Photographing Wildlife and Water

As wildlife photographers, we spend long periods of time in some of the most beautiful and unspoiled wilderness areas, where our wild subjects live.  Many, if not all, of the wild animals that we like to photograph may have some need of water, or will have to deal with water, in the course of their daily activity.  We have learned that from a photographic perspective, this can sometimes offer us a chance to capture really interesting images.  

Having some idea of what the different animals preferences, needs and behaviour might be when it comes to the water in their environment can help us with anticipating what images might be available.  All of the images in this post are connected with water, in one way or another.  Some species, like the African lion, don’t usually seek out deep water, but depending on where they live, they may have to move through rivers and channels in order to maintain a big enough territory.  Others, like the capybaras in the header image, head to deep water for refuge.


African lioness, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/2500sec at f4.0, iso 1600. Click for larger view

Lions that are healthy, strong and well-fed will sometimes power right through river crossings that are not overly deep.  When they do, it can make for strong images, with this particular female captured in a powerful pose, her left front paw leading, and splashing water making the image so much more dynamic.  The richly-toned surroundings make a pleasing background for the action cat.  The rest of her pride had already crossed ahead of her, more slowly, and this female had some time to make up.


Spotted Hyaena, Serengeti region, Tanzania. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 5D Mark 4. Shutter speed 1/1250sec at f7.1, iso 400. Click for larger view

When a spotted hyaena entered a shallow lake from one of our Tanzania photosafaris, the smooth water allowed the reflection to show up clearly below.  The edges of this lake where very muddy and we could not approach any closer, but found this distant perspective very pleasing anyway.  This spotted hyaena was moving in the water to find a spot to cool itself down, on a warm morning with rising air temperatures.


African lion, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/2000sec at f4.0, iso 1600. Click for larger view

In this image, a five-month old lion cub charges through a body of water, from one of our Northern Botswana photosafaris.  By rushing through in this way, the little cat reduces the amount of time it exposes itself to the risk of crocodile attack.  Many of Africas wild rivers and waterways are still home to crocodiles.  Crocodiles represent a very real threat to the small and medium sized animals that have to cross through the water.  Crocodiles in the water can be very hard to detect for other animals.


Jaguar, Pantanal, Brazil. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/1000sec at f4.0, iso 1000. Click for larger view

Not all big cats avoid deep water.  Jaguars in the Pantanal wetland of Brazil, enter water both to cool off and to hunt.  The jaguars are completely comfortable in the water.  They swim extremely well, and actually hunt Paraguayan caiman and capybaras in the water.  They also cool themselves off in the rivers.  The large male jaguar in this photograph covered over 2 kilometers in the river, wading, swimming and walking along the edge, using the flowing current to his advantage, when this image was taken.  The green reflection from the forest trees that line the river bank added the rich green colour to the foreground of the image.  We get to spend time with these jaguars on our Pantanal photosafaris.


African elephant, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 24-70 L f4 IS and 6D Mark 2. Shutter speed 1/160sec at f5.6, iso 160. Click for larger view

African elephants will visit water daily if they can.  Whilst breeding herds of mothers and youngsters may just visit to drink then leave, bull elephants often stay near the water for longer.  The bull elephant in this image from the Chobe River, Botswana, had spent an entire afternoon feeding on vegetation growing right alongside the channel.  Making use of a boat for our photography gave us a good low angle, and combined with the sky at sunset to make for a strong silhouette image.  Using a wide-angle lens like the EF 24-70L meant that we could incorporate the elephants reflection in the water, in the frame.


Impala antelope, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 70-300 L f4-5.6 IS and 1D Mark 4. Shutter speed 1/40000sec at f6.3, iso 640. Click for larger view

The impala antelope photographed here, definitely did not want to enter the waters of the Linyanti River and instead chose to leap right over the channel edge.  Impala are very agile, and as can be seen, powerful jumpers.  Having an idea of their dislike for crocodile-inhabited water allowed us to be ready for this action.


African wild dog, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 300 L f2.8 IS and 1D Mark 4. Shutter speed 1/2000sec at f5.6, iso 800. Click for larger view

African wild dogs love to play, and when a pack we where following in Botswana’s Okavango Delta came across some shallow water, safe from crocodiles, they lived up to their names and really did “go wild”.  They chased one another about, splashing through the clear water with total abandon.  The water that was flung into the air by the dogs feet made for much more dynamic images, and we filled up our memory cards in short order.


African elephant, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 24-70 L f4 IS and 6D Mark 2. Shutter speed 1/1250sec at f7.1, iso 320. Click for larger view

Composing with an expanse of calm water in the frame can help to convey a sense of tranquility to the scene.  Such was the case when a herd of elephants crossed the Chobe River in Northern Botswana during one of our visits there. African elephants are very comfortable in the water and are good swimmers.  Despite that, they they do adopt a cautious approach when crossing deeper water.  Most often, when a herd enters the water, they may move in a line with an adult leading, and the small elephants in the herd moving directly in their footsteps.  That way if there is a deep hole or unseen obstacle encountered by the lead adult elephant, those elephants coming behind can take care to avoid it.


Giant river otter, Pantanal, Brazil. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/800sec at f8.0, iso 6400. Click for larger view

Some animals like the giant river otter, spend much of their time in the water.  They are difficult to even see from land, but can be photographed well from a boat in locations like Brazil’s Pantanal.  Using a boat can allow for a low perspective, as well as a silent approach, which means that the animals natural behaviour can be photographed and not disturbed.  In this instance the otter was happily eating an armoured catfish it had just caught.  Giant river otters live are social, and live in groups and are excellent hunters of fish.


Bengal tigert, Madya Pradesh, India. Image with a Canon EF 400 DO f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/1600sec at f5.6, iso 500. Click for larger view

Another cat which likes water is the Bengal tiger.  Sometimes these large cats will literally spend time ‘chilling’ out during the warmer part of the day, in some of the National Parks and Reserves in India where they occur.  From the photographers perspective, this behaviour can be very rewarding.  Aside from the reflection, the tiger’s orange colour contrasts well with the green colour which is reflected in the water surface.  It is easier to capture images like this when there is no wind blowing which would ruffle the water surface.  This particular image comes from a sighting on one of our Bandhavgarh National Park photosafaris, in India.


African elephant, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/1600sec at f4.0, iso 320. Click for larger view

Anytime the sun is low in the sky, there can be opportunities to capture images that are backlit.  A young elephant that was playfully splashing water with his trunk, made for a good subject.  The backlit water was illuminated by the sun behind it and added motion to the still image.  This image came from the Chobe River in Northern Botswana.  Photographing in such strongly backlit situations can be made quite difficult if the camera struggles to focus. 


Jaguar, Pantanal, Brazil. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/1000sec at f4.0, iso 1000. Click for larger view

We have also learned that when some animals go into deep water, like this Pantanal jaguar, that most of the animals body may disappear from view.  At such times we find having more focal length can help with making strong images.  Framing with a wide perspective would mean the jaguar becomes barely noticeable in the scene.  An alternative approach and one that we preferred on this day was to get stronger images when the cat was entering the water and coming out of it, and more of his body was visible.  Whilst the jaguars stealthy approach to swimming along the river bank was a great way for him to sneak up on unsuspecting prey, his low profile in the water made it difficult to capture striking images.


African wild dog, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 300 L f2.8 IS and 1D Mark 4. Shutter speed 1/5 sec at f4.0, iso 800. Click for larger view

Using slow shutter speeds when wild animals are moving through water can result in some interesting imagery.  This was the case when an African wild dog raced past us in some shallow water, on an Okavango photosafari.  I chose a slow shutter speed, and moved the lens at the same speed at which my subject was running past.  This portrayed the motion of the dog quite strongly against the blurred background.  The water splashing out from the dogs feet though, really added something different to all the other motion blur images I have taken when the animals are moving on dry land.


African elephant, Northern Botswana. Image with a Canon EF 500 L f4 IS ii and 1DX. Shutter speed 1/1250sec at f4.0, iso 1600. Click for larger view

Any elephant emerging from deep water like the female in this image, typically have rich dark tones to their skin, a little reflected light from the sky where they are still very wet, and very clean eyelashes.  They sometimes also open their eyes wide just like the animal in this image has done, adding life to the image.  Afternoon sun on the river bank in the background added a splash of yellow colour to the image, taken on the Chobe River, Botswana.  Working from a boat allowed for a clean foreground and a low angle.

From a technical point of view, there are a few things that we think about when we are photographing around water.  We have learned to take note of how bright or dark any water surface in the frame may turn out.

 On occasions when there is likely to be large quantities of bright water splashed about, we have learned to use a Single Focus Point or a small grouping, so that the autofocus doesn’t grab onto the water rather than our subject.

So, we will continue to keep a special lookout for our wild subjects when they come to the water, to drink, to bathe, to hunt or to cool off.  Whether they like the water or are trying their best to avoid it, there are compelling images to be made. 


About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

11 Responses to “Photographing Wildlife and Water”

  1. Genevieve Rudock Says: October 30, 2018 at 4:08 am

    What a gorgeous collection of images

    • Grant Atkinson Says: October 30, 2018 at 6:08 am

      Thanks for looking and commenting, Genevieve

  2. Rose-Ann Badach Says: October 30, 2018 at 12:54 pm

    Simply love your photography. Lived in Botswana for 8 years.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: October 30, 2018 at 2:50 pm

      Hi Rose-Ann
      Thanks for taking the time to let us know. We also lived there for some time, its a fantastic country.

  3. DaveT Says: October 30, 2018 at 5:50 pm

    Grant, these beautiful images and the accompanying text should be required reading for any aspiring wildlife photographer. What I particularly like is the diversity of images around the central theme of water. The images show that you think around the subject and how best to illustrate that subject at that particular moment of time. And that is a very valuable skill for us all to develop.

    Some subjects, such as the Jaguar swimming, may be difficult from a technical standpoint, and it may not immediately leap out at you (pardon the pun) from the page in the same way a sunset shot like the backlit elephant does, but it is excellent storytelling and illustrative of how they are so adapted to their environment.

    Thank you so much for sharing your images, the technical details of what you were trying to do and how you achieved it, whilst also giving us an insight into the behaviour of the animals. Wonderful!


  4. Grant Atkinson Says: October 31, 2018 at 2:24 pm

    Hi Dave
    Thanks so very much for the feedback. Of course we are most fortunate to be able to spend time in these beautiful natural environments, which makes capturing these kind of images possible without too much difficulty.
    Very glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. Sandy Tullio Says: November 6, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    Thank you for posting such an informational and inspiring article. What a blessing to be able to accomplish so much in the world of wildlife photography.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: November 6, 2018 at 8:50 pm

      Hi Sandy
      Thanks for your support, and glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  6. Martin Brasg Says: November 30, 2018 at 10:05 am

    What a fantastic set of pics. You have caught the essence of wildlife in water. What I would like to ask you. When shooting such fast-moving subjects, do you shoot on shutter priority and auto ISO? or what is your preference?

    • Grant Atkinson Says: November 30, 2018 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Martin, thanks for the feedback. We used to shoot in Aperture Mode and make sure we set the Iso high enough to give us fast shutter speeds, (hopefully fast enough when the background changed) but since many of the Canon dslr bodies allow us to use Exposure Compensation even in M Mode, we now almost always set our cameras in M Mode but with Auto Iso switched on. We choose a fast enough shutter speed firstly, then select an aperture for more or less depth of field, and then we make sure we watch the iso as it changes when we track movement (in the viewfinder corner). That way if we notice the iso is climbing too high, we then open the aperture some more or else give up a little shutter speed till it comes down to a level we are happy with.
      Hope that explanation is of use?

  7. Reshma Joshi Says: December 1, 2018 at 5:13 am

    Grant, I have been watching your youtube videos and reading your blogs for optimum settings on Canon 80D for wildlife photography. Your blogs and tutorials have been extremely helpful as I prepare to go shoot wildlife in Botswana in couple weeks. Your images and their specs with descriptions are particularly helpful. Thanks for all you do in parting this invaluable knowledge from your creative skills and experience.

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