Beginner’s Guide To Safari Photography On a Wildlife Trip to Uganda

For most travelers, photography is an integral part of their entire trip. Technology has even made it possible for almost anyone to capture the best moment of their holiday. But many of us don’t just want an ordinary photo for our google photo drive. We’re searching the internet for safari photography tips because we want to get the perfect photo at the perfect moment, and we want to know how the experts do it.

I’m an ardent fan of Ariadne van Zandbergen’s work on The Africa Image Library. I looked around to find what she would recommend to a wildlife photography newbie on their first or second Africa safari trip to Uganda. Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines, so she knows her stuff. 

One of her best quotes that hit me real hard was, “Read your camera manual and come to grips with the basics of photography like aperture and shutter speed. Photography isn’t all about flair and having an eye. You need to come to grips with the technical side first.”

Let’s get into the safari photography tips, shall we? We’ll be looking at these four things:

  1. The right photography equipment and how to handle it
  2. Lighting, what time of the day is best to pick up the camera
  3. The protocols, watch out for these in Uganda and anywhere else
  4. Angles, perspective, and a couple of other safari photography tips & tricks
Wildlife Photography Tips for Safari trip in Uganda. Man taking a photo of a monkey

Photography equipment and how to handle it

Although you can take reasonable photos with a ‘point and shoot’ camera with some thought and an eye for composition, you need a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera with one or more lenses if you are at all serious about wildlife safari photography. The most important component in a digital SLR is the sensor. 

Camera Lens

There are two types of sensors: DX and FX. The FX is a full-size sensor identical to the old film size (36mm). The DX sensor is half the size and produces less quality. Your choice of lenses will be determined whether you have a DX or FX sensor in your camera as the DX sensor introduces a 0.5x multiplication to the focal length. So a 300mm lens becomes, in effect, a 450mm lens. FX (‘full-frame’) sensors are the future, so I will further refer to focal lengths appropriate to the FX sensor. 

Canon 100-400mm IS II lens for wildlife photography
The light and relatively portable Canon 100-400mm IS II lens

Always buy the best lens you can afford. Fixed fast lenses are ideal but very costly. Zoom lenses are easier to change the composition without changing lenses the whole time. If you carry only one lens, a 24-70mm or similar zoom should be ideal. A lightweight 80-200mm or 70-300mm or similar will be excellent for candid shots and varying your composition for a second lens. 

Wildlife photography on safari will be very frustrating if you don’t have at least a 300mm lens. For a small loss of quality, teleconverters are a cheap and compact way to increase magnification: a 300 lens with a 1.4x converter becomes 420mm, and with a 2x, it becomes 600mm. NB 1.4x and 2x teleconverters reduce the speed of your lens by 1.4 and 2 stops, respectively. 

The resolution of digital cameras is improving the whole time. For ordinary prints, a 6-megapixel camera is fine. For better results and the possibility to enlarge images and professional reproduction, higher resolution is available up to 50.6 megapixels. 

Storage

It is important to have enough memory space when photographing on your Uganda safari holiday. As wildlife photography offers lots of opportunities for safari action photography, you’ll end up shooting a lot of frames and filling up a lot of memory space. Nothing is more frustrating when you have to change the card in the middle of an action scene. 

The number of pictures you can fit on a card depends on the quality you choose. You should calculate how many pictures you can fit on a card and either take enough cards or take a storage drive to download the cards’ content. 

You can obviously take a laptop, which lets you see your pictures properly at the end of each day and edit and delete rejects. If you don’t want the extra bulk and weight, you can buy a storage device that can read memory cards. These Secure Digital (SD) cards come in different capacities. 

When browsing through SD cards, there are two main types you will come across: SDHC and SDXC. SDHC stands for secure digital high capacity, and SDXC stands for secure digital extended capacity. The difference between the two types lies only in the amount of data they store. SDHC cards start at 2GB and top out at 32GB, whereas SDXC cards start at 32GB and theoretically max out at around 2TB of storage, although the largest capacity to date is a 1TB card from SanDisk.

Charging your equipment

Ceptics Universal Powere Adopter for Uganda Power
International Power Adapter, Ceptics World Travel. Works well in Uganda.

Keep in mind that digital camera batteries, computers, and other storage devices need charging. Make sure you have all the chargers, cables, converters with you. Most Africa safari lodges and hotels have charging points, but it will be best to enquire about this in advance. When camping, you might have to rely on charging from the car battery. 

Dust and heat

Dust and heat are often a problem. Keep your equipment in a sealed bag, and avoid exposing equipment to the sun when possible. 

Digital cameras are prone to collecting dust particles on the sensor, which results in spots on the image. The dirt mostly enters the camera when changing lenses, so you should be careful when doing this. To some extent, photos can be ‘cleaned’ up afterward in Photoshop, but this is time-consuming.

Protective Camera Backpack Waterproof for DSLR SLR Photographer

You can have your camera sensor professionally cleaned, or you can do this yourself with special brushes and swabs made for this purpose, but note that touching the sensor might cause damage and should only be done with the greatest care. 

Safari Photography Lighting 

The most striking outdoor photographs are often taken during the hour or two of ‘golden light’ after dawn and before sunset. Shooting in low light may enforce the use of very low shutter speeds, in which case a tripod/bean bag will be required to avoid camera shake.

The most advanced digital SLRs have very little loss of quality on higher ISO settings, which allows you to shoot at lower light conditions. It is still recommended not to increase the ISO unless necessary. 

f-stop, shutter speed and ISO settings cheatsheet
f-stop, shutter speed and ISO settings cheatsheet

With careful handling, side lighting and backlighting can produce stunning effects, especially in soft light and sunrise or sunset. Generally, however, it is best to shoot with the sun behind you. 

When photographing animals or people in the harsh midday sun, images were taken in light, but even shade is likely to look nicer than those taken in direct sunlight or patchy shade since the latter conditions create too much contrast. 

Man pushes matooke bananas on bike: Photography protocol in Uganda and anywhere else in Africa
Protocal: a warning from a local who didn’t expect a camera in his face.

Photography protocol in Uganda and anywhere else in Africa

In Uganda, like many other countries, it is unacceptable to photograph local people without permission, and many people will refuse to pose or ask for a donation. In such circumstances, don’t try to sneak photographs as you might get yourself into trouble. Even the most willing subject will often pose stiffly when a camera is pointed at them; relax them by making a joke, and take a few shots in quick succession to improve the odds of capturing a natural pose. 

Angles, perspective and a couple of more safari photography tips

When photographing wildlife, Ariadne writes in a safari blog; it is tempting to zoom in as close as possible and take a close-up shot. This might result in many very usable field guide pictures, but it can pay off to think outside the box and vary your angles and perspectives. An animal in a bigger setting sometimes tells more of a story.

Rothschild Giraffe in Uganda - animal in bigger setting tell more of the story
Rothschild Giraffe, Murchison Falls NP

When photographing wildlife, we tend to shoot with a low depth of field (small f-stop) as this makes the animal stand out from distracting backgrounds and vegetation. This also enables us to use a higher shutter speed, which minimizes camera shake and freezes movement. We usually accept less sharpness in other parts of the body so long as the eyes are dead sharp. It is, therefore, crucial to always focus on the eyes.

Great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata) - less sharpness in other parts of the photo
Great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata), Kibale Forest

Your driver-guide is there to help you make the most of your African safari. Most guides are good at spotting animals, and they can also offer interesting information relevant to the sightings. But many don’t really know how to take pictures on safari and might need some guidance when it comes to lining up the vehicle to get the perfect angles. Don’t be shy to communicate with the driver to get in the best position. Also, make sure the engine is turned off at sightings.  

Patience is the main key to great wildlife photos. Instead of driving from animal to animal, it pays to stay with a potentially good sighting. Spending time will offer an opportunity to see some interesting animal behavior. The most rewarding photos of wildlife are usually those showing interaction or action, which often requires anticipation and patience. You can read more about the importance of patience on safari here.

red-tailed monkey uganda
Red-tailed monkey, Bwindi Impenetrable NP

It is easy to get too focused on the Big 5 and other large mammals on Africa safari. This is partly because the Big Five is heavily marketed, and searching for them seems to be the main aim in any safari. However, photographing small animals and birds can be highly rewarding as well. A photograph of a dung beetle or a colorful bird in flight is more evocative than yet another photo of a sleeping lion. A good way to focus on the small stuff is to book a walking safari.  

Taking photographs on safari should be fun. Unless you’re a professional photographer, there is no reason to let photography dominate every sighting. Sometimes it is worthwhile to put down the camera and stop looking through the lens – to slow down and take in the views, the smells, and the sounds of the African bush.  

A Uganda safari trip offers great wildlife photography opportunities, but hopefully, you’ll have some rewarding human interactions as well. You’ll probably make a close bond with your guide, and at the end of the day, the people working in your lodge are usually happy to hear about your adventures. So, don’t put away your camera when leaving the safari vehicle, but take some photos of the people that cross your path. Just make sure always to ask permission first and to be respectful.

Onward,

Getting decent equipment is something you get right the first time, right? How about how to handle it? Read the manual like an ancient biblical script and get to know your gear. But the one thing you can’t buy is the eye for the best shots. With time, patience, and environment on your side, you get safari photography right. These tips are like a signpost, just to show you the direction, and it’s up to you to take it.

If you’re looking for a photography safari to inspire your Africa safari trip planning, take a look at these. You should also know that our local operator, Nkuringo Safaris, has an expert waiting to help you customise any trip to your style, your way for maximum experience. They deal with you directly, with no third parties, no extra fees, and expert local knowledge of the destination. As a matter of fact, send an email to info@nkuringosafaris.com right now!.