Updated: Oct 25, 2020
There is something truly inspiring about getting close enough to wildlife for intimate wildlife portrait photography. But where is the best place to go, and how easy is it? You could go on a photo safari to one of the numerous private game reserves in southern Africa. They are ideal for close photographic encounters with the Big Five and other charismatic wild animals. However, they come with a significant price tag, and the experience may sometimes be a bit contrived. In one private reserve I encountered a dead antelope secured with wire in a tree as bait for leopards. Unwitting tourists who “happened to be passing” would get great photos. But they would also be missing out on the real thing. So where to go for wildlife portrait photography?
Getting up close to the big-five
There are many great national parks in eastern and southern Africa
For example, the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the Serengeti in Tanzania, Etosha in Namibia, or the Kruger National Park in South Africa. These are great places to photograph wild animals in their natural surroundings. National parks are more affordable than private game reserves, but they tend to be overcrowded, especially in the high season. This is usually the dry season, when the animals are more visible because the grass is short and they concentrate round the waterholes. It is also the best season for wildlife photography.
The setup in some popular national parks can sometimes be rather contrived. The floodlit waterholes close the lodges and campsites in Etosha, for example, make it possible to observe large numbers of animals after dark while sipping your wine. But it’s hardly a natural experience, and the light is dreadful for photography. So not ideal for good wildlife portrait photography.
Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda is great for wildlife portrait photography
Murchison Falls doesn’t have the allure of the more well-known African national parks. Even in Uganda, safari tourists tend to go to Queen Elizabeth Park instead (often en route to the gorillas in Bwindi). Perhaps this is a legacy of occupation of Murchison Falls by rebels in the 1990s. But since government forces expelled them from the country more than 15 years ago, Murchison Falls has gradually recovered. It is now an ideal destination for wildlife tourism and wildlife photography.
Situated about 280km north of the capital Kampala, it’s an easy 4-hour drive on excellent and mainly tarred roads, and it has very pleasant lodges. Paraa Safari Lodge is comfortable and conveniently situated close to the Park headquarters, where you can pick up a ranger to guide you to the best wildlife locations. Pakuba Safari Lodge is situated on the White Nile. It is further from the ranger’s post, but more intimate than Paraa. The service in both lodges is excellent.
The Victoria Nile Delta
Although the Park is large (almost 4000 square kilometers/1540 square miles), most animals conveniently hang out in the delta. This is where the Victoria Nile flows into Lake Albert and then out again as the White Nile, on its course to Egypt and the Mediterranean. The delta is a popular location for bird lovers (and game fishers), and the chances are you will be able to get good shots of the rare shoe-billed stork.
Bull elephant in the Victoria Nile Delta
There is a great spot in the Delta where you are allowed to get out of the vehicle, stretch your legs and have a bite to eat. It is also a wonderful location to photograph hippos in the water and the many birds. Quite often giraffes, antelope and elephants stroll by. Like this bull elephant that I photographed from close range during a coffee break.
The delta is north of the Victoria Nile (which you must cross if you are coming from Kampala), and the ferry only runs from sunrise to sunset. So if you want a head start to the delta to catch the ideal light just after dawn, or you want to linger until sunset, then you should stay in one of the lodges to the north (Paraa or Pakuba).
Photographing wildlife on a cruise to the Falls
Further to the east on the Victoria Nile are the eponymous Murchison Falls. This is one of the highlights of a Murchison Falls photo safari. The broad and tranquil river is forced through a narrow gorge and then plunges more than 100 meters before continuing its course to the delta and Lake Albert. The boat trip from Paraa up the Nile to the Falls provides great opportunities for wildlife portrait photography. There are plenty of elephants, African fish eagles, hippos, and the biggest crocodile population in Uganda. All at close range, as the boat zig-zags from bank to bank to give you the best close-up photo opportunities.
Hippos sleeping in the Nile, Murchison Falls, Uganda
It’s also a great chance to get spectacular shots of the falls from just downstream. You can also leave the boat at the base of the Falls and climb up to the top.
Murchison Falls viewed from downstream
There are lots of photogenic animals in Murchison and it’s relatively easy to get close and take photos. This is ideal for wildlife portrait photography. Not only on the cruise to the Falls, but also in the delta, another highlight of a Murchison Falls photo safari. My favourites are the hartebeest with their quizzical expressions, the stately giraffes, the sometimes deceptively friendly looking lions, and the majestic elephants. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a leopard.
However, a close-up photo isn’t necessarily an intimate portrait, or even a decent photo. The key is taking your time and waiting for the right pose. This requires patience, as sleeping lions or grazing hartebeest may take a long time to look up. Most tourists seem to be in a hurry. They don’t notice the photogenic hartebeest, rushing past them in their quest for the Big Five. And when they encounter lions at the roadside they stop, snap a few shots, and then rush on in search of elephants. It’s surprising how many tourists don’t look directly at the animals at all. They turn their backs to them to make selfies, with the animals as background décor. If that’s what they’re into, then that’s OK too, but for serious wildlife portrait photography you need to wait until the animal strikes a suitable pose and, ideally, makes eye contact.
Hartebeest are very photogenic animals
You need patience for good wildlife portrait photography
Lions are relatively abundant in the delta. According to the Uganda Wildlife Conservation Society there were 128 lions on the north bank of the river in 2013. Most of these would be in the delta area. Because they usually hunt at night they are often active around sunrise and sunset. That’s when the light is ideal. However, because they are mobile, the light is relatively low, it’s difficult to get good portraits. Unless you have a fast lens (with an aperture of f/4 or wider) you will need to increase the ISO settings and risk grainy images..
During the day the lions are usually sleeping and the hard light isn’t ideal. But because they are used to vehicles, it’s not uncommon to find them at the roadside or even in the road. This gives you the opportunity to get close and set up your camera. You might want to position it on a beanbag in the car window or roof opening so that it is ready and stable when you need it. Most tourists stop, take a few snapshots of the sleeping lions, and drive on. So you are patient you can get a ringside seat if you just wait for others to leave and move closer, or to a better position.
Getting the right shot often means waiting patiently until one of them wakes up and strikes a pose, or yawns. Lion cubs are sometimes playful at this time of day. For me eye contact, whatever it might mean to the animal, is an important aspect of a good portrait. It signals something communicated. Or so it seems to me.
Young lion looking straight in the lens
Sometimes patience is stretched, especially if you have limited time
One evening we were driving slowly through a sparsely wooded part of the delta. The sun had set and it was getting too dark for photos. We were about to turn back when the ranger I was travelling with noticed a leopard high up in a tree right next to the road. In the growing twilight we could just make out an antelope wedged between the branches. We stopped and I took a few grainy shots with a very high ISO. The leopard, disturbed by the activity, descended from the tree and vanished.
The following morning before dawn we returned to the tree but there was no sign of the leopard. We spent several hours patrolling the surrounding area, but without luck. Our luck didn’t improve in the evening. The ranger was convinced that the leopard was still in the vicinity, so we returned the next morning and spent several hours examining the trees along the track. Suddenly we spotted the tail of the otherwise hidden leopard hanging down from between the branches high in a tree. We stopped the car. I stood on the front seat with my head through the sun-roof, put my camera on the beanbag, and focused on where I thought the leopard would sooner or later come into view.
After about half an hour’s wait, it suddenly appeared and descended rapidly from the tree, pausing for a few seconds to make eye contact, before disappearing into the surrounding bushes. Luckily I had kept my finger on the shutter button.
Leopard descending from a tree after a long wait
Consider a Uganda photo safari if you if you want a great African wildlife experience. Click here if you want to see more wildlife portraits.