How to Get the Most Out of Your African Safari – Interview with Wildlife Photographer Piper Mackay

Marianne Stenger
21st March 2017

Your first African safari is bound to be an unforgettable experience, but if you’re planning to spend some time capturing nature and wildlife photos, it’s important to plan ahead and be prepared.

To give you a better idea of what you can expect from your first safari and help you make the most of your time in the field, we asked professional wildlife and cultural photographer Piper Mackay to share some advice on planning a successful safari and getting the images you want.

Mackay has spent more than 12 years photographing animals, landscapes and people in some of Africa’s most remote and beautiful locations, from the Maasai Mara in Kenya to the Chobe River in Botswana.

Her work has been published by the likes of National Geographic and Outdoor Photographer, and in addition to creating stunning imagery, she also offers cultural and wildlife safaris and hosts workshops to teach photographers about natural and dramatic lighting.

Could you tell us a bit about how you first got into your line of work?

It was 2004 and I was working in the fashion industry. I had been designing clothes and textiles for 20 years, but I was going through a bit of a rough patch in life.

I had always dreamed of going to Africa, so I signed up for a trip. I got a list that said it recommended a 300mm lens, so I went to the camera store and said “I’m going to Africa and I need a 300mm lens, what’s that?”

So that was my first safari to Africa. It was magical and life changing and I went back three times in five months. I kind of jumped in with both feet and said “I am going to be a wildlife photographer,” but of course I had no idea what I was in for. It’s been an incredible journey, although a challenging one.

What are some of the best times of year for photographing wildlife in Africa?

The dry seasons are always a great time for wildlife photography, because generally in any reserve you’re going to there will be sources of water, whether it’s rivers or water holes, and that’s where you will get a plethora of animals. So the dry season tends to be high season, especially in places like Botswana and Namibia.

One of one of the greatest times to be in Kenya is during the migration when huge herds of wildebeest and zebra make their way from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. So any time from mid July until the end of September is phenomenal in the Maasai Mara.

In Tanzania, one of the best times to visit is during the birthing season, which generally happens for about six weeks from mid January until the beginning of March, although it depends on the rains.

During this time up to 750,000 wildebeest will give birth within a three week period, so all of us photographers ascend into what is called the Ndutu area in the Tanzania conservancy area just before the Serengeti.

What times of day are best for wildlife spotting and photography?

The best times for shooting are during the first hour of the morning and the last hour of the day. When it comes to elephants, you can photograph them all day, but in Africa and especially in East Africa where you are so close to the Equator, when the sun comes up, it really comes up quickly.

Another reason to shoot during these early or late hours is that it gets so hot during the day, so the animals become quite lethargic. That first half hour of the day is really dynamic, and that’s when the animals will be most active, as well as in the late afternoon when the sun has dropped a bit.

In Africa I always say there are about five minutes of really great light, but of course it’s totally about what you want. For instance, this year I went to Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, and there was this dappled light through a forest setting and it was just amazing and nothing like I’ve ever seen before.

What’s a good length of time for a first-time safari?

You will want to try to go for at least 10-14 days and visit about three different locations.

For example in Kenya, you could go out to Amboseli, which is a flat unique eco system at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s very dry and dusty, and the swamps are all in the middle so the animals come across this really dry place and it’s phenomenal for shooting animals in the dust and light.

Then you could go to Samburu, which is north of the equator. The soil there is really red and rich, and you have the iconic African acacia trees and the doom palms. You also get very different species there, like the reticulated giraffe, the oryx, the Somali ostrich, the gerenuk antelope and the maneless male lions, as well as different species of zebras.

But then if you go into the Maasai Mara, which is a renowned photographic wildlife location, you’ll have a completely different experience. This is where all the big wildlife photographers go, because the cat action is superior and it’s also where the migration happens.

Going to these three different destinations means you’ll see so much variety in landscapes and species of animals. You’ll also have both the Samburu tribe and the Maasai tribe, so Kenya is a really good place for a first time safari as it’s a great introduction.

In Tanzania, you could visit the Ngorongoro crater, which is one of the 8th wonders of the world and has its own eco system on the crater floor, which is absolutely stunning and beautiful. Then you have Tarangire, which is famous for its baobab trees, and then of course there is also the Serengeti.

So as you can see it’s nice to have about three different locations, which is why you really need about 10 -14 days on the ground.

What lenses are best for wildlife photography?

Well, for me on a professional level I shoot with Canon or Nikon, which is very expensive and generally for safaris I use a 200mm, 400mm or 500mm lens. A photographer’s dream would be to have a 70-200mm, a 200-400mm and a 500mm. But that would come at a price tag of about £24,000.

So on a budget, I would say a good lens for a first time safari-goer is Tamron or Sigma, which both make a 150-600mm lenses. The problem with these lenses is slower glass, so the aperture is at 5.6 to 6.3.

Of course, there are also places where you can rent lenses, so if you can put it into the budget, I would suggest renting a Canon or Nikon, and either a 200-400mm or a 500mm lens. If possible, you should also have a 70-200mm lens because you really want to cover the range of 70-500mm.

So you would have to see how you can manage to put your lenses together and get that, whether you cover that range with Tamron or Sigma lenses or rent or borrow lenses.

Aside from the lenses, is there anything else that’s good to bring along on a safari?

For starters you need a good camera bag, but another thing I recommend having with you is a pillow case, because if it gets really dusty really quickly, you can put your camera in it to keep the dust out of your gear.

Another thing you really want to do is make two copies of your images. Also it’s often a good idea to bring two cameras, because if something happens to your main camera and you don’t have a back up you are finished. I’ve seen it happen, and I recently had a camera go down in the field and it was awful.

So you always want to have a back up camera that’s at least better than an iPhone. Of course that’s fine for getting snapshots, but it’s better to invest in your lenses and then get two cheaper camera bodies.

You can find fairly affordable bodies these days, and a lot of people are now also shooting the mirrorless systems, which are cheaper. They are not quite on par in low light, but can still be good to have as a second option.

Another important thing to pack in your carry on is the battery charger for your camera, because I’ve seen people check these in their bags and then the bags get lost and they can’t charge their camera.

Do you have any favourite animals to photograph?

Elephants are my favourite animal to photograph; I could just sit and watch them all day. They’re intelligent and very sensitive, and the interaction between the families goes on all day.

It’s fascinating the way they interact with the young ones, each other and the young teenagers; there is so much activity going on. So they are fabulous to photograph.

Of course everyone loves the big cats, but I’ve spent so much time in the field and these days I could just go for a month and only photograph elephants. With lions you’re going to get that first hour of the day, but once it gets warm they are just going to lay flat like a cat and sleep all day. So to me, elephants are just more interesting to photograph.

What’s your favourite location for wildlife photography in Africa?

It’s really tough to choose a favourite park, because there are so many locations I love and visit religiously, but if I had to choose I would say the Maasai Mara.

Both Kenya and Tanzania are great for a first time safari, and of course, the light in Mana Pools in Zimbabwe is amazing for photography, as you get a different quality and uniqueness in your images. But that is a more advanced level of photography.

Botswana is also amazing, but it’s a very premier destination and tends to be quite pricey. One of the things I do love in Botswana is doing photography on the Chobe River in a boat. The elephants cross the water all day long and it’s just amazing.

Namibia is a whole different type of safari, because it’s mostly based around water holes and you really do sit around the water holes and wait for the animals as it’s very dry and barren. There we have what we call the ghost elephants, because the soil is white and they dust with it, so they become a really light grey colour. In Samburu the soil is really red, so we call the elephants there the red elephants.

But the majority of my work was shot in the Maasai Mara, because it really is the greatest wildlife location in the world in terms of the variety and action you’re going to have at any time you go. It’s so lush with wildlife and there is just nothing that compares to it.

Copyright: The images in this article have been provided by Piper Mackay. You can see more of her stunning photographs by visiting her website Piper Mackay Photography