Photographing the “Big Five” while on an African photo safari

by Jan 20, 2022Kenya

Elephant Cape Buffalo Amboseli Big Five

For travelers heading to Kenya on a photo safari, getting a glimpse of the “Big Five” animals tops many photography bucket lists. Being able to photograph the Big Five – elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard – requires skill, timing and patience.


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If you are headed to Africa on a photo safari, you’ve likely now heard of the “Big Five” – the iconic big game animals including the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, and leopard. The term was coined in the late 1800s during Africa’s colonial period. These five animals were then considered the most dangerous and the most difficult to hunt by animal trophy hunters.

Thankfully, tourism has replaced trophy hunting in most African countries, and trophy hunting is completely banned in Kenya – reason enough to support Kenyan tourism with your photo safari dollars. Now, Big Five is a kinder, gentler term referring to seeing and photographing these animals.

Therese and I enjoyed a very special photo safari to Kenya with California Center for the Digital Arts in 2021 and were fortunate enough to be able to not only see the Big Five, but also to return home with some wonderful photos too. So much better to “bag” a big game animal with a camera than a gun in my view.

To spot all Big Five in one day is exceedingly rare, but not unheard of. Much of what you will be able to see and photograph will have a lot to do with the quality of your guide. Good guides understand what a photographer seeks in lighting and photo angles. Top certified guides also understand animal behaviors, and know how and when the animals will hunt, where they are most likely to bed down, where they will most likely move to during the day, and where they will most likely drink. Connected ones also often stay in touch with others in the field to help each other in locating animals and events. The guide you are with has as much to do with your success as your skills as a photographer in getting to see these animals.

Lou Photographing The Big Five On Photo Safari

It is VERY rare to get this close to a lion, and not advised. Fortunately, Dumont is a friendly lion and he most enjoyed his “Big Five” status and meeting his distant family.

To improve your chances of seeing all the animals on the Big Five list, it also helps to be on a photo safari that visits multiple locations and reserves. On our trip with the California Center for the Digital Arts, we visited Amboseli National Park (leopard, lion, cape buffalo, and elephant sightings are possible), Solio Game Reserve (white and black rhino, lion, leopard sightings are possible), Samburu National Reserve (lion, leopard, elephant sightings are possible ), Lake Nakuru (lion, white and black rhino sightings are possible), and the Maasai Mara (lion, white and black rhino, elephant, cape buffalo and leopard sightings are possible). In some photo safari circles, the Big Five has expanded into Africa’s Big 7 with the addition of the African wild dog and the cheetah. You have a good chance to see both in the Mara, too.

Here then is a little about each of the iconic animals, when you are most likely to see them, and a few tips on how to best photograph them. Good luck, and enjoy your photo safari quest for the Big Five!

Tips to help you get great photos of the Big Five

Elephant

Elephants In Amboseli Kilimanjaro The biggest, literally, of the Big Five is the elephant. Just watching a herd of the largest living land mammals move slowly across the savannah or wade through a marsh or across a river is a sight I never grow tired of.  The African elephant can weigh up to seven tons and are large and strong enough to pull up or push over small trees.

Elephant Baby Ibis Amboseli KenyaBecause of the size of the elephant be sure to experiment with different focal lengths or lenses. Take photos of them from afar, to show a sense of scale with the landscape–as Therese did opting for a wide landscape shot with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background. Use a wider-angle lens to capture the entire herd. Get in close with a telephoto to capture the creases and wrinkles of the skin, its eyes, the texture of its trunk. Shoot to fill the frame head on with a telephoto so you can see the full head, trunk, tusks. If you are on safari when there are baby elephants, keep a sharp eye out for special interactions with its mother, and with other baby elephants. Baby elephants playing in the mud—too adorable.

Elephant Mara Closeup BW

Rhino

While both the white and black rhinoceros are on the photographer’s Big Five list, traditionally it was only the black rhino that made the grade, chiefly because of its aggression. Black rhinos are extremely endangered so if you manage to see one, and photograph it, consider yourself very fortunate indeed. You are most likely to see a black rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park.

All rhinos are huge, weighing up to 5,000 pounds with horns that can grow to be up to five feet in length. White rhinos are more likely to be active during the day, and black rhinos more active toward the late afternoon and evening hours – which is when the jeep I was in spotted the black rhino in the photo below.

Black Rhino Lake Nakuru Big Five

Try different angles to capture the drama of this magnificent animal—head and horn straight on with beady black eyes, or from the side or slightly at an angle to capture more of the head and curve of the horn. And if you see a mama with a baby, all the better for an extra dose of cuteness.

Rhino Baby Peek A Boo Solio

African buffalo

The African buffalo (also known as a cape buffalo) looks like a muscle-bound battering ram on hooves. The males sport massive, curved horns reminiscent of the Swiss Miss on chocolate drinks. The horns sit on top of their heads like a helmet that protects and gives them an impressive appearance. And though they may look like very large cows, do not be deceived. The African buffalo is considered one of Africa’s most dangerous animals.

Cape Buffalo Lake Nakuru

They congregate in large herds which serves as an effective defense against predators. Lions will attack buffalo, but it is always a high risk because buffalo are large enough and strong enough to seriously injure or kill a lion.

Because the skin of an African buffalo is so dark, when photographing individuals or a herd, be careful with your exposure—it becomes very easy to overexpose the rest of the photo. Look for photos that show the buffalo’s size and impressive power, for example head on to show snot covered noses, piercing dark eyes and huge expanses of horns. Also look for photos that show birds, such as oxpeckers, helping to keep the buffalo free of mites and other insects, or a buffalo in action eating or drinking.

Cape Buffalo Yellow Billed Oxpecker

Lion

There is just something about lions — males, females, and cubs alike. I can just about guarantee you will see lions and, when you do, especially if it is your first time on safari, your camera shutter will be in danger of burning up. Remember to take a breath and plan your shots. Lions are social and live in prides. Females do most of the hunting and raising of cubs. Males protect the pride.


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Lioness On The Prowl Maasai Mara

Lions are typically inactive during the day. Early morning is when you are most likely to discover a kill for a bloody show so many photographers want. Early morning or evening is when you are most likely to see lions hunting, and perhaps be able to witness and photograph a kill as it happens. During the day, lions will spend most of their time sleeping.

Lion Zebra Kill Dusty

If you are lucky enough to find a lion pride during or just after a rainstorm, focus on the male with its huge mane and you may just get lucky as it shakes off and sends a magnificent spray of water in all directions.

Solio Lion Cub And Papa

For prides with cubs, the cubs will also come out later in the day. Interactions with the cubs playing with each other, annoying the dominant male trying to sleep, clambering all over their mother, or tussling with one or more of their uncles are photographic gold. I could hear camera burst modes going into overdrive in our jeep and the jeep next to us when cubs appeared in the pride we had been watching for a while.

Lion Cub Ready To Pounce

Leopard

Leopards are stealthy, primarily nocturnal animals, which makes any sighting of them a considerably rare treat. Most often, you will see leopards by looking up as they spend the daylight hours sleeping and lounging on branches in trees. Keep a sharp eye out too for their prey (antelope or zebra) stashed up among tree branches where they haul it after killing it to eat at leisure and keep scavengers away.

Leopard Slung In Tree Mara

When photographing, look for lighting that will highlight the leopard’s fur, eyes, whiskers, and long tail. Try to frame your shot, if the leopard is in a tree, with branches. Of course, if they are slung between branches sleeping, you can only hope he or she will glance your way a time or two.

Leopard In The Grass Kenya

Adding two more to make the “Big Seven”

You may hear guides, other photographers and photo safari tour operators refer to the “Big Seven” or the “Big Five Plus Two.” The two animals added to the Big Five list are the African wild dog and the cheetah, worthy additions for any photographer’s list to see.

African Wild Dog

African wild dogs are highly endangered so spotting them is special. They are most active in the early morning and late afternoons and will spend the day resting until temperatures drop. Wild dogs hunt in groups, running down their prey and then biting at it and tearing off chunks of flesh until it eventually falls. It is because of this violent way of killing that wild dogs have a bad reputation, though hyenas hunt in much the same way.

African Wild Dog Maasai Mara

If you discover a hunt and then a kill, keep your lens zoomed out a fair bit as dogs will all go at the prey, tear off chunks of meat and run off. You don’t want a wild dog with food in its mouth running into or out of your frame.

African WIld Dog Mara

Cheetah

Cheetahs are the fastest land mammals on earth, which you will discover the minute you try to photograph one on the run. Continuous autofocus, auto iso, and burst mode will be your friends here.

Cheetah Tongue Maasai MaraCheetahs are diurnal, which means they are active during the day, but their natural camouflage can make them very hard to spot. Typically, female adults hunt alone. Male cheetahs will hunt solo or in groups. One famous group is the Magnificent Five in the Maasai Mara which are a treat to see.

Cheetah Bro And Sis Mara

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3 Comments

  1. Wow really great blog, all the photos are so amazing. Well done!

    Reply
  2. Great article on the Big 5!

    Typical Photographer – In the image of Dumont, the first thing I saw and thought was, “Hey! That’s my lens!”.

    I’m glad the first thing you mentioned was how important knowledgeable and sympathetic Guides are to the success of the photography “hunt”. I loved the little insights into the behaviors of the different animals which can lead to a lot of unexpected photographic gems. Keep up the good work, Therese and Michael!

    Reply
    • Yes, that was your lens John … and one has to wonder why it is pointed away from the lion sitting right next to you. 🙂 Thank you so much for your comment and your kind words!

      Reply

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