Bushtracks’ specialist guide and guest blogger David Bristow shares his secrets for taking the best action photos of African wildlife, where anticipating animal behavior while being patient will yield stunning African wildlife photography.
Having tackled the complex subject of camera technology, we can move on to the fun part of safari photography – “shooting” the game. The first thing you are going to want to do is get a decent image of those scenes and species that most interest you, let’s say “for the record.”
But those will seldom be the images that really excite you or others afterwards. The real magic of photography is and always has been about capturing a moment in time – either some dramatically lit scene, or movement of subjects, interaction, the chase, the kill….
To get the best photos is usually a matter of anticipating animal behavior so that when “the moment” occurs, you are not caught with your photographic pants down fidgeting with the camera but rather shooting off frames at a rapid speed. Your best ally in this will be your guide, presuming you have one. Many guides are keen photographers themselves who will help to facilitate good photographs: positioning the game-drive vehicle in the best spot, taking into account light and composition.
Londolozi Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Bushtracks.
But even more guides are not and need to be educated into what elements need to come together for you (and others) to get the best shots. Sometimes you have to compromise if you are sharing a game-drive vehicle, but photographers will generally work together.
There will be guides who are more keen on their tip, so they’ll dash between game viewings like it’s a race. Usually the best place for great animal photography is at waterholes – for obvious reasons. So imagine you’re in Bogota or Tijuana. You’re driving at speed in a dark SUV with tinted windows. The driver spins around a corner, sending pedestrians scattering. He then screeches to a halt in front of a sidewalk café and you and the other passengers jump out and aim large instruments at the crowd. How do you think they would respond?
Same at a waterhole in the savanna, and you’d be lucky to get away unharmed. The waterhole – or any location where wild animals interact – is a dangerous place where predators like to wait in ambush for herbivores, and the herbivores know it. The prey animals are vulnerable and skittish. If you come in with guns blazing, so to say, you’re going to blow any chance of photography.
Animals, like humans, have a sense of personal space, as well as safe space. You can see this when you approach a breeding herd of elephants; they start to get edgy if you get too close for comfort. This is the space you have to be aware of when approaching animals. Go slow is the watchword. And keep watching their reaction to you. If the guide is going in too fast, tell him to slow down. It’s the right thing to do for everyone.
One technique you can use for action shots is when you anticipate (and that is the crux of things – you need to be able to anticipate what will happen next) that good action is about to unfold, set your camera to continuous shooting. Some cameras, including the best compact ones, have a function that fires off up to 10 frames a second with one press of the shutter button. You want to start using that one a lot.
This is particularly true of birds. Birds are queer fowl indeed, especially the big ones who don’t like sticking around when they pick up you’re watching them. You’re a predator, remember! Most birds will discretely lift their butts and let fly a squirt of guano as they are preparing for flight, and that is your queue. Keep the camera steady, put your trigger finger on the shutter button and wait for the moment of take-off.
This could apply as much to an animal, say a cheetah getting ready to take off after a gazelle, or a fish eagle swooping in to take a fish. What you will learn with time is that when you are on continuous shooting mode, you need to pan smoothly with the action.
It’s been calculated (by me) that 97.38% of safari photographs are taken from the same angle: you sitting in the game-drive vehicle. If you want to add real drama to a scene try changing the angle. If it’s safe to do so, like behind or under your vehicle and shoot the scene at ground level. Or climb a tree if that’s an option. You can also play with the horizon, place it closer to the top or bottom of the frame than you would normally.
If you want to get serious about wildlife and nature photography, the best time you will ever have is joining a specialist photographic safari. Or, sign on for a nature photography class closer to home before you go on safari and a whole new world of seeing will open up.