Safari Photography: How to Photograph Groups of Animals
Photographing herds or other large groups of animals on a safari photography trip can be an exciting opportunity, but it certainly comes with an array of challenges.
If everything is important, then nothing is important. That’s the main problem with photographing herds of animals or flocks of birds. What exactly are you supposed to be looking at?
Well, I’ve just come back from two weeks in the Serengeti photographing blue wildebeest crossing the Mara, which is probably one of the largest groups of animals I will have ever photographed, so I’ll use them as a reference subject for most of this article!
Here are some of the most common potential composition issues you can expect to face:
- Cropping animals at the edge of the frame
- Overlapping subjects
- A lack of symmetry
- Sense of chaos with animals looking in different directions
So, what’s the solution?
In this article, we’ll look at how to use wide angles, close-ups, motion blur, odd numbers, patterns, and point of view when photographing large groups of animals, with a few notes on settings and equipment along the way.
To capture different facets of something like the Great Migration, you need a mixture of wide angles and close-ups. It probably helps to come up with a shot list in advance. Let’s start with the wide angles.
The first item on your list should be an ‘establishing shot’. What will give you the best overall view of the experience?
This helps the viewer understand what’s going on and appreciate the scale of the gathering.
If you need to capture several aspects of the scene, you might need several different shots taken from different perspectives, such as a low angle and a high angle, or even an aerial shot from a drone if you can get one.
There will be numerous factors for you to consider before composing these shots.
In the case of this river crossing, for example, the dust cloud thrown up by thousands of hooves was one of the aspects I wanted to capture, and the dappled sunlight added to the effect.
You will need to think about all of these things when capturing your establishing images.
Close-up wildlife photos
Even in a scene with thousands of animals or birds, it’s usually possible to isolate a single subject. These kinds of images are important in letting the viewer appreciate your subject’s individuality, as well as its place in the collective.
Choosing one individual also gives you a chance to show the animal in context by creating an environmental portrait.
This seems to be quite fashionable these days, and it’s a good way of anchoring your subject to a specific time and place.
But a singular-animal close-up doesn’t need to be boring! Look for action, and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to get a shot of a bird taking off or, in this case, a wildebeest jumping off a cliff.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
I’m a big fan of the slow pan. Creative blur is a great way to capture movement, and this river crossing was the perfect subject.
The idea is to use a slow shutter speed and follow an individual animal (or the whole herd) by ‘panning’ from one side to the other, keeping it in the centre of the frame. It works best if your subject is travelling at 90° to your angle of view.
It’s tricky, I admit, and your hit rate will probably be very low when you’re starting out.
However, you only need one to work, and it’s much more likely to get a ‘Wow!’ from someone than a shot that freezes the action at 1/2000 of a second!
It’s a funny thing about humans, but studies have shown that we appear to prefer an odd number of subjects in a frame.
That means if you’re going to show a small group of animals, it’s better to include one, three, five, or seven rather than two, four, or six (above that, it doesn’t matter too much).
Obviously, there might be a good reason to show two animals together, especially if it’s a mother and baby or a mating pair, but the rule is still worth keeping in mind, particularly when faced with a larger group.
Look for shapes and patterns
When faced with photographing hundreds of animals, you may have to make the group your subject.
Wildebeest, for example, are herd animals, after all, and they often seem to move as one. This has its downsides as they can be very indecisive, taking an age to decide whether to cross the river or not!
However, once they commit, nothing can stop them, and the crossing might last a good 20 minutes or more…
You can emphasize the patterns made by a herd of animals or a flock of birds by using a drone to get an aerial perspective, by filling the frame with dozens of animals all doing the same thing, or by turning them into silhouettes at sunrise or sunset.
I always like to start off an early morning game drive by finding a clear plain that slopes up to the east and taking silhouette shots of any animals I see on the horizon.
The simplicity of the dark shapes against a bright, colorful background emphasizes their shared characteristics rather than their individuality, and you can end up with a pleasing, almost abstract composition.
Read more: How to Shoot Striking Silhouettes
Point of view
One of the most common bits of advice to wildlife photographers is to get low, and this applies to herds of animals, as well as individual subjects.
The idea is to photograph the animals at eye level from the point of view of another member of their species. This gives the illusion that the viewer is part of the subject’s world with the same view of reality.
- Open a door or shoot over the side of the vehicle
- Get out of the vehicle and lie or sit down (if it’s safe enough!)
- Park downhill from your subject
- Go on a walking safari
- Go on a boat ride instead
Alternatively, you can choose a higher or lower viewpoint to emphasize how small or large your subject is.
Wildlife photography settings
When taking any of the shots mentioned in this article, you need to think about which camera settings to use.
I generally shoot wide open in manual mode with auto ISO. That means I have total control over the important settings of aperture and shutter speed. However, there are a couple of occasions when I have to change my exposure mode.
For slow pans, there’s usually so much light that I have to switch to shutter priority and set my ISO to the lowest possible value of 50.
For silhouettes, I normally want my subject and the clouds and/or sun to be sharp, so I shoot in aperture priority at around f/16 and 100 ISO.
My Sony ⍺1 cameras have three presets on the main dial, so it only takes me a second to switch from portraits to slow pans. They also have an excellent autofocus system with eye detection and tracking that makes life a lot easier!
Wildlife photography equipment
Mirrorless cameras are so advanced these days that when people ask me if I took a certain picture, I sometimes say, “No, my camera took the shot, and I just happened to be holding it at the time”!
Having said that, the best cameras and lenses are incredibly expensive. I have two Sony ⍺1 cameras, a Manfrotto tripod with a gimbal head, and several lenses that I will use when photographing herds of animals:
All that cost the best part of £50,000, so it’s no surprise when I meet people on safari using their iPhones.
High-end cameras and lenses make wildlife photography a whole lot easier, but they aren’t essential. I can say that my mirrorless camera is much better than my old Nikon D850, and I use my longest lens for around two-thirds of all my shots.
That used to be an 800mm monster that was so heavy I couldn’t shoot handheld with it, but it’s now a 600mm version that’s light enough to pick up with my little finger!
In the conditions you will likely be in for photographing large herds of animals, these are all factors worth keeping in mind.
The difficulty with photographing groups of animals or birds means that you either have to isolate an individual or make a virtue of necessity by understanding and exploiting the potential of wide angles, close-ups, motion blur, odd numbers, patterns and point of view.
It’s much easier to take advantage of some of these suggestions if you have a high-end camera with a selection of wide-angle and long lenses (over 400mm), but remember that you don’t have to buy everything all at once.
Enjoy this incredible wildlife photography opportunity if it presents itself to you on safari, in whatever form it may be!
And if you haven’t had the opportunity to get out there yet, remember that a large flock of birds taking off in your local park can still provide excellent images, and is great practice for your multiple-subject composition photography skills, which you may put into practice on a larger scale on safari one day!