Photographing elephants in Kruger Park
Posted by Joe Lategan on Sunday, October 6, 2013 Under: Kruger National Park July 2013
On my first day of my photographic workshop / safari in The Kruger National park I took a casual drive to get my mind in one with the bush. I spotted a heard of elephant on the opposite side of the Sable dam and locked or embedded that in my mind’s eye as it was breathtaking to view the elephants from such a low vantage point right in front of me across a dam but also in full view of the camera or the telephoto lenses. A few days later at my photographic seminars in the Kruger National Park and Phalaborwa I eluded to the photographers that if I lived like them in Phalaborwa I will definitely spend more time at this dam and wait for elephant or other animals for that matter to entertain me on the opposite side rather than waiting or chasing after lion to photograph. As luck would have it, (not really) as I drove into the loop at the dam after the seminars were completed, at that very moment the elephants totally unexpectedly came rushing through the bush as if my prayers were heard just like I pictured the scene in my mind’s eye. Of course I knew that if the elephant would appear on the opposite side to drink it would be good but these things don’t really happen that quickly, it takes many years to capture a scene that you dream about. Especially wildlife.
This time I took an afternoon drive and at around 15: 00 I guessed it would be drinking time for the elephants and planned my trip accordingly. Well it was... on the second as I drove into the dam road.
The splendour of the moment was awesome. Like a curtain of a stage opening in a second and the most majestic scene happening instantaneous. A whole heard of all sizes including babies that varied from two days old , week old, month old controlled and protected by the large ones breaking through the line of Mopani’s hugging the dam with ears flapping and trumpeter noises overwhelmed me at first. The youngest elephant was clearly protected in the water by an older sister still very young as well as the older females. It was no different from a group of humans approaching the waterhole. It had many souls, a spiritual experience indeed. The baby elephants was constantly protected against falling into the water by all the other elephants. Because of the cold temperatures the elephant don’t submerge into the water . They basically drink or spend very short time at the water so the dramatic water shots that one gets in summer were not going to be possible I knew instantaneously. I went for the compositions at the water in large format first. Once a baby slipped and fell into the water and the mother in an instant pushed her up with her front leg. The shock of the moment when the baby fell into the water was captured and can be clearly seen in the dramatic wide eye of the baby.
Regarding the photographic approach to a situation like this, well the moment overwhelms one so, mistakes and over excitement are eminent. Which camera and lens to pick and the settings as the sun appeared and disappeared behind the clouds every other minute making different pictures all the time so being aware of the changes when small batches of low cloud roll in over the scene is crucial.
Regarding lenses the larger animals like elephant require small focal lengths and I normally make the mistake to crop to tight. With my elephant shots I wanted to use the 200 to 400 zoom in for real close ups of the point of the trunks in the water and the eyes etc and around the 250mm for the full body compositions as it was just the right distances. Not checking my zoom level left me with 200 mm shots as I pushed the zoom back accidentally in the quick handling and never checked it due to the over excitement of the situation. A zoom lock on the lens would have done me wonders as the mistake was made many times during my month long visit to the park. Subconsciously I was used to a fixed 300mm fixed lens that doesn’t move focal lengths if it was handled. Once again the excitement totally confused the mind as concentrating on the composition and just selecting the image to capture out of huge variety takes up the most time
Shutter speed and ISO.
The major challenge I had during my July Kruger Park trip was the movement of the clouds. This off course creates a nice even light with little contrast when the cloud covers the scene but when for instance water that are sprayed that splatters and need to be frozen it just pushed the shutter too low and it was not be possible. When the sun did come out for n few seconds the harsh light was good enough for action freezing but didn’t give me the even soft light I wanted. To push and drop the ISO every time the clouds move in or out is extremely difficult and bound to destroy many images especially when you need to maximise the opportunity as the elephants drink very fast in the winter compared to the summer when they bath and can spend hours in the water. In my situation clouds would cover the scene from everything between 10 seconds and two minutes only. I found that it was best to select an average ISO setting that needn’t have to be changed every time. Then it depends on how good ones cameras high ISO quality or noise levels are. So here is where the full chip top end camera comes in and are so expensive. One can still blow up to A0' sizes with ISO 800 or 1000 and even more if that is ones market or style.
Now white balance is the other main decision in this type of situation. If you have to switch between sunlight and overcast it would create similar problems than with the ISO situation so leaving it on auto would be the best as the cameras also have good auto white balance these days. I made a few blobs due to the fact that I wanted to test the manual white balance settings of my new camera.
In : Kruger National Park July 2013
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