Safari Photography: How to Photograph Predators
If you’re going on a safari photography trip, chances are predators are high on your shooting list. Who doesn’t dream of capturing that classic male lion portrait, a languid leopard draped over a branch, or a cheetah mom with cubs?
But what if your ambitions go beyond these iconic images, and you’re looking for some adrenaline-fueled shots of predator action too?
Big cats are undoubtedly the most compelling safari subjects, but they’re also among the most challenging, as they spend most days asleep in thick bush or long grass.
1. Know before you go
When visiting any African reserve with big cats, there’s always a chance of capturing images. However, if you want more than just a bundle of fur in the grass, you need to carefully consider where and when you go.
The destination and timing of your trip will impact predator visibility and your chances of photographic success.
Prime lion locations like the Masai Mara and Serengeti have a significant number of lions, and during the migration, they make numerous kills. However, the majority of these activities occur at night.
During the day, you’re more likely to see lions sleeping or gnawing on a carcass.
The migration period is also a peak time for tourists, so if you do spot a predator hunting, there could be many other vehicles around, making it more challenging to position yourself and spend quality time with your subject.
You have a better chance of witnessing lions stalking, chasing, and if you’re exceptionally lucky, catching their prey during the day.
This is especially true if you visit once the wildebeest have moved on, as the cats will need to work harder due to slimmer pickings. Moreover, there will be fewer tourists, and you may even save money with lower seasonal rates.
In South Africa’s top wildlife reserves, the dry winter season is best for capturing predator action.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park’s open terrain makes it easier to follow a chase and photograph it well year-round.
However, if you go during the hot times (November to March), it’ll be great for cheetah hunts because the springboks have their lambs then, but lousy for lions.
That’s because they mainly hunt at night when it’s hot. If you’re after lion action, you have a much better chance of seeing diurnal hunts from June to August.
For shy, secretive leopards, you’ll increase your chances of photographing action if you target reserves well known for a high density of these charismatic cats, where individuals are easy to find, regularly spotted, and well-habituated to vehicles.
These include private reserves in the Sabi Sand, part of South Africa’s Greater Kruger, and our own favorite leopard spot, Mashatu, in southern Botswana. Here, leopard sightings are numerous and of high quality, while tourist density is kept low.
Photographing a running cheetah ranks high on any safari photographer’s action wish list. Cheetahs prosper where the density of lions, leopards, and hyenas is lower, as these predators will steal their kills and prey on their cubs.
The Kgalagadi is a classic reserve for cheetah action, while Namibia’s Etosha National Park also scores highly. In East Africa, the Mara and Serengeti are renowned for photogenic sightings of cheetahs on termite mounds and climbing trees.
Other excellent spots we’d rate include Phinda and Zimanga, both private reserves in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where we’ve been fortunate to successfully photograph cheetah hunting.
Before you book, check if your chosen location allows responsible off-road driving. Big cats don’t behave on command, and you don’t want to end up confined to a track far from the action.
Make sure your game drives include those times. You don’t want your guide rushing for the exit half an hour before sunset because your lodge is too far away.
Read more: How to Improve Your Wildlife Action Shots
2. Get a good guide
Tap into local expertise – good guides are worth their weight in gold. They know where to look and when, and when to invest time in a predator sighting with potential for action and when it’s better to move on.
You can waste a lot of valuable photography hours staring at dozing lions. It’s far better to return later when the cats wake up and start moving about.
The best guides understand your needs as a photographer: positioning for the best light and angle, following a subject without disturbing it, and, most importantly, alerting you when explosive action is about to kick off.
Anticipation is key to capturing action. Experienced guides can read the subtle cues you might miss, including being alert to a predator’s presence when other species are alarm-calling.
Preferably, book a specialist photography safari rather than a generalist one, especially when it comes to action.
An action sequence can be instant, but a hunt often builds over considerable time. You can’t afford to be with people who are impatient to move on or squeamish about such things.
3. Know predator behaviour
Be ready for the key cues to action.
The best time to see active lions, leopards, and cheetahs is in the early morning, before sunrise and for the next hour or so. Good guides will spend this part of your drive, while the light is good, primarily looking for predators.
Don’t despair if you wake up to overcast weather; the cooler temperatures keep cats active longer, and you won’t have to deal with contrasting conditions as the morning progresses.
Male lions often patrol their territory in the morning. In addition to capturing images of an alert animal on the move, look out for territorial scent-marking, contact calling, and yawning.
Contact calling may lead to a reunion with other pride members, so be ready for lots of greetings, head rubbing, and interactions.
Always be prepared for action when lions greet or socialize. Playful cubs and juveniles can be relied upon to provide a few action-filled images, whether they are greeting their father or engaging in playful fights among themselves.
A lone female on the move early in the morning may be returning to where she has cached her cubs, especially if she is making regular low-pitched calls (you may also notice that she is lactating).
This can also provide good opportunities for capturing moments such as greetings, suckling, and play. Be careful not to stress the animal by approaching too closely.
A good and ethical guide will read the animal’s body language. If you are self-driving, err on the side of caution.
Another lion scenario with great action potential is mating. A mating pair will couple up several times an hour for three or four days and generally stay in the same small area for that duration.
The mating itself, initiated by the flirtatious female, is brief and not very photogenic. However, at the climax, the female often turns to swat the male, and he jumps back to avoid her claws, with much grimacing and snarling on both sides.
A front-on or three-quarter view works best. The male usually dismounts on the same side each time, so you may need to adjust your position.
Leopards are harder to find and follow than lions, but they do patrol in the morning. Again, watch for scent-marking, drinking from puddles and streams, and sharpening claws on trees.
A patrolling leopard will often climb a tree and search in the branches. It may settle there for the day but will often descend and resume its patrol. Leopards descend trees fast, without much warning, so be prepared.
Positioning the vehicle for the most likely route of descent massively helps.
Cheetahs regularly hunt diurnally in the morning before settling down as the day gets hotter. In open terrain, it’s possible to follow them for lengthy periods.
Aim to track them from the front to get head-on shots, but be careful not to stress them or get in the way of potential hunts.
Late afternoons are, of course, also good times for predator photography. Although capturing action becomes more tricky since you’re dealing with falling light levels as your subjects become active.
If you’re sitting with resting animals, waiting for action, the key signs of imminent movement include yawning and grooming. As the cats wake up, they often interact with mutual grooming, face rubbing, or play.
These moments can be brief, so keep a close watch. And keep an eye out for an unwary antelope stumbling into the scene – even the fattest lion can’t resist a free meal.
Opportunities to photograph lions after dark are becoming more widespread. Private game reserves usually incorporate some night driving at the end of afternoon drives, and some have nocturnal hides which may be visited by lions or leopards.
Even some national parks, mainly in South Africa, run night drives for guests. However, generally, the spotlights used for night drives (or the LED panels used for nocturnal hides) are low powered and preclude action shots.
You could use flash if the reserve allows this, but personally, we feel it’s not only all but impossible to capture aesthetically pleasing images with on-camera flash, but it’s also potentially stressful to the subjects.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
4. Photograph the aftermath
Realistically, your chances of photographing a kill are low. While hunting behavior is quite common, you don’t see many successful hunts. When they happen, it’s tough to predict where the takedown will occur.
A lion or cheetah at full sprint covers a lot of ground fast, and prey move very erratically to evade them.
We’ve watched countless cheetah hunts, mostly unsuccessful, and even the successful ones usually end up with the takedown too far away or behind a bush.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t capture dynamic shots of cats stalking, running, or, after the kill, holding or fighting over the fresh carcass. Mostly, cats will drag a carcass into cover.
Aim to capture a shot of the cat hauling the prey across open ground. If it’s a leopard, there’s a good chance it will take it into a tree – quite a sight.
Kills are rarely photographed, but the aftermath, predators feeding on a carcass, is more commonly encountered. If the prey’s large enough, a kill may keep your subjects pegged to a specific area for several days.
If a leopard’s prey is cached in a tree, it can return to that spot to feed over a couple of days, providing another opportunity for action shots of the cat climbing up or down.
When lions are feeding, be prepared for aggressive interaction such as snarling or paw swatting. Males usually eat first, followed by lionesses, and cubs last of all. Frame carefully to avoid the gory entrails, although a bloodied face can look dramatic.
Lions usually open a carcass through the soft belly, so shooting over the back of the kill can reduce the gore. Wait for the lion to look over the top. This works best if the prey has distinctive patterns like a giraffe or zebra.
When the carcass is nearly consumed, a low-angle shot through the skeletal remains, framing your subject, can look very dynamic.
Bear in mind it’s often action on the sidelines of a kill that produces the most successful images. Once the cats have eaten, they often rest nearby, returning occasionally for seconds.
Be ready for them to rush at scavengers such as jackals or even a full-on food-fight with a pack of hyenas.
5. Other safari wildlife
Widen your scope for success.
Remember, big cats aren’t the only predators on a safari, and some excellent action shots are possible with other carnivores, such as spotted hyenas, wild dogs, black-backed jackals, and foxes.
Dens can be a great source of action and a starting place. Ask local guides if they know of active dens in good positions for photography.
Some dens, like those of spotted hyenas, are used long-term and, along with wild dog dens, provide reliable and productive opportunities, especially in the early mornings when adults return from foraging and socialize with cubs.
Although jackals tend to be very secretive about denning, they’re often very relaxed around vehicles when not at the den. One of our favorite locations for jackal action is the Kgalagadi, where at two specific waterholes, jackals have learned to hunt doves and sandgrouse.
Most mornings, when it’s dry, there’s continuous action as the jackals launch blitz attacks on flocks of birds flying in to drink.
Another small carnivore, the Cape fox, shy and largely nocturnal, is also abundant. Come November, Cape foxes breed and can be found relaxing outside their dens with youngsters.
The chance to photograph them playing, nursing, and feeding is short-lived but productive. Another case of knowing the right place, right time.
6. Photography gear and camera settings
We’ve left gear and technique for last because success heavily relies on research, planning, and fieldcraft.
That being said, action on safari is often sudden, short-lived, and not repeated. Be ready at all times.
Have your camera routinely set up for action when on game drives, with plenty of shutter speed (1/1000 sec minimum, if possible) and high-speed continuous drive. When things kick off, shoot quickly but calmly.
Don’t panic or rush things. You can fine-tune composition and technicalities once you’ve got some “insurance” shots.
Shoot multiple frames: small details make or break an action picture – an elegantly curved tail, all limbs off the ground, the perfect snarl – all stuff your eye can’t compute when photographing.
We find many photographers are reluctant to increase their ISO to a level that guarantees fast enough shutter speeds, especially in low light. Don’t be scared to push ISO; that’s why you pay big bucks for your camera.
Denoise programs are now very effective at dealing with any resulting noise. We routinely shoot at 3200 ISO, often at 6400, and are comfortable at 10,000. It’s better to have a sharp shot with a little noise than a soft image.
A higher ISO also allows you to stop down, making it easier to achieve critical focus on fast-moving subjects.
Another common mistake is framing action too tightly. It’s better to give your subjects breathing space so that you’re less likely to ruin great shots by clipping a tail or foot.
Bear in mind that you’ll mainly be shooting from a vehicle. While a big 500mm or 600mm prime lens can be effective on safari, for shooting action on game drives, we find more compact zoom lenses easier to handle.
In a hunt situation where predators may suddenly move, your guide may need to keep the motor running. Leaning a big telephoto lens on the vehicle is a sure recipe for camera shake.
You don’t need to think too much about exposure, at least in conventional front-lit and overcast situations. Lions, leopards, and cheetahs are mostly a convenient mid-tone, and normal evaluative/matrix metering is fine.
We’ve mentioned the importance of subject welfare, but it’s also crucial to consider your own well-being. While big cats generally ignore human presence, it’s important not to become complacent and always follow your guide’s instructions.
Maintain silence, avoid sudden movements, and never stand up in an open vehicle, as it can scare away your subject or even put you at risk. Even the most relaxed lion can have a bad day.
Finally, remember to breathe, enjoy the experience, and fully immerse yourself in the moment. Predator action is the highlight of any safari, and you have a wonderful opportunity to capture it all on your memory card.