Photographing Safari and Exotic Animals

By Ash Davies
April 20, 2009 from Tips and Tricks

Cheetah at Kruger National Park, photographed on foot about 3 meters away. Such a beautiful animal.

Animals can be an incredible Photography subject. Of course, I’m not talking about household pets. Sure, your dog or cat might be cute, but unless done properly they can only pose for cliché and purely sentimental photos. I’m talking about the exotic, such as Lions, Leopards, Giraffes and Rhinos (Anything in the wild with its instinct still intact and manipulating every action). However, due to the wild and dangerous nature of these animals taking a great photo can be quite difficult. You can only come within a safe distance in a car on safari and this limits you to one view, and if you step out to find a different or angle you’ll probably have to walk back in a body bag. So how can you separate your photo from the others? How can you get the best out of a somewhat limiting situation? There are a few things you should look out for.

Photograph in the evening.

Exotic animals possess many artistic characteristics, be it the texture, color, shape or facial expression, and in this lies the interest and beauty that photographers only dream about. It may seem then that taking a poor photo would be difficult, however it’s a fundamental rule of photography that if your lighting is poor it will be harder to capture a scene. The majority of the time you’ll find these animals resting in the shade which doesn’t help the lighting or color of your photo. Luckily there are two easy fixes to this, and all you have to do is look at the weather forecast and your watch. If it’s an overcast cloudy day then bad luck. No direct sunlight will generally give you a dull and gloomy photo and it becomes very hard to capture the detail of the animal. If the suns shining through though then you’ll notice an immediate difference in the vibrance of your image. I find the best time to photograph animals is between 3pm and 5pm. In this time the animals tend to be active and the sun is in its optimum position. It’s not directly above you overpowering the sky but instead it’s sending a warm glow over the land.


The legs of an elephant are an incredible feature. Here I tried to frame them all together to emphasize the enormity of the animal.

Get yourself a Monopod.

You can quite easily manipulate your exposure to compensate for the poor lighting but then it becomes very difficult to take a steady photo. You could spot animals when you’re in motion in the car which makes it very difficult to steadily capture, and also, because you can only come within a safe distance, you’ll find you’re fully zoomed in the majority of the time and this amplifies every motion. The best way to combat this is to get yourself a monopod. This will give you a steady base for your camera whilst still allowing for the mobility you need. On my first game drives I unfortunately didn’t have a monopod and as a result missed out on many great shots due to the difficulty of holding the camera still (when you’re out in the bush there’s nothing to rest your camera on). Upon using a monopod though the difference was noticeable. Even if you’re only going for a one off game drive, investing in a cheap monopod could be worthwhile. For the professional or enthusiast looking to capture the best photos possible, it’s a necessity.

Zoom zoom zoom.

Almost all animals in the wild are either dangerous or easily spooked which means often you won’t be able to get as close as you need for a photo. Because of this, you need zoom, and lots of it. If you’ve got an SLR with all the kit then your zoom lens is best kept on most of the time. If you haven’t got one then i highly recommend one. I got away with 10.7x optical zoom but could have easily used more. Often i was doubling to 21.4x by using the digital zoom but due to the quality reduction the photos didn’t turn out quite as nicely as i’d hoped. If you’ve got a simple point and shoot though then you’re likely to be frustrated with your lack of zoom. You’ll just need to look out for new angles and perspectives to compensate. Long shots can work very nicely if you frame it well.

Capture the expressions that would embarrass a human.

Even if you’ve got the perfect lighting, lenses and situation though, if you haven’t composed your photo properly and taken it of the right thing it could fall into the category of clichés. To avoid this try and capture unique facial or bodily expressions of the animal, such as a roar or cry, or even just an interesting look. The face doesn’t always have to be the subject either because many animals have other superb features such as the colorful patterns of their skin, their legs or the curves in their body. I made sure to take a photo of the skin texture of most animals i saw and together they make quite an interesting set. Basically, if you think outside the square you can capture great photos that show the hidden beauties of the animal.


A ‘Model Lion’. No scratches or scars on his face or body. It roared. I liked it.

Savour the sights. Use your eyes as well.

I’ve been on four game drives now through South Africa and have tracked and photographed all of the big five (the five hardest animals to hunt on foot: Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino). As incredible as the animal may seem though, it’s inevitable that the conditions can be very poor for photography so you leave with very few worthwhile photos. All it takes is patients and different thinking. Often your driver will be patient with you and try to help you get as close as possible with the best angles. Just make sure you don’t see your whole drive through a viewfinder because you really need to take time to admire the animals.

You can see my safari and exotic animal photography in the Simunye Collection.

Nick Brandt’s Exotic Animal Photography really is an inspiration and is well worth the look.

  • sniesen

    here’s a hiking staff, monopod and tripod all-in-one. it’s a great fit for any outdoor photographer

  • Ash Davies

    Thanks for the tip. Looks like a great tool and would certainly come in handy.
    Love the carbon fiber too!