How to Shoot Africa’s Big Five Safari Animals (with a Camera)

Not many other adventure holidays are as alluring as an African safari that comes with the promise of seeing Africa’s Big Five animals up close and in the wild. The thrill of coming into contact with wild animals is hard to beat. The following article will provide essential considerations for your next Big Five safari adventure to the African continent.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, the “Big Five” game animals in Africa are the leopard, African bush elephant, African buffalo, black rhinoceros, and lion.

Table of Contents

Booking an African Safari Trip

To lay the foundation for your photo safari, you’ll first need to book a trip. You’ll want to consider three things: when to go, how long you should stay and what company or outfitter to use.

The best time of year varies depending on the region of Africa you’re traveling in and what animal sightings are most important to you. The sheer size of the continent makes it difficult to make generalizations about peak viewing times. However, most travelers agree that late spring and early summer are ideal for wildlife viewing because they coincide with calving season when large numbers of babies (and therefore their mothers) are visible in the open at once.

The calving season also means that predators are more visible as they hunt baby animals and mothers alike. If you’re interested in photography, summer may be the best time due to the longer daylight hours and pleasant weather conditions. Winter can also be a good time for photographing the animals and experiencing them firsthand when the grasses are shorter, making it easier to spot the big five.

African Safari Packing Tips

As you plan your safari, think about the equipment you’ll need to capture the Big Five on camera. The type and size of camera equipment you select may be determined by many factors, such as how much weight you can carry, what kinds of shots you want to get, and whether you will be going on foot through the reserve. You’ll also want to consider bringing spare batteries and a small tripod.

When selecting clothing for your safari adventure, choose colors that blend with the landscape—khaki or camouflage colors are best—and clothes made out of fabrics that dry quickly after rainstorms but still protect against thorny bush branches and scratchy grasses. A hat or cap is practical when traversing in the hot African sun. It is wise to take essential eco-friendly lotions and sprays that protect you from insects in Africa’s wilderness areas.

Tourists on safari watching an elephant. Photo from Depositphotos.

The Day of The Big Five Safari

1. Get the gear ready the night before to be sure you are well prepared.

2. Get up early so that you can be shooting in the first light when the big five are active.

Plan your day around your shot list: if you want to get a particular animal or behavior, make sure you are there at the right time of day. Check with the rangers at the camps for the latest big five sightings on the day.

The best time to shoot is when the light is softest, just after sunrise. You will be in the vehicle for several hours so bring extra batteries for your camera and many memory cards. A long telephoto lens (400mm and above) and a shorter zoom lens (24-70mm) are ideal for safari shooting. If you do not have these focal lengths, borrow them from friends or rent them from a local camera store.

Finally, don’t forget sunscreen. Wear comfortable clothes that will not distract from the game drive experience; intense colors like red can frighten animals away, while earthy tones are better suited for camouflaging your environment. Bring lots of water and snacks because there won’t be any options available during the drive.

Shooting Tips for Each Big Five Animal

To capture the most engaging image of animals, you must try to get close to your subject. If you’re approaching a large animal like an elephant or rhino, make sure your guide is with you. But don’t approach too quickly and frighten them away—remember, these are wild animals. If they sense fear on your part, they may attack. You can also judge their comfort level by watching their ears and eyes; if they’re calm and alert but not tense or aggressive, it’s a sign that you’re okay to continue moving forward slowly with caution.

Keep an eye on the light when taking photos of animals in the wild. Since lighting can change on a dime depending on where the sun is concerning your subject and surroundings, always keep your camera ready for action—and don’t forget to use your LCD screen. The back of our cameras are like tiny monitors that let us see precisely how our images will look from any given angle, so seek out those golden moments when all the elements come together for the perfect shot.

The Leopard

Leopards are notoriously hard to spot because they move through the thick of the bush with stealth or hang in the trees above your head. Spotting a Leopard with a telephoto lens is much more manageable. I use a 500mm f/4, but you need to get really close or really lucky to the animal to get a good shot.

For big cats on the move, use a fast shutter speed like 1/1000 second or faster—it will still catch them in motion (with reduced motion blur) and freeze the background details. Use a high ISO for safety—I usually start at 400 for animals moving around and then adjust depending on the amount of motion blur and noise.

The African Bush Elephant

Africa’s largest land animal is still quite common though there are signs of poaching in some areas. Although it is still a wild animal, you can get close enough to an elephant to get good photos. The best time to shoot them is when the sun is low during the morning and evening.

Try to capture elephants at eye level and in their natural environment. Try to capture their size by incorporating the landscape (a mountain or a tree) in your composition. Zoom in close to capture the interesting lines and details along the Elephant’s skin and, of course, the big tusks of the older patriarchal Elephants.

The African Buffalo

Buffalo is particularly dangerous and unpredictable, so you will need to keep your wits. Be careful that they don’t charge, and be cautious of your surroundings as well—buffalo often travel in herds that number in the hundreds, but predators like lions or hyenas sometimes accompany them. Their mammoth horns make for alluring photos. Try some portrait shots of these majestic beasts that incorporate the face and horns together or as a close-up abstract.

The Black Rhinoceros

The rhino is the most dangerous of the big five game animals to photograph because although it is huge and sturdy, it has poor eyesight. Their vision is terrible, but they have a fantastic sense of smell and hearing—so your best bet is to use those senses against them. The animal can charge without warning at what it perceives as a threat—and often at you! A rhino can run up to 40 miles per hour, delivering formidable blows with its horn seemingly indiscriminately.

Any photo of a Rhino is precious these days due to their declining number at the hands of indiscriminate poachers and hunters.

The Lion

The king of the jungle. This majestic creature can make for a remarkable subject with its regal mane and powerful prowl. Always be wary of getting too close to any Lion. When photographing lions, it’s essential to use a zoom lens to get good shots without spooking them or putting yourself at risk.

The best time to see lions is first thing in the morning when they are more active than any other day. Try making your approach from behind some brush, or stay near your car as you snap pictures—you don’t want to disturb the lions while they’re resting in their natural habitat. It would be best if you also were sure to search for them on shady Savannah and plains, where they like to rest in the heat of midday before continuing with their hunts after sundown.

Safari Photography Tips

One of the biggest challenges in taking photos outdoors is lighting. You’re trying to catch a scene as it’s transitioning from bright to dark and then back again. The most common rule of thumb is to take pictures outside during the golden hour, before sunset, or after sunrise.

Since your camera isn’t going to give you that exact result every time—there will be times when you’ll get an incredible shot in the sun, but others where you’ll be lucky to get a good one at all—it’s vital that you know how to achieve the best possible results with your gear.

You will aim to use the fastest shutter speed possible with the ambient light available. Often between the 1/500 to 1/2000 range. You will need to consider your exposure triangle (aperture, ISO, and shutter speed) at all times, especially for handheld shooting, and determine the best camera mode to use such as shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode. Learning to shoot in manual mode is a good idea so that you have a thorough grasp of exposure fundamentals.

Remain alert and attentive to the surroundings when in the bush. Big Five animals tend to appear out of nowhere. It is advisable to learn all you can about the habits of the animals you may encounter on your safari. The more you know about the wildlife, the better your chances of getting that outstanding shot.

Most of all, be present and enjoy the experience no matter what animals you are lucky enough to spot on the day of your safari adventure.

Image credits: Header photo from Depositphotos