Taking Terrific Photos on Safari: Getting the Trophy Shot

Published on: 15/05/2024


Photo title: Leopard


Photo Credits: Sarah Kingdom

If you’re heading out on a safari there’s a good chance you’re hoping to take some great photos to remember your trip. If you aren’t a professional photographer or you aren’t travelling with one, you might be looking for a few tips on how to best capture the amazing sights you are going to experience. Whether you’re shooting on an iPhone or with an enormous zoom lens, let me pass on to you a couple of things I’ve learned over the years.

With the privilege of seeing and photographing wildlife in their natural environment comes the responsibility of doing so ethically. Let’s start with some general wildlife photography tips:

1. Do Some Research
If you have a particular animal in mind, do your research. Learn about its behaviour, habitat, and diet. Once you find the animal out on safari, assess its behaviour and pay attention to whether your presence is causing it discomfort. If you notice the animal has stopped feeding, hunting, mating, or has abandoned its den or nest, it’s time to back off!

2. Respect the Environment
I understand it’s frustrating when things get in the way of your subject, but you should never alter the natural surroundings. If a branch is in the way, move around it. If an animal is too far away, don’t go off-road to get closer — that is what zoom lenses are for! If out at night, take care with the spotlight. Use infrared filters when shining a light on wildlife, and avoid shining directly in an animal’s eyes, as this can cause temporary blindness. (While a red spotlight may not be ideal for night-time photography, it causes no harm to the animals, and camera settings can be adjusted to compensate for the red light).

3. Don’t Overcrowd Sightings
Animals can feel threatened by too many vehicles. While everyone wants a chance to see some particularly exciting sight, you should never compromise an animal’s comfort to get a photo. If you see too many cars around a sighting, the best thing to do is move on.

4. Let Sleeping Lions Lie
Wildlife sightings in the middle of the day can be challenging to photograph. Animals tend to rest in the shade during the midday heat. While I understand a photo of a sleeping animal is probably not that interesting, resting animals must be left to do so. Don’t throw or do anything to provoke a response or get a more ‘interesting’ shot! Please don’t do what I have seen some amateur photographers on safari do — whistle, clap or bang the side of the safari vehicle. By the same token, it’s also unethical to play pre-recorded wildlife sounds to animals or birds. Remember you’re in their home and not a zoo!

5. Respect Fellow Park Visitors
Pay attention to other photographers and viewers at a sighting, and show respect by not driving in front of them or pressuring them to move. It’s also important to be aware that other people may want to join a sighting, so don’t spend too much time hogging the prime spot.

6. Don’t Feed the Animals
Feeding animals change their behaviour and attitude towards humans. While it might be tempting to throw a snack in the direction of a baboon, monkey, or bird to get a good shot, this can lead to problems down the line, and it’s the animals that will end up suffering.

7. Go Slow
Take your time. Some animals need to adjust to the presence of a safari vehicle before they can relax. The longer you spend waiting, the better chance you have of getting your shot.

8. Protect Them
When sharing your photos it’s important to do so responsibly. Take care when photographing endangered species or those susceptible to poaching. Remove any geo-location tags, poachers could use these to locate animals, and remove EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data from photos to ensure that GPS coordinates won’t be attached.


Photo title: Buffalo with Ox Pecker


Photo Credits: Sarah Kingdom

For the average traveller, professional wildlife photography does not come naturally. Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s get on to some more advanced tips to help you capture the amazing scenes you’ll be seeing on safari.

9. Get Out Early and Stay Out Late
Wildlife photography is all about the light, particularly the early morning and late afternoon light — this is what photographers call the “golden hour.” To get the perfect shot, you might need to set your alarm early!

10. The Lower the Better
When photographing wildlife, it’s a good idea to be as close to the ground as possible. An “eye to eye” angle gives the image a much more dramatic impact, helps with perspective, and shows the dimensions of the animal. Another advantage of shooting at a lower angle is the background of the picture will be what is behind the animal and not what’s below, making it stand out better. (You should never get out of a game-viewing vehicle to take a photo without your guide’s permission!)

11. “Look for the Eye”
Portrait photos can be one of your top shots on safari. When the opportunity arises, ‘look for the eye’. The eye of an animal can depict its mood, focus, and intent. When taking a wildlife portrait, see if you can get the eye of your subject sharply in focus - to do this you’ll have to take control of your camera’s autofocus and make you focus on the eye and not the nose, ear, or cheek! Another tip is to look for the ‘glint’ in the animal’s eye, this makes for a much better shot than a dark or dull eye.

12. Choose the Correct Shutter Speed
Choosing the correct shutter speed when photographing wildlife in action is key! If the shutter speed isn’t high enough, the image will come out blurry. Shutter speed also affects the clarity and sharpness of your photo. Before you go on safari, try playing around with your camera at home, using your pet or passing cars to help you figure out the right shutter speed for moving subjects.

13. Be Prepared for the Perfect Moment
A professional wildlife photographer will usually sit waiting for that ‘perfect moment’, long after other safari vehicles have gotten bored and moved on. Make use of any waiting time to take practice shots of the scene and see how they look on your camera screen. You can always delete them afterwards, but this allows you to adjust your settings so the shot is exactly how you want when the action finally happens.

14. Look for Frames Within the Frame
Consider using environmental elements to frame your subject. This can add an interesting aspect to an image. Something like an overhanging branch or framing vegetation can serve to place the subject in the context of the environment in a creative way.

15. Capturing Moving Subjects
If your subject is moving, it is critical to change your autofocus setting, so read your camera’s manual before you travel. When the time comes, keep your moving subject in the viewfinder and pan with it, trying to keep the focus selector on its head. Keep your finger depressing the shutter button halfway, so your camera’s focus will track your subject’s movement. Every few seconds, remove your finger completely from the shutter button to refocus on your subject.

16. Work with The Environment
A lot of people are trying to find that “clean picture,” where there are no branches in the way, no leaves, no shadows. Of course, that crystal clear photograph where the subject is bathed in perfect light is what you are looking for, but conditions are not often perfect. Often, it’s the imperfections that make an image beautiful. Shadows, dust, rain, branches, twigs, and leaves all create atmosphere and emotion in an image.

Hopefully, armed with these tips, you will come home with a “trophy shot” or two from your next safari.


Sarah Kingdom

Travel writer, mountain guide, yoga teacher, trail runner and mother, Sarah Kingdom was born and brought up in Sydney, Australia. Coming to Africa at 21 she fell in love with the continent and stayed. Sarah guides on Kilimanjaro several times a year, and has lost count of how many times she has stood on the roof of Africa. She has climbed and guided around the world and now spends most of her time visiting remote places in Africa. When she is not traveling she runs a cattle ranch in Zambia with her husband.

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