Think Before You Shoot

Marlon duToit All Authors, Marlon 21 Comments

So you pull up to the sleeping lions and whip out your camera, ready for action.  It is just before 5pm and lions are supposed to be active by now.


After 20 agonising minutes you decide to look for something else. These lions won’t do anything anyway and it will be dark soon.

Sound familiar?  Talking to the right people?

Wildlife photography is first and foremost about the experience as a whole. The excitement of seeing these lions in the wild, and the anticipation of anything happening at just about anytime. If you are doing it for any other reason then in my opinion you have lost the plot.

Then comes the question of how to photograph the scene set before you.

Many different aspects now come into play.

What is the light quality like? Is it hot or cold? What type of terrain do the lions find themselves within? How much can I move around?

I recently hosted a private photographic safari with one awesome guest to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

Below is an account of how I approached our first lion sighting.

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/2500, f/6.3, ISO400

This is the scene that greeted us on our first day out at Davison’s Camp, a part of the Wilderness Collection. We were beyond ourselves and had our cameras out in no time. Thanks to the cool winter weather and the presence of this distinct termite mound, the lions were out in the open enjoying the last bit of sun before the evenings chill set in.

There was not a huge amount of activity and before long we had taken a couple of wide-angle shots, capturing the essence of the lovely scene before us. These shots are important as it conveys a sense of location and space to the viewers.

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/2000, f/5.6, ISO400

I then prompted my guest to get in a little closer to the two lions on the left-hand side. They were posing nicely and the light and clean background was perfect. We just had to wait for them to open their eyes.

That was about all we could do for the time being. The cats lazed around enjoying the warm sun. Every so often one would shift position but nothing that prompted me to take a photo. Regardless we were enjoying the sighting and spending the afternoon with these amazing creatures.

A few elephants ambled by and some were making use of the mud wallow a few hundred meters west of us.

This is often the time that many people leave, hoping for another more active lion or leopard sighting. I can tell you from experience that this is often a mistake. The odds of finding something else before sundown are slim. You are better off where you are.

Don’t let the infamous fear-of-missing-out symptoms play its hand on you.


1/500, f/6.3, ISO800

Some 30 minutes later we changed position. The sun had become softer and more suited to generally shooting towards it. When the sun is too high the shadows and whites are too harsh and ruins the soft moody images you are after.

I do understand that being on a private reserves allows for more flexibility when it comes to moving around your subject. Just do the best you can, and see what the differences are.

If all else fails it might be time to join me in the field on one of these excursions.

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/800, f/6.3, ISO800

As the golden ball in the sky drew closer to the horizon I once again changed position. Due to the dust in the air and the softer sun we were able to shoot more directly into it, making use of that stunning golden backlit light. Sadly the lions were fast asleep and at best they had a head up here and there.  I was earnestly hoping for some of the adult lionesses to groom one another before the evenings hunt, as they so often tend to do.

Also, keep in mind that when shooting into the sun you will need to drop your ISO since you will have more direct light than before.

Notice how my settings change with time…

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/200, f/5.6, ISO800

I had to wait another 8 minutes for this magical moment, but it happened. This may not seem like a long time, but when you are watching that beautiful light fade away 8 minutes could feel like an hour!

An adult lioness stood up, walked right up to one of her sisters and started grooming. The moment was perfect and beautiful and thanks to good anticipation  we were in the right position to take full advantage with a setting sun behind them. Their timing could not have been better!

Right, what now?   Do we pack up because the sun had set and the golden light has passed?

Absolutely NOT!

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/250, f/4.0, ISO3200

 There are two things I want you to notice here…

Firstly, do you see how absolutely stunning the soft light is here? There are no shadows, her eyes are wide open and the light and colours are rich, almost pastel-like. Do you really want to miss out on this because there’s no golden sunlight?

So overrated!

Secondly, notice that my ISO went from 400 to 3200 in a space of 5 minutes! At ISO400 I was shooting into a setting sun, filling my sensor with great light! For this shot we moved back to the front of the lions with the sun at our backs, in order to capture that lovely post-sunset colours on her golden coat. The available light now dropped and I had to make up for this by pushing my ISO.

Very important to keep this in mind!

lion, lioness, hwange, wild eye, marlon du toit, africa

1/80, f/2.8, ISO4000

This is the last image I took. The light was just about non existent. As this young male lion watched more members of the pride approaching from the North I could not help but lift my lens. I had no support for my Canon 400 2.8 IS L and knew I had to hold it real steady. I fired a few shots in the hope of getting his foot moving through the air, with eyes nice and sharp.

It worked perfectly.

All in all we spent just over an hour with the lions.  We used all possible angles and exploited all available light, making the most of what nature gave us. My guest was beyond himself with the images he had captured, and so was I. It was pure quality.

Work hard at your photography. Understand what you can achieve with the light provided to you, and more importantly understand what your camera’s able to achieve.

Sometimes the lions will move around, and sometimes they will sleep.  Most often with lions it is the seconds, literally seconds of activity that you are after.

Don’t lose patience and never ever forget to have fun!

Till next time,

Marlon du Toit

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Comments 21

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  1. Sandy Stewart

    An absolutely wonderful article, with even more amazing photographs that explain exactly what you’re describing! Thank you so much!

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  3. Louise Darch

    Your descriptions and explanations are very helpful for all types of photography…thank you for sharing…I keep learning from your posts!

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  4. Kamlesh

    Great article Marlon.

    Where you shooting at aperture priority and changing the ISO manually for the final few low light shots?

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      Marlon duToit

      Hi Kamlesh, thanks for taking the time to comment on my article. I always shoot in manual ISO. I shoot most of the time in AV, but when the light starts fading I tend to switch to manual as I can control my settings easier.

  5. Pam Preston

    Hi Marlon, thank you this is so informative. I have been watching you guys on Wild Eye and am so keen to come on one of your trips sometime. I can relate to your article as we have a camp called The Hide in Hwange. Your last image, the ISO is so high yet your image particularly the eyes are so clear. How do you keep this detail. Thanks Pam

  6. Anne McKinnell

    Excellent post Marlon. I was recently on a safari that was unfortunately the opposite of what you describe. I prefer to do as you have suggested – just be quiet and stay in one place and wait for the magic moment. Instead we sped at top speed from one animal to another without leaving any time to actually experience anything. It was a long way to go and a lot of money to spend to be on the wrong type of safari. Next time I’ll be sure to clarify whether the intention is an action-packed event or a more contemplative experience.

    1. Andrew Beck

      Hi Anne

      Sorry to hear about your experience. I think thats one of the benefits of being on a dedicated photo safari! You share the vehicle with a bunch of photographic nuts who are just as keen to stay in one place and work the scene as you are!

      1. Anne McKinnell

        Hi Andrew, Actually, it was a dedicated photo safari! Just three photographers: the photo guide who is a professional wildlife photographer (she has done tours in Africa for many years), myself, and one other photographer. I had no idea a professional wildlife photographer would go about things this way! At least none that I have encountered before have done things that way, so I was very surprised to say the least. Shocked and disappointed actually. I would really like to go back someday and have the experience I’ve dreamed of for years.

        1. Andrew Beck

          Hi Anne

          Then I am even more sorry to hear about your experience!
          When you’re ready to get back to Africa please give us a shout – we would love to change the way you see photographic safaris!

  7. Dave Marshak

    Awesome blog post Marlon… made more awesome by the fact that I was sitting right next to you talked me through the entire encounter! I got my shots by following your lead. Awesome stuff my friend, can’t wait to shoot with you again!

  8. Phil Symonds

    Fantastic scene assessment and breakdown…Please do more of these!
    Really feel like this is an excellent way to learn how to approach a viewing and succeed…great stuff Legend.

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