Photosafari vs. Safari...the verdict!

July 13, 2015  •  2 Comments

So, in my last blog I shared some thoughts on going on a Safari versus a dedicated Photosafari, prior to my trip to Kenya, which if you haven't been following my adventures, was a dedicated Photosafari with WildEye.

Now I am back, it is time to give my definitive verdict...what do I think of a photosafari compared to my previous safaris?

Well it is different. Much more different than I thought...and in a very good way.

Yes, as expected lodge life has some similarities. The comfort of the lodge, the meals and dining and above all else the early morning starts...around 5.20am each day, are very similar to that of a regular safari.

But there were many key differences which make the experience very different to that of a regular safari.

Our photoguide for the duration of the trip was Andrew Beck. Andrew made it really clear from day 1, when he said:

  • We will stay as flexible as we can when we are out in the field
  • We will try and maximise as much time as possible to stay out in the field

And this pretty much changed everything. The first few morning drives we were heading out just after 6am, and returning any time between noon and 1pm. That meant a morning drive between 6 and sometimes 7 hours. That's phenomenal! With sunrise between 6.30am and 7.00am we had the best of the morning golden hour and by midday we were in pretty harsh light, but enter the expertise of a photo guide!

Just after leaving the lodge, we came across some wildebeest grazing with the most amazing sun rise. A great opportunity photographically to look at back and rim lighting on the subjects. 

On previous safaris the drive normally ends around 10am returning to the lodge for a brunch. The general opinion on regular safaris is that that the light is too high in the sky and too harsh for photography. Combined with the heat and lack of activity of the animals, the game drives end mid morning. On this photosafari, Andrew took us to a place within the Amboseli reserve and taught us how to shoot high key. This is a technique used in harsh light, by over exposing for a black and white conversion. So we were still out in the field around 11am, when the sun was high in the sky. With high key you are shooting for texture. We performed this exercise on the Amboseli dry lake bed and it was a lot of fun. It was really about having a play and trying things out. There were no right or wrong ways of composing. You just had to remember to over expose, be aware of the suns position and shadows, and make sure you didn't have to much of a shallow depth of field. After that morning session I had a new photographic tool in my arsenal!

Andrew (centre) showing us the ropes on High Key shooting on the dry lake bed of Amboseli. This was a lot of fun and taught me how to shoot for textures.

An example of a high key shot I took in colour and then converted to black and white to emphasise textures and shadows. 

We were a group of 5 split across two vehicles and I have to say we were a dedicated bunch always opting for a packed breakfast. Although I think one of the advantages of the packed breakfast was that it enabled us to find a nice spot to get out the vehicle and discover the reserve on foot!

Having a packed breakfast gave us much more shooting time in the field, and a good excuse to find amazing spots to picnic from. It was great to get out for a short time and get closer to the environment you are photographing. 

One of the other advantages was having Tim as our guide. Tim was prepared to put the vehicle exactly where we needed to get a shot. And sometimes those shots weren't obvious and as such it wasn't easy getting the vehicle in the right place. Case in point...

One afternoon drive, I suggested we stop to take some shots of a back lit crowned crane. As we started rattling away, Tim spotted a female lion. We refocused our lenses. The lioness was some distance from us but clearly visible. Now with my own field experience she started to yawn. At which point I mentioned to Tim that she was about to get up and start walking. With a herd of wildebeest on the horizon, her intention was obvious, she was about to hunt. Tim didn't hesitate, he suggested we swing round to the other road before other vehicles came in. Sure enough Tim put the vehicle in prime placement. We tracked the lioness until she went down a drainage line and we lost view. We knew she was there but couldn't see her. I expected a long wait as she stalked towards the Wildebeest. But not at all, within minutes she struck. It happened all so fast I didn't capture the pursuit and takedown. This was simply because I'd lost track of her in the drainage line and believed she was further back than she actually was. We then sat and watched the lioness for a good while until she eventually lost her kill to around 7-8 hyenas which came in from nowhere. Now for sure, this type of sighting does depend on luck, but what was great was Tim's anticipation to get us in the right spot. Whilst the kill itself was some ways from the vehicle and made the photography side challenging even at 600mm, it was still phenomenal to witness...

And if we saw something that we wanted to photograph all we had to do was ask Tim to stop, and place the vehicle forward, backwards or sideways in the position we needed. This to me felt like a photographic luxury compared to a safari. With all of us being photographers in the vehicle nobody minded at all when we wanted to position the vehicle. Everyone got a great angle. 

In Amboseli, vehicles must adhere to the loop roads. This made vehicle positioning so important. You see the long lens popping out of the window. But where's the subject? Long lens shooting was an important aspect of the photosafari and taught me a lot. 

Which brings me to the vehicles themselves. I had seen pop up top vehicles in Kenya on You Tube clips. I must admit looking at them I wasn't a fan. I preferred the open top jeeps I'd experiences in the low veld in South Africa. However, what a poor preconception I had. In Amboseli we were very close to the equator. That meant that despite the odd chilly start at around 6am, by 9-10am the sun was hot, very hot. So having the pop up top was perfect as it provided you with shade, as well as the perfect stand up view. That was the first advantage. The second advantage is by having the windows, you were able to get a lower angle. This allowed you to have two different angles, one high up, the other low. When in a reserve where you can't get out of the vehicle, having these two angles is a huge advantage on different sightings. That's the second advantage. Finally something you may be warned about but don't give much thought to on your trip to Kenya...Tsetse flies. Yes we encountered them, very occasionally, and more so in Tsavo West than Amboseli, but being in a semi closed vehicle rather than an open vehicle helped provide some much needed protection on the odd occasion we drove through an area where they were prevalent. That's the third advantage. Finally, and something that is important to photographers...dust. The roads are dusty. And dust is something we don't really want on our kit. So having the closed vehicle certainly helped reduce the level of dust we were exposed to. So after my experience of the pop up safari vehicle, I'm a convert! Absolutely needed in Kenya, and they are kitted out perfectly for photographers, with plenty of space to spread out your kit if needed.  

We had two groups in two vehicles. Here's Jimmy laying a dust trail on the lake bed. The pop up roof and the windows were perfect for high and low angles, giving extra shooting options and versatility.

Irrespective of the logistical sides of things, the longer drives, flexibility at sightings, packed breakfasts, photographically adapted vehicles and so on, the biggest element of the photosafari is the teaching aspect. Wild Eye are pretty unique in that aspect. All of their photo guides come from a guiding background. Andrew had been a field guide in Madikwe, and so was fully qualified. This makes a huge difference when combining that skill set with photography. Why? Anticipation. On the very first drive with Andrew I picked up something he was able to do that was a real skill. He was able to create something from "nothing". When I say "nothing", I use the inverted commas to emphasise that sightings aren't really "nothing". What I mean is, Andrew was able to see a photographic opportunity from what most people would see as a pretty ordinary of static sighting. Case in point...well two cases in point;

The first....As we stopped to photograph some ostriches, Andrew noticed some Zebras emerging from the bush on to a dusty area. Whilst I was still looking through my view finder at the Ostrich, Andrew had already got Tim to reverse the vehicle in position and was telling us where to focus to emphasise the dusk trail as they walked. This was one of the very first images I took on the safari. I'm really happy with it, especially as it was "straight off the bat". But Andrew's ability to spot this was a real eye opener for me and got me looking at things very differently. 

The dust trail of 3 Zebras emerging from the bush. A very simple sighting made a little bit different thanks to Andrew's eye for detail and a photographic opportunity.  

The second case; we had been driving for a while and things had gone a little quiet. I had noticed a wildebeest on a clearing with an interesting backdrop. There were some nice contours and a tree in the background. I stood up to look at it whilst we were driving, but as this was probably only the 2nd drive I didn't really have the confidence to ask to stop the vehicle for a lone wildebeest in the middle of nowhere. But I had already started to change my way of thinking and looking at photographic opportunities. Just as we got parallel to the wildebeest, Andrew asked to stop. Sure enough he'd had the same idea as me, or I should say I'd had the same idea as him, just didn't speak up!!! Anyway, we worked this sighting against the different slopes and contours where he was grazing and after about 10 shots, the one I felt most drawn to was this one....a very simple and clean composition:

The clouds of Amboseli play an important part in this composition. Pulling back and showing the context of the environment was a recurrent theme. 

Andrew's ability to anticipate animal behaviour, his years in the field and his photographic skill set, meant that the learning opportunities were second to none. On every drive I was learning something new, and furthermore, I was applying what I had picked up in a short space of time very quickly and I could see that my images were progressing each day. Yes, for sure, ever now and again on drive I hit a bleak patch and fell back to some of my old habits. But overall the improvement in my images was a step change and pretty constant every day. What pleased me more than anything was that spending time with Andrew, I started to think differently, or at least, think like he did, and start to see things in the same way as he did...I started to push things further than I normally would. When I saw a wide angle opportunity, I didn't just reach for the 24-70mm, I dared to go with the 16-35mm and it was little decisions like that which paid off. I stopped playing things safe. A photosafari allows you to do that. You have time to breath, to observe, to think and to try things you might not have done on a  regular safari. In my first blog about "Safari vs Photosafari", I mentioned the learning aspect as being something I was really anticipating and looking forward to, but was unsure what to expect. Well I have to say that the images I took I think speak for themselves...and in my next blog I will share some impressions of Amboseli and Tsuavo West as photographic destinations backed up by those images I took. 

The morning sunrise shot at the beginning of the blog with a herd of wildebeest...well we stayed with them after sunrise and I got opportunity sot try some panning shots for motion blur. Not sure I would have had this opportunity on a regular safari. 

So, would I go on a photosafari again instead of a regular safari? Categorically "Yes". It was an incredible experience. For somebody like myself who not only loves being out in Africa and photographing wildlife but also wants to increase my camera skills and photographic knowledge it is a no brainer. I am also now at a skill level where photographic safaris can only help keep pushing my work further. And that is thanks to skilled professionals like Andrew and the Wild Eye team.

Does that mean I won't go on a regular safari again? No it does not. But it is different. And now I see the key differences. I think I would go on safari again with family, especially my daughter, who at her age would not have the interest or patience to be out in the field for long periods of time. I want to keep my daughters interest in animals, safaris and wildlife conservation for her future, so I see an important role that Safaris will play in that journey for her. But for the moment I think I will be leaning more towards the photosafari for the next few years and exploring other incredible destinations Africa has to offer.

Many thanks to; Guy, Silke, Kim, Bene and Tim and Jimmy and of course Andrew and the rest of the Wild Eye team. 

Stay tuned for further upcoming blogs based around my experiences in Amboseli and Tsavo West.

cheers

Jon 


Comments

2.Jon Bryant Photography
Thanks Dee,

Indeed, the more I learn about the industry the more I realise that whilst being based in South Africa has its advantages, the current situation with currency and rates can often make safaris a stretch for SA residents. I think there are a couple of issues here that I couldn't do just on in the comments. However, I would say that countries like Kenya are missing a trick by not actively marketing to the South African market, where safari-going is very strong in your culture, plus a trip to Kenya is not such a trek when comparing with the European market. But the destination is different enough from South African game reserves to peak interest for South African's. One aspect of Kenyan safaris I had a hard time adapting too was no off roading for the big 5. However, I understood exactly why this is a rule. It makes for very challenging photography, in a good way...and something I will blog about in the future. But, like myself, if you have been used to off roading in Sabi Sands or Madikwe, being held to loop roads around the reserve takes some getting used to...and it made me wonder if something like a self drive in KNP would be my cup of tea. I'd be curious to try it just to get a sense of the independence it gives, but obviously this is something where being local has its advantages in terms of organisation and logistics.
1.Dee Roelofsz(non-registered)
Such an interesting blog Jon, as was your previous one.

A photo safari really does change one's perspective tremendously & for me the most significant difference was being with like minded individuals & having the expertise of the dedicated photographic guide as well as the driver, like Tim, who understands the all important aspect of positioning in order to maximise the sighting & hence the images! Likewise if the opportunity arises I will undoubtedly go on other photo safari's.

We are privileged to live in South Africa & have so much on our doorstep, but try never to take this for granted. We have also done many of the 5* safari's / lodges over the years but for many of the reason's, some mentioned here, others in your previous blog, we now prefer the self drive trips that we do. We can be out for as long as we please when we please without the restraint's of the normal safari itinerary, take joy in appreciating, enjoying & photographing all the small things not just the "Big 5". As you mentioned it is often the case on a normal safari where you race from one sighting to the next with little time to just take it in, relax & enjoy the wonder of what you are seeing!
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