South Africa Travel Guide |
Home South Africa Airfare Tours in South Africa Accomodation What to do in South Africa Travel Guide

Taking Safari Pictures: Tips for Getting the Best Wildlife Snaps

SA Logue asked the University of the Witwatersrand’s Prof. David Bunn – one of the country’s top experts on the Kruger National Park – for some advice on how to take pictures in the bush. See the Expert Photo Advice tag for more.

On animal/bird photography: Do a little research! Browe a few handbooks of African mammals and birds, so you know what you’ll be looking for, and consult the Kruger National Park web site and forums for information on what you’ll most likely see. Here are some advanced tips:

  • Try to take photos of animals doing interesting things: lions sleep mainly, but they look great when they yawn, and when they stare at the camera; giraffe have remarkable, leathery blue tongues, and they use these to strip thorns from branches; male cheetah spray urinate like tomcats

.flickr-photo { }
.flickr-frame { float: left; text-align: center; margin-right: 15px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }

  • Close-ups/zooms should try to get the eyes of the animal in focus: when the whiskers and nose are in focus, but the eyes aren’t, it makes the animal look dead or terminally distracted.

.flickr-photo { }
.flickr-frame { float: left; text-align: center; margin-right: 15px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }

  • Remember to check the background at all times, and for the presence of distracting branches in the foreground, especially if you’re using autofocus. This is the most crucial advice of all. When your car is being charged by an elephant (!), you will rarely notice the Combretum branch snaking across its forehead, but in calmer situations be careful to cut out distracting clutter. This is more difficult than it seems, because bush and undergrowth often crowds the subject. Sometimes your camera will “hunt” for focus, leading it to focus on the mopane leaves four inches this side of the red-billed oxpecker sitting on the giraffe’s neck, without your realising it. There are two solutions: (1) wait for a clearer shot; (2) set your focus system to “spot” rather than “area” metering, to enable pinpoint focus. (On Nikon SLRs, this means, rather alarmingly, that you will choose the “close up” flower logo from the array of pre-set shooting modes.)

.flickr-photo { }
.flickr-frame { float: left; text-align: center; margin-right: 15px; margin-bottom: 15px; }
.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; }

  • Different types of birds have different habits and knowing them helps. For instance, bee eaters hawk from the same perches, so when it flies off, focus on the same perch and it will usually return to the same point.
  • Similarly, different animals have very set habits and daily routines: lions rest on the roads at first light; wild dogs often hunt impala at mid-morning; pygmy mongooses will appear from holes in termite mounds if you sit quietly next to them, and so on.
  • The best times for photography are in the mornings and evenings, NOT in the middle of the day, because of the textures that slanted light creates.
  • Different areas of the Kruger Park have very different animal populations. The south and central areas are by far the best for game viewing. In the north, it’s better to concentrate on landscape, trees and birds. (See Kruger Park Maps for the park’s geography.) My favourite Kruger camps for animal viewing, based on hundreds of visits and the work I do there, are the following, in rough order:
    • In the south:
      • Biyamiti (lovely wilderness camp)
      • Lower Sabi (ask to stay in the old section)
      • Crocodile Bridge (great game viewing, but a bit too close to the fence)
      • Skukuza (Awful crowds, grossly inattentive and inconsiderate tourists, and too many tour buses, but fine game viewing, and it’s possible to get away from crowds on the back roads.)
    • The central area:
      • Satara (large, but spectacular for predators)
      • Tamboti (gorgeous tented camp)
      • Talamati (wilderness camp)
      • Olifants (most people’s all-time favourite, for the views and elephant herds, but remember game is mainly to the south)
    • In the North:
      • Punda Maria (one of the loveliest of all, especially for birds, and drive north to Pafuri and the Zimbabwe border)
      • Shingwedzi (superb river activity, elephant herds, and leopard)

    A final key rule of thumb: Kruger is divided into very distinct vegetation zones, indicated on the park’s own guide maps. “Mixed thornveld” is almost always the most productive for game viewing, and “shrub mopane” is uniformly the worst. Try not to stay in a camp that is centred in mopane woodland if your main object is game viewing.

    Prof. Bunn is head of the Wits School of Arts.