Photographing the Big Five


Leopards (Panthera.pardus)

Mainly nocturnal, leopards are never easy to spot, let alone photograph. More often than not, the best one can hope for is a quick shot, however, this doesn’t mean that you can’t capture a good image, but it requires preparation and readiness for the unexpected. For most people, the best chance of capturing a leopard image is while in riding in an open game viewing vehicle being driven by an experienced field guide. These are mainly to be found in privately operated wilderness areas.

As leopards are nocturnal animals by nature, one must keep in mind that a photographer will more often than not, be working in low light conditions, which makes higher ISO settings unavoidable. Rather accept a little more noise than you may like, but capture that image.

The use of flash is usually acceptable, but this should be checked with the field guide beforehand, as some areas are opposed to this rather invasive means of capturing an image. Guides will usually carry spotlights and the more ethical use of spotlights is using red filters to minimise any adverse affect on the animal’s eyesight and ability to recover 100% vision quickly.

Leopards being what they are, can also confound anyone with their sudden appearance in bright sunlight, so always be prepared and know exactly the limitations and operating capabilities of your equipment, and always check your settings before leaving camp. Achieving good leopard images requires being prepared at all times to adapt quickly.

Lions (Panthera.leo)

Lions spend close to 22 hours a day sleeping or resting up, so these magnificent animals can appear to be a little boring to those photographers expecting action, action, action! Lions hunt mainly at night, but are opportunist hunters also hunting at any time that an opportunity presents itself.

Lions should always be watched very carefully for sudden movement which presents an ideal snap opportunity for an unusual image. Sometimes one may sit and watch lions sleeping and can be caught off guard by one which decides to either change position or even show annoyance at one of its colleagues. Lions usually rest up near their latest kill and it is common for lions to feed, rest and feed again, which also presents interesting opportunities.

Cubs never can sit still for long and are always great subjects. While lions may appear to be sound asleep and cubs all cute a cuddly, you should never approach too close. Lionesses are fierce, courageous mothers and always sleep with “one eye open” as it were.

Elephants (Loxodonta.africana)

It is imperative to first observe the sex of an elephant as soon as you spot one.

Elephants have a matriarchal society, usually led by the oldest, largest and most senior ranking cow. The rest of the family group / breeding herd comprises related females, sub-adult bulls, cows and calves of both sexes. Breeding herds will run up to 20 – 25 animals. If a larger herd is observed, this is usually a temporary association of two or more family groups that may come together for a particular reason such as safety, feeding or seasonal  migratory purposes, but they will again split up into their individual family groups when the appropriate time arises.

The matriarchs are supreme leaders and her word is law in the breeding herd / family group. Never, ever come between a cow and her calf, and if there are cows and calves in an area, particular care should be exercised not to frighten the calves, because this will usually provoke an adverse reaction from its mother or even from the matriarch of the group which leads to the entire group becoming agitated. If the matriarch becomes upset, the only way to handle this is to immediately extract from the area as quickly and quietly as possible.

Young bulls run with the breeding herd until about  12yrs – 15yrs of age and then are pushed out by the matriarch to join up with older bulls. A sort of apprenticeship of being taught by a big bull, if you like. Bulls can roam as a  solitary bull or can run in bachelor groups of about two up to as many as eight at a time. There will always be a senior bull in a group and bachelor groups are usually docile and pretty chilled.

Bulls in “MUSTH” (Only bulls experience a state of “musth”.)

MUSTH is a heightened level of testosterone which happens to mature bulls once a year. The older the bull, the longer a state of “musth” and it can occur for up to ten weeks in really mature 45yr – 50yr old bulls. A “musth bull” will seek out a breeding herd with cows who come into estrous. This is a state where she comes into “heat” and is receptive to bulls who are in “musth” It should be noted that the big bulls will be large enough to muscle the  younger bulls out of contention for a cow in estrous even though the young bulls may be sexually competent. The matriarch will assist in keeping young bulls away, but when the big, strong older bulls arrive, they prove too much to fend off, which is how nature  ensures that the best genes are passed on.

Stress in elephants is usually quite easy to spot by the weeping temporal glands leaving a moisture trail down the sides of their heads, starting just behind the eye level. (This is a sure sign of stress in either cows or bulls alike.) However, confirmation of a state of “musth” in a bud is the added wetness of the inner hind legs of a bull. At the height of “musth”  he will appear to be urinating freely while displaying agitated behaviour. “Musth” bulls should be avoided and any chance encounter should result in an immediately extraction from the area. Never, ever try to sit anything out with a bull in “must”.

Contrary to popular belief, elephants do sleep lying down from time to time. Even the adults, but this is unusual to spot in the course of a game drive. The norm is for most mature elephants to enjoy standing-up snoozes, running as much as 20 minutes at a time. These present great opportunities as very often the animal will use a tree, rock or other support structure to lean against and this can be really comical.

If a situation arises when you happen to be on a path or road and see elephants approaching, it is best to move off the oncoming path as much as possible, therefore affording the oncoming animal/s as much space to pass as possible. Cut the engine of the vehicle and keep as quiet and still as possible. Even if an animal stops to stare or even approaches your vehicle – this is usually done at a leisurely pace by the animal which indicates only curiosity. Once they are satisfied that all is OK, they will continue to walk quietly by. If any animals are startled by your shutter noise, you must stop immediately!

Elephants have to  be watched intensely for their  behavioural signs. Not only is this important from a safety point of view, but it can provide warning of a movement and could be a great photographic moment. Elephants  very often will shake their heads when you come into their comfort  zone, which they consider far enough. It is imperative not to go beyond this point and highly advisable to extract from that position to a distance of comfort for the animal/s and safety for yourself.

Rhinos: White Rhino (Ceratothium.simum) and Black Rhino (Diceros.bicornis)
White Rhinos are mostly docile grazers found in open grassland, but are also found up fairly steep slopes of open grassy hilly areas. They’re easy to identify by the vertical angle at which their heads hang down, with their wide mouths close to the grass for easy cropping. They are also much larger than their cousins, the black rhino. These animal can be approached fairly closely without too much trouble, but not too close as to alarm them as they have poor eyesight but excellent hearing.

Good interaction between rhinos and birds present endless photographic opportunities. They are usually accompanied by cattle egrets, which dance around them waiting for disturbed insects and locusts to flee, as well as Red-billed (and Yellow-billed, depending in geographical areas) Ox-peckers, which love to grip on their shin while eating the ticks that are plentiful all over the body.

Black Rhinos are smaller – about two thirds the size of their white rhino cousins. They are usually shy browsers, which means that they eat leaves on scrub bush and trees. More often than not, they will be found in forested  thickets with mottled light, which can present challenges for photography. Quite easy to identify by the horizontal angle at which they carry their heads, their pointed, prehensile lips are easy to differentiate from the large, square, flat mount of their white rhino cousins. These rare and highly endangered animals have a reputation for aggression with a completely opposite temperament to their white rhino cousins.

In the Interests of Preservation & Conservation

It is absolutely imperative that no GPS metadata be recorded when photographing any rhino. Any GPS enabled camera’s should be disabled and certainly no rhino should ever be photographed with a cell phone. If any rhino is photographed, absolutely no reference must be made to the geographical location.

African Buffalo (Syncerus.caffer)

African Buffalo usually run in herds from a mere handful to the hundreds. These will comprise bulls, cows, sub-adults and calves. When observing these large herds, you notice that there are large mature bulls that place themselves strategically behind, in front and around the herd, doing the work of sentries.

Once old buffalo bulls get past their potent breeding age, they may leave to herd as individuals or team up with a few of their older, equally impotent colleagues. These are then known as “Daga Boys” (mud boys) and the small groups often frequent waterholes or wallow in the mud / water. The caked mud and a scowl, which always makes it appear that you somehow owe them money, present great photographic opportunities.

Usually buffalo are highly curious animals and will approach an observer, which is why you have to position yourself and wait for the best photographic opportunities. Other good photographic opportunities present themselves at a river waterhole or dam. Also when a herd is on the move, especially in the dry winter months, they kick up vast dust clouds which can provide amazing photographic opportunities, but NEVER precipitate a stampede, as that is dangerous and unethical to influence any animal’s behaviour just for the sake of getting a photograph.

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