Summer seems to have escaped me once again. I had big plans for summertime photography this year, however upon reviewing my files, I have very little to show for them. Rocky Mountain National Park has been a driving disaster with this summer's paving project on Trail Ridge. Normally, I spend several weeks following elk through their summer range in the high alpine bowls. Unfortunately, not this year. The traffic, construction, and dust made it simply not worth the effort. I made an 1100 mile tour of Colorado in mid-July searching for fields of wildflowers. While I found plenty of color, I was a couple weeks early from finding the dramatic alpine scenes I wanted to photograph. Fortunately, all is not lost because a big wildlife event is about to begin. Preparation will be the key to a better chance at photographic success. Pre-visualizing a photograph and having a plan of how you want to make that image is key to getting great results. Sometimes everything comes together, sometimes it doesn't. It’s just part of the process. Having a plan to observe and photograph the event can yield some terrific results.
For me, August signals the beginning of the elk rut. Last year the first photograph I took of bugling and herding bulls was August 30th . The rut is triggered by shortening daylight, not weather or temperature. Right now elk remain high in the alpine country. Bulls are together in bachelor herds. The cows and calves are together in nursery herds. Very soon the bulls will start to separate from these bachelor groups and drift down into timbered landscape to begin scraping the velvet from their antlers. It’s pretty amazing how quickly this event happens. One day elk are high and separated, the next day they show up in Morraine or Horseshoe Park. If you are interested in photographing elk or the elk rut, now is the time to begin planning. RMNP is for the most part a shooter friendly location. Rangers manage the crowds tightly and there is good reason to do so. A testosterone fueled bull elk is unpredictable and looking for a fight. In wildlife photography we often want to get a hair closer, with these guys it’s just not worth it. Park rules don’t let us walk in meadows at dawn and dusk. Approaching wildlife isn’t permitted. My rule of thumb has always been to not do anything that causes a reaction from wildlife. I generally like to break up the locations I shoot to provide a little diversity in action, location and animals. For example, for a week I’ll shoot Morraine Park in the morning, Horseshoe Park in the evenings then mix it up. Sometimes if there is a particular bull I like I’ll just focus on him. Throughout the rut herd bulls win and lose possession of their harem. So if you keep visiting the park you’ll find things are never the same. We’re so fortunate to have this event and resource less than an hour from town.
Depth of field (DOF) is important in wildlife photography. Shallow DOF makes your subject pop from the background. I usually set my aperture at f/5.6 or 6.3 to start. To stop action you’ll also want to maximize shutter speeds. To freeze a walking elk you’ll need 1/250 of a second. Running and fighting scenes you may need 1/1000 of a second. In composing your scene try to avoid centering the subject and if there is motion give room in the frame to allow for the direction of travel. Now is a great time to go up and practice, so when the main event begins you can confidently make those images you've been thinking about.