Safari Photography: How to Photograph Big Cats
The big cats of Africa – lion, leopard, and cheetah – all continue to captivate and entice many photographers on safari to Africa, each in search of capturing that perfect safari photography shot.
However, how do you go about picking the right destination and making the most of your time there, and how can you make your big cat images stand out from the crowd?
This short guide is designed to provide some essential advice and tips to maximize your opportunities, making sure you return home with that perfect shot of these iconic big cats!
Best locations in Africa for big cat photography
There are myriad locations for big cat photography to choose from, and making a choice can be somewhat overwhelming.
The location you choose may come down to which species you want to focus on most, and of course, your budget.
Below are a few specific areas to consider and look for in safari itineraries, all of which offer superb opportunities for viewing these beautiful big cats.
If you are looking for opportunities to photograph all the big cats on one trip, a good starting point is to consider the locations below.
Read more: 5 Best Places for a Photo Safari in Africa
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
This reserve offers fabulous photographic opportunities for all three of the big cat species. However, with its popularity also comes the downside of it being a busy location for game vehicles.
If your budget can stretch, consider venturing into one of the neighbouring conservancies that surround the main Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Here you will benefit from limits on the number of vehicles at sightings and permitted off-road driving, as well as a plethora of big cat photographic opportunities!
Read more: Where to Photograph Wildlife in Kenya
The Serengeti, Tanzania
The Serengeti in Tanzania also offers fantastic opportunities for all three species.
However, as with the Maasai Mara, pick your location carefully, as some of the central parts of the Serengeti can get awash with tourists and minivans during the high season months of July – September.
If you are looking specifically for that iconic shot of a lion posing majestically on a rock, look no further than a magnificent area called Gol Kopjes in the Serengeti.
You will need an additional permit to access this area, but if you look for a photography tour including this area you will find they have the necessary paperwork in place.
Once you arrive in Gol Kopjes, you’ll be treated to open savannah plains and a vast number of impressive granite kopjes. An excellent network of tracks circumnavigates these iconic rocks and provides multiple viewing angles and lighting opportunities.
Here you will find lions warming themselves majestically and surveying their kingdom. These kopjes are also a great area for females to den their cubs.
In addition, this area and the expanse stretching across to the Eastern Serengeti is an exceptional location to view cheetahs and is, in fact, a cheetah breeding and conservation area.
Not only do these rocks provide compositions akin to a scene from ‘The Lion King,’ but it is also very quiet for general tourists and provides superb photographic opportunities year-round.
Ndutu, Northern Tanzania
While in Northern Tanzania, you should also consider the area of Ndutu, part of the Ngorongoro conservation area.
This is away from the main busy crater area, and between the months of January to March, the wildebeest migration passes through and with this comes superb opportunities for both lion and cheetah and occasionally leopard.
The northern parks of Botswana, including Moremi Game Reserve, Khwai, and Savuti, also offer superb opportunities for lions and leopards.
In recent years, areas such as Moremi and Savuti are becoming increasingly more productive for cheetah sightings. These areas also generally tend to be less crowded than many other locations, allowing longer sightings.
They also provide a superb wilderness feel and a very different terrain and backdrop than in areas such as East Africa. The Khwai community area also comes with the benefit of off-road driving being permitted.
What makes Savuti particularly special is the sandy terrain which makes it a great location for capturing those evocative dusty backlit shots.
In addition, in the dry season, lion prides such as the ‘Marsh Pride’ spend much of their time around two main waterholes, where interactions with buffalo and elephants are not uncommon.
Read more: How to Photograph Elephants in Africa
Best time to see the big cats and their young?
Everyone loves a photo of a cute little lion, leopard, or cheetah cub, so when is the best time to try and see these adorable little creatures?
The big cats generally breed all year round. Unlike herbivores and ungulates, their breeding season is not confined to a specific month or season.
So, if you’re focused on wanting to see lion, leopard, or cheetah cubs, the good news is this is possible all year round.
However, what will increase your chances of seeing big cats in general is a trip that is within the dry season for that country. Less rainfall means that the foliage is less dense, making it easier to find and photograph the enigmatic big cats.
In areas such as Botswana, many of the smaller seasonal pans have dried up, and this directs the general game and cats to the remaining water sources.
Read more: How to Photograph Lions
Independent travel vs. joining a photographic group
The locations in Africa that offer the opportunity to photograph big cats are endless, but how do you decide if you should consider an independent safari, a self-drive, or joining a photographic tour operator?
By far the best way to maximize the opportunity is by joining a photographic tour company, and even considering a big cat-specific tour.
Not only can this sometimes be more cost-effective, but you will also find a photography tour will get you out early and maximize your time in the field.
If you can afford to bear the cost of a sole occupancy game vehicle, that’s great, and you can expect your tour to remain focused on your own photographic goals.
But so often, we hear stories of people committing to a large investment into booking a safari direct, aspiring to spend hours with big cats, when the reality can turn out to be a whistle-stop tour of every species in the area.
This often occurs as you may have been partnered with guests who may have no photographic agenda, perhaps on their first time to Africa and wanting to tick off as many species on their list as possible.
But any good photographic guide will talk to each guest and understand exactly what you want to get out of your time with them and what you want to see.
Of course, the wishes of everyone may differ, especially if this is not a ‘big cat’ focused tour.
However, even with a varied wish list among your group, a good photography guide should look to cater to the configuration of game vehicles to ensure everyone is getting to spend time on their focus species.
A good photography host, combined with a local guide, will also have in-depth knowledge of the area, the behaviour of the species, where to find the local lion pride and the favourite arboreal haunts for the resident leopards.
Local guides can also be excellent trackers. This can result in your group finding big cats when other groups and self-drives have missed their trail.
Often, photography hosts have worked with the same local guides year after year, and between them, they will work tirelessly to help you achieve your dream shot.
In addition, joining a photography group will likely provide much more room in the game vehicles, often with a whole row assigned to you.
This provides the benefit of more flexibility to shoot from both sides of the vehicle and more room for that all-important photography gear.
And when you want to get creative, your photography host is there to help you maximize every opportunity and will quickly be able to position the game vehicle so you can achieve those standout images.
How to make your images stand out
So you’re on safari, and you’ve found a cheetah on a mound, but how do you compose this image so that it stands out from the crowd?
Imagine it is early morning, the sun is rising, and you have had the luxury of already taking a beautiful front-lit shot.
Don’t think that early morning and evening offer the only opportunities for playing with light. You can still manipulate sunlight in the daytime!
If you are out on a bright sunny day and your subject is against a dark background, you may have potential opportunities to capture your big cat rim-lit.
This lighting technique is possible to use at any time of the day, given the right position. Rim lighting works superbly on the impressive manes of those beautiful male lions, so look out for that if you get the chance!
Look for low-key opportunities too. Shafts of light coming from the side or to the front of your big cat and partnered with a dark background provide the perfect moment in which to capture a beautiful shot, even if the only thing illuminated is the eye.
Consider slow panning a walking subject.
It adds a sense of movement and gives your image an artistic feel, and is a great technique to use in low light or cloudy days when otherwise using a faster shutter speed to freeze movement can result in a high ISO image.
How to capture the essence of your subject in big cat portraits
There is nothing more humbling than staring into the eyes of a big cat and feeling that connection between you and your subject. Here are some suggestions for capturing the essence of big cats.
Eye contact and catch light are ways to bring the eyes to life.
The challenge with cheetahs, especially in the middle of the day, is that their eyes can appear as big black holes, so dawn and dusk are great times to capture those incredible glowing orange eyes.
Get low to the ground
Get as low as you can while in the game vehicle to get eye level with your subject and create intimacy between you and your subject.
Try to get their ears forward – a cat’s ears facing forward (and not cocked at an awkward angle) can be a far more pleasing expression, so look for moments when the ears are forward.
Read more: How to Photograph Lions
Look out for rogue vegetation
Be mindful of what’s around you or behind the big cat in your viewfinder.
There is nothing worse than returning home to see your subject has a twig growing out of its head, so look for those distractions and ask your guide to move the vehicle if you need to.
Crop in tight on your subject when you’re looking for a close-up portrait.
Not only will this remove any unwanted distractions around your subject, but it will draw your viewer into those piercing and beautiful eyes.
Considering your framing
Show their environment
Your images are all part of storytelling, and while tight portraits are a big favorite, when photographing big cats, don’t forget to also try zooming out or grabbing your wide-angle lens.
This helps your subject have a sense of place and can sometimes be more interesting than a close-up portrait.
Try using negative space to your advantage and compositional techniques like placing your big cat on the left or right hand of the frame with space on the other side. This can help make a pleasing environment shot.
Be mindful of heat haze, which can become troublesome during the day with warm temperatures.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
Big cat behaviour
Knowing your subject is the key to outstanding big cat photography. Understanding what times of day your subject is active is essential to being able to anticipate behaviour and be ready for that shot.
In addition, a level of patience will pay dividends in your photographic output! Here are some key behaviours to look out for and know about before you head out on safari.
Remember that lions and leopards are predominantly more active at dawn and dusk, so ditch the breakfast before your game drive and be out before the light comes up.
However, a sleeping lion or leopard can soon become a hunting machine, even in the middle of the day. This is especially true during the migration season in the Maasai Mara and Serengeti, so be ready to move at a moment’s notice.
Cheetahs are more diurnal, and when lions and leopards often seek the shade of the midday sun, this can be a good time to stay out and look for cheetah who will actively hunt at any time of the day.
If you find a fresh kill in a tree, chances are there is a leopard nearby. So be patient and consider waiting there, of course at a respectable distance.
With lions, look for that tell-tale yawn, often accompanied by grooming, which can often signal your subject may move or decide to interact with other pride members.
Most importantly, know when to back off and give your subject space.
Any good safari or photography guide should operate with ethics. Positioning yourself too close can alter your subject’s behaviour, so be sure to give them space.
This is especially true when any big cat is about to hunt. You don’t want to be that vehicle that has caused a disruption to the hunt and denied your subject those vital calories.
Top tip: Shoot with a fast frame rate and a fast shutter speed to freeze-frame moments of behaviour.
Equipment for big cat photography
Your safari is booked, you’ve done your research, and now you have that dilemma of what kit to take.
A good starting point for photographing big cats is a telephoto zoom lens that will cater to variable focal lengths, from the lower end that goes to at least 400mm.
Given that most big cats are active at dawn and dusk, you will often be challenged with photographing them in low-light conditions. A lens that can go to f/4 or even f/2.8 generally means you can shoot at a lower ISO.
Don’t forget your dust cover for your cameras! This protects your gear and makes it far more accessible quickly than placing it back in your camera bag after each shoot.
Read more: The Best Camera for Wildlife Photography
The above points will hopefully arm you with some useful planning advice for your trip to photograph big cats on safari and help you to consider the value a dedicated photography tour may have for your image goals.
Don’t forget to get creative with your camera, be it playing with light or movement.
My final tip is a reminder to be disciplined enough during your safari to put your camera down sometimes. Take time to absorb being in the presence of these magnificent big cats.
Staring in the eyes and the soul of these enigmatic creatures is truly one of the most humbling experiences that one can ever have. It’s an experience that will remain etched in your memory forever.