I have taken many wildlife shots, but I will never forget this one story. I was on safari in Zimbabwe at a magical spot called Mana Pools. This huge bull elephant walked right past our camp and down to the river, then swam out to the grassy islands in the middle of the mighty Zambesi. Our guide thought this might be a good opportunity for me to get close with my very wide angle camera, so we paddled out into the river and slowly moved closer to the big bull. We kept a watchful eye for crocodiles and hippos, which are plentiful in this area. Reaching the low grass island, I quietly crept up on the elephant with my tripod while he was eating. The guide had said: “Whatever you do, if the elephant charges, don’t run!” It was interesting advice.
Please bear in mind I was not using a telephoto lens (which is usually a given for wildlife photography). I was using a very wide angle lens and was less than 10m away when I took the shot. I had just swapped over to my 35mm camera when all of a sudden the bull charged. Everything happened at once then. The elephant accelerated. I leant back with my 35mm until all I was photographing was blue sky. And at the last second, the guide threw his hat at the elephant! Amazingly the elephant stopped and backed away. The guide turned round to check I was okay, and said he was very glad I hadn’t run. I was still flabbergasted he had actually thrown his hat at a charging elephant.
“You mean, that’s it?” I said. “You just throw a hat at an elephant!”
“It usually works,” replied the guide
“Usually?” I spluttered.
Then he told me the story of how an elephant had once eaten his hat. He had followed the huge creature a whole day to get it back. Apparently elephants don’t digest hats very well, and it had gone right through him and come out several shades lighter. It was the same hat he’d just thrown again.
So here are my tips for shooting wildlife:
- Focus on the eyes, because when you look at an animal photo you always seem to be gravitated towards the eyes of the animal.
- Learn about the habits of the animal. If you don’t, have someone there who understands the nature of the animal that you’re photographing.
- Shoot from a low angle, as this makes the animals look more impressive.
There are times when you can fill the whole frame with just the animal, but it’s important to actually think about trying to get the animal in location. It’s good to do close-ups of animals, but really, many shots like this you could take in a zoo. What makes a really good wildlife photo is when you have the animal connecting with its location.