In spite of ‘wild’ being built right into their profession’s title, wildlife photographers are a very risk-averse, detail-oriented bunch.
To be sure, there is a certain amount of risk involved in facing off with creatures that weigh substantially more than you do and have no code of ethics – in the wild, it is eat or be eaten.
We’ll discuss in a moment how those risks are mitigated.
Besides the risk of attack, there are environmental factors to consider.
For instance, an underwater photographer must be sure his diving equipment is integral while a photographer in the arctic must have proper protection against cold weather – both for himself and for his camera and lenses...
In light of all that, you may be sure that seldom if ever does such a photographer simply grab his camera bag and head out into the wilderness to capture images of whatever animal permits itself to be photographed.
To the contrary, every excursion demands careful preparation: which animal to target, what kit to bring, and when to go.
If you are just starting out in wildlife photography, you may need a few pointers on what to consider when planning your first major expedition.
If you have already won a few photography awards for your photographs of animals, maybe you could add a few tips in the comments section.
No matter how much experience you have in taking trips to photograph wildlife, you may find value in this list of factors to consider when planning your wildlife photography trip.
Do Your Research
We are delighted that you wish to take photos of animals and can’t wait to see your work! Which animals do you want to photograph?
Indeed, that should be your very first question.
For instance, photographing birds indigenous to your area is vastly different than taking pictures of wildlife in other parts of the world, for a long list of reasons.
We posit that there are two major factors to consider in researching your next venture: your quarry and where it lives. First, let’s talk about your subject matter.
What type of animal do you intend to pursue?
Let’s say you want to photograph big cats in the Kalahari – leopards, cheetah... maybe a regal male lion with its magnificent mane.
Common sense says it is a good idea to stay away from these predatory carnivores but, beyond that, you need to know when they hunt, eat and sleep; what time of day they are most active – the time you are most likely to get your money shot.
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Knowing your quarry’s mannerisms and habits will save you from wasting a lot of time waiting for it to appear and/or do something picture-worthy.
Researching the animals you hope to photograph will also keep you from lugging a lot of unnecessary kit with you – you may only need your telephoto lens; but most importantly, studying up on your target animal will help keep you safe.
That might be the best reason to do research!
Knowing what environment you will deploy your kit in will not only protect your photography equipment but help you prepare it for optimal use.
For instance, if your plans take you to the Serengeti during the rainy seasons, you should bring a rain cover for your super-telephoto lens.
On the other hand, if you’re headed to the Scottish Highlands to photograph some of the great wildlife there, you may do better having your lens and camera camouflaged.
And, naturally, if you are planning on underwater photography, you need waterproof equipment.
The lighting, terrain and colours may all challenge your current conceptions of photo composition and balance.
That is why it is best to learn as much as you can about your proposed destination and preferred animal before setting off.
Select Your Kit
If you are relatively new to capturing wildlife images, you may not have a lot of kit in your camera bag yet. Find out what essential items you should have in there!
However, if you are a seasoned wildlife photographer, you may have a piece of kit for every occasion... but, as you surely know, you don’t need to bring it all with you.
Here again, this is where research comes in handy: if you know where you’re going and what you can expect, you’ll know what to bring with you.
At the minimum you should have:
- SLR or DSLR camera bodies with enough batteries and memory cards (or film)
- an assortment of lenses (only those you might need)
- some sort of support: tripod, monopod or bean bag
- a camera bag to carry everything
Additionally, it would be nice to have a gimbal tripod head, teleconverter and an assortment of filters.
Packing for Yourself
Have you ever gone on holiday only to realise you forgot to pack your bathing suit or walking shoes?
This may seem obvious but many people, especially those new to planning holidays around their taking wildlife photos tend to overlook their own packing in favour of going over their equipment packing list one more time.
It's really of no great consequence, forgetting to pack some essential article of clothing or accessory for your holiday, especially if you are somewhere where you could buy a replacement.
However, in preparing for a jaunt into the wild, forgetting could mean the difference between the trip you’ve long envisioned and a quick return home with nary a snap to show off.
From high-top boots to protective clothing, your packing list deserves as much scrutiny as your kit’s list does.
And don’t forget to pack your first aid kit and maybe some protein bars!
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Budgeting Your Trip
Again, this seems like common sense but you would be surprised at how many people envision a glorious trip for themselves and find they’ve run out of money before it was finished. To budget adequately, we offer a few points to consider.
Where are you going?
It might seem counter-intuitive but it could cost you more to photograph urban wildlife in London than photographing wild animals in a national reserve away from a big city.
No matter where you go, you must budget for food and accommodations; even if you camp out you will have to pay for a permit to do so.
You might have to pay a bit extra to get your camping gear on the plane, too!
How long do you plan to be gone?
This question too impacts your trip budget; the longer you stay the more out of pocket expenses you will likely incur.
Another factor to consider: whether merchants at your destination accept credit cards. Such card readers are ubiquitous in big cities but more remote locales may only accept cash... and then, only in their currency.
So, if relying on plastic is your backup plan, you may need to rethink it.
What type of photoshoot are you going on?
At one extreme you have guided photography tours; say a safari in the Masai Mara reserve.
In this case, you should expect to tip your guides, animal handlers and anyone else who might contribute to making this event a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience for you. You may also consider making a donation to their wildlife fund...
The other extreme might see you in Norway or Newfoundland to photograph a pod of whales.
If you’re going out solo, you may consider staying in a hostel rather than a more expensive hotel, especially if you're going at the height of whale-watching season.
Here again, research pays off; you might get a really good price on accommodations if you’re going during the off-season for tourists.
If heavens forbid, anything should happen to you or your photography equipment while on a shoot, there is really only one way to take care of the problem efficiently: throw money at it.
Any time you budget for a trip to take photos of wildlife, you should automatically plan for at least 20% of the trip’s total cost to be spent on emergencies.
You might be surprised at how inaccessible or inhospitable some of the best places for wildlife photography can be.
While that provides the potential for stunning shots, it also opens the door to possible complications such as injury and damage or loss to your equipment.
Rather than calling your whole trip off or declaring it a waste, it would be wise to build money into your travel budget for such instances that you might need it.
Far from being a predictor of gloom and doom, that just makes sense... as does this next piece of advice.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Wildlife photography is a very iffy business.
No, we’re not raining on your parade; we’re putting up an umbrella for you.
Animals don’t care that you have a bag full of expensive equipment to capture their likeness with and they have no interest in the fact that you’ve travelled away from your comfortable home to meet them.
And they really don’t care that you’re currently questioning why you ever decided to become a wildlife photographer as you wait for them to do something amazing that you can capture on film.
The idea of wildlife photography has perhaps been greatly romanticised, both by gorgeous layouts in magazines like National Geographic and by epic films such as Out of Africa and Gandhi, where the wildlife seems easily accessible and compliant.
The reality of wildlife photography is that it is an art form wholly dependent on its capricious subject matter, on the weather and on your tenacity in pursuing photographic perfection.
As long as you keep a firm hold of these points, there is no reason you shouldn’t succeed in your mission to capture wildlife on your camera’s memory cards.
Who knows? If, after you achieve your goal, you might consider – as long as you’re on the road, going a bit further to see what other kind of wildlife you could find and photograph.