably take at least that long.  It was 5:40 pm; we started the long drive back to camp.

A leopard and its kill

On our safari in February we drove far to the north for the day into Serengeti National Park, to see the great migration.  At 1:00 we saw dozens of vultures and storks congregating at this tree. These African storks eat meat, a far cry from our childhood image of a white stork delivering newborn babies.

dozens of vultures and storks
dozens of vultures and storks

A few minutes later, our guide stopped at the lone tree in the photo below. There’s a leopard nearby, and there might be a kill in the tree. No vehicles were parked here, a common indicator of animals. We all pulled out our binoculars and scanned the tree. This photo was taken at 120 mm focal length on a 40D, about 3 times magnification over the human eye. How our guide knew to stop at this tree is a mystery to me.

acacia tree with leopard kill
acacia tree with leopard kill

We finally saw some thin, brown legs hanging from a limb on the right side, half-way up the tree. The next photo, a tighter shot using a telephoto zoom lens at 380 mm, shows the kill more clearly. From the color of the legs, it looks like an antelope such as a gazelle or impala, probably an impala from the medium brown color.

leopard kill
leopard kill

Then we drove a half mile to a tree with a dozen or more land cruisers parked underneath. The leopard was in this second tree, away from its kill. After waiting for vehicles to leave, we finally had a clear view of the leopard.  This photo shows the leopard from head to tail, shot at 160 mm focal length.

leopard in tree
leopard in tree

Here’s a tighter shot of the leopard, at 380 mm.

tighter shot of leopard
tighter shot of leopard

Our guide explained that the leopard is clever, hiding the kill in one tree and hanging out in another tree. During the day, vehicles like ours will call attention to the leopard. Putting the kill in a tree ensures than hyenas won’t get to the kill. Using a tree with leaf cover hides the kill from dozens of vultures a few minutes away.

You have to be clever to survive in Africa. And our guide is just as clever to see all this as he drives, to show us, and to teach us so we can understand. Asante, Mzee.