How’d You Get That Shot? Safari Photography with David Carr

Written by Thomson Safaris

Capturing nature’s most awe-inspiring moments takes much more than good luck and a quick trigger finger. Careful planning, serious skill, and a little bit of luck are needed to create the kinds of unforgettable images that make an African safari so enticing, even from thousands of miles away. The photographs these guests snapped are so impressive, we wanted to learn more about what went into them. In this ongoing series, our most avid photographers share some of the secrets behind the stunning images that make us all wonder “How’d you get that shot?”

Photographer David Carr joins us today with his top 5 safari photos.

1. Great Migration Roadblock

zebras and wildebeest run across road in serengeti tanzania

What do you like about this shot?
I love the movement in this photograph. It’s impossible to fully capture the essence of the experience of being on safari through photographs alone, but whenever there is a chance to show the movement of the animals and the grandeur of the landscape in one shot, it really does paint a picture of the awe and wild beauty of Africa. I also loved capturing the dust cloud being kicked up in the air by the wildebeests and zebras as they ran across the road in front of us.

What type of planning was involved in order to capture this image?
We couldn’t have predicted this happening. Our group was on it’s way back to our campsite when all of a sudden we had to stop abruptly as this seemingly never-ending herd began making its way across the path. This was an epic moment!

Camera and settings: I shot this one with a Nikon Z6ii mirrorless camera and a Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 S lens. My settings were ISO 160, f/6.3, 1/1600 sec at 32mm.  I love the Nikon Z series of cameras. Shooting mirrorless has been a game changer for me in that I find myself taking few images but keeping more of the ones I do shoot. Having and electronic viewfinder is priceless when it comes to seeing your exposure in real-time. And the Nikon Z series native glass offers some of the sharpest and most accurate lenses I have ever used. All of it really shines so well with safari photography.

2. Elephants from Behind

herd of elephants on safari in tanzania

What do you like about this shot?
I simply love this shot for several reasons. If you’ve photographed wildlife, you know that it’s often much easier to get a shot of an animal’s rear end than one of their face! I think they’re smarter than we give the credit for and they don’t always play nice with humans and their cameras! Nonetheless, elephants have such a distinct look from every angle and seeing this group of elephants – especially with babies in tow – just made for an interesting shot. I also love the acacia trees in the background. They add texture and context to the setting of the image.

What type of planning was involved in order to capture this image?
Thankfully, elephants are usually quite slow in their movements, so I was able to relax and compose my shots of them fairly well. I will say, this image did require a fair amount of clean up in photoshop. And when I say clean up, one doesn’t have to use too much of their imagination to know what I mean. With this number of elephants in one shot, there was bound to be poop!

Camera and settings: I shot this image with a Nikon Z7 and a Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens. I had to use the Nikon FTZ adapter in order to use this particular lens. It’s a dream combination, though! My settings were ISO 160, f/5.6, 1/500 sec at 500mm.

3. Leopard Descends Tree

leopard in tree in serengeti

What do you like about this shot?
This is by far one of my favorite shots from my trip. Some images are all about gesture and in this case, that is what stands out the most to me. This shape of the leopard, the direction she’s moving, and even the flourish of her tail just makes for a great pose.

What type of planning was involved in order to capture this image?
Our group must have stayed in one place, watching her for at least 30 minutes so there were ample opportunities to capture multiple moments of this beautiful cat. I must say, we were at a pretty good distance from her so this image required a heavy amount of cropping just to hone in on the action.

Camera and settings: I shot this image with a Nikon Z7 and a Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens mounted to and FTZ adapter. My settings were ISO 500, f/8, 1/500 sec at 500mm.

4. Trio of Lions Atop Kopje

lions sit on kopje rock in tanzania

What do you like about this shot?
This image of three female lions is by far one of my favorite photographs from the trip. I love the pose and the fact that there are three of them just makes for some photographic appeal. I often tell people to look for animals or subjects in groups of threes. I’m not sure why but there is something about that number that carries a certain aesthetic appeal in art.

What type of planning was involved in order to capture this image?
Now to be honest, there was a fourth lion in this shot but I photoshopped her out because all you could see what a part of her back leaning up against the lion on the left side of the image. Thankfully, lionesses are often pretty sedentary when you see them on safari and that gives a photographer plenty of chances to fire off a number of shots and hopes for that one magic moment.

Camera and settings: I shot this image with a Nikon Z7 and a Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens mounted to and FTZ adapter. My settings were ISO 250 f/5.6 1/1000 sec at 500mm.

5. Elephant with Trunk Up

elephant with trunk up in serengeti

What do you like about this shot?
On my first trip to Tanzania in 2019 I wasn’t able to get even a single decent shot of an elephant, which seems odd since there are plenty of them around and they don’t often move fast. Nonetheless, I just didn’t have great light and close enough proximity to really make a great photograph. Thankfully, this time around was much different in that we saw many large herds of these magnificent creatures and in all different types of light. I really love this shot for several reasons, one being the fact that the elephant seems to be looking right at my camera. I also love the colors.

What type of planning was involved in order to capture this image?
Shooting earlier in the day allowed me to have more even light from foreground to sky. On an animal with such a dark exterior and no patterns, it’s easy for most of it to fall into shadow and to almost look silhouetted against the background but the light was perfect for really capturing the details of the animal without blowing out the sky.

Camera and settings: I shot this image with a Nikon Z7 and a Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens mounted to and FTZ adapter. My settings were ISO1400 f/5.6 1/1250 sec at 500mm.

 

Photography Tips

Are there any technical tips you have for photographers who are more advanced?
In full transparency, I want to mention to the more advanced photographers out there that some of the settings I have listed were off in that I could have gotten away with a much slower shutter speed and thus a much lower ISO. Or perhaps I could have used a higher shutter speed when there was action but sometimes in these situations, you’re moving from one scene to the next and you’re focusing on the subject matter more than the technical things. I don’t recommend being sloppy at all but when it comes to shooting nature, always lead with your eye and then follow that with your technical mind. It’s better to capture that split second magic moment at a higher than ideal ISO or aperture than to be fiddling around with your camera until the moment is gone. The more you practice being intentional and anticipating the action, the better you’ll get at it.

“When it comes to shooting nature, always lead with your eye and then follow that with your technical mind.”

 
Also, I would encourage photographers that in between stops on a safari or other photographic adventure, it’s a great idea to sort of reset your cameras to a nominal place where you’re ready for anything. Perhaps set your ISO to auto, your aperture to its lowest possible number and your shutter speed to 1/1000. That way, no matter what you happen upon, you’re likely to get a usable shot. There’s no need to pull up to a brightly lit scene with your ISO at 3200 but you certainly don’t want to come upon something moving fast while your shutter speed is set to 1/160 sec!

Which tools, during either the shooting or editing process, did you use to enhance the photo?
I encourage photographers to shoot in RAW, which gives you a lot more options in editing. I never want to advocate for relying on editing to make a bad photo good but it can make a good photo amazing. Personally, I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for the majority of my editing. Occasionally I will use Topaz Labs Sharpen AI as well, when I have cropped heavily and need an extra bump in sharpness. I highly recommend it!

“It’s essential to always be honing your skills at grabbing the best exposure possible but don’t get so bogged down by perfect exposure that you miss the shots altogether!”

 
One thing I often teach clients is that if you’ve got a compelling subject in your viewfinder and you shoot it tack sharp with even just decent composition and exposure, you usually have all you need to take it to a great place! It’s essential to always be honing your skills at grabbing the best exposure possible but don’t get so bogged down by perfect exposure that you miss the shots altogether! I have pulled some incredible images out of terrible exposures. It feels like cheating but in the end, who cares how you get there as long as you get there!

What’s your favorite tip to give fellow photographers?
My favorite tip that I give to other photographers is when shooting and then especially when editing to think of your photographs as paintings. You have to ask yourself questions like, “would I put that in a painting or would I leave it out?” “Where would the subject be in my painting?” “If I painted this, would my sky be blown our or would it have some texture?” Questions like this will help you to create an image, rather than just document a moment.

 

About David

How many years of professional photography experience do you have?
I got into photography 9 years ago and made it a full time career 5 years ago.

What’s your favorite thing to photograph?
My favorite thing to photograph is definitely nature but I always say that I just love great images, so I shoot a little bit of everything from headshots to waterfalls!

What do you think of Tanzania or a safari as an overall photographic opportunity? What made it special to photograph?
There is a very special place in my heart and mind for Tanzania. To me, being on safari just sums up Africa in so many ways. From the vast array of incredible wildlife to the amazing and warm reception of the people, Tanzania offers the experience of a lifetime. If you love traveling, it’s a must!

Where can we find your work?
You can see my work on Instagram: @davidcarrphoto and on my website www.davidcarr.com

 

Want to learn more about photographic safaris with Thomson Safaris? Contact us today!