Stately, enormous, powerful, gentle and quiet, loving, calm and sweet, huge, dangerous and wild.

Elephants. They epitomise Africa. Tourists consider them the most impressive animals in the wild. Their sheer size is a good enough reason for that. With a shoulder height of up to four metres they are usually easy to spot, and since they move without haste you can take your time watching them.  

The distinctive behavioural patterns and family structures, which are easy to recognize and supposedly just as easy to interpret, show qualities that seem similar to ours. We feel empathy for elephants. This is reinforced by their relaxed manner as they approach slowly, moving from tree to tree, feeding on young shoots or pods. And you may find yourself catching your breath when an elephant passes your vehicle just a trunk’s length away or when he expresses unease by vigorously shaking his head.

The challenge

When I first encountered elephants I was totally in awe and so inspired by the exciting experience that I just kept snapping away – as many travellers do. But back at home the pictures didn’t seem to speak to me. I was disappointed and wondered what I had done wrong. I had failed to capture the elephant’s traits and his character. Distracted by the chemistry of the situation I disregarded the details that moved me at that moment. By now I know the qualities that an elephant picture should have, not only in order to please me but to be interesting to others as well.

In my opinion an elephant picture that is to be shown to an audience must portray at least one of the attributes mentioned at the start. But how can I make the character of an animal visible in a photo? How can I translate the emotion of a situation and let it come through in a picture? How is it possible to evoke a specific feeling in the beholder so that he wants to keep looking at an image? These questions are an important part of photography in general. In the next articles we will come back to them repeatedly in order to be able to answer them from different angles.

The biggest challenge when taking photos of elephants is their size. How do I get the giant into the picture without spoiling the three-dimensionality and making him appear grey and plain? I am always sitting with this problem. In many cases the solution is a frog’s-eye view photograph or a focus on details. That is the attraction for me when I take pictures of these animals. Unfortunately it isn’t so easy to do, and therefore I often leave the camera behind when I know that I cannot change my position, e.g. if I am sitting in the car, go walking with no cover available or if I am in a hide or observation hut. All of these situations determine my physical position and do not allow me to take a picture that I have not taken yet.

Elephant Photography
Red light Pentax K1 200mm f5.6 1/400s iso400 The elephants have kicked up a lot of dust. In the late afternoon light, seconds before sunset, everything starts to glow red. Contre-jour, the elephants lying in the shadow are reduced to the basics and can still be recognized as elephants. Because of the special mood created by the light, the unfavourable photo position ‘from above’ goes unnoticed.

But anyone who travels to Africa for the first time or visits Namibia only once should of course take lots of pictures of their memorable trip, regardless of how unfavourable the position may be. Extraordinary snapshots are few and far between. Therefore it is important to remember that knowing about the animals plus patience paired with time are essential to get that handful of photos which will inspire others and make it into the photo album or the annual calendar.

Forward-looking approach

Your knowledge of elephants may contribute to a great picture. The source of such knowledge will be your guide if you are travelling in a group, or it will be the result of intense observation if you have opted for a self-drive tour of the country. Like other animals, most elephants tend to react in the same way to recurring situations. This enables your guide to anticipate the pattern of movement and the path to a waterhole, and you can respond accordingly. If you are travelling alone, you should spend ample time at a waterhole and find out from which direction the animals are approaching, or whether you can recognize any recurring patterns of behaviour in the group. Be prepared and position your car in a way that ensures you have the best light and the best view without disturbing other tourists. If possible, return to the same waterhole repeatedly until you are able to anticipate what will happen there and when.

Elephant Photography
Water Pentax K1 310mm f5.6 1/8000s iso200 Like a black shadow the silhouettes break the light reflecting off the water. Thanks to my elevated position I was able to take a picture of the elephants in front of the glittering waterhole. Sometimes the position cannot be changed and one has to make the best of it.

At a given observation place try to find a position that offers enough space, e.g. the waterholes at the rest camps in Etosha or in Bwabwata National Park, and at the many lodges with permanent game observation facilities. You need space for your equipment and you should have a good overall view of the waterhole in order to focus on a suitable frame for your photo. Stay for as long as possible and also stick it out in a quiet phase when nothing exciting seems to be going on.

Elephant behaviour

When elephants come to a waterhole they often clean their trunk first and usually proceed to drink at the cleanest spot – where the water inflow is. Once this spot is taken, a bull that arrives later may steer clear of it and drink on the other side to avoid a clash, or he might try to push another one out of the way to get to the best water himself. In these situations there are always scuffles, which make for great pictures.

Elephant Photography
Trunk parade Pentax K3 150mm f4.5 1/125s iso3200 Elephants drinking – a typical occurrence at a waterhole. Because of my low position I am almost at eye level with the youngster. I cannot capture more of the group because I cannot reduce the focal length any further. I took this picture in burst mode and paid attention to the animals’ trunks and the look of the elephant I focused on.

Elephants which know and greet each other, stick their trunks in the other’s mouth to confirm their friendship. Very young animals of just a few weeks old are concealed in the middle of the herd and therefore difficult to observe. But when the cows are distracted or feel that the surroundings are safe, the little ones splash about in the water and provide intimate glimpses into the life of an elephant family.

Photo position and frame

The size of elephants can be highlighted by taking the picture from below: perhaps the animals are on an elevation or you get close to the ground to take the shot. If you choose a frame that includes small antelope or a vehicle, it will also underline the dimensions of the grey giants. The neediness of young animals can be illustrated, for example, if they stand between the pillar-like legs of their mothers. It is important that the extreme differences in size become visible, because that affects the impact of the picture.

Elephant Photography
Through the legs Pentax K5 420mm f8 1/400s iso200 In order to illustrate differences in size it is worthwhile to include details of the elephant in the picture. The blur of the legs is the result of the springbok standing behind the waterhole and the elephant in front. After editing the picture, the legs seem like a frame.

If you are lucky enough to encounter elephants moving slowly towards the road on which you are in your car: please do not risk your life for a supposedly great photo, and do not encourage copycats by getting too close. Keep your distance and wait for the animals to cross the road and come closer on their own accord. Then they will be much more relaxed and may even linger longer if there is tempting food by the wayside, such as acacia pods or flowering shrubs.

Try to position your car at a slight angle so that you do not have to take your photos through the dusty windscreen. But you should always keep an eye on all of your surroundings and leave enough clearance to be able to reverse a few metres if needed. The elephants need their space and do not want to be cornered. Keep your distance from other vehicles. It is easy to get bumped when you are excited and when you want or have to reposition yourself.

When elephants want to cross the road, watch out for young bulls and the lead cow. The former sometimes feel an urge for a little mock attack, which can result in exciting pictures, while the lead cow usually guides the herd across like a school crossing patrol and will keep her eyes on your car with her ears extended. On the open road you will also have the opportunity to see one of the calves. Once you have spotted it in the bush, get it into focus and press the trigger as soon it enters open ground. With a little luck you will be able to capture some beautiful pictures in burst mode before the little one disappears in the thicket on the other side.

Editing

If you have been able to take a picture from so close that it centres on details of the elephant’s skin, ears, trunk or tusk, it is worth to try editing in black-and-white or monochrome. In a black-and-white image the absence of colour emphasises the contrasts and the differences in light and dark. Structures are shown to more advantage. The focus is on the essential.

Elephants always stir something in us, whether they appear in reports or pictures, in real life or in a movie. Let yourself be moved by the leisurely pace, the rhythm of these charismatic animals. Occasionally, give the camera a break and absorb the pictures with your heart. Feel the closeness and become part of the wild for a moment. These are experiences which will always remain with you, without a photo book.

When will you go for an elephant safari?

Author and photographer: Lambert Heil

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