Concentrating on just a few simple techniques can add interest and really lift your images, says Edward Selfe, resident private guide and photographer in the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
1. These vultures were landing at the site of a large mammal carcass. Repeating events, such as vultures landing every few moments, give photographers a chance to hone skills and try different techniques. Take a series of shots, check them on the camera, and adjust if necessary before the next bird lands. Including the heads and bodies of the vultures on the ground in this shot conveys a sense of scale of the clear-up job in process.
2. Blurry images are a nightmare for photographers – except if it’s intentional movement blur. This effect is remarkably easy to achieve. Lower your ISO and close your aperture to reduce the light entering the camera; when you have a shutter speed of around 1/50 sec, try photographing moving animals. The trick is to pan with the movement and keep the animals in the frame. Take a series of shots and look for one where the animal’s eyes are sharp.
3. Dramatic light often makes the best images. Look for situations where the subject is brightly lit but the background is dark, as these make for superb images. Be careful not to end up with an overexposed shot (you might need to apply a negative exposure compensation) but you’ll be surprised how commonplace subjects can make beautiful images with this effect. These giraffes were crossing the river with a heavy sidelight but the bank behind was in shade, giving a great opportunity to employ this idea.
4. Reflections are a great way to add interest to your images. Look for full-body reflections in lagoons and rivers, but also smaller reflections in drying puddles and waterholes. Sometimes it can be interesting to photograph only the reflection, leaving the viewer to wonder about the subject.
5. Mirroring and repeating patterns are a well-known technique in art and photography. Look for animals that are lined up (perhaps at a waterhole) or looking in one direction (perhaps at a predator) – or simply when their poses mimic each other, as with these resting wild dogs.
6. It’s not always necessary to include your whole subject in the frame. If you are watching a herd of animals, try placing the closer subjects against the backdrop of their herd. Try focusing on the closer subjects or even on those in the background to test the different effect.
7. Don’t be afraid to zoom out. Consider the shapes made by the animal’s surroundings and see if they contribute to the framing. In this case, the heart-shaped branches around this Verreaux’s Eagle Owl add value to the image which would otherwise be a shot of an owl on an awkwardly placed branch.
8. Take care not to zoom in too close. These two images were taken at the same focal length. In the first, the leopard takes up very little of the frame, and the temptation would be to move or zoom closer. But when the cat jumps down from the tree, at full stretch, I was only just able to keep its whole body in the shot. Had I zoomed closer for the earlier portrait, I might have missed the better shot of her jumping down.
9. Don’t worry about including the habitat. Very often – especially with bird photography – there is a temptation to zoom in too close. While this does work much of the time, if you have a static subject, consider zooming out and including a wider shot. Of all the images that I took of this beautiful Pel’s fishing owl, I like this open frame the most.
10. Night-time photography is tricky at the best of times; low light, awkward spotlights and moving animals. Start off with your widest aperture (lowest f number e.g. f4 or f5.6), choose ISO 6400 and set your camera to spot metering. You may be surprised what you can achieve. Try different techniques too, including backlighting from the headlights or spotlight of another vehicle.
11. Try looking further ‘into the distance’ for photographic subjects. This shot of buffalo coming to drink was taken across the river at a range of 500m or more. Sometimes your subjects don’t need to be large in the frame, especially if there are lots of them!
12. If you are shooting in very high contrast situations (where there is lots of bright sky or dark shade), take a test shot and check how it looks on the camera’s screen. Camera’s meters can sometimes be fooled by high-contrast scenes and do not give you the results you want. This shot of impalas required an exposure compensation of -1. You’ll find the exposure compensation control shown as a +/- button on your camera.
13. When photographing birds in flight, ensure you have a high shutter speed to freeze the wings’ movement. Usually a 1/1600sec is a good starting point, but be prepared to go even faster for aerial speedsters such as Carmine bee-eaters.
14. Don’t be scared to shoot into the light. Sometimes the best images are made this way. Take a test shot and adjust the exposure compensation if needed (often a compensation of -1 is necessary to maintain the backlit effect) and then fire away! Take care with focus as you will be focusing on your subject’s dark side.
15. Get low! It’s hard for your viewer to connect with yours subjects if the angle of view is from above. Shooting from low down immerses your viewer in the scene and reminds them that they are very small compared to many of nature’s big players. It’s not often possible to get off the vehicle on safari, so look for a lower area of ground, a drainage channel or simply keep your distance and zoom in more.