How to Photograph Elephants

As photographers, we are naturally drawn to the enormous size and striking silhouettes of elephants against the background of African or even Asian landscape. However, some of the most rewarding opportunities of elephant photography are when we take a closer look at the smaller details, focusing our lenses on the remarkable details and textures that make up these extraordinary creatures.

After spending some time with them, and you have already photographed them in their natural habitat, take the opportunity to zoom into details like their eyes, wrinkles, toenails, trunk, and tusks.


Starting at the tip of their trunk. Elephants have about 50 000 muscles in their trunk making their trunk extremely dexterous. It is arguably their most remarkable appendage featuring tiny textural details that make for engaging photography at a small aperture from about f/8. When using their trunk, they tend to move it a lot, so be ready with a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion. if possible, position yourself to make use of dramatic side lighting to highlight the features and bring out the tiny hairs and pores peppering the tip of the trunk.

They will often wrap their trunk around a tuft of grass, pulling it out from the ground. By doing this they pull quite a lot of dirt out with the roots of the grass, and to get rid of it they will start flicking the grass around to get rid of the unpalatable dirt. To avoid any motion blur while the elephant is flicking its trunk, set your shutter speed higher.



The tusks of an elephant can tell so many stories of that individual and are one of their most unique and recognizable features. Incredible textures and patterns are naturally carved into their tusks from years of using them as tools. With deep grooves, cracks, chips, and discoloration running through each one, try to use more angled-sided lighting to emphasize these features and to highlight the abstract shapes and ridges in the tusks. Using a shallow depth of field, or the lowest aperture that you can go, will help to isolate the tusks from the background.

An Elephant’s thick, calloused hide is a roadmap of insightful experiences etched out over decades spent enduring the unforgiving elements. To truly appreciate this abstract topography that makes each individual’s skin unique, zoom in tight and fill the frame with patterns, folds, crevices, and cracked ridges. Side lighting will help to enhance sense of depth across each crease and furrow. For a balanced depth of field set an aperture of f/8 or f/11, and a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second should freeze any movement. To avoid noise, use a low ISO of 100-400.


Seeming disproportionately tiny about their enormous head, their large soulful eyes seem to convey deep emotion and intelligence beyond their years. Zoom in tight to eliminate any foreground distractions, and to create a portrait that is focused on their eye. A wide aperture will help to blur out the background behind the eye, allowing you to capture the wrinkled skin around the eye socket, creating a natural frame. Watch for moments when light reflects across the eye to create a catchlight that makes the eye seem to sparkle. Look out for any subtle shift in the angle that will showcase their thick, long eyelashes. Shoot in burst mode to increase your chance of freezing that perfect split-second.


One of the most incredible photographic opportunities is catching an elephant dust bathing. They often do this to regulate their body temperature and to protect their skin from sunburn and insects. Have a faster shutter speed ready of around 1/1000th of a second to capture the swirling dust clouds forming around the elephant as they cover themselves from head to toe. A mid-range aperture of f/8 will help to get most of the elephant in focus.

For a different approach to this photograph, if possible, position yourself against a rising or setting sun to create a silhouette of the elephant. Underexpose your photograph by 1-2 stops to ensure the elephant is just a dark shape. The dust will be illuminated by the side lighting, contrasting the dark elephant shape.


Amboseli and Masai Mara Safari


Ultimately, elephants are incredible animals that are breathtaking to see from any distance. Photographing them in a wide, expansive landscape can be just as rewarding as focusing on the finer details. Include their surroundings to convey a sense of scale, whether it is the expansive terrain in the background or a tall acacia tree. Using a wide-angle lens can help you to achieve a deep perspective and make the elephant appear miles away.

Photographing elephants requires a lot of patience, but the rewarding results are worth the effort. From the deep grooves and wrinkles to photographing them in a wide, open landscape there are endless of creative opportunities when it comes to photographing elephants.

Until next time



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