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Top Tips for Photographing the Big 5

In the early days of African safaris, the “Big 5” referred to the five most dangerous and challenging animals that a trophy hunter could hunt. In modern African travel, photographic safaris have transformed the way people encounter wildlife. Today, we use our digital cameras to "shoot" elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard, taking nothing but their images for our trophies.

To capture great photographs of the Big 5,  I use different approaches for different species and situations. Here are my top tips for photographing these magnificent animals.

1. Photographing Elephants

When photographing elephants, you have a variety of compositions to choose from because these giants really lend themselves to a host of creative set-ups. By using a wide-angle lens, you can compose an image that contextualises them in the natural landscape. By using a zoom lens, you can focus on certain physical characteristics, like their tusks, trunks or wonderfully intriguing eyes.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - elephants
A wide angle lens allows you to explore compositions that showcase elephants in their natural habitat.

Using different angles and perspectives, you can emphasise their size by shooting from ground level, for example, or by photographing them from above. The image of the mother and calf is one of my favourite elephant pictures, which I took from a helicopter. Some safari camps use sunken or underground hides near waterholes, and these are ideal for capturing unusual images of elephants from a very close distance and a unique perspective.

Best places to spot elephants: Kruger National ParkChobe National ParkOkavango DeltaAmboseli National ParkTarangire National Park.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - elephants from the air
An elephant mother and calf shot from above in a helicopter.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - baby ele
Superb close-ups taken from a photography hide.

Photographing Rhino

Liek elephants, the sheer massive bulk of rhinos give a photographer many composition options. Again, a wide angle delivers an image that contextualises them in their natural environment while a zoom allows you to focus on aspects of their bodies.

My favourite images of rhinos are compositions that place these creatures in context of the landscape, as opposed to close-up portraits. The desert rhinos of Namibia are a great example of how the presence of these prehistoric-looking creatures in midst of Namibia's vast and harsh environment makes for very compelling imagery.

Best places to spot rhino: Madikwe Game Reserve, Phinda Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, Laikipia in Northern Kenya, Private Reserves around Etosha National Park.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - desert rhino
The prehistoric looking rhino makes a compelling image in context of its natural environment.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - male rhino
A lone male bull, snapped partially under cover.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - black & white buffalo
After wallowing in mud, this buffalo's dull hide becomes perfectly textured for a great black and white composition.

Photographing Buffalo

Buffalo are a difficult subject to photograph - the blackness of their bodies makes exposure tricky, which is something you have to keep front of mind. You need to ensure you are exposing correctly for the scene as a whole, or you risk completely overexposing the image when your light meter struggles to compensate for their dark hides.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - buffalo herd
A heard of buffalo often offers a better composition than a single individual because of their dull black hides.

When they move in herds, they often kick up a considerable amount of dust, which, if backlit, makes for an wonderfully atmospheric picture. Individually, bulls are great for character studies, with their big horns and sullen expressions. They like to wallow in mud, which may mean they can be found regularly at the same muddy spot. Caked in mud, flies buzzy around them and their bad tempered prize fighter expression makes for great compisitions. An image like that lends itself perfectly to a black and white conversion. 

Best places to spot buffalo: Moremi Game Reserve, Savute, Kruger National Park, Kafue National Park, Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta.

Photographing Lion

Lions are the favourite safari model for most photographers, which means there are a multitude of compositions to inspire you. Set your image apart from the crowd, by adopting a few professional traits in your approach. Patience is the first trait you need: lions spend most of the day sleeping, so you need to choose your moment carefully. They tend to be most active at dusk and dawn, making these are the times you can get great pictures of them interacting as they wake uo, stretch, greet each other and set off on the hunt, or, are blood-splattered and energised from a night’s successful hunting, making them mock-fight and playful before they settle down for the day's first snooze.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - lion cubs
Photographing lion cubs is a favourite for most photographers - they are normally quite active and inquisitive, making for fantastic subjects.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - male lion
Lions spend the day napping so shoot at dusk or dawn.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - lion pride
Family prides setting off to hunt offer a great diversity of wides and close-ups.

When lions are on a kill, people often make the mistake of zooming in on the feeding action without considering what is going on around the kill itself. I often find that the best photographic opportunities are happening the peripheries, where a lot of interaction is taking place without all the gore in the frame. Take a few minutes to look around if you are shooting at a lion kill - you might be rewarded with some spectacular images.

If lions have cubs, the little ones make wonderful subjects. They are usually more active than the adults during the day. Pay close attention to them as they play with each other and with the mothers, aunts and older siblings. A tight zoom will deliver gorgeous details - from oversized paws to kitten-like cuteness and a range of adorable facial expressions. 

Best places to spot lion: Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, Kruger Private Concessions, Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta, Masai Mara National Reserve, Serengeti National Park.

Photographing Leopards

Leopards are generally harder to find on safari, and as a result, photographers get overexcited when encountering them and make mistakes. A common error is to frame the shot too tightly and cut off their tails, spoiling the composition. Check your settings and review your images on the fly to make sure you are exposing and composing your images correctly. Often you encounter leopards at dusk when they become active ahead of the night hunt. They keep to shadows and undergrowth, which combined with low light, means you need to keep your eye on your exposure. Bump up your ISO to compensate, and make sure that you have your aperture on the widest setting. Bear in mind that if you are using a wide aperture, your depth of field will be very shallow, so make sure that you are focussing on exactly what you wish to portray in your image and adjust for the angle the cat is to you. Often, the most evocative leopard images makes their enigmatic eyes the focus of the shot.

Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - lone leopard
Leopards are elusive subjects but offer graceful and serene compositions. When shooting them in a tree be aware of the lighter sky behind them.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - leopard and cub
A cub brings out the playful side in its mother.
Top Tips on Photographing the Big 5 - leopard cub
A young leopard cub with the focus on his gorgeous eyes.

When they are not moving languidly through thickets,  you may find them in trees, which is when you need to be extra careful with your exposure settings. If you have a bright sky for a background, use your camera’s spot meter function to get the best possible reading of the light where the leopard is - not the sky - then either manually plug the values in or use your AE (Auto Exposure) lock function (I explain the AE lock function in a previous blog post). This will prevent that your image from being underexposed, leaving you with a black blob where the leopard was and a lovely image of the sky! 

Best places to spot leopard: Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve, Moremi Game Reserve, South Luangwa National Park, Timbavati Private Game Reserve, Masai Mara, Serengeti National Park.

Remember: to make your image stand out from others look at presenting your subject in the best way for the specific creature. Thinking creatively and reviewing your images after a day’s shooting will give you ideas on how to improve your pictures, and if you are lucky, mother nature will give you more than one chance to capture an iconic Big 5 moment. Remember the virtues of professionals: patience, utilising the available light, familiarity and dexterity with your equipment. Add a dose of good old luck and a great guide, and you will be rewarded with your own iconic images of Africa's Big 5! 

Written by Ryan Green. Connect with him on Google+.

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