Species that call Yellowstone home: 300 birds, 16 fish, 67 different mammals—including 7 hooved ungulates and 2 bears. And that’s just counting the most photogenic critters. Your chances of seeing some of them: excellent, especially if you follow this pro guide to finding and photographing the Yellowstone region’s most beloved wildlife.
›› Look for bison cows (you can tell them from the bulls by their thinner horns and narrower heads) grazing with the year’s calves in open grasslands starting in late April. Cows and calves form large herds, but mature bulls usually stick to themselves except in the fall mating season.
Shot Location: Moran Junction, Grand Teton National Park
Spotting tip: Take US 26 west 2 miles past the park boundary to its intersection with US 191 along the Snake River.
Pro tip: Try shooting from different angles. Straight-on shots with eye contact are great, but profiles like this one can add a fresh perspective.
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/640 second, ISO 400
Find Your Prey: To up your chances of spotting animals, be active when they are: dawn and dusk. Stop at overlooks for breaks and wait quietly for something to wander into view. Keep your binoculars or camera at the ready, as digging in your pack can scare an animal away. Serious about wildlife-watching? Buy or rent a spotting scope for extra-long-distance views of species like wolves and bears.
›› Moose, the largest deer species, can reach more than 6 feet at the shoulder. Look for them in marshy areas (Grand Teton is a better bet than Yellowstone).
Shot location: Gros Ventre River junction, Grand Teton National Park
Spotting tip: The park road crosses the Gros Ventre just north of the South Entrance.
Pro tip: Anticipate where an animal will go and get in position rather than chasing it. I noticed where this moose was heading, then ran up to the bridge over the river and waited for it to calmly cross right in front of me.
Shot details: 70-200mm lens at 70mm, f/11, 1/160 second, ISO 800
›› The Yellowstone region’s grizzly bears roam meadows, forests, and open valleys in search of berries, roots, rodents, and fish in summer and early fall before denning up to hibernate the long winter away.
Shot location: Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park
Spotting tip: Park at the Jackson Lake Dam and scan the nearby meadows.
Active: May to late October
Pro tip: Be patient and you might be rewarded with some especially interesting animal behavior, like when this grizzly I’d been watching stood up and “waved.”
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/60 second, ISO 1000
Great Horned Owl
›› This chick hasn’t yet developed the great horned owl’s most recognizable feature: two feathery tufts (its “horns”) on each side of its head. By its first fall of life, the baby owl will be ready to fly off on its own in search of prey such as mice, rabbits, and even porcupines.
Shot location: Mammoth Hot Springs
Spotting tip: Scan the trees near the temporary visitor center.
Active: April through September (chicks); year-round for adults
Pro tip: Frame subjects carefully to draw the eye to the heart of the photo. Here, an arc of blurred leaves in the foreground focuses attention on the owl.
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/500 second, ISO 400
›› Pronghorn (sometimes called antelope) are the fastest North American land animals and can sustain speeds of 50 mph for long distances.
Shot location: Gros Ventre Campground, Grand Teton
Spotting tip: Turn right at Gros Ventre Junction and head east to the campground.
Pro tip: The best wildlife shots tell a story of the animal in its native habitat. Don’t always go for the close-up. Instead, place wildlife in a visually interesting environment, like this colorful field.
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/8, 1/160 second, ISO 1000
Telephoto Lens Tips: Invest in a good tripod. Telephoto lenses are very heavy and difficult to hold up without shaking, so choose a tripod that will support your camera with its largest lens. No tripod (or time to set one up)? In a pinch, set your camera on a beanbag or folded sweatshirt on your rolled-down car window or trunk. Zoom telephoto lenses are handy with elusive animals because they let you shoot both wide and tight shots quickly without having to switch.
›› At birth, black bear cubs are hairless, blind, and weigh less than a pound. But by the time they exit the winter den in spring, the cubs are ready to follow their mothers into the park’s forests. Mothers and cubs stay together for two years.
pro tip Bear sightings in Yellowstone can get hectic quickly as excited visitors gather. It’s very important to keep the bears from feeling stressed, so always listen to rangers and keep your distance (at least 100 yards). It’s the safest approach, and a relaxed bear will also lead to the best images.
Shot Location: Tower-Roosevelt
Spotting tip: Drive the northeast entrance road 18 miles east from Mammoth.
Active: April to late October
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/250 second, ISO 800
›› Yellowstone’s coyotes are often mistaken for wolves. Tell the difference: Coyotes are smaller (about 30 pounds vs. a wolf’s 100-plus pounds) and have pointed, not rounded, ears.
Shot location: Slough Creek
Spotting tip: Hike the Slough Creek Trail in the Lamar Valley.
Pro tip: A telephoto lens is essential to photographing wildlife: It allows you to get close-up photos without disturbing the animals (or putting yourself at risk). Start with at least a 200mm lens and go up from there.
Shot details: 500mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, f/5.6, 1/3200 second, ISO 400
›› Male bighorn sheep use their horns—which can weigh up to 40 pounds and account for more than 10 percent of their total body weight—to battle other rams for mating rights with bighorn ewes.
Shot location: Lamar Valley
Spotting tip: Drive the northeast entrance road (open all year) past Tower and park in traffic pullouts.
Active: Year-round; November for a chance to see the mating season (also called rut)
Pro tip: When shooting in the winter, bright white snow will “trick” your camera into underexposing the image. To compensate, shoot in manual mode and overexpose the image slightly. Experiment with a few exposures to nail down the best setting. Got a point-and-shoot? Try the camera’s snow mode.
Shot details: 500mm lens+ 1.4x teleconverter, f/8, 1/640 second, ISO 250