Anne Darling Photography

Digital Wildlife Photography:
an Interview with Wildlife Photographer

Digital wildlife photography is an area that I have no expertise in, so I asked wildlife safari park photographer Mario Fazekas if I could interview him so that you could get an insight into how to get started in this fascinating area of photography, and he kindly agreed.

buffalo in close up shot in kruger safari park in south africa

Cape Buffalo, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Me: Mario, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Could you begin by giving my visitors some advice on how to get started in wildlife photography?

Mario: Someone who is just starting in digital wildlife photography has plenty of opportunities to practice Anne. They can go to the zoo, botanical gardens, or any natural area. If they live in a house or even a flat they will also have opportunities to take photos of subjects, such as insects, flowers, birds, pets and even sunrises, sunsets, storms, the moon, airplanes, etc. It doesn't matter what they shoot as long as they practice and get to know their gear!

They should also try to read up about the animals species they will be photographing so that they will be able to anticipate the behavior when they find the animals. If they are coming to Africa on a photo safari then they should read up on the big cats (lions, leopards and cheetahs) as well as the prey animals. We have captured some of our best predator photos by stopping to watch the prey. The antelope or warthog lets us know a predator is around long before we see it!

chettah in kgalagadi safari park in south africa

Cheetah, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa

Me: Can you tell my visitors what camera, lenses and accessories they should buy to get started in digital wildlife photography? What would be a minimum budget start-up kit? What should they aim for in the long run?

Mario: If your visitor likes Nikon gear then we suggest either the Nikon D5000 (12.3 megapixels) or the Nikon D7000 (16.2 Megapixels). For lenses we recommend the Nikon 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 AF VR zoom lens (that my wife still uses today as her primary safari lens) or the 300mm AFS f4 lens. Both these lenses are very sharp! With the 300mm lens you have an option of adding a 1.4X tele-converter so you end up with a 420mm f5.6 lens and on a crop-sensor body the image size is equivalent to a 600mm lens.

For Canon users we recommend either the Canon 50D (15.1 Megapixel) or Canon EOS 7D (18 Megapixel) cameras and for lenses the Canon 100 - 400 L f4.5 - 5.6 IS zoom lens and they can use the Canon 1.4X tele-extender with it thereby getting a 140-560mm lens.

In terms of accessories a tripod and/or beanbag are a must. We have three tripods and four beanbags so they must be important! Vibration reduction and image stabilization can only do so much in getting you a sharp image.

gemsbok at a waterhole in Etosha safari park in south africa

Gemsbok in Okaukuejo Waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia

There is simply no substitute for a bean-bag if you are shooting from a vehicle or a tripod if you are shooting from camps or lookout points. A ball-head for smaller lenses or a gimbal head for the larger lenses would be a good choice for nature photographers. Then we would suggest a polarizing filter and cable release.

In the long run the equipment a photographer buys is dependent on what his or her area of speciality is. If the person enjoys photographing big game animals or birds then they should be looking at 500mm and 600mm lenses. If their passion is macro photography then they should be investing in specialist macro lenses such as the 60mm, 105mm and/or 200mm micro lenses. And if they enjoy photographing landscapes then they should be investing in wide angle zoom lenses plus some graduated neutral density filters.

leopard in Etosha safari park in south africa Left: Leopard, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Me: Could tell us a bit about how you became a photographer and how to aim for a career in digital wildlife photography?

Mario: My start in digital wildlife photography was in 1995 when my wife dragged me to the Kruger Park with my Kodak point-and-shoot camera. I fell in love with the park and its animals and realised that a P&S camera simply wasn't going to give me good results. I then bought a Minolta SLR camera with lens but very soon progressed to Nikon equipment.

I'm pretty much self-taught. I love reading so bought books written by professional photographers such as Joe McDonald, Arthur Morris, Freeman Patterson, Jim Zuckerman, Moose Peterson, Nigel Dennis, Daryl Balfour, etc. I read their books from cover to cover and tried to emulate the shots they took.

We would visit parks like the Kruger, Kgalagadi and Pilanesberg in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia during annual vacations and over weekends. Pilanesberg is just a 2-hour drive from our home so it's an ideal weekend safari destination.

A number of things established our career in wildlife photography:

  • The first thing we did was create a website. It's important that you have a description for all the photos on your website as this is how the search engines find your images. We have sold images to organisations like Martha Stewart Living magazine when the editor found the image she was looking for in our gallery by doing such a search. Once your website is up, however, you need to keep adding quality content. If photography is your passion this won't be difficult to do.
  • If you get good results by using a manufacturers gear, such as a flash, filter or other accessory write an article for them - they will be only too happy to post it on their website or blog with a link back to your website. This is how you get credibility and free advertising at the same time.
  • Enter photographic competitions. Some of our images have been chosen as winning entries or highly commended in a number of contests.
  • We also wrote many articles and published them in photo magazines and on There are millions of potential clients so you need to make it easy for them to find you!

Me: Do colleges and universities cater for wildlife photographers or is it too specialist a subject for a dedicated course?

Mario: Some colleges have digital wildlife photography or nature photography courses and even outdoor/travel photo courses that will include wildlife. In addition many professional wildlife photographers are offering photo safaris in the national parks. These photo safaris are expensive but the person will go through a very steep learning curve during a short period of time.

lion yawning etosha safari park in south africa Left: Lion Yawning, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Other options would be for the person to attend a photo workshop, which is much more affordable than a photo safari, or even to invest in an e-Book or site-guide, which are specific to a national park or reserve.

Photographers who have bought these eBooks, ourselves included, have received much value from them.

The e-Book is cheap, instantly downloadable and much more up-to-date as compared to traditional books.

Me: Can you tell us a bit about going on safari? Is it really safe? How hard is it to get good shots? Are the animals really 'wild'?

Mario: When people go to an African wildlife safari park they have three primary choices - do they go on a guided safari, a photographic safari or do they go on a self-drive safari? Let me explain these in a bit more detail:

Guided safari - here a guide drives the visitor around each day with other visitors on the vehicle. The quality of the guides tends to be decreasing and most guides are not photographers so they park the vehicle facing into the sun, keep the engine running while you are shooting and so on - the guided tour tends to be very expensive for what you get.

crocodile with its kill in its jaws taken in kgalagadi safari park in south africa Right: Crocodile, Kruger National Park, South Africa

A dedicated photo safari run by a professional photographer or seasoned guide would be the exception. With these tours you are not crammed into the game-viewing vehicle like sardines and the driver understands where to position the vehicle so that you get a good shot.

On a self-drive safari you drive yourself around and decide each day where to go and what to do. We have done over 100 safaris each ranging from a few days to 3 weeks in length, totaling more than 600 days and we much prefer the self-drive option. On some trips we find and photograph the 'super-seven' animals (the big-five (see below) plus cheetah and wild dogs) in a day or two without any guide. We make use of the sighting boards / sighting books in the camps and speak to other visitors who tell us where they saw what animal and then we go and find them!

A safari is very safe, for the visitor who uses common sense! African national parks are definitely not zoos or circuses - the animals are wild and free! Having said that, African animals are no more dangerous than American animals (bears and wolves) or Asian animals (tigers), it's just that there are more animals in Africa.

wild dog with an animals leg in its mouth pilanesberg safari park
Wild Dog, Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa

The 'big-five' animals are dangerous, especially when provoked. Elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino are known to kill people but not without reason. We have seen people getting out their vehicles and walking towards the elephant to get a better photo, or throwing stones at a sleeping lion or filling up water bottles at a dam that is filled with crocodiles!

In addition to the big five you have other animals such as crocodiles, hippos, wild dogs, snakes, spiders and scorpions that can be deadly. We have spent nearly two years in African national parks and we are still alive! Most of the fatalities caused by the above 'dangerous' safari animals could have been prevented if people had simply obeyed the park rules.

One of the reasons people go on photo safaris is to photograph these exciting animals, so the fact they are dangerous is what draws people to them. Most of the camps are fenced so animals cannot get in but some camps, like the wilderness camps in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, are unfenced and you get lions and leopards walking a few feet past your cabin - then the adrenalin is pumping!

With modern digital cameras most photographers, even beginners, can capture good photos - if they are in the right place at the right time. The main challenge is to find the animals at the right time of the day in order to make the most of the light. Some parks, however, are more challenging than other to get good shots.

mario fazekas wildlife photographer Right: Mario Fazekas, Wildlife Photographer

The Kruger Park and Pilanesberg have very dense bush so it can be more difficult to find the animals and then you have to deal with busy backgrounds while the more open parks like the Kgalagadi, Etosha and Serengeti have less vegetation so your photographs are easier to capture and the backgrounds are less busy. The Serengeti, however is more expensive than the southern African parks but because of budget restrictions we prefer the self-drive parks of Kruger, Kgalagadi and Pilanesberg in South Africa and Etosha in Namibia.

Mario Fazekas is the co-author of The Photographer's Guide to Etosha National Park eBook and you can see more of his amazing wildlife images on his website, Kruger-2-Kalahari or you can find him on Facebook.

You might also like to check out my review of Mario's African Photography Safari eBook which has photographs by Kathryn Haylett and Mario & Jenny Fazekas.

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