Madagascar Trip Report
Three great overseas destinations for wildlife photography are East Africa, southern Africa, or Madagascar. East Africa is the closest destination for Europeans or North Americans. It has a well-developed tourist infrastructure, relatively good roads, and much competition, offering the traveler good value for his money. Airfare is the lowest of these three destinations. I’ve been to East Africa three times. Southern Africa offers a less crowded experience, but higher airfare to reach the farther destination. Both Africas offer large, glamorous photography subjects: elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and cape buffalo.
Madagascar’s main attractions are lemurs, chameleons, and very unusual plants. It is the farthest, and most expensive destination for airfare, and is presently served by two national airlines and a charter airline. It has very limited tourist facilities, poor roads, and limited ground transportation options. The two parks I visited in the north, required semi-camping (primitive structures with no water or electricity). No batteries could be charged for four consecutive days. There were no hotels available that I was aware of. Also, in my opinion, there is very limited competition by tour operators to provide good value for the traveler. If a traveler has never been to any of these three destinations, the two Africas offer much better value. Other experienced Africa travelers that I met in Madagascar voiced the same opinions.
If you’ve already been to Africa, Madagascar offers quite different picture opportunities. The Malagasy people, while seemingly reserved, are quite pleasant and easy to get along with. I felt completely safe and comfortable every day of my trip there. I did heed warnings and didn’t walk around Antananarivo at night. I also kept all of my camera gear out of sight in that city.
A one month visa upon entry at Antananarivo (Ivato) airport was easily and quickly obtained at a cost of 65 Euros/$95USD per person. Antananarivo is often abbreviated to Tana.
Searching for a Reasonable Travel Package
I tried to arrange a trip to Madagascar several years ago, and since I was paying for both my wife and I, I found it so expensive that I just gave up. This year (2008), I tried again, and for a second time, gave up due to cost. Finally, I located a tour company in Antananarivo, that arranged a custom, private tour for the two of us at a reasonable cost. They are listed at the end of this report. We flew non-stop from Los Angeles, CA, to Paris on Air France, and visited Paris for two days (partly to get over jet lag). Then we flew non-stop to Madagascar on Air Madagascar. We again stopped in Paris on the way back, to break up the long 23 hour flight time of the two flights.
I wanted a longer 20-day tour that went to few places and stayed longer at each park, to allow time for more photography. I visited two parks east of the capital city: Analamazaotra (Perinet) and Andasibe-Mantadia. Then we flew to the north of the island and visited Montagne de Ambre and the Reserve Speciale de l’Ankarana. We flew back to Tana and drove south to Ranomafana and Isalo. That was followed by a drive southwest to Tulear and then flew back to Tana. We had our own 4-wheel-drive vehicle and an English speaking driver everywhere that we went. French is the only widespread non-native language spoken there, since Madagascar was a former French colony.
While airfare to Madagascar was very expensive, and private car and driver was quite expensive, hotels (other than 5 star) were very reasonable, and meals were quite cheap.
The park fees were included in our tour price, but we had to pay our guides directly.
Guides were required at every park except Montagne de Ambre, and one guide for the two of us cost $20-40 per day, depending on how long we agreed upon. The guides were essential anyway, since even with them pointing to a subject, I often had extreme difficulty in seeing it. The camouflage of the stick bug, leaf gecko, and chameleon was amazing. They knew where to look.
The weather was quite hot during my trip, and the usual December winter rains started a month early. It rained every single day of my trip, except in the dry south. But the guides told us to get into the park early in the morning, since the rains almost always came in late afternoon and night. October might be a more pleasant month, but the early rains in November made the countryside lush with green growth.
For the serious photographers, I would like to go into detail in my choice of photo equipment and describe why photography in a rainforest is difficult. This might help prepare you for the challenges of very low light level photography in Madagascar
I used a full frame Canon 5D digital SLR, and since I prefer prime lenses, my choices were:
- Carl Zeiss 28mm f/2.8
- Canon 50mm f/1.4
- Canon 100mm f2.8 USM macro
- Canon 300mm f4L IS (imaged stabilized lens)
- Canon 1.4XA extender
- Gitzo carbon fiber tripod
- Canon 550 EX strobe.
I had never shot in a rainforest before, and with my preference for available light, never carried a strobe for overseas photography. I practiced for two months in my back yard near dusk on dark, overcast days, and practiced very low levels of flash fill, using a stuffed toy monkey as my subject.
I experimented to see how slow in shutter speed I could go with the 300mm IS lens. I found that 1/80 to 1/100 second shutter speed gave very sharp results, and if I could shoot a group of 3 or 4 frames, and pick the best one later, that 1/40 to 1/30 second was usable. Since my camera will not flash sync at faster than 1/200 second, I was confined to using 1/80 to 1/200 second shutter speed, and adjusted aperture and ISO to accommodate different levels of light. My most used ISO was 800, then 400, then 1600 in decreasing order of use.
My main subject was lemurs, and they tended to be far away and high up in the trees. The natural tendency was to get directly under them to minimize distance and increase image size. This resulted in dark lemurs against a bright sky, a photographic disaster. So some level of flash fill was absolutely required, to fill in shadows, reduce contrast to a printable level, and add eye shine to the lemurs. A second, unexpected result was that my 300mm lens would flare terribly against the bright sky, destroying all contrast and image quality. This lens had never flared before, in 7 years of use, but was always used shooting parallel to the ground before.
The only acceptable work-around was to try to shoot more level, shoot away from the bright light, and try to get leaves or some dark background object behind the subject, to even out the contrast. Oh yes! And shoot in the semi-tame parks listed below.
I carried a tripod everywhere and almost never used it. The trails were up and down (rarely level), muddy and slippery. The rainforest was so dense that it was extremely difficult to get a clear shot of a lemur 30-40 feet away, without branches and leaves obscuring the view. By the time you got the tripod perfectly aligned to miss the leaves, the lemur had jumped four trees and 100 feet away. The tripod was nearly useless. Most days were light, bright overcast, yet the light was heavily diffused by the time it filtered down to the forest floor. The tripod was for heavy overcast days, where the shutter speed was so slow that even IS would not give a fast enough shutter speed to be useable.
Another big problem was that in trying to use flash fill, the flash would bounce off leaves much closer to the camera than the subject, resulting in white, overexposed, out of focus leaves that destroyed the picture quality. In that case, I turned off the weak flash fill and got lemurs with totally black faces, and no eyes visible at all. Can’t win either way!
I carried the 1.4X extender, but only used it once, on the tripod, for a distant lemur. I could often use more than 300mm focal length, but needed the f4 speed of the 300mm lens without extender. I left a 500mm f4 at home, and was quite happy not to be lugging that much weight around!
My recommendations for serious photographer in Madagascar is to have an IS (Image stabilized) or VR (vibration reduction) lens reaching 300mm to 400mm. Then use very low levels of flash fill on nearly every picture, to add color and eye shine to the subject. A digital camera body that can go to 1600 ISO with reasonably low levels of noise is needed. A true macro lens, capable of focusing down to 1:1 is useful. The colorful Mantella frog is about the width of my thumb and the giraffe weevil is much smaller. And a macro lens is useful on the day geckos, which can be approached quite closely. Some chameleons are smaller than your little finger.
Where to Go in Madagascar
The following semi-tame parks were very important in getting high quality pictures. One was Lemur Park, about 20 km west of Tana. Here the lemurs are confined by water in an open air (non-fenced) park. Lemurs do not swim and will not cross water. The lemurs could be approached within 6 feet and could be photographed at a low angle, avoiding bright sky backgrounds.
Another park was Lemur Island, near Vakona Lodge in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. Here the semi-tame lemurs were encouraged to jump on your back or head, with the lure of carrots, which they love. That was quite an experience and photo-op, to have a lemur sitting on your head! I had one lemur walking on my back and sitting on my head, while I was photographing another lemur sitting on my wife’s head!
Reserve Peyrieras, located about midway between Antananarivo and Andasibe, offered more chameleon varieties and colors than I was able to see in all six National Parks and reserves that I visited!
Anja Park was another semi-tame opportunity to photograph ring-tailed lemurs. It is just north of Isalo National Park.
The photo opportunities of these semi-tame parks were so good, and lemur photography high up in the trees was so difficult, that I took advantage of my private car and driver. On my return trip from Andasibe-Mantadia to Antananarivo, I visited Reserve Peyrieras and Lemur Park a second time and got more high quality pictures. I have clearly labeled my semi-tame and wild lemur pictures.
Another semi-tame lemur opportunity, that I did not visit, was the private reserve of Berenty in the southern tip of Madagascar.
Tour Company Recommendation
I chose to go with the tour company Le Voyageur, based in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Visit their web site for more information: www.simicro.mg/voyageur/
Lot II I 22AJ Morarano Alarobia
101 Antananarivo Madagascar
261 20 22 43527
+261 20 24 55940
phone/ fax: +261 20 23 30928
I told them where I wanted to visit and how long, and they drew up a customized tour for me. I was extremely pleased their reliability and service, and hope other travelers will use their services. I have no business relationship with them—I’m just a satisfied customer.
More About Madagascar
Madagascar is a poor country and has an expanding population. The people have cut down the rainforests for wood for use in cooking and heating. The rivers run red-brown and thick like coffee, not clear, due to soil run-off, as a result of this deforestation.
National parks and reserves in Madagascar appear to be maintained and financed by tourist park fees and guide fees, and possibly the high $95 visa fee. I was told that 50% of all money collected is spent on the people living near the park to provide employment, to prevent them from killing animals for food, and cutting down the forest for firewood. It gives them an economic incentive to preserve the park and animals.
Madagascar needs your eco-tourist dollars to help preserve their rainforests, with their unique animal and plant life for future generations.