Tips for taking photos on an African safari

A strong crop to this horizontal shape has given the picture a good, dynamic quality, and a fast shutter speed has stopped the dripping water dead.
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

If you don’t end up tired and with your head full at the end of a full day of photographing wildlife, you probably haven’t worked hard enough.

Africa. Wildlife. Safari. The three words follow in a natural sequence, and then come the questions...

“What camera do I need?”

“What lenses do I need?”

“How do you take good wildlife pictures in Africa?”

I am so often asked about photographic needs for travelling in Africa that it is worth this moment just to concentrate on it.

And the first point to make is about just that — concentration. Wildlife photography is so specific that if you’re at all serious about it, it’s good to just concentrate on this aspect of your photography while you’re there.

You will have to work the camera harder and specifically, for wildlife photography is a real mix, and test, of the disciplines of composition and technical mastery.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to know your gear. My experience is that you’ll have between five and 20 seconds for a shot — you have to be able to use your camera’s potential, change settings, wring the best out of it in that time.

Concentrate. Think it through. Things happen quickly — the moment is upon you and you just have to nail it. You will be working the camera all the time. And if you don’t end up tired and with your head full at the end of a full day of shooting, you probably haven’t worked hard enough.

Get in tight, and think big 

Put in effort to fill the frame, but don’t forget to go “big”, too.

You want that close-up of the elephant’s eye and part of its ear, and the amazing texture of its grey skin — but don’t forget to shoot the herd also as a small line along the bottom of a big savannah scene.

Make it sharp

This is something to really, really concentrate on. Wildlife pictures that aren’t quite sharp are desperately disappointing.

The important thing, usually, is to get the animal’s eye sharp. Quite often, with a long lens, the difference between that eye and other parts of its body (a lion’s mane) will be only a few centimetres, but enough to make the picture look soft.

If you are using auto focus, “work it” by moving the camera slightly, letting it refocus, then taking a picture. Do it again, and again.

Learn about the focus modes in your camera, and how to quickly toggle between them.

If your camera lets you focus well in manual, take it off auto focus, if you have time to focus carefully manually (and it’s quite easy to not be well focused with a long lens). Take some shots, enlarge them, really look at them and make sure they are sharp.

I was shooting pictures of a leopard 7m up a tree in the Masai Mara, and there were twigs in front which the long lens was focusing on in auto focus. I put the lens on to manual, and pushed the focus past the twigs and on to the eye.

When you get back at the end of the day, download your images and critique them. Take a very close look at sharpness and exposure. If they’re not quite there, you’ll get a measure of how very specific you need to be with your focusing.

Understand ISO

It’s a fair rule of many aspects of photography that the lower the number is, the better the quality. So, for a start, the fewer pictures you can take on you memory card, the better quality they are. RAW format is full capture of information (big files) and preferable for quality wildlife photography.

And so it is with ISO, which sets the sensitivity of the sensor. The lower the number, the better the quality. But given the long lenses and quick moments in wildlife photography, we are going to spend time with 400 ISO, and up to 800. But do remember that the higher you go with ISO, the lower the quality of the picture — so if you have it set very high, you are doomed to poor-quality images before you’ve even started.

But ISO will have to be “worked” in your wildlife photography, so get used to using it and learn to understand the results and compromises.

When you’ve finished taking your bracket of pictures, really think about them. If you took the ISO up to 800 and really started to compromise the quality of the shot, could you have come back to 640 or 500 and lived with a slightly slower shutter speed?

Choosing cameras and gear

Simpler cameras

Digital SLRs and lenses


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