Planning a Wildlife Photography Trip to the Greater Yellowstone Area

Posted on May 22, 2015 by David Stork

Not everyone has the opportunity to travel strictly for the purpose of taking photographs.  However, if you ever get the chance, I would strongly suggest a trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  I have been lucky enough to make this trip three times in the last year. Twice in early-May and once in mid-September.  The reason I chose these time periods are; 1. May and September are not peak tourist times and, 2. They are excellent months for viewing wildlife and fabulous scenery.

The Parks

As the snow begins to melt in April and May, the parks begin to come alive with wildlife.  Some animals are coming out of hibernation and others are out looking for good sources of food in lower elevations, which often include the meadows and grassy areas near roadsides.  This can be both good and bad.  On the good side, the chances of seeing a wild animal such as a bear, moose, bison or elk are very high.  However, on the bad side, these animals can be extremely dangerous, especially if you get between them and their offspring. Secondly, these animals often find themselves in the middle of the road and every year many die or have to be put down due to being hit by vehicles.  Thus it’s important to be aware at all times.  Drive slowly, stay in your car when you can, don’t feed them and most of all, respect them in their environment and habitat.  Remember, they’re “Wild” animals, not domesticated pets.  Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks require you to be at least 100 yards back from bear and wolves and 25 yards away from moose, elk, bison and other large mammals.  With today’s zoom and telephoto camera lens capabilities, this rule should not be restrictive in the least.

In September, the parks become vibrant with autumn color.  The golden leaves of the aspen trees are a sight to be seen during their peak.  While the grizzlies make themselves a little scarcer at this time, you still may have a chance at seeing black bears feeding on berries or a bull moose munching on the willows.  The best time to see elk is at dusk or dawn while they are down from the hills grazing in the meadows.  However, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see any of these larger mammals, as there are many smaller species to be seen including river otters, marten, beavers, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorns and marmots to name a few.  Birding is also popular in the parks.  Over 300 species have been identified as migrating through or living in the parks. Your chances of seeing pelicans, heron, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, eagles and osprey are good, not to mention a huge variety of songbirds.  And if the wildlife is slow, you can’t go wrong with the gorgeous landscape.  Over 1300 species of flowering plant have been documented and the majority of both parks are forested with pine, fir, cottonwood, aspen and willow.  

While I chose the spring and fall seasons to visit the Greater Yellowstone Area, summer and winter also provide excellent and unique photo opportunities. However, be aware, portions of the parks are closed in the winter due to the heavy snow coverage.

Grand Teton National Park’s biggest attraction is the Teton majestic mountain range that the park is named after. The jagged mountain peaks tower 5000-7000 feet above the valley floor, which make for some of the most spectacular photographs.  Ansel Adams famously photographed these peaks high above the Snake River in 1942.

Yellowstone National Park is most famous for its thermal features. Much of Yellowstone sits within a volcanic caldera.  Geysers, hot springs, mudpots and steam vents are prevalent.  In fact, Yellowstone has approximately half of the world’s geysers with Old Faithful being the most recognized.  Many of them erupt or vent steam on a daily basis.  These too can make some interesting photos.  Needless to say, both parks offer a plethora of wildlife and landscape photographic opportunities.

Planning Information

Now that you know what the parks have to offer, you may ask how much does it cost and where do I stay.  First the entrance fee to the parks is $25 for a 7-day pass (good for both parks) or an annual pass is $50.  Once inside, there are numerous lodges, rental cabins and campsites throughout with many offering all the conveniences of home.  I actually stayed at a Guest Ranch during my three stays.  They offered activities, meals and other amenities not available at a standard hotel or lodge.  And dependent on the time of year, you may be able to get off-season rates.  For a complete list of lodging information, contact Grand Teton National Park visitor information at 307-739-3300 or visit www.nps.gov/grte.  For Yellowstone visitor information call 308-344-7381 or visit www.nps.gov/yell.

What to Bring

Weather can be unpredictable in the parks any time of the year.  During my visits, I was often greeted with snow and brisk morning temperatures, so come prepared.  Don’t forget, wildlife photography is all about patience.  You may be waiting for a while to get the perfect shot.  Here is a list of a few things I brought along on my trips…just in case! 

  1. Winter jacket, hat and gloves
  2. Rain gear
  3. Waterproof hiking boots
  4. Snow chains for tires
  5. First aid and emergency kit
  6. Bear spray
  7. Binoculars
  8. Sunscreen and Sunglasses
  9. Insect repellent
  10. Flashlight
  11. Water – stay hydrated!
  12. Trail mix

Camera Equipment to Bring

  • Tripod
  • DSLR camera, preferably one that shoots high frames per second.
  • UV, polarizing and neutral density filters
  • Telephoto and zoom lenses for wildlife
  • Wide angle and macro for landscapes and close ups
  • Battery charger with multiple batteries.  If cold, keep batteries in an inner coat pocket close to your body to keep them warm.
  • Extra compact flash or SD cards
  • Shutter release cable
  • High-quality camera backpack
  • Rain gear for camera


Tips for Photographing Wildlife

  • Know your gear, its capabilities and settings or you may miss the shot.
  • Know your subject. Spend time observing your subject so you understand their behaviors and can predict when and what they might do. Focus on their eyes. When possible, wait until the animal is in the clear and looks your direction.
  • Use a tripod when possible to help eliminate camera movement.
  • Telephoto and zoom lenses with focal lengths of 200-600mm are preferable by most wildlife photographers to help bring the subject closer to you without scaring the wildlife.  If your subject isn’t skittish, then shoot with a wide lens and include more of the animal’s environment in the shot.
  • Choose suitable shutter speeds of at least 1/125th of a second to stop motion.  If necessary increase your ISO to get faster shutter speeds.
  • Use an aperture that will give you a good depth of field to capture the details of your subject.  However, if the surroundings are distracting, choose a wider aperture to keep the attention on your subject.  A wider aperture can also be better for capturing low light motion.
  • Use image stabilization whenever possible to help eliminate camera motion.
  • Pay attention to the light.  Wildlife photography is often best during the golden hours of dawn and dusk.  Thus low-light levels are common.  Mid day lighting can be harsh and very contrasty.  Use a UV or polarizing filter if shooting in very sunny or snowy conditions, so your photos won’t be overexposed.  Remember, weather can be your friend.  Cloudy, overcast and even rainy days will filter the light and will yield some awesome photos.
  • Most of all be patient.  It may take hours to get that perfect “money” shot.  I recently spent six hours waiting for a grizzly to show her face, but it was worth it!  After all, how often do you get to see a grizzly bear in the wild?

What’s in my bag?

LowePro Vertex AW Backpack
Canon 7D Mark II Body
Canon EF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lens
Canon EF 70-200mm F2.8L IS II USM lens
Canon EF-S 60mm F2.8 USM macro lens
Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD lens
Manfrotto 190XPROL with 496RC2 ball head
Manfrotto 055XPROB with 498RC2 ball head
Manfrotto 393 Gimbal head
Coken Neutral Density Filters
B+W and Tiffen Polarizing and UV Filters
Shutter Release Cable
SanDisk Ultra 16Gb SD Cards
Black Rapid Camera strap
Bear Spray
Camera Rain Cover

If you would like more information regarding wildlife photography, equipment or Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, feel free to drop me an email at dave@everyphotostore.com and I will try to answer your questions.

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