How to Take Great Safari Photos: 7 Tips for amateur and prosumer photographers
This interview was originally featured on Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris Magazine here, ahead of my National Geographic Live! lecture in Singapore back in August 2015.
1. Simplify your gear
I think gear is overrated. My favourite camera is a Canon for the simple reason that I’ve been using one for 30 years and I’m very used to it. I look at a camera as a tool to get the job done and whatever brand you pick is somewhat immaterial. In fact, one of the best things that people can actually bring is a simple point-and-shoot camera. Take in the wildlife in front of you and forget messing with changing lenses or camera settings. You can end up getting pictures that you’d be amazed that you’re actually getting. Even more simply, you can use your iPhone or smartphone and even get a telephoto lens for it.
If you insist on a DSLR, it’s good to learn manual settings so you understand what the light is doing. There are only about six or seven kinds of light – in bright sunlight, I use ISO 400 at 1/500th of a second with f13 or f16 aperture. As the shadows come over or clouds pass by, you change your settings to compensate for that. It’s one or two stops difference, so you can shoot at 1/500th or 1/250th of a second in f8.
3. Don’t rush
The time of day to catch the animals at their best is obviously when they’re moving, when they’re active. That primarily happens at dawn and dusk, which also happens to be during the best light of the day. But animals will do exactly what they want to do, so spending the most time you can out in the wild while you’re on safari is your best option for catching things that you have never seen before. You’re gonna be told, “Oh we’ll go out for a couple of hours and then come back and have breakfast.” You want the whole experience of the safari? You go out in the morning, stay out all day, bring your food with you and just experience what it’s like in that landscape for the sunlight hours. Then you’ll surely have the experience that you will never ever forget.
To me, the number one thing to avoid doing is to put yourself in a situation where you’re stopping, blocking, baiting or moving an animal. You’re there to observe only and not ever get in their way. You should be just an observer. Sit back, watch what the animal is doing, take a photo if you must and just enjoy the situation of being out in nature.
5. Catch the glow
I think one of the best tips is to shoot early in the day because the sun is at a great angle and you have beautiful shadows. Early morning is wonderful; the sun’s not real high so you actually get the eyes of the animal filled in with the sunlight, which is vitally important. Cloudy days are also a really great time to shoot, because you don’t have shadows during the less ideal times of the day.
6. Compose your picture
Don’t dwell on rules too much. I think rules in photography are made to be broken. The most important thing is composition. Learn how to compose a beautiful photograph and not just take a snap. You know, the more we use our smartphones, the more visually educated we become. So look at the masters of painting and photography and figure out where they put their subject in the frame. It’ll help to emulate what you see.
7. Be ethical
To avoid any type of animal exploitation, go to where animals are wild. There are probably one per cent or less of “animal rehab facilities” that actually rehabilitate any animal. They will tell you that they do but most – like the big predators that I work with – are impossible to rehabilitate. Unless it’s in a very specific way: like if an animal was injured, you would anaesthetise it in the field, fix up its wounds and let it go; you would never bring it close to human contact in a caged facility. So just go somewhere where animals are wild – you can enjoy the experience of being out in nature, listen to the silence or the symphony of birds. It’s wonderful.