Capture the Serengeti Like a Pro on an Expert-Led Photo Safari
TANZANIA, AFRICA — My heart is racing. I sit as still as possible with my lens fully extended, watching and waiting. She gracefully slinks her velvety body against the acacia tree, camouflaging herself from the hungry company below: a hyena eying the previous day's lunch — still hanging from the tree. A muted cloud cover illuminates the young leopard's contrasting spots. The engine of the car is still. We whisper softly, "OMG is she going to jump?" as her hind legs flex. I steadily hover my finger above the shutter. Within the blink of an eye, she effortlessly jumps to the opposite limb of the tree, her graceful body in full, effortless extension. I click the shutter. Collectively, we let out a big exhale. "How cool was that?!" We watch in awe as she rests in the V of the tree. Patience, presence, and the proper exposure allow me to capture this beautiful moment in Serengeti National Park.
This is just one of many incredible, primal moments I experienced as a guest of the Four Seasons Safari Lodge on their Connected Souls private photo safari with professional wildlife photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks. Unlike other safari outfitters, who race throughout the park to check off a guest's aspirational "Big 5" spotting, this photo safari is all about taking the time to slow down, be present, and admire how the light illuminates the endless landscape, so that when a majestic animal comes into your view line, the experience is that much more magical.
Originally from the UK, Joynson-Hicks ditched his British passport at an early age to live and work as a wildlife photographer in East and Central Africa. At the heart of his photography is an innate admiration and deep love for the beauty and character of Africa's wildlife. Fluent in Swahili, he has built strong relationships with the local communities of Tanzania, which has deepened his understanding of animal behavior and migration. His infectious passion and knack for storytelling naturally flows into his photography instruction, as he wants everyone to get a memorable shot, no matter if you've packed a full professional camera kit or are holding on to the iPhone 6. Photography, he teaches, is not only a creative tool for documenting encounters with wildlife, but a powerful lens for conservation, showcasing that we are all inhabitants of the same beautiful planet.
Out in the bush, we operate on animal time. The constant notifications, skyscrapers, and telephone polls of modern life vanish in the open plains. The vast scale of nature is mesmerizing. We observe the animals in their wild habitat; the story becomes unique — each of them just trying to survive. We set out for game drives at 6 every morning, as the sun hovers above the landscape. Every drive is an adrenaline-fueled adventure creating an infectious excitement for what awaits us. Every stage of life is present in the Serengeti, the largest and oldest ecosystem in the world. Over the course of three days, I spot a passionate moment between mating lions (I knew we'd get "intimately close" to the animals, but I didn't expect that!), three cheetah babies trying to catch up with their mom as she sprints across the open plain to catch a gazelle, and an entire elephant family out for an afternoon graze. Every vignette — whether gruesome or endearing — is a visceral experience. With my camera in hand, I'm watching life unfolding on a surreal screen.
BACK AT THE LODGE
Interacting with the wildlife doesn't stop after the game drive. The excitement continues back at the Four Seasons Lodge, situated inside a natural granite amphitheater with elevated buildings that embrace and protect the park's ecosystem from the inside out. Designed and built by South African architect Francois Thernon in 2009 and managed by Four Seasons since 2012, the property is comprised of 77 guest rooms, with 12 suites and five freestanding villas with curved elevated walkways made from local moringa wood and bamboo, offering 360-degree vantage points of the vast plains. The main lodge and outdoor pool overlook the property's natural watering hole, which is frequently visited by elephant herds stopping by for a morning drink. Baboons perch on the high rocks, capybaras scurry across the sundeck, and water buffalo graze below the thatched-roof spa. Just like in the bush, the boundless property is full of life, reminding you you're in the middle of the Serengeti. Inside, guest rooms and villas offer a spacious sanctuary to reflect on the day, decorated with colorful African fabrics from Tanzanian artists, with large soaking tubs or outdoor plunge pools. The hotel keeps a watchful eye for wildlife activity using infrared cameras, so that you can throw open the drapes to wave to anything that roams near the lodge.
AVOIDING THE SPRAY
In the hotel's Discovery Center, 3-D topographic maps chart the Great Migration, the largest animal movement on the planet — when over 1.7 million wildebeest, 500,000 zebra, and 200,000 antelope journey from the Ndutu region of the southern Serengeti northward through the entire length of the vast plains to Kenya's Masai Mara, a total of 500 miles. This is where we have daily content review sessions after our game drives with Paul. While we review photos in real time on the game drives, it is during review sessions that we take a deeper dive into photo composition and how to fill the frame for the most evocative wildlife image. He teaches us how to avoid a photographer's overly excited "spray and pray" tendency — shooting wildlife by haphazardly firing the camera in all directions with the hope that one or two will be in focus. Over the course of the safari, I feel my skills improve, and am able to be more present.
SAFARI FROM THE SKY
Up in the air is where I truly grasp the vastness of the Serengeti. En route to a sunrise hot air balloon safari with Serengeti Balloon Safaris, we plow through a sunken bridge from our Land Rover with clearly hungry hippos at the window's eye level. In the distance, the bright orange flame of the fire flickers as it inflates the balloons. The takeoff is more technical than I expect. Within a matter of minutes all goes silent, and we are gliding over the savannah. A dazzle of zebra prance beneath us, sprinting in unison. Every few minutes, the pilot blasts a fresh pulse of fire until we rise to a total of 1,000 feet from the ground. The birds-eye view I am accustomed to in flight — a city skyline, freeways, plots of farmland — is instead a golden plateau of land in its purest form, just as mother nature intends it to be. The Great Migration is underway with massive herds of wildebeest as far as the eye can see. The one-hour journey ends with a smooth landing, and we immediately pop Champagne, a historical tradition that began with the first hot-air balloon flight in France, saluted by the king for a safe journey. Breakfast is served in the bush with a pop-up kitchen under a massive acacia tree.
I am filled with a new appreciation for life, for adventure, and for the beauty of each and every moment. My photos are my return ticket, as they represent a moment in time and the timelessness of Africa's savannah. The music of the wild — the roars, the rustling, the chirps — provides a universal connection.
What to Know Before You Go
The Four Seasons' Connected Souls private safari tour is a four-day trip including three half-day safaris led by wildlife photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks, followed by individual content review sessions and tips for capturing the best animal and landscape images, along with customizable lectures about wildlife behavior and the ecosystem of the Serengeti. Rates start at $3,360 per person, inclusive of all listed safari activities, round trip transfers from Seronera Airstrip, three meals a day, beverages, and a laundry credit.
Along with the balloon safari, the hotel can also arrange private bush dinners, walking safaris with Maasai guides, guided meditation and yoga in the park, and BBQ dinners in one of the property's private villas. As far as the best time to visit, the Serengeti is always beautiful and full of life. January through March is known as the green season after the short rainy season from November to December, when the park is lush and green and the clarity of the air makes for crisp, beautiful photos. The Great Migration typically occurs between August and October, as the massive animal herds make their way across the Mara River.
What to Pack for a Safari?
Safari Essentials: What to Pack and What to Know Before You Go