The evolution of my wildlife photography on safari in South Africa

This post is going to be a bit longer as I will look back on three trips to South Africa over the course of 8 years and reflect on how my photography in this particular setting has changed. Let me be very clear from the start, I know very little about wildlife photography. I think living in the Netherlands puts you in a position where you have to be extremely dedicated to take this on as a hobby. This is mainly due to what I believe are the three main ingredients for great wildlife photography; access, time and patience. Access to wildlife is kind of obvious, without wildlife there is little wildlife photography happening. And it is not that there is no wildlife in the Netherlands, there is plenty of birding to be done but that is a whole different ballgame. More on that later. Time and patience are related but different. One thing I found during my three safari trips is that you need a lot if time to spot wildlife and even if you have them in your viewfinder, you need even more time to capture them in a composition that makes for an interesting photograph. Like most amateurs, I don't have that time. And then even if you have the time, you need patience. I am in awe of people like Morten Hilmer who has the stamina to wait 10 days for a single shot. Or Alan McFadyen who took 720000 shots of Kingfishers diving in the water to end up with 'the one'. My score on the three ingredients for wildlife photography are too low to be any good at it. And neither do I have that ambition. I was perfectly happy with what happened to appear in front of my lens during my three safari experiences. My favorite image from my recent trip is probably the one below, where the giraffe and the zebra walking off together could be the ending of an animated movie. It also works as an image because it puts the size of the giraffe in perspective.


2020: .....The End. [Leica CL, Contax 135mm f2.8]

Safari is such a breathtaking experience. The basic routine is that you go out twice a day in an open vehicle and the ranger tries to get you to see as many animals, large and small, as he or she can. There is always an element of chance involved which makes every drive you take different from the one before or the one after. And even if you don't see that many animals, just exploring the beautiful landscape is a joy on its own.

Looking back at three different trips, what have I learned? Let me start by saying that simply looking at your old photos every once in a while, and seeing if you have some similar settings or surroundings that you've gone back to, is a very rewarding activity. Seeing how you composed and edited a shot from a few years back will probably make you realize how much you've grown as a photographer. I definitely felt that my third safari resulted in my best photos, even though on the other trips we probably saw some more wildlife.


2020: A herd of wildebeest on the plains [Panasonic GX8, Panasonic Leica 200mm + 1,4x teleconverter]

Let's run through a quick overview of the gear I used as there is a lesson to be learned there as well. On my first trip in 2012 I mainly used an Olympus E-M5, a 16MP micro four thirds camera. The lens I most used on safari was the Panasonic 100-300mm F4-5.6. Not the fastest nor the sharpest option but incredible value for money. A great combo to start with as this gave me the equivalent of 200-600mm in 35mm terms. For my second trip in early 2018, I returned to M4/3s mainly because of its small size. For me the sensor was good enough and the size and weight difference between this and even an APS-C alternative, let alone full frame, is substantial. This time around, I ended up using the Olympus PEN-F and the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm with a name as long as its 35mm equivalent reach. A very clear step up from the 100-300 in reach and sharpness. Finally, this year, it was back to M4/3s again. I found a second hand Panasonic GX8 to go with the Panasonic Leica 200mm F2.8. And what a combo it proved to be. Not completely happy with the way the 100-400mm performed in low light, of which there is plenty during a safari, I wanted something with a bit more light and character. The 200mm sure has plenty of it. You lose the versatility of a zoom but between the default 200mm (400mm FF) and the 1,4x teleconverter at 280mm (560mm FF), I was able to manage just fine. On all trips I used additional cameras as well but I'll focus on the M4/3s setup mostly. I did not use any tripods at all and shot everything handheld.


2012: A zebra checking out the visitors [Olympus OMD E-M5, Panasonic 100-300mm]

On my first safari I was just in awe of seeing these animals in their natural habitat and I think I was happy enough to capture them, not giving composition a lot of thought. See the example above, it is just a zebra as we saw it on that day. Now, composing when you are in a safari vehicle is not so straightforward. Of course you can ask the ranger to move the car to get a different angle but do that a few times and you'll be sure to spend drinking the evening cocktails alone as to all the other guests in the car you'll be that obnoxious photo guy. Next to that, the animals tend to move :). So between them moving and your relative fixed position, you'll just have to do with what you've been given.


2018: Beautiful detail of the Zebra's characteristic pattern [Olympus PEN-F, Pana-Leica 100-400mm]

Using the improved range of the 100-400mm during my next trip, I found myself taking more shots of isolated close up features of the animals. This lens does this really well thanks to the enormous range and it is still relatively small. When there is enough light, it is also sharp and I find the images very pleasing.


2020: Apparently, no two Zebras have the same pattern (Panasonic GX8, Pana-Leica 200mm]

I don't think the photo above that I took this year is better, it's just a different kind of photo. One that has more intent to it as I was trying to tell a story about the pattern of the Zebra so I wanted to have a second Zebra in the shot to compare and also create an effect where the two are almost an extension of each other. This took a little more patience (there it is again), and I was lucky they moved in the right direction so I could take this shot. One other thing that I noticed comparing the three trips is that on my last trip we did the most days of safari in comparison, but I took (or kept) the fewest shots. That is a general pattern I noticed, every photo trip I come back with fewer and fewer photos compared to a few years back.


2020: My second attempt of telling the story of the Zebra pattern 'fingerprint' [Panasonic GX8, Pana-Leica 200mm]

Another theme that becomes clear when looking back at the evolution of the shots I took is that on my trip this year, I was actively looking for something for which I am sure there is a technical term from Gestalt theory, but for lack of better words, I'll just call it 'opposing subjects'.


2020: Almost a black & white contrast in color [Panasonic GX8, Pana-Leica 200mm]

I love the contrast between the wet elephant in the water and its dry friend, doing a face-off and just messing around. It gives the photo a dynamic energy and it has action potential that is palpable.


2012: Elephants can be very thirsty [Olympus PEN-F, Panasonic 100-300mm]

In comparison, the photo from 2012 above is not as exciting. The second trunk gives away that there is more than one elephant which is a nice and subtle hint, but it lacks the dynamics of the photo from 2020.


2018: Baby elephant saying hello [Olympus PEN-F, Panasonic 100-400mm]

The photo of the baby elephant that I took on my middle Safari trip highlights that you can't always get the shot you want. The baby elephant was the only little one in a group of about seven larger elephants and he (or she) was fooling around and being awfully cute. However our car was in a position, that I just couldn't get the right angle. At these times, you can only just lay down your camera and smile at the scene happening before you.


2018: A secretary bird out on a walk [Olympus PEN-F, Pana-Leica 100-400mm]

The single secretary bird above is another good example. A beautiful bird captured with lots of detail, nothing wrong with that. But there was not a lot of environmental components to play with to make it a little more special.


2020: A secretary bird couple in a tree [Panasonic GX8, Pana-Leica 200mm + 1,4 tele converter]

This year though, we were lucky to be able to see a secretary bird couple. The same beautiful bird but this time with its partner and in an interesting pose together, with the head feathers contrasting towards each other. It also makes you look twice to see if it is one or two birds. This is the element of luck that plays a big role in shooting on safari. For me, it is a more interesting photo than the one from 2018 but there is no way I could have orchestrated it like that. Birding, by the way, is the most difficult of wildlife photography that I stumbled upon. Small, agile, elusive beings hiding in plain sight most of the time. And when in motion, it takes the eye of a marksman and the motor control of an athlete to capture them in flight. Hats off to all bird photographers....

Another reflection on the gear I used, even with my fixed focal length option that I went for this year, I never really felt like I was lacking anything. It is also simply due to making your choice upfront about what you think makes sense to bring and then just use what you have while you are there and not give it a second thought. Do you need telelens range for shooting a safari? Of course you do. Does the quality of your telelens matter? Yes of course it does. But how much is up to you. I was, and still am, very happy with the photos I got out of the relatively modest Panasonic 100-300mm lens. But when you compare it to the amazingness that comes out of the Panasonic Leica 200mm, you see a difference of course.


2012: May their numbers increase, the beautiful White Rhino {Olympus OMD E-M5, Panasonic 100-300mm]

The shot above is from a white rhino, taken with the Panasonic 100-300mm. A very nice image, sharp and not bad given the light conditions at the time. By the way, you may wonder how you can tell the difference between a white rhino and a black rhino as both are grey. Here is where you can find the answer.


2020: White Rhino grazing in the early morning [Panasonic GX8, Pana-Leica 200mm]

In contrast, the image above was taking under worse light conditions but it has so much more pop to it. The depth of field of the Panasonic Leica 200mm creates some special magic to use in capturing these animals. So yes, lens quality matters. But skills and vision even more so. I feel I 'deserved' the Panasonic Leica 200mm more now that I had been on two safaris before, so I was more prepared to put it to work.

Another thing that struck me when I compared the images from the three trips was that I barely took any landscape photos on the first trip. I made a few more on the second but on the trip I took this year, I seemed to have had a lot more focus on the landscape next to the wildlife.

2020: There is a lot of beautiful scenery to take in as well [Leica SL, Zeiss Distagon 35mm]
2020: Driving until sunset [Leica SL, Zeiss Distagon 35mm]

Both shots above were taken with the Zeiss Distagon 35mm f1.4, I wrote about my experiences with that lens here.

To close, I also couldn't help but notice that my eye for making more candid snaps had improved a bit. Below are two examples of what is essentially the same scene, the drinks stop during a drive. The ranger brings along a case with either tea, coffee and biscuits in the morning or beer, wine and snacks at night and you have a chance to stretch your legs a bit. You do need to stay close to the vehicle which always creates a bit of excitement as you listen for noises coming from the bush. Outside of the car, you suddenly feel a lot more vulnerable.

2012: Point..... and shoot. [Olympus OMD E-M5, Panasonic 25mm]

I like to think that my capture of the same scene this year is a bit more matured. I tried to bring all the elements of the drinks stop like the table, the interaction between the guests and the presence of the vehicles come alive a bit more.


2020: A more deliberate attempt [Leica CL, Contax Zeiss 135mm]

I love safari and I hope I'll get the chance to add a fourth experience in the future. As a photographer, it is incredibly rewarding. If you have never done it, I can only recommend to move it up the travel bucket list for when the world will become safe again to travel.

2018: Some animals are more gracious than others [Olympus PEN-F, Pana-Leica 100-400mm]

Sharing insights on the art of photography - Erwin Hartenberg Photo