Before endeavouring to photograph a new (or any) subject, it is important to limit any risk to you or to stress the subject. The following questions are designed to help in this situation, so great images can be created and no harm done. So many thanks to Dr Vicki Fishlock, our friendly elephant expert, who kindly helped us to Know Your Subject (KYS)! :)

Read about Vicki and her research here...  you can also see a video of her in action and her fantastic photos! :)


African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

How dangerous is the subject (0-10, 0 being a fluffy bunny, 10 being a rabid werewolf)?

It varies from area to area, but threatened or stressed elephants can be extremely dangerous; at least a 9. Talk to people about the area you’re photographing in to get a sense of how safe elephants feel. Relaxed elephants are not at all dangerous.

What is considered a safe distance to the subject?

If elephants approach you, and are habituated to vehicles, then 10m can be fine (and may be too close for your lens!). But you should always get information from experts in the area as to how relaxed elephants are, and regardless of what anyone says, you should know the warning signs. Elephants will tell you what they think is a safe distance. Don’t ever approach elephants on foot –they are much faster than people. If you are doing a walking safari, you should always have an experienced guide with you.

What are the ‘warning signs’ or situations that means it’s time to leave?

Annoyed elephants will flap their ears and toss their heads. That’s the time to back off, although if it’s just babies doing it and playing with you then you can stay put as long as mum is relaxed. Threatened elephants will stand tall to make themselves look bigger and may mock charge – don’t irritate them to this point. Don’t ever annoy elephants to get your shot; they are big, powerful, and much faster than people realise. The most amazing elephant photos I’ve seen come from intimate portraits captured in relaxed settings.

How do you leave/escape safely?

Stay in your vehicle, or keep with your guide.

What precautions are necessary in order to stay safe?

Keep a safe distance, and keep an open route between you and the elephants if you’re working in an area where they are known to be sensitive.

How do you know if you are stressing the subject and what is the appropriate response?

As well as the behaviour I’ve described above, mostly annoyed elephants will leave. Let them go, and give them time to relax before you approach them again. Better still, go and find another group to work with.

Is there anything in particular we should not do (e.g. eye contact)?

Elephants communicate with infrasound, so the noise of an engine is intrusive. Turn engines off as soon as you can, and be aware that starting the engine is going to sound very loud to them – try not to do it when they are very close, to avoid disturbing your subjects.

How common is the subject or is it rare?

Increasingly rare, as ivory poaching and habitat loss squeeze populations downward across Africa and Asia.

When are they most active? Time of day/season?

Elephants are active 24/7 but they are most active in early morning and late afternoon. Often they will rest during the midday period, which can be a nice time to find them to capture mother-calf behaviour and late afternoon play sessions are common amongst youngsters.

How and where do you find them? Tips for spotting them?

Drinking places and mudholes are the best places to wait for elephants to come and cool off, and wallowing elephants make very fun subjects. Make sure your continuous shooting mode is on, and you probably want to stick with autofocus at these times. Habitual crossing places, or gathering points, are going to be well-known in an area, so do some research about the place you’re visiting.

What is the best way to approach the subject, if at all, as not to disturb it?

Never ever approach elephants from behind. Let them approach you whenever possible.

How close can we typically expect to get to the subject?

Well-habituated populations might approach to within 20m. Other elephant populations will stay 100-150m away.

What kind of behaviours and situations would one expect to see and how would we recognise them?

Feeding. Elephants feed a lot – about 18-20 hours a day. But they do lots of other things alongside feeding. Look out for mothers steering calves with their tails as babies follow behind, or babysitting behaviour by young females. Between females, bonds are reinforced with body rubs and touches as they pass each other.

What behaviours/situations are considered rare and we should look out for?

Fights are rare; elephants are very good at assessing each other and they keep track of dominance relationships. Try and keep a distance from fights, especially between males, because they can be fast-paced and losers are particularly aggressive. Greetings are also wonderful but not very common to witness, when friends or family members reunite it prompts a cacophony of roars, rumbles and squeaks (in Asian elephants) along with lots of touching. It’s the equivalent of a group hug!

What are their biggest threats? E.g. poaching, human-conflict, disease, habitat loss etc…

Poaching and increasing human populations, squeezing into and altering their habitats. The human-elephant interface is growing and putting both sides under increasing pressure.

Is there anything else we should know?

Elephants are special. They know and value each other as individuals. Try and look at the individual you’re photographing, and capture something of that in your images.

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