One of the widely accepted principles in wildlife photography says you should try to get on eye level of your subject. If you want to achieve this very special tension in your images you have to go down and dirty sometimes.
While this principle can be followed without major problems in many situations it’s nearly impossible to reach this goal in a typical safari situation in many African wildlife reserves. Game viewing is normally done out of specially designed vehicles which are often massive 4WD trucks allowing for great viewing of even dangerous game, but the position of view may not always be the best for wildlife photography. And in many cases you won’t be allowed to leave the vehicles for safety reasons.
There may be different ways to approach this issue – ranging from setting up cameras trigged by remote control devices of any kind away from the photographer to attending walking safaris. Another solution are photographic hides:
Some reserves and lodges offer the unique opportunity to use specially designed photographic hides, mainly close to water holes, which are burrowed into the ground and allow water-level shots of all the species coming in for a drink.
During an extended field trip to South Africa in August 2017 I visited Madikwe Game Reserve, still an insider tip among South African game reserves. I chose to stay at The Bush House, mainly because of the unique photographic opportunities using their underground hide at a very busy water hole. You will find some of the images below. I inserted technical details in the captions to give you an idea of the camera settings I applied to create these images (all images were shot on a full frame DSLR).
Zoom lens at 23 mm, ISO 100, f 6.3, 1/400 sec, neutral exposure
500 mm, ISO 800, f 7.1, 1/500 sec, neutral exposure
500 mm, ISO 800, f 7.1, 1/400 sec, neutral exposure
Zoom lens at 170 mm, ISO 200, f 10.0, 1/800 sec, – 1 full stop underexposed
500 mm, ISO 800, f 7.1, 1/1.250 sec, – 1/3 underexposed
Zoom lens at 200 mm, ISO 800, f 7.1, 1/1.250 sec, – 1/3 underexposed
500 mm, ISO 100, f 7.1, 1/800 sec, – 2/3 underexposed
500 mm, ISO 6.400, f 4.5, 1/25 sec, – 2/3 underexposed
The two lenses I used most at the underground hide were a 70-200 mm f 2.8 zoom and a 500 mm f 4.5 prime lens. With elephants being very close I also used a 16-35 mm f 2.8 zoom lens (first image) which can give a rather unusual view of the animals.
I kept the ISO as low as possible, but lifted it up as high as necessary to get an appropriate shutter speed – at least in most situations. If you look at the technical data of the sandgrouse image just above a shutter speed of 1/25 sec is absolutely not appropriate when shooting with a 500 mm lens but due to the big beans bags provided in the hide and a remote-control release it still worked quite well.
Aperture depends on light and on the type of images you want to create – there are no limits to work on your photographic vision! Although you stay in the hide at a fixed place the occurrence of game is unpredictable as in game drives. Any minute can be interesting, but due to the generally higher activity mornings and evenings may be the best choice. As the animal activities at the water hole are at their maximum in the dry season I recommend the winter months and early spring to visit this location.
There are, of course, other lodges and/or game reserves with underground hides, but I highly recommend this location for the superb photographic opportunities as well as for the unique hospitality at the Bush House.