A guide to photographing wildlife in Africa

If it moves on the great plains of Africa, chances are our resident photography expert Peter Lemon has snapped it. There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to composing the perfect animal portrait – here are some of his thoughts on what makes a great wildlife photograph, and a few tips on how you can take one.  

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Want to put in a winning entry for BBC Photographer of the Year, or make a National Geographic photographer nervous about losing his job?  Well, maybe that’s pushing it, but wildlife photography in East and Southern Africa can be truly rewarding and very exciting for the serious photographer.

Digital cameras make it possible to do lots with pictures by using Photoshop or similar when you return home. But the better the picture, the more you can do with it later, or – preferably – the less you need or want to do with it. Having spent time in Africa taking, or trying to take, wildlife and related photos, here are some tips, thoughts and suggestions.

Preparation

Do some research: if you want to get that fabulous photo of a carmine bee-eater (one of Africa’s most beautiful birds) in Zambia, you can only get it during certain months of the year.  Equally, migration river crossings in Kenya do not occur all year round. (Although the migration is on the move to different places and areas right through the year – neighbouring Tanzania hosts many of these animals for a good part of the year.)

Likewise, be aware of the particulars of the environment you’re visiting. For example, if you are seeking the gorillas and other primates in Rwanda or Uganda, make sure your camera can be set to a high ISO setting.  You might get lucky and see mountain gorillas walking around in a clearing, but they are likely to be in areas of thicker foliage and lower light.

Equipment

Make sure you have protection for your gear - there can be plenty of dust in Africa, occasional rain, and sometimes muddy tracks. Take good camera bags, or at least dry bags, and some good cleaning items. Never try to change lens, cards, or film when an open vehicle is moving.

Don’t leave your camera lying out in the sun too long (cameras are rumoured to melt at 400 Celsius and to vaporise at 800). And don’t leave it lying on a vacant seat next to you (there are bumpy tracks in Africa, and - in diving parlance - a camera which does a triple-forward-somersault-with-a-half-pike-and-tuck, only to land on the vehicle floor, smashed, will not get high marks from the judges).

For animal, and particularly bird shots, you need a camera with a good telephoto capacity. For those using a SLR, a minimum of 300mm is recommended. A zoom lens can be useful so that you don’t have to keep changing lens.  Be sure to consider the amount of weight you are carrying: that metre-long 600mm lens, apart from being very large and heavy (you could fall foul of your airline), might render the person sitting  next to you unconscious for a week if you were turn around suddenly, with your camera,  in your game-drive vehicle.

The subject

Beware the dot in the distance.  As first-timers we are all inclined to want to snap that first impala 500 metres away.  Forget it. Waiting until you can get an animal, or a herd of animals, which substantially fills the frame, is the best way to go.

Be aware that the eye of an animal or bird is often the most important part of the subject, especially if the animal is fairly close.  Try to photograph the animal with at least one if not both of its eyes facing the camera. Be aware that animals often blink, just like us. For that special shot, try to get the sun glinting off the animal’s eye. Make sure your camera is focussed on the eye - often with auto-focus cameras there is a risk they’ll focus on the animal’s stomach or back, a much bigger target in many cases, leaving the head and eyes slightly out of focus.

If you can’t get its eye, look for an interesting facial expression – a bearing of teeth, a yawn (especially if the sun is on its teeth), a sneeze, a sticking out of the tongue, a raising of the trunk.

Light

Be conscious of the light.  Usually the best lighting conditions are in the first few of hours and the last couple of hours of the day.  The light is softer, and often golden, and gives a real lift to your pictures. So if you get the chance, try to get your photos in that period.

During the middle hours of the day, the light tends to flatten out and become harsher, the shadows more severe, and the effect is seldom as good. There are always exceptions to any photo rule or hint, but a photo of a cheetah in the sun at 11am will almost certainly not be as good as one at 4pm, which will probably not be as good as one at 5pm. Mind you, the cheetah may not still be there at 5pm, so that’s the other side of the equation to bear in mind!

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks Peter!

Let us know any great wildlife photography tips you have – leave a comment below.

Follow us on Twitter or Facebook. For our contacts list click here or email us here

If you want to put together a tour that makes the most of snapping wildlife in Africa, get in touch with our Private Groups department, who can build dream holidays with tailor-made itineraries for budding photographers.

Follow Peregrine Adventures