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Never forget: photographing elephants

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Never forget: photographing elephants Johan Swanepoel
08 Nov
For many, elephants are an integral part of the African landscape, a grand symbol of the natural wonders that make the continent such a favourite destination for the wildlife photographer

Along with lions, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards, the elephant is one of the safari photographer’s ‘Big Five’ subjects and, up to now, one of the most visible, in some places gathering in their hundreds at water holes and rivers to drink and bathe. Sadly, such spectacles are becoming rarer as elephants are extirpated from much of their range by gangs of well-armed ivory poachers. Although elephants have been killed for their tusks for centuries, much of that time legally, the level of poaching today is unsustainable as more elephants now are being killed than are being born. The rate of decline is stark: In 1979, an estimated 1.3 million roamed much of the African savannah and forests. This year, after conducting the most intensive survey of elephant populations across 15 countries, the Great Elephant Census reported a figure of just over 352,000 savannah elephants – a decline of 73 per cent in less than 40 years.


Family herds

For Africa’s forest elephants (now considered a separate species to the savannah elephant), the situation is also dire, with an estimated 65 per cent fall in numbers in just 20 years. Forest elephants are about half the size of their better known savannah cousins and frequent the dense jungles of the Congo Basin, from Gabon in the west to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the east. Unsurprisingly, these elephants are harder to find, both for the photographer and the conservationist.

Fortunately, the more widespread savannah elephant is easier to encounter for users of more typical digital cameras and lenses when on safari. Their impressive size and distinctive appearance means elephants are the easiest of the ‘Big Five’ game to spot. They usually travel in family herds, sometimes numbering more than 20 individuals. At times of drought or during the dry season, numbers will swell further, even numbering a hundred or more, as several families congregate around a water source, or a procession of herds follow one after the other along a well-travelled route to water. Such a sight against the vast expanse of Africa’s plains is a wondrous experience in its own right, but with a herd of elephants calmly going about their business of drinking, bathing or eating, there are a variety of photographic possibilities for the camera: from the wider view depicting many animals dotted around a water hole, to a closer shot isolating one elephant from the rest of the herd. Once a family feels at ease with its surroundings and senses no threat, it can stay in one place for an extended period, allowing you to attempt a wide variety of photographs without changing position. Your guide will choose a position that gives you the best and safest proximity – elephants may move slowly, but when angered or threatened they can gather speed quickly and charge with frightening effect.


Sunsets and silhouettes

As with so much wildlife photography, the location and time of day plays an important factor in determining the type of image you attempt. Game drives are nearly always in the morning at sunrise, or late afternoon up to sunset. The yellow orb of the African sun against a tangerine-coloured sky always provokes a burst of exposures, but even better is when that sunset provides the background for a silhouette of an elephant (or elephants) in the foreground. Perhaps even more than the elongated form of the giraffe, elephants make the ultimate silhouetted subject against the setting sun.

Being herbivores, elephants pose little threat to other wildlife, so the chance of encountering other well-known species in proximity to these giants is very likely. Antelope, zebra, giraffe, warthog and impala will comfortably share a water hole with elephants, but the ‘king of beasts’, the lion, is a different proposition. It is not unknown for a pride of lions to isolate an elephant from the herd, but such attacks are rare and usually only when other prey is scarce. Both animals do sometimes drink together but they nearly always keep a respectful distance, so the chances of a photograph showing both in the same frame are slim.


Behaviour and personalities

It’s not just their size and distinctive features that make elephants a favourite subject of many wildlife photographers. Their ponderous movement and need for vast quantities of water and vegetation for their daily diet, mean elephants can be observed and studied for long periods of time while they eat and drink. As a result, we have learnt much about their behaviour and personalities. Scientists are agreed that this is an animal with great intelligence, a prodigious memory, and empathy for others.

Females and calves live in tight-knit families led by a matriarch who is usually the oldest female and usually the one with the largest tusks. Unfortunately, this means she is the main target of the ivory poacher. The death of a matriarch is a devastating loss to the rest of the herd as she is one who passes on much of the knowledge about the territorial range needed for survival, including sources of water, salt licks and migration routes.

Bull elephants leave the herd when they come of age and older males tend to be the prime breeders with the genes for longevity and strength, so when they have their lives cut short by poachers, the ramifications for the health and survival of future generations is immense.

Elephants also grieve and have been seen visiting the bones of family members, caressing the remains with gentle strokes of their trunks. Such examples of sociable behaviour resonate with many who observe elephants in the wild.



Despite their size, photographing elephants from a safe distance still means telephoto zooms are your likely first choice of lens. Zoom in close for portraits and focus on the eyes, keeping your AF point locked, and spot meter from this point at the same time to ensure an accurate exposure.

In the high contrast light of an African day, metering requires careful attention as direct sun on the subject can result in both bright highlights and deep shadows within the same frame. Gaining accurate exposures for both extremes can be achieved by using a high dynamic range setting, which in effect blends several different exposures into one frame.

Baby elephants are a popular subject among many pro photographers. They are rarely away from the protective form of their mothers for long and those up to a year old are small enough to walk under their mother’s torso. Tight framing with a long lens can result in a composition that focuses on the face of the baby adjacent to the legs and trunks of the mother. This natural framing provides scale and conveys the relationship between mother and child. From a technical point of view, the grey and wrinkled hide is a far easier surface to meter for an accurate exposure.


Favoured locations

Sadly, elephants are already extinct in some African countries where they used to roam in large numbers, but several countries in southern and eastern Africa are home to healthy populations where more effective protection is enforced. Botswana is home to Africa’s biggest populations, with the largest herds found in the Chobe National Park in the northeast. Currently, Botswana is the only country in Africa to enforce a complete ban on hunting wildlife and adopts a shoot-on-sight policy towards poachers.

In Kenya, Amboseli National Park is a favourite location for photographers wishing to capture elephant herds against the iconic backdrop of a snow capped Mt Kilimanjaro across the border in neighbouring Tanzania. In Zimbabwe, on the Zambezi River, lies Mana Pools National Park, cited by many as their favourite location for seeing elephants. Here, the mighty beasts have learnt to stand on their hind legs to stretch their trunks even higher when reaching leaf pods of the ana tree. Such a delicate balancing act by the world’s heaviest animal is an extraordinary sight.

Elephants have adapted to a wide variety of climates and terrains and two populations of desert elephants are known to exist – one in Mali, the other in Namibia, where they migrate long distances in the search for water. These herds are often photographed when making excursions to the water holes of Namibia’s vast Etosha National Park. Here, big bulls are often captured covering themselves in huge clouds of dust, turning their hides a ghostly grey-white. Given the rate at which African elephants are disappearing at the hands of merciless ivory poachers, such an image can also be seen as a visual metaphor for their future.



Plan what type of images you wish to take. The size and slow movements of elephants make them a great subject for all types of compositions, but don’t try to attempt too many different things. Instead, concentrate on getting the best results from less compositional ideas.

Focus on the eyes. Not as easy as it sounds because the eyes are a tiny part of an elephant’s face. Also, elephants are often looking down, so you need to make the most of those times when they are looking up and the sun is catching the light off their eyes.

Expose for silhouettes. An elephant has one of the most recognisable shapes of any animal, which can be emphasised when photographing them against a background of the setting sun. By exposing for the backlighting, the subject will be rendered as a silhouette.



Change lenses too often, if at all. The arid savannah plains of Africa are full of dust and this will get into your camera all too easily if you keep changing lenses. Best to use a telephoto zoom that covers most of your focal length options, such as a 100-500mm or 80-400mm.

Make too much noise or get too close. This might sound obvious, but just because elephants are the biggest land animal on Earth does not mean they can’t be spooked. Poachers have made them fear man and they will charge if threatened. Very few people have lived to tell the tale of being hit by six tonnes of charging elephant.

Forget to fit a lens hood to the front of your lens. Bright sun, especially when low in the sky at the start and end of the day, will cause flare so a lens hood will help reduce this risk when shooting towards the sun.


Recommended reading

Remembering Elephants, by Wildlife Photographers United; Envisage Books/Born Free Foundation (www.rememberingelephants.com); £45 (hardback)

An Elephant’s Life: An Intimate Portrait From Africa, by Caitlin O’Connell; Globe Pequot Press; £25.99 (hardback)


equipment selections

Accessory option: Hiking boots

It’s hard to go past a classic pair of leather hiking boots and the Scarpa Ranger series is a firm favourite for walkers, particularly in warmer conditions. The current version Scarpa Ranger II Active GTX (£140) features a waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex lining and a Hi-Flex midsole for optimum balance of support and walking comfort – ideal for the beaten tracks of the African savannah.


Lens option: Fast telephoto lens

For years, 500mm and 600mm telephoto lenses have been the ‘go to’ lens when shooting from a distance. However, the 400mm focal length is lighter and has a bigger maximum aperture. The Nikon 400mm f/2.8E VR FL (£7,000) is gaining in reputation. Add a 2.0x converter and it becomes a lightweight 800mm f/5.6 optic that makes heavier lenses seem outdated.


Camera option: Pro-model DSLR

Elephants spraying water and dusting their bodies mean there’s a variety of action to capture, so a robust, dust-sealed and high-speed pro DSLR will maximize your chances. The D5 (£4,900 body only) is the flagship Nikon camera and boasts a rapid firing 12fps continuous shooting. Nikon claims the D5 is its fastest ever DSLR and 153 focusing points ensures it keeps up with and captures every little movement.


This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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