In this day and age, finding a guest on safari who is not taking photos is about as common as finding a honey badger riding on the back of a pangolin – it just doesn’t happen!  When I started taking photographs almost two decades ago, digital cameras were just about hitting the market, so the thought that your mobile phone would be able to take photographs that were good enough to replace your compact camera was nothing more than a dream.  Yet here we are today, and even if safari-goers haven’t lugged around a large DSLR camera with them, they have some device with which they can capture their wilderness memories, and as guides, we have a direct influence on determining the kind of images that they walk away with.  This blog post will help give guides a few pointers that will allow not only their guests, but also themselves to achieve better images, whilst ensuring that ethics are not compromised in order to achieve those results.


First and foremost, especially for guides that are more photographically inclined, one has to remember the ethical order of consideration of things is as follows; animal comfort and consideration, environmental sensitivity, guests’ view of the wildlife, and lastly, it is about you and your photographic opportunities.


As ethical guides we like to think that everyone in the industry has the same moral viewpoints as ourselves, but this is not always the case.  There are also times, that even with the correct ethical compass, pressure to please the guests can cause us to do things that we ordinarily wouldn’t.  No photograph is ever worth upsetting an animal over, nor is causing it to behave in a manner that it would not have had we not crossed some invisible line whilst chasing a photograph.  Likewise, as trained naturalists, we are far more aware of the sensitivity of certain areas, soils and vegetation than the majority of guests are, and it is up to us to ensure that the areas in which we operate remain as healthy and stable as possible.  We can only do that by making sure that we are not pressured into driving into areas that we know we shouldn’t just for a better view, and potentially better photographs.  It may be a difficult situation to tell a guest that you cannot go closer or drive into a certain area, but it is very unlikely that once the reasons for this have been explained to a guest, that they will have an issue with it.  In the event that they do, no good management team would ever side with the guest and reprimand you for being an ethical guide; instead, they would reaffirm your stance and support you in your decision.  What steps can we take to ensure that we don’t cross the line?  Firstly, never intentionally pressurise an animal into getting a reaction, such as revving your engine to agitate a young male elephant into performing a threat display, or standing up in a vehicle to get a lion or leopard to snarl at you.  Secondly, use your discretion as to how close you can get to an animal.  I would be hesitant to suggest a specific distance limit, as all animals and situations are different, but as a general guide, one should avoid driving so close that the animal has to get up and move away from you.


On that note, from a photographic point of view, closer is not always better and this is especially true if your guests are serious photographers with long telephoto lenses.  One of the advantages of lenses with large magnifications are that they allow you to be further away from the subject, and shoot at a lower angle.  Low angles create more intimate images by viewing the animal at eye level while at the same time creating a bokeh effect in the background (bokeh simply refers to those lovely, eye-catching out-of-focus backgrounds that are best achieved by shooting at a low angle).  This effect cannot be achieved when parked right next to an animal and photographing down on it, as all that the background will consist of is literally just that – the ground behind the animal.  A second benefit of parking further away from the subject is that is allows the photographer to chance to capture the animal in its natural environment; this is an approach that is easily lost when we park too close and only go for frame-filling, up-close portraits – the same images that you could take at a rehabilitation centre, or a zoo.  Including the natural environment leaves the viewer with no doubt as to the fact that they are looking at an image of a truly wild animal.


When driving your vehicle into a sighting to show your guests, there are three elements that we need to be aware of, and how we position the vehicle has a direct bearing on all of them.  The first and most obvious is that all important photographic element – the one that makes it all happen – light!  As a general rule of thumb, guides should try and position with the sun behind them, which will illuminate the animals from the front and provide guests with a nice, easy-to-work-with light.  However, animals are not always the most cooperative of subjects, and there are times that their positions and the surrounding terrain do not give us many options.  In these instances, do your utmost to park so that you are not looking directly into the sun, but if there is no other option, do it, but be sure to explain to your guests that as soon as the animals move, you will position the vehicle at a better angle for the light.  Without getting too technical, there are other times where a soft side- or back-light is actually the more preferable light to use, but more on that another time!  The second thing to be aware of when positioning, is to ensure that the guests (not you!) have a clear view of the animal, without intervening obstructions.  Personally, when positioning, I edge forward until the branches start blocking my own view, and then I know that I have pulled as far forward as I can without disadvantaging the guests.  It is good practice to ask the guests whether that can all see clearly before you settle into the sighting and do your best to accommodate all of them.  Lastly, before you stop the vehicle, pay attention to what is behind the animal and making up the background of the scene.  If pulling a few meters forward is going to allow you to position so that there is an open patch behind the resting lions instead of a small bush, then do it!  Photographically speaking, backgrounds are almost as important as the subject, and having a clean, distraction-free background will focus more attention on the subject and can make a massive difference to the final image.


Animals, being animals, also tend to move around a fair bit.  When following animals on the move, guides need to try and predict their intentions, and position some distance ahead of them and let them come to you, rather than simply barging into their space.  Use your knowledge and experience to anticipate animal behaviour and talk to your guests about what you are doing – not only will they understand why you appear to be driving away from the animals, but it will make you look good when the animals do exactly what you said they would!  A great example of this is a leopard on a territorial patrol; she will walk from one large tree to another, scent-marking as she goes along.  See which tree she is heading towards, then drive ahead and park there and wait for her.  This will allow guests to time to set up their shots and grab a lovely series of a spotted beauty walking straight towards them.  If you see that the leopard is looking into the tree as it approaches, tell your guests to get ready as the leopard is likely to spring up into its boughs.


By taking note of what equipment your guests are using, and how serious their photographic interests are, you will be able to better plan your drives.  For guests arriving with massive telephoto lenses slung around their shoulders, you can be rest assured that animals in good, golden light are high up on their list of priorities.  In such an instance, plan you drive to arrive at high profile sightings during the last 45-minutes of daylight.  Should guests be less concerned about light, you would be able to spend time with animals before the golden hour, or wait until the sun has set – not ideal for photographs, but the perfect time to watch animals like lions waking up and getting ready for the night’s activities.  This being said, guides and guests alike should remember that being in the bush should never be about photography alone – the joy should come from simply being in the bush, and enjoying this simple luxury whether there is good photographic opportunities or not.


One thing I have learnt is that guests, irrespective of their photographic inclination, get very excited when approaching a sighting, and before you have even stopped, cameras and phones are out trying to get some images.  This doesn’t work for two reasons; firstly trying to take a sharp, clear image from a moving vehicle is as challenging as finding that honey badger riding on a pangolin back, and secondly, it could be dangerous!  Don’t kill your guests’ enthusiasm, but depending on terrain, it may also be advisable to ask the guests to hold off from taking photos whilst vehicle is moving, as they risk getting whacked by branches because they are too busy trying to get photos and not listening to you.


I know that these may sound like simple things, and for experienced guides and photographers such actions and pretty much instinctive, but if you are a junior guide trying looking to learn and improve, these above tips can end up making a big difference to the guests’ overall experience, as well as helping to improve your own images.

Words and Images: Chad Cocking – Photographer and Senior Field Guide