Jenna Caplette migrated from California to Montana in the early 1970s, first living on the Crow Indian reservation, then moving to Bozeman where she owned a downtown retail anchor for eighteen years. These days she owns Bozeman BodyTalk & Energetic Healthcare, hosts a monthly movie night, teaches and writes about many topics.
Over the two days since a guide spotted her, a female grizzly had sunned herself at the mouth of her den, on an almost vertical snow-covered slope. Sometimes one or both of her cubs kept her company. From a mile or so away, everyone watching her through spotting scopes wondered how she was going to get her cubs safely off that slope.
I watched as, tail in the air, she disappeared down and in to the black yawn of her den.
The folks who let me look through their scope also had a camera with a huge lens trained on the griz, I didn’t even try. She was WAY too far away for my iPhone to pick up.
Visiting Yellowstone provides spectacular opportunities for viewing and photographing wildlife. But you don’t have to go somewhere special. You do need to pay attention -- and have your camera along. Two days ago, walking my dog just a few blocks from our home in Bozeman’s north side, I watched flickers doing a mating dance up, down and along the trunk and branches of a cottonwood.
Here are a few tips for taking wildlife shots, shared by my colleagues at F-11 Photographic Supplies in Bozeman (where I am the wanna-be photographer in the midst of a bunch of pros).
First, to be one-on-one with nature, by–pass those places where the people are, find a remote location and walk. If you make that choice, be careful about the kinds of risks you take with animals that can be human-averse, like grizzlies. And buffalo. AND Moose.
Go with someone who is familiar with wildlife. They will increase your odds of seeing what you want, and having a quality experience. Either way, alone or with company, learn about the animal you want to photograph.
For instance, with an animal like buffalo, do you know how closely can you approach and stay relatively safe? Learn how they express agitation – like the raised, reverse-question mark of a tail. Consider the impact your presence might have on animals with newborn calves, cubs, or just-hatched chicks. What time of day will the animal you want to photograph be most active? Where can you find them where you will have a higher expectation that they’ll stick around for a while?
When you’e out, be sure to pack along two cans of bear-spray. Yes, they’re an investment. Aren’t your life, and the life of the animal you are photographing, worth it? I bought a fresh can for my recent trip to Yellowstone and was surprised by how informative the instructions are. Read them. Already own bear spray? Check its expiration date. Most bear sprays are designed for use up-close, at ten feet or less. That means you need to have educated yourself on its use. Training cans are available for practice. Or use an expired can. I saved mine to do just that.
Always, always, stay aware of your surroundings. Stop and take a 360-degree look-around. Often. Know your escape route. Have that bear spray handy, not tucked away in your back pack.
Since photographing wildlife does require distance for safety and good inter-species relations, you’re going to be working with larger lenses, 300mm or more. Use a point-and-shoot camera to photograph a fox sunning itself on a rock that’s even a couple dozen yards away, and when you look at the picture later, you may not be able to tell why you took it. With a good telephoto lens, you’ll capture the fox.
In order to support a camera and a heavy lens, you need a tripod that can handle the weight of your equipment. That’s not just about having a tripod with easy-to-adjust, solid and secure legs. The tripod head also needs to offer stability and ease of use; where the camera is balanced, moves freely, and won’t fall off. Most pros choose a well-built ball head with adjustable tension or a gimbal head like the Wimberly.
Remember, wildlife photos that have impact are those that show your subject matter interacting with the landscape, the weather, with other animals. Watch and learn. Experiment. SEE.
Then, experience the magic.
Photograph or not, I can still call up a clear and visceral memory of the griz at her den, though I admit, I did a quick online search in case I could find someone else’s photograph of her.