Big Snow and Big Mammals

Over the last week the big storm that was gone across the northwest has brought with it lots of new snow and cold temps. While most people just enjoy that because it means good power days on the slopes, which I can’t argue are pretty nice right now, for us photographers it means great photo ops with big critters.

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Winter time is one of the best times to photograph critters for numerous reasons. Often times during big storms large ungulates tend to bed down meaning when those nice days roll around they will be more active. Also the white background combined with the dark fur coats adds for great contrast. Now you might think the range of light is too great in those scenarios but the snow also acts like a reflector and bounces light in. Lastly the cold temps add steam to waterways that aren’t frozen over. Here in Montana and Wyoming we have a lot of those areas especially in Yellowstone and steam is another great natural element to add to wildlife photography. Simple things when combined with just getting outdoors.

National Park Service 99th Anniversary

Today is the 99th Anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service. For almost a century the NPS has helped maintain this countries natural beauties while helping others get involved and inspired with the world around them. There are 407 national parks in the United States and each one has something special to offer. I am extremely fortunate to have been to so many of them but I am truly grateful for having spent so much time in Yellowstone. It is places like these that allow us to be immersed in nature and all it has to offer.

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Relearning to Shoot

Well this past weekend I took my own advice and finally got out to Yellowstone for a day. Truly one of the joys of living in Bozeman is being so close to the park that i can go down there when i want to. Now it the last time i was there was this past February which is entirely a different scenario. In Winter you’re in a snowcoach, in Fall you drive yourself. Fall is one of my favorite times of the year in the park, it just has a feel about in the air

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When i go out i usually go looking for the critters, i don’t plan on shooting landscapes but it does happen. Thankfully Saturday weilded a great day of critter viewing. It always seems to start with the Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs which have changed dramatically over the years with the Wolves changing territories and more recently good ol #6 passing away last year. It’s just not the same without that big bull around.

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Now it has been some time since i was out shooting from the truck working with the critters, and i got to admit i felt a little bit rusty. There are some basics that you have to know in order to truly work with in order to succeed when using a vehicle as a blind. It starts with actually having a lens out in your lap ready to shoot. Fumbling around in a bag getting gear doesn’t work for two reasons, one it makes a lot of movement which critters don’t like and two odds are the moment passes and you miss that shot. Next up you got to be well aware of where that animal is going, for instance this herd of Bison were on clear mission going from the east across the road to the west and since it was morning they were back lit. The best place in this sitaution was being in front watching them cross and then shooting when the were on the other side.

Light is very tricky when working from the car, it takes a lot of planning ahead before you see the critter. That being said if you see something at the last minute how do you not pass it by? Well car sounds are critical. They alert the whatever you’re working with long before you do. Stealth is your friend. Often, depending on where you are and traffic, turning off the engine and rolling is better. Now you might be wondering why I would got through all of this work when i could use a tripod in a pullout. Well it’s quite simple. Pulling out a 600f4, on a tripod, in Yellowstone is basically setting off a firework to everyone. There won’t be any car that doesn’t stop. Sometimes it’s what you got to do, often it just creates a mess. Always keep in mind what the best situation is for the animal and the people around you. Some photographs aren’t worth it. I can guarantee you this, if a pack of wolves show up in a place I can pull over, the 600 comes out, no hesitation.

Images Captured with Nikon D3, AF-S 200-400 VR, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

A Good Day with the Bison

Yesterday we had a very stormy day with snow and wind all day long. The wind kept most critters down but it doesn’t seem to affect the Bison, heck the kids were even playing a bit. The morning consisted of this lovely stormy weather that really captures the true feeling of Yellowstone in winter. The Bison were moving along the river to the more enclosed forest nearby. We watched by the side of the van as the Bison charged ahead through the head wind. Focusing became a problem during this shoot as it has been anytime there is a snow storm. The snow coming down between us and the Bison caused the auto focus to go back and forth making it difficult to lock on. The solution came down to manually focusing most of the time.

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The morning proved to be a bit challenging as it normally does with low light situations, however the evening proved to be much nicer. The skies cleared up a little bit and we had patches of sun come through to bring out the detail on the Bison. One of the great things about the snow is it acts like a giant reflector, so any light coming down on the snow will bounce up into the Bison making every hair on that individual stand out.

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When working with groups it’s best to single out individuals or to find dynamic compositions between them all. For instance the one above the cow on the left is the subject but you can tell she’s in a herd with the other three. The space in between them all is what makes them appear as individual animals instead of one giant clump. Giant clumps without definition just don’t work. If our eyes can’t latch on to anything in the image than our minds just skip right over it. We want anyone that looks at an image to be grabbed by it so that they can become inspired and continue to look. Group shots are the hardest to achieve because there are so many critters to work with.

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Images captured with Nikon D3, 600mm f4, TC-17eII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Ah Good and Steamy

A couple days ago we had a little adventure at Fountain Paint Pots. As already blogged the scenery was yet again magnificent at the geyser basin. On the opposite side of the basin as we headed up the road towards the Madison, we stopped to look back at the Bison that were in the steam vents munching and staying warm. The light was on the backside of the big guys meaning that the only shot would be of them back lit. This was a good thing because Bison silhouettes are actually kinda cool. Then of course many large game in back lit can be really cool. The main group was in the middle and over the course of an hour they slowly spread out as they were making their way across the hill munching.

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As it appears i spent a bit of time working with solo Bison. One here, one there, whenever there was a lone Bison working on a batch of grass. The look of a Big Bull trudging through the steam has always been a shot that i wanted. It’s just that powerful feel of the Bison’s silhouette and the brightness of the steam that i think is cool. I mean they can do that without sunglasses, one look at the snow and i get a headache. It’s just not fair.

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On the other side of the road where everything was front lit, one lone Bison walked across the road to be in another thermal and munch. A good looking guy not a big boy but still good size. Behind him was a lot of junk, fallen trees, shrubs, bison biscuits, the usual stuff that isn’t really great to incorporate. Well any direction that you went that would be the background, so instead of trying to get a clean background by moving it proved better to wait for a big puff of steam to go behind the Bison. Nothing tricky just gotta be patient. Still want that one shot but this was definitely a great shoot.

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Images captured with Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 600mm f4, TC-20e III, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

The Frozen Bison

Early morning shooting is always fun. The temperature is low and the critters move slowly. The Elk and Bison stay hunkered down during the night to stay warm. In the early morning they are usually covered in ice and snow making them look really cool. Their brown and tan pelts stand out well when covered in snow. Their faces especially look good all frosty.

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The spot where we stopped a number of Bison and Elk scattered across the rivers edge. This was just before Madison Junction where the first rest stop is. They also have Hot Apple Cider. As the day went on the temperatures rose and eventually they all started moving around. This wasn’t a problem even moving around there are shots to be made. With the 600mm f4 secure in the wimberly head on the tripod, it’s easy to swing around from left to right going from one subject to another.

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Images captured with Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 600mm f4 on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

Day 1 in Yellowstone

This is week is another of the great adventures in the heart of the countries largest and personally my favorite national park, Yellowstone. These events are always fun, spending a whole week in Yellowstone, traveling in snow coaches to places unable to get to in winter by car. It didn’t take long to see our first critter of the trip, the big boys, the Bison. This guy was walking down the road, doing the usual Bison thing. The Bison use the roadways in winter to traverse the park, the roads are packed and are easier to move on then breaking a path through the snow. Bison don’t hibernate nor migrate out, so they spend their time eating calories in grasses buried underneath the snow. The less they spend the less they need to eat. Basic survival in this sense makes them use the roadways. This particular one along with his buddy, walked down the road and eventually moved off into the snow towards a group out towards the Madison River. It was a nice morning, nice light popping through the clouds making for some nice shots.

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The afternoon wasn’t so nice… After we left the fountain paint pots we ran into a group of Bison not far away munching away. We pulled over, watching them, and not long afterward a storm cell came through providing a fresh blanket of snow. It was difficult to shoot through, and eventually had to go to manual to get a sharp image. Not a bad little session but a wet one.

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Images captured with Nikon D3, AF-S Nikkor 200-400 Vr, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

On the Horizon

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No butts about it, its the end. That’s right  Base Camp Black Hills is over and that means that summer is flying by already. I knew it would be but i never can get used to it happening. This was one great week. Dad and I met some real nice people, burnt some great pixels and even managed to add a couple new species to our files. Doesn’t get much better than that it.  I look forward to our next trip and the fun that ensues.

Old friends in a new town

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Another day and another 5 am wake up call. I truly can’t complain because Dad does most of the driving and i really just sleep in the car. We headed to Mt. Rushmore one of those places you just have to go to at some point. For me it was my fifth or sixth time there. The other reason, the more important one, is that the Mountain Goats hang out on the rocks and forest area around the monument and we were hopeful that they would show up for us to photograph. They didn’t, kinda sucks, but on to more fun. In this case, Breakfast! Can’t complain with a warm meal in the morning. After a good meal is of course the best part going to a Prairie Dog town. These guys are a joy to photograph mostly because they have so many gestures to try and capture. You can’t help to smile while shooting them, potentially gonna go deaf from the alarm calls they make, but smiling.

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We continued down the road from the Prairie Dog Town and searched for the Big Boy Bison males that can be found in the grasslands of the area. We found them, wasn’t too hard they stick out. They sky unfortunately kinda sucked. The light was great a soft overcast kinda light but the clouds could have been better. Of course if the clouds were better than most loikely the light would have sucked making for another issue, so for the seneraio at the end of the lens barrel it was a afternoon. An interesting going from photographing critters that are 8lbs to critters that are 800lbs. Too much fun, unfortunately all good things most come to an end thus tomorrow is the last day of Base Camp and i can’t wait to see what’s gonna happen!

Images captures with D2Hs, 600f4, TC-14E, 70-300AF-S VR(Bison)on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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