The Big 5 : Photographing the Elephant

elephant in bushes
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Once the prize of 18th century big game hunters and still the target of poachers, the elephant remains one of the most sought after subjects for wildlife photographers. Photographing the elephant is always a rewarding experience and I hope that these 7 pointers will help you capture the best elephant images possible.

7 Tips for photographing Elephant

  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. Know when to leave
big 5|Elephant silhouette Chobe

600mm, 1/800 sec, f/10, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1 2/3, ISO: 800, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Know where to find them

Popular parks with the highest number of elephants are:

  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
  • Tsavo National Park, Kenya
elephant herd madikwe

Position your vehicle correctly

Elephants tolerance towards vehicles varies greatly from reserve to reserve, herd to herd and individual to individual.

It is for this reason that you should exercise extreme caution when approaching elephant. Photographing elephant in the Kruger National Park is usually safe and herds will walk straight past your car without any concern. Young bulls in the herd sometimes trumpet at you and shake their ears about but that is sheer bravado.

Their are of course exceptions and there have been cases where angry bull elephants have upended vehicles that have invaded their space. 

Observe their behaviour

Elephant are a constant source of wonder and amusement. From the young ones chasing each other around to the huge bulls effortlessly knocking down trees to get at the tender roots, elephants are subjects that you can sit and photograph for hours on end.

Elephants love water and you will get some of your best elephant photographs if you are lucky enough to witness them playing and bathing in a river or dam.

Bull elephants are solitary until they join the herd to mate. As individual subjects they provide endless opportunities for action photography as they move through bushes effortlessly and shake trees to get at fruits in the boughs above.

When you come across a herd, look for the young ones that are still suckling from their mothers. Female elephants will usually put themselves between you and their calf but sometimes you will be fortunate enough to get a clear shot.

elephants charging vehicle
elephant swimming in dam

420mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Spot, ISO: 200, White balance: Auto
Flash: Off

Choose the correct lens

Photographing elephant 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 elephant 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 elephant. 
  2. If you are expecting to be in the above situation I recommend that you have a 70-200mm or a 24-70mm 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 elephant’s environment into the shot.
elephants by crocodile river

24-70mm @ 24mm, 1/50 sec, f/11, Mode: Av
Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: +2/3, ISO: 200, White balance: Auto

Choose the correct camera settings

The elephant 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 elephant 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 elephant 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 elephant 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.
elephants drinking in dam

300mm,1/1000 sec, f/6,3, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 800, White balance: Auto

Experiment with close ups

The elephants’ features and physique make it an ideal subject for creative close up photography. Photograph the textures in its trunk, its deep brown eyes, its tusks – the sky is the limit.

elephant close up

300mm, 1/640 sec, f/8, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment
Exp comp: -1, ISO: 320,White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Know when to leave

Elephants can be unpredictable. If you are self driving then you should be alert to any subtle changes in elephant behaviour. Ear flapping and trumpeting, trunk swinging and head shaking are all signs that you are too close or over stayed your welcome. Take heed of these and move along. 

elephant in dam black and white

700mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 800, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

For more of my Big Five series read:

elephant reaching into tree
LifePixel Digital Infrared Photography IR Conversion
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