Finding Wildlife

Wildlife Photography

Many of you know I love Rocky Mountain National Park, and I love photographing wildlife.  Here are a few important tips that help with wildlife photography:

  • Know where to find the wildlife
  • Know when to find the wildlife
  • Choose times where the light is better
  • Bring the right photographic gear

Whenever you travel to some new place, it helps to ask locals where the best spots are for photographing wildlife. Sometimes you have to look carefully.

For example, can you find the moose hiding behind these trees?  Look carefully.  It is there.


Ok, I was just kidding.  Maybe that’s a bit obvious. 😉 Even so, finding wildlife is a matter of watching carefully. Sometimes the wildlife might actually be right there in front of you and you might not see it unless you stop and just watch and look carefully, looking for any movement. The example above is totally obvious but sometimes it is not so obvious.

In this example below, I’d swear the elk was trying to hide behind a tree. That’s not REALLY what he was doing, but it looks that way. I thought the photo was funny because it looks like a hide-and-seek photo of an elk.  It is really just an elk rubbing his antlers against a tree. Still, it is possible to even miss wildlife standing behind a single tree at times!


The key is to learn where you are most likely to find wildlife, and then go to those places, and watch. Be persistent. You might have to check those places several times before you find wildlife there. Just because big horn sheep were not there an hour ago, does not mean they won’t be there later on.

big horn sheep


In this photo of a marmot, below. The marmot was in a place where I often have seen marmots in the past.  It was a rocky area with all sorts of little openings and holes where the marmots can seek shelter quickly. I knew if I went to that specific spot, and waited, I would eventually see the marmot pop up, and sure enough, it did!


Timing is also important, both in terms of the time of day and time of year. Wildlife will be in different places at different times of the day in the Summer vs. the Fall. You might find more success finding some wildlife in the cool early morning hours. As it gets sunnier, they may be more in the shade. On a bright sunny day, it is REALLY easy to miss a dark moose standing in the shady edge of a forest.

Also, make sure you take time to learn how the time of year affects the presence of wildlife. In the Summer, I am likely to see more elk up in the higher altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park, giving me wonderful opportunities to photograph them against a backdrop of higher mountain scenic vistas.


In the Fall, during “the rut” (mating season), you’ll find herds of elk have moved down to lower altitudes into the meadow valleys, giving you great photo opportunities.  They are different photo opportunities because you will not be having as many shots up on the side of a mountain but still it is a great time to photograph them.

elk rut

You’ll also find wildlife around water. Just exercise caution when an adult moose is with its young (calf).  Keep a safe distance. They can be very protective of their young.




Another way to look for wildlife within a National Park is to use other people’s eyes to help you. When driving down a road, don’t just look for wildlife. Look for cars stopped along the side of a road. That can be an indicator that they have found wildlife!  You don’t necessarily have to be an expert in spotting wildlife.


In some areas, it is commonplace to encounter wildlife strolling into nearby towns and lodging areas. You could spend your day hunting for elk, only to find the elk standing there when you get back to your cabin!


Oh and just a note about timing and safety. Sometimes you might be up in the mountains looking for wildlife and the weather can change quickly. Be careful about that. It is unwise to put yourself in a situation where you get trapped in a sudden thunderstorm in the mountains. People have been killed by making poor choices about their hikes into the mountains with storms approaching.


Finally, one other aspect of wildlife photography is the light. Part of good wildlife photography is choosing to photograph during the times of day when the lighting is best.  For example, in this shot below, it was taken shortly after sunrise. But that meant I had to get up very early, and drive in darkness for 45 minutes to reach my location just after the sun had risen to get this nice early morning lighting in the higher altitudes of the mountains.  Early mornings and late evenings often provide beautiful lighting for wildlife photography.

It really helps to bring the right photographic gear. I recommend a camera that goes to a relatively high ISO that does well up to 12800 or more. You shouldn’t ever shoot at an ISO that is higher than is needed for a particular shot, but having the ability to use high ISO values allows you to shoot in lower light circumstances which are a definite possibility with wildlife photography.  Otherwise, you might encounter a great wildlife photo opportunity but you just can’t get the shot because there just isn’t enough light.

Also, use a lens that goes to a higher focal length like 300mm or more for a full frame sensor camera, or 200mm or more for a camera with an APS-C or other smaller sensor format. 400mm or 500mm is even better. The longer focal lengths will safely bring you closer to the wildlife.

Of course there is a lot more to wildlife photography than just what I have mentioned here.  You need to manage your exposure settings. The aperture affects depth of field which is an important consideration in nature photography. The shutter affects the freezing of motion, which is also quite important. The freezing of motion is more than just a consideration about capturing images of running wildlife. It is even more so important to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze any vibrations that could blur the shot when holding the camera.  Also, if your lens/camera has any form of image stabilization / vibration reduction, make sure you use it when hand-holding your camera (but not on a tripod)!

If you need help, preparing yourself to go on some great vacation this Summer, remember I offer private instruction on most any topic in photography.  I currently am teaching numerous people in my private teaching program.

I’m licensed to lead photography workshops in Rocky Mountain National Park in the Summer and Fall. We have a blast on these trips. It is truly an adventure!  We’re totally sold out for both Summer and Fall for 2017, but if you’d like to be added to a waiting list in case there is a cancellation, let me know! Also, if you are thinking about joining us in 2018, let me know now.  I’ll give you the first chance at registering.


Happy Wildlife Picture Taking!

Kevin Gourley

P.S. I leave you with one more parting shot of moose. (I just love moose. You might even call it an obsession. I know, I am a little weird about that.)

Kevin's book "30 Practical Tips for Better Photographs" is available in print and on Kindle devices!

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