How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip (A Detailed Beginners Guide)

How to plan a wildlife photography trip header image. A cheetah scans the Savanna in Masai Mara reserve
A cheetah scanning the savanna in Masai Mara

In this article, I’m going to show you how to plan for a wildlife photography trip if you’re inexperienced and want to go beyond your comfort zone.

There are costs, time, and security to think about. Do you rough it alone or buy a package? What about health? There’s a lot to consider.

First of all, make a wishlist of animals and places to see, choose the time available to you, determine your budget, narrow it down to a practical list, buy a guidebook and select some affordable kit. Get to know your camera well, and get going.

I’ve made it sound simple but if you’ve never done anything like this before it’s daunting. Don’t worry, I’ve got it all covered. Read on.

Researching Your Wildlife Trip

The Wildlife Wishlist

I like to start with a list of my dream animals and work back from there. It’s a process of elimination. What can I afford, when can I go, and when are the animals are best seen.

Many animals only show themselves at certain times of the year:

  • The dry season
  • First snows
  • Deep winter

Or places:

  • Mating grounds
  • Feeding grounds
  • Birthing grounds

Other species have become habituated to people:

  • Jaguars in the Pantanal Wetlands
  • Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
  • Tigers in Kanha Meadows

Like most people, I have a penchant for glamourous animals and it’s fun to work out what I can hope to see according to practicality, my budget, and timing.

Targeting a Species – My Planning Method

I know, for example, that if I want to photograph a wild Snow Leopard, my best chance is to visit Hemis National Park in the Union Territory of Ladakh in Northern India.

I have to visit in early or late winter when the wild blue and argali sheep descend to the valleys in search of fodder. The snow leopards follow suit.

My free time is between Nov-April so the timing is perfect.

I can’t afford a western package tour but I know India well enough to happily arrange something locally. That’s a plus too.

The Indian visa is easier to obtain these days so that’s not the barrier it used to be.

Flights to Delhi are competitive so bargains are to be had.

I’d also need to arrive a week or so early in order to acclimatize to the altitude properly. I’m fine with this, as accommodation is cheap and I’m used to extended trips.

I can organize my tour in the capital Leh or trek over to Rumbak village and/or arrange a homestay there.

Above the tree line in the high Himilaya. The Langtang trek in Nepal
My trip to Lantang in the Himilayas

Now the downside.

  • I’d need to arrange a good guide,
  • Be prepared to camp out at -25 °C,
  • Invest in expensive mountain gear,
  • I’d have to buy/rent a new camera.
  • And be fit enough!

Hmm…I can’t think why I haven’t done this trip.

This is how I choose and prepare for many of my trips. Sometimes my funds dictate everything, at other times it’s the season or even my energy levels.

Budgeting for your Wildlife Trip

Independent travelers need to factor in all the likely costs involved with their trips, such as flights, visas, park fees and the like.

Finding Cheaper Flights

For many destinations, this is by far the major cost and where potentially you can save quite a lot of money.

For Example Iet’s say, I’m going to India. The obvious entry point is the capital city, New Delhi.

I do the initial search by checking the major price comparison sites starting with google flights, then Skyscanner, Kayak, and Momondo. It’s more than likely to come up with some bargains.

Then I will check other major cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai and see if there are alternative options.

I also calculate the transport costs of getting to and from the airport and examine the departure times.

I avoid taking early morning flights. There’s little to no public transport at first light and that presents problems. Leave later and you enter the rush hour. The alternatives are to stay near the airport, which rather defeats the object of saving money on a cheap flight in the first place. Or just leave later.

I prefer departing on an afternoon or evening flight and arrive in the next morning, if at all possible. I also prefer a non-stop flight and if not, then a short layover.

If you are keen to use a particular airline, sign up for their newsletter or follow their Facebook page for offers and flight sales. Plan well ahead for cheaper and better deals and avoid public holidays.

Before I commit my money, I always check some high street travel agents to see what they can do for me too.

On my own patch, I visit Flightcentre, STA, and sometimes Trailfinders. I like to deal face to face and they can often match online prices or take the leg work out of the search. I also sign up for their newsletters to get the latest deals.

Now there’s another option. Some sites now specialize in notifying you with cheap flight alerts. Try Jacks Flight Club, Scotts Cheap Flights, and Travel Pirates. They scan the net for cheapies and let you know what they’ve found. Great if you are flexible.

Finding Travel Insurance

You should always have Travel health insurance and for most people, it’s cheap enough, but what about your equipment?

The way I see it is this, your health is EVERYTHING and your kit is just ‘stuff’ so if you are going to penny-pinch, prioritize medical cover

Again it’s wise to search comparison sites for the best deals. Travel agents are usually more expensive.

My first port of call here in the UK is MoneySavingExpert.com and then:

I had a look for American equivalents and came up with these:

Insurance Tips:

  • Buy ASAP after booking a flight to cover cancellations or pre-trip illness
  • Honestly declare existing medical conditions or your claim can be declined
  • Buy multi-trip cover if you travel more than once a year (up to 3 months per trip)
  • Check your bank, you may be covered already
  • Check for policy exclusions like dangerous sports and activities.

Also, consider insuring camera equipment separately, I’ve done this in the past. I used Photoguard in the UK but there are many others.

Visa Costs

Always check the cost of a tourist visa, especially if you plan to visit multiple countries. These costs can seriously add up.

Free visas are getting rarer and the fees can add 100s of dollars to the price of an extended trip. I always check the current requirements as government policies can change overnight.

It’s also worth checking whether there’s an onward ticket requirement before entry. Some borders are strict, others are casual and some are even looking for bribes.

It’s also worth considering multiple-entry visas. In countries like India, you might want to visit Nepal or Sri Lanka as a side trip and return to India with the same visa.

If you need to show a return ticket but wish to avoid paying for one, there are now onward ticketing services that book real flights in your name and then cancel it within a day or two. They charge a small fee of $10 or so. Take a look at:

Let’s move on to…

National Park Fees, Guides and Tours

Most counties have national park entrance fees but they vary wildly from almost free to daylight robbery. Add to that, most developing countries have adopted a foreigner tariff which is at times borderline racism.

How to plan a wildlife photography trip. A photo of a lion cub in Masai Mara Reserve. Kenya
A young lion in Masai Mara

If your intention is to visit East Africa, be prepared to pay some of the highest fees on the planet. it breaks my heart that I can no longer justify paying the premium.

At the time of writing in 2020, visiting Serengeti in Tanzania costs $60 per day. No one stays one day and there are no reductions for longer stays.

Serengeti Park Fees (2020)

Foreigner entry fee$60
Public Camping fee (fly camping £50)$30
Guide fee$20
Local small vehicle fee (foreign $40)$8

Now add the 4×4 car rental which will cost about $70 per day plus fuel, then add food costs and you can kiss goodbye to $200 per day just to rough it! You’re better off looking for a cheap tour.

If you want a budget Safari head for South Africa, take a tent, rent a small hatchback and buy a yearly Wild Card pass.

The card is valid for 80+ parks (inc Swaziland) for any length of stay.
Foreigners pay over 4 times the local price but if you plan an extended trip it pays for itself in only eight days.

ForeignersIndividualsCouplesFamilies
Wild CardR3,105.00R4,850.00R5,800.00

(Check the current rates on XE Currency Converter)

India is another choice for photographing big-game. Each state has its own laws, tariffs, and management plans. Some states do things really well, others are clueless. Thankfully Madhya Pradesh (The Tiger State) with some of the best national parks, sets the standard.

Find out where to photograph wild tigers for next to nothing.

If you want to spend time in a park and not have to rush things because of the costs, I urge you to consider a safari in India. You get more bang for your bucks and it’s an experience that will last for a lifetime.

Africa apart, park entrance fees are not generally prohibitive but sometimes a good guide is hard to find.

Kevin Hayler with his guide on a wildlife photography trip in Gunung Leuser National park
Finding a good guide is essential

I’d say that in general, a guide is essential and not getting one can be a false economy. On the other hand, a bad guide is so frustrating that it can ruin the experience. Sometimes it’s a gamble.

There are certain things I look out for:

  • Age and experience
  • Stopping whenever you ask
  • Tracking skills and knowledge
  • Traveler recommendations
  • Communication skills.

Compulsory park guides are often bored and have little or no English but they are an extra pair of eyes if nothing else.
In-house guides contracted to the guest house or resort tend to be pretty good but problems sometimes arise if you discover a brilliant freelancer elsewhere and wish to employ their services instead. It can be more trouble than it’s worth.

The other option open to you is to find a good local tour company. You must do your homework and check their reputation. Google their name and see what you can discover. Read reviews, talk to past customers if possible, and ask around.

Research can save you a considerable amount of time, money, and stress.

And don’t suppose that packages are always more expensive than doing things yourself. It’s not always the case. There are occasions when you’d be a fool to go it alone.

A package has many advantages. You can sit back and relax while all the boring stuff is taken care of.

Some of the advantages are:

  • Transport
  • Logistics
  • Paperwork and fees
  • Accommodation
  • Guides

The disadvantages are:

  • Cost (usually pay more)
  • Other guests
  • Questionable standards and ethics
  • Inflexible itineraries
  • False expectations

Don’t underestimate the problems of culture clash. If you join a local tour with local people they may have a completely different set of needs, and demands from exactly the same experience. Be warned.

Selecting your Kit

If you are traveling to the tropics you need less gear and the lighter your kit the better.

NB: Many small and budget airlines have a limited baggage allowance and if you can strip your kit to the bones there are considerable savings to be made.

Luggage

Backpack

You’ll need a backpack for longer trips, otherwise, a holdall will suffice. I go for extended periods of time so I choose to travel with a 70L pack. I could get away with a smaller pack in the tropics but it’s about the right size for colder climates.

My Decathlon Quechua 70lt Backpack
All packed and ready to go

Daypack

I carry all my camera equipment and valuables in a separate daypack both for security reasons and for general day trips. You need plenty of pockets, a slot for a water bottle, strong seams and sturdy zips.

Clothing

Shirts

I take 3 quick-drying, synthetic, long-sleeved safari-type shirts in neutral beige tones. You need long-sleeves to avoid mozzie bites and synthetic material because it’s lightweight, easy to wash and dries within an hour. I also look for two buttoned breast pockets.

Lightweight safari shirt
My shirt, minus my head for your benefit


There are many expensive brands but they are all over-hyped. You don’t need built-in UV protection and insect repellant. I buy mine in sales, online and sometimes when I’m overseas.

Trousers/Pants

The same thing applies to trousers. Don’t get carried away. You need zip-off legs, neutral tones with plenty of pockets and zipped if possible. Again they have to be synthetic and not cotton. I also have a pair of shorts that I use as swimming trunks. Again the zipper pockets are ideal.

Lightweight and quick-drying trekking trousers
Lightweight and quick-drying

Sunhat

I buy a cheap synthetic baseball cap. You could choose a wide-brimmed hat but they tend to be pricey. I lose hats all the time so I don’t want to invest in something better. You can buy caps anywhere.

Poncho or Rain jacket

It’s nice to cover up in a cloudburst, that said, if you are hiking in a tropical forest you will sweat buckets anyway. Does it make much of a difference? I find poncho style rain capes the handiest. You can cover up your pack and camera gear, plus you can use it as a dry mat to sit on.

Polythene disposable capes are also an option.

A warm top.

I always take along a jersey or light jacket for cool evenings. The desert can get bitterly cold at night. Even a rain forest gets cool above a certain altitude.

Footwear

This is one of the hardest things to get right. If you buy the best only once then spend it on your shoes. For the bush, you’ll need lightweight hiking shoes/boots, preferably with ankle support, breathable upper and plenty of grip.


For the jungle, you’re better off with good hiking sandals with enclosed toe-caps. Wear them with leech socks. Sandals are better because you’ll be wading through mud and streams.

Leech socks

An optional extra but when you get a lot of leeches they are a Godsend. If you aren’t walking in tropical forests, I wouldn’t bother.

Field Kit

Binoculars

You’ll need a pair if you’re serious about finding wildlife. Get a waterproof pair from a good brand. I have the 10x Nikon Sportstar binoculars which are fine.

Camera

Probably your prized possession so choose wisely. If you are buying from new you’ll need an SLR with a 300mm lens, bigger if your priority is birds. If you are buying the best kit, this will be your biggest expense.

The alternative is to invest in a good bridge camera. They are versatile, affordable and some models have excellent lenses. A 20x zoom is sufficient and look for a low F-stop. Mine is F2.8 which means it performs better in low light.

My camera kit for traveling
My present camera kit. Nothing fancy here

Be sure to take more batteries, I have two fully charged spares as a backup. The same can be said for SD cards. I take half a dozen.

A tripod is handy unless you plan to travel a great deal. It soon becomes a burden. I do without, although there are times, admittedly, when I curse without one.

Head torch or spotlight

Much of the best wildlife sightings are made at night. You will need a powerful beam to successfully go spotlighting. 300 lumens is ideal. You will have the best chance of seeing eye-shine if you hold the torch at eye level. A head torch is ideal most of the time but a bright light attracts insects which can be very annoying.

An eReader

All my books are on my Paperwhite Kindle. Why schlepp a deadweight of paperbacks around with you? Those days are over.

Travel Guide book

I know that everything is online these days but I still like to take a travel guide along anyway. I find them useful as a one-stop-shop and it’s far easier to gain an overview with a guidebook.

Field Guide

It’s so nice to have a few spotting guides. I like to take reference photos and I.D the wildlife when I get back to base. If the image is too poor to be certain, the guide will usually know what it is.

First-aid Kit

Don’t go overboard, it’s easy to get paranoid about every possible danger. Take the basics on a hike.

  • Painkillers (paracetamol/ibuprofen)
  • Band-aids
  • Rehydration sachets (dehydration is the major cause of fatigue)
  • Liquid Iodine (sterilize wounds and water)
  • Styptic Pencil (stops bleeding and great for leech bites)
  • Antihistamine cream (for stings, bites, and rashes)

Malaria Prevention

THIS IS IMPORTANT: I hope it goes without saying that if you are in an area with a notable risk of Malaria you will take anti-malarial tablets. I’m not qualified to recommend which ones so ask your doctor for the latest recommendations.

Anti-Malarial Tablets

I advise you to take prophylactic medication if you are traveling through sub-Saharan African. The only exception is in Southern Africa south of Kruger National Park.

Other parts of the world have Malaria in more remote areas. It’s up to you to calculate the risks. Doctors will keep on the safe-side and warn against visiting the tropics almost everywhere without taking precautions.

I confess that I do not take antimalarials outside of Africa. The risks of infection are much lower in general. Do your research locally and ask around. Don’t rely on the tourist industry to tell you the truth. It’s in their interest not to scare away customers. Find a reputable pharmacy for good advice.

In most of the world, it’s Dengue fever and not Malaria that is of most concern. I’ve had Dengue in Thailand and you don’t want it, I can tell you. Always sleep under a net and apply mosquito repellant.

BE WARNED, there’s no cure for Dengue nor prophylactics.

THE BEST ADVICE OF ALL IS DON’T GET BITTEN

The last time I traveled through Africa I decided (with medical advice) to take regular Doxycycline. I was traveling for 4 months and it had fewer side effects than the more potent medications. Besides, it’s an antibiotic and a fraction of the price of other medicine.

The major side effect was sensitivity to light so I had to be careful not to get sunburnt. On the upside, I didn’t get any stomach upsets and my gums stopped bleeding. Whoopee!

Toiletries

Take mini versions of everything and save weight. I take the following:

  • A tiny bottle of shampoo or sachets
  • Small toothpaste
  • Disposable razors
  • Shaving brush and a small tube of shaving cream.
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Toothbrush.
  • Styptic Pencil

Do you really need toilet paper? Half the world wash their backsides, not wipe, and when you get used to it, you’ll realize it’s more hygienic, not less. As long as you clean your hands afterward there’s nothing to worry about.

I also like to take spare glasses, just in case.

Peripherals

Sun Cream

I rarely use sunblock but there are times when it’s essential. You burn easily at altitude and at sea. SPF 50 will protect you for sure.

I’ve stopped using sunscreen when I’m snorkeling. Instead, I wear an old t-shirt. I tan well so it’s easier for me to preach but if you need suncream please consider a coral friendly product. They tend to be pricey but prices are coming down as brands compete.

These are the chemicals to avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Sport Sunscreen SPF 35 by Badger offers the best deal I’ve found in the USA for coral safe suncream. While Nature’s Block Mineral SPF 30 Sun Cream by Holland and Barrett offers a similar deal in the UK. Sun Bum in OZ

Mosquito Repellant

Not an optional extra. Mosquito born diseases are on the rise around the world. Yes, Malaria deaths have halved from 435,000 since the start of the Millenium but they remain stubbornly high and slow to reduce further. Dengue fever, on the other hand, is on an upwards trajectory.

Mosquito Net

I always take a mosquito net, yet, I rarely have cause to use one these days. Why? because the world has woken up to the danger and most places provide nets. I still take one because there are always a few places with old torn nets or none at all.

DON’T TAKE THE RISK!

They’re lightweight and inexpensive.
For added safety, you can buy a permethrin-impregnated net. They are not as effective as they once were (mozzies are getting resistance) but still worth having.

Camping Gear

Taking along camping gear is not for everyone. The only time I have carried a tent is in Africa. Camping is the way to save money in most parks, especially in Southern Africa.

Elsewhere in the world, you can usually rent the equipment you need. I take some basic comforts with me but not the tent.

2-Man Dome Tent

The best tents are the cheapest ones. If I’m hiking and carrying my own stuff then yes I want my tent to be ultra-light. As that is so rarely the case, especially in Africa I plumb for a basic dome tent. I take a 2-man tent so I can store my bags. Dome tents are also free-standing which is handy if the ground is too hard for pegs.

How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip. The Kapi Plateau in Gunung Leuser National Park
Camping in Gunung Leuser NP (My dome tent is on the right)

The trick to keeping weight down is to buy titanium pegs separately. The pegs you keep when you replace the tent.

The other top tip is to buy some seam sealer to ensure that your cheap tent is fully waterproof. I did this and then got caught in a torrential downpour in Uganda. I kid you not, I awoke and my tent had started to float! It worked.

Sleeping Bag

You won’t need one in most of the tropics. I just use my silk liner. A lightweight 2 season bag is more than adequate for most circumstances. The desert gets cold at night but remember you can sleep fully dressed and in layers.

At altitude, you will need the best and the warmest gear. A four-season down bag is ideal. I’ve only ever needed one in Nepal and I rented it.

Self Inflating Sleeping Mat

Far handier than a bag, a portable self-inflating mattress is a luxury I want to take. Sleeping on hard ground is not fun. I take a shorter half-mat. It’s good for my hips which is all that matters to me.

A roll-up foam mat is fine but bulky. On the other hand, it’s better for the beach.

Inflatable Pillow

A blow-up pillow is a no brainer as far as I’m concerned. I have two, a neck pillow for long journeys and one for ‘roughing it.’ They are also handy if you stay in dive with disgusting bedding.

Large Dry Bag

I always take at least one dry bag. If you’re jungle trekking, you need dry clothing for the evenings and it protects your electronics. They are invaluable on the beach, boat journeys, and river crossings.

The alternative is to take plenty of bin bags.

Microfiber Travel Towel

A quick-drying microfiber towel is a must. I prefer the soft ones that look like real towels. They feel more natural. Get a larger one that will wrap around after a wash.

Washing line or String

I take either a role of string or a couple of elastic washing lines. I use them all the time. The string is always good to have for emergency repairs.

Travel Hammock

You don’t need a hammock but it’s nice to have one. Resting up in the forest, or on your balcony is one of life’s great pleasures. I take a very light travel hammock with long cords. Some people camp with hammocks and I’ve tried it but with mixed results. I prefer a tent.

Kevin Hayler resting up in a hammock. Gunung Leuser National Park
Quality ‘me’ time in my traveling hammock. Gunung Leuser NP

Water Purifier

There are amazing portable sterilizers on the market but most come at a price. The most tempting is the Lifestraw. It’s small light and cheap.

I still take a small bottle of Iodine with me. About 3 drops per liter will do. It’s not tasty and should never be used long term but it’s good for a week. I dilute the taste with powdered orange juice. The other option is dissolvable chlorine tablets but you have to let the water stand a while to get rid of the chlorine smell.

The best option of all is to be in such a pristine environment that you can drink the water safely. A rare treat.

Odds and Ends

As no two people pack their bags the same way I thought you’d appreciate my few quirky extras.

  • Cable Ties – Invaluable for emergency repairs.
  • Zip-Lock polythene bags – Great for organizing fiddly stuff and waterproof.
  • Silicon Bags – You need to protect your electronics in humid conditions.
  • Large Caribina – I use it to hang up my daypack on crowded transport.
  • Metal Snow Spikes – Not just for snow. I use them for hiking in the jungle.
  • Repair Thread and Awl – Just in case my pack or shoes fail in the field.
  • Spare Bag – Can be anything, just to separate the washing.

Ethics and Animal Welfare

Before I round things off, I feel duty-bound to urge you to consider what impact you and I are making in our chosen destinations.

Doubtless, most of us have flown, or plan to fly, to far-flung places. Our presence can be a salvation for some wildlife but an added burden for others.

We are caught in a moral dilemma. If we don’t spend our tourist dollars going to see wildlife there may be little incentive for the locals to save it. Yet to do that, we must take a long haul flight with all the environmental downsides that brings with it.

It’s a tough call. At the moment I am taking fewer internal flights and traveling overland more. I have also committed some cash to offset my carbon emissions.

Daphne Sheldricks elephant orphanage
Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage. Perhaps the gold standard.

I also avoid anything that appears to overexploit the animals I have come to see. Things like…

  • Harassing dolphins
  • Fake elephant orphanages
  • Feeding Orangutans
  • Cuddling baby animals
  • Eating exotic foods like snakes and bushmeat

There are so many issues we have to face up to when we travel that plotting the right course is a hard thing to do.

  • Do you pay the extortionate fees required to have access to certain animals, so rare they’ve become a commodity?
  • Is it OK to pay up and deny the opportunity for most of humanity to ever afford to see our natural world for themselves?
  • Do luxury lodges help locals and put money back into the economy or exploit cheap local labor only to siphon off their profits?

I could go on and on about the ethics of wildlife tourism and perhaps that should be for another day. I’m merely asking you to take the environment and welfare into account as you plan your journey.

This is a long post and if you’ve got this far I know you are as passionate as I am to preserve what’s left of this amazing world.

Stay Positive.

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