How to Photograph Asian Elephants
Asiatic elephants, also known as Asian elephants or Indian elephants, are among the most fascinating mammals found on this planet and are great animals to photograph.
These gentle giants are majestic creatures, with their long trunks, curved tusks, and massive bodies.
Capturing the beauty of these magnificent animals on camera can be a truly exhilarating experience, but photographing Asian elephants can also be a challenge.
With the right techniques and a little bit of patience, we can take stunning photos that truly capture the essence of these incredible creatures.
Asian elephant facts
Asiatic elephants are the largest land animals in Asia. Their distinctive physical features, such as large ears, long trunks, and wrinkled skin, make them visually interesting and appealing to capture in photographs.
Asiatic elephants exhibit many fascinating behaviors that make for great photo opportunities. They use their trunks to pick up food, spray water, and communicate with one another.
They also engage in social behaviors like play, grooming, and caring for their young, which can make for touching and emotional photographs.
Asiatic elephants are deeply ingrained in many Asian cultures and have been celebrated for centuries.
But their population has faced a significant decline in recent years, and they are now classified as an endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching, and human-elephant conflicts.
Photographs of these animals can help raise awareness about their plight and promote conservation efforts.
Read more: 12 Ways to Evoke Emotion in Your Wildlife Photos
Where do Asian elephants live
Asiatic elephants are mainly found in the jungles of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. With over 28,000 of them, India has the highest population of wild Asian elephants and offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife photographers.
They live in a wide range of habitats, from dense rainforests to open grasslands.
National parks such as Nagarahole (Kabini) and Jim Corbett are the best places to go in India. They both offer spectacular photo opportunities to showcase this unique animal in a stunning natural habitat.
Big bulls with massive tusks are easy to find in the jungles of Nagarahole. Every year in the summer, thousands of elephants congregate in the backwaters of Kabini, as there is an abundance of fresh grass and water.
Boat safaris during summer are a unique experience that Kabini offers to see the wild Asiatic elephants.
As elephants are highly sensitive animals, it is advised to take a good guide who understands the behavior of wild elephants and knows how to handle them on safaris to ensure a safe and memorable experience.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
Asian elephant behavior
Asiatic elephants are highly intelligent and social animals with complex behaviors. They live in matriarchal societies, with females leading family groups called herds. These herds are made up of related females and their offspring.
Male elephants, on the other hand, leave the herd when they reach puberty and live solitarily. Unlike African elephants, only male Asiatic elephants have tusks.
Once a year, male elephants experience a surge in testosterone levels, which makes them highly aggressive and unpredictable. This phase is called ‘musth’.
Female elephants have a gestation period of approximately 22 months, which is the longest of any land animal. They typically give birth to a single calf, which is taken care of by the entire herd.
Calves stay with their mothers for several years before becoming independent.
Elephants feed on grasses, leaves, and other vegetation for up to 16 hours each day. An elephant typically consumes 200 kilos of food and 100 litres of water every day.
They are often seen splashing in the water, having a dip, and then enjoying a mud bath on hot afternoons. Mud baths help them cool down in hot weather and protect their skin from sunburn and insect bites.
Finding elephants around bodies of water can provide fantastic photo opportunities, and I highly recommend asking your guide if it would be possible to incorporate this into your trip.
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How to Take Great Photos of Asian Elephants
These magnificent animals are a real joy to photograph. Here are some key considerations to help you take captivating images of Asian elephants.
Elephants are massive subjects, and often require the use of wide-angle lenses to capture the entire animal in the frame.
Wide-angle lenses are best suited for showing the majestic elephants in the beautiful landscapes they inhabit.
Telephoto lenses, such as a 300mm f/4, 400mm f/2.8, and 600mm f/4, allow us to shoot portraits and get closer to highlight specific features such as tusks, large ears, and long trunks.
Any decent camera, paired with a combination of these lenses, will give you various opportunities to create unique images.
Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?
Elephants are large and imposing animals, so positioning yourself at a low angle and shooting upwards can create a unique and interesting perspective.
Be aware of your backgrounds. Asian elephants can be found in quite dense forest environments, so look for simple, non-distracting backgrounds that complement the elephant and enhance the overall image.
The ‘rule of thirds‘ can guide you to create beautiful images, but don’t hesitate to break these rules if you find better opportunities to create a unique composition.
Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography – Getting Creative
The period just after sunrise and just before sunset is often referred to as the golden hour and provides beautiful, warm lighting that can make your elephant photos even more stunning.
Bright sunlight can cause harsh shadows and overexposed areas in your photos. Try to avoid shooting in harsh light conditions by planning to shoot in early morning or late afternoon when the light is softer.
Cloudy or overcast days can provide a more diffused and even light that is ideal for photographing dark subjects like elephants.
Read more: Backlighting in Wildlife Photography – Creative Use of Light
When shooting close-up portraits, using a lower aperture creates a nice bokeh effect and isolates the elephant you want to highlight.
When shooting elephants around water bodies, use higher shutter speeds to freeze water droplets when elephants are splashing or spraying water.
Use a lower ISO to achieve higher image quality with less noise.
Exposure compensation on darker subjects like elephants is always tricky. Experiment with the lighting conditions and keep checking if the shadows and highlights are properly exposed.
Never use flash as this could startle them, causing them to become defensive or aggressive.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
Top tips for photographing Asian elephants
As Asian elephants come into focus in your viewfinder, try to use these top tips to help you capture stunning photographs.
Check Your Settings – Asian elephants can be found in a variety of habitats, from dense forests with tall trees to open grasslands. The type of habitat will influence the kind of images you can create, and your camera settings will need to adjust accordingly.
In forests, you may struggle to get enough light, while in open grasslands, you may have to deal with too much light or overexposed images. I recommend checking your images and settings regularly to ensure you’re capturing the best possible shots.
Travel by Boat – Boat safaris in the Kabini backwaters are a fantastic way to photograph Asian elephants, and I highly recommend them.
In the summer, the water level of the Kabini reservoir drops, forming small islands that attract herds of elephants in search of fresh grass. Being on a boat allows you to be at a lower level than the ground, providing fascinating photo opportunities.
Your guide can easily maneuver the boat to position you for the desired lighting angle to get the shots you want.
Challenge Your Creativity – The media is saturated with images of highly sought-after species like elephants, so finding ways to create unique or creative images can be difficult.
When I’m out in the field on a shoot, I always ask myself, “How can I make my pictures stand out and create a unique picture that should be among the top 100 elephant photos in the world?”
I recommend using natural elements such as trees, rocks, and grass found around your subject to create more creative compositions.
Rain and long exposure techniques are some natural elements that I like to experiment with. It’s not easy to get unique content out in the field, but spending enough time with your subject and finding ways to be creative is how you can achieve it.
Read more: How to Take Fine Art Nature Photographs
Asiatic elephants are not only a beautiful and rewarding photographic subject but also a crucial component in maintaining the ecological balance of many ecosystems.
Due to their weak digestive systems, they must consume at least 500 kilos of foliage every day to sustain their massive body. Their semi-digested dung is highly nutritious manure that aids in forest regeneration.
In fact, an individual elephant produces about 40 tons of manure each year on average.
In addition to being an important source of manure, elephants also play a significant role in seed dispersal, habitat modification, and creation. These factors make the Asiatic elephants a keystone species.
Their presence has a significant impact on the structure and function of the ecosystem, and their absence can lead to ecosystem collapse.
It’s important to acknowledge and consider the ecological role of these magnificent creatures and to take measures to protect them and their habitats.