While in Africa I met a few people who hadn't brought a camera, but they were very rare. Most people wouldn't think of going without some sort of camera. Photography in Africa can be divided into three main categories: animals (of course), people and landscapes (or other scenic shots).
Most of the shots of animals will be taken from inside a vehicle. This can be a mixed blessing. The vehicle allows you to get much closer to the animals than would otherwise be possible and it gives you some support on which to rest the camera. On the other hand, in many cases your view will be blocked or others moving around inside the vehicle will turn an otherwise stable surface into an unstable one. It is very important for all persons inside the vehicle to remain as motionless as possible while others are photographing.
Lenses: I was surprised to learn how close I could actually get to many of the animals. Most of the animals, especially in the heavily-traveled parks of Kenya and northern Tanzania, are acclimated to the presence of vehicles. Among my equipment was a 300mm fixed telephoto lens (see "What I Carried" below). I found that in most instances this lens was sufficiently long to get good close-ups. (I also carried 1.5x and 2x teleconverters that would extend the range of the 300mm lens to 450mm and 600mm respectively, but I rarely used them.) I also used a 70-210mm zoom lens quite often from the vehicles. This lens allowed me to get more of the surrounding area into the photograph (so all the pictures didn't look as if they had been taken in a zoo). Finally, a 28-70mm zoom lens was very useful for wider shots, especially landscapes.
Film: On my 1998 trip, I primarily shot print film, usually Kodak Royal Gold 200 (I used the higher speed to compensate for my slower lenses). Occasionally, in very low light conditions, I went to Fuji NPH 400 or even Kodak Royal Gold 1000 (for the chimpanzees – and it was still too slow in many cases). If you are shooting Kodak print film, I recommend the Royal Gold series. It has better color saturation and much finer grain than the regular Gold, so fine detail is captured and enlargements will look better. I also took a number of rolls of slide film, mostly Fuji Velvia (ISO 50). I like to shoot prints because it is easier to create photo albums of the trip and to make enlargements for the wall. But, having said that, I think the photographs taken on the slide film are much better. There is nothing that beats a photograph taken on Fuji Velvia if the light is right and the focus is sharp (admittedly not the easiest thing to accomplish with ISO 50 film unless one has rock-solid support for the camera). The pro and the serious amateurs, of course, all used slide film. Kodak E100SW was a popular choice, in addition to Velvia.
I asked the pro about the choice between prints and slides. His advice was surprisingly simple: if you intend to make prints, you should be shooting print film. It prints much better and is more forgiving – one doesn't have to "bracket" the exposures as much. On the other hand, for publication work or those who want slides, slide film is the choice of professionals. It requires the photographer to "bracket" quite a bit – sometimes at least two stops in each direction – but the results are far superior.
For my June/July 2002 trip to Namibia and South Africa I used almost exclusively Fuji Provia 100F (slide film). This film has excellent color and very fine grain (finer, supposedly, than Velvia). I was very pleased with the results from this film. I also used a few rolls of Fuji Provia 400 for low light situations, on one occasion pushing the film one stop to ISO 800. I was very impressed with the quality of the photographs even at these higher speeds.
The Vehicles: In Kenya and Tanzania, most of the photography will be done from the roof hatch of minivans or Land Rovers. The view of always looking down on the animals can get a bit monotonous and eliminates the most interesting angle, which would be to photograph the animal from its eye level or below. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, the vehicles have open sides that allow for lower angle photography (but sometimes they didn't have adequate places to rest the camera).
Beanbag: I highly recommend that photographers carry a beanbag on which to rest the camera. You can carry an empty bag to Africa and fill it up once you arrive (I enjoy going to local grocery stores anyway – there's always something interesting to see). I also experimented with filling the bag with rice, but I think small beans or lentils provided better support. Mine was a nylon Cordura bag from a photo supply house filled with about three pounds of lentils (but plenty of people used homemade bags that worked perfectly well).
Light: The typical schedule for game drives in Africa is to go out in the morning at dawn (if not before) and stay out until 10:00 or 11:00 am and then go out again in the late afternoon (around 4:00 pm) and came back after sunset. Most animals (especially predators) are more active in the early morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler. This schedule gives the photographer the opportunity to work in the best possible lighting conditions. During midday, when the sun is high in sky, colors often look washed out, shadows can be too harsh, detail is obscured and the animals are asleep anyway (so you end up with a poorly-lighted photo of a motionless animal). The downside of this schedule is that the photographer is often working in low light. My 300mm fixed lens was rated f/4 – I wish it had been faster. (For two weeks I was with a group lead by a professional wildlife photographer and enjoyed the company of some serious amateurs. The pro and most of the others carried f/2.8 lenses and now I know why.) My 70-210mm zoom lens ranged in speed from f/4 to f/5.6 (at the longer focal length). This lens was often too slow for the available light unless it could be held on a very stable surface.
Strategy: On many of the game drives, the goal is to see as many different animals as possible within the allotted time. Several safaris even provided a checklist and people felt compelled to find every listed animal. I was lucky to be in Africa long enough to have time to concentrate on certain animals after I had seen all the "majors." Also, during the two photography-oriented weeks, I had the opportunity to watch a professional in action. He had a three step strategy to getting the best photographs: (1) find something potentially interesting – a mother cheetah with two cubs, for example (young animals will almost always do something interesting if you give them a chance); (2) position your vehicle in the best possible light – preferably coming from behind and to one side so as not to cast a shadow on the subject; (3) wait. Step 3 is the key. Rather than continually driving around in the hope of stumbling on some action, position yourself in a likely place and wait for the action to start. It takes a lot of patience, but the results are worth it. This strategy, however, is not to everyone's taste and there has to be some agreement among the occupants of the vehicle. For those who are serious about their photography and are willing to spend the time, I highly recommend going with like-minded people (either of your own choosing or as part of a photography-oriented group).
I have to admit that I have never been particularly comfortable photographing people without their permission. Sometimes it is possible to take a quick, candid shot from a distance (a 70-210mm zoom lens is especially handy for this purpose) and some of those shots turn out pretty well. But for the most part, the best photographs of people are going to be with their cooperation, which sometimes means that you will have to pay a "modeling fee." I personally don't mind this arrangement. Others claim that it encourages people to seek out tourists and demand money for photographs (Nepal, for example, has become notorious).
The best strategy is to ask your guide or someone else with knowledge of the local customs how best to handle the situation. Some people will be happy to comply, either for free or for a small payment. A smile and an expression of interest in what the person is doing goes a long way in this regard. Other people, Muslim women, for example, don't want their pictures taken under any circumstances and I don't feel comfortable sneaking a shot against their wishes. In Africa, the Samburu and Masai villages that I visited had made prior arrangements (for a fee) to receive visitors and allow photographs. I thought this was an excellent compromise. I could roam freely, take as many pictures as I wanted, take time to get the best angle and light and still not feel as if I were intruding.
For general people shots, a 70-210mm (or 80-200mm) zoom lens works quite well. It allows one to get excellent close-ups without sticking the camera in someone's face. The zoom feature allows one to crop on the fly, which is handier than changing lenses when you are trying to work quickly. Also, with a little distance, group shots are still possible (though a wider angle lens may be preferable). In bright sunlight, some fill flash may be necessary to remove unflattering shadows or to even out the exposure between dark African skin and lighter surroundings.
I can't think of too much specific to say about landscapes. You will probably want to take some sunset shots, which will require a stable position for the camera (beanbag, tripod or other support). Also, during the day, a polarizing filter comes in handy, not only for making the sky more dramatic (by darkening the blue and accentuating the clouds), it also helps to bring the exposure level of the sky and ground closer together. Often one has to expose for the sky and let the ground "go," or vice-versa. The polarizer pulls the two exposures a little closer together. (More serious photographers will want to carry graduated neutral density filters for this purpose.)
Camera Body: Nikon N70, 35mm SLR (The real serious photographers carried two camera bodies, which enabled them to keep different lenses at the ready. Also, Canon seemed to be the choice of the pros.) The N70 has a small built-in flash that works well as fill flash in daylight, but for anything else you would want a stronger flash. I like the N70 very much, although I do wish it had a depth-of-field preview button.
300mm fixed telephoto lens: Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF ED. I was very pleased with this lens, though there were times when I wish I had a f/2.8 instead (but that lens is well out of my price range and much heavier to carry around).
70-210mm zoom lens: Nikkor 70-210mm f/4-5.6D AF. This is a nice light lens and, for the most part, does quite well. It is especially handy for carrying around and people pictures. When it came to shooting animals from the vehicle, however, I often wished I had the faster 80-200mm f/2.8. Also, when I used the 70-210mm in manual mode, the fact that the aperture changed as I zoomed in and out required constant readjustment of the shutter speed – a real pain! I plan to replace this lens with the 80-200mm f/2.8.
28-70mm zoom lens: Nikkor 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5D AF. This is also a decent lens, but if I had it to do over again, I would look more seriously at a faster (f/2.8) lens.
1.5x and 2x teleconverters: These were inexpensive models made by Kenko and worked OK, but I didn't get much use out of them. First, I found I was usually close enough to use the 300mm unaided, Second, the teleconverters cut the light (a 2x teleconverter cuts the light in half – meaning that an already slow f/4 lens becomes a very difficult f/8). There's no free lunch!
Tripod: I carried a small tripod, but hardly ever used it. I wouldn't carry one again. Inside the vehicle it is useless -- the beanbag works much better (or, if you're really serious, a high-tech window mount). Outside the vehicle, for a sunset let's say, you can often find some other way to stabilize the camera. Also, be advised that there are weight limitations (sometimes enforced) on the smaller planes throughout Africa.
Camera Bag: I used a Tamrac 787 Backpack. I was generally very pleased with this bag, especially the ability to wear it as a backpack (I had two other bags of luggage as well). It is, however, difficult to get inside of it while in the close confines of a vehicle and it is rather large (just barely fits the overhead compartments of a large airplane).
Filters: I used a polarizing filter quite often, for the reasons explained above. I also experimented with some "warming" filters (81A and 82A). These can be useful once the sun is in full blaze. They help to "warm up" colors that would otherwise appear completely washed out.
Film: As noted above, I shot both print and slide film. Altogether I took 144 rolls (for the three-month 1998 trip). I ended up shooting over 120 rolls. Carrying that much film was a real pain. It filled a separate carry-on bag. I always tried to pass the film around the X-ray machines at airports. The airports in Africa were very accommodating, as long as you got there early enough and were pleasant with security people. I carried the film in clear plastic bags that allowed the security people to see immediately what it was. This system worked out pretty well. Do not count on getting anything but the standard "snapshot" grades of film in most places in Africa (although Nairobi had some better stores, and there would be no problem in Cape Town, South Africa).
Batteries: If your camera uses anything other than AA standard size batteries, better take your own supply. Anything else, if you can find them, will be some unknown brand, of undetermined age and probably quite expensive.
Beanbag: I used this constantly. Don't leave home without one. Fill it up when you arrive. Small beans or lentils from the grocery store are recommended. I also used rice as a filler for part of the time, but I was less satisfied with this solution. The rice tended to create a stiffer bag that did not allow the camera to sink in and find a stable position as readily as the lentils did.
Labels and Sharpie Pen: You will want to devise some system for marking the rolls of film so you will know where you took them and when. Believe me, you'll be glad you did when you get home and have the film developed.
Cleaning Supplies: Africa is very dusty. You will want to have some small cans of compressed air, plenty of lens tissue and cloth to clean the camera body. While in the open vehicles, it is a good idea to have something to cover the camera while you are underway (and especially when you come to a stop and are enveloped in a cloud of dust).
A More Serious Flash: Lots of times, as dusk fell, there were interesting shots that got away because the only flash I had was the small built-in model on the camera.
Faster Lenses: For all the reasons already explained, f/2.8 lenses would have come in very handy.
Digital? All of the photos in the Africa section of the web site were taken on film then scanned. I have since bought a digital camera and all of the photos in the Europe section are digital. I do not miss the tedious process of scanning film in order to make digital images for the web. It is also a pleasure not having to deal with carrying all those rolls of film, especially through airports.
A Word of Caution: DO NOT carry unexposed or even exposed film in luggage that will be checked. Certain airports have employed new, high-powered X-Ray machines for checked baggage that will TRASH your film. Take all film in a carry-on bag and ask to have it hand inspected. If you arrive at the airport early enough and are pleasant about it, most security people will hand inspect the film (except in Zurich, SW, where no amount of smiling and cajoling would persuade the guards, but at least their X-Ray machine at the gate didn't hurt any of my film). Often the security people will tell you that the X-Ray machine at the gate will not hurt your film. That's probably true for low-speed film and if the machine is a modern one, properly calibrated and you don't have to go through more than a few. I was on a three-month trip and destined to go through dozens of X-Ray machines of dubious age and quality so I tried at each stop to have the film hand inspected. I carried my film in clear plastic tubes inside clear plastic bags so security personnel could easily see what it was (there's no need to carry all the film boxes and plastic cans that come with the film anyway).
July 2002 Update: Even though my 2002 trip to Namibia and South Africa came after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I was still able to get the film hand inspected at every airport in the U.S. and Africa using my system of clear plastic tubes. It did, however, take some extra time because they now swabbed the inside of the plastic bags to test for traces of explosives.
2004 Update: I've gone digital and I haven't missed for one minute carrying dozens of rolls of film and worrying whether they would survive the airport X-Ray machines. I also haven't missed the scanning process to put the photos on the web. If you haven't gone digital yet, it's time to check it out!