The Big 5 : Photographing the Rhino

black rhino action
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Photographing the Big Five is on every photographers bucket list and is often the key goal of any Safari into Africa. Photographing the rhino presents particular challenges and here are my 9 tips for photographing rhino.

9 Tips for Photographing Rhino

  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
  8. Know when to leave
  9. Posting images
three white rhino

White Rhino @ 500mm 
1/1000 sec, f/6,3 Mode: Manual Metering: Multi-segment ISO: 720 White balance: Auto

Know where to find them

Photographing rhino used to be a relatively easy thing to do. On a self drive in the Kruger or the private reserves surrounding it you would be almost guaranteed to find a rhino at least once during a three hour drive. Poaching has of course changed all that and they are sadly harder to find. 

White rhinos usually occupy different habitats to the black rhino and you can differentiate them as follows:

  • Black Rhino like thorn bushes and thickets. They are browsers rather than grazers and these thorn bushes and thickets provide them not only with food but cover from being seen
  • White rhino prefer open grassland as they are grazers. As a result it is usually easier to find white rhino than black rhino as they are often out in the open and they are more numerous than the critically endangered black rhino.

Position your vehicle correctly

If you are self driving through a National Park then you will have limited opportunities to get yourself in the correct position. Assuming you are on a guided Safari in a game viewing vehicle, your driver will know how to get the best position for you. Some principles of positioning yourself when photographing rhino:

  1. Do not encroach on the animals’ comfort zone. It is important that you do not cause the rhino any anxiety or stress when you are approaching it. Rhino’s in parks and reserves are very acustomed to vehicles however it is important to observe the body language of the rhino and take your queues from that. Females with a calf will be a lot less tolerant of your approach and will immediately swing to face you if you get too close. Both black and white rhinos’ eyesight is poor and if the wind is blowing away from them towards you they may not detect your approach until you are quite close.
  2. Have the sun behind you if possible. Photographing rhinos can be challenging as the uniform grey colour of their skin provides little contrast and your images will often look ‘flat’.  Rhino photography in particular works best in low light so that shadows and folds in their skin provide contrast and interest to the image. 
white rhino

600mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 1100, White balance: Fine weather

Observe their behaviour

Capturing great wildlife images is as much about timing as it is about anything else. Knowing what an animal or bird is likely to do next and understanding how it behaves in certain situations will allow you to be ready to hit the shutter at that key moment. Photographing rhino becomes all the more rewarding when you have waited patiently to get ‘the shot’. Here are some pointers:

  1. Black rhinos move with their calves in front of them whereas white rhinos position their calves behind them when they move
  2. When a rhino moves away from you it will always pause and take a look back to see where you are. Wait for this and anticipate the head turn
  3. White rhinos spend most of their time grazing with their head very close to the ground. This makes for very boring photography so look for clues that the animal is about to look up – another vehicle approaching is very likely to cause the white rhino to look up.
  4. Black rhinos keep their heads up. Being browsers, their neck and shoulders are developed to eat leaves and twigs from bushes and thickets and so their posture is usually upright giving them an alert appearance. 
  5. Black rhinos have a hooked lip and narrow mouth that has evolved to assist them strip leaves and vegetation from bushes. Wait for them to start browsing before taking the shot. 
black rhino grazing

Black rhino browzing @ 300mm 1/1000 sec, f/6,3, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 450, White balance: Auto

Choose the correct lens

Photographing the rhino 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 rhino 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 rhino. This can be both a positive and a negative. Good news if you are using a cell phone camera, not such good news if you are packing a 600mm prime lens.
  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.
white rhino

White Rhino @ 300mm, 1/640 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Av, ISO: 400 

Choose the correct camera settings

Photographing the rhino with the correct camera settings is key to getting as many ‘keepers’ as possible. The rhino 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 rhino 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 rhino 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 rhino 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.
black rhino

Black rhino @ 300mm, 1/1600 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 2200, White balance: Auto

Experiment with close ups

Rhinos have heavily textured skin, are often battle scarred and posses that unique identifying feature – horns. Once you have captured ‘the shot’ that you are going to take home to impress your friends with, take the time to experiment with composition. 

white rhino close up

White Rhino @ 600mm, 1/1250 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 200, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Photograph symbiotic relationships

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

ox pecker

Red – billed ox pecker @ 600mm ,1/1250 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 3200, AF mode: AF-C, White balance: Cloudy

Know when to leave

Like most wild animals, rhinos would much rather be left alone. Once you have the shots you want then move on. There is nothing worse than watching a convoy of vehicles hounding a rhino through the bush. 

Once darkness falls you will not be able to continue photographing rhinos. As they are diurnal (Diurnal animals are animals that are active during the day and then sleep at night) you should not attempt to photograph them using spotlights or camera flashes.

Head off for your sundowner before dinner and reflect on the privilege of being able to witness these majestic, prehistoric animals before they are forever gone,

Posting images

There is nothing more satisfying than posting your amazing images on to social media once you return home from your Safari. 

If you intend posting pictures of the rhino you have photographed please do not publish the location. The accepted tag line when posting is ‘Somewhere in Africa’

For more of my Big Five series read:

LifePixel Digital Infrared Photography IR Conversion
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