How to get your best Big Five photos ever

How do you capture images of the Big Five that are original and striking?

Our photographer Teagan Cunniffe gives some tips on how to nail these shots.

1. Elephants

Storms approach the wide open grassy plains of the Masai Mara, engulfing the landscape with dramatic skies, dwarfing the massive elephant cow and her calf. Photo by Mark Dumbleton, check out more of his photographs on Instagram.

Ellies bring an extraordinary presence to any environment they inhabit or traverse. A good way to capture this is to use a wide-angle lens and shoot from a low-angle upwards. Alternatively, zoom in on their eyes, ears and trunk ‒ ellies have fantastic texture to their skin, allowing you to create abstract yet intimate portraits (Prelena Soma Owen’s image does this well). Emphasise the texture in post-production by increasing the clarity slider slightly. Elephants have semi-predictable routines so ask the camp manager or ranger where and when they are likely to amble down to a specific waterhole.

Also read: Walking wild with Namibia’s wise giants.

Best locations for photographing elephants

Chobe National Park, Kruger National ParkHluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Addo Elephant National Park, Hwange National Park.


2. Buffaloes

Taken in Kruger, black and white makes for a moody shot of a buffalo. Photo by Rudi van den Heever.

The dark hide of buffaloes is tricky to expose, so shoot in RAW and set your exposure compensation to underexpose slightly. Then use post-processing to push shadows and recover highlights. A herd of buffaloes is great for one thing in particular: dust. Use a wide-angle to shoot large groups milling around at a waterhole or walking through the veld in the early morning and late afternoon. Position yourself to shoot into the sun to create a backlighting effect through the rising dust.

Best locations for photographing buffaloes

Chobe National ParkKruger National Park.


3. Leopards

A sublime shot of an elegant leopard. Photo by Ross Couper. Find more of his photos on Instagram.

These beautiful cats are nocturnal and, unless you’re very lucky, are probably going to be the last animal you tick off the list. They’re active towards dusk and dawn and favour hanging out in trees, making for stunning sunset shots. Use a wide aperture to gather as much of the dim light as you can, and set a relatively high shutter speed in preparation ‒ leopards move quickly and sightings can be brief (push your ISO up to compensate, but watch out for too much grain in the image). Switch to spot metering and set your focus on the leopard itself to avoid underexposing the image and turning the leopard into a silhouette. At night, similar settings apply and you can experiment with vehicle spotlights. As far as possible, avoid shooting with a shutter speed slower than your focal length (the reciprocal rule), as this will cause camera shake.

Best locations for photographing leopards

Sabi Sands Game Reserve, iSimangaliso Wetland ParkKgalagadi Transfrontier ParkKruger National Park.


4. Lions

Igniting the winter winds. By Marlon du Toit. Check out more of his photos on Instagram.

Lions are charismatic subjects, whether in profile, interacting with their prides or staring directly at you. Dusk is the best time for action ‒ during the day you’re likely to find them snoozing in the shade, hidden by grass and bush. Use a wide-angle lens (focal length of 50mm and wider) to catch them moving about, or a telephoto lens (focal length longer than 200mm) to capture interactions. If a lion is looking at you, shoot from eye level to maximise the connection of its stare. To further emphasise it, open your aperture to f/4 or wider to blur the background.

Also read: The experts’ guide to spotting big cat in South Africa.

Best locations for photographing lions

Kgalagadi Transfrontier ParkKruger National Park, Okavango Delta.


5. Rhinos

Rhino are a common sighting in Khama Rhino Sanctuary, where they are fiercely protected by the Botswana Defence Force. Photo by Melanie van Zyl.

Rhinos are wonderful, bulky creatures so give them context by including their environment in the shot. Be sure to add space in your frame for the rhino to ‘move into’. This will provide visual relief and balance your composition. Rhinos have limited eyesight (but excellent hearing), making them good animals to approach downwind and photograph on foot ‒ only with a trained guide, of course. If your DSLR has it, select ‘Silent’ single-frame mode over high-speed ‘Burst’ mode for less disturbance, and if you’re using a point-and-shoot or a smartphone, silence all sound effects.


Tip: Hire – don’t buy

The only thing longer than a telephoto lens is its price tag. Before (or instead of) buying a long lens, consider hiring first. Africa Photographic Services and Foto Rental offer competitive rates for hiring ‒ you can pick up a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L from R240 per day (depending on the length of rental).


This story first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Getaway magazine.

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