Wildlife Photography on an African Safari

Professional nature photographers make it look easy don’t they! A giraffe silhouetted against the setting sun; savannah landscapes of acacia trees under deep blue skies and the action sequence of a hungry cheetah catching a terrified springbok.

Yet wildlife photography, which sits next to bird, landscape and macro photography the umbrella of ‘nature photography’, is extremely challenging. Unlike studio photography there is very little that is under your control. To obtain good images you need to have the right equipment, know how to use the various items and have photographic vision. Basically you need to apply what is commonly known as the Five-P’s of photography. I’ll briefly list them here:

  • Purpose – When you go out each day on your game drives you should have an idea in your mind what you want to photograph and then have a strategy for finding the animals. You should also strive to be ‘situation-driven’ as opposed to ‘subject-driven’. This simply means that if you come across a bird or impala in the golden light (first thirty minutes after sunrise or last 30 minutes before sunset), you should stop and photograph the subject instead of racing past it in search of the ‘big-five’ animals.
  • Patience – Nature has its own time and you should be patient when waiting for a sunset or waiting at a waterhole or hide. We have seen so many people walk into a bird hide, see ‘nothing happening’ and then walk out and five minutes later a lion steps out of the grass and drinks or chases the antelope that were drinking!
  • Practice – Please don’t buy a new camera or lens for your African safari and then use it for the first time while on safari! You should use it at home, at the zoo or any other place that will allow you to get to know the workings of your photo gear.
  • Preparation – You need a basic understanding of animal behavior, available light, the seasons and what to expect on an African safari or at a specific national park. Try and read some wildlife articles, books or interviews with professional photographers as this will contribute immensely to you finding and successfully photographing the animals.
  • Passion – If you are passionate about nature and photography the other four P’s should come naturally!

The Southern and East African national parks have an abundance of wildlife subjects and offer so many different safaris, from self-drive safaris and guided game drives to balloon safaris and walking safaris to name a few options. This series of articles will be on the animals that reside in the Southern African parks of Kruger, Kalahari (Kgalagadi) and Pilanesberg in South Africa as well as  Etosha in Namibia and will focus on how you can best find and photograph these wildlife subjects when on your self-drive safari.

We assume that you have a suitable camera and lens (for safaris you need at least a 300mm lens) which you know how to use, that you have the necessary accessories to ensure sharp images – a cable release plus a beanbag and/or sturdy tripod with a gimbal or ball-head and that you understand the basics of wildlife photography such as composition and exposure.

Exposure is obtained by setting three things – ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Most digital cameras have very accurate TTL (Through The Lens) metering systems that measure the amount of light entering the lens and then calculates the exposure. These meters will give correct exposures 95% of the time but they do have limitations.

The TTL meter tries to calculate what is termed ‘middle-tone’ for every shot you take. Middle-tone is 18% gray, which is the tone that is halfway between black and white.

Most African animals are middle-toned so your exposures will be accurate but there are some that are very dark or very light, so we will discuss the exposure compensation that you may need to dial in to get a correct exposure for each animal. We will first feature the famous ‘big-five’ mammals of lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, starting with the lion in next month’s article.


1 thought on “Wildlife Photography on an African Safari”

  1. Great information. I am glad I stumbled here. I am a big wildlife admirer and I just love capturing wild creatures in my camera. I would love to explore Africa’s wildlife for sure.

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