Photo Tip: Capturing the Entire Herd

One of my Facebook friends, The Safari Photographer, has written an article on his site (also known as The Safari Photographer)  that gives a really important tip for anyone traveling to Chobe or on safari in general.  In prior tutorials, I have commented how one will often see elephants, hippos or buffalo in large herds.  I have advocated the concept of focusing in on a single animal and trying to bring focus to them.  An example is shown in this image:

Young Elephant Among the Herd - © P. B. Eleazer

While this technique works well to bring focus, sometimes one wishes to convey the sense of the large group of animals.  This is really tough as the resulting image often does not guide the eye and the lack of flow results in a boring ‘snapshot’ effect for the image.

The Safari Photographer has created a very nice illustrative set of photo tips to help one overcome that delima.  The following material is copyright of and Russel Johnson and is a reprint of material from that site:

Photographing an entire herd of animals requires a different approach compared with portrait or action photography. Through trial and error, I feel that I have learned the hard way how to improve my images. This article aims to give you a head start, so you can get the right image on your first visit.

For anyone visiting the Great Migration in East Africa, this is a must read.

Depth to your image

When discussing portraits and action photography, I advocate trying to eye level with your subject. While I feel this generally makes an image more intimate, when it comes to herds, it does not give the required depth to capture a whole herd.

To illustrate the problem, I am using a couple of examples of a buffalo herd I spent time with in Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe);

What to avoid:

Russell Johnson's "what not to do" - © Russell Johnson

An incredible photographic opportunity, a large of buffalo congregate around a pan, with some members starting to drink. To capture this image, I went through my usual thought process, considering depth of field, composition and the settings on my camera. As with many occasions, my enthusiasm for what I saw through the viewfinder produced a different result to one the memory card.

Looking at the image with a critical eye, the herd appears more like a group of blobs than individual animals. Having multiple bodies and legs intertwined removes any point of reference within the image. Whilst it may depict a scene from your safari, it does not really jump off the screen at you.

Creating Depth and Layers:

Controlled Depth of Field creates layers of separation -© Russell Johnson

The same morning, I had photographed the herd at sunrise. As you can see in the image above, I was able to create depth in the image, layering the herd through the frame.

I have highlight a couple of points to consider as a useful guide, which I hope will enable you to get similar results:

  1. Find high ground and if necessary, stand in the vehicle (with guides permission) or use a roof hatch if you have one. Elevation is the key to the image above.
  2. Focus on a subject at the front of the herd, this will avoid having an out of focus subject distracting your viewer in the foreground.
  3. What aperture to use? Normally I do not increase my depth of field that much, rather keeping blurred outlines. Attempting to have too many subjects in acceptable focus can create unintentional distractions.


About the guest author: Russell Johnson

Russell first visited Africa in 2003, when he undertook a volunteer program in South Africa, travelling through Botswana and Zambia. He had developed a keen passion for photography and is a contributor to Getty Images. Russell tries to visit Africa at least twice a year and has spent time working in both Zambia and Botswana.

Russell’s blog, The Safari Photographer was born in 2009 with the aim to share knowledge and experience to allow you to get more from your African safari. We feel that although the internet is a wonderful resource, when looking for information on safaris, you often find information limited outside of travel forums and the websites of travel agents. The Safari photographer aims to share our experiences and knowledge, with a particular focus on photography.

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