a young male lion profile sitting in the grass

The Best Camera Settings for a Tanzania Wildlife Safari

It’s always a bit lofty to call any camera setting “the best”, as people have different styles and preferences, and the environment is always changing.  However, you have to start somewhere, so here is a listing of what I view as the best places to start with, in terms of camera settings, so you’re ready to capture the wide range of photo opportunities on a Tanzania Photo Safari.

orange safari tracks in a pristine savanna in east africa

The Best Landscape Settings for Tanzania

Fortunately, you’ll likely have pretty great light the entire time.  The sky is big and the sun is shining.  Although you’ll usually be setting out early in the morning, and also be enjoying many evening wildlife drives, there will be plenty of time in between with great light.  This means that you can photograph at a wide depth of field without concern for slow shutter speeds.

If you shoot with a point-and-shoot, I recommend setting your camera on “landscape mode”, to force it to photograph at a wide depth of field.   If you shoot with a camera capable of custom aperture settings (DSLR or mirrorless), I recommend f/8.0 and above. In a photo like the above, with good lighting, you can shoot at f/11 for maximum depth of field, which translates to a sharp foreground and background.  By setting your camera on “aperture mode”, your camera will choose the corresponding shutter speed, which again, because of all the light ought to be plenty fast for nearly every shot.

a large male elephant eating from a bush

The Best Settings for Wildlife Photos in Tanzania

The bountiful light on the African savanna means that you won’t have to shoot at low aperture numbers, but I recommend that you start there.  There are two key advantages for photographing at what we call a “wide aperture”, or “low aperture number” (f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4, and f/5.6.  The first being that it gives you a very fast shutter speed.  This allows you to freeze motion in the photo, which in Tanzania, can be very helpful as wildlife can often be moving fairly fast.

For cameras that do not allow manipulation of your f-stop number, there is an easy shortcut.  Simply set your camera to “portrait mode” and this puts your camera at the lowest f-stop number automatically.

a hyena stalks in the tall grasses of the savanna

The other thing a “low aperture number” does is that it helps blur the non essential parts of the photo.  This is a bit more of an artistic thing, but it also serves to help isolate the subject and avoid any distractions from errant grasses or tree limbs that sometimes get into your shot.  See how in the above photo the grasses are slightly blurred, helping you concentrate on the hyena?  That’s what we’re after.

a colorful lilac-breasted roller sits on a bush in the plains of east africa

Take, for example, the above photo.  If I used the same settings as I did for landscape photography I’d likely be distracted by whatever is in the background – grasses, trees, other wildlife.  However, by deliberately choosing a shallow depth of field, my subject really stands out and pops in a very vibrant way.

The Exceptions

Rules are always meant to be broken, right?  Here are a few examples with both landscape and wildlife photography where I’m not following my own advice.

a vibrant orange and red sunset blasts through the clouds in east africa

When the light gets low, you really can’t afford to shoot with a wide depth of field any longer.  You must shoot at low aperture numbers to give your camera as much light as possible.  If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, I recommend reading my Aperture section.

In the above shot, I’m not trying to get everything in focus like I would for a normal landscape photo.  Because most of the foreground is silhouetted, I’m not all that worried about how perfectly sharp the leaves and branches are.  Thus, by dialing in a lower f-stop number, my camera will give me the fastest shutter speed it can in these lower light conditions.  (usually f/5.6, f/4, or even f/2.8 at this time of day).

several cape buffalo graze along the edge of a lake in east africa

I’m a big fan of photographing African landscapes with animals in them.  Why not, right?  Well, as a bit of explanation, I personally feel this provides excellent context to the scene.  Landscapes always look better when there is a specific thing to look at first (like a stream, rock, mountain peak, or in this case, animal), and wildlife looks better when surrounded by gorgeous landscapes.

While I normally may use a shallow depth of field with wildlife, to get that background blur, I don’t want that here.  In this photo, I’m treating it more like a landscape shot that just so happens to have wildlife in it.  My settings?  Wide depth of field so that everything’s in focus, aiming for f/7.1, f/8 or maybe even f/9.  As you may be able to tell, this was early morning light, so I was a bit reserved with the aperture, as a very wide depth of field like f/11 would not let quite enough light for the shot.

There are no doubt many tried and true techniques for photographing in Tanzania.  If you have a particular style or tip that is your go-to, please do share with us in the comments!

Go forward and give it a shot,