One of my more memorable afternoon game drives of the last few weeks involved hardly any driving and instead a lot of lying down on my stomach. I was with some very enthusiastic photographic guests who were really keen to get some unique angles, so we decided to spend the entire afternoon at the Causeway that crosses the Sand River just downstream from the lodges.

The Causeway is a popular spot on the reserve as it serves as one of three main points on the river at which we can cross into the northern parts of Londolozi. The difference between this crossing point and the others is the fact that it’s the only place where a low level concrete bridge has been built, which makes it possible to cross even when the water levels are relatively high. This concrete bridge was crucial to us because we would make use of it as our photographic platform for the afternoon. The water level in the Sand River is quite low at the moment which means that the river is not even flowing over the concrete, and that was how we were able to find a safe, dry spot near one of the prominent hippo pools to get out the car and lie down on the ground to get eye-level with our subjects.

Ranger Kevin Power crosses the Causeway with his guests a few months ago. Here you can see the water is flowing over the concrete whereas at the moment there is no water flowing over it. We used that point where the vehicle is in this photo to photograph hippos in the pool off to the right of the frame. Photograph by James Tyrrell

I had to add in one of my favourite Causeway photos which shows Amy Attenborough rushing to cross to the other side in order to turn around and film the Tsalala Pride, which you can see in the background, before they took their turn to cross. Photograph by James Tyrrell

Getting eye-level with your photographic subject is an important technique that can make a big difference to your photography. With wildlife photography it’s not always possible or safe to get out the vehicle and lie down on the ground but there are other ways to achieve the same effect. You can move further away from your subject and use a telephoto lens or by carefully choosing where you position the vehicle can sometimes work as well if the animal is on a raised surface like a termite mound or tree.

The Causeway offered the perfect place because we could get level with the middle of the hippo pool and lie safely on the concrete, away from the waters edge and right next to the vehicle. We soon noticed a big change to our photos from earlier ones we had taken in that trip. The impact that you see when getting eye-level is partly because it helps separate your subject from the background in the picture, whereas shooting from a higher point of view can make your photo come out a little flat. There is also a stronger connection with your subject when shooting them at eye-level because you feel more a part of their world being on the same level as them instead of an outside observer.

You can see how the main hippo in this photo stands out from the background because I was able to separate it from the from the water by getting low. If I were shooting from a higher angle, the water would make up most of the background and the subject wouldn’t ‘pop’ as much as it does.  1/400 at f/5,6; ISO 125

Late afternoon sees hippos getting a bit more active in the water, and with the right amount of patience you may see them opening their mouths wide like this and showing off their impressive teeth. Often misinterpreted as a yawn this is actually usually a show of bravado, highlighting how big their modified incisors are and how potential rivals should be wary. This individual is still young and is probably displaying more in practice than anything else. 1/500 at f/5,6; ISO 125

During the heat of the day this is usually the only view of a hippo one may get as they minimize the amount of their body surface exposed to the sun by staying submerged with just their eyes, ears and nostrils poking out. 1/400 at f/4,0; ISO 2000

What started out as a mission to photograph hippos soon changed as the river and the causeway was a hive of activity in the late afternoon light. Grey Herons, Black Crakes, African Jacanas, Egyptian Geese, Pied Kingfishers and a whole host of other birds ended up stealing the show as they fished, drank and bathed around us. Then as the sun began to set it was the golden backlighting that captivated us as we waited for the hippos to snort as the resulting spray of water would get brilliantly backlit.

The sun was setting behind this raft of hippos which was perfect as the golden light brilliantly illuminated the spray of water that the hippos snort up as they surface. 1/800 at f/5,6; ISO 125

This was one of my favourite photos from the afternoon as it was the first time that I had been able to capture the very long toes of the African Jacana. They use the extended length of their toes to help them walk over small amounts of vegetation on the water surface in search of food. 1/640 at f/4,5; ISO 3200

Grey Herons are a regular sighting along the river and will even sometimes perch on the back of hippos to fish. This particular heron was fishing peacefully until a rival invaded his space.  1/640 at f/4,5; ISO 3200

It was interesting to see the display by these two males as they tried to ward each other off. You can see the bright red and yellow beaks which are indicative of breeding adults. The beaks are usually a bit duller in non-breeding adults. 1/250 at f/4,0; ISO 3200

I was really pushing my camera to its limits as this photo was taken after the sun had gone down and with a very high ISO and using the panning technique I managed to capture this Pied Kingfisher just after he snatched a small fish from the water. 1/250 at f/4,0; ISO 3200

Black Crakes are usually seen darting in and out of the reeds and vegetation next to the river and other waterholes. They are usually quite shy little birds and so I was quite lucky when this one chose to fly across the water to the other side of the pool. 1/1250 at f/3,5; ISO 250

Another relatively shy bird is the nocturnal Black Crowned Night Heron which usually stays hidden during the day. They are sometimes seen fishing on the causeway after dark. This was a great example of how you can still get the eye-level effect without actually lying down as it was perched in the lower branches of a tree.  1/1250 at f/5,0; ISO 400

The whole afternoon was a stunning reminder to take time and enjoy the little things that surround us in this diverse landscape. We had such fun staying in the same place all afternoon and watching as the bush came alive around us as various animals came down to drink. Even if you are not taking photos, just taking the time to sit on the causeway and listen to the river flowing is enough to relax you and you can’t help but feel more connected to everything  the bush has to offer.

About the Author

James Souchon

Field Guide

James started his guiding career at the world-renowned Phinda Game Reserve, spending four years learning about and showing guests the wonder of the incredibly rich biodiversity that the Maputaland area of South Africa has to offer. Having always wanted to guide in the ...

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23 Comments

on Eye-Level With Hippos

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Marinda Drake

Stunning images. Love the Jacana.

James Souchon

Thanks Marinda

Dina Petridis

great shots again James !

James Souchon

Thanks Dina! So great seeing you the other day! Cant wait to see your pictures from the rest of the holiday.

Callum Evans

A brilliant post that combines photography tips, birding, the biodiversity of a riverine area and one of my favourite animals!! I wish I had more photo’s of hippos (will get some soon I hope), but your tips about eye-level photography (along with the other techniques) is something I’ve definetely been able to practise.

James Souchon

That’s great to hear Callum. The trick is to keep practicing on whatever willing subjects you can find!

Joanne Wadsworth

I must admit that laying flat on the ground to capture hippo images brings a whole new perspective, rather than looking downward toward the subject. Also I want to thank you for including your picture of the Jacana. I’ve seen them walking on top of vegetation (sometimes appears as if they are walking on water), but I’ve never seen the actual size of their feet….huge! No wonder! Thanks James for an informative article.

James Souchon

It’s such a pleasure Joanne, I am glad you enjoyed it!

Jeff Rodgers

Great post & great photos as always. What camera were you using for the Pied Kingfisher photo?

James Souchon

Hi Jeff, Thanks a lot. I was using a Canon 7D body with a fixed 300mm 2.8 prime lens.

Denise Vouri

Great article James. You are so right about changing one’s angle of shooting in order to get a better photo. It is especially true with wildlife. Wonderful bird pics!!

James Souchon

Hi Denise, It’s a fun technique to play around with especially when you have a slow moving subject like a tortoise!

Denise Vouri

I used the on the belly technique while in the Galapagos, shooting iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs and sea lions. Could really get close.

Ian Hall

That is a really good spot for photos, and if you have the patience to wait, it is a spot where the wildlife comes to.

James Souchon

Hi Ian, Patience is always key to great sightings in the bush! (A bit of luck on your side also helps!)

Lucie Easley

Very interesting read as well as wonderful photos.

James Souchon

Thanks Lucie

Wendy Hawkins

Once again stunning & all favourites especially the sun shining thru the hippo spray 🙂

James Souchon

Thanks Wendy, it’s always fun shooting with the late afteroon sun in the background as it makes for a very dream like image.

Michael & Terri Klauber

James, What great shots and how special to have the dry Causeway as your platform! You are braver than we are in getting those shots while on your belly!

James Souchon

Hi Michael and Terri, haha lucky I have Rich out there with me to keep a sharp lookout! Sounds like Safari Sarasota was a great success as usual! Looking forward to seeing more pictures of it.

Judy Hayden

Beautiful photos. The birds are just awesome. I have learned so much by all of your blogs and pictures. Thank you so much

James Souchon

Hi Judy, Glad you enjoy them!

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