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Wildlife Photography – What Does It Take to Get the Shot?

We asked a world-renowned wildlife photographer, Thomas D. Mangelsen, for tips on hunting with a camera to get iconic shots.

About a mile past the “entering Grand Teton National Park” sign in Wyoming, there’s a private gravel road that heads toward the Teton mountain ranges. The road leads to a wooden cabin settled alongside a stream where 70-year-old Tom Mangelsen, one of the most iconic wildlife photographers, lives. Mangelsen’s house is filled with a bookshelf that takes up an entire wall and a wolf-sized yellow Labrador retriever named Wilson. The shelf is filled with book titles like the Odyssey and another about Claude Monet and other accomplished artists.

So just what does it take to become a world-renowned wildlife photographer? Well, it doesn’t hurt to have won the world goose-calling championship twice. A Nebraska native, Mangelsen grew up in Grand Island learning how to hunt various fowl with his dad. His years spent hunting helped him acquire the patience it takes to capture an iconic moment in the wild, even if it takes 42 days to do it.

“I quit hunting and bought a camera; I’ve been hunting with a camera ever since,” says Mangelsen.

In 1999, Mangelsen spent 42 days on the hunt with his camera after finding out about a den of mountain lions in Jackson Hole. He needed to get a shot of the mother, but she didn’t leave the den until day 42. That was the shot he needed for the cover of his book written by Cara Blessley Lowe, Spirit of the Rockies, published in 2000. He published the first photographic documentary of wild, free mountain lions.

“Forty-two days and all I wanted was one shot,” says Mangelsen.

He captured possibly his most iconic photo, “Catch of the Day”, in 1988 after spending seven days camping in a Kmart-produced tent in Alaska. With a cable release in hand, he stared at the water and hit the cable release button every time a fish jumped out of the water near a bear. He didn’t know it at the time, but his dedication had paid off. About a month later, he developed the film, and learned he had captured an incredible moment. The image produced was a head and shoulder shot of an Alaskan brown bear with its mouth wide open as a sockeye salmon jumped out of the water at Brooks Falls and into its mouth. The picture was caught moments before the bear snapped down on the salmon, leaving about an inch between the fish and the bear’s jaw. He said the keys to his success were patience, pre-visualization and a little bit of luck.

“I’ve been lucky; I’ve been careful; I’ve been fortunate,” says Mangelsen on his time spent in close proximity with wild animals. During the 10 years he spent photographing polar bears, he had one follow his tracks while he was searching for goose nests. He’s had some close calls, but he always takes the necessary precautions to protect both himself and the animals.

“I always try to err on the side of being cautious,” says Mangelsen. When referring to the images in his latest book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which was published in August of 2015, he said he would remain in his car, just off the road, or he’d be across the river where both he and the bear were in a safe place. He never risked his own life or the bear’s life.

The work he’s done with Grizzly 399, a grizzly who was tagged by biologists with the number “399,” has turned her into quite the celebrity. She has her own Facebook page. Through his photography, Mangelsen has helped bring awareness to grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, places she explores during the year.

“That’s my goal; to bring more awareness,” says Mangelsen.

The power of photography inspired Mangelsen to use his art to impact the world. He’s used his photos to make statements. The powerful work of earlier photographers like Henry Jackson and Edward Curtis motivated Mangelsen to use his photographs to make a change.

His impact on conservation issues has led to him receiving countless awards over the years. Nature’s Best Photography named him the 2011 Conservation Photographer of the Year and his work is permanently placed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He was also named one of the 40 “Most Influential Nature Photographers” by Outdoor Photography.“

His accomplished work has taken him around the world. The Serengeti in Tanzania is one of his favorite places to photograph. With its plethora of animals and vast plains, it has made for some enchanting shots. Though he’s visited many places around the world, he’d still like to photograph tigers in India, pandas in China and many more wildlife of the world.

“My bucket list’s too long,” says Mangelsen.

To those looking to follow in Magelsen’s footsteps, he offers some simple advice,

“Surround yourself with people that inspire you and then go for it,” he says.

Learn more at

Author Carly Everett (left) and photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen (right)
Author Carly Everett (left) and photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen (right)Carly Everett