To help you make the most of your time in the area, and ensure that you go home with good photos as well as good memories, we have put together some tips to help you permanently capture the beauty of Jackson Hole’s wildlife in your photos.
When it comes to wildlife viewing and photography, there are a few golden rules:
- Stay 100 yards away from all bears, and 25 yards away from all other wildlife. This isn’t just common sense, it is the law in national parks and on most public lands.
- Do not feed ANY wildlife. You’ve probably heard that a fed bear is a dead bear, but it is true for all wildlife. Once they’ve learned that humans are a food source, very bad things happen to them.
- Always be respectful of wildlife. You are a guest in their territory so ease gently into their environment. Don’t make loud noises, slam car doors, or honk to get little Johnny’s attention. Be aware of how wildlife reacts to you and don’t intrude on their space. If an animal is reacting to your presence, you are too close!
- Be especially careful and respectful when you are watching animals with newborn or young nearby. Mothers will defend their young against perceived threats and it is always wise to give them as much space as possible for their safety and comfort, and yours.
General Photography Tips
The light for photography is typically best in the two hours after sunrise and the hour or so before sunset. These are also the times when wildlife is most active. Photographers call the light at these times “golden light” and it truly is worthy of the name.
Strong midday sun, especially in summer, will give you harsh photos with washed out colors and ugly high-contrast shadows. Pro photographers are known to take naps mid-day so they can be ready for the golden light at the beginning and end of the day!
It is much better to photograph with the sun behind you. If the sun is behind the animal, you’ll typically get a dark silhouetted image with glare. If you have no choice, sometimes a silhouetted shot can be very dramatic. Try underexposing the shot a bit to to accentuate the halo effect around the animal.
In the excitement of seeing an animal, take a breath and look at the surroundings. If you’re not shooting with a big lens, those surroundings will necessarily be a part of your shot. Try to avoid telephone lines, cars, or that building in the background. Try to position yourself to take best advantage of the surroundings.
When focusing it is crucial to get the animal’s eye(s) in focus and that is where you should usually aim your camera.
Keeping your camera stable when photographing is hugely important. If you have a tripod, use it as much as possible. Most wildlife photographers also have beanbags that rest on the open window of their vehicles so they can have a stable camera platform without having to exit and set up a tripod.
If the animal you are photographing is walking or running, try to time your photographs to catch the animals at full extension with one leg forward and one leg trailing behind. You’d be surprised at how many otherwise great photos are rejected because of the positioning of the animals legs!
Your vehicle makes a great viewing/photography blind. Most wild animals are more used to vehicles than people. Get out on the side away from the animal (if it is safe to do so!), don’t slam the car doors, and enjoy. If you have a sunroof in your vehicle, it is a good way to get above brush and/or people between you and the animal you are viewing.
Speaking of cars, if you park along the road, the law is that your tires must be completely outside the white lines. Please dont go offroading, but do make sure you car is safely out of the way of distracted drivers who are probably just as excited about seeing wildlife as you are.
If you see a dozen or more people by the roadside you can be sure they see wildlife, if you see dozens or even hundreds, it is almost certainly one of our roadside grizzlies. A “bear jam” is something to experience. Be quiet, respectful of the animals space, and careful, but don’t miss the opportunity to be part of a bear jam.
Do NOT approach animals for a selfie. Serious photographers sit around for hours (truly!), and discuss the crazy stuff they’ve seen people do trying to get one. Don’t become one of our stories!
Seriously, you aren’t going to get a great close-up shot of any animal with your phone, so don’t even try. Get a nice “look what I saw” shot, taking care to capture the surrounding environment. If you want close-up photos you’ll need at least 200mm lens, which some higher end point-and-shoots do have. Professional photographers typically shoot with a 400 to 600mm lens with their camera mounted on a tripod, and have a 200mm hung around my neck.
Jackson Hole is blessed with a number of world-class wildlife photographers who display their work at galleries in the town of Jackson. If you have the time, it is worth visiting to see how top photographers capture and display their photos.
Finally, you’ll find that once you are out there taking pictures, you are not alone! Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the photographers you meet around Jackson Hole. Most of us love to share our craft with others and will be happy to answer your questions and give you tips.
Cameras range widely from the camera on your phone to the expensive DSLR’s that pros and serious amateurs use.
All cameras, even the ones on phones, operate by balancing three competing yet interrelated functions: aperture (how much light is allowed to reach the film/sensor), shutter speed (how much time the film/sensor is exposed to light), and ISO (how sensitive to light the film/sensor is.)
Aperture is especially important because it not only sets the amount of light let through the lens to reach the film or sensor, it also sets the amount of depth-of-field, that is, how much of the area in front and in back of the focus point is in focus. This is critical to getting crisp photos of larger animals.
If you have the knowledge, skill, and equipment to shoot with your camera set to “Aperture Priority” this is what you should do. Most wildlife photography is shot using Aperture priority. Start by setting your aperture to f9, and set your ISO high enough that you end up with a shutter speed fast enough to stop motion, at least of the animal’s body and head. This usually means a shutter speed between 1/100 to 1/500 of a second. For flying birds you might want to go with even faster shutter speeds of 1/1000 or more.
Again, if you have the knowledge, skill and equipment, you will want to set your focus mode to focus on a single point…the animal. A lot of point-and-shoot cameras are defaulted to multi-point focusing which is great for shooting landscapes, but not so great for wildlife photography.
This section is a bit technical, and for those who don’t understand it, there is good news. The quality of cameras, from iPhone cameras to professional cameras, is so high these days that good photos can be made with almost any gear. If you are not comfortable fiddling with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings, you can get great photos using the Automatic mode on your camera if you compose your shots carefully, photograph when the light is good, and hold your camera steady!
If there were only one area you could go to to photograph wildlife in Jackson Hole, it should be the area that centers on Jackson Lake Junction in Grand Teton National Park. Willow Flats, Oxbow Bend, Signal Mountain, Jackson Lake and Pilgrim Creek are all within minutes of the Junction. What makes this such a great wildlife watching area are the different types of habitat that come together in the area; forest (pine/fir and aspen), sagebrush, meadows and water (lake, river and steams). Biologists call this the “edge effect.” You can reliably see bears, elk, coyotes, swans, pelicans, osprey, bald eagles and more in this neighborhood. And the area is undeniably scenic as well. If you have limited time, this is where you should focus your efforts.
Moose-Wilson Road or Signal Mountain
The area around Jackson Lake Junction, and especially Pilgrim Creek Road.
Willow Flats, Inner Park Road at dawn or dusk
Of the large animals in Jackson Hole, wolves – along with cougars – are the most difficult to photograph. The best places to see them are along the Eastern edge of the valley floor from the Elk Refuge to Antelope Flats and up to Elk Ranch Flats. If you are determined to photograph wolves, head to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
Fairly common, you are likely to see them in the sage brush flats as you are driving around, especially in Antelope Flats and Elk Ranch Flats.
Foxes fluctuate a lot from year to year and can be hard to find. The good news is if you find one, you can photograph it for days, as they tend to stay close to their dens. If you are determined to photograph a fox, spend time around Antelope Flats and Coulter Lake Village.
Elk Ranch Flats, north end of Antelope Flats.
Schwabachers Landing, Sawmill Ponds (Moose Wilson Road)
Moose-Wilson Road, Kelly Road. In the early spring there are often a lot of moose in Antelope Flats north of Kelly.
Surprisingly difficult to find, but usually you can find them at the north end of Spring Gulch Road, or the north end of Moose-Wilson Road. Often they can be seen on the hills above Jackson. You will see more mule deer than whitetail.
Elk Ranch Flats, Antelope Flats
Miller’s Butte, Gros Ventre Road.
South end of Snake River Canyon on the cliffs near the town of Alpine.
Look for their burrows along the edges of Elk Ranch Flats and Antelope Flats
The rarest large mammal resident in the area, they are high altitude animals no often seen. Occasionally seen on trails leading into the Tetons, especially on the West side of Jackson Lake. If you see one you have been extraordinarily lucky!
Pilgrim Creek Road, around the Museum of Wildlife Art just north of the town of Jackson
Mountain Lions (Cougar) are hard to find. Usually only seen when they’ve taken down prey near a road. Occasionally seen prowling along the Gros Ventre River.
Ponds just north of visitor center in Jackson.
Swans: The ponds just north of the visitor center at the edge of Jackson
Pelicans: Oxbow Bend
Great Blue Herons: Oxbow Bend
Owls: North end of Moose-Wilson Road, Spring Gulch Road
Bald Eagles: Oxbow Bend, and along the Snake River
Golden Eagles: Millers Butter in NER
Osprey: Oxbow Bend, around the Snake River Bridge near Wilson
Hawks: Antelope Flats