While the cow elk are busy raising their young, the bulls stick together in small bachelor herds. Thanks to the nutritious grazing opportunities summer provides, their antlers, covered in velvet, begin regrowing up to an inch per day.
The past few days have brought the first taste of fall to the Tetons. The occasional bull elk can now be heard bugling, and sporadic stands of aspens have already transformed into a blazing yellow and orange. I photographed this bull elk with clients the other day during one of my Grand Teton photography tours.
We didn't just luckily stumble across this bull elk standing against the skyline at sunrise. As I have talked about before, the best images are the result of a plan and much thought. We set up on this elk herd in the dark while they were still a long ways off, but I knew, based off of typical elk behavior, that the herd would soon leave the open sagebrush flats and head into woods for cover. They do this every morning around sunrise. So, we positioned ourselves to the west of the elk herd and between their current location and the woods, so that they would pass by us as the rising sun illuminated the clouds in the background. Of course, there were variables out of our control, such as the exact timing the elk would move and the precise path they would take.
Sure enough, the herd began moving towards the timber as the sun broke subtly through the clouds. We had our eye on the bull. As he followed behind cows he began walking this small ridge. One last minute thought played the final role in the making of our image. I needed his whole body to be isolated against the sky, and at first it was only his head and antlers. The mountains were behind the rest of his body. We quickly scrambled down into a ravine in front of us and fell on our knees. Just in time for the bull to pause and turn his head.
Now it is time to incorporate some of the insights we discussed in the previous posts into our own photography.
As an example, here is how I did it:
Many of the paintings I was drawn to featured various wildlife in a dramatic setting that told the story of where they live and evoked a mood. I decided to try a new approach in my photography. In this proactive, rather than reactive, mindset I would envision a scene I wanted beforehand and then go after it. I may not have control over all the elements as a painter, but I could use research and knowledge to reduce as many variables as possible and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image.
It was September and the peak of the elk rut, so I chose to focus on bull elk with their harems. Creating an image of elk on an dramatic landscape would require some knowledge of animal behavior and environmental factors. Fog always helps to add mood to an image, so water was an important element of the scene. With the basic knowledge that the elk use fairly consistent places to cross the river every morning in order to enter the tree line for cover during the day, and that cold autumn mornings often result in fog covering the river bottom, I was able to significantly increase my chances of getting the shot I envisioned.
Next, I scouted out the scene for several mornings in a row, and even got a few nice images of elk crossing. I still didn’t have the image I envisioned, but the insight I gained from being out in field was invaluable and increased the probability of my vision becoming a reality even more.
A few days later I set out, in the dark and through the woods, to my new location on the river. The plan was to photograph a bull with his harem crossing towards me. Of course, there were still several variables that would need to come together. For example, there would need to be enough light when they crossed, the elk would need to cross at the same time rather than sporadically, and I would need to remain undetected and hidden in the brush on the other side lest the elk become nervous and cross elsewhere. This morning it all came together.
I still wanted one more. All my time photographing these elk in the river was under the mighty shadow of Mount Moran, but none of my images up to this point conveyed that. I wanted a scene that provided the viewer with a perspective of the dramatic landscape in which these creatures live.
This would be a much different and more difficult shot than the previous elk crossings. For starters, I would need to shoot with a wider focal length in order to include the mountain in the scene. I also would need the extremely wary and intelligent elk to cross very close to me so that they would stand out against the rest of the scene. On the tenth morning of sitting in a hunting blind I could hear the sound of hooves behind me. In the moments that followed over one hundred elk crossed in front me.
My aim in sharing this is to inspire you to be intentional with your photography. I want to see more photographers thinking creatively about their work. I would encourage you that it is better get a couple shots that truly stand out over the span of a month, than a thousand that resemble everyone else’s work.
You have your own unique perspective and passions. Let that come to bear on your photography.