The Big 5 : Photographing the Buffalo

big five buffalo kruger
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Photographing the buffalo does present certain creative challenges. They are not the most interesting subjects at first glance. Hopefully these tips and images will inspire you to photograph the buffalo.

7 Tips for photographing Buffalo

  1. Know where to find them
  2. Position your vehicle correctly
  3. Observe their behaviour
  4. Choose the correct lens
  5. Choose the correct camera settings
  6. Experiment with close ups
  7. Photograph symbiotic relationships
cape buffalo bull

Know where to find them

Finding buffalo to photograph while on African Safari is easier in some places than others. You can plan a trip to East Africa where the great buffalo herds migrate across the Savannah and you are usually assured of seeing large herds in South African reserves, particularly the Kruger Park.

They are harder to find in Madikwe Game Reserve (South Africa) and they have proved hard to find in Pilansberg National Park (South Africa) from time to time. The buffalo can make itself at home in almost any type of habitat or terrain. As long as there is access to water you will find the buffalo thriving. Buffalo can drink up to 40 liters of water a day and are grazers, preferring grass.

Buffalo travel in large herds sometimes in numbers as large as 400 at a time. Older males are forced out of the herd by younger bulls and you will often see them in pairs. Known as ‘dagga boys’ (dagga meaning mud) they live up to this nickname by spending most of their time close to water and wallowing around on the muddy banks.

cape buffalo in mud hole

70-200mm @ 80mm, 1/1600 sec, f/2,8, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1, ISO: 1000, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Position your vehicle correctly

In general, buffalo usually show no signs of concern when approached by vehicles. If you are parked in the road and a herd of buffalo wish to cross they will move past and around you and will not show any signs of aggression.

Lone bulls however will keep away from vehicles and can sometimes adopt an aggressive posture when a vehicle drives by them. Bulls are extremely dangerous if approached on foot and will gore and trample any human on foot that they deem to be a potential threat.

It is extremely rare to hear of a buffalo bull charging a vehicle so you will be able to photograph them from your vehicle without any fear.

Have the sun behind you if possible and ensure that you are able to move out of the way should the buffalo show signs of being blocked from their preferred direction of movement.

cape buffalo bull

300mm, 1/640 sec, f/6,3, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3
ISO: 200, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Observe their behaviour

When photographing buffalo, particularly a herd of them, it does often seem that they are not doing much other than moving along quietly eating grass.

Single animals provide better opportunities and you should make sure that you manage to photograph the ‘boss’ of the males which are very impressive  and unmistakable in comparison to the females’ more conventional horn and skull structure. Here are some pointers:

  1. When photographing a herd of buffalo, single out the calves and watch for them suckling milk from their mothers. 
  2. Try and identify the bull with the largest spread of horns and include at least his entire head and powerful shoulders in the shot. The larger males often bully the younger members of the herd so anticipate mock charges and try and capture this action.
  3. Bulls will often engage in mock fighting and clash their horns together while trying to push the other backwards. Their heads are always lowered when doing this so make sure you get your focus point in the right place.
Buffalo bulls clashing

600mm, 1/160 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 2000, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Choose the correct lens

Photographing the buffalo with the correct lens for the situation is vital. As a general rule, I would advise a zoom lens such as a 100-400mm or 200 – 600mm lens for the job. This does of course depend on your proximity to the buffalo as well as the type of image you are looking to capture. Some points to note:

  1. In certain parks and reserves where off road traversing is allowed, you are likely to get very close to the buffalo. 
  2. If you are expecting to be in the above situation I recommend that you have a 70-200mm lens on your camera. This will ensure that you have sufficient reach for close up shots as well as a wide enough point of view if you are driven up very close. The shorter focal length also allows you to get more of the rhino’s environment into the shot.
cape buffalo lying in grass

500mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4, ISO: 320

Choose the correct camera settings

The buffalo is a very large, slow moving mammal and this should be taken into account when considering optimal camera settings. My recommendations are as follows:

  1. Choose the correct aperture. Using too wide an aperture may mean that you only get a small amount of the buffalo in focus, particularly if you are close up. This is because the animal is very large and you will need a narrower aperture to get the entire buffalo in focus. Use f8 if you are within 50 metres of the animal and f5.6 to f 6.3 if you are further away
  2. Choose the correct shutter speed. If you are using aperture priority the camera will choose the shutter speed according to the aperture and ISO setting. You can get away with a low shutter speed when photographing the buffalo as it is usually pretty static. I would not recommend shutter speeds of below 1/400 sec if it is immobile and a minimum of 1/800 sec if it is walking
  3. Modern cameras, particularly the full frame mirrorless cameras, are able to handle very high ISO settings. Ensure that you have your shutter speed sufficiently fast to capture a sharp image even if this means shooting at a high ISO. Rather fix a noisy image in post than have a soft image.
cape buffalo portrait

600mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -2/3, ISO: 160, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Experiment with close ups

Buffalo bulls have incredibly textured and pitted bosses on their heads. These make for great close up shots. Their horns too make good subjects for a close up shot. They become polished with use and look extremely sharp.

The image below was shot in the rain. I then converted it to black and white to add drama to the image. 

cape buffalo portrait in therain

600mm,1/50 sec, f/4, Mode: Av,Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 1000, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Photograph symbiotic relationships

Like most large mammals in the African bush, the buffalo enjoys a symbiotic relationship with a number of birds. The cattle egret and the drongo can always be seen in the proximity of buffalo as they follow their path through the bush, eagerly hunting the bugs and insects disturbed by the herd. The ox- pecker has a particularly close bond with the buffalo and they feed off ticks hidden away in the crevices of the buffalo’s skin, nostrils and ears.

They also enjoy hitching a ride with them!

oxpecker on buffalo

420mm, 1/500 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Spot, ISO: 100
White balance: Cloudy, Flash: Off

For more of my Big Five series:

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