Experiences | Feb 2022

SAFARI PHOTOGRAPHY 101

Marcus Westberg, Conservation and travel photographer and writer

It is almost impossible to imagine the safari experience without accompanying photos and videos – digital cameras, smartphones and social media have seen to that. At the same time, given the mind-numbing volume of images out there, even a beginner is unlikely to be satisfied with what would have passed as a perfectly good photo just a few decades ago. So, why do some photos turn out great while others seem to lack a certain something?

There are hundreds of reasons, of course, and what applies to one image does not necessarily apply to another. Still, there are rules or guidelines to bear in mind, while also remembering that even the best of these are there to be broken – often with wonderful results.

Most importantly, we should not forget that places like Tswalu exist to provide a safe habitat for the wildlife we come to see, and that no image is worth disturbing or crowding an animal or the people experiencing these wonderful encounters alongside us.

Lion antics at Tswalu. 376mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO250;

WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT

It begins with your equipment. Whether you arrive at Tswalu armed with a smartphone or with a $6000 mirrorless camera and a 600mm prime lens, you can undoubtedly leave with some great shots. But they won’t be the same shots. If you are travelling with an iPhone, taking close-ups of lions or birds is going to be a challenge. My advice: don’t try. Play to your camera’s strengths. If zooming in is not an option, try photographing animals as part of the landscape they inhabit instead – Tswalu is ideal for this.

Working with what you’ve got also applies to the subjects you choose. We tend to – understandably – want iconic photos of iconic species, potentially ignoring equally great images of less immediately eye-catching subjects. From flowers and footprints to meerkats and butterflies, Tswalu is a great place to get off the vehicle and compose your images more creatively. If the light and location are in your favour, make use of them – even if your subject is a warthog, rather than a rhino.

Not just animal photos: guides in action are also an important part of the story. 24mm, f/6.3, 1/1250, ISO250.

AUDIENCE AND STORYTELLING

Even if you only intend to share your images with friends and family, learning how to create a collection of images that tells a coherent story is helpful – for you and for them. Though you may need to rework your ideas many times over, thinking of photography in terms of visual storytelling is a great way to develop your skills and critical eye.

Think about your intended audience, what they are likely to be interested in and what is the story you are trying to tell? This is especially important if you want to publish your images. It’s good to have a storyline or theme connecting your images.

Sometimes you can’t avoid distracting foreground objects – if so, see if they can be used to enhance the photograph. 600mm, f/4, 1/500s, ISO800.

COMPOSING YOUR IMAGE

The great thing about spectacular wildlife sightings is that they make fantastic photographic subjects. The downside? Captivated by that splendour, we may forget that there is more to a photograph than the subject. The rest of the image is often where much of the story is contained. Is the background distracting, or can it be used to enhance the overall effect? What about the foreground? Where in the frame do you want your subject? Think about what to include in the frame, and what to leave out – both are equally important.

Off-centre: shifting the photo’s main subject – the meerkat’s face – towards the top right corner creates better balance in the image, and the plants in the background are just sharp enough to help tell us something about the meerkat’s habitat. 840mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO1600.

Though there are exceptions to every rule, a good starting point is to avoid placing your subject dead centre or at the very edge of the frame. The same goes for the horizon in landscape photography. The famous ‘rule of thirds’, placing your subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two thirds with breathing space, is always handy to keep in mind. Overall, composition is about keeping the bigger picture in mind, both aesthetically and in terms of narrative.

Getting creative and playing around with light – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s usually worth a try. 70mm, f/8, 1/250s, ISO200.

WORKING WITH LIGHT

Understanding light is central to taking good photographs. Golden hour is magical, and I would highly recommend being camera ready before the crack of dawn and skipping those sundowners. On a four-day safari, you won’t always find your favourite subjects in ideal settings and light. That’s why learning to make do in less favourable light conditions matters just as much. The more experience I’ve gained, the less I worry about ‘bad light’.

For example, harsh midday light is not great for landscape photography – contrasts are strong, colours faded – and heat haze can make faraway subjects appear blurry. Portraits or detail shots taken in the shade, however, generally work well. You can also try converting to black and white. Don’t be afraid to get creative; you won’t know if something works until you try.

Enjoying the moment: some experiences are best appreciated without a phone or camera. 70mm, f/5, 1/2000, ISO160.

BEING PRESENT

In the last decade or so, angst-ridden millennial concepts such as YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) have become synonymous with a need to document absolutely everything we see and do. But not photographing or filming something is not the same as missing out, and it is perfectly possible to enjoy an experience without having a selfie to prove it happened. Anyone coming face to face with a meerkat, or able to watch lion cubs play next to the vehicle, is incredibly fortunate. Don’t experience it entirely through the screen of a phone.

Five minutes before sunset: the perfect time to photograph against the sun. 840mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO640.

QUICK (TECHNICAL) TIPS:

If your subject is moving, or has its head turned to one side, try to ensure that it is facing into (rather than out of) the frame.

To isolate your subject against the background, go low; to include more of the landscape, stay high.

Photographing directly into the light – against the sun – generally works best just after sunrise and just before sunset.

To tell a visual story, try to capture images from a variety of perspectives: overviews and landscapes, details and close-ups, portraits and action shots.

Talk to your guide and tracker about what you want to photograph. Their knowledge and experience of Tswalu’s wildlife and habitat are incredible assets, and many of them are skilled photographers.

Top Left: Action, symmetry, and balance help make this an interesting image. 840mm, f/8, 1/2000s, ISO800. Top Right: Buffaloes coming down for a drink. Sometimes having two subjects helps create balance in the image. 840mm, f/6.3, 1/1250s, ISO400. Bottom: Flower close-up during a morning game drive. Once again, the image has been composed largely according to the rule of thirds. 90mm, f/8, 1/200s, ISO800.

Marcus Westberg is an internationally acclaimed conservation and travel photographer and writer. You can read our interview with him here and follow him on Instagram

All images by Marcus Westberg.

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