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Looking to immerse your friends and family in the fascinating interactions you will witness while on safari? Use my African safari animals photography tips from six safaris in five countries to create captivating imagery. By understanding wildlife behaviors and experimenting, you’ll come away with touching photographs that tell the story of your amazing experiences.
Maneuvering along sandy, unpaved tracks, keep your eyes peeled and listen for warning calls. Your skin will tingle as you search for elusive African wildlife. Your astute and eagle-eyed guides will optimally position you for unforgettable experiences. Relish locating stealthy, well-camouflaged cheetahs skulking through the grass. And, marvel at elephant herds tossing mud on themselves at watering holes.
Embrace backlighting with African safari animals
Setting out early in the morning and late in the afternoon for safari coincides with wildlife’s most active times and soft golden light. While dust bombards your cameras and infiltrates every crevice in your open-air vehicle, it also leads to intoxicating sunsets. The light in Africa lends an ethereal quality to your photography.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Embrace backlighting and shoot into the sun to capture rim light around African safari animals’ silhouettes. While I previously avoided this approach, it’s now led to some of my favorite images.
Shoot high speed continuous to capture action packed safari pictures
Whether you embark on safari in East Africa (Kenya,Tanzania, Rwanda) or Southern Africa (Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe), heart-stopping interactions await in these national parks.
Encountering Cindy, a female cheetah, devouring an impala as her cub diligently chased away brazen jackals made for a quintessential National Geographic scene. Sneaking up behind her, the bold risk takers would race forward to snatch the coveted delicacy. Outnumbering Cindy three to one, they strategically distracted her cub, which feverishly pursued them, banking around corners with incredible precision.
Resting after the chase, the inexperienced cub found itself in the path of wildebeests, a vulnerable position. Worried about a potential stampede, mum stopped savoring her hard-won kill and relocated next to the cub. This provided the perfect opportunity for the defiant interlopers to move in. Shortly after, eagles and vultures surrounded the kill from above. Once Cindy moved the cub out of harm’s way, they snuggled and groomed one another.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: To make sure you don’t miss pivotal, frenzied moments, set your camera to high speed continuous.
Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action.
To be prepared for a chase, shoot manual or aperture priority and expose for the scene in advance. Catching the action is key to transporting your viewers.
An odd number of subjects – one, three, or five adds more visual interest.
Seek out alternative perspectives for African safari animals pictures
After seeing a picture isolating an elephant trunk with falling water droplets framed by elephant toenails, I wondered aloud to my Zimbabwe tour leader, Lauren Bath, where I could photograph a similar scene. Grinning ear to ear, she excitedly whispered to me, “It’s one of the surprises I have in store for you!”
Although I’d seen this perspective from a few famous wildlife photographers, I never thought it accessible to anyone other than National Geographic.
Staying at Imvelo Safari’s Camelthorn Lodge in Hwange National Park provides private access to a unique vantage point. They’ve constructed an underground elephant hide from an old shipping container and camouflaged it beneath dead trees.
Attracted by the watering hole, massive bull elephants quench their thirst right in front of you! Imagine examining their toenails as the largest land mammals daintily cross their feet. Gleefully suctioning water, they cool themselves by flapping their enormous ears.
FUN AFRICAN SAFARI ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know elephants’ dexterous trunks have 40,000 muscles as compared to only 650 in the human body?
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: Shoot low speed continuous to capture them slurping water.
To vary your point of view, bring two camera set ups – a wide angle (16-35) + zoom (200-500).
Get creative and shoot tight shots to capture the details – water droplets, the trunk finger, and elephant eyelashes.
Elephants’ textures are perfect for black and white treatment too.
Don’t be afraid to “break the rules” and isolate the aspects you find most compelling. Although I purposefully cut off the tusks and trunk, the image above still tells the story of the elephant drinking.
Since you typically spend a couple of hours stationary in the hide, it’s ideal for iPhone or GoPro time-lapse videos. Just don’t accidentally knock yours out of the hide like I did (oopsie).
Light and interactions enliven African safari photos
With only 7,500 cheetahs remaining in the wild, they are one of the rarest African safari animals.
Not only are their coats gorgeous, but they also allow them to easily camouflage and surprise potential prey. Imagine encountering a mum and 12 month-old cub lounging in soft, early morning light as the long grass whispers in the wind.
Keenly attuned to sounds around them, their ears twitch as they listen for animals in the vicinity. Between yawning and stretching, they chase one another through the grass. Leaping onto a tree provides an elevated vantage point for mum to scan the horizon, scouting their next meal. Whenever the cub moves out of her line of sight, she chirps, signaling it to return.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know the dark teardrops under cheetahs’ eyes decrease glare like eye black used by football and baseball players? And, the white at the end of their tails helps cubs follow mum in tall grass.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: Wait for the light to illuminate their eyes, facial markings, and whiskers. Doing this will separate them from the background.
Also, if your subject is sitting amongst grass, use manual focus to ensure crisp images. Otherwise, your sensor’s auto focus will be tricked by the blowing grass and constantly searching for its target.
Watch African wild dogs’ extraordinary teamwork
While watching predators stalk their prey is riveting, witnessing an actual kill can be heart wrenching. After receiving a call that wild dogs were in the area, our Botswana guide turned to us with a huge smile. Given that fewer than 7000 of this stunning species remain in Africa, guides are giddy to see them too.
Maneuvering at break-neck speed, he encouraged us to duck as he plowed through branches in pursuit. Shortly after arriving, the dogs repositioned into a fighter jet formation and began aggressively chasing a steenbok (small antelope).
Literally eating it alive as it ran, the poor steenbok was nothing but dust in fewer than two minutes. While evading these precision hunters is daunting for prey, the thrilling chase highlights the admirable teamwork these clever safari animals exhibit as they expertly conspire and flank their target as it races through the tall grass.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Alpha females lead these formidable packs. To learn more about them, check out Painted Dog Conservation.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: Since their legs have exquisite patterns, make sure to photograph those details.
I also enjoyed making portraits of them when their huge ears pivoted forward to listen for prey.
I recently learned you can photograph wild dogs from a ground level perspective in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe. So, this location has now moved to the top of my bucket list!
Cherish sentient elephants
Elephants are incredibly tactile, constantly caressing and comforting one another with their trunks. Experienced and enormous matriarchs lead the herds. Aunties protect from behind, assisting the little ones if they stumble.
Upon detecting a threat, the herd forms a protective barricade around the calves. Flaring their ears, raising their trunks and bellowing signals a potential charge towards a predator. Matriarchs don’t tolerate vehicles getting too close to babies.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know that baby elephants are small enough to fit beneath their mothers’ bellies until they are six months old? This provides protection from the sun and potential predators
PRO TIP: To learn more about their social structures and intelligence, read Love Life and Elephants, The Elephant Whisperer or its sequel, the Elephant in My Kitchen.
To see how two organizations nurse orphaned elephants back to health, visit Wild is Life in Harare, Zimbabwe, or Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya.
Read more about my touching experiences at Wild is Life. I cherished witnessing the love the handlers had for the elephants in their care.
A hippo out of water is a rare African safari moment
Did you know that hippos are considered one of Africa’s most dangerous animals? 500 people die from hippos each year in Africa. Despite appearing slow and lumbering, they can be lightning quick, especially if protecting calves.
Since they spend most of the time wallowing and submerged in water to stay cool, they usually only emerge at dusk to forage. While in Bumi Hills, Zimbabwe, we were fortunate to witness one running back into the lake after munching on grass.
The setting sun reflecting on the water provided an idyllic backdrop.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: To convey motion, photograph wildlife with one leg forward.
If a hippo is yawning or running, setting your camera to high speed continuous will provide a great series from which to choose.
Accentuate giraffe’s beauty against the clouds
Giraffes are most vulnerable when bending down for a drink. Therefore, they check their surroundings carefully before satiating their thirst.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Use fluffy marshmallow cloud to accentuate their beauty, height and majestic necks.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Giraffes’ blue/purple tongues are due to high concentrations of melanin, which people believe protects them from getting sunburned.
Kudus’ elegant horns are a work of art
Watching light and shadows interplay on kudu horns is mesmerizing. Acutely aware of potential predators, their ears are sensitized to the slightest sounds.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Since herds tend to turn their heads in a synchronized fashion, wait for them to pivot to capture the delicate pink inside their towering rabbit-like ears.
Pay respects to Cecil the Lion
Although I had never traveled to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and seen Cecil the Lion prior to him being heartlessly hunted, learning of his death impacted me greatly.
Hearing that this beloved, radio-collared lion was lured from the game reserve, shot with a bow and arrow by a trophy hunter US dentist in July 2015, and left to suffer overnight infuriated me. Having the opportunity to pay respect to him at his tree on the Elephant Express enroute to Hwange meant a lot.
PRO TIP: To learn more about Cecil, read Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Iconic Cats.
Since I’d never seen a radio-collared lion before, I found it fascinating and fortuitous that I encountered one on my second day in Hwange. Watching him and his brother lounging in the late afternoon light, startling a young elephant and then snuggling and yawning was the perfect way to end our first full Zimbabwe safari day. Appearing lethargic and well fed the next morning, we assumed they killed a young buffalo from the herd they’d been tailing the night before.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Since lions yawn frequently, wait for them to yawn to photograph their impressive canines.
Leopards are one of the most elusive African safari animals
Spotting the shy and elusive leopard is a rare treat. While in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, one sashayed past our vehicle. She then leapt on to a dead tree to survey the landscape, providing the perfect angle for this photogenic beauty.
During a night drive in Zimbabwe, our guide spotted a leopard’s eyes as he panned across the horizon with his red spotlight. Elated at this coveted discovery, he hushed us. Having last seen one six months before, his excitement mirrored ours.
Despite watching it skulk through gulleys in pursuit of impala for 45 minutes, we didn’t see it make a kill, which secretly pleased me.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Make sure to scan high tree branches as you are driving as leopards are often found lounging in them. If you are lucky, they might have a kill in the tree with them to protect it from other predators.
Admire lilac breasted rollers’ striking colors
Vibrant and iridescent colors make the lilac breasted roller one of the most popular safari birds in Africa. Constantly pruning their feathers and flitting from tree to tree can make them challenging to photograph.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: After you get your “safety shots” of it perched, crank up your shutter speed to 1/2500 and wait for it to fly. Although capturing them in flight is challenging, it’s a fun way to experiment. Shooting high speed continuous and AI Servo to track them maximizes the chances you might get a few shots in focus.
Beware of buffalos
We’ve had more than one guide indicate they find buffalos the most fearsome of the Big Five.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know the Big Five classification originally denoted the most dangerous animals for hunters to pursue on foot?
Stampeding buffalo are dangerous for young safari animals, proving fatal for cubs lurking in the grass. Therefore, female lions tend to steer clear of provoking them, especially if they don’t have others in the pride to help them with a kill. While buffalos often give no warning and just begin charging, snorting can indicate displeasure.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Since buffalo have a symbiotic relationship with oxpeckers, wait for them to land on their horns to photograph them.
Seek out crocodile reflections
During the Great Migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, wildebeest and zebra must navigate across rivers, teeming with crocodiles. Witnessing crocodiles erupting from the water as the wildebeests hopscotch across tops many people’s bucket lists.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: To add more visual interest, wait for them to run into the water or open their mouths.
If they are lounging next to calm water, seek out reflections.
Zebra stripes make for interesting abstract shots
Zebra’s striped patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint. Experts theorize their stripes also deter pesky biting flies, prevalent throughout the African savannah.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know that their skin provides cooling benefits since the black and white stripes absorb and reflect light differently? And, a group of them is referred to as a dazzle.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Experiment with converting your zebra images to black and white during post processing.
And, zoom in for some tight abstract shots to accentuate their stunning lines.
Hyena pups are endearing
While many safari goers are not huge fans of hyena adults, the pups are endearing. The strongest female in the group leads these matriarchal clans. Unlike the team-oriented wild dogs, the older hyenas are very possessive about kills, snarling and squealing to chase younger ones away until they have their fill.
PRO TIP: Check out Serengeti on Discovery for some great stories about a hyena clan.
Immerse in mountain gorillas’ human similarities
Observing one of the 1000 mountain gorillas remaining in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo will remind you how much human DNA they share. Watching Silverbacks beating their chests to assert their dominance, babies cuddling with mums or rambunctious juveniles swinging amongst the branches will entrance you. While an hour will fly by, it will be one of the most memorable and heartwarming experiences of your life. Use my detailed guide to help you plan your Rwanda trip.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: Since it’s dark in the rainforest and no flash is allowed, make sure you bring a fast telephoto lens. I captured most of my images with a 70-200 2.8 Canon lens.
Deb Alexander says
Wonderful photos!! I had seen many of these on your Instagram feed and was already in love with all these majestic animals, but seeing them on my computer screen is even more impressive! Ooh and I could *feel* the warmth of the sun coming from behind your backlit elephant family! Africa would be amazing to see one day…
Marielena Smith says
That makes me so happy to hear, Deb. The backlight in Africa adds more drama to an already magical scene. I hope you make it there one day. Perhaps on one of my future tours 🙂
Kavita Bouknight says
Loved this blog post! The pictures and storytelling were perfect to share with my kids. They loved the stories and factoids you shared throughout the blog. Their favorite parts were the action-packed moments like the cheetah chase and the wild dogs! Reading this post was the next best thing to experiencing a safari firsthand. Thank you for sharing.
Marielena Smith says
Kavita, I’m delighted that you and your kids enjoyed the facts and stories. I’ll definitely keep that in mind for future posts that the chase scenes resonate. Safari is a special and unforgettable experience – seeing the animals interact in their element is an incredible privilege. I’m happy I could transport you all!
Fabulous photographs – the African wild dogs remind me of hyena.
Marielena Smith says
Cherryl, Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the photographs I captured in Africa. I absolutely agree that the African wild dogs coloring looks similar to hyenas. It’s such a privilege to see the wild dogs. To see them hunting is truly unforgettable. Their teamwork and efficiency is unparalleled. I hope you have a lovely holiday season.