How to Photograph Elephants in Africa
In all the hours I must have spent watching and photographing elephants, never once have I been bored. They are undoubtedly one of Africa’s most iconic species and it takes just a cursory glance at a herd to realise that these are highly intelligent, social, and emotional animals.
As a result, they make fantastic photography subjects and I have to say if I was only able to photograph one species for the rest of my life it would be elephants.
This article will cover a few aspects of elephant behaviour (allowing you to read and predict what might be able to happen), highlight some of the key areas in Africa to see them, and delve into a number of different ways to approach your photography.
Where can you find elephants?
Sadly, as most of you reading this will know, elephant numbers are in serious decline. The demand for ivory coupled with competition for space against an ever expanding African population has lead to there being just over 400,000 elephants left in the wild. When you consider that 20,000 are being killed each year, there is a very serious possibility that these beautiful animals may go extinct relatively soon.
There are, however, a number of areas left in Africa where you can still see an abundance of wild elephants. The Amboseli/ Tsavo eco-system in Eastern Kenya is perhaps one of the most famous, especially as it is home to around 50% of the world’s last ‘Super Tuskers’ (an elephant with tusks weighing more than 45kg each).
If you’re on safari further south in Africa, then the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park in Botswana offer great elephant viewing, while the Addo elephant park and Kruger in South Africa are also excellent choices.
As with all safaris, the time of year will effect your elephant viewing. It is generally recommended you go in dryer, dustier times of the year as the animals are attracted to water holes and so your chance of sightings and shots of big herds dramatically increases. This is best left to a conversation between you and a specialist operator though.
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Elephants are incredibly social and follow a matriarchal system, whereby the oldest and largest female leads a herd made up of her sisters, daughters, and other related cows.
Bulls will leave their parent herd during adolescence (13+ years old) and it is not uncommon for them to forge close bonds with other males and live in a bachelor group.
When observing elephants, it’s key to understand a group dynamic as it can often give you advanced warning of an upcoming photo opportunity. Males, for instance, when greeting other males will wrap their trunks around the other’s – a bit like shaking hands; creating a lovely, intimate portrait.
Similarly, if there is a baby elephant in a group then all the other females will come and inspect it with their trunks, providing another touching moment.
Then, as with all species, you have the youngsters. Be it a calf still unsure of how its trunk works or a group of them simply playing, there’s always a fun shot to be taken.
There is no right time of day to be photographing elephants. Due to their incredible bulk (males can weigh up to 6 tonnes), elephants will spend up to 16 hours a day eating. This means, unlike lions for instance, that they will always be on the move and so there are excellent photo opportunities throughout the day.
Being based in the Mara, I often find the best time to head out and search for elephants is the early afternoon, preferably with an incoming thunderstorm. The build up of clouds creates a brilliant backdrop for the world’s largest land mammal and means I can use a wide-angle lens to show the animal in its natural environment.
I will carry two bodies in the field and when photographing elephants. I’ll have my 24-70mm on one, and a 70-200mm on the other.
If you combine patience with a good guide, you can get incredibly close (within reason) to elephants as they are usually very calm around vehicles. By turning off the engine and waiting quietly, you’ll be amazed at how they will continue as if you weren’t there, allowing you the chance for some great shots. Because of this I have never felt the need for anything longer than 200mm, and even when using that zoom lens it is rare I’ll have to use the full range.
Top tips for elephant photography in Africa
The possibilities here are genuinely endless, and one of the key things is to always try and be different with your photography. I’ve spent countless hours trying to create a diverse selection of images, which means going out in all kinds of weather and light as well as trying to use a variety of equipment.
The following are a few ideas to try and kick start, or continue to grow, your own elephant portfolio.
1. Show the environment
Now this first one may sound simple, but is one worth keeping in mind. I’m always amazed at how often I have to remind people to ‘zoom out’ on safari – it’s not all about using the longest lens you have on its maximum zoom.
Elephants are just as beautiful as the continent they inhabit, so make sure you’re capturing both as you’ll find it creates more context within your images. Anyone is capable of capturing a portrait shot of an animal in a zoo, so be sure to make the most of having such open vistas; I can’t stress enough how much it’ll transform your images.
To achieve this, I’ll use my 24-70mm lens. However, it’s important to note that I will wait until I am in fairly close proximity to the elephants before using it. Because of the wider angle, if you’re too far away from the subject it’ll appear too small and your image will lose its impact. So, as important as it is to have a wide-angle with you, choosing the time to use it is just as key.
2. Look for the details
While it’s so important to take those wide-angle images, let’s not forget we’re trying to create a diverse portfolio here. With that in mind I will often search for individual elements to focus on, and with elephants that’s usually the trunks, tusks, skin, or their eyes. The latter is a hard shot to achieve as elephants have long lashes covering their eyes, so your camera’s autofocus will often focus on these as opposed to its actual eye. To avoid this it’s best to manually focus on its eye to avoid any disappointments back at base.
Elephants have incredibly wrinkled skin (so as to retain moisture) which can make for a fascinating focus for your images. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a family of elephants as neighbours in the Masai Mara and regularly find them feeding on the trees outside my bedroom window. As a result, I’m able to sit in my doorway focusing on these smaller aspects.
3. Shoot in all weather conditions
Do this and you immediately start to build up an interesting collection of images that tell a story; not just of where these animals live but also the environment they live in. If you only go out during the golden hour or on a sunny afternoon, you’re going to create a very similar set of images.
Africa produces brilliantly dramatic storms which provide a great backdrop for your images and a wonderful opportunity for some moody black and white photography.
In order to capture the raindrops you’ll need a wide aperture (f/4 or below) and a fast shutter speed (1/2000th+) – this allows you to capture the rain as droplets rather than streaks. As when photographing their eyes, you may have to manually focus these shots as shooting in heavy rain can cause your autofocus system to search for a focus point and you may miss the shot.
4. Create silhouettes
A really popular option on safaris, and one that I believe is more effective with elephants than any other species, is to shoot silhouettes. They have such a defined outline and recognisable shape.
Silhouettes are easily achieved and a great addition to your portfolio. The first thing to do is to set yourself up in the right position. You don’t need a large hill for this, just simply position yourself below the horizon with the elephants clearly defined against the sky.
Wait for the subject to then be side on to your camera (and ideally walking as this will mean that each leg will be clearly defined and you’ll get a strong side profile). If you have the subject walking towards you, it’ll be considerably less defined and in some cases appear as a dark ‘blob’.
The best way to get a clear silhouette is to focus on the edge of the animal, not the centre, so that you have a well defined edge. Then underexpose your image by a couple of stops to make sure your silhouettes are dark and you keep all the detail in the sky.
5. Try a new perspective
There’s been a real surge of ground-level photography in the last decade, and while it’s not always possible to achieve this from a safari vehicle there are still things you can do.
A lot of companies offer photo-safari vehicles where you can remove side doors and shoot from as low as possible without leaving the safety of the vehicle. This adds a really unique dynamic to your images and, depending on how close you are to the subject, can allow it to fill the shot and give it an imposing sense of scale.
Conversely, a lot of operators offer either hot air balloon or helicopter safaris. Being able to shoot from a bird’s eye perspective could be the crowning jewel of your portfolio.
I often find that the best shots are achieved from being directly above the subject as opposed to being at an angle. Don’t forget, particularly if on a balloon, that you’ll be moving fairly fast and so will need a fast shutter speed to ensure that you don’t end up coming back down to Earth with a series of blurred images.
6. Simplicity is often the best option
My final point, and one I always encourage in photography, is that simple images are often the most beautiful. Let’s not forget that photography is not just a tool for recording a scene, but is an art form.
The more your image can tell a story and connect with a viewer, the better it is. You don’t necessarily need a giant herd crossing a plane with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background; sometimes one lone female will provide the perfect chance for simple composition.
Try not to overthink your images, but instead follow your instinct and take the image because you like it, not because you think someone on Instagram will.
Finally, I urge you to above all have patience and make sure you are observing, but not influencing, an animal’s behaviour. Elephants are naturally calm animals and, as long as you’re quiet and respect their presence, you’ll be able to witness some incredible scenes.
If you couple patience with creativity, and hopefully a few things you’ve taken from this article, you should leave Africa with a brilliant portfolio of images. Good luck!