By Uwe Skrzypczak
All images copyright by the author
Winner of prestigious wildlife photo awards, Uwe Skrzypczak (pronounced Scripcheck) is known throughout Europe as a photographer, environmentalist and author. He got involved in photography way back in the darkroom days and made the transition to digital when the first Nikon DSLRs were available. Since then, his interests and passion have moved from architectural to wildlife photography, with an emphasis on African wildlife habitats and a growing interest in the animal migration patterns within the vast Serengeti ecosystem.
In my new book, Wildlife Photography, I have deliberately restricted myself to the single geographical area covered by the East African Serengeti—one of the largest and most intact ecosystems on our planet. The Serengeti’s biodiversity and its sheer number of indigenous species and predators are truly unique.
However, the basic knowledge of animal behavior and habitat that you will need to take great photos in the Serengeti can be directly applied to other locations too. This book aims to help you develop your own approach so that you can plan trips specifically aimed at photographing the animals you want in the location of your choice. Your general approach and your detailed plan will then be pretty much the same wherever you go.
African Wild Dogs return to the Serengeti after 20 years away.
A kopje (small isolated hill) is nearly always worth a closer look with a variety of wildlife to be found.
If you are on foot, make sure your footsteps can be clearly heard, as you will often find big cats dozing in the shade of the rocks.
You can only really photograph wildlife successfully if you respect the environment and work in harmony with nature while you learn to observe your subject properly. Specialized knowledge of “where, when, and what” often means the difference between a great, action-packed image and an unexciting, everyday photo. You will also have to master the technical aspects of photography, observe the basic rules of image composition, and, of course, rely on your intuition and, now and again, photographer’s luck.
Focused, precise observation is an absolute must if you want to photograph wild animals. The focused observer uses his eyes and binoculars to observe and remember behavioral patterns or parts of a scene directly. Here, the visual experience is more important than an image observed later on a monitor or as a print.
Gnus (wildebeests) are on the move: sunrise and sunset create many dramatic images for those on the spot.
Zebras in the morning light at Ngorongoro Crater. Patience and a good eye for composition will reap a harvest of similarly rewarding images.
Image composition in the wildlife arena follows the same basic rules that exist for other photographic genres or the world of painting. Perspective, the “rule of thirds”, lighting mood, color, and background are the basic elements that make up an image. A great photo is defined by its intensity and the emotions it evokes, and by the single, decisive moment it portrays.
An animal portrait shot in passing can make a nice snapshot, but never equals the wonder of the moment you can capture if you observe your subject at length. Many animals only lose their timidity once you observe them quietly for long periods of time. You can then use their almost childlike curiosity to capture fascinating gestures and portraits. Some animals even pose, almost like models.
As evening at the equator quickly descends, East Africa’s famous “golden light” envelopes the king of beasts.
Successful wildlife photography is, of course, highly dependent on action. Events in the wild often develop so quickly that you do not have time to consider your composition or your zoom setting, and you frequently have to crop your images down to size later. You won’t always be able to shoot from the optimum viewpoint either, which limits the amount of control you have over perspective and the mood of the lighting. Always aim to get the best you can out of every given situation.
Taken in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, this sunrise illustrates the high contrast light created by the low sun.
Most days in the Serengeti are sunny and can be divided into the three basic time periods found all over the world: morning light, daylight, and evening light. The morning light phase begins at sunrise and is typified by the extremely high contrast produced by the low sun. This stark light quickly becomes more diffuse but nevertheless continues to produce strong shadows.
As the air temperature increases, the dew on the grass begins to evaporate, making the light softer and more hazy. This light is ideal for taking backlit or sidelit photos. At this time, you can generally control the exposure enough to prevent all but the most insignificant highlights from burning out and losing detail.
As it gets cooler towards evening (from about 4:30 p.m. onwards), the much warmer evening light sets in and gradually turns into the famous East African “golden light”. This is the best time for shooting “postcard” photos with highly saturated colors. The richness of these evening colors can only be beaten by the well-known and often dramatic East African sunsets, which are often accentuated by the slight underexposure that many cameras automatically produce when shooting into the light. This phase ends just before sunset with a short period of extremely high contrast caused by the low sun. It is then only a few minutes until nightfall.
All of the photos in Wildlife Photography were taken with patience and respect. Close-ups resulted from the subject approaching out of curiosity, or by rolling slowly towards the subject with the engine of the vehicle switched off. No mother had to hide her young from me, and no cheetah felt the need to chase her cubs off in all directions, as they often do when confronted with massed tourists. Not a single animal had to give up its chase or lose its prey because of my presence.
I never parked my jeep where gnus (wildebeests) leave the water when they are crossing the Mara River. Without realizing the consequences of their actions, sensation-seeking tourists often force gnus into deep water, causing them to drown by the hundreds and thousands for the sake of some snapshots.
A family of cheetahs atop a termite mound in Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tanzania.
At the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, gnus create an annual spectacle during mass migration river crossings that can have life-threatening consequences for them.
Lastly, don’t take risks. Every accident involving wildlife and tourists (however small) is a bonanza for the international press. Unwanted attention leads to a decrease in tourism, which in turn means that the local rangers and guides can no longer get paid and that poaching increases.
Respect for the subject should be at the top of the list in every wildlife photographer’s rulebook. Rather than destroy what we love, we should all work hard to help it survive and generate public interest wherever possible.
Published in English by Rocky Nook, Inc, Wildlife Photography achieves three goals very successfully — to teach the technical aspects and the workflow of digital wildlife photography; to show the beauty of East Africa and Serengeti National Park and to educate about its habitat; and to provide a practical and inspirational guide for the photographer who is planning to go on an African photo safari. Example images are accompanied by a small set of pictograms showing which techniques are ideal for capturing a specific situation.
Loaded with hundreds of breathtaking images, this comprehensive book is equally appealing and useful to the beginning wildlife photographer and the seasoned pro. Whether your subject is African wildlife or bird photography in the Arctic Circle, the author teaches the fundamental concepts and techniques that can be applied to all forms of wildlife photography.
Wildlife Photography by Uwe Skrzypczak, 1st edition, June 2010, 240 pages, ISBN: 978-1-933952-56-7. Available at online and local bookstores.
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