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Tanzania: Make the most of your photo safari

By Floyd Yarmuth, CNN
  • Many small planes have weight limits, so choose your lenses carefully
  • Take advantage of the softer light early and late in the day
  • Patience can be the key to great wildlife shots
  • Introduce yourself to the locals for better photos and a more memorable experience

Editor's note: Floyd Yarmuth is a photojournalist in Washington. In his more than 18 years with CNN, Floyd has traveled around the globe, covering world events, politics, war zones, sports and natural disasters.

(CNN) -- A camera is one essential almost every traveler packs.

Who wants to go on an exciting adventure and not have something that brings back the memories, right? On a recent trip to Tanzania, my camera was my most important piece of safari gear. Here are a few photo tips that will have you shooting your vacation adventures like a pro.

Plan ahead

Preplanning was essential. Researching where I was going and how I'd get there was a big help. Safaris sometimes involve flying to remote locations in small planes that usually have a weight limit for bags, so packing light is key. My weight limit was 33 pounds, including my carry-on camera bag, so I had to carefully decide which lenses to bring.

On safari you need long lenses, which are heavy, so choose wisely. I packed my Canon 7D, 10-22mm wide-angle for landscapes, 24-105mm for general use, and my safari workhorse, 70-300mm telephoto. Changing lenses in an open-topped moving vehicle is tricky. I used my rain jacket to cover myself and protect my camera from the dusty air when making a lens change.

The first of the three parks we visited was Lake Manyara National Park, a lush nature reserve teeming with all kinds of animals, including giraffes, elephants, exotic birds and baboons. Down a dirt road, we came upon a family of giraffes eating in the trees. Elias, our driver and guide, stopped and turned off the engine.

With my 300mm, I got some great close-ups of their bright orange and brown spots sticking out of this wall of green. Setting my camera for continuous shooting allowed me to then capture the action when they began to quickly cross our path. With the engine off, I was able to reduce camera shake and avoid spooking the animals with loud noise.

'Golden hour' is your friend

Photographers love the time of day known as "golden hour" -- basically sunrise and sunset. You get the best hues and shadows at this time, unlike noon when the sun is straight overhead, casting harsh light. The morning mist is also a great benefit of shooting early.

On our early morning decent into Ngorongoro Crater, a millions-of-years-old former volcano that is now a national park, we drove through the mist down from the 2,000 foot-high crater rim. Visibility was tough, but I was able to see a few striped figures moving in the distance. A herd of zebra was munching on grass, through the colorful wildflowers, offering a fantastic impromptu photo opportunity. My polarizing filter helped cut through some of the fog, allowing a better view of the animals.

See iReporters on safari in Kenya


One of the highlights of safari is seeing the big cats -- specifically lions. They are the kings of the jungle and the Serengeti, the third and final stop on our journey. One thing you learn quickly on safari is that the animals aren't waiting around to be photographed. And once you're lucky enough to spot a lion -- or three -- they're likely just sitting in the grass, sleeping. But with a little patience (and luck), they'll put on an unforgettable show.

That moment came for us when we rolled up near two lions lying in tall grass near a tree. With a closer look, we could see they had small cubs with them. After snapping a few shots, I realized that I wasn't going to get much if they stayed lying half-hidden in the grass. We patiently watched for about 30 minutes, when suddenly the adult lions got up and climbed into the tree. Here was my chance. I was able to take several amazing shots of these beautiful animals, walking through the large branches -- our patience paid off!

Meet the locals

When traveling abroad, it's natural to photograph the locals in their traditional dress and environment. But rather than snapping shots from a cold distance, get close, introduce yourself, smile, and I guarantee that your pictures, and the experience, will be forever memorable.

We had the pleasure of stopping at a Maasai village. We were greeted by the chief's son, who showed us around while explaining the traditional Maasai lifestyle and what daily challenges they faced. He welcomed me to take as many photos as I liked -- as long as I bought some crafts offered at the end of our tour. A small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime photo-op, not to mention boosting the village economy. For my people shots, I switched to my 24-105mm f/4 lens. This allowed me to get close and personal with the Maasai, while still being able to capture good depth-of-field for a slightly blurred background, perfect for portraits.

Travel can be both exciting and enriching, and bringing home photos is a great way to capture the experience. Following these simple tips should help give you more '"frame-worthy" shots from your own vacation adventures.