In recent years, wildlife photography has shifted from a niche pursuit firmly into the mainstream, and safari-goers across South Africa and beyond are becoming increasingly interested in capturing their own iconic images from the bush.
For any of you who are new to or looking to join this wildlife photography revolution, here are a few basic tips to help you in the field:
Light is key
If you hang out with wildlife photographers you’ll quickly notice that they spend an awful lot of time talking about the light. And not without good reason. Softer light generally makes for much richer and more detailed images. Early morning and late afternoon/evening are unanimously considered the best times for safari photography. The latter is often referred to as “the golden hour”.
In the middle of the day the light is much harsher and this means your images will lose a lot of vibrance and contrast – far too much white light. While post-production can help to some extent in adjusting this, there’s no substitute for the softer light you’ll find earlier and later in the day.
Also worth noting is that harsher light generally goes hand in hand with the hottest parts of the day, which can mean less active wildlife and, therefore, less interesting shots.
Another important consideration with regards to lighting is the angle of the sun. It’s generally advised to shoot with the sun behind you, as this gives more detail to your subject. If you shoot with the sun staring you in the face you will generally get too much glare, or too many shadows, and either way you’ll probably lose a lot of detail.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If you are trying to shoot silhouettes at sunset, for example, you ideally want the sun low in the sky behind your subject and facing you, as with the image below:
Composition and perspective
Putting your image subject in the centre of your image frame might seem like the most logical thing to do, but it’s generally not very creative or appealing to the eye.
A good place to start when it comes to being more thoughtful about your composition is the ‘Rule of Thirds’. Now try to position your main subject off centre in the foreground, as with the image below. This method can encourage more of a sense of depth as well as interaction with the rest of the image too, if there are other points of interest or a pretty backdrop say.
If taking landscape shots, the ‘Rule of Thirds’ is just as useful for positioning your horizon or any particular features that stand out.
If you want to get more creative, it’s also fun to play around with angle and perspective. Don’t take all your shots from the same sitting position in your safari vehicle or at eye level – try to mix it up.
When possible, for example, you can get down low and take images from ground level and your subjects will become more imposing, or you can cut out more of a potentially distracting background. Some national parks and game reserves have underground hides that make this lower perspective a little easier.
That doesn’t mean that everything has to be shot from low down though either. Experiment, try a number of different perspectives and see what works for you.
Location, location, location
If taking spectacular images is a priority for your safari, there are certain destinations that are going to give you that little bit more.
Here in South Africa, Madikwe Game Reserve is fast developing a reputation as the best place in southern Africa to photograph leopard and the endangered African wild dog, while a brand new underwater hide at Jaci’s Tree Lodge allows for a particularly unique photographic perspective.
Welgevonden Game Reserve and Marakele National Park in Limpopo Province offer some of the most strikingly rugged and verdant backdrops for your images. Mhondoro Lodge in Welgevonden also has a water level hide that is popular with elephants, as illustrated in the image below.
Watch your shutter speed
Many of the best wildlife or birdlife shots are action shots, where the subject or subjects are moving rather than sitting still.
But it can be hard to predict an animal’s or bird’s movements, and you might not have much of a window of time to catch a great action shot. To help ensure that you don’t miss out on an opportunity by taking images that are not pin sharp, you need to keep your shutter speed high.
The general rule is that your shutter speed should always be at least twice your lens focal length. So if you are shooting with a 100 – 400mm lens, for example, your shutter speed should always be 1/800 or above. If shooting birds, look to push your shutter speed up to 1/2500 to capture images like this:
Don’t be afraid to experiment
While it’s sometimes good to play by hard and fast wildlife photography rules, as you get more confident it can also be a whole lot of fun breaking them.
Get to know your camera and its capabilities intimately, play around with its settings; overexpose, underexpose; slow down your shutter speed with a fast-moving subject and see what happens; zoom in as far as you can on a specific part of your subject, as below.
If we all stick to the same rules all the time, all our images are going to look more or less alike. Don’t be afraid to be original.