The Basics of Photography on Safari

Almost everyone who has and will visit Kapama Private Game Reserve for a Big Five safari has a camera, whether it is an entry level DSLR, a smart phone, a bridge camera or a mirror-less system. Going on safari is an incredible experience and many of us want to document and remember it by taking photos. So, I decided to put together a small piece on the basics of wildlife photography for those of you who are new to the world of photography and want to leave Kapama with great memories.


Smart phones can take incredible photos these days. It all comes down to what type of photographs you are wanting to get. Luckily for us here, we often get quite close to the majority of the animals, so big lenses aren’t necessarily always required. If you are coming on safari and want to leave with memories and some photos to show your family or share on social media platforms, then a bridge camera or smart phone could be efficient. If you are looking to print photos of your trip or what to take your experience a step further, then a DSLR with a mid-length telephoto lens like a 70-300mm might suit you a little better.


Composition refers to the placement of elements in your picture. Basically, how the scene fits into your shot. Composition is one of the greatest tools in photography and it doesn’t matter what camera you are using. There are a few rules or guidelines referring to composition. The most well-known one being ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ This refers to placing elements off-center. On safari this would include things like your animal/bird, the horizon and the sun. This helps your image to tell a story. In the example on the left, having the horizon just below the center of the frame and keeping the tree and sun to the right helps make the photo. In the example on the right, the lion has negative space on his left allowing you to show him off in his environment in an aesthetically pleasing way.


The Exposure Triangle
Whether you shoot in automatic or one of the other modes in your camera, it is important to understand ‘Exposure.’ Basically, exposure is how bright or dark your image is and is controlled by three things, namely: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. So, let’s start by looking at the definitions of the above.

Aperture or f-stop refers to the size of the opening where light comes into the lens. The larger the hole, the larger the aperture and the smaller the number eg: f/2.8. The smaller the hole, the smaller the aperture and the bigger the number eg: f/18. So, the larger the hole, the more light will come in and the brighter your image will be. Aperture is also a huge tool in photography as it determines your depth of field (what is in focus and what isn’t). The bigger the aperture is, the shallower your depth of field. And vice versa. The example on the left was shot at f/5.6 and as you can see, the chameleon is in focus, but his background is blurred. On the right, I used an aperture of f/11 to get more of the pride in focus.


Shutter Speed refers to how long your shutter stays open and is measured in seconds or fraction of a second. For example, a fast shutter speed would be something like 1/2000sec and a slow shutter would be 1/30sec. The faster your shutter speed, the quicker your shutter will open and close causing a darker image. Fast shutter speeds help you freeze action like a bird in flight and slow shutter speeds help you show motion within a picture, such as a river flowing or an animal running. On the left, I used a slow shutter speed of 1/30sec while following the waterbuck to keep its head in focus but show the movement of him running. On the right, a fast shutter speed of 1/8000sec was used to freeze the White – backed Vulture in flight.




ISO refers to how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Low ISO values like 200 are used when there is sufficient light and allows for a clearer or sharper image. Where high ISO values like 3200 are used when light is low and can sometimes cause your image to turn out noisy (grainy) in some cameras. Higher ISO values will make your camera more sensitive to light and will allow for a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture to achieve your exposure in lower light. In this example I pushed my ISO to an extremely high value of 20 000 to achieve this photo at 7pm at night. As you can see it caused the image to be quite noisy, however, it did allow me to get the shot.




These three things work together in proportional relationships to equal a chosen exposure. When cameras are on full automatic, the camera will decide what exposure best suits the given frame and chooses the appropriate aperture, shutter speed and ISO values to achieve that. If you move off automatic to Aperture Priority (A or Av), then you get to decide on an aperture value and your camera will change the shutter speed and ISO values, within their ratios, to suit your aperture. This works the same if you move over to shutter priority (S or Tv). You will now be able to decide on a shutter speed and your camera will adjust the rest to suit your shutter speed. Within all these modes you can also adjust your ISO values by simply taking it off Auto ISO in your settings. You can also use the full manual setting where you can change all the above independently. In this mode, getting the exposure correct is completely up to you.

Breaking the Rules

At the end of the day photography is an art so don’t be afraid to get creative and break the “rules.” Do what makes you happy and don’t worry what other people think. And remember to have fun! On the left, the photo is clearly “over-exposed” but it was intentional to enhance the contrast between the elephants and the horizon. On the right I used a technique called ‘radial blur’ to create an interesting effect. Can you tell what animal I photographed?


If you have any questions while out on safari on Kapama, don’t hesitate to ask your guide who will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Don’t forget – have fun and create those lasting memories!


Story by and photos by Southern Camp Ranger Mike Brown

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