NAMIBIA PHOTO SAFARI: Insider Secrets to Photographing Wildlife in Etosha National Park


As dream jobs go, to spend your days photographing lions, cheetahs, and leopards in the wilds of Africa could possibly be the ultimate gig for a wildlife photographer. For Kathryn Haylett, co-author of The Photographer’s Guide to Etosha National Park, it is a daily reality. And as one of four participants on a photo safari with Haylett, it was my reality, too. 

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In Namibia as part of the Adventure Travel World Summit, a global gathering of 650 adventure travel professionals, I was blown away at the extraordinary opportunities for photography there. 

The secret to photographing in Etosha, a vast protected reserve in northern Namibia with huge herds of big game, is to sit and wait and watch at the watering holes where animals — lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant, ostrich, zebra, black rhino, giraffe, antelope and much more— all come to drink. 

If you go, make the most your photography with these top ten tips for photographing wildlife in Etosha National Park.

1.Stay in park accommodations. Animal sightings and “magic” light are at their best at sunrise and sunset, when park gates open and close. While those who lodge outside the park are queued up at the entry gate at sunrise or racing to exit before sunset, those who stay in park accommodations are already busy shooting at first light and can remain shooting as the sun dips dramatically beneath the horizon.

2. Leave at sunrise, return after sunset. While 5:15 AM wake-ups might not be your idea of a vacation, it’ll be well worth the effort to be at the watering holes at sunrise. Lions and leopards are often seen in early mornings when they come to drink. Black rhino, too, can arrive early before settling down for the day in the shade. Similarly, many of the animals return again at sunset to drink and bathe in the watering holes where the setting sun creates dramatic reflections and silhouettes.

Namibia Photo Safari, rhinoceros silhouette at Okaukuejo Camp waterhole at sunset, Etosha National Park,  a vast protected reserve in northern Namibia with huge herds of big game

3. Bring twice as much storage as you think you’ll need. When you spend an hour or more photographing a wild cheetah nursing and playing with her four young cubs right next to your vehicle, as we did, or videotaping a herd of elephants frolicking in a shimmering waterhole (see below), you burn through the memory cards fast. 

4. Get the right vehicle. For reasons of safety, getting out of your vehicle is prohibited inside the park. So whether you self-drive a rented vehicle or opt for a guided safari, having a 4x4 vehicle with large windows that roll down fully, or a pop-up roof and tiered seating as Haylett’s customized Land Cruiser has, is essential for great wildlife photography. Be sure to ask about seating and windows when booking. 

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5. Sit and wait and look. Turn the engine off at a sighting and engage all of your senses: smell, sight, hearing. Pay attention to the light and position your vehicle to produce the best photographic effect, repositioning as necessary. 

6. Stay as long as you can.Our abbreviated five-day tour left us wanting more. To see the entire park, a protected area roughly half the size of Switzerland, Haylett recommends that photographers plan to stay a minimum of seven to ten days.

7. Bring a powerful zoom lens. For wildlife you will need at least a 300mm lens. Some waterholes are close while others are further away, so a 500mm or 600mm lens will come in handy but a 400mm lens on a crop-sensor body will be adequate for most situations. High quality zoom lenses which allow you to compensate for different distances work best. The huge fixed lens might seem impressive, but with a zoom you won’t miss the shot when a lion decides to walk straight towards you. Avoid changing out lenses by carrying two DSLR cameras, but one body or even a point and shoot with a powerful optical zoom, like the Panasonic Lumix FZ200 which one member of our group used, can also produce surprisingly good results. Did you know you can rent professional cameras and lenses? Check out, www.BorrowLenses.com

8. Watch the herbivore and bird behavior. Twice, we were altered to the presence of carnivores by noticing the behavior of herbivores and birds. In one instance, it was the chattering alarm call of helmeted guinea fowl that led Haylett to notice a leopard stealthily approaching a water hole. While the other vehicles parked at the waterhole were oblivious to the big cat, we were busy getting the rare shot.

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Another time, a herd of impala all standing still and looking in the same direction alerted us to the presence of a cheetah and her four cubs crossing the plain, well hidden in the tall grasses. Without that cue we could easily have driven past what turned out to be a trip highlight: 45 minutes of photographing a wild cheetah nursing and resting with her cubs only a few feet away from our solitary vehicle. 

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9. Bring a beanbag. Using a tripod in a cramped vehicle with other passengers just isn’t a practical form of stabilization on safari. But a bean bag draped over the car window or other available surface will do the job perfectly. Watch your horizons, though, as it can be easy to nestle your lens into the bag without noticing that it’s un-level.  

10. Be prepared for nighttime photography.One of the most magical experiences in Etosha was sitting at a camp waterhole after dark, quietly waiting to  see what wandered in. With seating areas situated alongsjde the waterholes and subtle night-lighting, it felt as if I was watching a dreamy theatrical performance where animal species entered and exited the stage in a slow dance choreographed by nature. Needless to say, nighttime wildlife viewing provides fabulous photographic opportunities. But without the right equipment (tripod, remote cable, flash extenders, etc.), you will be limited in what you can shoot. So if nighttime imagery is important to you, be sure to bring the right equipment. 

Ready to go?

Discover country highlights, things to do, travel tips, image galleries, and more about travel to Namibia at www.namibiatourism.com.na/

Click here to view my photography from Etosha National Park.

About Kathryn Haylett:

Kathryn knew from an early age which direction she wanted to take in life. After studying in South Africa she founded Your Safari, a custom safari company specializing in Namibia, offering travelers the opportunity to enjoy African wildlife at their own pace, in their own company, and on their own itinerary. Now she is living her dream guiding fellow wildlife enthusiasts around her beloved Africa. 

As chief guide for the company she spends much of the year leading private safaris for photographers, family groups, and friends traveling together. She is never happier than when she is sitting at a waterhole in Etosha watching and photographing the drama unfold around her and sharing this experience with guests. For bookings and information visit YourSafari.co.uk

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".