Travel

An Africa Photo Safari, Maasai Mara, Kenya

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kenya maasai mara lion sky 2-1
Sometimes the sky and the lions cooperate to give you the iconic safari photo.

The first thing that occurred to me as we finished our first African animal photo safari was, I want to do this again. For longer. And make a book of it. That’s how much we loved it.

It’s a unique experience, combining extraordinary African hospitality, the unbelievable expertise of our Maasai guide, and, of course, elephants, lions, and cheetahs almost close enough to touch. And, their surpassingly cute babies. That was a bonus.

kenya maasai mara hyena 1
Keep a sharp eye out for the safari camps that offer what is important to you. Such as guides who know exactly where the hyenas hang out.

Table of Contents

How to choose your photo safari

As you consider an African photo safari, the first thing you’re going to learn is that they aren’t cheap. In fact, they’re expensive as it’s not uncommon for them to run more than $1000 per day for a couple. However, when you consider what you’re getting for that, it’s not surprising.

Keep in mind that the safari camps are relatively remote. Therefore, all food, fuel, water, etc. must be trucked in. And electricity is perhaps powered by a generator, or in our case, by solar panels. And so, since you can’t pop out to a restaurant for lunch, all your meals, and often, drinks, are included. We, for example, at our place, were able to enjoy delightful Argentine wines and single malt whiskey. (I never got an answer as to why we were drinking Argentine wines instead of South African, btw? But, I do love a good wine from Mendoza.)

So a few things to consider when you’re choosing your safari:

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A pair of giraffes we saw on our way from the airport to the lodge. That’s a bonus.

Proximity to the animals

Some camps are within the national parks or regional conservancies. That means that you’ll start seeing animals almost immediately when you drive out of camp. In our case, the road between the Mara North airport and our camp went through the conservancy. So, we saw lions, giraffes, and elephants within 15 minutes of getting off our small plane. Some camps are miles outside the boundaries of the conservancies. What that means is probably two things: they may be less expensive; and you might spend an hour or more driving before you actually see any animals.

kenya maasai mara guide
Tom and our guide, Joseph. It would be impossible to overpraise Joseph’s knowledge of the animals and their terrain.

Can you have your own guide?

We were lucky enough to visit the Maasai Mara as part of a group of six, so we naturally had our own Land Cruiser with a dedicated guide. In addition to being an absolute expert on the animals, our Maasai guide Joseph also was amazingly knowledgeable about positioning our vehicle to best take advantage of the best light. And, as any photographer knows, that’s especially important when the sun is lower in the sky at morning and evening.

At times, we could say things like, “Can we find a leopard?” or “Can we move to the other side for the light?” or “Never mind the zebras, let’s look for elephants.” If you’re with a group of others, who all have their opinions, valuable time can be lost while you discuss what to do next. And, you’ll probably be with some people who aren’t photographers who don’t care what the light looks like as they observe the animals. If you’re not in your own group of at least four, you’re probably sharing your vehicle, so if you don’t want to do that, let the lodge know in advance that you want your own vehicle and guide, and they will be happy to arrange that for an extra fee (of course.)

And, don’t forget to tip your guide/driver at the end of your stay. The equivalent of $20-30 per person per day is a good place to start. This is how the guides make most of their living, so be generous.

Also, tip the staff of the lodge. The traditional method is a shared tip that you can leave at the end of the stay. Probably around $10 per night per tent is good.

kenya maasai mara safari leopard 3-1
Our guide Joseph knew where to find a leopard. And we were able to ask him to break off what we were doing and go right to him.

Determine what animals you’ll likely see

It may come as a slight surprise, but not all photogenic animals are in all parts of Africa. In fact, the places that will have everything from aardvarks to zebras are rare. If you’re set on seeing rhinos, you’re going to need to go where they are. Same for hippos, okapis, gorillas, and, for that matter, lions.

For example, I visited the Vwaza Reserve in Malawi and got to see large herds of elephants, troops of baboons, and hundreds of hippos every day. In the Maasai Mara, we saw small groups of elephants – no more than five – and only a couple of hippos in the river.

So, do your homework and quiz the lodges as to what wildlife you’re likely to see from their location – and even better, get close to. Hint: don’t get too close to hippos. They are very bad tempered, and the most dangerous animal in Africa.

kenya maasai mara cheetah cubs 2
Is there anything cuter than a pair of cheetah cubs?

Your actual lodgings and food

The lodgings can vary from very posh hotel-style rooms to elegant permanent tents to more “rustic” accommodations with outhouse toilets and pitchers of non-potable water to wash up with. (Of course the latter will also provide drinking water.) Dining can be an elaborate buffet spread, a restaurant-style service with meals plated and served to you, or, if you will be eating while on the drive, a cold picnic. If you want to start early in the morning (and you do because that’s when you’ll get the best light for shooting and that’s also when some animals are most active) ask your lodge to prepare a portable breakfast for you. They’ll be glad to do it. Have a cup of coffee at the lodge, hit the road, take some photos as dawn breaks, and stop to eat when the sun gets higher in the sky.

So, when it comes to choosing your safari, decide what is important to you, and choose your accommodation accordingly. Be aware, if your usual way to pick lodgings is on the internet, Kenyan websites tend to be sparse at best. You might use the web for your preliminary research, but be sure to call the place before you book and get all your questions answered. Alternatively, it might not be a bad idea to use a travel agent to help you. We did.

Pro tip: it’s not absolutely essential, but if your lodge overlooks a watering hole, the animals will come to you.

Some might say it’s luck – and there’s certainly that element when it comes to shooting unpredictable animals – but being prepared means you get the shot when it’s presented to you.

How to prepare to photograph animals

Our friend Susan Portnoy is a renowned wildlife photographer and she wrote a fairly comprehensive guide of how to photograph animals in Africa. I don’t have a lot to add to this, except to perhaps start off with some more basic tips.

Your phone likely has a very nice camera on it, but except for some instances, it’s not going to be good enough to get dramatic shots if the animal is more than a little ways away from you. If you’re serious about photography, you’re going to need a more serious camera. I’m a Nikon fan myself, but there are plenty of good camera systems out there. Susan uses Canon, for example. There are also Sony, Fujifilm, and, if you have lots and lots of money, Leica.

The essential feature you must have to photograph animals is a looooong lens. I use the Tamron 150-600 zoom for about 90 percent of my animal photography. Even at the maximum focal length, you’ll still find yourself cropping when you edit your photos. That’s when the extra megapixels of a full frame camera really come in handy, btw. A crop frame camera or a phone camera just wont do the job if you want sharp images from a subject that’s more than 100 meters away. (It would not be unreasonable to rent an 800 or 1000mm lens for shooting animals.)

Some other things to consider when you’re using a long lens. Be sure you are holding very steady when you shoot, and are using a high shutter speed (unless you’re going for some movement effect.) Our vehicle in the Mara had a selection of sandbags to rest on the frame of the vehicle and support the long heavy lens. Great idea. Another tip, raise your ISO (sensitivity) to allow you to get both a high shutter speed (at least 1/1000 second) and a smaller aperture, e.g. at least f/16. The smaller aperture will give you some depth of field with the longer lens. Those long lenses are difficult to get precise focus, and a bit of depth of field will let you miss by a hair and still get a usable image. There’s nothing more frustrating that getting a great image that’s just slightly out of focus. Aim to focus on the animal’s eyes, btw.

It’s also a very good idea to have a second camera body, for a couple of reasons. Obviously you need backup in case your main camera body stops working for any reason. Second, you can fit that second camera with a slightly different lens, such as my 70-300mm zoom lens, if an animal should get closer to you than your 150-600 can handle.

Finally, if the animal gets really close, then you can use your phone. Also, an iPhone 13 excels at very wide angle shots, such as the lion shot at the top of this post. (I never said I never use the phone camera!)

If you’re not a photographer, get good binoculars

If you’re not a photographer, get yourself a really good pair of binoculars. Luckily there have been recent advancements in lens grinding techniques which allows you to purchase brilliant and sharp binoculars for hundreds of dollars instead of thousands. We use these Athlon 8×42 binoculars that are spectacular (literally.)

kenya maasai mara ostrich
An ostrich against the darkening sky makes this shot more dramatic than the same shot at noon.

How to do the game drives

The main tip is to be sure you have a guide who knows what he or she is doing. Luckily, in the Maasai Mara the guides are usually Maasai people who have grown up there and know the terrain and animals very well.

The guides operating in the parks will always be in contact with each other by radio and are very good about sharing sighting information. That really comes in handy for the rare sights of a leopard in a tree or a cheetah on a stalk. You just hope the sudden onset of several trucks doesn’t spook the animal and send him off into the deep bush where you can’t see him.

The other tip is mentioned above: get on the “hunt” before dawn so you can see the animals in the very early morning light. It’s always the prettiest, and the low angle of the sun helps contrast the animals with their surroundings, making them easier to see and more photographically dramatic.

How to get to the Maasai Mara North Conservancy

There are two ways to get to the Maasai Mara North Conservancy. From Nairobi, you can hire a driver, and the trip to Mara North will take from five to six hours, depending on Nairobi traffic and the condition of the intervening roads. Both are unpredictable variables. If you use an agent to book your safari and choose to drive, you can arrange so the driver from Nairobi will also be your safari guide. This method will insure that you get your own guide on the game drives.

The second method is to fly from Nairobi on a small plane. That’s what we did. Our agent put us on ALS, a regional airline based at Wilson Airport in Nairobi. Getting to Wilson airport can be a short or rather long journey, based again on Nairobi traffic. But once you get to the plane, the trip to North Mara Airstrip in only about 45 minutes.

At the North Mara airstrip, we were picked up by our guide, and within about five minutes of leaving the airstrip we were spotting lions, giraffes, and zebras on the way to the Offbeat Lodge.

The easiest way to arrange all this (and your lodging) is to go through a travel agency. You probably can do it on your own, but why waste the time. Africa isn’t the easiest place to navigate, and why not get the help of a professional, especially if the additional cost is minimal or is borne by the lodge. We used Picture Perfect Safaris to arrange both this safari and another in the Amboseli National Park. We were very pleased on both occasions.

Why the Offbeat Safari Lodge

Picture Perfect put us in the Offbeat Mara safari lodge, and we were extremely happy with everything. The food, the accommodations, the staff, the guide. All wonderful. We were there with our young grandchildren and we were especially happy that they went out of their way to consider them. They arranged fishing poles and they each caught a fish – in a river that had hippos on the opposite bank! And, they gifted each of them a handmade bow and arrow which kept them busy while the adults were talking.

As for us adults, we asked for a post dinner brandy the first night of our stay, which they didn’t have. By the second night, they’d stocked some just for us. That service is hard to beat.

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