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Pre-Safari Prep: How to Get the Most from Your Camera

Everybody wants to snap one of those National Geographic-style images when they go on a photographic safari, an iconic picture that captures the moment and its subject perfectly. Apart from the fact that National Geographic photographers spend months in the field and you have a few days at most to attempt to lock down your perfect image, it is possible with some preparation and a good dose of luck, of course.

Obviously, the most important factor is your camera. Knowing how to use your equipment and being familiar with how to get the best from it is crucial when that perfect moment presents itself. Chances are if you have booked a safari, you will have spent a considerable about of money on tickets and accommodation. At this point, you should not skimp on camera gear if you want to get those pictures you have dreamed of - you just won’t manage it using a smart phone or a point-and-shoot. If you take the plunge and invest in a good camera, spend some time before your trip getting familiar with how to use it - you don't want to be fiddling around with settings when you need to be clicking away as the action unfolds.

Take the plunge & invest in a good camera so you can can record once-in-a-lifetime safari moments forever. Take the plunge & invest in a good camera so you can can record once-in-a-lifetime safari moments forever.

The best choice for decent images is a DSLR camera (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and a good lens. In fact the lens is the most important part of making an image, so it is important that you get the best glass you can afford. My stock-standard favourite lens is a 70-200mm f 2.8 Canon lens. The zoom aspect makes it versatile for use in the field, and as it has a wide aperture, it functions very well in low light. As for a camera body, choose one that has a fast frame rate, as this will help you capture the moment as it happens. My Canon Eos 1D mkII shoots at 8 frames a second, for example.

Once you have chosen a camera and a lens, practice these two fundamentals:

1. Composition

Good composition is what makes a great image and in wildlife photography, this is vital. Too often what could have been a great picture is ruined by bad composition, so this is something you must bear in mind at all times when shooting, until it becomes second nature.

Some pointers on compostion:

The Rule of Thirds

If you divide your picture space into three horizontals and three verticals, the points where the lines meet are where the eye is drawn to naturally, and what liese within these markers in terms of the shot you take is what makes for an arresting composition. It is very tempting to place your subject in the middle of the frame but this makes for a bland image. Try and place what you want your viewer to look at into one of the thirds - practice shooting a middle frame and one of the thirds and you'll see what I mean. The same goes for horizons - put your horizon in the top or lower third of the frame instead of the middle, and you immediately have a more interesting picture. When taking pictures of animals remember to give them a bit of space in the frame - the mongoose here is looking to the right, so I left a lot of space to the right for it to look into, which is more satisfying as a composition.

The rule of thirds is a classic - and simple - rule of photography. The rule of thirds is a classic - and simple - rule of photography.
The grid effect on a photograph. The grid effect on a photograph.
A striking example of post-production. A striking example of post-production.


Correct exposure is the next fundamental. Your camera has a built-in light meter that it uses to calculate the correct f-stop and shutter speed to expose the scene correctly. What often happens in wildlife photography is that your subject is in dappled light (think of a lion sitting in the shade of a tree) or has a bright background (a leopard in a tree with the sky behind it). This is going to confuse your light meter, and it could expose the image incorrectly, thereby ruining the effect you wish to create.

I usually shoot on the Aperture Priority or Manual mode, which gives me control of my aperture and to a certain degree, the exposure. Your best tool for correct exposure is your camera’s AE Lock function. Take time to read your instruction manual find out how to activate it - this is going to change your life! Put your camera’s light meter setting on to Spot (usually a dot symbol) or Centre-weighted (a dot with a circle around it) – this tells the light sensor where in the frame to make a reading. Look through the viewfinder and point your camera at different places with differing levels of light intensity. You will notice that the values for the shutter speeds change to adjust to the light. Now depending on the light falling on your subject, you will want to make the correct exposure setting for the light intensity you wish to capture.

An example of an image underexposed and too dark. An example of an image underexposed and too dark.
Conversely, the same image overexposed and too light. Conversely, the same image overexposed and too light.

Looking at the picture of the lions, you can see the contrast between light and shade is significant. This illustrates how the exposure setting you choose has to be relative to what it is you wish to capture, otherwise you end up with an image that is either 'blown out' – overexposed, or too dark and underexposed. In order to capture the light on the lions’ faces, I pointed my camera at a nearby clump of grass that was in full sunlight, and got a light reading, then I pressed the AE lock button. I now had the correct exposure value for the amount of light falling on my subject, and the camera would not expose for the shadows, which were a significant part of the image. If I had exposed for the shadows, the image would have been blown out in the parts that I wished to capture, as the second image shows.

This is also particularly relevant when taking sunset pictures- remember to expose for the sky, and you will get the beautiful colours and silhouettes that you are after.

Understanding these two fundamentals will immediately help you to start getting better pictures.