A professional photographer reflects on how turning her camera to nature helped her become more thoughtful in her work.

By Kira Turnbull
May 09, 2020
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Kira Turnbull

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

“Adopt the pace of nature,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Her secret is patience”.

Patience was a trait I had never been able to master, especially when it came to photographing nature. As a photographer specializing in food and hotel interiors — also known as “subjects that don’t move” — I had only dabbled in the world of wildlife photography. Before my first safari, I’d taken the occasional photo of furry sheep along roads in Scotland, Icelandic ponies with enviable hair, and one very grumpy goat at a hotel farm (who then proceeded to headbutt me). Still, I never truly delved into what it took to photograph an animal.

From left: It was dusk, and we were near the end of our daily sundowner game drive when I spotted a giraffe in the distance; bright and early the next morning, around 7:30 a.m., we followed this mature male lion until he stopped to smell his prey and looked up towards the sun.
Kira Turnbull

Until last year, that is. In July of 2019, I was lucky enough to practice the foreign virtue of patience on a family safari — my first — around the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Wildlife photography was relatively new to me, but I had a secret weapon: my dad. A marine biologist and experienced nature photographer, my father, Dr. Timothy Turnbull, is a master of patience. He is known to idle underwater for ages until a moray eel slinks out of its cave, or post up in the mangroves at dawn, waiting for a blue heron to glide to the just the right branch for the light. I was thrilled to shoot a new subject and learn more about my dad’s specialty — but I had no idea how challenging it would be.

When our small Cessna landed on the dirt tarmac near Splash Camp, a new property in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I was eager to spend twelve days with my parents photographing the local flora and fauna. Cameras and safari hats in tow, we hopped into an open jeep with our fearless guide, "Big Tom," and set out into the bush. Per my dad’s advice, I kept my finger right on the shutter, ready for action.

Splash Camp, in Botswana's Okavango Delta.
Kira Turnbull

Every inch of the landscape was alive with myriad species I’d never seen in real life. There were impalas, which our guides referred to as “happy meals.” There were roaring hippos in the rivers and bee-eaters buzzing around the trees. I was overwhelmed by the variety of possible subjects. I knew I had to increase my shutter speed to capture an animal in frame, but I couldn’t quite get the rhythm of the shots — old habits die hard, and I found myself slow to capture those fleeting moments.

Reviewing my images that first morning, I wanted to delete everything I had taken. Photo after photo was deemed worthless. I felt defeated. I’ve been a professional photographer for years, and in that moment felt I’d regressed to being a clumsy, impatient teenager with a camera. But my father, still clicking away, stopped me. He said, “Patience is key. You can end up with hundreds of photos but only get a few goods ones — and those good ones are golden."

The next day we were up before sunrise. After a breakfast of fresh muffins and porridge, cold feet resting on the fire pit, we were back on our trusty four-wheeled steed, lenses out. I was still frustrated from the previous day, nearly ready to put my camera away and just enjoy the vacation by living in the moment. We had barely made it out of camp, the sun just starting to peek through the trees, when our guide slammed on the brakes. From the east came a herd of elephants — their silhouettes perfectly framed before the rising sun, clouds of dust stirred by their movements giving everything a golden glow. I immediately lifted my lens and snapped the shutter, just as an elephant lifted its trunk to the sky.

From left: This shot, which I captured after hours of frustration, changed how I approached photographing wildlife; a close-up that plays with black and white.
Kira Turnbull

It had taken patience to find the moment, but when it came, I didn’t hesitate. And there it was — I’d gotten “The Shot.” It would be the first of many from that trip that I am proud to have taken. From then on, I was hooked.

Twelve days, three safari camps, two countries, and thousands of frames later, it was time to head back to reality — to shoots I could plan weeks in advance, sets I could light myself, subjects who take directions, and plates of pasta unlikely to scurry off the table. But I came back with newfound skills and respect for the very challenging field of wildlife photography. It only took a few snaps — and many hours of patience.

The Art of Safari Photography

Bring the Right Lens

It’s important to bring the proper equipment — but don’t overpack. There are stringent weight restrictions when traveling on bush planes, a typical way to travel between camps, and camera equipment is heavy. I recommend bringing only a couple lenses. Start with a telephoto lens like the Nikkor 70-300 mm for those close up action shots. This lens is fast but heavy, so you will have to prop up your arm to steady the camera. Another must-have is a 24-70 mm lens like this one, also from Nikon. It’s versatile, whether you want to capture a pulled back shot of a sunset or the ambiance of the tented camp and its interiors. This lens is ideal for portraits of animals at around 50mm, which replicates the natural focal length of the human eye. When you start to increase your focal length, you also distort the image — do so wisely. 

Both photos were taken at dusk during our daily sundowner game drives. In order to capture these lowlight moments, I increased my ISO — which can give a soft, grainy look — and opened up my aperture to let in more light.
Kira Turnbull

Composition is Key

Always think about how the photo fits the frame. Use the rule of thirds — most cameras, like the Nikon D750 I used, will give you this option in the viewfinder — or find moments of repetition to draw the viewer’s eye into your image. You can also play with your depth of field: place a traveling companion in the foreground with binoculars, slightly out of focus, with your subject in focus in the background.

Find Your Light

You’ve probably heard the phrase “golden hour” from photo books and photographers, and there’s a reason every amateur (and professional!) is obsessed with this time of day. Just as the sun sets or rises, you get a beautiful, soft glow cast on your subjects. Try capturing an animal with the light behind them to create a silhouette, or play with light bouncing onto their faces. Avoid shooting during midday. Direct sunlight creates harsh and unappealing shadows in your photos.

Know Your Camera Settings

It’s important to really get to know your camera settings before you go on safari. Especially if you’re bringing expensive equipment, you want to make the most of it. Play around with changing your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Shoot in manual — but try using autofocus, so you don’t have to fret about manufacturing a crisp image when you only have a few seconds to get the shot. There isn’t much time capture an animal flying through the air or running across the plain. To photograph an animal in motion, shoot with a shutter speed above 1/250. If you want to experiment with blurred motion, try shooting below 1/125.

From left: The campfire at Splash Camp during breakfast; my mother taking an afternoon break to sketch the lion we had seen earlier that morning.
Kira Turnbull

Capture Camp Life

Being on safari is as much about the guides and accommodation as it is the animals. Photograph the crackling fires in the morning light, and the amazing interior design that you’ll find in most tents and communal areas. Shooting things that aren’t animals will help you create a photo story that truly encompasses the entire safari experience.

Patience Is a Virtue

Animals can’t understand your directions (unless you’re Doctor Dolittle) and their behavior is unpredictable. A lion could be inching towards the safari vehicle to get a closer look…and then suddenly dash off into the distance. A monkey could be swinging from the trees and looking directly at your lens, but then decide to take a big yawn or jump to the ground. Keep taking those photos over and over again. With deep breaths and a calm demeanor, you’ll get the shot — it just might take a bit of time.