Flip through some famous publications like National Geographic Magazine, and you're going to see some amazing photos of wild animals. The photographers in these publications usually took these great photos while on safari in Africa, Asia, etc. Unfortunately, most photographers can't afford to go on safari.... so how do we take the great wild animal photos? The trick is to fake a safari!
Some people call it going to a zoo. I call it a local, fake safari.
Zoos, wild game parks, and animal rescues are a great place to see wildlife at a safe distance and capture the beauty of these animals for just pennies when compared to a true safari. The problem is, how do we make our photos look like we didn't take them at a zoo?
While in Denver, Colorado, I visited the Wild Animal Sanctuary, which is located about 45 minutes outside Denver. This sanctuary rescues homeless wild animals that are rescued after being abused by people who try to keep them as pets, or by a circus or Hollywood movie studio after they no longer require the animals. Because these animals have been 'domesticated' through human contact, they can't be released back into the wild. The Wild Animal Sanctuary, which is a non-profit organization, offers these animals the closest opportunity they'll ever have to return to their wild state.
The sanctuary is setup in the perfect setting for photographers to take great wildlife photos and is an ideal location for your fake safari. The animals are contained within huge expanses of land and given a chance to free roam in their environment, which makes for more natural interactions. Visitors to the sanctuary see the animals by walking along a raised walkway that weaves through the different parts of the sanctuary. This means you're always looking down at the animals below, but with patience, you can still get your safari photo.
To shoot a place like the Wild Animal Sanctuary, you'll want a telephoto lens. You can leave almost everything else in the car. If you want to make it look like you're not photographing a zoo, you need to be tight on your subject in the frame - a wild angle shot that doesn't give away the location is extremely tricky. For this shoot I brought my Sigma 150-500mm lens mounted on my Nikon D800. I was there in the late afternoon (when animals are more likely to be active after a mid-day nap) and varied my ISO between 800-2000 during the evening. I shot in RAW. I also left the tripod in the car, not just for logistics, but also because I didn't want to be chained down by a tripod if I suddenly spotted interesting activity on another side of the boardwalk.
Let's revisit a point I just made. I went in the late evening, giving myself about 1 1/2 hours to shoot before they closed. That's not a ton of time, but the animals are sleeping during the hot part of the day. I recommend trying to shoot as early or late in the day as possible. Unfortunately this is one of those times where you have to decide if you want to try and see more animals and spend less time with each, or visit several days in a row and devote more time to each subject. In my case I only had one chance to visit, so if the animal wasn't being active, I didn't have the time to wait around for him (yes, this goes in the face of my last post about patience)
With a telephoto lens like the 150-500mm from Sigma, it's not hard to frame the subject tight in the viewfinder. This photo of the grey wolf was not cropped at all....
To get this shot I put the camera on continuous shooting mode and waited for him to look up. When he heard the sound of my shutter he stared at me for a few seconds before going back to napping. Notice the lighting on his fur and across his face, which is the result of this photo being taken just minutes before sunset.
Sometimes you can't take the fake part out of the safari, such as in this photo of a young lion cub. She was 'integrating' after being brought from a circus, so she wasn't allowed into the big open grass fields yet. As a result, I had no choice but to photographer her sitting on these wood chips. The trick here is to distract the viewers' eye so they pay little attention to the background. Here the viewer is drawn into the photo by her eyes and the size of those lion paws! Unfortunately her 'integration' pen also meant she was within a tent and I didn't get to work with great sunlight. As a result I had to use a higher ISO to get the shutter speeds needed to freeze her movements.
This is probably my favorite shot as it appears to be the most natural at first glance. I had to crop it some to remove the two structures (that were essentially large kitten nap spots) from the top of the frame. I snapped a series of these but liked this the best because you got a sense for the power and majesty of these animals. The late sun cast long shadows, but it gave a nice color to the light on the grasses. Mid day light not only would have been too harsh, but kitty most likely would have been curled up asleep in a tight ball and not smiling for her photo op!
It's not hard to fake a safari - find a good location and bring a telephoto lens. Try to shoot in good light when animals are most likely to be active and shoot so you don't have to crop too much. Try to get shots when animals are exhibiting an interesting behavior - eating, playing, yawning, etc. Otherwise, try to get your subject when he's looking at you.... and make sure the eyes are in focus!