David Cardinal: Photographing Wildlife on Safari
May 2014 06

Photographing wildlife always starts with preparation. If you are on your own, then it involves learning about your destination, and the species you are hoping to photograph. If you are going on an organized safari, much of that work will be done for you, so make sure to take advantage of advanced planning with your tour leader. In our case, we spend quite a bit of time via email with participants, helping them to select the correct photo equipment and providing practice tips. (There’s nothing worse than getting to a location without something you need.)

The Gear You’ll Need

There isn’t any one right answer to this, of course, but almost all wildlife photography starts with a telephoto lens – either a fixed super-zoom, or for the more serious a long lens for their DSLR or mirrorless camera. Very roughly, for birds, longer is almost always better, especially if you are shooting in the open. Think 500mm-600mm. If you are using nicely sited blinds like we do on our Texas workshops, you can get away with a shorter (300mm – 400mm) lens.

For mammals, it all depends on how close you will be able to get. On an Africa safari where you have permits for off-roading, for example, 300-400mm is likely to be plenty, but if you will need to stay on the road, longer lenses will help you make up for that. The tremendous creative flexibility offered by the new generation of telephoto zooms has also convinced many of us to take those more often than their fixed focal length counterparts.

Not all wildlife is found in exotic locations. This friendly fellow was in my dad’s yard. Lying on my belly with the lens foot sitting in an upside-down Frisbee is the secret to making the image pop in this case.

We get asked a lot about camera body choices, and as with lenses, there are many good options. Modern DSLRs are so much better than earlier versions, that any current camera is an improvement over the very best from just a few years ago. So any modern DSLR is suitable. More expensive models add faster focus, higher frame rates, and better low light image quality. Those are all great to have, if you have the budget and are willing to carry a larger camera. Mirrorless cameras have also come a long way, and work well as long as you have one with a long enough telephoto lens. Even compact Superzooms now do a credible job – although they are very slow to focus, so don’t plan on doing much flight photography if all you have is a compact camera. To get some more ideas, you can browse What’s in my Camera Bag.

You’ll want to round out your kit with appropriate chargers, card readers, cables, etc. Flash may or may not be appropriate – most large mammals don’t look very good when lit with flash, but it can be very helpful to bring out color in birds and small mammals, especially on dreary days.

Whatever you shoot with, you’ll need to make sure you can comfortably work with it in the field. Can you hold it by hand for long periods? Do you have a solid tripod that allows you to track moving subjects? Will you be in a vehicle that has a place for clamps or sandbags? These are all important questions to work through before you go. You can read my thoughts on the value of Tripods for Wildlife Photography for some ideas.

Knowing the image you want always helps. I spent several years photographing Puffins every summer, knowing I wanted this image. Finally I spotted a composition that would work off in the distance, and had time to move over and get the shot.

Practice Makes Perfect

Get your gear organized early, and then practice. Your local zoo is a great place to learn about the proper exposure to use for your planned subjects, and to make sure you can move about comfortably with your gear. Duck Ponds make for good sites to practice flight photography and learn about the way feathers react to light.

You’ll also learn if your shots are coming out sharp, and if your camera is focusing where you think it should be. I’ve got a helpful article on how we do just that using a Datacolor SpyderLENSCAL. If you’re bringing a laptop or photo viewing device, make sure and calibrate the display with your Spyder tools, or else you won’t be able to accurately evaluate your results in the field.


As you plan for your photo safari, one provision you should make sure of is that you’re allowed to take the gear you need for your style of photography, as many standard safaris allow only enough weight to take a point-and-shoot camera. The same is true for vehicles — for instance, if you show up on a crowded truck with a long lens and tripod, you’ll likely be unpopular from the start. The extra luggage and vehicle space needed is one reason a quality photo safari (whether you plan it yourself or go on one like the ones we offer) typically costs somewhat more.

Geese are graceful flyers and much easier to track for flight photography than songbirds, so they are a great subject to start with when you are first learning the technique.

Maximizing Your Wildlife Experience

Once on location, the key is to get out in the field and start shooting (it’s time to stop worrying about logistics). I recommend using a local guide when you can, so there won’t be a learning curve in getting the best opportunities to photograph. Time is too valuable to spend learning what the locals already know about the location and the animals. In our case, I am often able to use guides that we’ve worked with before and are experienced at helping photographers get great shots.

Getting out early and staying out late can also help maximize your time in the field when animals are active. Staying at lodges or camps near where you’ll be photographing can be a real timesaver, although they are often more expensive. The bright light of mid-day is often a good time to work on your photos indoors or rest up for the afternoon. In extreme latitudes or winter, of course, mid-day may be your best chance at having enough light to photograph.

Behavior & Ethics

It may sound obvious but one of the first lessons when you’re in the field with wild animals is just that—they’re wild—they’re not in a zoo. Talk softly and move slowly. The animals will hang around longer and be more cooperative. Remember that almost all animals hear, smell, and see better than we do and they’re very sensitive to possible threats. Learning to be calm and move quietly even when you’re witnessing the wildlife event of a lifetime is one of the best lessons any photo safari can teach for improving your wildlife images.

High-frame rate cameras help get action at its peak, but so does anticipation and knowing when to click the shutter.

Above all, be respectful of the animals you’re photographing. This is their life, and for most of them each day is literally a life or death event. Don’t stress them, flush them, or hamper their nesting or breeding for the sake of getting a photo. It’s not worth it.

Workflow on Safari

Many laptops, even brand-new from the factory, show washed-out images before they are profiled, so use your Spyder to calibrate and profile the display before you go! One of the best things about great wildlife images is that they don’t require much work in Photoshop or Lightroom. Sometimes only a little tweaking of levels is all that is needed, but of course the sky is the limit when it comes to how much time you can invest in a particular image. If the image needs too much work though, sometimes it is more productive, and more fun, to try to capture a better version instead.

Getting close to marine mammals often involves getting out on the water. We chartered a pontoon boat to help us get this shot of a Sea Otter.

Challenges for Safari Photographers

Dust can be a problem, especially with push-pull zoom lenses, or when changing lenses often. Make sure and bring some type of Sensor Brush in case your built-in sensor cleaner can’t handle the job, and having some type of Sensor Loupe can also be helpful so you can see what you’re doing (or a headlamp makes an inexpensive alternative).

Think About the Story You’re Telling

If we could only teach one thing on our trips it would be that photography is all about communicating. If your photos tell a story they’ll get looked at. Sometimes the content of an image is so compelling that you can throw all the other rules away. Learn more about how eyes are the key to most successful wildlife photographs.

Results Make it Worth it!

When the dust settles, you’re likely to have a wide variety of great images. Possibly enough to keep audiences pinned down for hours. That’s probably not the best way to keep your friends though. More productive is to create an entertaining, fast-paced, slideshow with a product like Proshow Producer or create a full-color book with an easy-to-use service like Blurb. Our sessions teaching those tools are always some of the most popular on our safaris!

These thoughts will hopefully get you started. We’ve got plenty more on our website, cardinalphoto.com, and quite a few we’ve published here on the Datacolor SpyderBLOG.

Don’t forget to enter for your chance to win an All-Expense-Paid Alaskan Safari with me – compliments of Datacolor!!

Enter here: Datacolor’s Great Alaskan Photo Safari Sweepstakes