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Wildlife photography on safari in Africa

Good equipment and technical knowledge are both important to taking strong wildlife photographs, but there are also a great many ways of improving your results that have less to do with cutting edge technology than with how you look through your lens, explains wildlife expert, Ariadne Van Zandbergen.

| Animals / Wildlife
Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Good equipment and technical knowledge are both important to taking strong wildlife photographs, but there are also a great many ways of improving your results that have less to do with cutting edge technology than with how you look through your lens. The pictures below illustrate the main areas of wildlife photography, with practical tips that should be of use both to an experienced photographer on a first safari, and to a beginner with a point-and-shoot.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Impala portrait ( Hluhluwe game reserve, South Africa )


I photographed this beautiful male impala in Hluhluwe Game Reserve in South Africa. You won't normally get close enough to animals like this to take portraits without a zoom of 300mm or greater. An important thing to bear in mind with any portrait is to keep the background as uncluttered as possible. In this picture, where a lot of the frame is taken up by the horns, a busy background with lots of twigs etc would have been disturbing, and the horns would have been lost. For good portraits, look for an angle that provides an even background, then blur it by selecting a large aperture (small f-stop) to reduce the depth of field. Focus on the eyes to ensure they are sharp, even if that means re-adjusting the framing afterwards. Having done this, don't click the shutter the moment you have a full frame - wait for the glint in the eyes that makes the picture come alive. Sometimes this requires the animal to make a slight movement with its head, so you'll need to keep re-adjusting the framing until the right moment.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Zebra and Wildebeest (Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe )

Animals in their environment

When it's not possible to get close enough to photograph an animal full frame, look at whether you can capture it in its environment. This picture was taken in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe during the rainy season, when abundant water causes the animals to disperse deep into the bush, and thick vegetation often makes it difficult to take clean portraits. On the other hand, you often get the most dramatic light before or after heavy rain, and the lush vegetation is suitable for scenic photography. When you see an animal in an interesting setting, see whether there is an object you can include in the composition - a tree, or a mountain, or a termite hill - ensuring that you don't cut of part of that object because you are focusing too much on the actual animal.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Gerenuk feeding ( Samburu National Park, Kenya )

It is often rewarding to observe a subject for a while and try to capture something of its behaviour. This photo was taken in Samburu National Park in Kenya, where I concentrated on trying to capture the unique feeding behaviour of the gerenuk, a localised dry-country antelope which stands on it's hind legs and stretches its elongated neck to feed on leaves that other antelope can't reach. The difficulty in capturing behavioural images is that animals often stop behaving normally when a vehicle approaches. In the worst case scenario, they run away. Just as often, they stand and look at you (the ideal moment to go for a straight portrait). But it is when the animal relaxes and forgets about your presence that you can try for something more like this.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Lions mating ( Maasai Mara, Kenya )

A step up from behaviour photography is action photography. This often means going through a lot of film, because things happen quickly and you never know what any one frame will look like. Many professionals use motors to run through a whole film as the action happens. For most amateurs, this is probably excessive, but then again you can't expect to snap once in the heat of the moment and obtain a perfect result.
These mating lions, which I came across in Kenya's Maasai Mara, were ideal but challenging subjects for action photography. Ideal, because they were very relaxed around the vehicle, and because lions on heat behave to a predictable pattern, copulating every 10-15 minutes over the course of about three days. The challenge is that each bout of copulation lasts for a mere 30 seconds, and it's impossible to predict until the last moment exactly where they will settle to it, or in which direction they will face. As a result, the lions had often completed their rushed business by the time we had manoeuvred the vehicle into the right position. Fortunately, we had several opportunities, and after a few good runs, I tried to capture the climatic moment when the female abruptly decides she's had enough, turns to bite the male, and both lions fly apart explosively. At this crucial moment they take up a lot more space than when they are mating, so I framed to allow for this while they mated, and then snapped at the critical split second. It took ten or more attempts to get a couple of satisfying images, and I'd leap at another opportunity to try for that elusive perfect frame!

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Baby Elephant and mother ( Amboseli National Park, Kenya)

There are a lot of rules relating to composition, many of which you'll respect almost instinctively if you have an eye for photography. A simple rule specific to wildlife photography is to avoid amputating an animals extremities - a photograph missing the tip of an animal's horns or end of its tail always looks a bit silly. More subtly, when you compose your frame, aim to leave more space on the side of the picture towards which the animal is facing, as this creates the sense that the animal is looking or moving into that space.
Once the basics of composition become automatic, you can concentrate on more unusual ideas - which sometimes means breaking the rules! With this baby elephant, which felt insecure and 'hid' between its mothers legs, the obvious composition would have been a full picture of the mother and baby. Instead, I zoomed in on the baby, and deliberately 'amputated' most of the mother, using her to frame the baby, at the same time showing enough of her to tell the story.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Dwarf crocodile ( the Gambia )

Angle of photography
The most intimate photographs of people are normally taken when the camera is at their eye level. When we photograph adults, this is normally the case without making any special effort, but experienced photographers will instinctively kneel down to photograph a child. The same principle applies to wildlife photography. When shooting from a open-topped safari vehicle, you'll normally get a better angle through the window than from the roof (for very tall animals such as giraffes or elephants, the inverse is true). Should you have the chance to take photograph on foot, you can go all the way, assuming it is safe. This photograph of a dwarf crocodile could not easily have been taken from a vehicle, since its impact derives from the fact I lay flat on my belly at the edge of the water, and shot the crocodile square-on rather than shooting down from an upright position.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Bush baby ( Shimba Hills, Kenya )

Night photography
For most amateur photographers, wildlife photos taken at night are a big disappointment once they see the results. Night photography is not easy, and a good starting point is to know what is and isn't feasible with a flash. Even the most powerful flash has a restricted range. When you take photos with a flash at home at a dinner party, you are always close to your subject and almost always indoors. The indoor range of a flash is calculated by dividing the flash's guide number (GN) by the f-stop (many flashes make this calculation automatically and show it on their display panel). Outdoors, where no ceiling or walls reflect and contain the beam, the flash has about half its indoor range. The range of a flash can be increased by using a Fresnel flash-extender. Even then, for wildlife, you need a fast lens to maintain a range you can realistically work with. To visualise this, recognise that your flash beam has to hit the subject, reflect, and return to your camera. So photographing a mountain 500m away with a flash is pointless. If you're not convinced, try photographing a tree at the end of your garden at night. If you have a reasonable size garden, you won't see a thing on your photo!
This shouldn't put you off though. If you get a chance it's always worth doing a night drive in a game reserve, as it will give you a chance of seeing unusual nocturnal animals such as this bush baby, and sometimes you will get close enough to the animal to use flash. A common flaw in flashed portraits is the self-explanatory phenomenon known as red-eye. Some flashes have a red-eye reduction option, which consists of a pre-flash that opens the retina before the actual flash fires. This can be frustrating with wildlife, because many animals react to the pre-flash by looking away before the actual flash goes off! Another solution to red-eye is to have the flash fire at a significantly different angle to the line of the camera - something that can be achieved by using a flash cord and placing the flash on a customised bracket, or asking somebody to hold it for you.

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Cheetah ( Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa)

Wildlife photography on safari in Africa
Leopard in the rain ( Maasai Mara, Kenya )

The very best way to take stunning photos is to learn to look at light. Taking photos in nice light conditions is far more important than buying the latest fancy equipment. In Africa, light is probably even more important than in Europe or North America. In the middle of a sunny day in Africa, the light is very harsh and unforgiving. On the other hand, in the early morning and the late afternoon, light can be so beautiful that almost any sharp and properly composed picture will be stunning.
The key for good wildlife photography is to photograph in the early morning and the late afternoon, when contrast is low and everything is glowing gold. Get up before sunrise, rest in the middle of the day and stay out till dusk. This photograph of a cheetah in South Africa's Phinda Game Reserve has the warm light typical of something shot in the first or last 30 minutes of sun. These low light conditions enforce the use of a tripod or - more practical from a vehicle - a solid beanbag.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes overcast light can give you an even light that creates very nice effects. The extreme is rain, but even then don't pack up and go back to your lodge. I photographed this leopard in the pouring rain. The raindrops on the fur and the reflex ion of light on wet surfaces can give very moody photos.

Wildlife photography on safari in AfricaAriadne Van Zandbergen is a freelance wildlife and travel photographer specialised in Africa. Born and raised in Belgium, but based in South Africa, Ariadne spends half of her time travelling around Africa; she is a regular contributor to several magazines, including Africa Environment & Wildlife and Travel Africa, and her work has graced the cover of numerous travel guides. A SATOUR-registered tour guide, with vast experience of travel and photography in African conditions, Ariadne can arrange and lead photographic tours to any part of the continent, with itineraries tailored to meet the special requirements of photographers at all levels of experience- contact [email protected].
In December 2001, Ariadne will lead a photographic safari to northern Tanzania, visiting the legendary Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Crater, as well as Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks. For the full itinerary of this tour, go to
For information about her photographic library covering more than 15 African countries, contact Ariadne [email protected] 

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