The end of August brings two emotions for me. The first is a little disappointment knowing that summer is rapidly winding down. When the snow is flying I'm a planner, making long lists of what I want to do in the warm, green months ahead. When I review the list this time of year it's always far from complete. The good news is two of my favorite months are ahead.
I have two primary activities over the next eight weeks. The elk rut and fall landscapes. This month let's focus on elk photography. Here's what's ahead. Mid-August elk remain high in their summer range. Locally that means at or above timberline. Herds remain mostly separated. Bulls are grouped together, as are cows, yearlings and calves. This changes quickly. Early snow can push elk off their summer range temporarily. However, the primary driver of environmental and social change is shortening days. Bulls will begin wandering alone. Nursery herds soon become harem herds. Last year I found bulls together still donning full velvet in mid August. Two weeks later over Labor Day some of the same bulls were alone, velvet freshly removed and bugling in Horseshoe Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the top spots for wildlife watchers and photographers wanting to witness this fall classic. I've met photographers from all over the country who travel here, in our backyard, to shoot this spectacle. The most popular locations are Horseshoe Park, Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park. I do about half my work from roadside locations, the rest on foot across the trail systems.
I've been going to the park for over 20 years to watch the rut and for the most part it plays out pretty consistently. However to capture the event as a photographer my results are directly proportional to my preparation. So this month I begin driving the road systems. I get reacquainted with parking locations and changes year to year. I talk with rangers to understand their crowd management plans. The times of day park areas are closed to hiking and any yet un-posted seasonal parking closures. I also hit the trails. Prime time is dawn and dusk which means I'll often be traveling to or from locations in the dark.
I also completely prepare my equipment before I leave the house or camp. When I arrive all I have to do is grab three items and go. I carry two cameras. One body with a 500mm lens. I mount this one to a tripod and carry it over my shoulder. The second camera is paired with a 100-400mm. I carry this one in a fanny pack. In my pack I also have extra batteries, memory cards, a 1.4 teleconverter, a shutter release, a lens cleaning kit and a small absorbent cloth.
The daily routine is pretty predictable. Early morning elk are found in open areas. Cows and calves graze toward forest edges. Bulls are busy keeping their herds intact and facing off with challengers. For the most part this is a vocal feud, but every now and then, horns are locked and dust flies. These are great moments. There are a couple of hours of activity before the elk find their way into dark timber to bed for the day. The reverse process plays out in the afternoon with elk back in the open toward dusk.
I pick a spot with the sun directly or quartering behind me. I sit, listen and watch. I watch the herds general direction of travel and I look for repeating behavior with bulls. Bulls will get into a pattern of peeling off the herds, charging into the open, bugling, scraping and then wandering back. I'll adjust my position only to get into a facing position. Running from spot to spot on a trail or roadside seldom works. If anything the commotion pushes the animals. My number one rule is never do anything where the animal reacts to me.
My exposure choices are pretty consistent. I usually start with ISO 400, moving up or down with light. For aperture I select f/5.6-6.3. If I'm using a teleconverter I use f/8. I adjust my shutter speed to compensate for the activity in front of me. For a walking animal you can freeze action at 1/60 to 1/125 of a second. A running subject I like to be at 1/500 of a second or faster.
Sitting and waiting allows me to plan my composition. I shoot from a sitting position and try to capture the natural moments that tell a story. Your point of view or shooting angle is also important. Try to avoid shooting down. When picking a location try to get eye level or slightly below the activity if possible. Also pay attention to the background. There is nothing more disappointing than having captured that killer shot, only to find some distracting element you missed. For portrait shots fill the frame and pay attention to not clip antlers or part of the body. Shoot both horizontal and vertical shots. Avoid centering the subject giving room for the direction of travel or the direction it’s facing.
Most of all, enjoy this annual event. It's a great family activity. With a little planning and preparation this experience can be even more enjoyable.
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