Planning your first photo safari in Kenya

Congratulations! You’ve decided to start planning your first Kenyan photo safari - maybe even your first trip to Africa! If you’re like me, there are a thousand thoughts swirling through your mind right now, from price, to vaccines, which camps to choose, and how to pack for the ultimate adventure. In the past 2 years I’ve been on 9 safaris - most of them with my kids no less - and I’ve managed to capture some amazing photographs in that time. There are so many things I want to share with you about how to make your first Kenyan safari a magical one - obviously I can’t hit every single topic, but here are the things i find most important when planning my next adventure in Kenya.



  1. Family Travel versus Solo Photography Trip



Alright, let’s get this one out of the way first. Every. Single. Time I take my kids out to the bush, there is at least one person who asks me “I thought kids weren’t allowed on safari?” This is an oft-perpetuated rumor, and yes of course there are some camps that do not allow children. But having my kids along on our adventures has been one of the greatest gifts, and has opened up so many conversations and given us so many fabulous memories. They started coming with me at age 3 and it’s now an amazing experience they look forward to each time. 

So yes, kids can go on safari too - depending on the camp or lodge you choose. But you need a good plan! Safari days are long, and the cars are bumpy. We often start before dawn, eat breakfast in the car, and return to camp at noon for lunch. We have a animal0themed bingo sheet for the kids to fill out, and they each have inexpensive kids cameras to use during the game drives. Add in a $10 pair of binoculars and they really get into the experience! When there are moments you can get out of the car, they love to look for tortoises and dung beetles.


 

All that being said, is it easier to sit for long periods of time and wait for the perfect shot when the kids aren’t with me? Absolutely. But I’ve gotten some of my best shots with my kids in the backseat, so I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. If you happen to live near a game park - such as The Wilds in Ohio, or Yellowstone National Park - it may be worth doing a test run to see if this kind of travel photography something you want to undertake with kids in tow.

 

Only you can decide if you want this to be a family trip where you take some amazing photographs and share amazing memories, or do you want to go all in on creating images with no distractions? 




2. Packing your photography gear

As nature photographer, this is the first thing I think about for every safari. Before I went on my first safari, I scoured websites and consulted many other photographers. The answers ranged a lot and so you may want to take my advice with a grain of salt depending on your goals. But here’s what works for me: 

 

Take a beanbag. Leave the monopod at home. And don’t even think about a tripod. 

A bean bag can be one of those expensive over-the car window style ones, you can choose one with a camera mount on top, or you can do what I do - fill a zipper pouch with a plastic bag full of bird seed. This doesn’t have to be complicated - and many camps have been bag filler on site you can borrow, so you can store your bags flat and empty for travel. Your car will not have space for a tripod. Period. And while I have successfully taken a monopod (because those long lenses really make your arms ache!) The flexibility of a simple bean bag has done so much more for my ability to move around the car and find exactly the right angle without fiddling with knobs and tubes. 




One or two bodies? If you can afford to borrow or buy a second body, it’s absolutely worth it. I like to keep a fast wide angle lens (24-70) on one, and a long lens on the other (150-600). When it gets too dark for the 150-600 to keep up with the light, I switch to a 70-200 with a wider aperture. That way I am prepared for a cheetah chase, or for detail shots of those adorable cubs hiding far off in the bushes. But for the longest while, I couldn’t afford a second body. So I simply brought two lenses with me, making the choice for each game drive if I would be shooting wide or detail - sometimes, on slower drives I was able to switch between the two, but safaris are often very dusty and you do run the risk of getting dust in your sensor so proceed on this method with caution. 

 

Finally, I’ve never brought a computer or tablet with me. If you choose to fly to camp, you will have a baggage restriction (roughly 15 kilos) which includes both your carry on and your luggage. The weight adds up fast. Since I go out for short burst of time (a week or so) and I am not on the road for months, I’ve never felt the extra weight of my computer was necessary. I do however switch memory cards each day, making sure to label which day I used each, and keep them in a safe spot. 





3. Choosing a Safari Camp





Alright, I’d be completely honest. The first time we went, it was sheer luck that the camp was exactly what we were looking for. We wanted a real “glamping” experience with photo-ready cars, and a great kids environment - Kicheche hit all the marks, and we have gone back many times since.


But there are so many camps to choose from that it can be a little overwhelming to sort through them all. If you can narrow down a region first it definitely helps. The Maasai Mara is well known for the wildebeest migration, big cats, and Maasai culture. It can also be more expensive and difficult to book during high season. Amboseli has amazing views of Kilimanjaro and the highest density of elephants in Kenya, while Tsavo has a unique landscape and fewer crowds. The northern regions of Laikipia and Samburu are vastly different, and while I’ve loved my time in those locations, I would consider them to be “add on” experiences to another area in Kenya, strictly because the game viewing is not as plentiful.



Once you have your region, and picked your time of year, then you can start looking at all the things camps offer. Do you want a lodge (generally buffet lunches and more-set schedules) or a tented camp (smaller locations, meal schedule varies by camp)? What kind of safari car does each camp use? I always prefer to be in an open-sided vehicle, not only for photography but because those with windows tend to make me carsick. Some lower-cost camps will put you in a group vehicle with other families, which may affect your ability to tailor your game drives to your own photographic interests. These are all good questions to ask the camp when you email them for quotes.



If your camp is operating in a conservancy you may be able to drive off the main roads to get closer to the animals. National parks and reserves have strict rules against this, but that doesn’t mean the wildlife viewing is any less desirable. But National parks have a high-density of tourists as well. 


Consider the camp/lodge’s environmental stance and impact. With the safari trade and wildlife being so intertwined, it makes sense that most camps are doing their best to limit their carbon footprint, give back to local communities, and generally respect the wildlife. Most camps have information about this on their website. But not all camps are created equal, and as a responsible traveller, it’s really important to consider this as you choose your adventure.



And finally price. It’s seriously worth setting up an excel sheet at this point. The way that safari camps price themselves is a little tricky to keep it all in your head. You’ll get quotes that include “per person per night” for the room, a separate fee for the park or conservancy, potentially a fee for the game drives if you’re not choosing a package, and transportation - such as if the camp is driving you in, picking you up at an airstrip, arranging air travel. With all these separate fees for each camp, being able to quickly see totals and comparisons becomes invaluable. 

A travel agent can be very helpful, but to be completely honest I book 90% of my trips on my own. When I have used a travel agent, I like to check out the camps myself online first, so I know exactly what questions I want to ask before involving a third party.





4. Cost versus Value





So now you have your prices, you need to make some decisions. For me, sunrise game drives are non-negotiable. So that means I need to decide if coming back early to the lodge or camp for a breakfast buffet makes sense, or do I pay extra for (or choose a camp that includes) a bush breakfast. To be honest, bush breakfasts are one of my favorite parts of the safari experience, so I suggest you try this at least one morning!





I have had amazing experiences at lower-cost lodges, knowing that by choosing this option I would be restricting how long we could stay out on game drives or what amenities they might offer - but there are so many variables these days, that price won’t give you the full picture. Use several resources, like booking.com and TripAdvisor.com to cross-check reviews, you may be surprised, especially if you travel at low season.


5. Being prepared for the schedule



Ok, I’ve touched on the schedule a few times. This is where you need to be prepared! Safari days are long, and while they are fun, they can be exhausting. Here’s what an ideal day on safari looks like: 

 

5:30 AM wake up call and coffee delivered to the tent

6 AM depart for morning game drive and epic sunrise

9 AM - breakfast in the bush OR head back to camp for buffet

11 AM - if you had a bush breakfast, return to camp and freshen up

12 Noon - lunch in camp

1-3:30 rest! After a morning of bouncing around in a car, you’ll be ready for a nap. Be sure to charge batteries and switch memory cards if needed.

4 PM depart for evening game drive

7 PM return to camp for sundowners, campfire, dinner.

9 PM shower, charge batteries, and prep for tomorrow!




This might be the single biggest factor for you when deciding whether to bring kids. The jetlag and the early mornings, with a day of bouncing around in the car is hard on the body!

 

6. Don’t forget to stop off in the capital city

 

The single biggest mistake I see when people come to Kenya on safari, is they neglect to visit Nairobi. Because the international airport (NBO) and the local airport (Wilson) are close to one another, it’s not uncommon for people to simply stay at an airport hotel and skip the capitol city all together - even those who have planned add on stays at the coast or other parts of Kenya. But if you skip Nairobi entirely, you do miss out on a great deal of unique photography and travel experiences that the Kenyan capitol has to offer.

There are a few great reasons to check out Nairobi: 

 

The National Park is a great place to do a quick morning safari to hone your photographic mindset and get ready for the bigger adventure ahead. It’s also the only place in the world you can photograph African animals with sky scrapers in the background. 



The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage can give you a glimpse into the great conservation work that is being done around Kenya - plus you can see the baby elephants up close for a very unique experience. 



Staying on the south side of town? Check out Kitengela Hotglass or Kazuri Beadworks for local artisan flavor, pickup a handmade piece to take back with you and capture some unique photographs. To the west, in an area known as Karen, you’ll find some of the best eating establishments and art galleries to round out an afternoon. 



The Nairobi National Museum should not be missed. It’s a bit of an old world museum, no flashy exhibits or virtual displays - but it is worth it for an immersive look at Kenyan history and culture. Not to mention, it hosts the remains of “Lucy” and “Turkana Boy” - the oldest hominid skeletons ever found. It was truly breathtaking to stand in front of them and know I’m walking through the land where they once lived.



Final thoughts

If you’re still here, thanks for sticking around! Like any vacation there are a thousand things to think about when you’re planning a safari, but with a little research and planning you can have the best experience and come away with amazing photographs. I do hope you’ll come visit Kenya - it’s a truly magical place!

 

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