"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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.