Visit Sri Lanka and miss the elephant safari - that would be for any serious photographer a carnal sin. There are several places to go and they should be equally good. I would only not recommend the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala - it seems pretty commercial these days and western visitors are rather shocked by the way the elephants are treated there. During my trip I went rather to Hurulu Eco Park at Habarana - and here are couple of photography tips and hints for fellow photographers to get the best of the elephant jeep safari.
The jeep safari
You will be loaded onto a battered 4x4 vehicle of a brand you probably haven't heard of before. I saw couple of Mitsubishis looking like old Jeep Willis though. The roof is removed and what remains is a cage-like construction. The good thing is you can stand up to look around and take the pictures. But watch out - the suspension of these cars had gone a long time ago and you will drive on offroad tracks. So expect the ride to be extremely bumpy. Thus take a solid grab of the rods to prop yourself and forget to take photos while on the move. And make sure your camera is safe, if hanging on a strap! It can jump around you like crazy and bounce your peers (bad for them) or the metal rods (bad for you). On the other hand, you may use the rods to mount a GoPro camera and get some video footage.
The elephants live freely in the area of the park and your driver will take you through on a kind of a circuit, while making trips off into the bush if there is an elephant spotted. They all do, so expect several jeeps to race in the same direction and the drivers to fight for the best position in a hope for a tip from a grateful customer.
In Hurulu Eco Park, your chances to not only see but to get close to the elephants are high. But just to be sure you are happy, your driver will occasionally stop and point to some tree, claiming there is some bird. I usually didn't see them. When short of birds, he showed us an empty bird nest instead. We almost suspected it was planted, being very close to the track.
Although you can get pretty close to the elephants, a zoom telephoto lens is obviously a good choice. I had Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 on my Nikon D800 and it worked well. As one of the elephants actually approached our jeep to protect the babies in their herd, I was happy to zoom back to 70mm. To make sure my camera doesn't bounce around, I shortened my Peak Design strap - an easy task due to its unique design.
I didn't use a polarizing filter on the lens, as I rarely do on my telelens, but I put on a Hoya Protector. There is dust just everywhere. The jeeps are rising clouds of it and if you happen to be for some time the last vehicle in the line, you get loads. If your camera and lens are not sealed, I recommend to wrap them in a scarf when on the move to protect them.
For a movie footage, I used a GoPro camera mounted on the rods, using the original clamp accessory. Just make sure it holds tight.
From a non-photographic gear, don't forget plenty of water and some head cover against the sun. I took my favorite travel shemagh. A mosquito repellent may also come handy.
The elephants move. Thus I switched my D800 to a shutter-priority mode, setting the time between 1/250 and 1/400. I set the ISO to auto, with the lowest threshold at 100. As there was plenty of sunlight, it was ok not to be bothered. Autofocus to Continuous 3D with the back-button AF activation - a great feature if your camera supports it. High-speed sequence trigger mode.
All photos were hand-held. Because I was shooting on a full-frame camera, I afforded myself to be a bit lousy with the framing, knowing I can crop and still get plenty of resolution in the final image. From experience I know it's better than risking something moves out of the frame and I loose the shot.