Mastering the Fundamentals of Wildlife Photography


In her first post of this three-part series, Amanda Ritchie, the photography studio manager at Londolozi Game Reserve, in South Africa, recommended the ultimate photography gear to get the perfect wildlife shots on safari. In this post, Ritchie explains how to use that gear to master the art of photography and how it all comes down to three fundamentals.

When I sit with guests or new photographers and start to explain what can only be described as the most fundamental principles of taking a good photograph, I always get excited when a series of light bulbs come on for those who previously found photography confusing.

The art of practical photography has been around for 176 years. Coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839, the word “photography” simply means “drawing with light.” If you can commit that to memory, you’ll understand that to take a good photograph you need to be aware of the light around you, and know how to manipulate it to achieve your desired result.

Out on safari we are subjected to the most difficult lighting conditions there are. If you can master the use of dull, flat, early morning light as the sun rises, and you can be quick enough to make the most of the last rays of light at the end of the day as the sun sets and dusk settles in, you’ll be in the best position to tap into what photographers refer to as “the golden (or magic) hours.” Add to this the opportunity to photograph some of nature’s most brilliant subjects (from a leopard causally lying in a tree to a cheetah streaking across the African savannah), it becomes increasingly important to master these three fundamentals before you set off on safari.

Without going into too much detail, the DSLR cameras today work by using an array of millions of tiny cavities called “photosites” to collect the information that is coming through the lens. This information is a record of the light that the lens has captured: the shades and tones, the brightness and darkness and the different colors. As photographers, we practice the art of capturing moments (the moments that we draw with light).

When taking photographs in the field, we want to ensure that what we are recording is what we saw through our own eyes, thus accurately representing the moment that stirred us to take the photograph in the first place. In order to properly represent these moments, you need to understand the way that your camera records the light around you so that you can use it to your full advantage. The first, and possibly most important, thing to understand is aperture.


Before I go any further, you should link two words together forever in your mind: “aperture” and “pupil.” An aperture is an opening through which light travels, just like the pupil of your eye. The aperture opens and closes to increase or decrease the amount of light that your camera records. Think of your pupil dilating and constricting when you shine a torch into your eye.

F/stops and aperture:

Aperture is linked to a measurement called f-stops, which is a calculation based on the focal length and the diameter of the aperture at any one time. Simply put, f-stops (commonly recognized as f/n) are a way to understand how much light you are letting in at any one time in order to control it.


Here’s the important thing to remember about f-stop numbers (and something that can be counterintuitive): The smaller the f/n number, the more light is being let in, and the larger the “pupil” of the lens. The larger the f/n number, the less light and the smaller the pupil of the lens. This number is, in essence, a fraction. So f/2.8 is a much larger piece of the pie than f/22 is.

Depth of field and aperture:

Now that you understand aperture and f-stops, the next relationship you need to know about is that of aperture and depth of field. Depth of field (DOP) is the distance between the nearest and the furthermost object that appears acceptably sharp in an image. A shallow DOP will give that beautiful macro feel to a photograph, where there is a small amount of the image in focus and the rest is softly blurred in the background. You can see that nicely illustrated in the image of a red billed oxpecker sitting on the neck of a rhino (below left).

The aperture is fairly wide, allowing in lots of light and giving a shallow depth of field. A deep DOP will render an image where almost everything is in focus — typically a landscape or wide-angle shot, similar to this landscape photograph of Londolozi Game Reserve. Manipulating the aperture is the easiest and most often utilized way to adjust DOP.



Next let’s talk about shutter speed: the speed at which the shutter closes, or the length of time that your image sensor “sees” the scene you want to capture. Being a measurement of speed, it is measured in tenths of seconds, and as with the other two parameters of the exposure triangle, it has an effect on aperture and ISO when adjusted (I’ll explain ISO more fully below).

To understand shutter speed, imagine that the exposure triangle is the window to a room, with big, heavy curtains hanging on either side. Aperture would represent the size of the window and would thus affect the amount of light that is let into the room. Imagine closing the curtains really quickly, allowing the room to be exposed to the light coming in from outside for a short period of time. That’s shutter speed. Finally, imagine you are standing inside the room with a pair of sunglasses on. The strength of your sunglasses represents ISO, making you less or more sensitive to the light that is coming in through your window.

The speed at which you shut those curtains determines how much of the light gets let into the room, and for how long you are exposed to it. Remember that the shutter equals the curtain. A fast shutter speed (a measurement of 1/4000th of a second, for example) will close the curtains quickly, only allowing light into the room for a very short amount of time — barely lighting the room up at all. Conversely, by slowly closing the curtains (using a slow shutter speed, 1/10th of a second, for example), plenty of light will be let into the room, overexposing things quite drastically.

Shutter speed and clarity of image:

The second important thing to understand about shutter speed is its effect on capturing movement. Knowing that the faster the shutter speed, the quicker a moment is captured, and the slower the shutter speed, the slower the capture, you will need to consider your shutter speed when your subject is anything but standing dead still or posing for you. In the next two photographs, you’ll see that the motion of the leopard stalking its prey has been captured with a slow shutter speed. Conversely, in the second photograph, you’ll see that a crisp moment of time has been captured with a fast shutter speed where the klipspringer buck jumps from rock to rock.

Shutter speed 20
Shutter Speed 4000


ISO (and the ISO level) represents the level of sensitivity that your camera sensor will have to the available light. Where the measurement of aperture is somewhat confusing—and counterintuitive—here the measurement of ISO makes much more sense. A low ISO number (100, for example) represents a very low sensitivity to light, with an increasingly high number (say, an ISO of 3200) making your camera very sensitive to the light around it.

Here’s another way of thinking about ISO: Imagine that the image sensor in your camera is covered with a sticky surface. When your image sensor is sensitive to light, that sticky surface will be incredibly sticky, and all the available light will stick to the sensor. When your sensor is less sensitive to light, that sticky surface will be more selective and only catch some of the available light.

Life on safari in the bush is absolutely magical. As I mentioned before, the light in the early morning and evening is beautiful, and with the wildlife as your subjects, you can rarely go wrong. However, these periods of soft light can often provide photographers with difficult lighting conditions.

That’s why knowing and understanding your ISO levels are so important. Remember that ISO, aperture and shutter speed, and the adjustments thereof, all have an effect on one another. Remember that by increasing the opening through which light travels (aperture) and subjecting your sensor to light for a long or short period of time (shutter speed) while varying the sensitivity of your sensor to the light, you can yield all sorts of varied images.

So, as the light rises or fades, remember to keep your ISO in mind, and adjust it according to the available light. Just as you would add or remove a pair of sunglasses when the light gets brighter or fades, so too must you adjust your ISO.

Finally, the last thing you need to remember is that the higher your ISO, the more propensity for “noise” (or grain in your image). That “sticky surface” will collect all the light and do its best to gather as much of it as possible to expose your image correctly, but in so doing, it will create the grain that most photographers will not thank you for. You’ll notice in the photograph below that the aloe flower has been shot using a very high ISO. That resulted in the grainy noise in the photo.

It’s the balance of the three exposure parameters that will yield the best results, and as with anything, the practice that you put in out in the field will allow you to learn when to adjust your sensitivity to the light.

With any luck, the explanation of the three fundamentals above will be illustrated clearly with the collection of photographs below. The first three illustrate the change in aperture that affects depth of field and light; the second three illustrate shutter speed; and the last three illustrate how changing your ISO numbers up and down affect the camera’s sensitivity to light.

By Hideaway Report Staff