Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

How to Photograph a River Crossing

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry, great migration 2 Comments

People often think that the more subjects you have to photograph the easier it is.  On the contrary, it’s way more difficult and this is never more evident than when trying to photograph thousands upon thousands of wildebeests crossing the Mara River.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

From a pure visual point of view a river crossing is quite spectacular and makes for amazing wildlife photography but it can be difficult to know where to start.   As with anything, the more you see and experience the Great Migration the easier it becomes to guide your photographic voice as to what to focus on and how to capture it but for many people a trip to see the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth is a once off bucket list trip and they might only get one shot at it!

This is not a definitive tutorial but rather a post that I hope stimulates your photographic mind and gives you some ideas and inspiration when you finally experience the Great Migration.  In the post I will be looking at:

  1. Photographic Equipment
  2. Technical Considerations
  3. Composition and Creativity

With all of that said, here goes with some ideas on how to photograph a river crossing.

Photographic Equipment

What lens should I use?  What camera?  These are some of the first questions people ask when it comes to pretty much anything to do with wildlife photography.  Now as far as I am concerned your choice of camera should be related directly to your budget whereas your choice of lens should reflect the types of images you want to create and that’s what I believe you should focus on.

For a standard river crossing these are the focal lengths, in descending order, I would personally like to have in my arsenal.

  • 200-400mm
  • 70-200mm
  • 24-70mm
  • 400mm and over
  • 24mm and under

The above relates to how most people will want to photograph the crossing scene as well as the practical challenges you might find at a crossing.  The reality is that there are often quite a few vehicles on the other side of the river and, depending on your position, you might have to shoot through and in between other vehicles so the longer focal lengths are always a good starting point.

  • 200-400mm – This focal length as perfect for 90% of the crossings you might see and you will have the ability to go in tight on the animals in the water as well as pull back a bit and get the entry and exit points.  Canon’s 200-400mm with the built in teleconverter is great as it gives you that extra bit of reach.  Other lenses that could work here is the Canon 100-400mm and Nikon’s 80-400mm.
Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Focal length: 280mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Focal length: 400mm

  • 70-200mm – This is always my go to focal length regardless of destination and for river crossings it’s the perfect way to start telling a wider story.
Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Focal length: 150mm

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Focal length: 70mm

  • 24-70mm – Depending on the size of your crossing this focal length will work well to help you to create context around your shots and include more than just the actual gnu in the water.
Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Focal length: 50mm

The other two recommendations I mention above – over 400mm and below 24mm – is for those that have already photographed more than one crossing as I believe they won’t add as much value to your portfolio of crossing images as the other three.

If you shoot over 400mm you will more than likely be filling the frame with animals but it is very restrictive in that it doesn’t offer you any versatility.   The exception here is of courses lenses with focal lengths of 150-600mm which is ideal either way.  Anything wider than 24mm will require a very large crossing for it to show properly in your images and will also need one of those few occasions where there aren’t any vehicles on the other side of the river.

So as a guideline as to which lenses to use when the gnu hit the water and in which order:

  • 1st:  Using the 200-400mm start at the wide end (200mm) and work your way in (400mm) while shooting.
  • 2nd: Using the 70-200mm start in (200mm) and work your way back (70mm) while shooting.
  • 3rd:  Using the 24-70mm shoot as wide as necessary to get the entire scene.

Yes, this is kind of prescriptive and not something I’m fond of but I have seen a lot of people get so completely flustered when they see their first crossing that their photographic vision and voice go completely AWOL.  By following the above guideline you will be able to create solid and diverse images until your photographic voice deals with the drama and starts guiding you and your vision from there.

During my last two weeks in Kenya I used the following lenses.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Note that I was using an Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II which is a 4:3 system so the equivalent focal range of the 40-150mm Olympus lens is 80-300mm f/2.8 and I often used this with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Also, the amount of image shown reflect my entire two week trip and is not only for river crossings.

One last bit of advise on lens choices and something to keep in mind.

The larger the crossing the smaller your focal length should be if you want to truly capture the scale of the spectacle.

Technical Considerations

Shutter speed.  This should be your main consideration during your first few crossings.  First you’ll more than likely want to freeze the action and then perhaps play with some slower shutter speeds which will allow you to create motion blurs or panning images.

The normal recommendation of 1/focal length will always apply but for crossings I would suggest a little faster shutter speed in order to negate any movement on your behalf.  A shutter speed of 1/800 should give you the ability to freeze the action on most crossings.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Shutter speed: 1/800

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Shutter speed: 1/800

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Shutter speed: 1/640

Please remember that if an image is sharp at a given shutter speed it won’t be more sharp at a faster shutter speed.  It’s like being pregnant and more pregnant – doesn’t work that way.

As with any wildlife sighting you should consider, if you have banked your shots, start playing around with slower shutters speeds.  If you’re lucky enough to see a crossing that lasts for longer than about 15 to 20 minutes you will find you start repeating shots and it’s at that point when you can start playing around with panning, motion blurs and even combinations of the two.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Shutter speed: 1/40

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife xPhotography - Great Migration

Shutter speed: 1/30

For more ideas, inspiration and info on shooting at slower shutter speeds you can check out these blog posts I have done in the past:

Right, let’s talk aperture for a moment.

I won’t normally say this – and I’m only doing so to keep things simple –  but unless you are shooting a 400mm f/2.8 or something larger like a 600mm f/4 which can create a shallow DoF at distance and you’re willing to take risks I’d suggest to dial in an aperture of between f/6.3 and f/8.   With the majority of your river crossings being quite a way away the likelihood of you hitting the exact focus point and creating a shallow DoF around the subject is highly unlikely.

An aperture of f/6.3 to f/8 will put you in a good place to create good solid images while focusing on shutter speed and the experience of what you are doing.  Yes there are exceptions, we can roll much deeper with this and I can guide you more in details if you’d like but if you’re photographing your first ever crossing keep it basic and don’t get caught up in the f/2.8 trap.

And yes, on safari I take people a lot deeper down this road and we play with different options so if you want to experience that… you know what to do. 😉

Composition and Creativity

Whatever camera you are using and regardless of the settings you end up using; what you decide to put in the frame is ultimately what will make for a good river crossing image or not.  Let’s be brutally honest here.  If you dial in settings that are pretty close to ‘correct’ and you fire off a few bursts of frames into a massive group of animals crossing a river you are going to get images that impress a lot of people.

It’s really is that easy.

The important thing you want do is to focus on you and your photography and what kind of images you want to walk away with.

In order to do this, and as a guideline until your photographic voice finds it’s own way of documenting a river crossing, there are a few things you could look at doing while you are photographing a crossing.

  • Focus on the various stages of a river crossings and try and get shots of each.
    • Running to the river.
    • Entering the river.
    • Crossing the river.
    • Potential croc action.
    • Exiting the river.
    • Walking away from the river.
  • Try and place as many animals in one frame as possible.
  • Try and place one single animal in the frame.
  • Look for one zebra in a herd of wildebeest or vice versa.
  • If the animals come straight at you shoot in portrait orientation.
  • If the herds is swimming across the river shoot in landscape orientation.
  • The young wildebeests tend to jump higher, further and more regularly than the old ones.
  • Look for repetition and areas in the river where the animals slip or struggle.
  • Don’t worry about rules and chopping animals off in the frame.  It’s a busy scene – deal with it.
  • Play and don’t be afraid to, once you’ve banked your shots, miss shots because you’re trying new things!

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography - Great Migration

And there you have it.

Some images, some ideas and hopefully some inspiration to help you with your own photography for when you tick a Great Migration safari from your bucket list.  And yes, it really as awesome as you think it is!

If you’re keen to explore a bit more here are a number of links to images, blog posts and podcasts which will help you to not only learn more about how to photographic a river crossing but also about the Great Migration in general.

If you have any questions on how to photograph the migration, camera gear or wildlife photography in general get in touch.  Also, if you would like to join me in 2018 – sorry, 2017 is fully booked – for a Great Migration safari that will change the way you see the world – let me know and let’s make it happen.

Oh, and before I let you go three final things.

  1. All the images in this post was taken last week in the Mara Triangle which offers a much more exclusive Mara experience.
  2. For all my Migration safaris I stay at our very own Wild Eye Mara Camp.  Always.  Because it’s amazing.
  3. All the images in this post was created with the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II mirrorless camera.

Thanks for reading and good luck with your photography.  As always, if you have any questions, let me know!

Until next time.


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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