A Wildlife Photographer's 5-step Guide to that Award Winning "Shot"

By Bill Gozansky

zebra taken on onguma

A few years ago, I had an amazing opportunity to do a month-long photographic residency at the Onguma Nature Reserve, bordering the Etosha National Park in Namibia. Onguma has 34,000 hectares of private wilderness, with five lodges and two campsites to meet the needs and comforts of every type of traveler. Its location also affords guests close access to the eastern gate of Etosha National Park, which is infamous for its unparalleled waterhole wildlife viewing. But one of the extras that Onguma offers photographers is the Onkolo Hide, a subterranean photographic hide that sits right at the edge of an active waterhole within the Onguma Reserve.

I want to share with you some insights on what you might encounter at the Onkolo Hide and offer some tips and techniques that might help you come away with that award-winning image during your time in the hide.

Male Impalas facing off at Onkolo Hide, Onguma Game Reserve, Namibia, Africa

About the Onkolo Hide

The Onkolo photographic hide is a large, comfortable, 8-window hide that provides the wildlife photographer with a unique, water-level perspective that yields a very different point-of-view and imagery than one would obtain on a traditional game drive. With a viewing distance of approximately 10 feet to the front edge of the waterhole, it allows for an intimate, low-angle perspective of wildlife that is just awesome. You are literally eye-to-eye with helmeted guinea fowl as they skitter by in front of your window.

Or you might find yourself photographing a young warthog on the other side of the waterhole through the legs of an impala drinking less than five feet from your window. There are plenty of opportunities to capture incredible perspectives of species, such as oryx, giraffe, greater kudu, impala, springbok, and more, as they approach the waterhole to quench their thirst. The impala are often so close that they kick up rocks and dust into the hide windows when they flee.

Wildlife photographers are able to open as many windows as they like. These open windows allow for the largest of telephoto lenses, but remember, they would also allow for an inquisitive leopard or a small lion (or most certainly a large lion paw) to potentially enter the hide! This open-air element adds to the excitement (and danger) of shooting in the ground-level hide. Mentally, you have to be prepared and physically ready if a predator gets too close for comfort!

Male Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) at Onkolo Hide, Onguma Game Reserve, Namibia, Africa

Overall, the hide’s layout and comfort will provide hours of captivating wildlife encounters and photographic opportunities. I can’t stress enough how much more I enjoy this unique, low-angle perspective than what you would generally get when shooting from a land cruiser on a traditional game drive. And I believe the incredible images that you come home with will illustrate this. As they say, “the proof is in the pudding.”

  • Don’t count on incredible reflection opportunities with the larger mammals at this particular hide. The size of the waterhole in conjunction with the placement of the hide is currently (they are discussing enlarging) not large enough to yield large animal reflections.
  • Subjects at the hide can be somewhat sidelit throughout the day due to the hide’s design and orientation to the sun. This can result in some harsh shadows splitting the faces of your subjects at certain times of day. Although this is generally not ideal for wildlife photography, the length of the hide and number of windows gives the photographer lots of options for finding the best angle of approach for their subject. Again, the proximity, low angle, and behavioural opportunities you’ll get from this hide far outweigh these minor limitations.
oryx at onguma onkolo hide
View through the window at Onkolo Hide, Onguma Game Reserve, Namibia, Africa

1. Life in the Hide

As calm and peaceful as you think sitting in a hide would be, I find that in Africa, there is an incredible amount of tension at a waterhole hide. Here, it is not like sitting in a peaceful garden hide watching songbirds bathe, it is a precarious undertaking for these animals and the tension can be palpable. The animals are always on edge, ready to flee in a cloud of dust at the first note of an alarm call.

Getting their daily supply of water can truly be a life-or-death decision for these creatures with the predators that abound. An added tension for photographers, is the fact that you must remain very quiet so as not to alarm the animals (or disturb your fellow photographers) when shooting in such close proximity to the wildlife.

One of the most impressive things about the Onkolo Hide is the great diversity and density of animals that often congregate at the waterhole. Greater kudu, impala, springbok, and zebra can all arrive in large numbers and really provide quite a dramatic scene for photographers. The sounds (and smells) of these animals interacting with each other in such close proximity to the photographer is really something to witness.

Certainly, you must remain very quiet in the hide as to not alarm the animals, but once a number of animals gain the courage to drink, the masses will follow. It is a surreal experience to be among the grunts and growls of the herd as they spar and fight for position for who is going to drink first, right in front of your window.

2. Patience is a Virtue

As any wildlife photographer who has ever spent time in a hide knows, there are most certainly periods of slower activity. The age-old conundrum is that whenever you do something else, or get distracted by something inside the hide, the action invariably begins. As soon as I try to read or write during these “slow times” in the hide, I look up to find four impala drinking at the waterhole and a slender mongoose sneakily drinking not 10 feet in front of me! It is like they have materialized from nowhere. Did they know I wasn’t paying attention? My guess is that they probably did!

Red-billed spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus) - Onkolo Hide, Onguma Game Reserve, Namibia, Africa

3. Be Prepared for the Action

There certainly will be “lulls” in the action when shooting from a hide, but when things do happen, they happen fast, and you’ve got to be ready. I’ve seen plenty of people miss shots because they weren’t ready—or even close to ready—when the action begins. They were still fumbling with their equipment or couldn’t manipulate their camera’s controls quickly enough. The unpredictability and fast pace of wildlife photography demands that you know how to work your equipment and have your gear setup and ready to go. You must know the features that the various controls, dials, and levers will adjust and practice so you can work them fluidly.

Just like the “ready position” in the game of tennis, you’ve got to find a “ready position” in hide photography as well. You need to choose the right complement of gear and preselect some basic camera settings for the ambient light and anticipated wildlife behaviour. These initial settings will hopefully allow you to get the shot even when dealing with short-lived action. However, if you have more time to work with your subject, you can refine your settings further and explore other creative settings and compositions.

As far as my hide setup goes, I generally keep two camera bodies by my side with different focal length lenses to accommodate whatever situation I might encounter. For instance, I’d recommend having a large prime telephoto lens such as 400mm or 500mm. (Alternatively, a telephoto zoom lens such as 100-400mm or a 100-500mm would be great.) And then, something wider at the ready, such as a 70-200mm or 24-70mm when things get really close.

For my initial settings, I generally play it safe, opting for higher ISOs and shutter speeds. These settings prepare me for whatever unexpected action might take place. As the situation unfolds, I will refine my settings if time permits based on the action that occurs, changes in light, and my creative vision.

Impala jumping at Onkolo Hide, Onguma Game Reserve, Namibia, Africa

4. Learn to Predict Behaviour

Another key to your success in hide photography (or any wildlife photography for that matter) is your ability to predict wildlife behaviour. Observing wildlife from a hide is a great way learn the habits of wildlife, and being able to predict these habits and behaviours makes you a better wildlife photographer.

Understanding things like: an animal’s favourite path to the waterhole, the spots certain species prefer to drink from, how their ears perk up when an alarm call is raised, which animals are more harmonious and which are adversarial at the waterhole, etc., all help to give you an edge in getting the shot. Your professional guide at Onguma can be very helpful in teaching you these behavioural cues, so don’t be shy to leverage them for their knowledge.

5. A Little Luck Never Hurts

Okay, let’s be honest, all the planning and preparation is great, but a little luck never hurts. Any photographer who has ever spent time in the field knows this to be true. Most great wildlife images have some component of luck involved. The very fact that light, composition, and action or behaviour must come together at the very moment we are pressing the shutter button generally requires some element of divine providence.

So, what’s the secret to getting lucky? For some, it might be their lucky red socks. For others, it may be a tattered rabbit’s foot affixed to their camera backpack or a favourite worn baseball cap. I really don’t have the answer to this question as I believe these lucky charms vary for each individual. However, from my experience it seems that the more time that I spend in the field (or I should say, “in the hide”) and the better prepared that I am, the luckier I seem to get. Perhaps fortune does favour those who “put in the work.”

In Conclusion

The keys to capturing that “perfect shot” at the Onkolo hide are really not that much different than in any type of wildlife photography. Patience, preparedness, and being able to predict behaviour are of paramount importance. Add to that a little (or a lot of) luck and you have the secret formula for capturing that award-winning image.

I think you’ll find that the Onkolo hide is a great complement to the traditional game drives you will do in the nearby Etosha National Park and on the Onguma Game Reserve itself. The unique photographic perspectives you can obtain from this underground hide are amazing, and the hide should be a must stop for any photographers visiting the eastern Etosha National Park region.

To learn more about the Onguma Game Reserve and the amazing Onkolo Hide, visit: Onguma Onkolo Hide

About the Author

Bill Gozansky is a professional photographer, guide, and photo editor based in western North Carolina. He specializes in travel, nature, and wildlife photography. Bill’s quest for images enables him to explore unique destinations and to interact with diverse cultures across the globe. He currently leads photographic safaris to Namibia, Costa Rica, and western North Carolina. In both private and small-group settings, Bill teaches field techniques of professional travel, nature, and wildlife photography in these remarkable natural areas.

Bill Gozansky is also the editor of Wildlife Photographic magazine. Bill’s award-winning images have been represented by galleries, exhibited in numerous art shows and competitions, and sold as fine-art prints to private collectors. Bill licenses his work through various photo stock agencies, and his images have been published in many books, calendars, and periodicals around the world. For more information about Bill and his work, please visit http://www.billgozansky.com.