Award-winning wildlife photography has depicted some of the greatest nature out there, and it has been used to promote tourism, conservation, appreciation, education, and passion for the outdoors. African safaris are a celebration of wildlife, and walking home with that image of a leopard relaxing in the bough of a tree, or a hippo’s wide open jaws in the middle of a dam, an elephant throwing a trunkful of water over its head, or a scrub-robin fluffed up in the morning chill, are #goals.
We want to try and prepare you for the environment you will be shooting in so that you know what to expect and what opportunities to look out for, and how to manage your surroundings when it comes to taking great photos, so that you too can put together an album of iconic African wildlife. These are memories that will last a lifetime, but if you want the photos to match, here are some guidelines to bear in mind.
- You are likely going to need a bit of zoom to capture animals in full frame. A 400mm-600mm would be a nice size, but remember you won’t be using a tripod as you will be in a game viewer, so a beanbag would be better for stability.
- Details – eyes, whiskers, tusks, spots, scales, patterns, etc. make for great arty shots, and birds are often too far away to capture nicely with a shorter lens, so the general rule for wildlife photography is to opt for a longer lens.
- To capture a greater scene, including people, landscapes, etc., you can pretty much rely on your smart phone camera, so if you have to decide between travelling with a wide, shorter lens or a long lens, opt for long sot that you cover all bases, but if you can bring both, it’s a bonus.
- Avid photographers with a bigger selection of equipment could pack two cameras with two different sized lenses and change between the two while on game drive, but for those with one camera body, choose a lens (the longer one) and stick to it to avoid juggling precious equipment on a bumpy ride with plenty of dust flying around.
- Game drives take place at sunrise and sunset, so prepare and practice shooting in low light so that you are familiar with these settings in the moment.
- General guideline for low light shooting with a DSLR:
ISO = High. Depending on your camera’s capabilities, this number will vary, but at dusk and dawn you should be shooting on at least 800 ISO, preferably higher, but if it is too high your picture will become grainy, so adjust accordingly.
Aperture = Low. The lower your aperture or F stop number, the more light is being let in, so you want to keep this number low during early morning and evening light.
Shutter speed = Slow. The slower your shutter speed, the more exposure your image will get, which is what you want when there is not a lot of light. If it is too slow your image will blur, so balance this out with your ISO.
- Shooting on manual mode means you will have to adjust both the shutter speed and aperture until the correct exposure is reached, but shooting on aperture priority means that if you just set your F stop at a low number, the shutter speed will be automatically adjusted. It depends how much creative freedom you would like, but if you’re in a hurry to get the shot of a lion yawning or a leopard leaping, or a hippo showing off its dental work, aperture priority is an easier bet if you’ve only got one shot to get the image right.
- Once the sun has risen after your morning coffee stop, you can lower your ISO to about 400 – 800 and when you head out at about 4pm for afternoon drive it will be very bright, so you can lower your ISO right down to 100 – 200, and your shutter speed can be very high (3600 – 4000).
- If you want to focus on something in particular and blow out the background slightly, keep your aperture as low as possible (2.8 -5.6). If you want to focus on a broader environment and get both the background and the foreground in focus, up your aperture to somewhere around 13 or more. You can guage this for yourself.
- Take a variety of shots if you have the chance. Often elephants are really great subject matter because they amble around and feed, moving around slowly, and if they are comfortable with the vehicle, they won’t disappear on you.
- Take the opportunity to capture a bit of context and incorporate a bit of the green, leafy background, or the waterhole, or a mother and baby next to one another, etc.
- Zoom in and photograph the eyes and the leathery wrinkles, tusks, and toes to mix up your shots.
- Don’t centre the subject in the shot all the time. By showing the space the animal has to work with, the image captured has more living energy and creates the idea that the animal can move into the space left in the frame. A springbok on the plains of the Kalahari has far more photographic effect if it is in the far left or right of the frame, and not in the centre.
- Capture both portrait and landscape photos of your subject.
PLAY WITH THE LIGHT
- Golden hour is famous for a reason. The magnificent glow that spills through the trees when the sun is low in the sky, just before sunset and just after sunrise is the ideal time to take photographs, and you will be out on safari at these times of day, so learn to use it to your advantage.
- Golden light is soft and warm and it creates atmosphere, shadows, shapes, and it has great impact, whether you’re photographing an impala or an African wild dog.
- Even if you think you’re out to photograph leopards, you might find your best photos are the ones of the giraffe, just because it was snapped at golden hour. A sliver of light breaking a dark or shadowy subject immediately becomes an amazing photo opportunity and makes your job a lot easier because the light enhances the mood of the image tenfold.
- The trick is not to overexpose and let the shadows speak. If you are shooting a zebra that is half in the light and half in the dark, expose correctly for the part that is in the light and allow the rest to be dark (you can always lighten this part in post-production if need be). If you expose for the dark areas, your light area will be overexposed, and the gentleness of golden hour is lost.
- Backlighting is a lot of fun too, so don’t be scared to shoot into the light. This only really works at golden hour too when the sun light is at its softest. A herd of elephants dust bathing with the light behind them is a scene that might be best captured looking into the light instead of having the light behind you and lighting the elephants up. Backlighting creates a glow around your subject and you have the opportunity to create silhouettes. You will need to overexpose by one or two stops if you want your subject (the elephants) to be exposed, and if you don’t compensate for that exposure your elephants will come out as silhouettes, which might also work really well if they are creating great shapes with their trunks and ears, etc.
BE PRESENT AND BE THOUGHTFUL
- There is so much to be enjoyed while out on safari and it’s one thing to have the photos to prove it at the end, but it’s another thing entirely to bank the memories and to truly appreciate your surroundings. So, when you’ve got the shot, put down the camera and watch the scene with your own eyes so that you can experience the reality of it whole-heartedly.
- Be considerate of other guests who might not be as perfectly positioned as you are in a sighting, and hopefully they will be as obliging if the roles are reversed. Once you’ve taken a few photos, allow others in the vehicle to take theirs if the animal is not in an ideal position and they might need to lean into your space to see it.
- If you want to capture the human element of a safari, it is polite to ask before you snap away. Guests easily build a rapport with their guides, as they spend a lot of time together, but there are some tribes in Africa that do not celebrate photography the same way you might and sometimes it is taboo to be photographed. If you would like to photograph people in their traditional clothing, remember to greet them and ask them if they don’t mind.