The Photographer’s Guide To Shooting The Big Five Animals on an African Safari

Experiencing Africa’s big five animals up close in the wild is thrilling. Any aspiring wildlife photographer on a safari, serious or amateur, wishes to capture their top wildlife photo, and the thrill is pursuing this goal.

Warning! The Big Five are deadly predators and dangerous beasts. When confronted with such animals in the bush, adrenaline may kick in.

Remain focused and keep on shooting. 

Booking Your African Safari Trip And Packing The Photo Gear

You must book a trip to lay the foundation for your photo safari. You’ll want to consider three things: when to go, how long you should stay and what company or outfitter to use.

When is the best time to go?

The best time of year varies depending on the region of Africa you’re travelling in and what animal sightings are most important to you. The sheer size of the continent makes it difficult to make generalisations about peak viewing times.

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However, most travellers agree that late spring and early summer are ideal for wildlife viewing because they coincide with the calving season when many babies (and their mothers) are visible in the open.

on a safari vehicle in Africa
On an African safari. Photo by Rachel Claire on

Both summer and winter may be considered suitable visiting seasons for wildlife photography. Winter is when the grasses are shorter, making it easier to spot the big five.

As you plan your safari adventure, consider the photographic equipment you’ll need to capture the Big Five on camera. You will be in the vehicle for several hours, so bring extra batteries for your camera and many memory cards.

Cameras For Wildlife Photography

Various cameras suit wildlife photography, but those aligned with action shots, such as APS-C frames, can be the best. APS-C frame allows for a 1.5X magnification of the image. Any decent entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera, regardless of sensor size, can do the job. 

Nikon DSLR camera D500
A Nikon D500 camera body. Photo by Nikon.

Major photography brands like Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony all have various mirrorless and DSLR options.

Lenses For Wildlife Photography

Telephoto zoom lenses are the natural selection for wildlife photography. Don’t rule out something wide, though. A 24-70mm is helpful for potential close-ups of wildlife.

Nikon DSLR camera with telephoto lens
An example of a telephoto lens is typically used by professional wildlife photographers. Photo by Nikon.

The ideal setup is to have two cameras, one 24-70mm and one with a zoom or telephoto 400mm above. With two cameras, you can be best prepared for any situation.

Lenses with stability control and autofocus are most popular with wildlife photographers.

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Accessories For Wildlife Photography

A tripod or monopod will help if you use a large lens that needs more stability. Another helpful alternative is a bean bag for wildlife photography. With a bean bag, a photographer can place the lens body upon the side of the vehicle or some other appropriate resting point. You may consider waterproof covers if you are travelling in the rainy season.

A good quality camera bag is recommended.

The Day of The Big Five Safari

  • Get the photography gear ready the night before to be sure you are well prepared.
  • Get up early to shoot in the first light when the big five are active.
  • Keep your wits about you and your camera at hand, ready to release the shutter.
The Big 5 animals of Africa
The Big Five Animals by

A photographer can consult the “big five sightings noticeboards” at the camps on the safari day. Don’t forget some essentials such as water, food or snacks, suntan lotion, a rain jacket, and a cap or safari hat.

Shooting Tips For Each Big Five Animal 

You must try to get close to your subject to capture the most engaging image of animals. Be careful when approaching a large animal like an elephant or rhino. Make sure your guide is with you and doesn’t approach too quickly. You may frighten the animal away. 

You can also judge their comfort level by watching their ears and eyes; if they’re calm and alert but not tense or aggressive, it’s a sign that you’re okay to continue moving forward slowly with caution.

The Leopard

Leopards are hard to spot because they move stealthily through the bush or hide in the trees above. I use a 500mm f/4, but you need to get close to the animal (or lucky) to get a top shot of a Leopard.

A Leopard walks stealthily among the thick grass of the bushveld in Tmbavavati Private Reserve, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.
A Leopard walks stealthily among the thick grass of the bushveld in Tmbavavati Private Reserve, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.

For big cats on the move, use a fast shutter speed, like 1/1000 second or faster—it will still catch them in motion (with reduced motion blur) and freeze the background details.

The African Elephant

Although some areas show signs of poaching, Africa’s largest land animal is still quite common. Try to capture elephants at eye level and in their natural environment. The best time to shoot them is when the sun is low during the morning and evening. 

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A male Elephant eats grass in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.
A male Elephant eats grass in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.

Capture their size by incorporating the landscape (a mountain or a tree) in your composition.

The Buffalo

Buffalo is particularly dangerous and unpredictable, so you must remain alert when in the presence of Buffalo.

A Buffalo in the Hluhluwe National Reserve, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.
A Buffalo in the Hluhluwe National Reserve, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.

Their mammoth horns make for captivating imagery. Try portrait shots of these majestic beasts that incorporate the face and horns together or as a close-up abstract.

The Rhino

The rhino is the most dangerous of the big five game animals to photograph because although it is huge and sturdy, it has poor eyesight.

A large Rhino moving peacefully in Cape Vidal, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.
A large Rhino peacefully grazing in Cape Vidal, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.

Rhinos can charge without warning at what it perceives as a threat—and often at you! A rhino can run up to 40 miles per hour, seemingly indiscriminately delivering formidable blows with its horn.

Any photo of a Rhino is precious these days due to their declining number at the hands of indiscriminate poachers and hunters, so if you are lucky enough to get a sighting, let that shutter release fire.

The Lion

The Lion is also commonly known as the king of the jungle. The powerful predator can make for a great photographic subject with its regal mane and prowl. When photographing lions, using a zoom lens to get good shots without spooking them or putting yourself at risk is essential.

Always be wary of getting too close to any Lion.

A male Lion wakes from his slumber under the tree in the heat of the day in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.
A male Lion makes his way through the thick bush in the heat of the day in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Crowpix Media.

The best time to see lions is first thing in the morning when they are more active than any other day. It would be best if you also were sure to search for them on shady Savannah and plains, where they like to rest in the heat of midday before continuing with their hunts after sundown.

Good Wildlife Photography Tips 

Light Makes All The Difference

One of the biggest challenges in taking photos outdoors is lighting. You’re trying to catch a scene as it’s transitioning from bright to dark and then back again.

Your camera isn’t going to give you that exact result every time—there will be times when you’ll get an incredible shot in the sun, but others where you’ll be lucky to get a good one at all—it’s vital that you know how to achieve the best possible results with your gear at hand. 

Modes And Shutter Speeds

You will aim to use the fastest shutter speed possible with the ambient light available. Often between the 1/500 to 1/2000 range. Learning to shoot in manual mode is always recommended as the first choice.

Simplify The Background

A cluttered or distracting background can ruin a wildlife photo. Try to position your subject in front of a plain background and keep the sun behind you, so it doesn’t create shadows on your subject. 

On Safari in the African bush

Always Be Alert in The Bush

Remain alert and attentive to the surroundings when in the bush. Big Five animals tend to appear out of nowhere. The more you know about the wildlife, the better your chances of getting that outstanding shot.

In Conclusion

Know what your camera can do. Before venturing into the field, try different settings on a subject that won’t run away—a flower or a landscape works well. Then practice on slower-moving creatures until you are ready for the thrill of the big five photographic hunts.

Most of all, be present and enjoy the experience no matter what animals you are lucky to spot on the day.

Good luck on your safari adventure.

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