Photographing Your Safari with a Smartphone

Are you going on safari? You might be thinking it’s about big lenses, heavy cameras, f-stop this and aperture that. What if you don’t own all that equipment, should you even bother to take photos on safari?

My answer is an enthusiastic YES.

The first time I went on safari in 2012, I photographed the wildlife, nature and landscapes with an iPhone 4s. As a professional portrait photographer that worked mostly in-studio, I didn’t have a telephoto lens for my Nikon cameras. Though I travel with an Olympus mirrorless camera kit on safari these days, I always take photos with my iPhone too. Some of those images have become my most cherished.

For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, capture the details of your safari story from the lodge and your environment to the animals and their habitat and surroundings. You need to think beyond the close-up animal mug shot.

Here are some tips to photograph wildlife, landscapes and nature with the phone in your pocket.

On safari in South Africa, December 2012. Shot on iPhone 4s.

 

SMARTPHONE BASICS

First, let’s start with some things to think about before you take the shot.

  • Make sure the lens on the smartphone is clean.
  • Tap your finger on the screen where you want to focus to activate the yellow square for focus and exposure. The yellow sun icon will appear, drag up and down to adjust. For Android, tap the yellow sun icon and use the slider to change. For ProCamera, a blue square for focus, yellow circle for exposure.
  • The shutter trips after you lift your finger off (white circle button).
  • Keep steady. For sharper photos, slightly tuck in your elbows or lean against something.
  • Keep level and watch your horizon
  • Turn your grid on (settings, photos and camera, toggle to grid on)
  • Photograph most of the time in horizontal, vertical for some buildings and close portraits.
  • Use your feet to get closer, only zoom if you have a dual lens.

Tip: Use the + (up) volume button on your iPhone (some Android phones) to trigger the shutter.

 

COMPOSITION

  • Framing

Using literal, structural, architectural or environmental elements to bring focus to your subject. Think of trees, other animals and arches.

elephant in greater kruger park
African elephant in Greater Kruger National Park shot on iPhone 6s.
The buffalo on each side of the one in the foreground help to “frame” the closest buffalo. The tree and grass also frame it. Shot on iPhone 5s.

 

  • Leading lines

Leading lines help to guide a viewer through a photograph. They can also direct the viewer to the subject or focal point of the image. They can be straight, diagonal, curved or suggested lines.

tree in Addo National Park
The line of the road leads to the tree. The clouds are also leading to the tree. Shot on iPhone 5s.
  • Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is used to produce a balanced image. The idea is to place the essential elements along the gridlines or at the intersections where the lines meet. Make sure your grid is on to help you see it. The rule of thirds works well with the idea of leaving space for the subject to look to or move into. Place the horizon along the top or bottom 1/3 for a strong compositional mobile photo.

Sometimes you have multiple compositional elements in a single photo. The horizon is along the top 1/3 of the photo (rule of thirds). The road leads to the mountains (leading lines). The vehicle and trees frame the tracker (sitting at the front, framing). Shot on iPhone 4s.

 

FIND THE LIGHT

Pay attention to the sun and where it is in the sky. Use light to create the mood and feel of your image. The light within an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset when the sun is lower in the sky creates a beautiful soft and warm light for photography. Light is an essential part of photography, and it will help tell your story. Natural light is fleeting and ever changing so don’t hesitate, take that shot. The harsh, shadow-creating light of midday can create some interesting effects.

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Sunrise in Kruger National Park, shot on iPhone 7+.
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Sunset in Kruger Park shot on iPhone 7+.

 

SILHOUETTES

Silhouettes are a great way to capture images when the light has faded or to create anonymity in a photo. Take advantage of the opportunity to create a silhouette image. Look for animals or trees/dead trees with the light behind them. Shoot towards the sun. You may have to get lower and point upwards to separate the subject from the horizon.

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A giraffe silhouette in Kruger National Park. Shot on iPhone 6+.
sundowners in silhouette in the Greater Kruger Park
Sundowners in the Greater Kruger on safari with Elephant Plains. Shot on iPhone 6s.

 

WHAT’S YOUR ANGLE?

Unless an animal is nearby, it’s difficult to capture the details with a smartphone. Tell the whole story and include the animal’s environment. Try a different angle, don’t be afraid to experiment. Look in the side view mirror and capture what’s behind you. Capture the wildlife, road, trees and mountains using the side view mirror.

Giraffe silhouette shot on iPhone 4s.
iPhone travel photography, wanderingiphone, mobile photography workshops, wildlife
Zebra in Kruger National Park shot on iPhone 7+.
iPhone travel photography, wanderingiphone, mobile photography workshops, wildlife
Giraffe in the side view mirror, Kruger National Park. Shot on iPhone 7+.

 

 

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS

Capture the details of nature and your surroundings.

mantis is macro
Preying Mantis in macro. Shot on iPhone 6 + Olloclip 21x macro in Kruger.
starling bird in kruger national park on iPhone 6s
A Burchells Starling at Lower Sabie Rest Camp in Kruger. Shot on iPhone 6s.
Breakfast at a hide on safari with Naledi Lodges in Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 6plus.
My room at Naledi Enkoveni in Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 4s.
On safari with Naledi Lodges in Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 5s.
My oldest son on safari with Naledi Lodges in the Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 5s.
My youngest son at the infinity pool at Naledi Enkoveni in the Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 5s.

 

GO WIDE AND SHOOT A PANORAMA

Capture the view with a panorama. Taken at the luxurious Naledi Bushcamp lodge in Balule Nature Reserve. Shot on iPhone 6plus.
A panoramic view from a Naledi Lodges hide. Shot on iPhone 6plus.

CAPTURE VIDEO

Things to Consider:  

  • Put your phone in airplane mode when recording
  • Lock the exposure to avoid a change in brightness
  • Use a mini tripod with a smartphone mount for stabilization.
  • Timelapses are a great way to show a busy environment – clouds, sunset/sunrises
  • Film close and wide shots, telling details, different angles
  • Film in motion (pan up/down, left/right) to move the story along
  • Film more video than you need, cut (split) when editing.
  • Keep scenes to 2-5 seconds depending on how fast you want to cut to the next scene.

 

ELEPHANT ENCOUNTER

Sometimes the animals come to you, and you have to capture the moment with your iPhone because they are too close to use your mirrorless camera and 40-150mm zoom lens (an equivalent of 80-300mm).

For the full elephant encounter story and video, visit here.

SOME OF MY FAVOURITE SMARTPHONE ACCESSORIES 

Did you know that you can get a telephoto lens for your iPhone or some Android phones? Back in 2012, I had a telephoto lens for my iPhone 4s, and it looked ridiculous, but esthetics didn’t matter if it did the job. I took it on safari with me and did capture a few images with it. Unfortunately, the photos weren’t of good quality. I didn’t like that lens because It didn’t fit well thus there was a lot of vignetting. It was also a manual focus lens and it was difficult to tell if the image was in focus, especially in bright light. I didn’t recommend that lens to anyone.

Over the years I’ve had some Olloclip lenses, mostly the macro and wide angle lenses. They are okay lenses but not as good as I hoped they would be. I also didn’t like the idea that if I upgraded my iPhone, I had to buy new lenses. Maybe I am pickier than most, but if I use a lens, I feel that it should create better images not worse.

I’m happy to report that there are some great lenses and other accessories available that make photography and videography easier using a smartphone. I’ve been watching a few different lens companies the last 2-3 years, and in 2017 I decided to invest in the Moment lenses. I heard good things about their lenses, but I hesitated as I didn’t want a lens that attached directly to my iPhone. When I heard that they were coming out with a case, I was sold. They are not cheap, but they are worth it. There is no loss of quality, and the best part is that if you upgrade your iPhone (or another smartphone), you just have to purchase a new compatible case.

Click on the text below for more info.

The natural beauty, wildlife, sea views, sunsets and sunrises of South Africa are some of the best I’ve experienced anywhere. Kruger National Park has some of the most diverse wildlife and landscapes in the world and is one of my favourite places. I have been fortunate to visit 8 times.

Hope these tips will help you create cherished photos.