Giant Beasts & How to Photograph them

I get it, elephants are lovely to look at in their entirety as they chow down on a nearby bush or tree. It's just every time you lift your lens this giant grey blob looks, well like a giant grey blob. Let’s be honest most of the time the large beasts we encounter on safari just aren’t that photogenic, well at least when you try photograph their entire heft.

There are a number of animals that fall into this category. Ever tried to photograph a hippo out of the water? Then looked at the back of your camera and thought “well, well, well, doesn’t that look like the boring’est giant land tick I’ve ever seen?”. Or what about the majestic giraffe, just standing there so lovely in the morning light, murdering some leaves while staring into the distance every once in a while. Ooh, ooh, ooh, get the camera you think to yourself! You dial in your settings, take a shot (or 17), quickly look at the display and think to yourself “well doesn’t that look like an amazingly oversized cheese curl looking over the savanna?”. Let’s not even chat about the rhino, ah yes, the humble and lovable rhino is truly the least “super model” like character out there.

If you have ever had any similar or even more ridiculous thoughts about your images after photographing one of these big beautiful (in their own right) animals, then you are not alone. Every day, all over the world, there are photographers out there trying their hardest to make an image of an entire elephant in the bush look like a Bugatti Veyron coming round the bend at full speed, when really it looks like a mommy van doing about 20.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I love all of these animals and to be in their presence is an absolute honour! They just really aren’t that much fun to photograph, with a wide-angle lens that is. So next time you get super excited to pull out the 14-24mm to photograph an African buffalo, don’t be upset when it looks like a bush cow eating some grass. Rather, throw the wide angle back in the bag, gently of course, and reach for the biggest telephoto or zoom that you have. And apply the following moto “Aim tight, shoot big”, yes, I just came up with that but hot-dang it works!

The magic of big animals is not their size, it’s their detail. Seriously, just point your camera right at the side of elephant, focus, click your aperture to f8, get your ISO as low as you can get it and take the photo. I can guarantee that you just took a more interesting image than an entire elephant eating a bush. Now apply this same thinking to the tusks and the trunk and the way they interact with each other. Watch the trunk closely as it pulls grass out of the ground, capture the ears as they flap against the body in a spray of dust. Think about it, the viewer doesn’t have to see an entire elephant, giraffe, rhino, buffalo or hippo to know that it’s an elephant, giraffe, rhino, buffalo or hippo, right?

Some other things to look out for are:

  • Tails flicking, try this with some backlighting and you’ll be in love
  • Tight images of mouths just about to chomp down on grass or leaves
  • Giraffe’s tongues are mighty long and often stick way out of the mouth – snap it!
  • The obligatory rhino horn in pin sharp focus, the face blurred in the background
  • Feet stirring up dust as the large beasts moves
  • Shooting through giraffe legs, using the legs as a frame for whatever is behind
  • Elephant ears flapping against the animals back – you’d be surprised by all the dust
  • Textures and coat patterns make great PC backgrounds – shoot them tight
  • Eye lashes and while you’re at it, the eyes!
  • Rhinos, when lying down tend to breath very heavily – wait for the dust
  • Ox peckers, egrets and other birds fluttering around the giant beast - always incorporate some of the beast!
  • Rhinos have three freaky toes, shoot them.
  • Buffalo herds when lined up can offer up some awesome “horn only” images
  • Elephants drinking – all that dribble will make you smile
  • Elephants embracing each other – who doesn’t love a curled trunk image?
  • As for the hippos, stick to images of them actually in the water, or getting eaten – that can also be quite fun.
  • With herd of elephants, look for in focus out of focus situation. Where one elephants is on focus and the rest are out of focus.
  • Also, never stop looking for the Silhouette shots particularly of giraffe, this in one area where a full body shot can work very well!

You see where I am going with this? The smaller the detail, the more interesting the image basically. Of course, elephants walking across a dry lakebed in Amboseli, or a rhino running through the kruger bush directly at you are a completely different thing. There are always going to be those situations where shooting the entire animal is the best route to take but this relies heavily on scene and setting.

At the end of the day, it’s all about enjoying your photography and I can almost guarantee that you will enjoy photographing giant beasts in this fashion more. I know I do.

Until next time, happy snapping,


Ultimate Elephant Tour

This tour provides an amazing opportunity to spend time with Africa’s giants in some of the most breathtaking landscapes. The combination of Mana Pools, Hwange and the Chobe not only allows you to view Elephants in different environments, but also to observe vastly different behaviour.

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