For many people, both photographers and non-photographers alike, a wildlife safari to Africa is not only a bucket-list item, but one that is at the very top of their list. My wife and I recently had the privilege of spending quite a bit of time in Tanzania leading photography tours through our photographic tour company. A Tanzanian wildlife safari is truly a photographers dream!
There are many wonders and experiences that can be had in Tanzania on a photographic wildlife safari. It is the “call of the wild” that will lead you to not only go, but to return more than once as you will be transformed by the beauty of the landscape and the majesty of the animals you will be able to view and photograph.
Tanzania, as are many African countries, is beautiful. However, not all countries are very stable. The Tanzanian government has done an excellent job of creating a stable government, a safe country, and worked hard to protect not only their wildlife through their game preserves and protection programs, but also the many people that come to see such beautiful animals in their natural habitat out in the wild. You will find that Tanzania is a very safe place to come and enjoy for a wildlife safari, but as with all countries, you should be aware of some facts.
The first important step is to ONLY work with top tour guides and highly rated professionals. There are over 400 wildlife safari companies in Tanzania. From experience, I can tell you that you truly get what you pay for. Do not chance the trip of a life time on price! With the right tour guides, you will be in safe hands from the moment you land until your departure. Your tour company should absolutely be available to pick you up at the airport upon landing in Arusha and bring you back to the airport on departure.
Arusha is a bustling starting point for Tanzanian Safaris. Almost every safari starts here upon arrival. It is not safe to go out and wander the streets on your own, especially with expensive gear in hand or at night. Although Tanzania is a safe country, it is still a third world country. You will find that in Arusha you will see poverty and you will see a huge difference from what it is like living in a western culture. Use a company that will take you directly to your hotel from the airport. There are wonderful hotels and you will find that tour companies do their best to shield tourists from the harsh realities of life in Africa. Once you leave Arusha for the wild, you will be transformed into locations that will take your breath away.
The question that seems to be on everyone’s mind these days is Ebola. Africa is NOT a country, but a continent–it is huge. In Tanzania, you are actually farther away from the Ebola situation than if you are in New York. Unfortunately Tanzania, as well as other countries, has suffered huge economic loss because of unwarranted fear and misinformation about the Ebola virus. Do NOT let that discourage you or scare you from going to Tanzania. It simply is not an issue.
With proper planning and the right tour company, you will find that a Tanzanian wildlife safari is very safe. Again, it is my belief that is one of the most incredible experiences you can do as a photographer or just to enjoy as a tour.
Choosing the Right Tour Company
As mentioned, there are over 400 and counting tour companies in Tanzania! Some are good, and many are bad. So, how do you choose? Our company works directly with one of the best, Thomson Safaris. We feel they are one of the very best for many reasons, but it does come with a price.
If you are signing up for a photographic tour, understand that all photographic tours such as ours, must, by law, contract directly with a licensed tour company in Tanzania. It is important to know who your photography guide uses and why. In our case, you can go through us, pay the same price as you would through Thomson direct, but get our photographic guidance and education each step of the way with a 3-1 client/instructor ratio.
There are other very good companies that do this as well. When choosing a tour company, do not choose solely based on price. If it’s too good to be true, there is a reason. People have asked me and compared pricing of our trips and said they could go on a “similar” safari for half what we charge. There is a reason for that and you do not want to chance it!
Here are a few things to keep in mind. Many tour operators stay outside the parks in hotels and you have to drive each day into the park sometimes an hour or two just to get to the entrance. This does not include how long it may take you to find good wildlife. The Serengeti, for example, is huge. The entrance to the park can be hours away from the best wildlife and what is known as the “Great Migration”. The hotels may be nice, but who wants to spend their time driving hours each day and missing great images! A photo safari should be based on getting the best images and wildlife viewing possible.
Many tour operators operate on limited miles. This means that the drivers are only allowed to drive so many miles each day. If you are using so many miles just to get into the parks, your actual “game drive” experience may be limited.
Make sure to choose someone that uses specially equipped Land Rovers for viewing. You don’t want to be packed into a vehicle with 8-9 other people and not able to see the wildlife let alone photograph it! Many tour companies cut cost by doing this. They pack groups together in every seat (sometimes middle) and their vehicles do not have open air roofs for viewing.
If photography is your plan, MAKE SURE to go with someone that only allows 3-4 people per vehicle in the right type of Land Rover with roofs that come up so you can stand and shoot. We situate our clients with 4 people per vehicle in a 9 seat Land Rover. 3 clients and 1 instructor per vehicle. This allows for amazing photographic opportunity plus instruction during the safari, not after back at camp.
Be sure to choose a tour operator who works with the locals! Many operators hire outsiders as guides. I believe in supporting the local culture and people. Using operators with local Tanzanian guides, each with years of experience is a must.
It is so important that your tour operator puts a good “team” of guides together to ensure that your experience is well-rounded. Some guides are great spotters, others are great cultural historians, and some are local tribe’s people.
I also believe in working with companies that give back to the local people, The company we work with, has been responsible for building schools, supplying clean water, hiring local people, and making sure communities flourish due to their existence.
Imagine waking up early each morning in your specially prepared Nyumba Camp . Your “tent” is the size of a hotel room with all the comforts of home. The “call of the wild” beckons.
You awake to go out on safari to a meal prepared by an amazing chef before the sun comes up. Your gear is ready, the anticipation of the day surrounds you, and then you hear off in the distance, elephants, or the roar of a lion.
Your anticipation grows as you know great photographic images to be made are upon you. As the sun comes up over the horizon, you are blessed to see the most surreal sunrise of your life. At that moment, you see a male lion off in the distance, or maybe a female on the hunt, your heart pounds, YOU are on a Safari.
Or……you wake up in a hotel, leave after a late breakfast, drive a couple hours packed in a vehicle with people you do not know and hope for the best. I think you understand now why price comes into play.
I HIGHLY recommend staying in Nyumba Camps. These are camps set out on the wild usually for 2-3months at a time near the Great Migration that is taking place. This allows you to be close to the action and able to be at top wildlife viewing areas within minutes. Each camp has all the comforts of home. In fact, usually you have a dining area, a bar and relaxation area, your own personal tent with shower, bed with pillow top mattress, fine linens, and toilet and sink. Each day your gourmet meals are prepared by a chef while you can sit and relax and just take it all in. Sound like heaven? Yes it pretty much is. Make sure to also go with someone that is able to arrange for you a “tech tent”. This is a special tent set up with charging stations for your camera batteries and computers. A MUST have on a photographic safari!
This list is to serve as a “guide” for a safari. Each trip is unique and therefore considerations must be made according to your own safari, the operator and the season you are going. There are usually weight restrictions in place and especially if you have to fly into the bush from Arusha. Be sure to check with your guide on this and work with someone that is able to arrange added weight allowances!
This type of trip is unlike any situation where you can just run to the local camera store should something go down. We see cameras and gear fail on almost every trip we lead whether it’s in Africa or at home in the US, gear DOES fail. Be prepared or otherwise all of your planning and investment can be ruined.
Bring two camera bodies. If you don’t own what you need, don’t hesitate to rent an extra body but be sure not to go without one.
Bring extra memory cards. You are in Tanzania, there are thousands upon thousands of images to be made. Be sure to have enough memory cards to complete the task. I personally use 32 and 64 gig cards as I do not like to have all my images on one card in case of card failure.
Bring an external hard drive. Be sure to download all of your images each day so they are in at least two locations. Cards do fail and we have seen it many times.
Bring at least 3 batteries. You may or may not be able to charge out on safari depending on your vehicle and if it is equipped or not to do this.
Bring a medium over all lens focal length AND a long lens. I tend to have two camera bodies on me at all times. One has a 24mm-105mm lens for these times when you may find yourself extremely close to wildlife. The other is a 150mm-600mm lens which covers a great amount of length and focal range.
I’m sure some of you photographers are wondering what lens I must be using and how, as a professional, I wouldn’t use the biggest and best. Gear can be a very personal choice. I feel sometimes we put too much weight in the gear vs the talent. I personally believe a talented photographer with little gear can do more than a non-talented photographer with the best gear available. With that said, of course, putting a talented photographer with the best gear is ideal, but not everyone can afford an $11,000 lens. I want to make sure that you can go on a trip like this and obtain great results without the most expensive gear.
For my long lens, I use the new Tamron 150mm-600mm. I honestly purchased this lens and didn’t really expect to see great results. However, for the price and the reviews I read, I thought it was worth a shot. To say this lens went beyond my expectations is an understatement. I did not expect the quality results I have been able to attain. No, this is not the best lens on the market nor is it extremely fast or weather sealed. I love this lens for its affordability, versatile focal range, weight, and quality. This is not an $11,000 F 2.8 lens, but for what it offers, I can’t complain. Most days I would rarely shoot at F 2.8 because the light is sufficient AND I find on animals that can be too shallow for Depth of Field that I want to attain. I do not want to see a nose sharp and the back of the head soft. So usually I am shooting at F5.6 to F 8 anyway.
I compared this lens in text to the Sigma 50-500 and the new Canon 100-400. My findings were that the Tamron was great for its $1000 price. The Canon on the other hand is an excellent choice. My wife uses this lens. I tend to like the range of the Tamron more so I use the Tamron and am very happy with the results. All of the images you see here are from this lens. I have no complaints really for what it offers for the price. Remember, if you are dealing with weight restrictions, (you will be) the biggest and the best weighs in at around 35lbs. That can cause huge extra weight fees or you may have to make special arrangements to make it happen.
You can always rent gear if you don’t own it. There are many companies today that rent out photography gear. Just be sure to understand their insurance policies in case of theft or breakage. Renting is a great way to use top photographic gear in an affordable way.
Tanzania has many national game parks with some of the best wildlife viewing in the world. The most famous of these is the Serengeti. All one has to do is turn on National Geographic or Discovery and you can usually find something on that day from this area. This is because the wildlife here is off the charts amazing.
On our most recent 3 tours, no tour was better than the other. Each was unique and with mind blowing photographic and wildlife viewing opportunities. This says a lot to what the area has to offer. An important part of being able to have these opportunities was the fact that we were staying right in the parks on our special Nyumba Camps, which allows us to be able to get up before sunrise and get out to the wildlife within minutes. It also allows us to be able to stay out and shoot as long as possible. There is no better way to do it.
You may have heard of the “Big 5”. Everyone usually wants to see and photograph these animals consisting of the Rhino, Elephant, Cape buffalo, Lion and Leopard. You will hear and be asked about the Big 5 many times. True, these are all a thrill to view and photograph, but there are many other species that are just as amazing and that goes for birds as well. Of the Big 5, the Rhino is the most coveted because of low numbers due to human poaching. Thankfully, the numbers are coming up and Rhinos are being saved. The work must continue for that to happen.
Tanzania has taken huge steps in protecting these beautiful creatures.
The “Big 5” were given this name back in the days of hunting. This was because these animals have been considered the most difficult to hunt and they can also be the most dangerous. You would be surprised how dangerous an “old bull” Cape buffalo can be! All of these animals are located in the Tanzanian game parks. Most parks contain them all, but the populations can and do vary. Tarangire, as an example, is renowned for its huge population of elephant herds. Ngorogoro Crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself, is 2000 feet deep and the floor covers 100 square miles. Ngorogoro has the largest population of animals condensed into one area anywhere in the world, consisting of over 25,000 large animals all within the crater. This is also the place where you will have the most chance of photographing a Black Rhino. Of course, the Great Serengeti plains contain all the wildlife species and the Great Migration occurs here. The Serengeti is not to be missed on a Tanzanian Safari.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration is truly a sight to behold and photograph as over 2,000,000 Wildebeest and Zebra as well as other animals continually migrate all year in a large circle around the Serengeti. This is another reason to stay in a Nyumba Camp as they are set up according to the migration.
To see these herds as far as the eye can see for miles and miles surrounding your safari vehicle is an experience unlike anything you can ever imagine. It is a must go for on a Tanzanian Safari. You can see the migration year round as long as you stay in a camp.
February is one of the most popular months as this is the time when the births occur and of course predators abound with their opportunities. March is a great time to go because the crowds have gone and you still are able to see a ton of action as baby calves follow their mothers around. Yes they are cute. They also tend to be in danger from the lions looking to feed their young. It is the cycle of nature and although it may sound disturbing, when you witness it you realize that this is life and this cycle MUST take place to preserve the animal population.
In February there can be as many as 50-70 vehicles watching a “kill”, whereas March, at most there is maybe 10-15 and usually even less, For that reason, I prefer March over February. From August –November each year, the Migration crosses the Masai Mara and Mara River into Kenya and back. This is where the Crocs sit and wait for the opportunities to strike. Your heart will pound in anticipation! Be sure to have your camera ready, because when it happens, it happens fast.
Another great photographic and life changing experience, is to visit with the Maasai people. Every Tanzanian safari should not only be about the wildlife, but also about the beautiful culture of the communities. The most popular are the Maasai.
These are the people that you may have seen images of wearing red dress and herding their cows. The Maasai are living in a very interesting time. They struggle to maintain their culture and ancients ways, and yet at the same time, live in a modern world.
A visit to a local Maasai village for many of our clients has been a highlight of their trip. As you are shown around the village, you are taken into their huts which are made out of cow dung and mud. You are freely able to ask questions and take photographs.
After, you are then led to shop for goods they have made. The Maasai have learned the art of selling to tourist. Some people do not like this. I on the other hand applaud them for learning to coexist in this changing world and creating work to provide for their families. I always ask people “when is the last time you had to walk 5 miles for water or wood for your fire?”
I have no issues at all with the Maasai selling to tourist. They do love to barter and it can be a challenge for some and feel pushy to others, but I applaud them for their keenness in what they do. While at a village, be sure to ask if you can visit the children in school. This is something very special to see these precious faces as they learn 3 languages. (Maasai, English, and Swahili). Many will go on to college. Some will never come home and others will return to make sure their existence and culture as a people does not cease to exist.
When all is said and done, if you want to have a life changing experience and adventure, view and photograph some of the most incredible wildlife areas in the world, experience culture and people groups, Tanzania should be at the top of your list. Tanzania truly offers you the “call of the wild”.
David McKay, McKay Photography Academy | April 13, 2016
David, along with his wife, Ally, owns and operates McKay Photography Academy and McKay Photography, Inc. The academy leads tours, classes, and workshops throughout the world. Their studio is known for high-end artistic portraiture. David is the author of the Photography Demystified series including—“Your Guide to Creative Control and Taking Amazing Photographs” and “Your Guide to Exploring Light and Creative Ideas” which have both become number one international bestsellers helping to guide thousands of people in their pursuit of learning photography. David holds the degrees of Master of Photography and Master of Photographic Craftsmen, as well as certification from Professional Photographer of America. David lives in El Dorado Hills, CA, just east of Sacramento, and has been a professional photographer for over twenty-nine years.
Visit the academy website at www.mckaylive.com
Connect with the McKays