Why Africa will make you a better wildlife photographer

I have a confession to make about my serious addiction. Africa. It is a drug and it courses through my veins, sparking lucid visions of endless rolling plains, the rhythmic drumming of a thousand wildebeest hooves, punctuated by a cacophony of whinnying zebras. The visions permeate my waking hours, leaving me wistful, nostalgic, with an irrepressible grin and a finger itching to trigger the shutter button. Since my first visit in 2014, I have journeyed to Africa every year, twice a year, for 7 years in a row, in what has become a pilgrimage, to immerse myself in the richness of its bountiful wonders and to push my photographic boundaries further than before. That is the beauty of Africa, specifically Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa. Everything feels familiar, yet nothing stays the same, especially your photography.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love wildlife photography in India too, with its incredible beauty, diversity and colour. There are places where the experience would be different from the sort of examples I list below, but these are exceptions. But if you’re a novice or an amateur wildlife photographer, you should experience Africa, and I’ll tell you why. Now if you’ve experienced wildlife safaris in India, you’ll understand what I am about to share, if not, you’ll simply have to experience it for yourself.

Understanding the Indian context

The first and most important difference is how completely different the importance to being first in line is, in the Indian context. In most wildlife sanctuaries in India, the race starts before one even enters the wilderness, with vehicles racing to be the first in line before the gates open. Why? Simply because the first vehicle has much better chances of spotting a tiger or leopard, as the tracks are narrow and vehicular movement is single-file. The further back you are in line, the lesser your chances as the animal may get spooked and disappear, but your chances of eating dust dramatically increase the further back you are, as no one allows the vehicle in front out of their sight.

In India, for the most part, wildlife safaris are experienced in jungles or forests of tall trees, thick undergrowth, and trails splitting the forest. This context greatly impacts that most important of factors in photography, light. In the forest, the trees usually end up blocking the early morning or late evening light. Then there’s the fact that you can’t choose your direction, because you’re on a narrow track facing a particular direction, so you have to shoot with whatever light you’ve got and if you have vehicles on the other side of your subject, your shot may end up compromised. 

Then there is the system by which subjects like big cats are located and tracked. I like to call this system the ‘Alarm Call Ambush’. The density of the undergrowth means that visibility beyond the treeline is almost impossible, which means visibly locating a subject even as large as an elephant can be almost impossible, often right until the subject emerges from the treeline. Naturalists extrapolate the position of predators like tigers and leopards by listening to alarm calls from deer, monkeys and birds,  then track the direction of the relay of the alarm calls to know if the predator is on the move and where. With these auditory cues, the naturalists will direct the driver to a potential crossing point, where the big cat  may emerge from the treeline. Often, when the subject emerges, it crosses the track and vanishes into the forest on the other side. This could be mere seconds or minutes and you as a photographer are jostling for space with a dozen other vehicles, trying to get a clear visual and hopefully take a picture before the magnificent creature vanishes into the undergrowth. This means that you have to be technically on point as a photographer, to have all your settings dialled in, making quick adjustments on the fly to make your images, all the while hoping that your vehicle isn’t stuck behind others, or that some rubberneckers won’t photobomb your shot, or have a vehicle behind your subject, ruining the image. There’s a lot of luck involved as you don’t know where the subject will emerge and if you haven’t dialled in your settings correctly, chances are the opportunity will pass you by, as the subject might just keep on walking through and disappear into the forest.

How is Africa Different?

Let me use East Africa, specifically Tanzania and Kenya as an example. Unlike India where the majority of the wildlife, especially big cats and other big ticket subjects like elephants, wild dogs, gaur, etc. are found in thick forests and jungles; in East Africa, wildlife is predominantly in the savannahs, or open grasslands. Tracking subjects is much easier, as the open grasslands offer excellent opportunities to visually seek and track wildlife. Not only is finding wildlife easy, but the fact that they are out in the open means that you have multiple opportunities to photograph your subject. Missed the shot? Messed up your settings? Fix them as the naturalist drives ahead of the subject to give you another opportunity. You can change focal lengths, switch lenses, try a wide-angle composition, shoot vertical, maybe shoot a little video for your vlog. The open savannahs of East Africa and indeed other places like South Africa, Namibia and Botswana offer you opportunity after opportunity, to get that shot. You literally have no excuse not to have at least one good image.

Big Ticket Sighting vs Photographic Opportunities

Let’s not forget why you as a wildlife photographer are on safari. Hopefully it’s to photograph a range of wildlife subjects, not just one species. After all, as a wildlife photographer, you want to experience the incredible diversity of wildlife, including the amazing avian fauna on offer, to engage in as many photographic opportunities as possible. That’s the other major difference between a wildlife photographic safari in India vs Africa. In India, especially in some of the famous tiger reserves, many naturalists don’t stop for anything other than a tiger. Literally. You might want to photograph a raptor or spot a fabulous photographic opportunity of a peacock dancing in golden light, but your naturalist wants to show you a tiger. It’s a rat race to be the first vehicle to get to a tiger, because the moment the word gets out, everyone rushes there and because the tracks are narrow, there’s yelling and shouting and gesticulating for vehicles to move. Not the most pleasant circumstances to enjoy wildlife photography. Forget the fact that the tiger maybe in the bushes, with only an exposed tail tantalizing twitching.

In East Africa, naturalists are as happy to stop and position the vehicle for you to get a photograph of a singing lark as they are for a lion or a cheetah. Yes, they would love for you to see lions and cheetahs, but they are keen to showcase all forms of wildlife, no matter how small or seemingly common. This to me is a much more enriching experience as a wildlife photographer, where the naturalist is keen to help you not only observe and learn about the myriad species that are part of that ecosystem, but also to get the best image of whatever subject you desire and not just big game. Again, isn’t that the goal as a wildlife photographer? For you to choose the kind of opportunities and angles and subjects that you would like to photograph and add to your repertoire?

I’ll go to Africa when I’m a better photographer

Now, if you think you would love to do a wildlife photography tour of Africa, but only after you improve your photography first; see, that is where you’re wrong!  I believe that a wildlife photography tour of Tanzania or Kenya is exactly what you need to take your photography up a couple of notches. East Africa  is brilliant because it treats the professional and the novice with equal respect. As a professional, you set out with a checklist of images that you would like to make and chances are you’ll get those opportunities. As a novice, your excitement may get the better of you and you may miss an opportunity but wait 5 minutes and you will get another one. You will not only get bucketloads of subjects to photograph, but you get the opportunity to experiment with your gear, to experiment with settings, to push yourself to try  something different. In the African savannah, you have incredible opportunities with not just golden light, but the blue hour of pre-dawn and twilight, so you can indulge in backlit images, silhouettes, rim-lit images, etc. You can position your vehicle to shoot with the light or against the light, therefore giving yourself opportunities to explore your photographic creativity. All of this is why, I firmly believe that 1 week in the African savannah will make you a better photographer than 1 year of sporadic weekend safaris to tiger reserves.

Now I’m giving you fair warning. You may get to experience wildlife and wildlife photography in a way that you are completely unprepared for. From experiencing behaviour and natural history moments that you have never witnessed before, to revelling in the bounty of photographic splendours on offer. They say too much of anything is never good. However, as I said at the beginning, Africa is a drug and the savannah beckons, it’s siren song will lure you to its verdant grasslands where life thrums in the very air and the heart pounds to the rhythm of the place where all life began. Africa is calling. Answer the call. 

May the Focus be with you!


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