How to Photograph Wolves
Have you ever wanted to learn how to photograph wolves? Wild wolves are elusive and hard to photograph well, and by their very nature, they make for fascinating subjects to photograph.
I’ll never forget my first wolf sighting. Seeing a wild wolf is truly an incredible pleasure and a memorable experience for most people who encounter such an amazing animal.
It was my first winter in Yellowstone in 2010, and I was in Lamar Valley. I did not know anyone and did not know how difficult it was to photograph wolves, but I was excited for what I might find.
Some people had scopes pointed up the mountainside, and I stopped to see what they were looking at. Wolves!
They had a small pack around 500 meters away on the mountainside. Just seeing them was a thrill! As my days in Yellowstone that winter continued, I would see more distant wolves, but only one chance for good wolf photos.
Wolves are one of those species that often stay at the top of a photographer’s list of animals they want to photograph as it can take years of trying to get a good photo of one.
On top of being naturally elusive, wolves are not fond of humans since they are hunted in most of the territory they live. So, finding them close enough to photograph can be incredibly difficult.
In this article, we will be focusing on grey wolves.
A grey wolf can be grey, black, or even white in colour. Adult male wolves typically weigh between 70 – 145 pounds (30-65kg). Grey wolves are native to Eurasia and North America, and as many as 30 subspecies have been recognized.
Read more: How to Photograph Nervous and Sensitive Animals
One of the main reasons many photographers want to capture wolves is because of how hard it is to get photos of them. Photographers like a challenge, and I think there isn’t a mammal that is more challenging to photograph than a wolf!
Whilst are several places you can go where you can be 99% sure you will see a grizzly bear and likely get good photos of bears, there is nowhere that I know of where you can go with a guarantee to get a wild wolf photo.
There are places you can maybe see wolves, but seeing and photographing wolves are two completely different things.
This challenge is what makes getting a photo of a wild wolf so exciting, and also what keeps photographers going back many times to try and get that elusive picture.
The excitement I know from myself (and friends) when a great wolf photo is taken is much more than from other mammals because of the difficulty and effort put in.
Where to photograph wolves
The best place to photograph wolves is in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a huge park, so bear in mind that just because you’re going there it doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to see a wolf.
There are estimated to be approximately 100 wolves and roughly 8 different wolf packs in Yellowstone.
One of the distinct advantages Yellowstone has over other places is that there are people out every day looking for wolves and sharing that information with others.
The wolves are studied year-round in Yellowstone, and there is no other place I know of where you can count on people not only looking for wolves but also sharing that information.
There are wolves in many places along the Rocky Mountains, but you will be on your own trying to find wolves, and would need to get pretty lucky to get photos of them.
Besides Yellowstone, Alaska is the other best place to get photos of wolves.
One place in Alaska to try is Denali National Park in the summer because there are daily bus tours into the park, and the drivers will know where wolves have been seen previously.
You have to be on a bus to access most of Denali, so you will likely be photographing from a bus if you encounter a wolf. Again, it’s important to remember that just because you go to Denali, it does not mean you will see a wolf, though it is a good place in Alaska to try.
In fact, one of my all-time highlights with wolves was in Denali National Park a few years ago in August.
One early morning my wife and I were looking for wolves in the backcountry of the park in a spot we had heard wolves had been seen at.
All of a sudden, a wolf pup stuck its head out of the woods! Eventually, more of its siblings came out and we got to see a total of 4 pups not very far away.
This was a dream come true.
I never expected to photograph wolf pups as they stay so close to their parents and are always very far away. But this one morning magic happened, and this is why, with wolves, you have to be persistent and hope that one day it pays off!
Best time of year to photograph wolves
The best time to photograph wolves is in the winter. Within the winter months, February is typically the best time to photograph them.
This is the time of year wolves mate, which means more wolves are on the move. This can give you better odds of finding a wolf as they search for a mate to start a new pack with.
They are also at their most beautiful in the winter because their fur is full and thick to keep them warm. At this time of year, they are also much easier to spot against the snow than against the green of the summer grass.
Wolves in the summer are still fun to photograph, they just look a little skinnier. Side profiles aren’t as nice in the summer, but headshots and head-on shots still work very well.
Read more: 5 Tips for Photographing Wildlife in the Snow
Types of wolf shots to try for
One of the most amazing sounds in nature is a wolf howling. Once you’ve heard a wolf howl, and particularly a whole pack, you’ll want to hear it again.
A wolf howl is also an awesome behaviour to photograph, and they howl more in the winter during the mating season than any other time of year.
If you are close enough to take a headshot of a wolf howling, that can be incredible. But even a full body shot of a wolf howling is still an awesome shot.
Wintertime also offers the opportunity to photograph the breath of a wolf when it gets really cold. The conditions have to be right for this to happen, but if you have a darker background, you can sometimes see their breath.
On that rare occasion, try to capture their breath as they are howling!
Single wolves by themselves can create good opportunities for portraits, but wolves are pack animals, and getting many wolves in the frame is always a goal of mine.
Seeing several wolves in a picture shows the family dynamic of wolves and helps tell a story. Wolves are very colourful animals, so by capturing several individuals in a frame, you can also show the physical diversity between each wolf.
A wolf pack as a smaller focus in a photo that shows their environment works well too.
Wolves might sleep for many hours of the day, but they are often on the move and active. If you’re fortunate enough to see them chase each other or a prey animal, it is impressive how fast they can run – up to 50-60 km/h!
This can make for an especially dynamic photo when they are running in the snow and you can see the snow flying behind them.
Read more: How to Take Impacting Portraits of Wildlife
How to get great images of wolves
The first thing to know when it comes to getting photos of wolves is that it takes great patience.
Wildlife photography in general takes patience, but wolves are one of those species that won’t just show up when you get somewhere.
Here are a few tips I use that help me find wolves, and that may help lead you to a great opportunity to photograph them.
1. Get out early before sunrise and listen. A wolf’s howl can be heard over a long distance, so be out early and listen to see if you can find an area a wolf may be in.
2. Once you hear a howl, use your binoculars or a scope to try and locate the wolf. After a while, if you don’t hear a howl, move on to a different area to listen.
3. If there is a carcass in photographable range, just wait. Park up, listen, and scan to see what is around. Even if nothing is around at first, wait a little longer, as the smell of the blood will attract the wolves – hopefully, they will come to check it out at some point.
4. If you find sleeping wolves, wait for them to wake up. I know wolves can sleep a long time, but they can also get up and move fast suddenly.
Many great wolf opportunities are fleeting, so if you are not there for those few seconds, you will have missed your opportunity.
Camera gear and settings
In National Parks (and most areas) you are not allowed to get within 100 metres of wolves. If you are in a car, you can sometimes encounter them closer, but most of the time they will be a good distance away.
When photographing wolves, I would recommend a 600mm lens or even an 800mm lens. Take the largest lens you have. I have a 600mm lens and often use a 1.4x teleconverter with it to photograph wolves.
With these longer, heavier lenses, it is a great idea to have a stable tripod too. You want to be as steady as possible to get sharp images, and having a tripod will help stabilise your lens.
When driving around, I would also have a smaller zoom lens at the ready in case you encounter a wolf unexpectedly and can get a couple of quick shots of it.
Have a good set of binoculars to help you scan to find wolves.
When photographing with a long lens, a good rule of thumb is to have a shutter speed at least as high as the zoom on your lens.
So, if shooting a 500mm lens, your shutter needs to be at least 1/500. Now, the further an animal is away, if there is enough light, I would go to at least 1/1000 shutter speed to eliminate the risk of camera shake and a blurry image.
Be mindful that in winter it can be windy. If this is the case, crank your shutter speed up even higher to eliminate the shake from the wind.
Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?
Wherever you go to photograph wolves, be conscious that it will take time and may even take a few trips to the area before you get a good wolf photo.
I have had my most successful shoots in winter, but there have been winters I didn’t get any photos of a wolf.
However, the excitement I get when I do get a great wolf photo keeps me going back year after year, wanting to try and get more great wolf photos.
I hope you too will get to experience one of these magical moments with such an incredible species!