By Alexa Keefe

Photographs by Michael Nichols
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 8, 2017 in National Geographic

How to Photograph an Elephant

Elephants are social creatures, which makes them fun to photograph. But to make a truly interesting picture, you have to play it cool.

A group of elephants at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. Familial relations of elephants are complex, various, and fascinating.


“I’ve never been bored photographing elephants,” says National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols, who has been documenting elephants in the rain forests and savannas of Africa for over 20 years.

While they may not resemble humans in appearance, they are like us—social, intelligent, playful, emotional, vulnerable. “Elephants’ strong social attachments are what make them special,” Nichols says.

Whether you are on safari in Africa, visiting a sanctuary, or on a trip to the zoo, the key to a great photograph lies in understanding elephant behavior so that you can photograph—and appreciate—what makes them truly magical.

Security and learning are crucial to elephant society. On the savannas of the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, infants in family groups get vigilant protection from females functioning almost as a council of mothers. Adolescents tussle amiably, developing social skills as well as confidence and strength.

Be patient.

Elephants are social creatures. If you have the chance to see them in the wild, it is well worth taking the time to wait and see what unfolds.
“Elephants gather in small family groups. If you see a baby elephant, don’t leave. Park the car and ask your guide to follow that family because every elephant wants to see and smell that baby. If you spend the day with [them], I assure you something magical will happen.”

An eight-month-old elephant calf

Another behavior to keep an eye out for?

“If you see a big bull elephant and another is not too far away, they will eventually greet each other by wrapping their trunks around each other. It’s a way of shaking hands and of sharing scent.”

Although sometimes it is just fun to roll around in the mud, a mud bath has its utility, serving to cool and protect against the sun and parasites. For this young male in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, hogging the wallow seems cause for exuberance.

Two young males locked in a friendly grappling match in Samburu National Reserve.

Catch them at play but be boring yourself.

Midday may be the time when the light is harshest but it is often the time when elephants will seek refreshment and recreation in a watering hole or mud pit, Nichols says.
If you are on safari, find out from the guide if there is a source of water nearby. “There will be a lot of play and fooling around. Elephants standing there is boring. Elephants playing with other elephants is fantastic.”

Arrive before the elephants do so they can see you as they come nearer and get used to your presence. “When you’re photographing it’s not about being a part of things. You don’t want a picture of them interacting with you. You want them interacting with each other.”

Finally, if you are going to be sitting in one place for a while, position yourself where the light will ultimately work to your advantage as the sun moves across the sky. You want to be where you will get beautiful light at the end of the day, not shadows.

Wendi, an orphan elephant, approaches Nichols’s car in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. She was found as an hours-old newborn in 2002, probably abandoned by her mother, and now leads a group of fourteen orphans that have been independent since 2009.

If you are at the zoo …

Find out if the zoo has an elephant enrichment program, and if they do, when activities are open to the public. Watching a trainer giving an elephant a bath with a water hose will make for more interesting pictures.

A male forest elephant in Gabon senses Nichols’s scent.

You can get close to wild elephants in a car, but not on foot.

Elephants don’t like humans on foot, Nichols says, so your best options are photographing from a car or elevated area. And never approach an elephant. Let them come closer to you. Then you can put away the telephoto lens and use a wide angle instead.

Elephants enjoy their midday ablutions near the Voi stockades in Tsavo National Park in Kenya.

An elephant has a memory like, well, an elephant.

“Elephants operate by smell, not sight,” Nichols says. And those sensory memories are strong. If a scent is associated with past danger, they will either charge or run away depending on the situation.
“When elephants are habituated to humans in cars, they will allow a much closer visit if they have seen the car before and smelled the same smells that did them no harm.”

Nichols once wore the same shirt over multiple days photographing the same group of elephants so they would get used to his scent.

Orphan elephants at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery in Kenya take a walk with their caregivers. The intense bond formed between the elephants and their keepers is mutual.

Save yourself the trouble of expensive gear.

An expensive telephoto lens is not going to get you an interesting picture, Nichols says. While you might need one if you are photographing from a distance, like from a tree platform or an overlook, what makes your photograph a success is not the quality of your lens but the moment happening beyond it.

And you definitely don’t need special lighting. In fact, camera flashes agitate elephants. (Nichols’s early famous photograph of a charging elephant was made with a flash although the more he learned about elephant behavior, the more he understood the stress it causes them.)

So really, he says, you can make great pictures of elephants with your smart phone, provided you stick around long enough.

You can see more of Nick Nichols’s work on his website. Earth to Sky, his book about the lives and behaviors of African elephants, is available for purchase here.

A young male, when he reaches sexual maturity, is no longer welcome among his female relatives. He walks the landscape alone, at least until he can ally himself with other young bulls. Lessons learned in upbringing help to guide him. This 17-year-old, recently parted from his family group in the Samburu National Reserve, is adjusting slowly; he still sometimes revisits the family for tusk wrestling with his former playmates and younger siblings.

Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor.
Michael “Nick” Nichols is an award-winning photographer whose work has taken him to the most remote corners of the world. He became a staff photographer for the National Geographic Society in 1996 and was named editor at large for National Geographic in January 2008.

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