Rick Hobbs Photography

Wildlife/Nature/Outdoor Photography

From The Field

Photographing Elk in the Fall

Fall is probably my favorite season to be anywhere as long as I'm outside enjoying that special time of year. This past Fall I was in Yellowstone National Park to photograph the wildlife and beautiful scenes found in the park.

Every year is different but late September to early October has been a good time to be there. While I could go on and on about the wonderful opportunities I had to photograph great gray owl, grizzly bear, bison, coyote, pronghorn, and other wildlife, as well as beautiful scenes, this article will focus on the elk.

Bull Elk - Yellowstone National Park

By late September the number of people in the park has gone down significantly, however, there are still plenty of people around, especially on the weekends. As a result, some of the lodging/meal options are beginning to close for the season. You can still find lodging available, you may just have to drive a little farther than at the peak of summer.

Expect the weather to be variable, some days could be warm and sunny and the next morning you could wake up to snow. If you get snow at the higher elevations, some of the passes are not maintained during the winter and some of the roads may close with little or no warning so you need to pay attention to the weather.

Bull Elk Bugling - Yellowstone National Park

This time of year is also the "rut" and the elk are very active and usually easy to find. The mature bulls are busy building, and trying to hold onto, their harems of cows. In the morning the air is filled with the exciting and almost constant sound of elk bugling. The testosterone level is extremely high and it is not uncommon to see elk mating, fighting or chasing off intruders, including you.

Bull Elk Charging A Vehicle - Yellowstone National Park

For your safety and enjoyment, it is very important to watch and understand their behavior when you are trying to photograph these large mammals. This past Fall, there was one bull in particular that hung out near the Norris campground. We all referred to him as "Charger", a name he earned and believe me - it was well deserved.

Every morning and evening we gathered at this location to photograph this bull and his antics and we were never disappointed. Photographers that did not show him the respect he deserved quickly found themselves pinned in the trees trying to avoid the large and dangerous antlers as he attempted to gore them. Others were simply screaming and running for their lives as this large bull made sure everyone knew this was his domain.

Over a period of several days we watched him actually charge and ram into full sized vehicles parked along the road leaving unmistakable "bullet holes" in the sides of these vehicles from his antlers. I'm sure that anyone still sitting in these vehicles when he rammed them probably could use some fresh underwear after this experience ;-)

Bull Elk - Yellowstone National Park

I had a great time photographing the elk and was able to get some decent images. If you plan to photograph the elk during the rut - please use a long lens so you don't have to get to close to them. Unfortunately, when people don't take enough lens and there is an encounter between the people and the wildlife - it seems the wildlife always gets the raw end of the deal and all they are doing is what comes naturally.

I would recommend at least 400mm and the more the better if you want to get close shots. A 70-200mm would work if you want to take environmental wildlife shots that show some of the habitat but don't try to do close-up's with it.

Bull Elk On Foggy Morning - Yellowstone National Park

Be sure to work your subject when given the opportunity. Spend as much time as you can with your subject shooting a variety of images including verticals as well as horizontals. Change lens so you can get close shots and well as some showing habitat and try to capture a variety of behavior with varying backgrounds.

Above all, remember it is the being there that matters most. That is what will create your memories that you can revisit on a moments notice.