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How to take better photographs on safari

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25 July 2012 by Alex Stewart

Natural beauty is often the inspiration for compelling photographs. Taking pictures of wildlife whilst on safari can be thrilling and creatively rewarding as Online Editor Alex Stewart discovers. Whether it's the quest to capture lions, leopards or lemurs, the quest for the perfect picture is endless!

Animals are notoriously difficult to capture on film and are naturally camera shy; they tend not to want a close-up. Use our tips below to ensure that you get better pictures from your time away, whether you're on safari in Kenya or Tanzania, tracking gorillas in Rwanda, staking out a waterhole in Namibia or South Africa, poling through the Okavango in Botswana or exploring the surreal landscapes of Madagascar. Remember though, the pursuit of perfection should never get in the way of the welfare of the animal.

Get the right kit

To photograph wildlife you'll need a larger, telephoto lens; most serious wildlife photographers recommend using at least a 300mm lens. 400mm is better still and will let you take more candid photos and pictures that other people won't be able to get. Teleconverters can be used to boost lens length, but you may sacrifice something in sharpness. Because you won't have the luxury of adjusting your position easily, a zoom lens is a better bet than a prime lens.

You won't want to change lenses when on location - a dusty sensor will cause problems - so consider taking two bodies if you have a standard and long lens. Alternatively use a digital point and shoot in combination with a long lens.

Make sure that you have a fully charged battery and memory card with plenty of space before you set out too; you might want to take a small portable hard drive as well to view and store images. Remember, before investing in a safari to Tanzania or trip of a lifetime to Kenya though, practice your techniques at home and learn your way round your camera.

Know your subject

Read around your subject, understand what the animals do during a day, when they hunt, move and sleep. Once on safari and in a specific park or nature reserve, ask the wardens whether the animals have habits, for instance whether they're closer to a particular gate at a particular time of day.

Kenya Giraffe

Keep steady

Stabilising your camera isn't easy, especially within an idling Land Rover. Some tripods can be rigged up to work from the passenger or driving seat, but a fixed tripod can be restrictive when responding to moving animals. Instead, use a beanbag and cushion your camera on the rolled down window of the vehicle. Compensate for image blur by increasing your ISO and using a high shutter speed.

Photographer on location in Africa

Composition

A simple, uncluttered picture tends to result in a stronger and more striking end image. The tangle of the bush can make composition a challenge so look all around your viewfinder. Bear in mind that good images tell a story. If the animal is on the move, leave room for it to move into and remember the rule of thirds to ensure the animal doesn't sit right in the centre of your image.

After taking some overview and contextual photographs, focus on specific, interesting details, abstracts and other aspects that say something about the animal. Focus on the eyes of the animal to lock in the interest of people viewing the photograph.

Lizard

Be patient and prepared

Quiet and patience will get you a long way with wildlife. Aside from the right kit, the essential ingredient for successful wildlife photography is time. Try and stay in a single place and don't attempt to rush around everywhere on a whistle stop tour. When shooting opportunities do arrive though, they tend to be fleeting so be prepared and keep your camera to hand at all times, ready to shoot.

Be original

Try to get away from fixed preconceptions of what type of image you want, be it a leopard in a tree, cheetah sprinting or lion silhouetted on a rock. Be inventive when choosing a viewpoint, change positions, try another angle, zoom in or out and look to inject some originality into your photography. If that involves lying on the ground, climbing a tree or scrambling up a slope, so be it.

Tanzania Elephant

Pay attention to the light

Light is essential for good photography. Be out early and late, around dawn and dusk, when the sky is often saturated with colour. As the light gets brighter, the strong African sun will make most of the interesting detail disappear; a grey elephant on a green background in bright light won't be your best picture. Photos in forest or heavily shaded areas, for instance if you're tracking gorillas in Rwanda, will also be harder to get when the sun is strong as the contrasting shadow will be so much more dense

Gorilla Rwanda

Edit

Take lots of photographs as you experiment with composition, light and attempt to capture a moment, but remember to be just as active when it comes to editing the images after; delete those that aren't up to scratch or didn't work as soon as possible, so that you don't arrive home to be overfaced by umpteen shots of an elephant and umpteen more of a buffalo. Edit whilst you're away and you'll have more time to select the very best when you're back.

Relax

If you're taking wildlife photographs, the chances are that you're in an incredible natural environment, whether it's the savannah of Kenya, forests of Rwanda or deserts of Namibia. Enjoy where you are and your pictures will reflect this; there's no need to competitively chase every photo opportunity, so occasionally put your camera away, get out from behind the lens and enjoy the experience of an African safari.

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