My favorite animal by a long way is the elephant. However I don’t think I could say elephants are my favorite animal to photograph. Of course they are when you get an image you are happy with but a lot of the time they are a very frustrating and confusing subject, for me anyway. In this blog I am going to talk about some different approaches to photographing elephants and different aspects of their behaviour and characteristics to look out for. All the while trying not to obsess too much about what fantastic creatures they are.
Unfortunately I am going to use some examples of my own here, as unaccomplished as they are, in order to illustrate different techniques, but you can bear with me. Before we go any further I should reassure some readers that this will not be a super technical blog about high ISOs and low apertures. In fact the great thing about elephants is that they are so big and unique that you can get great photos with any sort of camera set up and any level of skill, whether you are just whipping your phone out or if your camera is worth more than your car.
As with all wildlife photography, what is absolutely crucial in getting good elephant photos is to understand elephants and their behaviour as best you can. This comes with time in their presence (in my opinion the absolute best thing you can do on safari) and anything you can get your hands on to read about them. This will allow you to try and capture all the different things that elephants do. Many of these types of shots have to do with being able to predict what elephants are about to do. Like all creatures, elephants have their habits. Seasonally they will often drink at regular times, if you know when and where this is, you can get yourself in position to photograph elephants having an absolute whale of a time in and around water.
When you start really getting to know elephants one of the most amazing things they will reveal to you is their family and social interactions. These are incredibly complex and beautifully simple all at the same time so you really need to pay attention and you need to be patient. If you know who is who in a herd you can anticipate a greeting between old friends, a sparring match between young bulls or when a calf is about to suckle. These can be incredibly intimate moments and very rewarding, but very difficult, to photograph.
Similarly it’s always fun to watch and capture elephants' interactions with other species. Elephants tend to get very irate at having to share a water hole for example, and a young calf will often make a real scene if an innocent bird has the audacity to land anywhere near it. These types of shots don’t have to be technically perfect (although it helps) if you manage to capture a distinctive moment.
There are lots of classic elephant photographs that you will be familiar with. One of these is the full frame portrait. This sort of shot really emphasizes the incredible texture of elephant skin, their affecting eyes and their overall essence. To get this sort of picture you need to get pretty close, hold your nerve, rely on the experience of your guide and make sure never to disturb the elephant. Another classic angle that I struggle with personally is elephants in their environment. This can be a great way to show how elephants fit into the mosaic of their habitats in such a timeless fashion; and has been popularized by photos from Amboseli or desert elephants in Namibia. I think this is probably one of the hardest elephant shots to pull off, and you need to have the right mix of luck, landscape, light and the right kit.
It’s always worth bearing in mind when you are out photographing or back in the lab editing, that elephants can tend to look quite good in black and white. This really draws out their skin textures and can be a good way to negotiate the problem of their sheer size and light blowing out across their backs. This way you can photograph elephants right through the day.
Happy shooting and hopefully you have some new ideas for when you are next lucky enough to encounter an elephant!
Like elephants? Ruaha national park and Tanzania are where you need to go. Get started here
Thanks to Hannah Shaw Wildlife Art for the sketch
More elephants here