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A Beginners Guide to Wildlife Photography

crested crane amboseli safari

If you are someone like me (Prashanth), your only priority with regards to photography is that you want to capture great memories while on holiday. I have never been much of a photography person, but my first safari experience about 7 years ago certainly brought out the ‘photographer’ in me. I suddenly felt the need to understand the basics of ‘wildlife photography’.

There is just something about being in nature and out in the wild that makes you want to pull out that camera and capture shots of everything the jungles have to offer. And now it was time to go from the dense jungles of India to the wide open planes of the African Savannahs.

For those of you who have ever attempted wildlife photography; even if it was with your phone, you would know that capturing wildlife is totally different from any other type of photography. Right before our trip to Kenya, I spent over a month researching camera equipment, watching tutorial videos and reading blogs on how to capture that perfect ‘out in the wild’ picture. After reading this post you will be able to go from knowing nothing about cameras to being able to capture amazing shots on your next wildlife vacation. Let’s get clicking!


Full Frame vs. Crop Sensor – What is ideal for Wildlife Photography?

Ideally try and get your hands on a Crop Sensor camera as these camera’s come with good sensors (sensors are vital for image quality) and provide you with that little bit of extra zoom when compared to a full frame camera. Of course a Full Frame camera can do no harm. These are ultimately the high end cameras that professional photographers use, but as a beginner you don’t need to be picky. A full frame camera will add great quality to low light photography but for wildlife photography a crop sensor camera certainly does the job. We used a Nikon D7500 for our Kenyan Safari and it certainly gave us those dream shots of scampering cheetahs, lions lazing around in the open and many more. I am probably going to be using this camera for most of my safaris from here on.


Lenses, Lenses, Lenses!

The next big question is what lens should you be carrying? If baggage is a constraint, you ideally want to be carrying just 1 lens for your safari. Also keeping in mind that you might need to be quick to capture that perfect shot, you don’t want to be searching for lenses at a crucial moment. My preference for lenses was a Nikon 70-300mm f4.5 – 5.6. Remember, zoom is vital for those perfect wildlife pictures, so the more you have the better. Since Kenya is mostly open grasslands 70-300mm was the ideal option as the animals do tend to be quite close to you as well. This focal length is however not great for birding.


A 70-300mm is perfect to capture any of the many elephants grazing through the open grasslands



Not close enough! You definitely need more than 400mm if you want to capture those majestic birds!


If your safari is through dense forests and you are unsure of how close you might get to the animals, you might want to consider a Nikon 200-500mm f5.6. This lens will work great for birding as well as zoom pictures but you might be handicapped if you are trying to capture something reasonably close to you.

If you really want to go pro you can also consider a prime 300mm or 400mm lens. A prime lens is essentially one with a fixed focal length (zoom). A fixed focal length is obviously limiting but the advantage is that a 300mm prime lens will give you much better picture quality than a 70-300mm lens at maximum zoom.


Up close and personal! This lioness was lazing in the afternoon warmth right beside the driving path. A 200mm to 500mm lens would have been unsuitable to capture this shot.


The 3 basic technical’s of photography and their symbols

S – Shutter Speed – The duration for which the shutter remains open to allow light to enter. Using lower shutter speed during the day and a higher shutter speed for early morning and late evening drives would be ideal.

A – Aperture (also called the f stop) – The amount of area that will remain in focus. A smaller aperture number for portrait shots and a larger aperture number for landscape shots would be preferred.

ISO – In simple terms ISO determines the amount of brightness in your photo. The higher the ISO, the brighter your picture.


Which of the funky modes should you use?

You should definitely spend 3 to 5 days playing around with your camera before you go on your trip. Of all the options that these powerful cameras give you, selecting a mode is the first choice you need to make. If this is the first time you are using a DSLR then I would definitely recommend sticking to the Auto mode or any of the preset modes like portrait for close up shots of animals, landscape for pictures covering wide areas or sports/action for animals that are running.

Auto is certainly the simplest shooting mode, but I would highly recommend exploring the Aperture priority mode (marked as A on the dial) and then going totally Manual (marked as M on the dial). The automatic shooting mode gives decent pictures but certainly does not help you maximize the features your DSLR comes with. Shooting in Aperture priority or Manual will help you click far better pictures, particularly when you have challenges such as low light.

Thomson Gazelle

Two Thomson Gazelle’s testing their might! Shot this one on Auto. You can see that the Gazelle’s are slightly blur as they were moving. Using Manual or a Preset mode of ‘Action’ would have been ideal for this shot.


Should you shoot in RAW?

RAW is an image format that captures the maximum detail of a photograph and hence the file sizes are quite large in comparison to JPEG. I would recommend shooting in RAW only if you are going to be doing a lot of post image processing. If not, shooting in the highest JPEG quality available on your camera should be good enough. Remember that if you do shoot in RAW, converting them to JPEG is mandatory before you can start sharing them.


Going beyond Still frames

If a picture is worth a 1000 words then imagine how much a video is worth! Great pictures offer those #throwback moments but a video of Lions strolling towards their pride can give you goosebumps and help you relive an experience like nothing else. One thing we are glad we did is carry multiple cameras on our trip to Kenya. So, while I was capturing still shots, Andrea was capturing some breathtaking videos. You can however also use the same camera for both stills and videos. But be sure to pick your moments. If you are shooting videos using a zoom lens, remember that it is important for you to carry a tripod. A video being shot on full zoom will be too unstable for you to store in your ‘Great Vacations’ library!


Rental vs. Buying

Before you start going crazy about how much all this equipment is going to cost you, here is a tip! Unless you have a lot of money that you don’t know what to do with, consider renting a camera. There are plenty of companies that offer camera and lens rentals. This is a great option if you are looking at a wildlife vacation as a one time holiday and something you may not do for another 2 or 3 years. Also, remember that technology changes very fast. So, think twice before you go spend half your holiday budget on an amazing camera that you may use very infrequently.

There are plenty of camera rental options available across all the major Indian cities. For those of you in Bangalore, here are some options:

PS: I have used Tapprs a few times and have been very satisfied with their equipment quality and pricing.

Want more of a perspective on the kind of pictures a Nikon D7500 with a 70-300mm lens can give you? Check out our post – 39 Photos That Will Make You Want To Visit Kenya

If you have any further questions or would like more details, please let us know in the comments section below or drop us an email. Hearing from you guys makes us super happy! 🙂