10 tips to take great photographs on safari in Madikwe

by Words and pictures by Tara Turkington - 10 April 2024

Madikwe’s red soils, blue inselbergs (volcanic mountains rising from the plains), clear light and abundance of birds and wildlife make it a photographer’s paradise. Whether you’re the proud owner of a long lens or two or are just taking snaps on your phone, here are a few tips to make the best of your trip, photographically speaking.

1. Focus

Think carefully about your focus. Are you focusing on the right thing? Familiarise yourself with your camera’s autofocus system. Knowing how to control your autofocus points and adjust focus modes will help you achieve sharp images more effectively. It’s often worth experimenting. Take photos of the same subject with different focus points and see which is best.

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The focus on the chameleon’s eye gives the photo depth and highlights its own fascinating ability to focus.

2. Get up close

Often, the closer you get, the better picture you will take. At Mosetlha, the guides are brilliant at positioning the game vehicle well for good photography. Sometimes, the difference of a metre or two from being on the other side of the vehicle can make a difference. If you’d like a different angle, let your guide know.

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A bull elephant feeds peacefully in the early morning light. The closer you can get to your subject (of course, while observing bush etiquette and not bothering the animal in any way), the more detail you will see.

3. It’s all about the light

The best times for wildlife photography are the “golden hours” after sunrise and just before sunset, when the light is the richest. Even an otherwise mundane subject shot at this time can make for a beautiful photo.

There are three main types of light to consider while taking photos in the bush:

a) Backlight: this is when the primary light source is behind the subject. It can create a dramatic effect where the subject is illuminated from behind, often resulting in silhouettes or highlighting the subject’s edges

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    A dead tree is backlit at sunset.

    b) Forelight: forelighting is when the sun is behind you and your subject is in front of you. The light shines on your subject directly, resulting in reduced shadows on the subject

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    A baby impala is forelit in the early morning sun.

    c) Through light: through lighting occurs when the primary light source is positioned at a right angle to the photographer and the subject. For example, the photographer might be taking a picture of an elephant with the rising sun to the left or right of the photographer rather than in front of or behind the subject. Through light is the richest light and, therefore, often the best type of lighting for wildlife photography and people at sunrise or sunset, for example, at a drinks stop. Remember, though, not to have the sun behind or in front of you, but to the side of you and the subject.

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    A Burchell’s zebra just after sunrise, shot with through light that gives it a warm glow.

    4. Observe the rule of thirds

    The rule of thirds can provide a useful guideline for composition. It involves dividing an image into a grid of nine equal sections, created by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, resulting in four intersection points. According to this rule, the most visually pleasing compositions occur when key elements of the scene are placed along these lines or, even better, at their intersections rather than in the centre of the frame. For example, getting a bird’s eye on one of the four intersection points will make the photo more compelling than if it is anywhere else in the photo.

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    The tree trunk the baby black-backed jackal is hiding behind runs down the imaginary third column of the image, while the empty space on the left of the picture helps to highlight the subject.

    5. Don’t cut off body parts unthinkingly

    Be careful not to cut off feet, tails, or ears, which will spoil your photograph. Allow “headroom” (sufficient space above an animal’s head) and “look room” (sufficient space in the direction the animal is looking in for it to “look into”.

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    I was careful not to cut off any of the leopard’s feet or its tail. The dark sky from an approaching storm contrasted well with the colours of the leopard and its prey.

    6. Compose your photos in your mind’s eye

    While you can crop and touch up a photo using software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, this takes time. It’s always best to take the most perfect shot you can at the outset.

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    I knew how regal this lion looked as I took this picture. I wanted to capture his focus and the sense of wistfulness in the moment.

    7. Colour

    Colour plays a crucial role in photography, influencing an image’s atmosphere and visual impact.

    Warm colours like reds, oranges, and yellows can create a sense of warmth and energy, while cooler colours like blues and greens can evoke feelings of calmness, serenity or melancholy.

    Colours also add visual interest and depth to an image, drawing the viewer’s attention. Vibrant or contrasting colours can create dynamic compositions, while subtle or harmonious colour schemes can create a sense of unity and balance within the frame. Sometimes, colours alone can make an ordinary photograph into something special.

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    The contrasting green of the background makes the pink on this lilac-breasted roller’s chest more noticeable.

    8. Background

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    Sunset in Madikwe.

    Paying attention to the background can help to make the subject stand out even more. For example, there are several inselbergs (prominent hills of hard rock that rise abruptly above the Madikwe Plains) which are covered in red rock and greeny-blue bushes, which can make for interesting backgrounds.

    Sometimes the background can actually become the subject of a picture, such as this one, of the dead tree at sunset.

    9. Perspective

    Think about the angle from which you are taking your picture – is there perhaps a better one? For example, it’s sometimes worth getting really low, on the same level or even below your subject, for a different viewpoint.

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    This photo was taken from below the cheetah, lying on a bank above the game vehicle. Because it’s an unusual angle, it makes for a more interesting picture.

    10. Timing

    Capturing the decisive moment or waiting for the right moment to click the shutter can make all the difference. Sometimes, you might not know when that moment is coming (for example, when the lion will yawn or the bird will swallow the grasshopper). In cases like this, take loads of pictures to capture the moment (you can always discard all the bad ones later).

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    A lion yawning at sunset. I had to take 20 pictures to get one reasonable one.