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How to Photograph Elk

The Canadian Rockies are a mountain range spanning the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. They are filled with dense forests, towering snow-covered peaks, blue alpine lakes, and raging rivers.

Not only do the Rockies boast incredible landscapes, they are truly special because of the wildlife that calls them home. Animals like the grizzly bear, grey wolf, Canada lynx, moose, bighorn sheep, and – of course -elk are what make the mountains so compelling to explore.

The Rocky Mountain elk, a subspecies of North American elk, is one of the most widespread and easily observed of the mammals living in the Rockies. They are the second largest member of the deer family (after the moose), with males (bulls/stags) weighing approximately 650-900 pounds (300-400kg), and the females (cows/hinds) are approximately 450-550 pounds (200-250kg).

These sizable ungulates are brown in colour, with dark neck manes, short tails, and a light-coloured rump patch. This earns them the name ‘wapiti’, meaning ‘white rump’ in the Shawnee and Cree languages. For most of the year the bulls and cows are easily distinguishable, due to the antlers that bulls grow annually.

Elk are incredibly striking and powerful animals, and are popular subjects to observe and photograph. Below are a few tips on how to capture beautiful images of these majestic mammals in the Canadian Rockies.

Finding elk in the Rockies

Elk are one of the most commonly seen animals in the Canadian Rockies and can be found in much of their traditional western habitat.

Particularly great spots to view elk in the Rockies are the national parks. These include Waterton Lakes National Park, Banff National Park, and Jasper National Park in the province of Alberta, and Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park in the province of British Columbia.

The town of Canmore, approximately 25 kilometers east of Banff National Park, is another locale that elk frequent regularly.

The time of year will often dictate where elk are found. In the winter months, they remain at lower elevations in valley bottoms, where access to food is greater due to a decrease in snow levels. In the summer months, elk will often move to higher elevations near the timberline.

Elk are versatile animals and may expand their ranges throughout the season, depending on snow levels. But for most of the year, they spend their time in montane valley bottoms, feeding on deciduous shrubs and grasses.

If you are unable to spot elk visually, a great way to tell if they are in a particular area is to look for signs such as scat (pellets), wallows, antler rubs, and tracks.  

Read more: 6 tips for better fieldcraft in wildlife photography

Best time of year to photograph elk

Each season brings fresh opportunities for great elk photography. The most popular time of year to observe and photograph elk is in fall, during the rut.

The mating season, which runs from late August to October in the Rockies, is an opportune time to capture an array of spectacular behaviour. The elk rut provides an opportunity for photographers to capture images showcasing the power, strength, and beauty of these impressive animals.

During the rut, elk will concentrate in lower elevations and dominant bulls will begin to gather the cows into groups, called harems. These bulls will then spend their days protecting the females from potential rivals by chasing off, or challenging, other bulls who are trying to gain access to them.

The battles between the bulls can be spectacular. The animals will rush forward at full speed, locking antlers, and begin to push and shove one another, trying to gain an advantage over, or injure, the other. These clashes will lead to one bull retreating or, sometimes, even the death of one of the participants.

There is a wide variety of behaviour you can capture during the rut. This includes bulls battling and the clashing of antlers, bulls bugling, bulls racking their antlers against trees, and stomping their feet in displays of dominance.

You can also see bulls displaying the flehmen response (where the animal curls back their upper lip to inhale scents), and the act of mating itself.

While fall is a time to take images showcasing the dominance and aggression of these animals, the spring can be a time to capture moments of innocence and connection. During the months of May and June, elk calves are born throughout the Rockies.

On arrival, they have a brown coat with white spots, helping them to stay camouflaged from predators. Calves are extremely vulnerable during these first few days of life. Their mother separates herself from the herd, gives birth in a secluded area, and hides her calf for 10 days or so.

It’s very important that, during this period, photographers do not to interfere with or disturb the mother and calf. Once the calf is a bit older, both mother and calf will rejoin the herd.

This is a time when you can capture those moments of bonding between parent and young, or the curiosity in the young elk as they explore their environment for the first time.

Read more: Ethics in wildlife photography

The winter months can also be a great time to photograph elk. The snowy backdrop provides a clean and uncluttered background, letting the subject really shine. The contrast between the white of the snow and brown of their fur can create beautiful photographs.

Photographing elk in winter can also highlight the hardships these animals face during these cold months. This might include difficulties in finding food, often resorting to digging through deep snow with their hooves to reach dried grass underneath, or facing increased risk of predation.

In addition to thinking about the time of year to photograph elk, it is also important to consider the time of day, and the weather conditions. Early morning and early evening are generally the times when elk are most active and when the light is best, often warm and soft.

Heading out in all weather conditions, from rain, to sun, to snow, will lead to more unique images and a diverse portfolio. Cool, autumn days enable the capture of an elk’s breath as they bugle, while wintery, overcast days provide diffused, soft light. Rainy days can help to highlight the details in an elk’s dark brown coat.

Read more: How to take great photos when the weather is bad

Learning behaviour and staying safe

The best wildlife photos usually come when you have a good understanding of the animal’s behaviour. Being able to read the elk’s body language will not only help you predict action, but will also help keep both you and the animal safe.

Reading books about elk and searching for information about their behaviour online will give you an opportunity to learn about signs of aggression, fear, and contentment in the animal you are observing.

When photographing elk, it is important to always give the animal plenty of space, and stay at a respectable distance. People often associate bears and wolves with potential danger in the Rockies, however elk cause many more injuries each year.

Elk can be dangerous at any time of year, but particularly during the fall rut and the spring calving season. During the rut, bulls are very aggressive. You never want to come between two bulls, or a bull and his harem.

It is equally as important to give a cow elk and her calf space, as the mothers can be extremely aggressive when they perceive a threat to their young.

Read more: 8 tips for approaching animals without being noticed

Even in the winter months, it is imperative to give elk space. The winter months are challenging for elk, who have expended significant energy during the rut and are trying to endure the cold, harsh conditions.

Food becomes scarce and more difficult to find. During these trying months, elk face threats due to exposure, starvation, and predation. It is critical to avoid making them expend much needed energy trying to retreat from you.

A good rule of thumb for distance is that recommended by the national parks: at least 30 metres. Paying close attention to the elk’s cues will also be important for safety. If an elk is grinding its teeth, or has its ears pinned back to its head, you are too close and should retreat (slowly!).

Recommended equipment

Elk can often be photographed both from a vehicle, and on foot. In either case, a decent set of binoculars is a must-have. Relying on your camera and lens to scan the surroundings and locate your subject can be heavy and unwieldy.

A set of binoculars can make the job much easier. I always travel with a set of binoculars in my car or pack.

Camera and lens stability is another factor to consider. In a vehicle, this means using a bean bag support for your lens, which helps to reduce camera shake. On foot, a tripod can come in very handy, especially in low light conditions.

I use a tripod and gimbal head when I need that extra support and freedom of movement.

As for lenses, a telephoto lens is essential. As discussed above, safety is paramount, and using a telephoto lens can give you that much needed distance from your subject. The two lenses I use most often are a Canon 100-400mm and Canon 500mm f/4 prime lens.

The 100-400mm lens is great for versatility, as it provides a variety of different focal lengths to choose from. Its lighter weight also makes it a practical choice to carry while hiking. The 500mm prime lens is great for use in low light, and I often use a 1.4x extender with it to get extra reach (up to 700mm).

Another lens I would recommend is a 70-200mm, for use when you want to capture more of the elk’s habitat in the photograph.

In addition to the lenses themselves, I would recommend having a waterproof cover for your camera bag, and rain covers for your camera body and lenses. The weather can be unpredictable in the Rockies, so it is important to be prepared for all conditions.

In a pinch, a couple of heavy-duty garbage bags could be used to protect your gear, but I would suggest investing in camera specific protective gear (I use coverings by LensCoat). Covers can also come in handy even when the weather is pleasant, as you are still placing your bag and gear down on the dusty or muddy ground.

Keeping yourself protected is also key. The more comfortable you are, the longer you will stay out, and the more photographs you will be able to take. Dress for the conditions, and always pack a warm layer in case the weather changes.

Rain gear and bug spray for the spring and summer months are vital, and a toque and a pair of photography gloves are necessities for winter months. I also always bring along a few hand warmers in winter, in case the temperature plummets.

Read more: 10 important things to keep in your camera bag

Composition tips

When photographing elk, it can be very appealing to fill the entire frame with the head and antlers of a bull elk. They are majestic animals and their antlers are stunning features.

While these close-up, frame-filling images can be striking and beautiful, I also recommend zooming out and including more of the environment in your images. The Rockies are spectacular, and including some of the mountain peaks or dense forests in your image can give more of a sense of place to your images, and tells more of a story.

The background is another consideration to take into account when thinking about the composition of your photographs. The background should complement the subject, rather than distract from it.

Look around your viewfinder before taking the shot, and see if there are any distractions you do not want included. Consider shifting your position or angle to remove distractions. Alternatively, you could lower your aperture to blur more of the background, placing the focus more directly on the subject.

A final tip for composition is to take both portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) images of the same subject. This will lead to more variety in images, and will expand your portfolio.

In conclusion

Observing and photographing elk can be very rewarding. If possible, I recommend trying to photograph them in all seasons. Not only will the landscapes vary, but so will the appearance of the elk and the behaviours they display.

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Visit Colleen's website

Colleen is a wildlife photographer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her focus is on Canadian wildlife, and she is passionate about photographing animals in their natural surroundings, from the Rocky Mountains to the prairies. Colleen’s photographs have been featured in publications worldwide, including Audubon, Photo Life, Canadian Geographic, Wild Planet Photo and Nature’s Best.

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