I recently went on my first safari in Tanzania, and through a combination of research plus trial and error, I learned a lot about the best camera settings for safari to capture photos of wildlife. Photographing wildlife on safaris can definitely be a challenge – you’re working with fast-moving animals, low-light conditions, and bouncy vehicles. Oftentimes, your first try photographing wildlife on a safari may not give you the results you want.
If you’re looking for some guidance on recommendations for the best camera settings for safari, look no further. This article is not geared toward professional photographers, but rather people with a camera looking to capture those amazing photos like you see in National Geographic.
You don’t have to be a pro to improve your wildlife photography, but it does help to understand how to optimize your camera settings to ensure you have the best camera settings for safari. This article will walk through the three main camera settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO; additionally, it will cover four camera shooting modes and how to best use them on safari: Auto, Manual, Shutter Speed Priority, and Aperture Priority.
This post may contain affiliate links.
Best Camera Settings for Safari
When determining the best camera settings for safari photography, there are three main settings to consider: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The optimal settings will be dependent upon what type of wildlife you’re photographing and their speed of movement, as well as the time of day and amount of ambient light. Depending upon your conditions, you’ll incorporate different camera settings.
Shutter Speed for Safari
Shutter speed refers to the amount of time the camera allows light to enter to shoot the image. Shutter speed is measured in seconds, so 1/25 would translate to 1/25 of a second. If you are shooting long exposure (for example, Northern Lights), you would shoot closer to 6, meaning that the duration of the shutter would be a full six seconds. The higher the number, the more light enters the camera.
Shutter speed is a very important part of choosing the best camera settings for safari photography. To capture crisp images with moving animals, you’ll need a relatively quick shutter speed. Here are my suggestions:
- 1/100 for landscape if your camera is supported (either via a tripod or camera bean bag)
- 1/400 for static animals. The rule of thumb is to make sure the shutter speed is at least as fast as the focal length in use. I used a 400mm lens, so used a 1/400 rule to ensure I didn’t get camera shake.
- 1/1250 – 1/2000 for fast moving animals. My shutter speed choice will depend upon time of day and amount of light. I’d lean toward 1/1250 toward dawn and dusk and toward 1/2000 in the middle of the day
- 1/2500 for most birds in flight
- 1/4000 for little birds with extremely fast wing movements (e.g. kingfishers) or for freezing water (i.e. capturing movement of water)
Keep in mind that with extremely fast shutter speeds, you’ll need to have a low f-stop (aperture) and a relatively high ISO.
Aperture for Safari
Aperture regulates the amount of light that enters the camera lens when shooting the image. This setting is measured in f-stops, so you’ll see numbers like f/2.8, f/4, and f/5.6. Smaller numbers mean that more light enters the camera, and these are considered the widest aperture settings.
Generally speaking, low light conditions require wider aperture (f/2.8) while lots of ambient light generally means a narrower aperture.
Another important consideration with aperture settings relates to depth of field. With a wider aperture (f/2.8), you will have a shallow focus, so your subject will be sharp, but the background will be out of focus. At the other end of the spectrum, a narrower aperture (f/16) will increase the depth of field. If you are trying to capture an animal in its environment, you’ll want a larger field of depth. Field of depth is more of an artistic choice, so make sure you experiment with what works for you.
Understanding aperture is one of the most important components of selecting the best camera settings for safari photography, so I’d recommend experimenting with your camera so you can get a feel for how the different aperture settings translate to photos on your camera.
ISO for Safari
ISO measures the sensitivity of the camera to light and essentially changes how bright your photo is. You will see values written as ISO 100, ISO 600, ISO 1000, etc. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera is to light, and the brighter your photos appear. When there is less light (i.e. at dawn and dusk), increase your ISO settings for best results.
However, note that if you dial up your ISO values too high, you’ll start to get grainy photos, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. If I’m between ISO settings, I tend to choose lower ISO values and brighten up the photo post-processing.
Optimal ISO values vary widely based on what type of camera you have. ISO 100 will give you the best image quality, but will be way too dark with the fast shutter speeds needed for safari photography. Most entry level cameras are pretty good up to ISO 1000, while newer full-frame cameras can be good until ISO 6400 or even higher. However, this is highly dependent based on your camera.
My best recommendation here is to do lots of test photos in advance, especially in low light conditions. It sounds ridiculous, but I practiced shooting my dog running around the backyard just after sunset…just do what you need to do! If you’ve invested in a safari vacation, definitely invest the time in working through your optimal safari camera settings.
Balancing Shutter Speed, Aperture
Balancing the three key camera settings will set you up for success in capturing epic wildlife shots on your safari. In low light conditions, you’ll tend toward longer shutter speeds, wider aperture, and higher ISO setting. In the middle of a sunny day, you’ll lean toward a shorter shutter speed, narrower aperture, and lower ISO setting.
With safari photography, one of the most common issues is blurry images due to too long of shutter speeds. It is key to pay attention to your shutter speed when trying to capture crisp images of moving animals.
Camera Shooting Modes for Safari
With most cameras, you’ll have multiple shooting modes to choose from: Auto, Manual, Shutter Speed Priority, and Aperture Priority. I’ll walk through each of the settings and give you my recommendation on preferred modes and best camera settings for safari photography.
When you set your camera to Auto, the camera assesses the image, and automatically adjusts settings to give you a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. You might ask – why don’t we just shoot in Auto and let the camera pick the best combination of settings?
Auto is basically a guess from your camera on what will be best, and the big issue with this is that it will often not select the correct shutter speed to capture the best shot of wildlife. This means that your shot may be blurry, and this mode really isn’t geared toward capturing images of wildlife.
Sometimes your camera will pick the best settings, but I was not willing to risk missing “the shot” if my camera elected the wrong settings.
Manual mode is just how it sounds – for each shot, you’ll manually choose settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Most photographers prefer shooting in Manual in order to have complete control of all creative aspects, but this is not my preferred mode while on safari.
Here’s why…Manual is great when you have time to play with and adjust your settings. It is not so great when you are trying to capture a rhinoceros thundering at warp speed across the Serengeti. Going into our safari, I knew trying to shoot Manual would be way too stressful for me and take too much time. Because of that, I’d recommend either Shutter Speed Priority or Aperture Priority. I switched back and forth between these camera modes on my safari and actually really liked both.
Shutter Speed Priority (S)
When you’re on safari, wildlife is moving quickly, so you often won’t have time to shoot in manual mode. With the shutter speed priority mode, you can set your shutter speed, and your camera will automatically adjust aperture. You can set your ISO to Auto or manually adjust.
I liked shutter speed priority when I needed my shutter speed to be extremely fast (for example, shooting birds with fast wings or freezing water). However, the downside is that with low ambient light (when animals are usually most active), if you keep a fast shutter speed, you run the risk of pushing your ISO too high and getting grainy photos. I really enjoyed shooting with shutter speed priority, but it is critical to keep an eye on aperture and ISO values with this mode.
Aperture Priority (A)
With aperture priority, you’ll set the aperture and then let your camera select the optimal shutter speed and ISO. Aperture priority is a favorite for safari photography.
Here is how the process works: for safari photography, we typically want to leave the aperture at the widest setting to allow in the maximum possible light and really focus in on the wildlife instead of the background. Once you have the aperture set to its widest value (f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6), take a test shot with your camera. If your photo is a bit blurry, you’ll know the shutter speed is too slow, so you could increase your ISO in order to increase your shutter speed.
If your test photo has too shallow of a field of depth, you could select a narrower aperture setting and then repeat the process, adjusting for ISO in order to increase or reduce shutter speed.
I’d recommend aperture priority if you have the time to take a test shot and adjust your ISO to impact shutter speed. This will give you good control over the process, and will result in some epic safari photos.
I hope this post gives you a better understanding of the best camera settings for safari photography. Understanding the balance between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO will go a long way in helping to produce the crispest safari photos.
To sum up my recommendations on best camera settings for safari photography, I’d choose to shoot in Aperture Priority if you have the time for test shots; from there, adjust ISO up if your photos are blurry to increase shutter speed. If you are trying to capture a very fast animal, I liked shooting in Shutter Speed Priority to ensure that I got a crisp photo with no shake.
Have you been on a safari or photographed wildlife? I’d love to hear some of your recommendations on best camera settings for safari in the comments! Photographing wildlife can be done so many different ways, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
For some more travel inspiration, check out some of the posts below!
Tanzania Itinerary: Tanzania 7 Day Itinerary
Tanzania: Kikuletwa Hot Springs: 14+ Things to Know Before You Go
Safari Photography Tips: 14 Outstanding African Safari Photography Tips
Safari Outfits: What to Wear on Safari for Women: 10 Cute Outfit Ideas
Safari Tips for First-Timers: 20 Top Things to Know Before Going on Your First Safari
Tented Safari Camps: Top 13 Things You Always Wanted to Know About Tented Camps