There are a few ways to learn nature photography skills such as reading general wildlife photography books or reading interviews of wildlife photographers but the specific ways are the most effective. Here we focus on the three most important specific ways for you to quickly improve the standard of photographs you capture when on an Africa safari.
We stress ‘specific’, as we have seen people going on an African safari and being disappointed that they could not find a leopard even though they are skilled at photographing bears in Yellowstone, for example. Each continent has different animals with different habits and habitats that we must learn about before we can expect to capture great images of them.
This even applies from park to park in Africa – just because a photographer can successfully find and photograph the big-five animals in the Serengeti or Etosha does not mean they can just arrive in the Kruger Park, Pilanesberg or Kgalagadi and be photographing with the same results from day one. They need to first do some homework.
So here are the three ways that we have found helped us the most to improve our wildlife photography in the shortest period of time…
1. Read your Camera Manual!
Learning how to improve your wildlife photography begins with reading your camera manual – we cannot stress this enough! You may think this point is so obvious but we had a lady come up to us in Etosha just as a leopard had arrived at the Halali waterhole and she asked us to show her how to use her camera!
When you purchase your new camera you get a manual plus a quick start guide. Please read the quick-start guide and then don’t read your camera manual from cover to cover as it’s not a novel! The manual has a lot of information so what you need to do is break the information down into bite-size chunks.
And just because you own an old Nikon or Canon camera doesn’t mean that the new camera operates the same way! Each model can have different buttons in different places with different functions!
Skip the manual sections you already know then read what you need to know immediately and the rest you can read when you need to. You therefore should take your manuals with you – if you have a problem while on safari and you don’t have your manual how will you resolve it?
If you are like us you will have a large pile of manuals, for the different camera bodies, lenses, flashes and other accessories! This can take up a lot of space so rather download the manuals as PDFs to your laptop and take your laptop with. Go to a search-engine and type in “manual download PDF” with your make and model, and you will get a whole host of sites for you to choose from.
2. Understand the Basics of Photography
You should know how to obtain correct exposures by setting your camera’s ISO, aperture and shutter speed. These three elements work together to produce a well-exposed photograph.
In addition you should understand where to place your subject in the frame before capturing the image – this is known as composition.
And lastly you should know a bit about light and its direction. Front, side and backlight all produce very different effects on your photographs so you need to understand this and then where you should position yourself when photographing your subjects to make the most of the light direction.
This information is freely available on the internet or in general photography books.
3. Learn some Animal Behaviors Specific to the Park you will be Visiting
Invest some time researching the behaviors of the animals that you want to photograph or that you know are in the parks you will be visiting. The aim is so that you can learn some basic the behavior signals that lead to interesting behavior.
For example, a lion sticks out its tongue just before yawning, every giraffe, when it has finished drinking, raises its head very fast by flicking it up with the resulting spray of water making most appealing photographs and when herbivores have stiff posture or all stare in one direction, there may be a predator nearby.
The goal is for you to be able to anticipate what the animal is going to do when and then you need the endurance to be able to wait patiently for the right moment to start shooting.
A good place to start would be books like Richard Estes’ The Behavior Guide to African Mammals or The Safari Companion.
4. Go on Photo Workshops
The next stage of improving your wildlife Photography would be to go on a photo workshop or photo tour in the national park that you are passionate about and that you intend visiting a few more times. These photo tours are offered by many professional wildlife photographers who live in Africa or who visit Africa on a regular basis. A 10-day African safari photo tour will provide you with a very steep learning curve where you will learn so much in such a very short space of time.
These workshops can, however, be expensive, from between US$3 000,00 to over US$12 000,00 per person, depending on the duration and the destination. These prices exclude flights, tips and drinks.
If you have this type of money go for it – you cannot beat hands-on wildlife photography tuition, especially with a professional safari outfit who understands animals and understands photography.
Most of the quality tours limit the number of photographers to just 3 or 4 per vehicle so that you can shoot from either side or from the sunroof, while the cheaper tours will cram people into the vehicles like sardines.
5. Invest in Photography ‘Site Guides’ or ‘Park Guides’
If a photo workshop is too expensive for you or your schedule doesn’t allow you to attend then the next best thing is a dedicated photo site guide / park guide.
What tends to happen is that you arrive at a new destination and then you waste several days getting to learn the animal hotspots and by then it’s time to move on to the next camp or go home. Keep in mind that finding the animals is half the battle won.
Think of a tennis match – if you can hold your serve you are halfway to victory. It’s the same with wildlife photography – if you cannot find the animals you have nothing to photograph! Once you find the animal all you need do is implement what you have learnt in terms of light direction, exposure, composition and animal behavior to get a great photograph.
Site guides, specific to each park, will prepare you so that with a bit of study you will be able to photograph from when you arrive. Included in the site guides are shooting strategies for different areas & camps, specific times of day, light direction where to go when, expected subjects, and knowing what equipment & techniques will be most effective.
The site guides can be printed out or downloaded onto your laptop or Kindle so that you can refer to them while in the parks.
Most site guides cost between US$20,00 and US$50,00 – a very small price to pay for the specific and detailed information you get! Arthur Morris is the world’s premier bird photographer and he sells site guides for all his favorite bird spots. He has sold thousands of site guides to smart photographers who understand their value in terms of effective and affordable wildlife photography tuition.
But yes, there are people who refuse to pay the small price for a site guide – they will spend thousands of dollars on camera gear, travel and accommodation in the parks but they are reluctant to spend a few dollars on such valuable information. Arthur calls it ‘Site Guide Resistance’.
These people usually end up wasting a week’s salary on their safari and return home with regret as they missed so many photo opportunities, that they could have captured if they had purchased the site guide. Any purchase demands a return on investment (ROI) and the ROI on an African photo safari is the photographs you return home with.
In summary, there are options open to you in terms of obtaining the most relevant wildlife photography tuition to suit your budget and circumstances but your preparation must start at home – you cannot expect to come on an African safari not knowing how to use your photo gear, not knowing a bit about animal behavior and not understanding the basics of composition, exposure, and different lighting situations.
The key is to start with these basics and then decide whether going on a photo workshop or buying a park guide would be the most appropriate option for you.