7 Wildlife photography tips and tricks for beginners

elephant bull
There are some occasions in which we can really feel our connection to Nature, and a game drive or safari is such an occasion. If you have never been to a reserve or national park to see the animals up close, you should consider going there. It’s one of the best experiences you could do anywhere. Seeing the animals in their natural environment is so much different from going to the zoo. Here you are just a guest, it’s the wildlife’s home. This makes it a very special experience.
Photographing wildlife is not so easy, but lots of fun. To help you prepare for an African safari, here are a few tips and tricks that can make sure you come back with beautiful photos.
 
  1. Do your research
  2. Bring both a long lens and a wide angle zoom lens
  3. Get as low as possible
  4. Composition guidelines are still valid
  5. Leave space in front of the animal
  6. Mind your background
  7. Be patient

1. Do your research

Once you have decided your destination, find out what animals you can find in the parks or reserves you plan to visit. What is the best season to find certain animals? Do they migrate? How is the vegetation?
Usually the dry season is considered the easiest time of the year, because the vegetation is less thick, so the animals are easier to spot. In parks like Etosha in Namibia the dry season also keeps the animals closer to the (artificial) waterholes, so you can easily find them.
The wet season on the other hand is the time when many baby animals are born, so if you want to see these, the wet season might be better.

2. Bring both a long lens and a wide angle zoom lens

The equipment is always the tricky part. What lenses should I bring? It depends very much on the size of the animals you want to photograph and how close you can get to them. In national parks you are not allowed to get off the road, so wildlife can be further away. In this case I would use at least a focal length of 400 mm.

The weaver birds create incredibly nests with grass. This photo was taken at 360 mm on an APS-C camera, so 570 mm equivalent on a full frame. For birds you really need a long focal length.

 

In private game reserves the rangers sometimes can drive off road and might follow an animal to get closer. In this case a 300 mm lens is probably enough for larger animals.
For birds you will need a longer lens still, more something in the range of 600 mm.
Don’t forget to bring a wide angle lens though. If you can get close enough, this will give an interesting perspective. It will also help you to show a bit of the environment the animal is living in.
 
 
elephant under a tree
Elephant under a tree. Photo taken at 21 mm on a full frame camera, so very much a wide angle

3. Get as low as possible

Wildlife photography is a bit like photographing children, you want to get to their level. So when photographing wildlife get as low as possible. This is even valid for big animals like elephants or giraffes. You can really show their size if you are close to the ground. In general try to get at least at eye level. This might not be easy when you’re in a vehicle, but you get the idea.
African wildcat in a reproduction and rehabilitation centre. I held the camera at ground level.

 

4. Composition guidelines are still valid

This tip might seem obvious, but with the excitement of seeing animals in the wild, we sometimes forget that the composition of our photos is important. Use the rule of thirds when you show some of the habitat of the animals you encounter. When the animals are in a group try and single out a few of them and use the rule of odds.
Bushbuck in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park. Here I used the rule of thirds to show the antelope in its habitat

 

5. Leave space in front of the animal

When an animal is walking, flying or even just looking in a direction, leave some space in that direction in your photo. This creates some breathing space and makes you wonder where it’s going, what is it that it’s looking at so intensely?
springbok in etosha
Are you also wondering what it’s looking at? This is also caused by the space I left in front of the animal

 

6. Mind your background

This is often not easy, since wild animals (or animals in general?) are not posing for you. And you are often not free to move around them, but have to stay in the vehicle. Still, the background of a photo is very important and should not distract from the animal you are taking a photo of. Using a wide aperture will not only blur your background and make the animal stand out, but will allow to use the fastest shutter speed possible. This will help to reduce blur due to camera movement, which with long focal lengths becomes more difficult to avoid.
The background is sufficiently blurred not to be of distraction from the greater blue-eared starling sitting on a branch

 

7. Be patient

National parks and reserves are not zoos. You will need to look for the animals and some animals can be very elusive and therefore hard to spot. To me this is both the beautiful and the frustrating part of wildlife photography. You never know which animals you will see and what they will do. Once you have found an animal, take your time and stay with it for a while. With time you will see how it behaves and you will be able to predict (more or less) what it might do. You can use this knowledge to make better and more interesting photos. Animals will also behave more naturally once they got used to your presence.
And if you don’t find that leopard you so much want to see, there are so many other animals, like antelopes or birds. The whole ecosystem needs to function to allow the leopard to thrive, so paying attention to its preys or the trees on which it might rest can be a great alternative.
These young giraffe bulls were training themselves to fight. They sling their neck and try to hit each other with the horns, which can easily inflict damage if well placed.
 
These are some tips to get started. Half of our tour in Namibia is dedicated to wildlife photography, so if you want to learn more, this could be the tour for you. Our tailor made tour in Cape Town could be extended to include wildlife photography, maybe in the Karoo. Since this tour is tailor made, you choose!
If you want to know more about wildlife photography or have any questions, please let us know in the comments. We would love to help you improve your photo skills.

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