What is the difference between a standard safari and a photographic safari?

This is a very interesting question and one that I have often been asked. It is probably easier to break this down into sections.


Photographic Safari Vehicles tend to have been modified with either canvas sides or fully retractable windows offering a greater viewing experience. Landcruiser’s are the norm for Kenya and Tanzania and tend to be extended at the back to provide more room. The norm is for a pop up roof that provides excellent viewing all around the vehicle. Photographic Vehicles will sometimes have the door removed or modified at the back allowing lower level angles, this is not always the case and certainly not essential. Most Photographic Safaris will provide bean bags as standard.


On a photographic safari you tend to have less people per vehicle with the photographer leading the safari alternating between the vehicles. Ideally you should look for a photographic safari with a maximum of 4 photographers per vehicle. The key is not necessarily the group size but the number of people per vehicle. A group of 4 people is comfortable with all photographers having plenty of roof space to shoot out of and ample window space.

A standard safari could see you joining a group with up to 9 participants although most higher end companies tend to keep their maximum at 6 – giving everyone a window seat.

It is of course possible to book a private small group safari or a photographic safari with less people in the vehicle.

The rule for both is that the lower the group size the more expensive the safari per person.


The Driver/Guide

The quality of guiding in general varies. The better companies do tend to have the better guides. They will usually pay more and often pay a proper salary to their guides at a higher rate. This can be true for standard and photographic safaris. A guide in general should have extensive knowledge of the areas that you are visiting. They should be familiar with the territories of lions, leopards, cheetah etc both near to where you are staying and further afield. All should have a good understanding of animal behaviour. The best guides generally will hold guiding qualifications – but this is not always the case. I have worked with some exceptional guides that are not “officially qualified” but have extensive experience working in the field. The main difference with the guides I work with on my photographic safaris is that they understand the basics of photography, they look at the equipment that you are using and position the vehicle accordingly – not too close, not too far away dependent on the lenses being used, they also understand light – so they will position the vehicle in the right places to get the best images. They also understand that sometimes you will not want the sun behind you and may want backlighting etc, they are responsive to the photographer because they understand. In addition, they tend to be very good at anticipating animal behaviour. One of the guides I have worked with for years seems to have a 6th sense. Once in Samburu we were watching a leopard sat in the bushes and moving between the vehicles and suddenly he just drove off behind some rocks. My clients were a little miffed at this, but as I had worked with this guide for years, I told them not to worry and within 5 minutes of moving the vehicle the leopard walked up the rocks on to the top of a small hill and sat there posing. We were the only vehicle to get the images. That is why the guide is so important.

Leopard Photographic Safari Samburu Leopard Photographic Safari Samburu

It is probably worth mentioning as a side note. Unless you have an off road photography or filming permit. Do not encourage your guide to go off road, this can destroy the fragile ecosystem and can cause problems for ground nesting birds, it also can cause harassment for animals, especially cats with cubs. Unfortunately, in recent times I have witnessed clients in other vehicles, offering tips to their guide if they just drive in to the bushes so they can get a closer look. This should not be done under any circumstances.

A good guide is key to a good safari and is absolutely critical to a photographic safari.

The Safari Experience.

A lot of standard safaris tend to be “tick box safaris” where the drivers will spend a lot of time listening to the radio and driving to where the sightings have been called in from. This can result in you ticking off all of the main species very quickly, but this is also something you will share with lots of vehicles, sometimes hundreds of vehicles in high season. This is particularly evident in safaris that are priced at a lower price point. A photographic safari will generally be structured with light in mind, for example in the mornings at sunrise you will look for animals to silhouette against a beautiful orange pink and yellow sky, or you will look for animals that you can backlight to create beautiful rim light effects with a golden glow. The best photographic safaris will make use of the “golden hour” they will look for subjects and make the most of the light, in an ideal world this may be a lion or a cheetah, but sometimes it will be impalas, but photographing impalas in this light will probably make some of the best impala images that you will take. Photographic Safaris tend to spend more time in the parks and reserves, with full days and packed lunch and even breakfast being the norm, this enables you to follow a hunting cheetah or wait for a sleeping leopard to wake and descend from the tree. Standard safaris and especially the higher end ones tend to be structured where you go out from 7-10 return for breakfast then spend time at the lodge until 3 when you will go out again to 6. There is nothing wrong with this if that is what you want, and it is probably more relaxing than the photography targeted alternative which is out at 6am and back as late as the rules will permit.

My best experiences with guiding clients is being away from other vehicles and finding something yourself and sitting there for a period of time to capture a unique range of images. One morning with clients we found a cheetah with 4 cubs and spent the best part of 6 hours with her. Nobody wanted to go anywhere, everyone was happy to capture some really good images and to experience the moment.

Probably one of the best examples I can give to explain a photographic safari over a standard safari is when I was in Masai Mara we were driving back to camp and the sun was starting to set, we saw some vehicles on a hill, we drove over to them, there was a lioness laying down, she was part of a mating pair. The male was making his way towards her. By this time the light was poor and the ISO settings were high. Instead of waiting at the lioness with the other vehicles to photograph the lioness greeting the male in bad light, if we positioned the vehicle on the road below the hill then the male lion would be walking along the horizon with a beautiful yellow and dark blue sky behind it, that is what we did and the male lion walked towards an acacia tree and at that point I captured some of my favourite lion images.

Lion at Sunset Masai Mara Photographic Safari Lion at Sunset Masai Mara Photographic Safari  Lion at Sunset Masai Mara Photographic Safari 

Do you need a photographic guide?

This is a very good question and considering this is what I do, potentially awkward to answer.

If you are a highly experienced photographer who has been on safari several times, then probably not. If you have no interest in photography and want to watch wildlife without really capturing images then also probably not. However if you are a keen photographer and want to make the most of your time on safari then I would highly recommend you consider this option. A photographic guide should be able to help advise you what settings to use, help you by calling specific shots in specific scenes – particularly useful at river crossings in Masai Mara during Migration Time. They should also be on hand to help you critique your work in the evenings and also whilst in the vehicle to help you improve your technique. Another added advantage of a photographic guide is knowledge, Photographers that have guided in a specific location for years have spent a long time capturing images and will have a great understanding of what clients want from their safari experience.

Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara Wildebeest Migration Photographic Safari Masai Mara 

In summary they will enhance your experience and improve your technique and success rate if you are serious about improving your photography.

Photographic Guides can accompany you on a private tour, they can provide one to one tuition in the field or a small private group or they could be leading a group tour and basing themselves in different vehicles throughout the course of the week.



All safari accommodation is usually included in any safari. The key for a photographic safari is location. If you are going to Masai Mara to photograph the migration and specifically want to photograph the river crossings there is no point in being located miles away from the river. This is a key point to look for in any safari. Cheaper safaris could offer accommodation options that are either located outside the reserves or away from the key areas, this means increased travel time to get you to where you need to be.


In summary photographic Safaris are often priced slightly higher than standard safaris, usually due to the lower head counts per vehicle and the extended days in the parks and reserves, and the fact that you have a specialist photographer to guide you throughout your trip.

Hopefully this post will help in what to look for when booking a safari. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what you are getting for your money. Also compare prices and what each company offers. There are a lot of companies out there that offer some brilliant experiences. A safari for a lot of people is a once in a lifetime experience and you need to ensure that you maximise the time you have there and that the trip is exactly what you want.

You really do get what you pay for on any safari or tour. Of course, in any option you will most probably still see the wildlife, but to really experience it you may need to pay more, this is particularly true if photography is your key focus and capturing images.

To see the photographic tours that I offer visit my tour page.

Worldwide Wildlife Photographic Tours with guide Paul McDougall (mcdougallphotographic.co.uk)

Also please reach out if you have any questions or simply want advice on information that you have already been given.

Hopefully I will see you on a Photographic Safari or trip soon.


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