Preparation is key when it comes to planning a trip to Namibia — a true land of extremes that can only be fairly described using hyperbole. As beautiful as Namibia is, to get the most out of your trip, you need to be prepared and well organized. Here are my tips for bringing back the best wildlife and landscape photographs from a trip across Southern Africa.
Drive, Don't Fly
Most flights into Namibia land in Windhoek, the capital. There are a handful of direct flights from Europe, or you can fly through Johannesburg. By choosing to fly through Johannesburg, you can rent a car in South Africa and drive to Namibia. It’s a long journey — a minimum of two full days — but you’ll get the chance to see the wonders of southern Namibia, which is an area that doesn’t make many itineraries.
Namibia is an experience enhanced by self-drive. If you fly from one place to the next, you'll miss the spirit and scope of the land. Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, and the distances are vast. To make the most of your time, a detailed itinerary is vital to determining how long you’re going to spend on the road.
If you’re staying in any of the off-the-beaten-track lodges along the Hoanib Valley or Skeleton Coast, a 4x4 is critical. You will have to navigate riverbeds, salt roads, and sand roads, some very deep. Visiting the shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast requires driving on deserted beaches. There, you’ll need a vehicle with high clearance and robust tires. Even if you’re not heading into remote areas, a 4x4 is encouraged; the storms we drove through in Etosha, the country’s prime national park, would have pushed a sedan or saloon car to its very limits.
Nobody wants to get stuck in the muck. You can't really get out for a push in places like this.
If you’re going to Sossusvlei, particularly Dead Vlei, for sunrise, you’ll need to drive yourself or hire a guide. The tour buses don’t leave the main car park until after sunrise. The trail beyond the main car park to get to Dead Vlei is best described as a sandbox, not a road, so make sure you’re comfortable driving a 4x4 and understand how to drive in sand. If you deflate your tires a little, you’ll get better grip, and it’s less likely you’ll dig yourself down to the axles. Once you’ve deflated your tires for the sand, make sure you have a pump to inflate your tires again for when you’re heading back out on the tarmac.
Finally, don’t rely on picking up a map in Namibia or on accessing the internet while you’re on the road. The country is not as well signposted as you might think, and cellular service is spotty at best. A lot of the shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast are very difficult to find. Even online maps won't point you to particular wrecks. So, bring a map that you’ve marked up or take screenshots of online maps showing verified satellite views of the ships you're looking for.
Like much of Southern Africa, Namibia's wildlife viewing is based around waterholes. In Etosha, many waterholes are positioned far from the trail, and since you can’t drive off the track, at least a 300mm lens is critical to capture wildlife portraits. If you have the budget, consider bringing an extender as well. I took a Canon 300mm or 400mm f/2.8L alongside a 1.4x III extender. Combining this with the megapixel count of the new Canon mirrorless well let you crop in tight for portraits of distant animals, such as this tired cheetah.
If you are bringing a 300mm or longer lens, don’t try to handhold your shots. Brace yourself on something solid — a bean bag will help you to balance large lenses on your vehicle’s window or door frame.
Be sure to bring rain covers to protect your cameras from the rain and from the sand.
Those fine particles aren’t friends to the electronics in your equipment. Rain covers will also help if you end up in a storm, which is likely during the rainy season. See my reviews of rain covers, here and here.
One of Africa’s largest reserves, the NamibRand Nature Reserve, lies in a designated dark sky preserve. Conditions here demand a tripod and intervalometer to get steady and dynamic time-lapse shots. Newer cameras, again, have built-in intervalometers, which make packing much easier.
Read up on the rules if you’re going to bring a drone. All drones must be registered with the Namibian Civil Aviation Authority and certain hotspots, such as Dead Vlei, have very restrictive rules. I’d love to have had a bird’s-eye view of the dunes and dead camel thorn trees, but you need to enjoy these places without breaking the rules. This shot was taken over the Salt Works in Walvis Bay, with permission of the landowner.
Consider bringing a sound recorder if you have room in your bag. The sounds of the massive seal colony and crashing waves at Cape Cross or the singing dunes at Sossusvlei are things you’re going to want to remember. If you’re shooting video, it’s certainly worth getting some properly recorded audio to overlay your images. Namibia is notoriously windy, so splurge on a DeadCat windshield; this will make all the difference by deadening the sound of the blow.
Wildlife is always much quicker than it appears. Even slow-plodding elephants cover much more ground than you'd expect, never mind a quick-walking cheetah.
Double check your shutter speed; you should be shooting moving animals at fast speeds, around 1/1,600th of a second. Anything slower is going to drastically reduce your keeper rate. Likewise, consider stopping down. I realize that soft bokeh is all the rage, but at a shallow depth of field like f/2.8, a cat’s eyes will drift in and out of focus as they breathe. Consider stopping down to ensure tack focus. If you're able, get closer to eye level through a window instead of a pop-up roof. This will help the background blur out even if your aperture is stopped down a little.
Planning and Itineraries
I know that we all try to cram as much in as possible, but consider spending more than one day at each location, as this will give you time to scout out your best shots. For example, I’d suggest getting two permits for Kolmanskop, the ghost town that is now being taken over by the dunes. Wandering around at sunrise or sunset will be difficult if you haven’t scouted in daylight and so don’t know where you’re going.
Likewise, if you have the opportunity, try to visit these incredible locations at different times of the day. Sossusvlei, for instance, deserves a visit in the early morning and the late afternoon. The turn of a few hours makes it feel like a totally different place.
What Images to Look For
Namibia is home to many uniquely adapted desert animals, such as desert adapted elephant, lion, and giraffe.
Try to capture the animals in their environment to differentiate your images from those taken in other spots on the continent.
As noted, and unlike east Africa, Namibia’s wildlife viewing is centered around waterholes. If you don’t immediately see something, resist the urge to drive from hole to hole, be patient. From my perspective, this is one of the most important skills related to wildlife photography. The animals need to drink, and eventually, they will come to the holes for water. Driving in circles means you’ll spend time on the trails when you could be setting up in wait for the animals, and you could miss your opportunity. If you can, talk to a local expert about which holes are seeing the most action during your visit. It’s also not a bad idea to consider hiring a wildlife guide or spotter to make sure you’re at the right locations.
While driving, consider stopping to take images of signs and roadside attractions. These b-roll images will help to tell the story of your trip as much as a prized lion or elephant shot.
Editing Midday Sun
When you get to the editing stage, try out a black and white edit to accentuate textures. It's always great to shoot in the hours around sunrise and sunset, but you're still likely to be out midday. Sure, the landscape and wildlife are colourful, but you might be surprised at what the sun’s strong contrast can illuminate in black and white.
A Few Notes on Namibia's Fragility
Namibia’s most stark and beautiful places are fragile, so consider your impact.
- Stay on the roads or approved tracks to avoid destroying lichen that could be thousands of years old.
- The trees at Dead Vlei aren’t props. Don’t touch or lean on them; IG is full of fools doing this. At 600+ years old, they will break.
- Don’t graffiti or leave marks in the ghost towns: these places aren’t playgrounds. Respect the environment as it is, without shoveling or throwing sand about to get "the shot." Leave these fragile places as you found them.
- Finally, be mindful of where you stop to get out. Even the desert has lions and other dangerous wildlife.
All images provided by let us go photo.