How to Photograph Wildlife, According to a Safari Guide

Knowing the fundamentals of your camera and shooting at the right time of day can help yield some professional-level images.

A lion chasing a herd of buffalo

Shooting in manual, not auto, can help get clear pictures of moving animals.

Courtesy of Sipps Maswanganyi

Sipps Maswanganyi grew up in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, a vast wilderness area largely untouched by humans in South Africa. There, he said, “a lion’s roar, a leopard’s calls, and the trumpets of hyenas and elephants were the only music we could dance to.”

Growing up in that environment gave Maswanganyi a unique appreciation for the wildlife. By the time he was four years old, he’d cultivated a friendship with a male lion who lived on the other side of his fence, often lying on the ground so that he could feel the reverberations of the lion’s powerful roar. After he finished college, Maswanganyi decided to become what he calls “nature’s best representative” as a safari guide and wildlife photographer.

For 20 years, Maswanganyi has been guiding in big five wilderness areas, showing his guests where to find animals, including cheetahs, lions, giraffes, and elephants, while also teaching them how best to photograph them. (He’s currently the head safari guide at Cheetah Plains, an entirely solar-powered lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa.)

We asked him for his advice on capturing the best images of wildlife—here are his top tips.

A lone bird on a limb in profile

Shooting from below, Maswanganyi said, helps make the animal look more imposing.

Courtesy of Sipps Maswanganyi

Know your camera

Before departing for a safari trip or wildlife-filled getaway, read your camera manual front to back, and ensure you can manage it in manual settings, not auto. Spend time learning about your camera’s buttons and all their functions. New camera models are programmed with more technology to work in your favor, but it’s important that you know the basics.

Learn about the “light triangle” (ISO, aperture, and shutter) and use manual mode to find out how to balance these. On safari, you will need to be able to master these to achieve clarity and exposure while controlling the depth of field. While you can’t control your environment, you can control the output, so learn to adapt these three controls, and you’re in good shape. If you’re entirely new to photography, take a beginner’s photography course or speak to your local camera shop before your safari, as shooting in manual can be challenging.

If you’re not quite ready to shoot manually, your DSLR camera allows you to shoot in program, aperture, or shutter modes, which are semi-automatic and, when used correctly, can also yield a good result. But don’t let manual mode scare you. With some practice, you’ll know how to control the settings for that special shot that is entirely yours.

Get as much practice shooting as possible before your trip. Take your camera out and shoot whatever and wherever to get comfortable with all its settings and the various elements your environment can present, such as harsh or scant lighting.

Get the right camera and lenses

Use a good-quality, full-frame DSLR or mirrorless camera (Maswanganyi uses a Nikon D850). If it’s your first safari, and you’re not ready to invest in or decide on one camera, renting your equipment might be better for you. (Companies like Lensrentals and BorrowLenses have solid lending programs.) A full-frame photo sensor—a digital sensor replicating the size of classic 35mm cameras, as opposed to a crop sensor that produces a tighter field of view—is handy for low-light conditions and night shots, so you won’t need to worry when capturing those leopards and lions after dark.

Also, bring a handful of lenses to pair with your camera. A good-quality fish-eye lens, macro lens (for taking photos very close to a small subject), 70–200mm f/2.8 lens (for shooting midrange subjects), and a good zoom lens 200–500mm with at least f/4 (the aperture, which affects the depth of field and amount of light entering the camera) and higher will do.

Get up and out early

The best animal sightings and wildlife shots happen early in the morning, which is why game drives typically start before sunrise. The night before, make sure to have all your camera gear ready to go and charging. Don’t forget your memory card or extra battery pack if your camera comes with one.

Shooting before sunrise offers the bonus of photographing wildlife backlit against the rising sun, which adds depth to your photos. This is the opportunity to capture images that benefit from golden light, side lighting, and direct light. You can gradually experience the effect of blue light, yellow light, golden light, and other types of changing lighting while sitting in the same position, hitting the same subject but getting different results.

A male and female lion at night

Choosing a full-frame photo sensor is helpful for getting crisp shots in low light conditions and at night.

Courtesy of Sipps Maswanganyi

Look for the eyes

When you are eye-to-eye with an animal, your excitement level will rise. It’s an experience you will never forget and is even better when you can capture the wildlife looking directly at you. Taking a portrait of an animal is like taking a portrait of a person. Focus on the eyes.

Be aware of your lighting and where it is coming from. The direction of the light will determine if you’ll need to adjust your settings or ask your guide to reposition your vehicle for the best angle.

Keep your camera focused on the eyes. If your camera has focus tracking or face detection, then it will be easier to focus. You want the eyes to be sharp, for they tell a story and bring your photo to life.

Shoot low, not high

When it comes to angles, low is always better (low to the ground, at an upward angle). Angles can make an animal look bigger and more impressive, enabling a greater silhouette. Considering bringing a monopod (essentially a single-leg tripod)—you can mount your camera to it and lower it to the ground from your seat in the safari vehicle to achieve a leveled shot.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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