Shooting Yellowstone's Autumn Elk Extravaganza
By Brent Russell Paul
Gradually, the faint rays from sunrise crept over the eastern mountains on a crisp autumn morning in September of 2001. We were hiking through dense morning fog, paralleling the meandering Gibbon River, with the eerie sound of a bugling bull elk somewhere ahead in the distance. The bugle could best be described as part high-octane roar and part guttural, testosterone-laced bellow. Again the bugle echoed from the fog, allowing us to correct our direction as we stalked the bull, who continued moving near the riveralways just out of sight.
As the morning fog rose and began to burn off we could just make out the park highway running between Norris and Madison Junction about a mile behind us. But just ahead of us, finally in view, was the elk. We studied him through our binoculars and realized he was a truly magnificent seven-point bull.
With the sun in perfect position behind us, Jed Packer and I stayed parallel to the bull as he continued on his journey. Then he stopped and glared over at us. His withering stare forced us to look around for a likely escape route into the forest. We were about 60 yards away and could hear the snorting and grunting noises he made as he began to move through the meadow.
Within a few minutes the bull approached a bend in the Gibbon and entered the water. We moved quickly to close the distance, set up the tripod and prepare for a great opportunity. I began to fire off images as he moved leisurely into the cold, chest-deep river. The bull came to a stop as the water rose to his flanks; he seemed to be enjoying the frigid water, or maybe it just dampened the rutting fever running through him.
At about 40 yards, the bull was framed perfectly in my 500mm lensdeep blue water in the foreground, the bulls creamy flanks glowing in the morning light, the background of young, green pines and tan autumn grass adding graphic color to the images. Even though I was concentrating on shooting the elk and double checking the auto-focus ever few frames to make sure I had his eyes in focus, the pageantry of his rutting behavior was stunning to watch in the viewfinder.
Jed and I marveled at the beauty of this scene; there were a lot of wows going back and forth. After crossing the river he moved into the pines and continued towards the sounds of another bugling bull in an adjacent meadow. After nearly an hour the bull slipped away from us in the thick forest and vanished like a ghost, leaving us with his unmistakable bugle echoing in the distance. Our last glimpse of his horns raking back pine branches ended the remarkable encounter.
This was a trophy bull elk, captured with a perfect stalk, set amid the amazing beautiful panorama of the worlds first national park. In the past Ive missed some bulls, blown a few careful stalks, broken both cameras and lenses, snapped tripod legs and dropped film into rivers or under snow. But not this time. This was a perfect wildlife photography experience.
Ive spent 17 years making the trek from Utah to Yellowstone every fall to photograph one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the animal kingdom, the annual elk rut. But the time the rut is fully underway, Yellowstone has been taken over by uniquely equipped, camouflaged and well-armed (in terms of camera equipment) photographers who patrol the roads seeking out the most spectacular trophies to photograph.
Autumn is a magical time in Yellowstone. Crisp fall days and cool nights have begun to tinge the quaking aspens with a blaze of color. Most of the Winnebagos of summer are gone. For the different species that inhabit Yellowstone that means more peace and quiet during a time of substantial feeding activity. Activity, whether for food or the rut, means movementmovement that results in a wildlife show for all who come.
The elk, or wapiti, put on a serious display of sexual prowess and intimidation during the rut. Calling other bulls to battle with a penetrating bugle, cow elk are serenaded by the musical concert going on around them. Nearly 40,000 elk inhabit the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, with the largest density of animals living in the northern half of the park. This northern herd inhabits an area that is bounded, roughly, by a line that extends east from West Yellowstone for 20 miles to Madison Junction, then north 30 miles to Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner, then east 40 miles to Lamar Valley and Cooke City, Montana.
If you love elk and want to witness this awesome display of rutting fever then the last two weeks of September should find you on my bumper haunting these park roads from dawn to dusk.
But Yellowstone isnt only elk. With the return of the gray wolf, this vast park has regained an intact wildlife ecosystem. It is literally an island of wildlife within a vast ocean of farms, ranches and highways that make up the modern American West. While elk make up the majority of visible wildlife, other species complete the ecosystem. The fact that these animals exist here and can be seen and photographed makes Yellowstone a wildlife photographers dream. (However, it takes a great deal of luck or searching to photograph some species.) If you go to Yellowstone to either watch or photograph this wildlife extravaganza, follow a few simple rules to remain safe and get the most from your trip.
Get up early and stay out late
Get up early and stay out late
Animals are dynamic creatures that are always moving and very unpredictable. While it is true that animals are most active in the morning and evening, that doesnt mean they bed down all afternoon and sleep. Many of my best images have come midday. Im always out before sunrise cruising the roads in whatever area of the park I want to photograph that particular morning. Different areas have different wildlife strengths, though all species can be found throughout the park.
Here are a few tips about areas where your favorite species may be most visible:
Gray wolves Lamar Valley in northeastern Yellowstone.
Mule deer From Tower over Dunraven Pass to Canyon and Yellowstone Lake
Elk From Mammoth Hot Springs south to Madison Juncation.
Coyotes and eagles Hayden Valley along the Yellowstone River
Bighorn sheep Mt. Everts, which is north across the Gardiner River from Mammoth Hot Springs.
Grizzly bears Both Lamar and Hayden valleys, as well as around the Twin Lakes just north of Norris Meadows.
Black bear From Mammoth Hot Springs east to Tower and over Dunraven Pass to the Yellowstone River.
Stay out until dark, especially just south of Mammoth Hot Springs along Swan Flats and in the Lamar Valley. It is during this time that the harem bulls are most likely to have their cows out in the meadows, and subsequently perform their rutting rituals with the greatest enthusiasm.
Dress in layers
Dress in layers
In the past two decades Ive seen weather in September range from extremely warm and dry to incredible blizzards and cold that closed park roads early and forced everyone to wait for the plows. With so many opportunities to get out of the car to experience the parks wildlife up close, its important to dress for the extreme temperature changes that are possible.
A good pair of thin gloves (Lowepro shooting gloves, carried by Pictureline in SLC for around $12) will help you handle your binoculars or camera without having to take them off to shoot a picture. Also, a thin pair of the newer silk-like polypropylene thermals are a must. Use a good, broad-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your neck or the snow out of your eyes and keep some Chap Stick in your pocket.
Many times during a typical shooting day I will get out and follow a particularly good bull, trying to achieve a better shooting position. Being dressed correctly makes it easy and quick to jump from your vehicle. However, it is important to remember that once you leave the road area where animals are accustomed to seeing people, you become a predator. It is very difficult to photograph wild animals, especially big game critters, when they think you are pursuing them.
This is where things get tricky and costly. First off, you need some kind of a telephoto lens to zoom in on your subjects. This not only makes for better images, it allows you to stay at a much safer distance. You dont have to push the animals for a close approach. My primary lens is a 500mm Nikon silent-wave F4, but I started out with a 300mm F4.5 lens
Get the fastest lens you can afford (fast being defined by the aperture or f-stop of the lens. An 80-200mm zoom lens that has an aperture of F2.8 is twice as fastlets in twice as much lightas an F4.0 lens, and thus usually costs about twice as much. This extra light allows you to shoot at higher shutter speeds about 15 minutes earlier and 15 minutes later toward dusk when light is minimal. Higher speeds produce sharper images with less inherent vibration. Also, a faster lens gives the photographer a brighter viewfinder in which to focus or compose images.
Second, use a tripod to reduce that inherent vibration even more. A tripod adds another 15 minutes (both early and late) by allowing you to shoot at slower shutter speeds than you normally could by hand-holding your camera. Big lenses need big tripods. An important consideration in buying a tripod is the head that mounts to the lens or camera body. A ball head is the only practical choice. Personally, I use a Bogen 3038 ball head and a Bogen 3033 tripod. One final point about tripods: seriously consider getting a head that has a built in quick-release system. This allows you to mount the quick-release plate to the lens or camera body directly and then quickly snap it on and off the head. It makes getting into action just a little quicker.
Lastly, use the finest grain film that lighting conditions will allow. I will regularly start out shooting higher speed 400 ASA films in the morning, then switch to 100 ASA films. What you give up in speed you make up for in quality and color. It is a myth that a 400 ASA or higher speed film can capture images of the same quality as a 100 ASA speed film. On a professional level, my personal favorites are Kodak 100VS slide film, Fuji Velvia 50, and the new Fuji Provia 400F slide film.
When you have an opportunity to photograph animals, try to remember a few basic points. First, remember to always focus on the eyes of your subject. The life of an animal is best revealed in its eyes. A photograph will always appear in focus if the eyes are sharp, even if the rest of the image is out-of-focus.
Second, remember to turn your camera to shoot vertical images. Animals, like people, can be vertical subjects and are often best photographed from this position. If you are photographing a bull elk and he is moving parallel to you, a horizontal image capturing some of the scenery may be best. But if he is walking towards you then turn your camera and shoot vertical images.
Third, when subjects are fairly close, say inside of 35 feet, and backlit by the sun, dont be afraid to turn on your flash and use it to add a highlight to eyes and fill the shadow side of the image. Most modern cameras will function automatically with the flash turned on to fill-flash the intended subject and produce a superior image.
Nothing can be more aggravating than park visitors who dont act responsibly around wildlife. I use a telephoto lens so I dont have to get physically close to a wild animal and push it or enter its fight-or-flight zone. Visitor safety is a prime concern for park rangers and they will ticket visitors who endanger themselves, others, or push animals with an unreasonably close approach. Also, pull off the road safely when viewing or photographing animals. Blocking the road only creates instant congestion and bad feelings from other visitors.
When approaching an animal that is being photographed, a row of tripod-mounted lenses is a good indication of how close you should get. A closer approach not only endangers you but those behind you who may not be able to get out of the way of a charging animal as quickly as you can. Stories of bull elk attacking cars and bison goring visitors describe yearly occurrences because some visitors feel like they are in some kind of a super zoon. The animals in Yellowstone are truly wild.
Where to stay
Personally, I like to stay at a hotel in Gardiner, Montana. With the greatest populations of wildlife located in the northern part of the park, it makes sense to stay close to that area. After a long day of chasing wildlife it feels great to relax, take a shower and have a hot meal to get ready for the next day.
In, September campgrounds within Yellowstone close because of weather, lateness of the season, or because of extensive grizzly activity. For those who definitely want to camp, a year-round site exists just outside of Mammoth Hot Springs. Remember that temperatures can plummet to below zero and heavy snowfall is common this time of year.
With the elk putting on such a show, its easy to forget about all of the other animals that co-exist with them. Just a few years ago on a similar trip with Jed Packer and photographer Bob Sutton, we had a unique grizzly encounter.
Three miles north of Norris Junction we stopped the car after one of use saw the flash of an odd colored fur patch through the trees. Snow was falling hard and it was mid-afternoon on a brutally cold September day. We parked and unloaded our equipment and hiked through the dense stand of pines toward a small meadow.
There in the meadow before us was a huge grizzly bear just leaving the carcass of an elk, about 50 years off and across a small stream. When our arrival the grizzly continued lumbering up the hillside heading away. He looked like a fur-covered Volkswagen. Finding a carcass close to the road is always an opportunity for great photography, though it requires special precautions when you are in bear country.
The next morning the skies cleared somewhat and we headed back to the meadow at sunrise. Over the next eight hours three different grizzlies came to the carcass to feed, totally oblivious to our presence. Along with a number of other photographers and a park ranger, I was able to shoot some amazing grizzly images. My favorite was taken not with the big 500mm lens but with my 80-200 zoom. It shows the grizzly in mid-meadow, the bear and the tall grass backlit by the sun, his nose raised into the wind, sniffing for any imminent danger.
On our final afternoon in Yellowstone last September we found ourselves south of Mammoth Hot Springs, at the south end of Swan Flats, as sunset neared. A small group had gathered around an older man with a large movie camera; he was dressed in camouflage and had stationed himself on the west side of an empty meadow near the road. We parked and walked out to this group to see what was so fascinating.
It turned out that the older man was none other than Leonard Lee Rue III, the father of modern wildlife photography. One of his early books had served as a guide for my early efforts. I introduced myself and he asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a professional photographer and he said: Oh no, more competition! We shared the laugh with him and then moved off to get our equipment as a bugling bull, still unseen in the trees on the far side of the meadow, sounded closer.
With about 20 minutes of light left, the bull finally emerged with a small harem of eight cows. He pushed them out of the trees at the end of his antlers, occasionally applying a sharp tine to a slow moving cows rump. He was a typical six-pointer, but had an enormous royal tine with his drag tine being curved into what many photographers call a whale tail. He moved aggressively back and forth, screening his harem from other smaller satellite bulls that had suddenly appeared out of the trees. When he charged the smaller bulls they ran off, only to stop after a short distance and wander back.
Then, about a hundred yards away at the other end of the meadow, another bull with a small harem moved out of the trees. The two bulls glared at each other and exchanged warning bugles. They appeared to be evenly matched in size and apparently had decided that aggressive bugling was enough. We photographed the nearly constant action, though not quite as close as usual due to the number of other photographers who had stopped near the meadow.
As the last golden blaze of sunlight began to melt away and the long shadows of dusk filled the meadowstill full of elkstill noisy from a cacophony of elk bugles and motor driven camerasit was hard to believe there could be a more beautiful spot on the planet at that moment. It was nearly dark as we headed back to the Suburban. Just another day of autumn adventure in the worlds first national parkYellowstone.