Photographing wild animals is as much a matter of perseverance and luck as it is skill and gear. For every 1000 amazing professional shots there will always be that one amateur who rolled up in their car on a whim and photographed an elk 10 feet away as it stared at them menacingly… Something nobody in the field would ever attempt unless they had a death wish.
The point of saying that is that you may go out 10, 15, maybe dozens of times and still never get “that shot” you saw on Instagram because you just didn’t “luck out” the way that one photographer did.
So, how do you increase your chances of “getting lucky” when it comes to photographing Elk?
I think the thing to know to understand how to photograph Elk and animals in general is to understand their patterns of behavior.
That is, you need to know why animals look the way they do, act the way they do, and where they even are in the world.
As for Elk the first thing to do is see if there are any Elk around you. Well, I happen to be a lucky photographer in that there is a a large park near my home where Elk are allowed to roam relatively freely. The park is open to visitors so the Elk are well adjusted to the presence of people. But they’re still not quite domesticated as it were and they have attacked people who have ventured too close to them.
Of course it’s not quite the same as photographing Elk in the true wild but it’s the next best thing. At the very least one gets to see the animals in nature and get a feel for how they behave and what the limits are. But seeing as I can’t drive to Yellowstone every weekend (would be a really long drive) it’s sort of like a miniature version of Yellowstone that is only 15 minutes away.
That brings me to my first point of advice, try photographing wild animals that are kept on preservations and parks near your home. There are quite a few such places all around America and you might be surprised what you find if you do a quick Google search.
Doing this will give you a way to practice your skills and figure out gear you will need without investing too much time and effort into the experience.
Taking pictures of animals is all about being ready for the perfect moments. Wild animals don’t pose just because you ask them too, and many if not most of them will run away if you start making loud noises. With the shot above it’s important to note that the Elk is actually walking up over a road through the park and this picture was taken with a 200mm lens from about 125 ft away. He only looked directly at me for about 2-3 seconds as he wandered my direction and I got this awesome symmetrical shot of his antlers. Not seen is the fact that I am standing next to my car with the door open ready to jump in at a moments notice.
This proves 2 things, first, you don’t need a “super telephoto” to get an awesome shot of an Elk. And second, you don’t have to be that close either. If your image doesn’t look like it is close enough, just crop it in till it looks closer…. It’s that simple.
The next important aspect is time of day. Like many if not most animals, Elk are most active in the evenings. This is good news for photographers because evening light is generally regarded as superior for photography to midday light. When the sun starts to set you can position yourself in the right spot relative to the animals and maybe you’ll come up with something like the above shot which shows the Elk in an impressive halo of golden light. If I remember correctly, this image was taken with a 300mm prime lens.
Of course that doesn’t mean the Elk don’t do interesting things during the day, they do, like this guy who decided to jump into the lake to cool off on a hot and humid day. With temperatures hitting 95F I couldn’t help but envy him as he looked so cool and comfortable relaxing in the water. I used a 420mm lens for this image.
He looks so chilled out, I think this is the Elk version of a guy tubing down a river with a beer in hand. Taken at 420mm.
His friend also decided to go for a swim. The odd looking stringy material all over the antlers is the velvet that has almost completely fallen off. This image was taken at 420mm.
In this shot we drove up in our car with a 24-105mm lens and rolled down the window. Eventually the Elk wandered over and we got some cool closeup shots.
These little cuties were just standing by the side of the road as we drove through the park. It’s safe to say you can’t get this shot in the wild without a drone or remote release. Not too many Elk mommas are gonna let you this close to their babies…
Again from the window of the car as we rolled by… these two had been fighting and this bull Elk was in no mood to have us around. Just stopping the car and rolling down the window caught his attention… this was in early November so they’re probably still a little hyped up due to the Elk rut.
The lesson to learn from these shots is one of time and opportunity. You can’t always go to Yellowstone or Canada to film Elk in their natural habitat but there are places here and there around the country. If you know where Elk can be found, making a short trip in your car every so often can eventually pay off with amazing pictures.
Many animals synchronize their mating rituals with the time of year. If you want to catch Elk doing battle in epic clashes it’s best to look for this during the Elk rut which runs from September to October.
Just be careful during this time because the Elk can really get crazy! Even the relatively docile Elk at Lone Elk Park near my home will turn into absolute units during the rut and almost no distance from them is safe. I hope you read that right: NO DISTANCE IS SAFE!! If they can see you, they may come for you, and they’re fast over almost any terrain.
Suffice to say bull Elk are large animals, almost as big as a horse but with gigantic pointy antlers on top of its head. That said the Elk are generally not the absolute worst animals to be around. They tend to be a bit like deer in that they will look at you and then carry on with their day assuming you aren’t actively harassing them.
However, during the rut things change dramatically. The male Elk in particular become dangerous. While you should never get too close to a large wild animal like an Elk during any time of the year, doing so during the rut is a virtual guaranteed way to get yourself trampled, gored, and possibly dead or in the hospital.
One thing I noticed inadvertently is that Elk do not like tripods. If you want the Elk bull to notice you, even from hundreds of yards away, try carrying your huge tripod around, the shape of the legs spread out actually resembles an Elk lowering its antlers to engage in battle. Elk apparently have an eye for this and will notice the instant you start waving your tripod around.
Above is a picture of Elk fighting one another during the rutting season. This fight wasn’t so bad, but when they really get going it’s best to stay further away. It should be pretty easy to tell when things are getting bad as the animals will really be leaning into one another and they’ll be making lots of weird howling noises. They may occasionally stumble and nearly fall due to the pressure of the other animal. When females are around is when the bull Elk will be the most aggressive. For the leader of the herd every male Elk within visible distance is a threat. Basically the other male Elk will stay far, far away from the leader of the herd as any incursion into the vicinity of the herd will be seen as a challenge to his dominance. We actually saw this proven once as an Elk approached the herd from probably 200 yards and the dominant bull immediately noticed him and walked out to meet his challenger.
Don’t disturb the Elk too much, just try to watch them from a distance. I have frequently seen people driving through the park yelling at the Elk and honking their horns to try and get their attention. Factually I can tell you that this behavior is highly annoying to the other humans at the park and does very little to nothing at all to get the Elk’s attention. Elk just don’t care about all the noises humans make. It’s like if a bird is chirping outside your window, you have no idea what it is saying so you just ignore it, same thing with Elk.
Well, that’s about it for this blog post. As you can see photographing Elk can be a fun thing to do every now and then, and certainly can make a trip to the real wilds of America more exciting.
Here are a couple more Elk shots for you to enjoy: