Photographing wildlife is difficult. There are so many factors at play, getting the perfect shot can sometimes be very frustrating. Wild animals don’t hang around near roads for you, they don’t pose for you, they are constantly moving and sometimes they simply get frightened and run away. You’ll sometimes drive for hours and not see anything. The light is not always favourable and often very harsh. Branches, twigs and grass are often in the way. And the list goes on and on. So most of the time, getting that perfect shot is more about luck than anything else.
In this guide I will discuss a few ways in which you can increase your luck and have a better chance of capturing some amazing wildlife photographs on your next safari adventure.
These are just tips from my personal experience shooting wildlife, it is by no means the only way. Everyone will have their own techniques and methods of doing things. I do hope this will help you.
Let’s start with my least favourite subject. The gear.
This is always a debatable subject and you can spend millions on gear and the list of gear available is endless. All depends on your budget. I am not gonna focus on specific gear or brands but just generalise.
Some “zoom” is essential. Whether it be a high end telephoto lens on a DSLR or a compact camera with decent optical zoom or even a cell phone camera through a pair of binoculars (tricky, but it actually works), you need to be able to get close.
Wild animals are constantly on the move. Sometimes they’ll be right next to the road, other times they’ll be far off in the distance. So some “zoom” will always help. Even if you want to get wide shots of wildlife in an epic landscape you’ll still need some “zoom”. Anything from 300mm upwards is gonna be good. But if you don’t have that sort of reach you’ll still be able to get some good shots.
Stabilisation is also important. The more zoom you have, the more stabilisation you’ll need to avoid blurry photos and to focus and compose easier. If you are fortunate enough to have a lens with built in stabilisation you can skip this part. If you are like Hemisha who uses a vintage manual focus Canon FD 300mm SC lens you’ll need stabilisation.
The cheapest way to do this is to cut up an old pair of pants and fill it with some sand or lentil grains, stitch it up and you’ll have something to place on your car window or game vehicle to rest your lens or camera. We also use it in the car as a soft cushion to support your camera while driving on bumpy gravel roads.
Switching off your engine at a sighting helps to reduce vibration and noise. There are obviously several other options available for stabilisation ranging from pro bean bags to car door mounts depending on what your budget is. Choose what works for you. The DIY bean bag works a treat though.
It is always handy to keep spare batteries and memory cards near you at all times. You do not want to run out of power or storage while shooting a lion kill for example. Keeping it nearby will reduce your cameras downtime so you don’t miss that epic shot!
In terms of cameras, I don’t have a lot to say on the subject. There are thousands of posts out there about cameras and everyone has their favourites. These days most cameras are very good. The best camera is the one you have on you.
Another way to increase your luck is understanding animal behaviour.
Antelope species, Zebra, Giraffe and Wildebeest are very common but often scare easily when you approach. What I try to do is switch the engine off while I’m still a bit far away and hopefully have enough momentum to coast right next to them. The lack of engine noise keeps them calm and also allows you to enjoy the sound of the bush.
Buffalo can go either way. Depending on which member of the herd is closest, they will either run off or get defensive. If they are getting aggressive I suggest moving along. No need to stress the animal. You will also encounter older Buffalo which do not belong to a herd anymore they often make for good photographs but can also be aggressive.
Elephant generally are very calm, but in some parks with rampant poaching they can be aggressive. They also get aggressive if there are new borns in the herd. They will always protect the baby.
One thing to remember is that if you are with a herd that is standing next the road waiting, they are usually trying to cross. They are waiting for you to go before they can cross, so please don’t block them. All of the above mentioned animals are relatively easily to spot throughout the day as they are grazers.
Predators are a bit more tricky.
Cheetah hunt during the day to avoid having their food stolen by nocturnal predators. Keep an eye out in open grassland savanna. They’ll often be found here so that they can use their speed to hunt down prey without having to dodge any trees or bushes. They will also climb up high vantage points like anthills to look for prey.
Lion hunt at night. That is when they are most active unfortunately. During the day they mostly sleep. Sleeping lions are hard to spot and don’t always make for the most interesting photographs. So you have to wake up as early as possible and be out as soon as the sun rises if you want to get them on the move or even better on the hunt.
In winter months they are slightly more active during the day and you’ll often find them on tar roads in the afternoon absorbing the heat of the road.
Leopard are rare and usually the most difficult to spot. It is said that you will only see a Leopard if it allows you to.
Leopard can be found during the day though, usually sleeping or eating in large trees, in dense shrubbery near river banks or on rocky outcrops. So on your drive, keep an eye out for their feet dangling from branches or catching some sun on large rocks.
Best Times To Shoot
Golden hour is the best time to shoot. Like most outdoor photography, early morning and late afternoon provide the best light conditions. The midday African sun is harsh and not very flattering, however it can be great for some macro photography.
My favourite light for wildlife photography though is overcast or rainy weather. Overcast conditions provide very even light, and you can shoot throughout the day. Rainy weather is the same and the rain can add that extra bit of drama to your images. Just make sure your camera is well protected. A plastic bag with a hole cut in it can work well in a pinch.
Do Your Research
Having some information before a trip is vital. Knowing which roads to travel, which camps are the best and where animals are usually spotted will definitely increase your luck. Using online forums or facebook groups can help a lot too. While you are there, you should also chat to other visitors on the road and at the camp about sightings. Most visitors are always happy to share their knowledge and experiences.
I would also recommend a good map book or guide book of the reserve you’re visiting. There’s often valuable information on roads, camps and animals. One of our favourites for the Kruger National Park is Kruger Self Drive. A good book on wildlife and birdlife is handy to have, always good to learn about the animals you are seeing.
A Typical Game Drive
We start our days very early. If the camp gate opens at 6am, then we aim to be at the gate at 5:55am. We would have already planned a route the night before. Wake up, get dressed, brush our teeth, make a flask of coffee and head out. Cameras are at our sides and ready to shoot. ISO settings are set high due to the low light at that time. (Don’t forget to adjust as the light gets brighter)
Once out the camp we drive very slowly. Around 25km/h (15mph) or less. Keeping an eye out for any movement in the bush. This is the best time to spot the big cats and Hyena as they are most active. I once read that you should look “through the bush” when spotting wildlife, it’s hard to explain but try it, you’ll get what I’m saying, and it works.
When we do spot something we will pull over to the side if possible and switch off the engine. If it is a rare sighting we will usually spend a lot of time viewing and photographing, but at the same time one needs to be courteous of other visitors and also allow them to enjoy the beauty of nature. So try to park so others can also see or move along once you’ve taken enough photographs. If you are pulling up to a sighting with lots of vehicles try not to block anyone else’s view, just be patient.
If the morning is quiet and there are few sightings then we will find a waterhole, switch off the car and enjoy the quiet with some coffee and biscuits. Most likely you will get several animal visitors to the waterhole.
As the light starts getting harsher we will make our way back to camp. Have a shower, eat some breakfast and maybe enjoy a nap or do some macro photography before heading out for an afternoon drive. If the weather is overcast then we will stay out. Not only is this my favourite light to shoot in but it’s also cooler and more comfortable to stay out in the bush. Even if you don’t spot anything, driving in the wild in overcast weather is one of my favourite things in the world.
Once you’ve hit your luck and found that animal, now comes the hard part. Capturing that perfect moment. Your camera settings should already be dialled in beforehand.
- Continuous focus is a must for animals that are moving .
- Burst mode if they are moving fast and you don’t want to miss the action.
- Shutter speeds should be above 1/250th of a second to avoid any motion blur
- High ISO in the mornings and afternoons.
- Aperture is a tricky one. Try to keep it as closed as possible without losing shutter speed, you obviously want as much in focus as possible.
- Manual focus if your cameras autofocus is struggling (focus peaking helps). Autofocus will struggle when there are obstructions in front of what you’re shooting, like long grass or branches.
- Single point autofocus can be handy, half press to get your focus then re-compose your frame and shoot.
- Keep an eye on the edges of your frame for distractions.
- When shooting close up wildlife portraits be careful with your autofocus. Make sure the focus is on the eyes and not the nose or ear of the animal. This happens. Especially with shallower apertures and can be avoided using manual focus and focus peaking if you have it.
The most natural composition that you will tend to gravitate to is having the animal in the centre of the frame. You don’t want to miss the shot and most autofocus systems will have the most focus points in the centre of the frame. What might happen then for example is you will have a Leopard walking past you and your shot will have his head in the centre of frame, the rest of his body to one side, the tail cut off and the opposite side empty. I’ve been guilty of this and it generally doesn’t make for the nicest of images.
So try be a bit more creative with your compositions. Use the basic techniques like the rule of thirds for example. Don’t be afraid to get in too close or to go too wide. Fill up your frame. Make use of negative space. Use the landscape to your advantage. And most of all try to tell a story.
I hope this guide will help you for your next adventure in the bush. The main thing to remember is to enjoy your time there. It will go by so fast. Enjoy every moment, even the moments without any sightings. I hope you get that once in a lifetime shot and experience moments that make your heart race. Happy shooting and best of luck!
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