Wildlife Photography Camera Tips – Part 3

In Camera Tips – Part 1 and 2 we discussed the move from analogue to digital photography, basics of camera functions and different formats aka sensor sizes, advantages and disadvantages of modern camera systems and cameras with mirrors versus mirrorless cameras. In Part 3 we will concentrate on video and the importance of image stabilization.

 

Video with Modern Digital Camera Systems

It was around 2008 when the first serious video capabilities were introduced in modern digital cameras. The first to offer full high definition (Full HD) video was the Canon 5Dmark2 introduced in late 2008. This camera should change video and cinematography completely as it allowed not only to shoot high quality video footage but also offered the usage of the complete lens arsenal of Canon EF lenses without any restrictions. That offered many benefits as instant availability of focal length for extreme wide angle to extreme telephoto and allowed to record either camera internal or to an external recorder. You could view the image on the rear LCD and if you wanted to have better than that either use the LCD of the external recorder or even connect an external EVF.

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This started a new trend and today there is no modern digital camera lacking the function of video. But there is one big caveat and this is in a DSLR like the 5D2 you have to lock the mirror up in order to allow the light rays coming through the lens to reach the sensor permanently that is required for video shooting. Soon camera vendors came to a solution with mirrorless cameras, we discussed the differences been mirror based and mirrorless cameras in Part 2 of this series.

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In a mirrorless system light rays coming through the lens can always reach the sensor and on top of that there is the built in EVF that can be used for exact viewing of the scene without the need to connect an external EVF. Everyone who already has worked with external components for a camera like recorders and EVFs that are either directly connected to the camera or all the components are maybe mounted to a rig knows how big and relatively cumbersome this whole setup can easily become. For professional filmmakers that is usually not a problem, but for us who want to take some great footage during safaris or in our leisure time it can definitely be much simpler and convenient to work with a mirrorless system.

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Almost all of the modern digital cameras today support not only full HD video, but also 4K video with different frame rates that delivers 4 times the resolution of full HD but in most cases only uses a part of the image sensor for recording that results in some crop factor of the final footage. That means the focal length of a lens needs to be multiplied with that crop factor that can usually range from 1.1 to 1.7. This leads on one side to more telephoto reach with a certain lens that is in general something welcome for wildlife and telephoto work, but on the downside also each wide-angle lens becomes longer limiting the range on the wide side for what it was designed for.

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If you are really looking to work with 4K you should also consider that you end up with much more data even if there are compression mechanisms and also computing all of these data takes a lot of processing power during recording in camera and during editing. The first is the reason why there are often limitations for the duration of video footage in order to limit overheating and the second means you probably need a faster computer for editing 4K footage.

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Image Stabilization

We so far did not discuss that a video usually looks only good if it is not shaky. There are systems out on the market that are called gimbals and help significantly minimize camera shake resulting in stable footage. Of course you also can use a tripod, but that is rather complicated to handle and not the easiest solution for Safari, especially if you consider taking your videos out of a small and shaky safari vehicle.

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Another solution is to rely on the optical image stabilisation (OIS) that is available today in many lenses, especially telephoto lenses. But be careful because OIS only helps to a certain degree to compensate for camera shake and if camera movement becomes too much you again will finally see camera shake.

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In the recent years there was also the development of in body image stabilisation (IBIS) that in some cases even works together with OIS. IBIS moves the sensor in the camera usually in a magnetic field in order to compensate for any camera movement. There are some DSLRs as well as CSCs available offering this systems and I myself have only the best experiences with IBIS. Another advantage of IBIS is the fact that also un-stabilized lenses can be stabilized, opening this enhancement for many old lenses.

The conclusion is that with most of the available modern camera systems shooting video became a pretty simple thing and one can nicely improve the experience of recording memories by adding video footage to still images.

Learn more about cameras and wildlife photography with our Specialist Safaris.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

Wildlife Photography Camera Tips – Part 2

In Camera Tips – Part 1 we discussed the move from analogue to digital photography, camera function basics and different formats aka sensor sizes. In Part 2 we will describe the advantages and disadvantages (if any) of modern digital camera systems and compare cameras with mirrors and mirrorless cameras.

 

Different Digital Camera Systems

What does different digital camera systems mean? Today we are in the lucky situation that we can find complete systems built around all different sensor sizes we discussed in Part 1 like 1”-, 43-, m43 (micro 43)-, APSC-, FF-, and MF (medium format)-sensors. We will get into some more details about these systems soon, but what are the major decision criteria for a specific system or better sensor size?

We already got out of the way in Part 1 that sensor size should not be the major determining factor when it comes to decent image quality even in low light situations. Sensor and processing technology have come a long way and that means that even smaller sensors can achieve great IQ today for the average shooter, that is more than enough for most of the photographic situations we can find ourselves in.

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Sure enough there will always be arguments for professional usage like resolution combined with best high ISO capabilities that would make the choice of larger sensors preferable. But I can tell you from my experiences that even with the prior generation of m43 sensor based cameras I was already able to master the most demanding situations and get great results and with the latest incarnations of these cameras it is only getting better.

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While we see that final IQ will not necessarily get noticeably better with bigger sensors the significant advantages of a smaller sensor based systems are generally lower price and smaller cameras and lenses. Again 43 or today m43 (micro four third, that is using the 43-sensor but without the mirror) allows cameras and lenses to be built smaller delivers today 20MP resolution with stunning low noise at high sensitivity up to ISO6400 and even sometimes ISO12800.

So why choose a FF camera system, if already an m43-based system can deliver what we want with the benefit of lower weight, smaller size and considerably lower price? The true answer besides higher resolution is how the system (sensor and lenses) renders out of focus areas in our images often also referred to as bokeh that is the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens. Now to make even this argument melt away it is worth to mention that all modern smaller than FF camera systems offer at least one or most times even more very fast lenses that are delivering beautiful and dreamy-soft bokeh.

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I am using primarily an APSC as well as an m43 system besides my FF system and especially when travelling for example on safari a smaller and lighter camera system is a real advantage. Just think about carry on luggage in airplanes or also the weight you constantly have to lug around with a FF system. And on top of that a smaller sensor based system becomes increasingly cheaper compared to what you would have to invest in a FF system. Finally also updating cameras to the ever-newest models is reasonably cheaper whenever you need or desire to do so.

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DSLR (Mirror) versus CSC (Mirrorless)

What is now the big hype about a mirrorless based on a so-called CSC (Compact System Camera) versus a mirror systems based on a so-called DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex)? If you consider that there is a senor in each digital camera that produces the final image (or video) one of the big benefits is that the final image can be visualized in real time during the photographic process. It is a be big benefit for the photographer to view the image in the viewfinder exactly the same way as the final image would look like – exposure, exposure compensation, colour (what white balance you use), how good one can see the shadows and highlights (controlling the dynamic range), any black and white setting etc. already before taking the final image.

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This is only possible when using a screen that shows the image the camera and sensor sees in real time. This screen could be the back screen of the digital camera, but we all know how cumbersome this can become when you have to work in bright sunlight. But the screen is put into the viewfinder, the disturbing influence of external light is gone and you can view a high-resolution image in the so-called Electronic View Finder (EVF). Today EVFs have become so good that many photographers including myself prefer them compared to the old-school Optical View Finders (OVFs) of DSLRs.

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But there is another big benefit of mirrorless and this is the lack of the mirror. This allows not only to build the camera much smaller, as you do no longer need the mirror and mirrorbox, but you also get rid of any shake introduced by the swinging mirror during the picture taking process. And this is actually the most sensible part of the whole photographic process, as any camera shake should be avoided during that phase as good as possible.

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While all this pros and cons can easily result in religious discussions about the benefits of one concept over the other I would recommend you just try it yourself if you can live with an EVF or not. I definitely can and now use all the advantages of seeing any of my dialled in parameters already before and while I take the picture. This means I have to do much less control after the shot in reviewing the result on the camera back screen. That is a huge advantage especially in dynamic situations like safaris can easily become.

Learn more about cameras and wildlife photography with our Specialist Safaris.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

Wildlife Photography Camera Tips – Part 1

There are more camera choices than ever since the begin of digital photography around 2000 and we by far have not reached the end of that evolution. The ever-increasing number of smartphones has its fair part in camera manufacturers steadily seeking new niches, which again accelerates the introduction of new camera systems and cameras. In Part 1 about Camera Tips I will discuss the evolution from analogue to digital photography as well as digital sensor sizes and their advantages and disadvantages.

Photography Developed as Analogue

I am one of the photographers who grew up with analogue cameras, my first serious camera being a Minolta SRT-101, a SLR (Single Lens Reflex) using a mirror to show exactly the picture as the lens was projecting on the focusing screen via this mirror. For taking the photo the mirror had to go out of the way, the shutter had to open and then the light could be projected by the lens onto a film surface for a certain amount of time (determined by the shutter speed), imposing the picture seen through the lens and finally using chemical reactions to produce the picture either as negative or positive on this film.

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While discussing that simple principle of analogue photography it is worth mentioning the other 2 parameters determining the final picture and its right exposure. This were and still are today in the digital age the aperture of the lens (wide open, low aperture value means more light as opposed to closed down, high aperture value means less light) and the sensitivity of film, usually measured in ISO, where low ISO means less sensitivity as opposed to high ISO means high sensitivity.

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Analogue cameras already offered several possibilities to automatically control shutter speed (called A for aperture priority mode because you preselect the aperture value), automatically control aperture (called S for shutter priority mode because you preselect the shutter speed) or control both automatically (called P for program mode).

There is of course another parameter of photography that needs to be controlled and this is the focus of the lens. In the mid 1980’s camera vendors started to implement autofocus mechanisms and these have improved over the last 4 decades significantly. Especially for the dynamic requirements you often find in wildlife photography it is very helpful to chose a camera system that supports reliable and exact autofocus even when photographing fast moving animals. We will discuss autofocus and autofocus settings later in a separate post.

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Basically analogue cameras offered most of the features we know from today’s digital cameras. The big disruption in photography started to happen, when digital sensors replaced film. Film had different formats, the majority of film used was 36mm x 24mm (today often referred to as full frame or FF) that became famous some 100 years ago when Oskar Barnack developed the first Leica using cinema film. Over time also smaller formats (APSC: 23.6mm x 15.5mm) and larger formats often called medium format  (MF 6×6: 60mm x 60mm or MF 645: 60mm x 45mm) evolved and there still exist some even larger film formats.

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Digital Photography and Different Sensor Formats

It took some time before digital sensors increased to FF size, the first incarnations in serious cameras around 2000 were using APSC size sensors, followed by four-third sensors (4/3: 17.3mm x 13.0mm) or even smaller 1-inch sensors (1”: 12.8mm x 9.6mm). When the digital sensors are installed in an SLR this is called now DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex). Actually everything stays the same as in an SLR, but now instead of film the sensor surface is used to cerate the final picture.

One major change of modern digital cameras is that now we also can choose a different  sensitivity (ISO value) for every exposure if we decide so that was not possible when using film, as you had to replace film to get to a different sensitivity. Today all modern cameras allow not only changing ISO sensitivity on the fly, but also offer automatic ISO, that means the camera would automatically choose a proper sensitivity as necessary. Or in other words we can now give the camera the freedom of automatically adjusting sensitivity if we desire so that can be quite handsome in certain situations, but should always be used with care.

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Why should we care? Well usually increasing sensitivity means also more noise in the final picture that can be what we want in some situations (for artificial effects) but in general lower noise images are preferable. Sensor size of course has some other major impacts on cameras and camera systems. First a larger sensor area allows for larger pixels, that is good for low noise and second larger sensors allow putting more of these pixels on the sensor surface and hence increase resolution or also called megapixel (MP)-count.

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Let me make the story short, today at the end of 2016 even 1” sensors with 20MP are already capable of producing low noise images up to ISO6400 and sometimes even ISO12800, whereas FF-sensors can achieve up to 50MP with excellent ISO6400 and above. In between you find all different kind of great digital camera system solutions from all the different vendors.

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The conclusion from these ramblings so far is that you hardly can go wrong choosing a modern digital camera of any sensor size with regards to the final image quality and possibility of using high ISO if needed.

Learn more about cameras and wildlife photography with our Specialist Safaris.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

 

 

African Safari Photography Tips

I want to discuss in this post some essentials one should consider for photography on safari. We will look into choosing the optimal focal length and the camera system, give some tips on how to photograph on safari and finally what we need for an optimal workflow.

Optimal Focal Length and Camera System

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There is definitely a plethora on photographic equipment available from a number of vendors, but what do we really need for good photography in this often harsh and unpredictable safari environment? Let me first get out of the way that almost any vendor today offers capable and great equipment (cameras and lenses) but the main question to answer is what we are finally looking for?

Independent if you are either amateur or serious enthusiast, the single and most important thing is the choice of the right lens. For safari this is a zoom that ranges from around 100 – 400mm focal length in full frame (FF) terms.  This gives usually the right focal length range for photographing animals from a safari vehicle. As a second lens it makes sense to have a normal to wide angle zoom available for landscape, environmental and potential people photography that is in FF terms a range of 24 – 70mm.Hungry?

Could you also use prime lenses? Of course you can, but always consider that prime lenses with a fixed focal length do not offer you the flexibility of quick adjustment of focal length as a zoom lens does. Additionally changing lenses in that often harsh safari environment where you can easily have lot of dust is not really recommended.

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If you do not want to shoot with a FF system because of size, weight or prize considerations and prefer to use either APSC or micro-four-third (m43) sensor based systems, the resulting focal length range should be the same after taking the crop factor into account. Each system has its own merits and advantages but in general today all systems can deliver high-end image quality.

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If we come to the choice of camera you can either get DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) or CSCs (Compact System Camera) also known as mirrorless cameras and again both are capable of delivering great results today. The big advantage of mirrorless is mainly that through the Electronic View Finder (EVF) you see the scene like in the final image that is a big advantage for photography and even more for cinematography.

Let's Go

 

Photography on Safari

One thing that does not change on safari is that photography means painting with light. You very often will get the best light in the early morning hours or before sunset and that in turn easily allows for stunning results. Also the animals are usually more active during these times as compared to the rest of the day.

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When we have chosen the right focal length to get the optimal frame that is hopefully made easy by our zoom lens, the only thing we need to control is the moment when we take the photo and this is finally the result of exercise. So my advice is take you camera and lens out for shooting as often as possible and start even with boring subjects like birds in a park or gulls at a seashore in order to get practice. This allows you in the end to improve your reaction and also speed of adjusting your camera setup. Practice is again the secret sauce here.

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Optimal Workflow

By optimal workflow I mean that you should prefer shooting in RAW as compared to JPEG, because this allows much more freedom for optimizing the final result in post processing like Lightroom, but also have the right accessories like enough batteries and chargers for your camera.

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You also should bring the specific power-plug converters for the country you are travelling to, some cleaning accessories for camera and lenses, a capable and robust carrying solution that allows easy access to your camera while protecting it when necessary against humidity and dust as well as the right computer to offload your photos from camera. I am usually offloading every day and if possible back up my work at the same time, as I do not want to loose any of my precious photos that could normally not be shot again.

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I am looking forward to see you on one of our next safaris and help you achieve stunning results that will stay a lifetime memory for you. Visit for details our Specialist Safaris page.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

Magic Masai Mara, Kenya

The Maasai Mara in the south-west of Kenya is contiguous plain with the Serengeti in Tanzania and is part of the greater Mara ecosystem.  The Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) is a small fraction of this ecosystem, but fraction is kind of relative as the MMNR still measures 1500 square kilometres. The landscape is dominated by open grasslands with numerous seasonal creeks and the famous acacia trees in some areas.

If you can remember the 1980’s movie “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford that plays in the Masai Mara for the most part, this is exactly the landscape you will find when visiting today. And yes, it is even much more impressive when you are there in person as compared to the film.

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The Mara is mainly at an altitude of 1600 meters where you have the rain season from November till May and the dry season from June till November. This climate change is also responsible for what is known as the great migration, where over 1.5 million wildebeest arrive in July and leave again in November, one of the most impressive spectacles repeating itself on earth annually and the perfect background for stunning wildlife photography and cinematography.

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This makes the Mara to one of the finest wildlife destinations where you almost have the guarantee to see the big five but also cheetah, hyena, jackal, hippo, crocodile and for sure vulture whenever there was a kill.

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Vultures are one of the easiest and safest ways to find kills with sometimes even some lions around still eating, as the birds are waiting in the trees till the lions or other predators have finished their meal and leave the rest of the kill for them.

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If you are lucky you can even see some rhinos that are slowly coming back to this part of Africa.

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There are many lodges and camps to be found and you have a rich choice from very luxurious places to ones where you stay as close as possible to the animals and the nature, the tented camps, that do actually not lack too much luxury as well. We were staying in the Sand River Camp as well as the Elephant Pepper Camp and I can recommend both as being extremely friendly, authentic and as close to nature as possible, while offering all you need to feel perfect and rest between the numerous game drives.

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There is nothing like the Mara morning sky before sunrise, these are colours that cannot be described, you have to see and feel them yourself.

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This scenery evolves during the early morning hours, when you can find all kind of animals out on the grasslands like these zebras that enjoyed the green and did not seem to be scared about predators.

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But this can fool you as predators are always around, like this young male lion we found nearby sleeping in the morning sun. This male was approximately 4 to 5 years old and you can see this by the colour of the nose that is still pink but starts already getting black around the corners.

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He will be grown up with 5 to 6 years, but he is already a perfect killing machine at this age. He was roaring during the previous night in our camp close to our tent and I can tell you this sound goes through and through – you will never forget that!

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But now he sometimes is still playful at least if he is no longer hungry as he showed when welcoming his brother a few minutes later.

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You want to have adventures like this in magnificent landscape and stunning places? You want to photograph all this or take videos and want to get guidance for how to do this best and in an optimal way? Well then join me on one of the many safaris organized by Roho Ya Chui and you will have the adventure of your lifetime that you will never forget!

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

 

 

Serengeti’s Endless Plains

If you are coming the first time to Serengeti, this is like one of the biggest adventures of your life. The Serengeti National Park is located northwest of the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation area and is one of Tanzania’s most well known parks in the Mara and Simiyu regions. It was an Austrian, Oscar Baumann, who visited the area in 1892 as one of the first Europeans and you can find his recordings in his personal scrapbook about northern Tanzania. One of his major impressions was that this is an endless land that is reflected in the name Serengeti that is derived from the Maasai word “siringet” meaning “the place where the land runs on forever”.

We were heading into the Serengeti with our proven Toyota Landcruiser based safari vehicle and it felt great to be riding such a massive and robust truck while being out in these endless plains.

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This park covers more than fourteen thousand square kilometres of mainly grassed plains, savannah, riverine forest as well as woodlands. The park continues in Kenya where it is called the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which we will describe in another post.

In the south of the park you find almost treeless grassland and this is the wildebeest breeding area during the wet months from December till May. They are sharing this area with zebra, gazelle, waterbuck, buffalo, impala, elephant and hyena and of course you can find also the usual predators. The Serengeti is very well known for the great migration that starts after the breeding season having animals move to the north where the herds arrive in Kenya in late July and August. In November with the start of the short rains the whole migration starts moving south again.

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The northern part of the park starts changing from pure grassland into open woodlands and hills that span from Serona in the south to the Mara River at the Kenyan border in the north. For humans it is forbidden to live in the park, only the Tanzanian National Parks Authority and some researchers of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (obviously this is a leftover of the famous Grzimek conservation work) and staff of the lodges and hotels in that area have exceptional allowance.

Some of the great camps to visit in the middle of this gorgeous wilderness are the Serengeti Pioneer camp and the Serengeti Migration camp, where you can enjoy delicious meals and drinks while resting from the daily efforts of safari.

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I am always surprised of how great the meals are cooked, look like, and taste in these remote parts of Africa and it stays a secret to me how these can be prepared so perfectly.

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On top of that there is always a pretty decent selection of wines available that are carefully served if you desire.

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During November it is already pretty likely that it can start heavily raining and this happens more or less within minutes and changes the landscape completely.

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This is of course always a welcome alternation for all the animals, buffalos or zebras.

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And for some zebras that enjoy it a bit too much and are less careful this can be a deadly and last experience, as there are always hungry groups of lions around who only wait for the chance for a great meal.

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While death is like always something serious it is a necessary part of the whole lifecycle and something completely natural as you can see when watching the lion cubs happily playing during and besides their meal in the wet and muddy grass of the savannah.

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The whole Serengeti offers a really unique and exciting adventure and the time you are able to spend here before moving on becomes always too short.

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Learn more about safari tours including Serengeti National Park on our African Safari Tours page with a variety of sample tours.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa

What to know about Ngorongoro Crater area

The Ngorongoro Crater is actually the world’s largest volcanic, intact, inactive and unfilled caldera and was formed approximately three million years ago when a large volcano exploded and collapsed. The crater is 610 meters deep, the diameter is around 30 miles and overall the floor covers 100 square miles, so this was definitely a huge volcano by its time of activity!

This volcano was around 5800 meters high before it exploded and you can still feel this when you are at the crater floor today as it is at 1800 meters elevation. Overall an impressive witness of the evolution of our earth and especially the African continent that is also one of the main reasons this crater was voted as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa in Arusha in February 2013.

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The crater is only part of the greater Ngorongoro Conservation Area and this is a protected area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 – so lot of history! Wildlife in the crater is covering black rhino, buffalo, hippo, wildebeest, zebra, eland, Thompson gazelle, waterbuck and some cheetah, wild dog and leopard and of course lion. Lake Magadi, you can see a part of it in the picture above, is a large lake in the southwest of the crater, where  you can find thousands of flamingos.

But wait, there is more history. Michael Grzimek, the second son of Bernhard Grzimek who was driving conservation work also in this part of Africa, was killed in 1959 when the plane he piloted collided with a vulture and crashed. He was buried the same day at the top of the Ngorongoro Crater where later the government of Tanzania built the stone pyramid for his grave and also Berhard Grzimek was buried there after he died in 1987.

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Definitely the most beautiful place to stay in this area is the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge that is designed in the Masai mud-and-stick manyatta style and is one of the most spectacular lodges I have ever seen. It was an out of this world experience to visit this lodge!

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Needless to say also the rooms are luxurious and make the stay a real dream!

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The nice and friendly personal of the lodge contributes to feeling great when resting from the efforts of game drives or any other activities.

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The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to Masai where you can still find them living in their original villages. The Masai are cattle herders and need to keep moving as the grass needs to be able to regrow.

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Sure enough their nomadic lifestyle is starting to change as many wildlife preserves were opened in Tanzania and Kenya recently, not longer allowing the Masai to graze their cattle on these preserves.

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We were lucky to visit one of their original villages. One can watch here traditional dances of men and women.

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They even allow you to enter their cabins that are really small and mainly built around an open fireplace where they cook and also can warm up during the cold nights.

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They offer quite impressive collections of handmade decoration and jewellery for sale, hard to resist not to buy some nice presents.

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Finally we were only visitors in this slowly disappearing world of traditional Masai life and needed to leave these friendly people after countless stunning impressions.

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Learn more about safari tours including Ngorongoro Crater on our African Safari Tours page with a variety of sample tours.

Peter Tomsu for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa