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. 

The Basics Part 1: Booking Your African Safari Trip

To lay the foundation for your photo safari, you’ll first need to book a trip. 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 traveling in and what animal sightings are most important to you. The sheer size of the continent makes it difficult to make generalizations about peak viewing times. However, most travelers agree that late spring and early summer are ideal for wildlife viewing because they coincide with the calving season when large numbers of babies (and therefore their mothers) are visible in the open. The calving season also means that predators are more visible as they hunt baby animals and mothers alike. 

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. Summer may be the best time due to the longer daylight hours and pleasant weather conditions.

On an African safari. Photo by Rachel Claire on

The Basics Part 2: Packing The Photo Gear

As you plan your safari adventure, think about the photographic equipment you’ll need to capture the Big Five on camera. The type and size of camera equipment you select may be determined by many factors, such as how much weight you can carry, what kinds of shots you want to get, and whether you will be going on foot through the reserve. 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 are suitable for 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. The APS-C frame essentially zooms 400mm to 600mm because of the 1.5 magnification effect. DSLRs and mirrorless systems can work equally well for wildlife photography. Any decent entry-level DSLR or mirrorless camera can do the job, regardless of sensor size. You will need the ability to attach telephoto lenses to the camera body and have the function of continuous shooting mode, preferably in RAW format. 

Major photography brands like Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony all have a variety of mirrorless and DSLR options one can consider. Do your homework if you are in the market for buying a new camera for wildlife photography purposes.

A Nikon D500 camera body. Photo by Nikon.

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 useful for potential close-ups of wildlife. The big five tend to appear out of nowhere, and you can easily land up too close for comfort, so be prepared for that event. 

The ideal setup is having two cameras, one with 24-70mm and one with a zoom or telephoto 400mm and above. With two cameras you can be best prepared for any situation that may arise. Lenses with stability control and autofocus are most popular with wildlife photographers.

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

Accessories For Wildlife Photography

A tripod or monopod will help if you’re using 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 traveling 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 so that you can be shooting 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.

A photographer can consult the “big five sightings noticeboards” at the camps on the day of the safari. Plan your day around your shot list: if you want to get a particular animal or behavior, make sure you are present at the right time of day.

Don’t forget some essentials such as water, food or snacks, suntan lotion, a rain jacket, and a cap or safari hat. You will be in a vehicle for a few hours before stopping for refreshments or toilet breaks.

The Big Five animals by

Shooting Tips For Each Big Five Animal 

To capture the most engaging image of animals, you must try to get close to your subject. Be careful when approaching a large animal like an elephant or rhino. Make sure your guide is with you and don’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. Remember, if wild animals sense your fear, they may attack or charge; although it is rare, it does happen.

The Leopard

Leopards are notoriously hard to spot because they move stealthily through the bush or hide in the trees above. Spotting a Leopard with a telephoto lens is much more manageable but learn to keep scanning the environment simultaneously. 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.

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. Use a high ISO for safety—I usually start at 400 for animals moving around and then adjust depending on the amount of motion blur and noise.

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.

The African Elephant

Africa’s largest land animal is still quite common though there are signs of poaching in some areas. Try to capture elephants at eye level and in their natural environment. Although it is a large wild animal, you can get close enough to an elephant to get good photos. The best time to shoot them is when the sun is low during the morning and evening. 

Capture their size by incorporating the landscape (a mountain or a tree) in your composition. Zoom in close to capture the interesting lines and details along the Elephant’s skin, and, of course, the big tusks of the older patriarchal Elephants are always impressive.

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.

The Buffalo

Buffalo is particularly dangerous and unpredictable, so you will need to remain alert when in the presence of Buffalo. Be careful that they don’t charge, and be cautious of your surroundings as well—Buffalo often travel in herds that number in the hundreds, but predators like lions or hyenas sometimes accompany them. Their mammoth horns make for captivating imagery. Try some portrait shots of these majestic beasts that incorporate the face and horns together or as a close-up abstract.

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.

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. Their vision is terrible, but they have a fantastic sense of smell and hearing—so your best bet is to use those senses against them. 

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, delivering formidable blows with its horn seemingly indiscriminately. 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.

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.

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 powerful prowl. When photographing lions, it’s essential to use a zoom lens to get good shots without spooking them or putting yourself at risk. Always be wary of getting too close to any Lion.

The best time to see lions is first thing in the morning when they are more active than any other day. Try making your approach from behind some brush, or stay near your car as you snap pictures—you don’t want to disturb the lions while they’re resting in their natural habitat. 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.

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.

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. The most common rule of thumb is to take pictures outside during the golden hour, before sunset, or after sunrise. Since 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. You will need to consider your exposure triangle (aperture, ISO, and shutter speed), especially for handheld shooting, and determine the best mode, such as shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual mode. 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. 

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. It is advisable to learn all you can about the habits of the animals you may encounter on your safari. 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. Practice changing between modes with ease so that when a subject is in front of you, you can capture their action precisely as hoped for. 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 enough to spot on the day. Good luck on your safari adventure.

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