Botswana Safari: 6 Top Photography Tips
Often touted as the pinnacle of destinations, Botswana safari trips offer huge tracts of wildlife-packed wildernesses that extend across almost a third of the country.
It is also home to Africa’s longest zebra migration, not to mention over 600 bird species.
Equally importantly, its low-density tourism policy means that, for the most part, it is blissfully free from crowds, giving keen photographers the rare dual luxury of space and time – essential ingredients to capturing eye-catching images and unusual behaviour.
Adventurous travellers can even opt for a mobile camping safari where the camp moves with you and lions and hyenas wander past your tent at night.
1. Where to go
Most visitors head straight for the World Heritage site of the Okavango Delta, a year-round watery paradise sustained by rainfall from Angola, with the water arriving in the form of an annual flood during the dry season.
The Chobe riverfront is an equally popular destination where swimming elephants, leviathan crocodiles, grunting buffalo herds and a spectacular array of birdlife will leave your shutter button finger aching.
Safari veterans might prefer to venture off the beaten track and search for meerkats and brown hyenas among the surreal lunar landscapes of the Makgadikgadi Salt pans, or marvel at muscle-bound black-maned Iions patrolling the unfathomably vast expanses of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
2. When to go and for how long
Most trips start from Maun, a dusty town on the edge of the Okavango Delta, or Kasane, a short hop from Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, both of which have (not inexpensive) flight links with Johannesburg and Cape Town, so you will invariably have to fly through South Africa.
Given the cost of getting to Botswana, I normally recommend trips of a minimum of 10 days (3 nights per destination) to make the most of your flight investment.
Wherever you decide to go, timing is key. Doing a bit of advanced research will help you coordinate your visit with the best time of year for game viewing in that area, taking into account both your specific interests and any weather considerations.
In the Okavango Delta, wildlife viewing is generally good throughout the year.
The best time to capture predator behavior is normally at the end of the dry season (October-November), when thinning vegetation makes visibility easier and the animals are concentrated around the few permanent water sources.
It can get very dusty at this time of year, which is fantastic for back-lit images in golden early or late morning light but may be an issue if you have any serious allergies. These months are also the hottest of the year, with temperatures regularly surpassing 40°C.
To see the Delta’s highest water levels, time your visit with the peak of the flood between April and June.
In April, the bush should still retain a residual emerald hue from the preceding rains, providing a vivid backdrop for portraits.
After May, temperatures become noticeably cooler – in June and July, it can reach below freezing in some parts of the country at night, although it is still warm during the day.
Wildlife sightings are still good, and in some areas of the Okavango, the rising water can trap predators on islands, which can be particularly fruitful, as long as you can also access the islands.
The dry season (May to October) is also the best time to visit the Chobe riverfront, as thousands of elephants and plains game flock to the permanent Chobe River.
After the first rains around November, however, much of the game, including the park’s sizeable elephant population, disperses away from the river and melts into the surrounding teak woodland.
In November, dramatic skies and sporadic thunderstorms across the country herald the beginning of the rainy season. January and February normally see the bulk of the year’s rains, which peter out to the occasional shower by April.
As long as you can handle the possibility of getting wet, there is still scope to travel to Botswana during this time, and the brooding, dark skies can make for some fantastic photographs.
Although visibility can be hampered by the longer grass once the rains have begun in earnest, lush backdrops adorn every image.
In some areas such as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, game-viewing is better because the succulent grasses entice large herds of herbivores, invariably followed by numerous predators.
The rainy season is also the best time of the year to go to both Nxai Pan National Park and the eastern side of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, where thousands of migrating zebras congregate from as far afield as Namibia.
If you are visiting the western Makgadikgadi, however, you are better off coming in the dry season after the striped herbivores have trekked back across the park to the Boteti River.
Bear in mind, also, that the Makgadikgadi salt pans themselves are only accessible when it is dry.
3. Choosing the best operator
With so many options, choosing where to go can be a daunting prospect. If you want to get the most out of a photographic safari, it is best to book with a photographic guide who is based in Botswana.
Living in the country means they won’t be concerned with getting images for themselves as they can go out in the bush whenever they want.
All too often, I hear from guests whose previous photographic guides spent the entire safari positioning the vehicle for themselves and essentially ignored the needs of the guests.
Also, having an intimate knowledge of an area means the guide should know where to go to maximize photographic potential, from getting to the best sunset spots at the right time to knowing which pans attract the most game and where resident predators hang out.
Booking a private safari is the simplest way to ensure the itinerary and focus of the trip are tailored to your preferences, but unless you have a group of like-minded photographer friends, this can get expensive.
More commonly, you will end up joining a scheduled photographic safari. Don’t be tempted to just go with the cheapest option, though.
Check how many guests are on the vehicle and whether your photographic guide will be splitting his/her time between more than one vehicle.
Inevitably, the more people that travel on a trip, the cheaper it will be, but this will also mean you get less individual attention.
With more people on a vehicle, it is harder to position the vehicle for everyone, so you may have to shoot past someone else if an animal is on the other side of the road.
If you have a heavy telephoto lens, check if the game-viewing vehicles have camera supports – these are now a relatively common, though by no means universal, modification.
Also, check how much baggage you are allowed – many operators pay for an extra luggage seat on internal plane transfers as the 20kg total baggage limit is quickly eaten up by camera gear.
It’s also worth asking if your itinerary includes national parks or private concessions. In the parks, you have to be back in camp by sunset and can’t drive off-road, whereas in the private concessions, you don’t have those restrictions.
If you are traveling with an experienced photographic guide in a private concession, you may even get the chance to shoot from the ground.
Going on a mobile safari can be a viable cost-effective option, but their rustic nature (long-drop toilets and bucket showers) may not be suitable for everyone, and they are mostly in national parks.
4. What gear to bring
Camera gear can be a source of much discussion and heated debate, but I normally find the person behind the viewfinder is more important than the equipment itself.
I normally advise zoom lenses (e.g., 100-400mm) as being preferable to prime lenses because generally, the benefit of the added versatility is greater than the cost in image quality.
Although the country’s largely flat topography means there is generally less scope for landscape images than elsewhere in Africa, it is always worth bringing a shorter lens (such as a 24-70mm).
In addition to capturing the ubiquitous sunsets, often the wildlife gets close enough for you to shoot a wider scene.
In an ideal world, having a second camera body will stop you from having to change lenses, which tends to waste time at the least opportune moment.
A lot of people will tell you that changing lenses in the bush should be avoided at all costs as it can introduce dust onto the sensor, but I tend to have a more pragmatic approach.
Living and shooting here professionally inevitably leads to me changing lenses outside. In my opinion, the worst thing that will happen is a couple of dust spots on the sensor which can usually be removed in Lightroom or Photoshop without too much trouble.
However, a couple of simple practices can limit dust risk – always keep the lens and camera body caps in an accessible pocket. As soon as you remove a lens, put a cap on the camera body, then a cap on the rear of the lens.
Only take the cap off the body again when you are ready to attach the new lens.
If you don’t have the caps to hand, try to remove the lens with the camera pointing towards the floor, so that any dust falls away from the sensor, rather than leaving the camera body facing upwards on your lap.
Even in a worst-case scenario, it is relatively cheap to get the sensor cleaned when you go home.
Botswana has some of the lowest light-pollution on the planet, so if you are at all interested in shooting the stars, then try to pack an ultra wide-angle lens too (10-14mm). The faster the lens (lower the f-stop), the better.
5. Managing your budget
Botswana is one of the continent’s most expensive destinations – a result of its low-density tourism policy – but there are ways to reduce the costs:
- Staying at a circuit of camps owned by the same operator will often lead to discounts.
- Staying more nights in fewer camps reduces the number of internal flights.
- Lodge prices are discounted in the ‘shoulder’ seasons of November and April and the ‘green’ season from December to March (excluding Christmas and Easter).
- Mobile safaris – where you sleep in large walk-in en-suite tents and your entire camp follows you as you move to different destinations – can be a lot cheaper than permanent lodges.
- Look at alternative destinations to the Okavango. Northern Tuli Game Reserve is cheaper, easily accessible from Johannesburg, and boasts a stunning landscape of sandstone cliffs and granite kopjes, as well as some spectacular wildlife and ground-level photographic hides.
On the other hand, there are times when it really is worth spending the extra money, particularly if it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The best way to truly appreciate the beauty of the Okavango Delta is with a scenic, doors-off helicopter flight.
Not only can it provide some amazing photographic opportunities, but it is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
If freedom, flexibility, and the feeling of wilderness are priorities, then staying in one of the private concessions, rather than the national parks, means you can drive off-road, stay out after dark, and you won’t have to deal with other vehicles.
Remember, not all savings are worthwhile.
There is no point booking a cheaper camp if you have to drive two hours before you reach a wildlife-viewing area on every game drive or discover you have inadvertently booked a ‘water’ camp, which doesn’t offer game drives if you are expecting to see predators.
Booking through a reputable agent should mean you save money on the right aspects of your trip.
6. Insider tips
If photography is the primary focus of your trip, you are better off spending more time at fewer sightings, rather than racing around ticking off species. Exciting action or interesting light tends to appear only to patient photographers.
Never turn your camera off or put your front lens cap on. Sometimes you only get a fraction of a second to take a shot as a leopard darts across the road.
Instead of a lens cap, use a kikoi or sarong to protect your camera from dust while keeping it instantly accessible.
Most cameras have an auto-power-off setting to save the battery, which is quicker to wake than if the camera is turned off.
If you are using a mirrorless camera, check you are not covering the viewfinder, which might stop the camera from auto-switching off and draining the battery.
When you are at an action-packed sighting, don’t waste time reviewing your images. You can briefly check the exposure looks OK on one image, but then get straight back to shooting – otherwise, you might miss the best action.
Even if you don’t like shooting at really high ISOs, don’t put the camera away when the light starts to fade; try a panning shot with a slower shutter speed instead (following the movement of an animal as you press the shutter).
You might be surprised by the results.
Don’t feel like you have to shoot all the time. Not every scene is conducive to an interesting photograph. Sometimes it is worth just enjoying being on safari without feeling like you have to capture every sighting irrespective of its photographic merit.
Also, putting the camera down might allow you to notice a different aspect to the scene that may be worth photographing.
In a world where many photographic destinations are gradually becoming inundated with more and more tourists, Botswana is one of the few places where you can still feel the wilderness of the bush while being enthralled by some of the continent’s best wildlife sightings.
Whether you are an avid bird photographer or a predator enthusiast, a lover of elephants or you simply want to experience the magic of the Okavango Delta for yourself, travellers to Botswana are seldom disappointed.
With a bit of planning and a good guide, you should return home with some spectacular photographs, and, more often than not, a desire to come back and visit again.