Photo Tip: Know Your Subject

One key to getting special shots it by getting to know your subject’s behavior.

Pre-Safari Homework

Begin by the basics: Read books, look at coffee table books full of great animal shots, review old issues of National Geographic and talk to those have been into the bush before to learn more on the species.  If you are a true novice to wildlife photography, this may seem like a challenging way to learn; however, you will be surprised how much information you will be able to gather.

Next stop in learning is the internet.  Major sources of information include web sites for lodges, safari travel agents and general wildlife and safari enthusiasts. I have also found that photography forums such as Photography-on-the.net , Naturescapes.net and Nikonians.org are excellent.  Many photographers like to ask questions and/or share their experiences.  You can learn a lot by following these discussion threads.

I have found that many of the big name wildlife pro’s that regularly lead photo safaris are very willing to share. I don’t suggest taking this path until you’ve done the basics, but once you are beyond basic knowledge, consider politely ask them for tips via email – often they will be more than happy to share their expertise. If you have a favorite wildlife photographer or two, find out if they have a blog, tweet on Twitter or have a Facebook page.  On these sites they often share recent trips that are embedded with the knowledge you need.  For example, I have noted in the past that I am a fan of Andy Biggs.  Andy has a blog known as The Global Photographer.  In a recent post on his blog, he noted that hippos are nocturnal feeders.  He has noticed that in the mornings, after a night of grazing, the hippos sleep a lot, but around mid-afternoon, they start to move around.  He further suggested that he has had best luck shooting images of hippos with mouths wide agape during this later time.  Wow, just a simple comment for him, but this information could save me an hour of sitting around a water hole in the early morning waiting for these animals to ‘perform’.

Sunrise is not the best time to get this shot - Photo by Justin Eleazer

Field Learning

Some knowledge you will only gain through experience.  I am amazed at the interesting tips I have picked up from guides and folks living in southern Africa.  There is no way my annual trips will touch their hours of first hand experience.  Make sure you talk to everyone you meet when on safari, from the town’s people, to drivers for tour groups to guides.  Set to memory when and where you see special game of interest.  One example I recall is that, on my first trip to Chobe, we noted that a large herd of Sable seemed to come down to the water at exactly 10 a.m. on the first two days of our holiday.  We set note of this and, sure enough, we had front row seats every day shooting this herd.  Over time, and through trial and error, you will be able to understand how each animal is somewhat a ‘creature of habit’.

In a prior article, we commented on the importance to talking with park rangers.  This paid off big time on our spotting a leopard. Speaking of parks, the local rangers and park staff are an excellent resource for learning the activities and whereabouts of great subjects.  Make sure you take a minute or two to chat with them when entering and leaving the reserves as they will have knowledge of current animal behavior that will be invaluable. As amateur photographers, we’re not able to spend all of our time out there, but the rangers do, and they excellent resources at your disposal.

These tips are basic, but they will prove valuable to your safari.  My sister calls me a very lucky photographer – maybe I am, but it seems the more I study wildlife behavior, the luckier I get.

Baboon troops are usually great early morning subjects. Look for them to be grooming near the waters edge at that time. - photo by Justin Eleazer

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