How to shoot the Big Five


If you’re keen to photograph Africa’s iconic animals, use these top tips by Ann and Steve Toon.

Safari A-listers, the Big Five, most prized and feared by trophy hunters of old, still top the ‘shooting’ list of Africa travellers today. Going to see them has never been easier, but getting great photographs is more of a challenge. That’s where our Big Five photo tips can help.

The lion
For shots of the ‘King’ of the Big Five, you really need to invest time at the extreme ends of the day. Lions are most active very early and very late, and the golden light of dawn and dusk shows-off their tawny-coloured fur wonderfully. Before they start their night shift, however, lions will usually stretch, yawn (revealing fearsome and photogenic canines), rub heads and groom themselves or others – all excellent photo opportunities to look out for.

Direct eye contact is the prize you’re after when photographing these apex predators. Wait for ears to be pricked forward too before releasing the shutter so your subject looks seriously alert. In many reserves lions are used to tourist vehicles, making a close approach easier — but then there’s every chance they might ignore you completely. Be patient and ready for a perfect predatory stare before photographing, and remember that it may only be fleeting. Never snap your fingers, whistle or use other ploys to provoke a reaction.

Be prepared for action. Most lion hunts occur at night, but you can sometimes get lucky by day. Make sure to set a high ISO and fast shutter speed if it looks like a hunt is on. Pride members split up and hunker down low when they’re preparing to stalk prey, so that’s your cue to follow and wait; keep a good distance or you risk blowing their hunting chances and your own photo opportunities. The explosive action is short-lived. If it happens, just photograph. Overthinking can slow your reflexes.

Photograph lions against a setting sun when possible. They’re the hairiest and furriest of the Big Five, making them brilliant subjects for a photographic approach that allows the orange glow of the late sun to shine through the dishevelled hairs of their manes. To accentuate the effect, deliberately underexpose your shot by about one stop and shoot into the light. The lion will be captured as a silhouette, while his fur and mane will be rim-lit like a golden halo.

The buffalo
Go for tight close-ups of curmudgeonly Cape buffalo. These animals have a justifiably fearsome reputation, but a single animal shot full-frame can look boringly bovine. By framing more tightly on that characterful face the picture will be more powerfully arresting —  better still if the specimen you’ve singled out is caked in mud.

To prevent the dark colours of the buffalo’s hide from washing out, try dialling in two-thirds of a stop of negative exposure compensation. Cape buffalo are the trickiest of the Big Five species to expose correctly because the skin of very dark animals can fool the camera’s meter into over-exposing the image.

Train your camera on any buffalo in the herd being plagued by the birds that commonly follow them, such as egrets or oxpeckers. Look for birds perched comically on the heads, back or horn curves of the buffalo. Tight-in close-ups of oxpeckers investigating buffalo nostrils, ears and eyes for ticks work particularly well, though for the latter you’ll need a reasonably fast shutter speed, at least 1/500 second, to freeze the constant scything of a feeding bird.

Search out discreet groups of animals you can isolate from the crowd when photographing big buffalo herds. Buffaloes can occur in herds of a thousand or more but it can be tricky to capture the spectacle of the whole scene. Keep an eye out for repeating shapes that suggest a pattern in the chaos, or focus on one characterful bull and make him really stand out by using a shallow depth of field. This will throw the surrounding herd members pleasingly out of focus.

Make the most of the huge dust clouds thrown up by buffalo herds on the move. Photographing a herd against the sun will silhouette the animals with the light filtering through the veil of dust, adding bags of atmosphere. To punch up the effect it helps to underexpose the image by up to a stop of light.

The elephant
Don’t waste the sweet light at dawn and dusk looking for elephants: they’re more active later in the day. Target your attention from mid-morning on watering points favoured by breeding groups of elephants — piles of recent dung are a clue to a waterhole currently heavily utilised — that will most likely be visited throughout the day by a lumbering procession of elephants of all sizes.

Aim for active compositions that show the amazing social interactions and playfulness you’ll witness, rather than static portraits. Look out for drinking, spraying, bathing and social greeting which often involves trunks being intertwined. Try telling the story of the elephants’ visit to the waterhole.

Photograph them from as low an angle as possible to accentuate the size of this species – the biggest and heaviest of the Big Five. It’s a trick that professional photographers exploit to the full when photographing mega fauna. One simple way to do this is to photograph elephants from a boat below the banks of a river during their daily visit to drink. Alternatively, a growing number of reserves now have low-level hides that are excellent for this.

Use the low-raking light of late afternoon to sculpt the wonderful texture of an elephant’s hide. It’s the wrinkliest of the Big Five species and great for detail shots where light and shadow interplay. Try for some extreme-close-ups, but use a long lens as you should generally keep a minimum distance of 30 metres from these subjects to be safe.

The rhino
Know your subject’s daily routine if you want to photograph rhinos. Look for white rhinos on the move in the early morning, when they patrol territories and visit dung middens, then again at around four in the afternoon when they usually graze. Check waterpoints, too, as you may often find them wallowing.

Black rhinos are more elusive, often active at night, but you can see them at the ends of the day if you’re lucky. Keep quiet. Rhinos may have poor eyesight, but they have excellent hearing and are easily spooked.

Go beyond passive portraits of rhinos where possible. Like buffalo, rhinos can come over a bit bovine if you simply shoot them sideways feeding or at rest, which doesn’t do these powerful and impressive subjects justice. Hang around at your sighting long enough to capture some dynamic behaviour, for example, spraying up mud as they wallow, bulls squaring up to each other, or the flehmen response (lip-curling) of a bull checking out a female.

Move to high ground when the weather’s hot. Rhinos like to seek out ridge tops to catch the cooling breeze when temperatures soar. This can sometimes offer up the chance for a lovely, classic scenic shot showcasing this creature in its stunning African surrounds — especially if you can find an eye-catching tree, like an umbrella thorn, for added visual interest.

If you are posting images online, disable GPS on your camera when shooting rhinos. Poachers are suspected of using GPS data on images posted to social media to track down animals – rhinos are creatures of habit and often don’t wander far from day to day.

The leopard
Leopards are the ultimate photographic prize, in large part because they are extremely camera-shy. In our experience, maybe one in four sightings produce a good image. To improve your chances of having one in the viewfinder chat to guides and rangers about active territories and patrol these intensively at dawn and dusk. Listen out for the alarm calls of monkeys, baboons, and impala — they usually mean there’s one prowling nearby.

Look up if you want to photograph leopards. Leopards often stash their kills in trees to avoid theft by lions or hyaena, and will often return to their kill to feed several times over the next day or so. If you find a leopard in a tree you can use the bold, graphic shapes of the branches to good effect in your picture compositions to ‘frame’ your subject.

Turn a negative to your advantage when photographing the trickiest of the Big Five. Leopards naturally seek out dense cover, making it tough to get clean compositions. So, make a feature of the fact that you can’t see all the subject in the shot. A single beady eye and a few tell-tale spots showing through the foliage says a lot more about a leopard’s lifestyle than a full-body shot out in the open.

Grab a shot when you do see a leopard — don’t wait for perfection or a closer opportunity as leopards often disappear into the bush very quickly so your chance will be gone. Make sure you’ve got enough shutter speed for a moving animal and set exposure compensation to minus one third – the leopard’s dark spots can fool the camera into over-exposing, and a little underexposure brings out the rich colour of the coat.

Given you often don’t have time to finesse shots with most leopard sightings, it’s important to get the key parts of your picture right first time. Focus on the leopard’s eyes, or head if it’s at range, to help ensure you get this bit sharp. The eyes are the most important bit of any successful wildlife shot.

To see more of Ann and Steve Toon’s images, and to find out about the African photo safaris they run visit their website at