Think of safari photography and chances are the images that spring to mind were shot in the beautiful golden hours at the beginning and end of the day. Given that most safari destinations are in close proximity to the equator, your sunrise and sunset window is actually pretty short. The rest of the day, the sun will be fairly intensely bright and high in the sky before rapidly plummeting into darkness. Couple that with animals that can be elusive and shy and as well as the possibility of multiple safari tours all jostling for space in front of the same animals and you've suddenly got a whole lot to think about.
These are just some of the many challenges facing budding photographers in any safari destination. We've put together a series of tips to help ensure you’re well prepared to capture the moment a lion puts in an appearance or a baby elephant adorably runs to its mother. Read on to find out how to master safari photography and make the most of the time and light available on your trip of a lifetime.
Experiment before you go
You don’t want to turn up on day one of your safari and end up with a blur in the sky instead of an eagle in flight because you’d never tried panning shots before. Get familiar with your camera’s settings and learn how to use as many of its features before you set foot on the savannah.
Practice using your camera to capture shots of local wildlife before you set off © Diana Jarvis
Find a wild place close to home and test out your kit and your skills as often as you can. Get used to watching the changing light and capturing any animal activity you see. You can also use your pets as guinea pigs (especially if they are guinea pigs) to practice your burgeoning wildlife photography skills – any creature that moves will help you get used to watching and capturing.
If you want a better taste of safari photography before you set off, the Aspinall Foundation offer wildlife photography courses at Port Lympne Reserve in Kent – and there are plenty of other wildlife parks around the country that offer similar opportunities.
Many of the most wildlife-rich parts of the world in which you may find yourself on safari are pretty close to the equator and more than certainly between the tropics. This means the sunset and sunrise times are less variable throughout the year than you might be used to at home.
Know your camera's settings well to make the most of that golden sunset glow © Diana Jarvis
It also means the ‘golden hour’ window is a total misnomer: it’s more like half an hour at most and the light changes minute by minute. You’ll have to be quick and know your camera if you want to capture a specific animal or scene at these times of the day. If you have a shot in mind, it’s worth chatting to your guide before you set off so they can help you maximise the time and light you have available. You can also read our sunset and sunrise photography tips.
For that classic African sunset moment when the glowing peachy orb finally drops behind the horizon, look for something interesting to put in the foreground to give your image depth, shape and drama. Tree silhouettes work very nicely (if a little cheesy) and you just have to hope a giraffe walks into the shot at the optimal moment.
Working with the midday sun
Of course, for most of the day you will be dealing with very bright, intense sunlight and this leads to a whole host of other photographic dilemmas.
Use the midday sun to your advantage and try capturing bold patterns or black and white images © Diana Jarvis
The intense light can cause your highlights to blow out and your shadows reduce to indecipherable patches of black – so it’s good to have a few tools up your sleeve to combat this, or even use it to your advantage. Close-ups work better than wide shots at this time of day. If you’re taking animal portraits, look for creatures standing in the shade, but be careful not to get too much contrasting bright light in the background.
Another useful option for harsh daytime light is to think in black and white. For the most success, work with the contrasts to their extremes – so look for patterns and textures like zebra stripes and elephant eyes. If you want to isolate certain features or creatures, avoid having too much foliage in the background as it will detract from the boldness of your composition.
Talking of composition, don’t let all recollections of the rule of thirds leave you with the excitement of capturing a faraway creature. Bear in mind, it’s not always easy to have full control over the composition if you’re in a moving vehicle and can’t really change your position.
When it comes to composition, think about the story you're trying to tell © Diana Jarvis
Watch out for distractions in the foreground or background that detract from the subject. Think about the story your image is telling: is it just about the elephant or it is about the beautiful curl of the elephant’s trunk as she stuffs yet another mouthful of mopane leaves into her mouth?
For animal portraits, focus on the eyes as you would a human subject. For family groupings, try and get a bit of the soap opera of daily life into the shot by watching their behaviour for a little while before clicking the shutter. Use background trees and bushes as framing devices. Wildlife photography is 90% observation and only 10% taking pictures.
Take a look at the work of some of the great wildlife photographers before you go to get some creative ideas:
On safari guides and vehicles
You may wonder whether to hire a vehicle and take a self-drive around a game park, but it’s better to avoid this if you can. Professional safari guides are incredibly knowledgeable, highly trained and rigorously tested before they’re let loose on the general public. They have a rich pool of wildlife knowledge that will help you track down those elusive creatures during your short window of time in the park and they’re often connected by radio with other guides nearby.
If you're thinking of heading on safari, get in touch. Our new tailor-made travel service can connect you with an experienced local expert, to plan and book the perfect trip.
Travelling with a guide is the best way to find the animals you want to capture on camera © Diana Jarvis
One of the things they may not be trained in is photographic skills – so it’s worth chatting with your guide before you set off if you have any specific ideas. In the vehicle, sit up as near to the driver as you can so you get the composition they’re seeing when they pull over. Don’t be afraid to ask for specific composition or conditions and you can always ask your driver to move the vehicle to accommodate your creative ideas.
You want to be in a vehicle with as much 360º visibility as possible and preferably one with no roof at all (but don’t forget to take a hat and plenty of sunblock!).
A wonderful way of having more control over your compositions – not to mention getting closer to the small stuff – is to go on a walking safari. The idea was born in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia but has now spread to other safari destinations too.
A walking safari gives you the chance to get even closer to the animals © Diana Jarvis
Walking in the bush where there are lions that could eat you or buffalo that could flatten you; mad, right? Actually, no. None of these animals naturally prey on humans and, so long as they’re not habituated to human exposure or put under undue pressure, won’t be too interested in you.
On a walking safari you’ll usually have two trained guides with you as well as a security guard with a gun (for emergencies). It’s a completely different experience to being on the back of a jeep; you feel a lot more part of the environment, your ears are more attuned to the buzz and hum of the ecosystem, you can feel the cracked earth under your shoes and, most importantly for the photographer, you can see the bugs, footprints and every tiny movement. Generally, you won’t cover much ground – perhaps two or three miles at most – and it won’t be at great speed, but it’s worth making sure you’ve got an adequate camera bag for the job. One that allows you easy access while being comfortable is ideal.
More often than not, your sunset safari will quickly shift into a night time safari. After dark, the rhythmic noises of the bush become amplified while, of course, the visibility rapidly diminishes. This is a great opportunity to listen, smell, take a breath and let your mind connect with it all. But you’re a photographer and you’ve got a tonne of expensive kit on your lap, you’re not going to stop now, are you?
Nighttime safari photography offers up a whole new set of challenges © Diana Jarvis
The first rule of night time photography is: do not use a flash! Sudden pops of light will scare wildlife and you’ll end up with a photo showing the edge of the jeep, framing darkness beyond.
The secret to capturing images in the dark is to let as much light into the camera as possible, so crank up the ISO to its highest setting and open the aperture wide (to f/5.6 or f/4 or even f/2.8 if the lens goes that wide).
Whether you prefer using auto, aperture or shutter priority or fully manual, you need to keep an eye on the shutter speed if you want to avoid blurriness from movement. As a general rule, you can use the focal length of the lens as a guide to the slowest shutter speed ie. 1/200 second for a 200mm lens, but test this before you set out. If your subject isn’t moving, you can use a longer shutter speed but you the need to be mindful of your movements, camera shake and the excitable jumps and jerks of the other people in your vehicle. A tripod might not be practical, but a beanbag or gorilla grip could be useful.
Many night safaris come with a ‘spotter’ whose job it is to keep an eye and ear out for signs of activity and shine a light on anything that might be of interest. They’re only supposed to shine the light on nocturnal animals who possess a special reflective layer behind the retina known as tapetum lucidum. The good news is that both lions and leopards are in this category and generally don’t seem to mind being be illuminated while you get that shot.
Learn about the creatures and ecosystems you’re shooting
There was a time in the distant past when large animals roamed freely on all the continents of the globe. Some of those species were even larger than the ones we’ve got left today (like woolly mammoths, giant marsupials, butterflies the size of your head). Animals have been hunted and over-exploited by human activity for millennia and it has been widely reported that we are now in the midst of what is being called the Sixth Mass Extinction.
The world's national parks are strongholds of biodiversity © Diana Jarvis
The wildlife-rich national parks that serve as safari destinations are some of the last strongholds of biodiversity the planet has and by visiting you have an incredible opportunity to learn all about how these animals have evolved to live in harmony with each other and within their ecosystems. So don’t forget to take notes on the nuggets you learn about these fascinating creatures and their behaviours to share with your friends and family back home. For more on at-risk and endangered species, check out the IUCN’s Red List.
Kit to consider
As the photographer Chase Jarvis famously said, the best camera is the one that’s with you. But in this case it would be great if that camera was a DSLR or mirrorless with a long lens, or preferably two DSLRs, one with a wide-angle lens. In many safari destinations, it’s almost inevitable that your camera is going to get covered in dust which is magnetically attracted to your sensor, so you don’t want to be changing lenses too frequently but you also don’t want to be missing out on the shots you’re seeing.
An ideal set up for safari is one camera with a long telephoto lens with a focal length of up to around 400mm and another camera with a wide-angle somewhere in the 16–35mm range. If you have only one camera, a mid-range telephoto lens with a range of around 70–200mm will allow you to capture a good proportion of what you’re seeing.
Long lenses are incredibly expensive to buy so you could consider hiring one for the duration of your trip. In the UK, Wex Photo and Video has a good range and reasonable prices. A cheaper option is to seek out rental companies in the country you’re visiting. Some of the larger destinations in South Africa are well prepared for this.
You’ll need to take plenty of memory cards with you and make sure you have a system for storing them and, ideally, a way of backing up your images in between animal encounters during the trip.
Your lenses will inevitably get dusty so it’s also worth packing a lens cleaning kit with cloth and fluid. Shooting all day long will soon deplete the battery on your camera, so don’t forget to bring a spare as well as the charger.
Most of these images were shot in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and Diana was a guest at Flatdogs Camp.