The Londolozi blog is generally used as a showcase for the wonderful images and videos that some of our rangers manage to capture whilst out in the bush.
However, ask any of the rangers – at Londolozi or elsewhere – that are consistently taking great shots, and they will tell you that it is because of the thousand shots that they missed that they have now learnt the lessons that can put them in the right place at the right time, with the right settings on their cameras to capture that unique photograph.
I regularly make mistakes while taking photos, but here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt, some of them obvious, but nonetheless, things to watch out for;
1. Don’t forget your camera!
Photography 101, it would seem, but if you don’t have the camera there, how are you going to take the shot? Late one morning we were rushing out to see some lions as my guest had yet to see these magnificent cats, and he had a flight to catch. The reports were that that the lions were sleeping in long grass, and figuring that photographic opportunities were going to be lacking, I thought I wouldn’t need my camera. 10 minutes after arriving at the lions (fast asleep with no photographic opportunity), the rasping call of a leopard nearby had us driving into a thick block to try and find the animal. 10 minutes after this, we had an enormous male leopard that we almost never see mating with a completely unknown female, on top of a grass-free termite mound, at eye-level, less than 8 metres from the vehicle. And I had no camera. I could have wept.
This is the only image I managed to capture that morning:
So no matter what the conditions, rain, harsh light or blackest night, you never know what opportunities are going to present themselves. Have the camera with you!
2. Don’t cut off the tail
Or the wing, or the hoof, or the ear…. Unless you are going for a portrait or an abstract shot, images generally work far better if all parts of the animal you are trying to photograph are in the frame. Long things like a leopard’s tail dangling off a branch, the tip of an elephant’s trunk or the horns of a kudu are some obvious ones to watch out for. Cutting off these bits, even if only a tiny part of them, leads your eye to the edge of the frame and detracts greatly from the image.
3. Change your settings back from the night before.
With digital photography advancing at a rapid rate, modern cameras are able to compensate for changing conditions in order to keep producing results. Higher ISO levels in particular, can render cameras able to produce sharper images in much lower light than in years past. The problem with a high ISO (a measure of the sensitivity to light of the camera’s sensor) is that it produces what is known as ‘noise’, and can result in a grainy image. Brighter conditions ie. daylight, mean more light, lower ISO and a clearer image.
The problem can arise when heading out for drive in the morning, just as the light is improving, and still having your camera on the same settings from the night before. I try and make it a rule now to set up my camera in the parking area before leaving camp, but I do forget from time to time. This means that if we find a leopard early on with golden dawn light on it, the camera is still on the settings for low light, or even spot-lit conditions from the night before.
Try to make it a rule to check your camera settings before leaving camp.
4. Cut the Grass
Vegetation in front of your subject matter very rarely works. If you are trying to highlight the camouflage of an animal then a vegetated foreground can be great, but even the smallest leaf or blade of grass can spoil an otherwise great image, particularly a portrait shot.
5. Shoot at eye-level whenever possible
I’m sure this has been mentioned before on the blog, but eye-level shots can dramatically enhance the impact of a photograph.
Take a look at these two photographs of the same leopard, the Nyelethi 4:3 young male, one taken at eye-level and one taken from above as he approaches the vehicle (the photos were from different sightings). The eye-level shot is far more effective in drawing you into the photo.
The walking shot brings me to my next point, which is
6. Be aware of the vehicle
As animals move around the vehicles, the tendency will be to follow them with your camera, eye on the viewfinder, waiting for the best shot. Be aware of things like the aerial (which the ranger or tracker will often bring down in a sighting), the tracker’s seat, and even your fellow guests, as you don’t want to inadvertently catch even the smallest part of them in your frame.
The leopard photo above is not a particularly good one in any case, but if I had wanted to crop the bullbar out (the blurry black bit in the bottom left of the frame), I wouldn’t have been able to do so without cropping out some of the leopard.
So there you have it. Some very basic tips, all of which I’ve learnt the hard way.
By being aware of just a few things when it comes to wildlife photography, you can convert what would have been mediocre images to great ones.
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell