WHAT TO EXPECT ON SAFARI & HOW TO PREPARE

A DAY ON SAFARI

A safari day begins early with a morning wake-up call from the camp's staff. You will rise to the sounds of the bush beginning to stir; perhaps the earliest whistled call of a Heuglin's Robin, or the strained territorial call of a nearby lion. With this pre-dawn time – when the air is still cold and the bush sounds travel long distances – comes the promise of a new day on safari.

A light breakfast will be served in the camp’s central area, often around a campfire, or overlooking the river. We will discuss the morning’s safari, adjusting the plan as we gather information from the bush around us. It’s exciting to read and respond to nature in a way that bush-folk have done for many generations.

Following breakfast, and probably before sunrise, we’ll head out to make the best of the very early morning time, when the air is still and cool. I've been guiding in this national park for a long time and have developed an eye for the subtle behaviour of mammals that indicate predators nearby. While photos safaris are about much more than just predators, I'm always keen to share the thrill of sensing, tracking down and then finding one of Luangwa's carnivores. Moving slowly through likely habitats will often reveal sightings such as a leopard who is coming to the end of her nightly routine and seeking a quiet refuge.

During drives, there will be plenty of time to photograph the wide variety of wildlife that the Luangwa has to offer, and I will help you with technique and new ideas. It may be that in the soft light of early morning, we can experiment with back-lighting; with careful vehicle positioning and a little guidance, we can master this tricky technique.


As the sun rises and develops its famous golden African colour, we’ll follow the meandering river to watch for elephant herds crossing the water. Many of the Luangwa’s elephants cross the river on a daily basis in search of food; finding a herd mid-stream, bathed in morning sunlight, is a highlight for many visitors to this area. After they cross, we’ll spend time with the herd as they arrive on the bank, scanning through to play with photographic compositions, maybe framing a calf standing between its mother’s legs, or zooming out to take in the bigger picture of these massive browsers in their environment. As always, I will be available to give advice, answer questions and make suggestions.

I am very keen to ensure that my tours are both a classic safari and a specialist photographic experience. I plans each safari around making the best of the photographic opportunities on offer, but I also try to make sure that even clients without cameras will enjoy talking with me about wildlife and animal behaviour.

Throughout the morning, we’ll continue our route through the bush, changing habitats regularly as our distance from the river varies. The Luangwa river meanders dramatically and provides a year-round water source for a huge density of herbivores, who in turn support a healthy population of lion, leopard and hyaena. We will also enjoy regular sightings of Thornicroft's giraffe and beautifully-marked Crawshay's zebra which feed along the valley's many lagoons.

Equally abundant, but often overlooked, is the astonishing variety and abundance of birdlife in the valley. We regularly see large eagles, up to four species of vulture whenever there are carcasses to be cleared up, and along the waterways, there are storks, herons, bee-eaters and kingfishers. Much of the wildlife in the Luangwa system is very familiar with the daily arrival of safari vehicles and allows close approaches and wonderful viewing of natural behaviour. This, of course, is a winning combination for photographers who seek frame-filling images of animals and birds in their natural environment.

But not to be forgotten is the scenery which is not only beautiful in its own right, but also a stunning backdrop for imagery of the inhabitants. The South Luangwa National Park is home to some of the most impressive stretches of the Luangwa river, offering wide, dramatic views. Just inland from the river are beautiful ox-bow lagoons, many of which hold water late in the season and become honey-pots for game. Tucked into sharp river bends are arching Ebony groves where elephants, antelope and baboons seek refuge and access to sugary fruits; these groves offer an interesting and unusual environment for photography, more reminiscent of a European beech woodland than an African safari reserve.


When we’ve enjoyed the best of the morning’s viewing, we’ll stop in a scenic spot for a morning break. We will have packed tea, coffee, cold drinks and some home-baked refreshments such as biscuits or flapjacks. This is a great time to reflect on the morning’s experiences, ask questions that were lost in the excitement or ask me about a camera setting or adjustment.

As it starts to get hot, we’ll head back to camp for brunch, a siesta and a bit of game-viewing from the verandah of your room or a shady chair on the river bank. During this break between safaris I am also happy to help you download your images, review them, answer questions, give advice on image editing or simply chat about how to get the best from your camera. These informal sessions can be one-on-one or for the whole group depending on your requirements.

After a rest in the afternoon, we’ll head out once again to explore the bush for the afternoon. We might follow up on sightings from the morning, or strike out in a new direction in search of something special.

The late afternoon is a time when baboon troops settle down near their roosting trees and both adults and youngsters indulge in grooming, playing and reaffirming friendships. Taking time to sit with a troop while they interact is informative and often offers some great photos. It also allows us the chance to listen for the tell-tale sounds of an alarm call nearby that might lead us to a hungry predator who has risen early to scout for prey. Of course, interesting subjects or behaviour in the late afternoon sunlight is the holy grail for photographers.


Depending on what Nature gives us in the afternoon, we might or might not notice the sunset! Sometimes we have been so busy with a sighting that it has passed us by! But one way or another we'll take a brief break and then continue after dark using a spotlight. While I find that daytime photography is much more rewarding than after dark, there are some great sights to be enjoyed, such as sightings of Owls, nocturnal predators and occasionally rarities such as porcupine, aardvark and perhaps even a pangolin – which I’ve still never seen! Night time photography is tricky, but as always I’ll offer assistance and help you get photos that you’ve never been able to before. And even if taking photos turns out to be harder than you thought, there are great sightings to be enjoyed.

With memory cards full, we’ll head back to camp ready for dinner under the stars and to make plans for the following day. After dinner, those who wish to join us at the campfire are more than welcome, but many find that bed beckons after a fulfilling day.

HOW TO PREPARE

It makes good sense to get to know your camera intimately so that many of the settings are second nature. While these safaris are a learning experience, they are not a camera class; photo opportunities come and go quickly so familiarity with your camera will make all the difference. Time spent in your local park, photographing local wildlife will prepare you, as will reading the database of knowledge and skills on my blog.

If you'd like advice on how best to prepare for your safari, please get in touch or have a read of my guide to dSLR use for Wildlife photography.

WHAT TO BRING

The South Luangwa National Park offers wonderful photographic opportunities to visitors with any kind of camera equipment. In fact, those who are most familiar with their kit - rather than having the best kit - often get the best photos. However, you will benefit from having camera equipment of a certain minimum specification:

dSLRs with interchangeable lenses are the best option; the best lenses for wildlife photography are in the range of 70-500mm; add in a wide-angle if luggage space allows. The best dSLRs use modern sensors, fast auto-focus systems and have a frame rate fast enough to allow bursts of 3-5 images in a very short time. I recommend you bring kit such as:

Camera Bodies
• Any modern dSLR (from the last 3-4 years) is capable of taking excellent photos of wildlife.
• Canon’s 80D and Nikon's D7100 are excellent cameras and offer the basic requirements of safari photography. A large step up, and offering many professional capabilities are the Canon 7D Mk II and the Nikon D500 which have outstanding AF and much better high ISO performance.
• These cameras (which all have smaller-than-35mm sensors) effectively increase the length of any lens (300mm becomes roughly 480mm) which is often a bonus for wildlife photography.
• Canon’s 5D and 1D range, and Nikon's D750, new D850, D4 and D5 range of pro and semi-pro cameras mostly have full-frame sensors which offer the best high-ISO performance but do not give the multiplying effect of the smaller sensors. Longer lenses are required with these cameras, but their image quality is second to none.
• If you have 2 dSLR bodies, bring both, and a maximum of 3 lenses. If you have one dSLR body, bring two lenses as changing lenses multiple times risks introducing dust into the system.

Lenses
• Canon, Nikon and Sony all make excellent lenses of 80/100-400mm with a variable aperture which keeps them lightweight and portable. Any lens in this range of focal length, including Sigma’s 50/150-500mm lenses, would be ideal for the Luangwa, giving speed, portability and a zoom range that covers all eventualities.
• If you a keen bird photographer, bring the longest lens you have such as a 500mm f4 or a 600mm f4. Teleconverters such as the 1.4x give you more reach, but cost one stop of light and some image quality.
• Shorter lenses such as 70-200mm also give great images and many photographers who are skilled with shorter lenses create beautiful photos of wildlife in its environment.


Equipment
Please also bring spare batteries, plenty of memory cards (larger numbers of smaller capacity cards are recommended to reduce the awful impact of a lost/corrupted card). A small laptop and external hard drive are a great way to enjoy image editing classes between safaris and to back up your images. Lens and camera cleaning kit is essential as the bush is very dusty at many times of year – rocket blowers, lens cloth and cleaning fluid should suffice. A large, lightweight cloth in a neutral colour is a great way to keep dust and sun off your kit. A tripod is too large and unwieldy in the bush, but beanbags and mono pods are excellent ways to keep your camera steady when photographing in low light.