National Parks,  Nature,  Travel,  Wildlife

Photographing Wildlife at Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is one of the premier destinations for nature and wildlife photographers. There is a large variety of wildlife in Yellowstone with much of the wildlife viewable from your car or the road. In this blog post, I will pass along the lessons I learning viewing and photographing wildlife in Yellowstone. This blog will cover the wildlife in Yellowstone, locations to spot wildlife, wildlife photography tips, and equipment to photograph wildlife.  
 
See the related blog posts at the bottom of this post for additional information on Yellowstone National Park.
 
Curious Grizzly Cubs

Wildlife at Yellowstone

Yellowstone is home to 67 species of mammals and over 300 species of birds.  Some of the most popular mammals in the park are bison, grizzly bears, black bears, elk, moose, coyote, wolves, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer.
 
The best advise I can give anyone is to be prepared.  It is useful to have a spotter or two (with binoculars) with you when you drive. I will list some of my favorite spots for spotting and photographing wildlife in Yellowstone below.  However, you may encounter animals anywhere in the park and around every bend in the road.  It is also important to drive within the speed limit within the park.  Animals frequently cross or walk along the road.
 
You will encounter all kinds of "wildlife jams" in Yellowstone – bear jams, bison jams, wolf jams, etc.  A “jam” is where a crowd of people gather at the edge the road to observe and photograph animals.  If you see a crowd (especially photographers with long lenses), stop and inquire.  We photographed bears, coyotes, wolves, sandhill cranes, and more in these jams.
 
Bull Elk

Favorite Spots for Wildlife in Yellowstone

Like I mentioned above, wildlife can be spotted throughout the park.  That said, here are a few of my personal favorite spots for photographing wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

  • Grizzly Bears. I've seen Grizzlies in all areas of Yellowstone.  Surprisingly, I've seen many of them right along the road.  One my favorite spots for grizzlies is to drive along the road to the East Gate just after Yellowstone Lake.  The grizzlies like to feed along the road in the late afternoon.  While I'm on the subject of bears, make sure you keep a can of bear spray on your person as you walk around the park.  It's better to be safe.
  • Big Horn Sheep. Big horn sheep can often be spotted on the cliffs on the road between Mammoth and Gardiner, MT.  This is a good afternoon shoot as the cliffs are mainly on the east side of the road.
  • Pronghorn Antelope. Pronghorn are located mainly in the plains in the northern part of the park.  Try Lamar Valley for pronghorns.
  • Wolves. Lamar and Hayden Valleys are good spots for wolves.  Get up early and head to Lamar for wolves.  You have to be patient and a bit lucky.
  • Coyotes. Coyotes are located throughout the park.  I've had really good luck in Hayden Valley for coyotes.
  • Elk. Elk are also found throughout the park.  My best luck has been in the Madison and Norris areas.
  • Bison. Bison are prevalent throughout the park.  Lamar Valley usually has really big herds of bison.  Watch out of bison traffic jams in Norris and Madison.  Remember, the bison have the right of way.
  • Yellow-bellied Marmot. Check the rocks at Sheepeater Cliff Picnic Area.

Yellowstone Yellow-bellied Marmot

Yellowstone Wildlife Photography Tips

  • Be ready!  Wildlife can often be seen as your driving throughout the park.  It is best to keep a camera and medium range telephoto lens close by as your driving around the park.  Check your camera setting before heading out so your ready to photograph the wildlife.
  • Be safe!  Park regulations require that you stay at least 25 yards away from most large animals and 100 yards away from bear and wolves. Also, make sure to carry bear spray if you are away from your car.
  • If you spot a carcass, stake it out.  Sooner or later, something will be along to claim the carcass.  We spotted a carcass with ravens on it while driving through Dunraven Pass.  Within an hour, a coyote showed up to claim the carcass and the next day a black bear was on the carcass.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the rangers and other photographers what wildlife they have seen and where they have seen it.  The rangers and most people are very helpful when asked nicely.

Coyote protecting a carcass

Equipment

I recommend at least a 500mm lens, preferably a prime lens such as a Canon 500mm f/4.  I've also used a Sigma 150 – 500mm lens with success.  A 1.4x teleconverter is also handy as some of the shots of the wildlife may be far off.  At a minimum, I would recommend a 300mm lens that retains autofocus with a 1.4x teleconverter.

A sturdy tripod and gimbal type tripod head is also necessary for sharp photographs of distant wildlife.  The animals will often be in out in the distance in the sagebrush.  A sturdy tripod will help to keep the lens steady for sharp shots.
 
I would also recommend a back up camera body with a medium range telephoto as a car lens when driving around the park.  The second body / lens combination will reduce the number of times you need to change lenses and ensure your ready to get the shot.
 
On my last trip to Yellowstone, I carried the Canon 5d, Mark iii with a Canon 500mm f/4 lens and a Canon 7d with a Canon 70-300 lens.

 

Visit my photo destinations page for more great photography locations

Related Blog Posts

Yellowstone Top Photos of Geothermal Features
Yellowstone – Top Wildlife Photos
Photographing Yellowstone – Landscapes

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