On our recent trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Rochelle and I learned some hard lessons in mastering the art of wildlife photography, and while neither of us claims to be anything close to a master at it now, we did pick up some valuable, hard-earned knowledge. And I’d like to pass on some of our experiences to you, in the hopes that you can avoid some of our trials and most of our errors.
Before we get into the whole “photographiness” of the story, I have to remind you, as I reminded myself over and over again, it really doesn’t matter all that much if you get a perfect photograph of a bear, a moose or an elk. What is much more important is taking the time to see and experience these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
We visited the two parks in late June, and there were animal babies all over the place. Watching the interaction between the mothers and the babies was a priceless experience and when I think of the time I spent looking at them through my viewfinder, I remember how personal each of those experiences was, not only for them, but for me too. So, my advice is to be patient, enjoy the experience, and if you happen to get a couple of good photographs, just consider them to be icing on the big cake you already have sitting in front of you.
If you’re in Yellowstone to see the animals, you might have to do a few things that seem contrary to human nature. You have to get out of bed early. You might have to go out in the rain. And you can’t sit around an early campfire after a big dinner. I know, you’re on vacation and all of those things seem like necessary ingredients for your very survival, but trust me, you’ll survive just fine. So, why deprive yourself of life’s most basic enjoyments? Because animals come out early, they come out in the rain (or just after) and they love that twilight time just before dark. If you really want to catch a moose or a grizzly, those are the times to do it. Plus, you won’t have to fight the big crowds that show up for those rare mid-day sightings. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, just remember that those times of day also offer the best, most interesting light for photography too.
So, that pretty much covers the “when” part of my story, so now I will move onto the next important bit of advice – where do you find the wildlife in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons? Before we went, I read several guidebooks for the two parks. We used that information at first, but we soon found it was much better to talk to people in the park about where they had seen wildlife themselves. Recent reports trumped old reports and even the guidebooks every time. I guess this is a pretty obvious observation, but a lot of animals move around a lot. So, while you will probably find a herd of bison in the Hayden Valley, where they are known to hang out, you might not find a bear at the Fishing Bridge, which they are known to frequent. So, every time you get the chance, make sure to talk to people. But choose carefully. If you see somebody with a big scope, or a fancy long camera lens, make sure to talk to them first. People who yell “Moose’ when they’re looking at a mule deer are probably best left alone.
We’ve come across herds of bison just about every place in the parks. There are many more of them in Yellowstone than in the Grand Tetons, and we’ve almost always found a nice sized herd along the road in the Hayden Valley. Our favorite time is first thing in the morning. The big, ol’ hairy beasts are often standing near, or even on the road. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have some nice mist or fog too. The fog and mist helps to diffuse the background so it helps your subject, or subjects as the case may be, stand out from their surroundings. There are often huge herds up in the northern part of Yellowstone in the Lamar Valley, but they’re often quite a ways away from the road.
Most of the elk we’ve see in Yellowstone were up in the most northern part of the park in Mammoth and along the river that runs below the road that travels between Mammoth and the park exit at Gardener. On our last trip, we followed a big buck and his herd for a couple of hours as they crisscrossed the river. But you can often see a lot of elk right in the little village of Mammoth itself. They are use to humans and cameras, but it’s still a good idea, as always, to keep your distance. We found this female all by herself in a big grassy field right next to the parking lot.
If Mammoth is a sure bet to see elk, other parts of the park are more like trying to fill an inside straight in a hand of poker. You might get lucky anywhere and you might also draw a blank. We drew a pair of kings one morning as we were headed over to shoot the Grand Prismatic Springs. These two bucks where just waking up in a misty meadow, not too far from Madison. We photographed them for a couple of hours as they finally shook off the cobwebs and headed out for their breakfast. It was gorgeous, and needless to say, we never made it to the Grand Prismatic Springs.
We have never seen a moose in Yellowstone. I know a few hundred of them call the park their home, but they sure are hard to find. They’re a bit easier to come across in the Grand Tetons. They like rivers and willows, and the Teton’s Gran Ventra campground area has both. So does the area near the big visitor’s center, which is where we found this big guy.
We’ve been lucky enough to see wolves on each of our two recent trips to the park. Last time, we saw a pack of them in the Hayden Valley. They were busy stealing bison “steaks” from a grizzly bear’s dinner table. Lots of action and it was a blast to see through a big scope, but it was far too far away to photograph. This year, we found some wolf pups in a valley between Tower Junction and Mammoth. They were even further away than the pack we saw last year, but it sure was neat to see the pups wrestling in the grass.
If you’re looking for big horn sheep, the Tower area in Yellowstone is the first place to head. They love the steep cliffs above the river, just north of Tower Falls. But once again, they might prove to be too far away to catch with your camera, unless you have a really long lens. My brother, however, came across a bunch of them, crossing the road to Cody.
I’ve seen herds of pronghorn antelopes in Yellowstone, but not in the last couple of trips. We did see them in both parks this last trip, but they were typically alone, and minding their own business. I expected them to be “flighty” but they seemed immune to our camera shutters.
Yellowstone has its share of avian wildlife as well. We saw some gorgeous white pelicans, as well as a couple of big, beautiful trumpeter swans. A quick note on the white birds – if you have your camera set to a wide exposure area, you’re going to end up with big white blotches in your photo instead of birds. That white, in the middle of a typically darker, green or brown background is going to overexpose. So, use your spot exposure setting. You may also want to manually underexpose the shot by a stop or two. This is one of those lessons I learned after the fact. Hence, no great bird photographs from me. I told you we learned a lot, and sometimes they were lessons learned the hard way.
I guess it goes without saying that bears are one of Yellowstone’s biggest draws. The park is home to both black bears and Grizzly bears and we were lucky enough to capture both on this last trip. The best place to find them is in the area between the Dunraven Pass (just north of Canyon) all the way to the Tower Junction. They also hang out around the Fishing Bridge area by Yellowstone Lake.
So, now you know where, and when to look for wildlife, but what do you do with your camera once you find those cute little animals. I don’t have an answer that will fit everybody with 100% accuracy, because we all have different cameras and lenses with different capabilities, but here are some guidelines that might help you out. First of all, automatic mode is probably not going to get you the best wildlife shots. If you’re not comfortable shooting in a more advanced mode, like “Manual” or “Aperture Priority”, then I’d suggest you get yourself a book or two, or take a class because to get great wildlife shots, you’ve got to get every little bit performance out of your camera. Personally, I left my camera on aperture priority most of the time, with the aperture set at the most open setting my lens allowed.
I used a 70-400mm f/4 to f/5.6 lens, and seeing that the animals were mostly pretty far away, I used that f/5.6 setting a lot. If the animals were just sitting still, I could shoot as slowly as 1/100th of a second with a tripod. But for moving animals and in situations when I couldn’t use a tripod, I tried to keep that speed quicker than 1/1000th of a second so I could freeze the action. And when I say action, I mean anything other than absolute frozen stillness. Even a slight headshake can give you a blurry photograph if you shoot too slowly.
If you’re shooting with a lens that has a very wide aperture and a long focal length, you’re going to come up against some hard and fast rules of physics. That’s because those f/2.8 lens, in combination with a 200 or even 300mm focal length have a very shallow depth of field. This means that you’re only going to get a little bit of your scene in perfect focus. So, make sure you focus on the most important thing in your viewfinder, which 9 times out of 10 will be the animal’s eyes.
Also, because most animals, not including those white birds I just mentioned, are dark colored, you will probably want to overexpose your shots. There’s nothing as frustrating as checking out the shots you took of a big black bear and finding out all you have is a big black blob. Cameras are pretty good at figuring out the right exposure, but they don’t know a bear from a hole in the ground.
If you purchased a long zoom lens, or maybe rented one for your trip, make sure you understand the ramifications of using it at its longest setting. First of all, if you’re all the way out at 400mm or even 500mm, you’re going to have to shoot ridiculously fast to get a sharp shot, and no matter how fast you shoot, most of the big lenses aren’t tack sharp at their limits anyway. Try backing off about 50mm. And you might find you like the slightly zoomed out shot better anyway. That’s because you’ll get some more of the animal’s environment in the photo, giving it a more natural look, and a less “zoo-like” feel.
In the last year, Rochelle and I picked up two new telephone lenses. Her choice was a 70-200mm f/2.8, while my choice was the longer, but slower 70-400 f/4/0-5/6. And it turns out, for wildlife shooting I think I prefer the shots from Rochelle’s lens. In this case, her fast lens made up for the reduced focal length. If you don’t currently own a high-quality telephoto lens, I strongly suggest renting before you buy.
Do you need a tripod when you’re shooting wildlife? Yes! I know tripods can be a big pain in the rear, but a steady camera is the key to getting sharp photographs. Hand-holding a camera, especially one with a big lens attached to it, gets tiring after just a couple of minutes. You’ll soon notice the scene through your viewfinder starting to resemble a ship at sea. Up and down, left and right — look at that long enough and you might start to get a little green around the gills. So if you are in a situation where you just can’t put up a tripod, of if you don’t own one (I know, I know, they take up a lot of room in your Class B) you can try to find things in your environment you can use to brace your camera. A rock, your camera bag, a railing on a bridge, a tree limb – they’ll all work in a pinch. If I’m going to be walking around, or space is tight, I like to use a monopod. They also sell tripods that attach to your Van’s windows, so you can shoot directly from the driver’s seat. Not “while” you’re driving, of course.
So, you’ve got a nice clear, perfectly exposed shot of an animal. Is it all you hoped it would be? Maybe not. Photographing animals is a lot like photographing people. If there’s no action, or emotion, or the overall scene is just plain boring, all of your skills behind the camera aren’t going to amount to much at all. I know, I took lots of those kinds of shots. The challenge is patience. If you wait long enough, or if you continue to search, day after day, you’ll find shots that are truly memorable.
We watched this mother bear and her three cubs for hours before Rochelle got this shot of mom scolding her baby. We both got the shot, but Rochelle’s, as is often the case, turned out to be the best. But we both walked away feeling we had really caught something special.
We loved visiting Yellowstone and we had so much time to track down and photograph its wonderful wildlife, we’re already thinking about another visit. But there are certainly some things I would do differently the next time around. I would use my tripod 100% of the time, and I’d even use my remote control as much as possible. I’d back off from 400mm, and trust me, that’s going to be hard to do. I’d get out of bed even earlier because as soon as the sun broke through the morning mist, that harsh light made shooting really difficult. I’d like more time before that happened in the morning and heck, we can sleep in the afternoon, right? I’d walk around more to get better shooting positions. Too often, I was so enthralled watching the wildlife, I’d ignore a rotten background. And finally, and most importantly, I would go to the park a little sooner. We went at the end of June, but from what we heard, three or four weeks before would have been even better.
Did you get to Yellowstone this year? Are you going soon? Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.