Planning for a Wildlife Photography Trip as a Landscape Photographer

Planning for a Wildlife Photography Trip as a Landscape Photographer

I bet that I'm not the only photographer to at least think about the idea of diving into wildlife photography while standing in the middle of wilderness. It couldn't be that much different, could it? 

I've always had a real appreciation and love for the natural world. From microbes to plants to animals, it all held my attention from an early age, and it was the reason I was so drawn to landscape photography in the first place. But despite my natural interest in wildlife, wildlife photography always felt so elusive. The long lenses were out of my price range and I felt that I didn't have the patience to sit in one spot for hours waiting for an animal to come by at the right time of day, so I pretty much forgot about it. However, about two months ago I got a message from an acquaintance of mine who happened to be a conservation officer at a game reserve in South Africa. I write this article from said reserve.

I had barely finished reading the message when I started booking the flights in my head. The excitement built, but with that the anxiety that always follows me into a new adventure grew larger and larger. This felt a little different, though, as it felt like a logical step for me. I've wanted to go to Africa for a long time, and the chance to photograph large mammals, with a guide that I knew, seemed rather perfect.

But of course, life is not always that simple, and my anxiety-induced lack of preparation hit me when I landed in camp. It's not like I forgot to bring an SD card or a certain lens, but I could have made life a little easier for myself if I had just thought of a few things ahead of time. So, to spare you the stress, I've made a little list which could help you if you decide to switch to wildlife mode for a while, especially for a somewhat impromptu trip away.

Three White Rhinos getting a good sniff of the vehicle. Shot at 24mm.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

  • Long lens: Because I knew that I would be photographing big game, some of which are a little bit habituated to the reserve's vehicles, I knew that a very long lens wasn't compulsory equipment. I have a very dependable telephoto zoom in Canon's 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, and this is turning out to be the perfect focal length for these large animals but I would have liked a little more reach, so I think, if one doesn't want to shell out for a large telephoto, it might be a good option to either rent a lens or an extender. Looking back on it, I should have rented the Canon Extender 2X III, as it would have doubled my range without doubling my weight. I did try to rent one when I got here but because some stores need a day or two to process my details and the fact that I'm staying a six hour drive from the nearest city, in the African bush, it turned out to be too awkward. 
  • Second body: My main body is a Canon 6D, but it's always a good idea to have a spare. For my spare, I use a Canon 750D. This serves multiple functions. As well as being my backup, I use it as an extender because it has a 1.6x crop factor. My 70-200mm lens turns into 112-320mm (if had gotten an extender, I would have essentially had a 640mm lens), and because it has an articulated screen, I can get down very low without busting my neck or getting elephant poop all over me.
  • Wide-angle lens: These animals can get pretty close and I've been lucky enough to get within a couple of meters of a small herd of white rhinos, so a wide-angle lens is very important. It's all well and good popping off a few shots from behind a tree but when these amazing creatures get close, one wants the viewer to feel how close the animal is to the camera — to almost feel like they're there. I'm using my trusty 'ol Canon 24-105mm. A 24mm or 35mm prime would be nice, but when you're confined to a vehicle (which is protecting you from being killed) the range is really important.
  • Shutter speed: Make sure to look up minimum shutter speed for your preferred focal lengths, with and without image stabilization. Also, a high shutter speed is crucial in getting a sharp animal that's moving, and some of these bad boys can move at speed.
  • Focus: Make sure you know what focus system you need to use and know how to change your focus points quickly and without having to look at your camera. Always remember: One Shot mode is for when both you and your subject is static while AI Servo is for when either you or your subject is moving. Don't bother with AI Focus... it will ruin you.
  • Practice: If you're not used to shooting fast moving objects and changing your settings quickly, without looking at them, practice. Practice on cars by the side of the road, get you friends to run back and forth, whatever you do, make sure practice, because an animal will appear all of a sudden and then disappear, literally in the blink of an eye. I have been caught out a couple of times fumbling with the settings while the moment passed me by.

In Short

Wildlife photography is a different kettle of fish. I knew this coming out here, but I still wasn't quite as prepared as I would have liked. I've caught the bug, though. I get it. There is a thrill that comes with this that can't come close to my usual work. Landscape photography is a slow and meditative process, and I love it. I love the ritual. But going out and "hunting" for a shot or lying in wait for an animal to walk into your view is incredibly exhilarating.

Have any of our readers tried the transition? Any wildlife photographers care to give your two cents? I would really love to hear your take on this in the comments below.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Mike is a landscape and commercial photographer from, Co. Kerry, Ireland. In his photographic work, Mike tries to avoid conveying his sense of existential dread, while at the same time writing about his sense of existential dread. The last time he was in New York he was mugged, and he insists on telling that to every person he meets.

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Great post. Although just a hobby photographer, I tried my best to prepare for a safari we took 2 years ago. All of your advice is spot on. I want to say that if anyone wants to go to Africa, they need to stop talking about it and go. It was an unbelievable experience and all I think about these days is going back. With that said, and as much as I tried to prepare, I was disappointed in a lot of my photos. I have a 6D and I rented canon's 100-400 L II. My wife had my rebel and shot with a friends 70-300. That left us a bit blind when we were so close to the animals that they brushed the vehicle. So first point, if you are on a private reserve where they can drive wherever they want to go, be prepared for animals close enough to touch. My wife now has a Sony RX10, which would be the single best camera to take on a safari. Second point, being an amateur, I had a lot of pictures that were not focused correctly. I used autofocus and because the brush is so thick and monotone, by focus point was on a leaf instead of the animal. Third point, it is easy to get latched to the camera, so don't forget to put it down and enjoy the experience!!! Here is one of my favorites. Notice, it is hard to not get part of the grass in the shots. Kudos to all those nature photographers who make it look easy!

Wife and I really got into photography thanks to our first safari, armed with a couple of bridge cameras. Fine in great light, but in the dawn and dusk times with moving animals and complex environments they were next to useless. Learned a lot, bought some decent kit, spent time learning and all that - now get some, even if I do say so myself, great shots on subsequent safaris.
Key lessons:

- Have 2 or 3 bodies (beg, borrow, rent) with mixed lenses- don't change lenses out on a drive. In dry season, the dust - in the wet season, the midges and other assorted beasties - none of which do the insides of cameras any good at all.
Our go-to setup was 16-35mm f2.8 on 77D, 70-200 f2.8 on 5D3 100-400 on 5D4.
If conditions allow and requirement really demands, we can swap the wide-angle to FF and 100-400 to crop to maximise your range options, but the greater DR and image resolution etc of the 5D4 allows for decent cropping etc.

- For first safari (or first photography-orientated one) I recommend conservancies - you can drive where you want, giving much great freedom and control over the angle to the light etc. Also, controlled numbers of vehicles - nothing worse than having a great subject with a background of white vans with iPads, and selfie-sticks out of every window.

- Consider backup options. Pro bodies mostly take two cards - we set those to mirror, so if one card fails we haven't lost a day's worth of shooting. Backup EVERY night. I backup to a laptop HDD, and then mirror to an external HDD, and leave the images on the cards. When the cards are full, use other cards. Is it overkill?? Possibly - but African weather, roads, "helpful" hotel porters and animals should not be under-estimated in any way!!

- Be prepared to shoot at high-ISO. We swapped out our 7D2 for 5D4 for our last safari. Missed the 10fps and 60% greater reach (although the high-res allows for heavier cropping without losing image size). However, at dusk, when the lion is hunting with f5.6 on the 100-400, you need 1/500 of a sec which will need ISO8000 or higher!! The 7D2 didn't do that at all well - the 5D4 is much better. Even sunset shots might require such ISO's - see the silhouette sunset shot on my profile for example.

- Take filters - at least a circular polariser and some grads.

- Know your kit, practice until you can make setting changes with your eyes closed. Sounds obvious, but it is worth repeating. The animal movement and changes can take you from framing a sunset with elephants gently moving in the distance, to a high-speed chase and kill in an instant! Change from Av to Tv, set shutter speed, bump the ISO, change the IS-mode on the lens, one-shot to AI Servo, change focus from point to 3x3 block, it's getting darker so turn down the exposure etc.
Oh, but wait - I planned in advance and set all this on one of the Custom settings - was it C1 or C3...
Bugger, missed it..... ;)
Go shoot some sheep, a dog in a field, a sparrow - switch from lovely framed portrait of impatient daughter to dog chasing a ball.

- Last point. Go back to the same place a couple of times at different times of the year - the changes in colour, animal behaviour, landscapes etc are huge!
Last year we did the Motorogi conservancy in July. Dry, dusty, LOTS of wildebeest, migration, easy spotting through the thin bushes, waterholes very important focus and activity areas, very mixed groups of animals so interesting interactions etc.
This year went back in May - end of an unusually long and heavy wet season. Grass was 4+ft high, bushes and trees gone berserk, so much green. Very few prey animals (they stay away from the long grass), waterholes were now lakes with water everywhere - no congregations, short grass dry plains very important, massively reduced number of animals (all still around, just had to work harder).
The differences in the photos, interactions, backgrounds, colours etc are incredible.

- Very last point (I promise!). Just go shoot safari. If you've not done it, do it. :)

Good tips! There's nothing like the magic of going on an African safari.

Thanks for all the tips, it really comes in handy since I will go to Namibia the next month and I never shoot wildlife, also is a bit of a relief reading that a 200mm on a crop sensor is almost enough.