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Tips for photographing an African safari

  • Written by  Kym Illman
  • Published in Wildlife
Tips for photographing an African safari Kym and Tonya Illman
09 Oct
Wildlife photographer Kym Illman offers tips for budding safari photographers


When we (my wife Tonya and I) first started going on safaris, we were getting the same shots as everyone else – mostly from the top of the safari vehicle looking down. We thought, ‘These are great shots’, because they were sharp, colourful and well composed. But everyone had them.

And then I found the buggy. Things really took off from there. We were able to get shots that very few, if anyone, ever gets. The reason I like the buggy shots – and why people are so enamoured by them – is because you get to look up. With an animal normally you’re looking down from the vehicle. Here instead, you get to see the underside of their stomach. The closer you can get the camera to the ground, the more interesting the shot is: the heads appear larger than their bodies because you're at a wide angle and the animals are quite close as a rule. You’ll just get them looking into the camera. It’s not like you chase after and disturb them, they are immensely interested in this thing.

There was one amazing day in Kenya, on a private conservancy. Very rarely do you see hippos in Kenya out of the water. We drove 100m, put the buggy down on the path, moved the car away, and the hippo just walked straight up to it and had a look. That became the cover shot for our book (see opening image, above)!

hippo2The buggy captures an interested hippo (Image: Kym and Tonya Illman)



We were out there for a long time, in really remote places where most people don’t go like Katavi National Park, Tanzania. It’s famed for its hippos, and while it’s quite astounding, it’s hellishly uncomfortable at over 40ºC. We were out there from sun-up to probably lunchtime. You are in bed with bugs all night, and you don’t go there for a luxury holiday. It's never been a holiday, just hard work. Twelve hours a day, day after day, making lots of mistakes. 

Sometimes we use buried cameras. This is a fun thing to do, but it can result in a lot of wasted time – you’ll pack up then go back and you’ll have wasted five hours without getting a shot. But if you want to get a great picture, you sometimes have to waste the five, ten or 15 hours.

On the first day of one of our trips, we arrived at the camp and a woman said, ‘There’s a dead zebra up there’. So we went up, took some photos and then put our GoPro camera in a dung heap, set to take a shot every two seconds. When we came back to pick up the camera, the sun had set and we saw this leopard running away. We thought ‘Oh, we’re going to get a leopard on the vision’. So we picked up the camera, and it had a dead battery. It wasn’t until we got back to the camp and went through all 2,700 pictures, that we saw that we had managed to get this amazing leopard shot. Very special.



We’ve had great guides and that can be vital. For our last trip to Mana Pools, we did a walking safari. You’re on foot, you have elephants just metres away from you, and it beggars belief that you should be there. But these guys do it every day of the week.

We were following one elephant. The guide, pretty relaxed, says ‘Okay Kym, you can go over there’. So, I’m 30m away from the elephant, I’ve got no protection, I’m just behind a tree. At one stage, the elephant started walking back to me and I’m mouthing to my guide, ‘What do I do?’ I had to get down low with my camera and just gently walk to another tree. Very slow movements and respecting them, but you’re at the mercy of the guide. If he says ‘Don’t do it’, you don’t do it. If he says ‘Do it’, you do it.

But it can be dangerous. We were once charged by an elephant and that’s one of the most frightening things. You just sit there and think ‘Am I safe?’ But the guide says, ‘It’s fine, stay there, keep shooting, don’t do anything’. The guides are a little bit cavalier, because they’re doing it every day of the week – who am I to say, ‘No, we shouldn’t be doing this’.

You’re in the animals' territory. They know that the day is for humans, and the night is theirs. They’ll see you out during the day and they’ll normally take off from you and don’t want to be anywhere near you. But at night, you’re never out on your own, ever.

elephantsElephants searching for lunch (Image: Kym and Tonya Illman)



There’s often times when we’ll be out there, there’ll be a leopard sighting and there will be ten cars! We’ll just say, ‘Forget that, we’re not sticking around, we’re going right over there where there’s no one, and we’ll find our own thing’.

If I want lions on rocks, we’ve got to go to Tanzania, to the Gol area, and we have to be out there for 11 hours a day. We will drive around and just look for an opportunity of that kind. If you want the best hippo action, you have to go to Katavi, but only during two months – September andr October – the rest of the time you can’t drive as it’s too wet.

In Mashatu in Botswana there’s this sea-container with a window cut out of it that’s been sunk into the ground near a waterhole. You get such great photos from there. If there’s a car next to a waterhole, it’s highly unlikely that a lion will come and drink. But they’re used to the sea-container.



I'll sometimes think, ‘That bloke’s done that photo, what’s he used? Ok, I need that bit of kit’. But most people don’t want to risk $13,000 worth of kit – if an elephant treads on it, you’re probably going to get some damage.

Sandbags are great for keeping the camera steady, trying to handhold it can be really hard work.

We’ve rented helicopters in numerous countries to do aerial shots as you get a totally different perspective. We’ve also used my remote controlled quad copter with a small camera attached but only with the guide or camp manager’s permission as they need to ensure the animals aren’t threatened by it. At least two countries have now restricted their use which is a shame, as they allow you to get closer to animals than what you can with a helicopter.

kitThe full kit list (Image: Kym and Tonya Illman)



This is the beauty of two of us being there – I have to drive the buggy and take the shots. But someone has to take the other shots, the behind the scenes, which Tonya is exceptional at.

We’ll put the monopod – that’s a tripod but with only one leg – down on the ground and put a camera upside down on the end of it. I’ll hold it, and Tonya will run a cable back and shutter it. It’s a true team effort.

kymtonyaKym and Tonya at work (Image: Kym and Tonya Illman)



Whenever you’ve finished a sighting, switch all your cameras back to a standard setting. So often I’ll take a great shot, get all excited and put my camera down. Then something else appears, and...‘Oh, wrong f-stop’. But the moment is so quick, you don’t get a second chance. We’re quite disciplined now – we weren’t in the early days, but it’s only by missing so many photos. Most of the time we shoot aperture priority, and if I’m looking at an animal’s eyes, and they’re on the same plane as the camera, I can have it at f2.8 or f1.4 and it’s fine.

Tonya couldn’t get this giraffe photo, but I was getting it all the time. We worked out that it does this little thing where you get the letter ‘S’. She was following the animal up, and trying to focus it as she went, whereas I took a focus on it, locked the camera and just waited for it to come back up. She did the same thing and then she trumped me with this following shot – better than I managed.

giraffeGiraffes sometimes drink quite dramatically (Image: Kym and Tonya Illman)

Africa on Safari by Kym & Tonya Illman, published by Papadakis. RRP £30.00

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