Do you dream of photographing elephants in the wild? Is the end goal of all your wildlife photography to get the perfect image of an elephant?

This might be extreme, but if you really want to get the best shot you can while on safari, read on to find out how.

Is Elephant photography difficult?

For me, getting good wildlife photographs boils down to one thing. The bigger the animal, the ‘easier’ it is. This is a great rule of thumb.

The bigger the animal, the slower it moves (easier to focus on). The bigger the target, the smaller the lens you need (more affordable and easier to handhold). The bigger the subject, the easier it is to frame it in the landscape without it disappearing into the background.

All of these hold true for elephant photography, meaning that you would think that getting good images is easy. However, getting great photos of elephants is a different story.

Many images of elephants are repetitive, and it is harder than you might imagine to get a unique image.

What makes elephant photography difficult?

Elephants love the peek out from behind trees and bushes, sometimes surprising you with lovely photo oportunities.
Photo taken by Adrian O Brien
Elephants love to peek out from behind trees and bushes, sometimes surprising you with lovely photo opportunities.
  • Elephants are surprisingly hard to find. In the jungles of India or the forests of Africa, they tend to disappear into the bush very quickly and quietly.
  • Despite being large, powerful and not afraid of anything, too many safari vehicles nearby can spook them.
  • The harsh tropical sun and dense foliage can create challenging lighting conditions.
  • You need to be better than a million other images. Any image of a rare animal is great. Repetitive photos of elephants can get boring. There is competition you need to beat, which isn’t there for less photographed wildlife.

Where to Photograph Elephants

Obviously, Asia and Africa are the places to go if you want to photograph an elephant. The question is which areas give you the best opportunities.

East Africa is a major safari destination. Best known for the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. There are elephants everywhere, and you are almost guaranteed to see some on any safari.

Southern Africa has a massive elephant population. Poaching controls here have been among the best, leading to a resurgence in the populations in areas like Kruger National Park and, famously, the Chobe region in Botswana.

In Asia, India has the largest population of wild elephants. Areas in Thailand have plenty of captured and semi-domesticated elephants, but the wild ones are more rare. It is, unfortunately, a similar story in Sri Lanka. Jim Corbett National Park and Kaziranga National Park in India probably provide the best opportunities to see wild Asian Elephants.

Top destinations for an Elephant Safari

Elephants are one of the animals that often fill your frame when you photograph them.
Photo taken by Adrian O Brien
Elephants are one of the animals that often fill your frame when you photograph them.
  1. Chobe National Park, Botswana
    • Why Visit: The Chobe River is known for having one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa. It provides unique opportunities for boat-based photography, allowing for close-up shots and dramatic water scenes.
    • Highlights: Sunset boat cruises, large herds of elephants gathering by the river, and the chance to capture elephants swimming.
  2. Amboseli National Park, Kenya
    • Why Visit: Amboseli offers breathtaking views of Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop, creating iconic and dramatic photographs.
    • Highlights: Large herds of elephants, diverse wildlife, and the chance to photograph elephants in various landscapes, from open plains to wetlands, though in recent years, these have overwhelmingly been dry due to severe drought. The elephant population here is suffering.
  3. Corbett National Park, India
    • Why Visit: The first of India’s National Parks lies between Delhi and Rishikesh and is an easy add-on to any trip to Northern India.
    • Highlights: While the elephants are a big draw here, Corbett National Park is a haven for lots of other wildlife, including the endangered Tiger. Capturing photos of elephants emerging or disappearing into the undergrowth is relatively unique.

Aside: The Indian Language

In India, the term Tiger Safari means to go on a safari to find a tiger. To do so, you might go on a jeep safari or an Elephant Safari.

In India, the term Elephant Safari refers to traveling on an elephant’s back to see the jungle and its wild creatures.

I believe it is no longer acceptable to use elephants for transport. Elephants are not domesticated but rather captive and ‘tamed’ animals, though brow-beaten might be a better description.

Elephants are not tame like domestic animals, and they haven’t been bred for generations to be human companions.

If you can afford to travel to India to see wildlife, you are in a financial situation where you do not need to abuse endangered animals to survive.

The best lens for elephant photography

Lots of people who travel on safari bring their longest lens, and then they meet an elephant. What do you do in this situation?

There are lots of possibilities for close-up detail shots of elephants. Their eyelashes are fascinating, and zooming in on the action and movement of a truck offers an interesting motif.

Of course, getting the whole animal in a shot necessitates a wider angle. Often, a 70 – 200 mm lens will show a lot of an elephant. Sometimes, not all of it. Being aware of where your elephants are and making sure that you are prepared for where they are going to be is important.

Getting an image of an elephant, or a group of them, in the landscape will mean using a kit lens, something around 50 mm, on a full-frame camera is necessary.

In areas like Chobe or the Kruger, you are quite likely to be close enough to elephants so that you can use a wider shot to get more of the environment in the frame.

Different Zoom Levels with Elephants

Depending on the lens and distance to an elephant, you can get quite a different look to your images. The three images above show this.

The close-up face was taken with a 400 mm focal length, but the elephant was quite close, as sometimes happens in Kruger. The mother and baby photo was taken at 140 mm, also in Kruger. The hide was about 40 m from the waterhole.

The Asian elephant in its environment shown above was taken at 420 mm but was almost 150 m away. You don’t always need a wide-angle lens to get a good environmental shot.

Understanding Elephants

Understanding your target is crucial to good photography. Knowing how and why elephants behave the way they do helps you to predict what they will do.

In places like Kruger National Park (check out my guide to the park), you can drive yourself and you won’t have a guide to help. In this case, knowing what to expect from elephants is crucial.

Elsewhere, like in India, where guides are obligatory in National Parks, or in East Africa, you are quite likely to have a driver or guide with you who will help interpret the elephants’ behavior.

Most often elephants are seen in herds. They live together in a matriarchal society led by an older female. She is often supported by her daughters and sisters. Males are excluded from the herd on reaching maturity and wander alone. This applies both for African and Indian Elephant species.

The matriarch is essentially the group’s map and encyclopedia. She uses her knowledge to lead her family from place to place and find food and water for her herd.

Elephants have a massive appetite, eating up to 150 kg a day. This is mostly grasses, leaves and fruits. Depending on the habitat and climate, they supplement this with the bark of trees.

Imagine a herd of 15 – 20 elephants. They can munch through a lot of plant material in a day. To avoid destroying their environment, they need a large territory to be able to allow grazed areas to recover.

Unfortunately, humans haven’t always been very supportive of elephants, and today, all too often, elephants are forced to spend too long in certain areas. This leads to the destruction of the ecosystem.

The matriarch’s importance cannot be underestimated when it comes to finding water. As the climate changes and drought becomes more common in certain areas, the knowledge of the 50-year-old Matriarch is essential in helping the herd survive.

Elephant Behavior

Always be on the outlook for interaction. At water holes you have the highest chance of experiencing inter species interactions.
Photo taken by Adrian O Brien
Always be on the outlook for interaction. At water holes, you have the highest chance of experiencing inter-species interactions.

As mentioned, elephants are constantly browsing. They eat whenever the opportunity arises. Noting the movement of a herd and recognizing when they are stopping to eat is an easy way to get ahead of them and meet them face-on.

Capturing elephants using their trunks to manipulate branches and get juicy young leaves makes for a great photograph. The continuously great images coming out of of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe are a good example of this. Capturing an elephant standing on its hind legs and extending its trunk even higher for food tells an intriguing story.

Another great time to photograph elephants is at a waterhole. Elephants need to drink regularly. However waterholes aren’t just for drinking. Elephants like to bath as well.

It is a great way of staying cool, but also a time where you will see elephants playing. The social interactions at waterholes demonstrate how important social hierarchy is within their group.

Getting images of water spraying adds a little detail to the average image of an elephant and makes it more interesting.

Elephants tend to spray mud on their backs as well, to act as sunblock and to cool them down. Try capturing this action. For a more creative version try capturing this behavior when they spray dust on their backs. Getting this with the light behind it makes for an evocative image of elephants in their environment.

Spending time with elephants is essential to get good images, but understanding their behaviors in advance will help.

Composition of Elephant Photos

Silhouettes are a favorite of wildlife photographers, but getting a good silhouette of an animal is not easy. The simple trick is to make sure they are standing against the light and have their outline clearly showing. Otherwise, it is impossible to recognize what animal it is.

Elephants make silhouettes somewhat easier with their sheer bulk but also their trunk. The distinctive movements of the trunk make silhouettes easier to shoot. Especially when they do something like spray dust or water.

If elephants are close and the light is behind you, consider zooming in. Direct light on the rough skin can cause a lot of shadows and contrast. This is an opportunity for a black and white elephant photo.

Zooming in on the tusks and face can give a great image showing the contrast between the white tusk and darker skin. The leading lines of the tusk and trunk, leading to the face, highlight the personal connection to the animal as well.

When elephants are far away, zoom out for a landscape shot. Make sure the elephant is still easy to recognize. Try to find a leading line to draw attention to them. Bushes or a row of trees are good for this. Balance your image with habitat or sky, depending on the colors and light and time of day.

Lighting for Elephant Photography

Elephants are often hard to photograph, especially if you aren't carrying multiple cameras and lenses. Sometimes they get too close for your long wildlife lens. However that allows for nice close ups of the smaller members of the family.
Photo taken by Adrian O Brien
Elephants are often hard to photograph, especially if you aren’t carrying multiple cameras and lenses. Sometimes they get too close for your long wildlife lens. However that allows for nice close ups of the smaller members of the family.

Quite often, people will tell you to avoid the harsh light of the midday sun when you are taking photographs or when out on safari as animals are less active.

This is somewhat true, but the harshness of the light can be overcome, and elephants can be found at midday – probably close to waterholes.

The harsh light of midday actually accentuates black and white images. As discussed the elephant is a potential black and white model. The contrast of the rough skin and its hairy bristles are accentuated in the strong light.

Also, if you find elephants at a waterhole at this time, the light and reflections should create good contrasts. Again, at this time, shooting for a black-and-white conversion is a good idea.

Photographing elephants in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is dying can be challenging. The details of their rough coat are hard to capture in weak light.

Make sure that your exposure is correct for the skin. That will ensure that you don’t introduce too much noise to the elephant during the post-processing of your image.

My favorite Elephant Photographers

All the images above are photos I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to take. I think they are pretty ok. However, there are many other photographers out there who take better images.

Here is a sample of people whose work you should check before you travel. Always get ideas from the best photographers.

Check them out before you go on safari to get ideas. Knowing what you would like to achieve when you meet an elephant is the first step in getting an image you are proud of.

Also Interesting:

Of course, if you are on safari in Africa, you are likely to see lions as well. Check out my page on lion photography to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity for a stunning lion photo.

If you were searching for Asian Elephants maybe my Tiger Photography page will be of interest.

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