Photographing Elephants

Photographing Elephants

I have to say that I love elephants; baby elephants, mother elephants, huge bulls, ones with tusks and those without. On my just completed trip to South Africa I was blessed with lots of opportunities to view elephants. I’ll venture to share some thoughts about photographing elephants.

First off, if your exposure to elephants is confined to circuses, zoos or nature specials, I urge you to experience these majestic animals in their native habitats. That is the only way you can gain an appreciation of them as the sentient beings they truly are.

Speaking of sentience, give yourself some time when first photographing elephants in the wild to fully appreciate their behavior. Doing that will improve your photography immensely, as only then will you be able to capture the intimate moments that capture the essence of these intelligent mammals. In particular, watch their exquisite tactile sensitivity, something that most newbie observers are surprised to see given their apparently tough hide. Watch how sweetly they nudge, cajole and direct their young.

Be cautious when photographing elephants. I was once on a press trip when a journalist stupidly left our safari vehicle to get a better angle, against the express orders of our guide. A mother elephant with a calf nearby then charged us, ears out, bellowing. Our guide raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim. If the elephant had not stopped at that second, that selfish woman would have been responsible for the elephant’s death and for creating an orphan calf. My point here is to follow the rules, respect a mother with calf, and read up on elephant behavior enough to know when to back out of a confrontation… quickly, as I had to do twice on my recent South Africa safaris.

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Try post-processing your elephant images in black and white. Elephants are huge animals, with great tonality in their hides, eyes, and trunks. They are also pretty monochromatic anyway. Those factors lend themselves to B&W interpretation.

Finally, everyone knows what an elephant is. Don’t bother with too many full body shots, what I call identification shots, the boring images you’d see in a zoology textbook. “This is an elephant,” has minimal allure in photography nowadays. Look for dramatic moments, try closeups, use a wide angle for herd images, find a baby protectively nestled in its massive mother’s body. I’m sure you get the point.