Wildlife photography is always about challenges, most of the time with just getting the critter to be in front of your lens. Whether the subject is large or small it’s always fun. Now I’ve spent a lot of time around large game but then it comes naturally living in Montana. Not to say that in any way small mammals aren’t enjoyable to work with, they are just harder to find. Go figure right. Well large game especially Bison, Bighorn Sheep and Elk do require some practice to work with, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.
As my Dad would say it comes down to biology, knowing what the animal will do. For instance Bighorn Sheep are pretty damn docile, they don’t do much besides eating and mating. Now I’m not saying that it’s wise to go over and pet one but they aren’t a dangerous. Nevertheless it’s important to respect any critter because they are still wild animas.
One time that comes to mind in this particular case was when i was standing around in the north entrance of Yellowstone with a couple of other photographers by the side of the road.
For those of you they don’t know the north entrance is a three mile stretch between Gardner Montana and Mammoth Hot springs. It’s a narrow windy canyon with the cliffs on either side and a river running down the middle. The Bighorn like to hang out in this area in the spring and fall while staying in the high country in the summer. Well this one particular time i was watching the sheep on the east side of the road and not the ram on the west. After a bit of yelling from someone else I turned around to see the ram walk right by me not more than five feet away. It turned out to be a decent click. He didn’t care.
The big guys just do what they like, they move around where they want to go because they know they are the big guys. The best way to work with them is to observe from a distance. Being in spots that aren’t in their travel paths is best. This is a scenario where it’s better to let them do the work. By letting them move around you and not pushing them into a place they don’t want to be is essential. This way any critter feels more comfortable and will be more inclined to cooperate.
Besides the animals biology the next most important thing to working with large game and really any critter is its body language. It seems simple but it does take practice and time to understand when a critter is happy and when it’s not. For any pet owner out there, you know just by watching your cat or dog if it’s in a good mood or bad. My family we have two dogs, and they are lovable but can be a pain in the ass at times. Just from watching them it’s easy to get a basic understanding of what to do and not do. When they are just fed, you leave them alone. When they come up to you wagging their tails they want attention or to go outside, or something else. When they’re sleeping, well not much happens then. Same kind of basic biology, the difference dogs are domesticated. So let’s use a more wild example.
Bison, they’re big, hairy, and can crush a car. Do they like people? Most of the time, do they often charge people, no. Bison are the biggest in Yellowstone, they know it. Working around them isn’t hard. They spend most of their time eating. They need lots of calories especially in winter. They often are by streams and grass flats feeding. When they are unhappy it’s obvious, they make noise and they physically look twitchy. Not their usual nonchalant attitude of eat, eat, munch, munch. They really are easy to work, especially if you give them space. This is kind of a mute point because in Yellowstone you’re not supposed to be within 100 yards of these guys anyways, which is more than enough space for them to be happy.
Elk are very similar in nature, they eat a lot. They also travel a lot. The elk migrate throughout the park as the seasons change.
Over the last decade they have been venturing further and further outside of the park in the winter which is causing problems with the wolves. Seeing how this isn’t a piece about wolves and elk biology, I’m going to have to wait to talk about that issue at a later point. Elk are a little more obvious when it comes to their signs of being unhappy, their ears go down. Ears down normally means the critter is uncomfortable. On the flip side though ear up at a point and lots of rapid head movement means that it’s alert and hears something. With most Bull Elk averaging 600lbs and 3-6 point racks, it’s best not to enclose on them. If you ever watch a hunting show, the hunters are always many yards away, there is a reason for that. It easier to watch the animal during its routines. This is another of those 50 yards or greater away rules.
In the end working with large game isn’t hard. It comes down to just giving them space and letting them move around you. Pushing any animal leads to a great possibility of an accident. Which brings up a slight issue of if it’s best to keep at a distance how do you get good images. Well this is why wildlife photography is expensive, because we do require long glass. Nikon AF-s Vr 200-400, Nikon AF-S 600f/4 and teleconverters are all necessary. The 200-400 is great because it works as a lap lens while driving. The best bang for the buck still has to be the 70-300 Vr. It’s a great starter lens for the price. I still have it in my bag and use it ever now and then. Less often due to the 200-400 now being in my bag. Not always easy traveling with the 200-400 and 600, which is why the 70-300 comes in handy. Any critter is fun to work with, whatever size it may be, provided the respect is given to that critter by the photographer and that is more important than any shot.