The preparations for a trip to Africa are in full swing – poring over books and watching videos. Evenings are filled with nature documentaries and friends recount exciting safari experiences they had the previous year. Everyone has already chosen their favourite animal, the one that they definitely want to see. On every trip, especially when you travel to Africa for the first time, predators top the list of the animal encounters you are hoping for.

Documentaries of varying quality make it seem so easy to watch big cats and take pictures of them. Preferably while they are on a spectacular hunt or with clumsy, sweet little cubs. But the reality is that predators are rarely seen. Compared to their prey, the herbivores, the big cats are rather limited in number and especially the solitary ones are keeping tabs on their energy balance and usually get moving for three reasons only: to look for a mate, in defence, to hunt. The rest of the time, up to 20 hours a day, is spent resting or sleeping. Which for you has the disappointing result that you might not see any lion at all, or, if you are lucky, you spot a whole pride of lions dozing in the shade, lazing the day away, and your photos are hardly more than a souvenir.

Many times I have waited for hours for a lion to stir… but nothing ever happened. Apart from extensive knowledge about animals, anyone who makes a living out of nature films and photos needs a lot of time and even more patience to get really good pictures. As a tourist you need luck, an experienced guide or lots of opportunity – so travel often.

Pentax K30
560mm f6.3 1/800s ISO800 LW-0.7
Only five metres separated us from the young lion. The proximity is clearly visible by the fact that our vehicle is reflected in his eyes. Disruptive branches were eliminated by tight cropping. The symmetrical structure of the image favours a square format.

The first lions

What do I do as a photographer at my first sighting of lions? When they wake up, the excitement of fellow travellers gets the upper hand and rubs off on me?

Take it all in and enjoy the unique moment. It usually takes a while for the whole pride to wake up and greet each other. Concentrate on a lion that is particularly active or has a beautiful background. Keep in mind that lighting conditions change when the cats move out of the shade. Be prepared for this by having your camera in the standby mode well in advance and by taking a picture every so often just to check the settings, because light and shadow change during a long wait.

From the car

Since lions are usually photographed from a vehicle, the angle is always unfavourable. When viewed from above, lions appear small and lose their regal quality. Try to position the vehicle in a way which allows you to take pictures at eye level, or wait for a lion to get onto higher ground so that you can knock out the distant background when you capture his image. Most of the disruptive elements in front of his face or body are removed that way.

Out and about in a National Park

You are rarely alone when you happen to spot lions. In Etosha National Park, for example, 20-30 cars and coaches may well block your way and the view. Unfortunately, reckless drivers tend to cause scratches and bumps on other vehicles and fists are angrily shaken through the car window. Try to position yourself at one of the water points in such a way that you have a good view and still leave enough space for passing animals and other travellers. When lions change place, do not get frantic and try to stand in their way. The pictures are hardly worth harassing the lions, because in such cases the position, background or settings are seldom the best and instead you may just miss a touching scene.

Camera Settings

As mentioned in previous posts, I only use the middle focus point and take pictures with most of the aperture open (small focal ratio). This way it is easier to make the cats stand out from the blurred background. By setting a focus point, I have more control over the range of focus. Annoying grasses in front of the face can be turned into blurred features by a quick change to manual focus, as long as the essence of the animal is in focus. When I take close-up pictures, the eyes are very important to me and they have to be sharp. Otherwise, the face should be the sharpest part because our gaze is always drawn to the face or the eyes in a picture.

Short exposure times are essential in order to capture fast motion sharply. I set the ISO value to at least 800, even higher in the shade or late during sunset. This ensures that even small movements of the head are sharp. At least 1/1000 should be chosen for pictures of young animals at play or when a hunt is to be expected. Occasionally I underexpose a little to further shorten the exposure time. The dark, but sharp images can later be brightened on the computer.

Know your camera

In the rare event that you are able to witness a hunt, you need to decide whether to aim for the prey or the predator and shoot in the fastest burst mode. In this situation it is important to know after how many pictures the camera and the memory card will have reached their limits and how much time is required for calculating and saving. Therefore, take your finger off the shutter release button when the action relaxes in between, so that your camera can still take pictures during the showdown. If you are travelling with a partner, one of you should focus on the prey and the other one on the predator to get the maximum number of great photos.

Leopards

You will rarely get a chance to watch these shy solitary cats for any length of time. They avoid contact with the more dominant lions and they normally hunt at night. They spend the day in secluded places, often lying in high branches of trees. Thus it is difficult to spot one of them even in an area with a high leopard density, let alone take pictures. My leopard sightings were the result of plain good luck, the unrelenting pursuit of a trail or following the typical nocturnal call.

Cheetahs

Since cheetahs hunt in open grasslands during the day, mostly alone, sometimes with siblings, they are easier to spot, but still difficult to photograph. The light is not optimal and the scene is too wide for good pictures. If you happen to see cheetahs up close, try taking pictures at eye level or exposing them against an even background.

Small feline predators

The smaller feline predators, like wild cats or viverrids such as genets or civets, can often be seen on night drives. In some camps they have lost their shyness and sometimes stop by your fire pit. Their tracks are often clearly visible in the morning. Find a good spot and lie in wait the next evening.

Private game reserves

A lot of good pictures of leopards or cheetahs have been taken in private game reserves, an area of manageable size where the rangers know the whereabouts of the big cats. Sometimes they are bred and fed in the game reserve, and sometimes they wear a transmitter so that guests can be led to them quickly. These animals have lost their natural shyness and seem to pose against the most beautiful backdrop. Although I have mixed feelings about that type of facility, it is worth taking a tour there. Usually it is your only opportunity to get really close to the animals, observe them for a long time and take good pictures. Ask your guide about the sequence of movements so that you can find the best position for yourself and your camera.

A single safari to Africa is not enough for good pictures of the wilderness. You have to come back.

Have you booked yet?

Author: Lambert Heil

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