Wildlife in Yala National Park Through a Photographer’s Lens

Yala National Park is a famous wildlife reserve in southeast Sri Lanka. Yala has become a popular destination for nature enthusiasts and wildlife lovers with its diverse ecosystems, captivating wildlife, and stunning landscapes.

Despite its relatively compact size, the park boasts an impressive array of habitats, including dense forests, grasslands, lagoons, and coastal zones. This diversity allows for a thriving ecosystem that supports various wildlife species. From elusive leopards to vibrant birds, Yala provides an extraordinary canvas for photographers seeking to capture nature’s wonders. 

Yala is divided into five blocks, with only two, Block 1 and Block 5, open to the public. Block 1 is the most popular, with a higher density of wildlife, and is especially known for leopards. But as with anything in life, there are pros and cons. Block 1 is massively congested with hundreds of jeeps jockeying for position.


This post outlines my experiences from a photographer’s perspective, even though shooting wildlife is not my primary photography focus. I took this trip with my wife and three kids as part of a two-week vacation in Sri Lanka. We spent two nights in Yala and chose Leopard Safaris, an all-inclusive, eco-friendly wilderness camp. See the section at the end for my comments on Leopard Safaris.

We arrived at camp in time for lunch and went on four safaris, one each in the morning and evening across two days. Our first two safaris were in Block 1, and the last two were in Block 5. Every safari was exciting — the air filled with anticipation as you ventured into the wilderness. The Leopard Safaris camp is close to the less-used Katagamuwa entrance area for Block 1, which was a massive advantage. This area’s open terrain and scattered trees provide excellent opportunities for capturing animals in their natural habitat. More importantly, this area of Block 1 is less congested, and we were one of the first jeeps into the park in the mornings and didn’t have to deal with the circus of jeeps.

Based on my experience, I highly recommend visiting Yala National Park if you’re considering it. For the best experience, the details matter,  such as where you stay, the hotel or camp you select, who you pick as your safari operators, and the areas within the park that you choose. Here’s a quick tour of Yala through some of my photos. 

The Star Attraction: Leopard Encounters

One of the most iconic residents of Yala National Park is the leopard. Yala has one of the highest leopard densities in the world, making it an excellent location for spotting these predators. We saw leopards on our last two safaris; both sightings were ironically in Block 5, not Block 1. 

The first sighting was of a juvenile settling on a tree for the night at the end of the day. The second sighting was of two juveniles soon after we entered the park (we were the first jeep); they were sitting in the middle of the dirt road. The experience of seeing a leopard in the wilderness was magical, especially after coming close in the first couple of safaris. Haritha, our guide, was phenomenal in tracking the leopards through sheer perseverance. He was able to use the alarm calls of other animals, especially monkeys, to track these leopards.

Yala’s Other Mammals

While leopards steal the spotlight, Yala National Park is also home to many other wildlife. We saw most of the mammals the park is famous for, including elephants, crocodiles, water buffalos, monkeys, samba deer, sloth bears, mongoose, and wild boar. 

We saw lots of elephants, including tusked ones, which are rare to see (supposedly 6% of the elephants). There is something about observing elephants in their natural habitat that is serene and exciting. On two occasions, we had close and personal encounters with an elephant that was exhilarating. 

Beyond Mammals

Bird enthusiasts will also be delighted by the park’s avian diversity, which includes both resident and migratory species. We saw lots of birds, including raptors, such as crested serpent eagles, white-bellied sea eagles, and ospreys; storks, such as painted storks, Asian openbill storks, and Eurasian storks; and Malabar pied hornbills, ibis, herons, egrets, peacocks, parrots, flycatchers, bee-eaters, kingfishers, and much more. 

My favorite was the painted stork, a large wading bird with distinctive pink and white plumage, long legs, and a long, curved bill. They are known for their striking appearance, and we saw several of these storks wading in ponds in search of fish and other aquatic creatures.


Beyond the wildlife, the landscape in Yala has a distinct look, especially famous for its expansive grasslands, which cover a significant portion of the park. These grasslands are interspersed with small water bodies and shrubs. Most lakes have dead trees protruding, which makes for exciting photography. 

That said, it’s not ideal for landscape photography since you cannot get out of the jeep beyond a few designated areas. 

On one evening safari in Block 5, we got to experience a truly magical sunset near the damn with lots of branchless (dead?) trees. My search for the perfect spot for the sunset photo took longer than expected; as a result, we got delayed leaving the park by the designated departure time but ultimately made it without getting into trouble.

Equipment & Tips

Before embarking on a wildlife photography journey in Yala, ensuring you have the right gear is good. I took two Nikon camera bodies, a D750 DSLR with a Tamron 150-600mm lens and a Z7 mirrorless with a Nikkor Z 100-400mm lens. In retrospect, I would take a lens in the 800mm range next time, either as a prime lens or through a teleconverter for an existing superzoom lens. I was shooting wildlife for the first time in many years and, as a result, had not invested in prime lenses in the 600-800mm range, a very pricey investment for Nikon’s mirrorless bodies. At a minimum, I would take a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter the next time to extend my reach.

You don’t need a monopod since you will be in a jeep and can use the armrest in the open cab. A wide-angle lens is also helpful for capturing landscapes or a large mammal, such as an elephant, in close quarters.

To state the obvious, the soft, warm light during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset offers the best lighting conditions for photography. The golden hour light casts a soft glow on the surroundings and brings out the vibrant colors of the animals’.

Experience with Leopard Safaris

There are a dime a dozen safari hotels and outfits in the area, with something to fit every budget and need. The high-end boutique outfits, such as Uga Chena and Cinnamon Wild, were unavailable. In the end, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

We chose Leopard Safaris after doing a fair amount of research. They are a boutique outfit somewhere on the higher end of the spectrum. You get a totally immersive experience, not just a stay at a camp combined with a few game drives. Noel, the owner, has used his vast expertise in this arena to plan a high-quality experience with incredible attention to detail. The tented cabins are luxurious, with an ice-cold AC to cool you off in the hot climate. Every meal we had was absolutely fantastic and well-presented. Only Sri Lankan food is served; every meal is a culinary experience. There were many favorites, but our first lunch with a black pork curry was a standout. Small touches, like a cold, scented towel offered to you as soon as you step off the jeep after a safari, or turning off the lights when the jeep re-enters the camp in the evenings, make it a unique experience. Some other highlights:

  • They have their own jeeps, converted Land Cruisers, with several small touches in the open cab to make it easier for photographers.
  • They have expert guides and trackers who know the best areas to spot everything from big cats to raptors, which in the end, improves your chances of photographing them in their natural environment. Noel joined us on one of our safaris as our guide. Haritha was our guide on all other trips. They were both outstanding.
  • Want an ice-cold beer or a soft drink while on a safari? No problem, there’s an icebox ready accessible. 
  • As stated above, their proximity to the Katagamuwa entrance is priceless. On most of our safaris, we were one of the first three jeeps to enter the park and one of the few vehicles in that particular area. I cannot stress the importance of this advantage enough. 

The bottom line is that Leopard Safaris is an awesome outfit for the best possible Yala experience. I unreservedly recommend them. Stop your research and book with them; you will not regret it!

With the Benefit of Hindsight…

Honestly, I don’t think I would do much different. If I were on a photography-oriented safari by myself without the family, I would optimize the available safari time to focus more on the wildlife beyond the star attractions. Sometimes the search for the elusive leopard can be all-consuming. For example, I would spend more time camped out near small lakes and ponds to get better photos of birds and other mammals.  

Photo Locations in North Shore Kauai, Hawaii

North Shore Kauai is a picturesque area known for its lush landscapes and breathtaking coastline. Over the last couple of years, I’ve vacationed in North Shore a couple of times with the family, spending a few days in the region each time. As a result, I could sneak out for a few photography adventures. 

Here are some popular photography locations on the North Shore of Kauai where I focused my photography activities, all within about 30 minutes of each other.

Hanalei Pier

The iconic pier extending into Hanalei Bay is an excellent sunrise and sunset photography subject. The image below was taken at sunset. Since this spot tends to be almost always crowded, even at sunset, you will likely need a 6-stop or 10-stop natural density filter for a long exposure to remove people from the photo.

Hanalei Valley Overlook

This famous viewpoint provides sweeping views of the Hanalei Valley, taro fields, and the Hanalei River. Unfortunately, most images taken here are similar to the millions already taken since there’s only so much space within the lookout to maneuver for a unique shot. It’s a nice check-the-box image. Unfortunately, I didn’t invest time here during my trips during the golden hour, so my photos are mainly during the day.

Hanalei Taro Fields

Photographing the Hanalei taro fields provides a wonderful opportunity to capture the area’s farming landscape and cultural significance. Taro farming has been a staple of Hawaiian culture for centuries, and Hanalei’s lush, terraced fields are an instant attraction for landscape photographers. This was easily my favorite location to shoot. Please be aware that it’s illegal to enter the taro beyond the numerous posted signs. You can only photograph from the side of the narrow road. There are plenty of video cameras near the fences for monitoring. I’ve been here a couple of times at sunrise, once when there was heavy rain. The weather changes constantly, so with some patience, there are some great photo opportunities.

Hanalei Church

Hanalei Church, officially known as Wai’oli Hui’ia Church, is a charming and historic church in Hanalei. It’s a popular photography subject due to its picturesque setting and quaint architecture.

Tunnels Beach

Known for its underwater tunnels in the coral reef, this beach offers unique photo opportunities, especially during low tide when you can see the formations, as seen in the photos below. I’ve only been here once and was rewarded with a pretty sunset. I will be spending more time here when I next visit.


Princeville is a pretty resort community a few miles away from Hanalei, known for its beautiful coastline. Plenty of exciting photo opportunities exist wherever the coastline is visible, especially to capture sunset views. 

The Princeville Makai Golf Course offers sweeping views of the coastline and ocean. It’s also home to the breeding pairs of Laysan Albatross that nest on the golf course.

If you walk down the street further, there is a lookout point with a bench that’s good for sunset. I found several small beaches by exploring the area.

Other Areas

Here are some other areas to consider for landscape photography. I’ve been to some of these, more as a tourist and without my camera gear. 

  • Kilauea Lighthouse: While not directly on the North Shore’s coastline, this historic lighthouse provides a great vantage point for photographing the ocean and nearby landscapes.
  • Ke’e Beach: The westernmost beach on the island, it’s the gateway to the Kalalau Trail. The beach is picturesque, but you need reservations to visit.
  • Lumahai Beach: A rugged and scenic beach featured in movies, Lumahai is known for its wild beauty and dramatic waves.

  • The circus of North Lake, Bishop, during fall color season

    It’s well-known that the stretch of Highway 395 from Brideport to Bishop that skirts the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range is famous for its spectacular fall color. There are many iconic locations that provide the picture-perfect postcard image of fall colors, and North Lake in the Bishop Creek Canyon is arguably right up there. 

    This little lake is a photographer’s dream in the fall, where the essential ingredients for an iconic fall color image come together – the brilliantly lit aspen groves on the far side of the lake, snow-peaked mountains in the background, an assortment of rocks in the foreground, and much more. Naturally, this type of scenery is a magnet for anyone who loves autumn foliage and, as a result, attracts loads of photographers in the two-week span where fall color graces its shores. That “iconic shot” is typically at sunrise, where most photographers arrive early and set up camp in the pitch dark.

    My first trip to North Lake was in the fall of 2015, in mid-October, past the peak fall colors. I arrived around 5:30 am in the dark with no idea how to get to the lake from the parking lot, but managed to stumble upon it soon enough. There were already a few photographers on the scene. While the sunrise was nothing special, it was fun to capture images with the endless possibilities around composition, as seen below. 

    My next trip was in 2017, this time late fall, where the color was way past its peak, and the leaves from the aspen groves mostly stripped bare. As a result, there were no hoards of photographers to deal with, and plenty of space to operate within. Again, the sunrise was nothing special, but there was a  nice alpenglow for a few moments that provided a pink tinge to the scenary. As a bonus, Marlboro Man decided to grace us with his presence, along with his buddy.

    In the fall of 2017, Apple decided to use an image of North Lake for its High Sierra release of macOS, which likely triggered large scale interest in North Lake as a premier fall destination. Not only that, but the Instagram crowd also brought attention to North Lake by dialing the coordinates into all corners of the western region. Either way, when I made my next trip in early October of 2018, it was an utter madhouse. I arrived in the pitch dark, this time a few minutes after 5 am, confident that I was ahead of schedule, only to find hoards of photographers occupying every inch of the lakeshore. I used some sensibility to chat up a few folks and negotiate some space to pitch my tripod. Sometimes, photographers can get pretty territorial about space, but this was a friendly bunch, and we worked it all out.

    Wow! What an epic morning of weather, from the light sprinkling of snow to stormy skies to a magnificent rainbow. As you can see from the images below, the light was heavenly, where one moment the sun was shining through the clouds, and in the next moment, there was complete shade, as seen in the tonal range.

    After three trips, my default reaction was that I had seen enough of North Lake, and the likelihood of capturing unique images from here onwards is low. But I knew I would be back eventually.

    And I did. I stopped by North Lake again a few weeks ago during my annual fall color trip to the Eastern Sierra. The word on the street was that the fall color in Bishop Creek was the best it has been for a long time. I got to the lake around 5:30 am, and even though it was packed with photographers, there was still some space available to pitch a tripod. The sunrise was pretty lame, so after taking a few photos that mostly represented the same compositions from previous years, I ventured to walk around the lake for the first time. I soon found out that I had missed out in prior years by only shooting from roughly the same location along with the rest of the herd. Even though the sun had come out, and the light was harsh, I was able to take several decent photos. There is nothing like experiencing the same destination differently, and I was excited to find various new compositions. And the fall foliage was truly spectacular. 

    After this latest trip, I know I will be back again. I know there are new angles and compositions that I want to explore, and previous images that I wanted to improve. And to me, that’s what’s fascinating about photography and landscapes in particular.