How to Photograph Mountain Goats
Mountain goats are striking animals that reside in the mountains of North America, and make for great photography subjects. Their bright white coats make them easy to spot when they cling to ledges on cliffs or on rocky outcrops.
What is a mountain goat
First, it is important to know a little background about mountain goats before setting out to photograph them.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) are not regular goats, such as those found on farms. They don’t belong in the same genus together; they are both in the same broader family Bovidae, but mountain goats are the only species in the genus Oreamnos.
However, both species share the characteristic of wanting to climb and jump into precarious situations. In this lies the unique image possibilities that can be made by photographing mountain goats.
Mountain goats are native to the Rocky Mountain Range and other mountain ranges from the Chugach Mountains in south-central Alaska, through the Canadian Rockies, and further south into the US states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
As a surprise to many people, they are not native to other US states like Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah where they were introduced in the 20th century.
The highest reaches of these mountains, which can be 13,000 – 14,000 feet above sea level, are the preferred home of mountain goats.
They have adapted to this environment in many ways and seek safety from predators and shelter from harsh weather conditions in otherwise inaccessible cliffs. This is both good and bad for the photographer.
Their preferred food is low-growing plants in the alpine tundra. During the early morning hours after sunrise, they come out of their nightly hiding places on the cliffs to feed in the open tundra.
If they feel safe, they often linger in the tundra region all day long, particularly if it is warm and sunny. They typically stay together in either small family groups of three or four individuals, or they come together to form herds of one to two dozen mountain goats, or more.
Personal and animal safety
Before photographing mountain goats in these extreme environments, some safety precautions need to be mentioned. Lightning storms are a serious concern above the tree line.
A harmless-looking cloud can quickly be followed by serious storm clouds, and when this happens, anyone in the alpine tundra should immediately descend and seek shelter.
Snowstorms can happen any time of year above 13,000 feet, so winter gear and precautions should always be considered. Strong winds are common in alpine regions and photographers should use extra caution when around cliffs or steep drop-offs.
Finally, if someone came from a significantly lower elevation and that person hasn’t had time to acclimate to the lower oxygen levels, they should take it easy when walking or hiking in the high country.
To avoid serious altitude sickness, anyone who experiences the first signs of dizziness, headaches, or other unsettled feelings should immediately move down to a lower elevation.
Mountain goats are much more adapted to these environments than people. However, as photographers, we don’t want to push them beyond their adaptations.
Do not approach them in a manner that will cause a change in behaviour, such as pushing them out of a feeding area or causing the young ones to separate from the herd.
Move slowly and quietly when around mountain goats. Startling them could cause them to waste energy by running to the cliffs and they could sustain unnecessary injuries, making them more susceptible to predation from mountain lions and wolves.
If surprised or cornered, mountain goats have been known to impale people with their sharp horns. This is a natural response to predators, and we don’t want to trigger that response.
Allow them to act naturally and do not chase them, just be with them. They will pay you back with wonderful photo opportunities from a respectful distance.
Mountain goat range
Since mountain goats are high up in the mountains, they can be somewhat inaccessible, even for most long-distance landscape-type images.
In the mountains of the western United States, there are roads that go high above tree lines and over mountain passes where mountain goats are close to the roads. Here they are easily photographed from the car or from a respectful distance when on foot.
In Colorado, many of the 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks have mountain goats along the hiking trails. This is often a more rewarding way to see a mountain goat and provides more unique images.
In Montana, they are often seen on Beartooth Pass and in Glacier National Park. A quick search on the internet will help you find the exact locations that are frequented by mountain goats in the US and Canada throughout their range.
When the mountain goats are on the remaining snow, high-key images can be made to help communicate the lonely existence of living at these altitudes through the long winters.
Be sure to adjust your exposure so that the snow is captured as bright whites, without going beyond the dynamic range (i.e., blowing out the whites).
Also, under the right lighting conditions, images of mountain goats on snow are especially effective with a backdrop of dark mountain cliffs. This may produce low-key images where most of the image is dark, except for the mountain goat.
Springtime is also when mountain goats begin to shed their thick winter coats. Although not very tidy looking, this provides unique and gritty images of mountain goats with thick locks of hair hanging from their bodies or being blown in the wind.
Often their hair is dirty or muddy by the spring and this provides an extra level of grittiness to your images. So if the mountain goat doesn’t look nice a clean, don’t shy away from making intriguing images with all the grit and dirt.
Late spring is when the female mountain goats bring their newborn kids to the main herd. When this happens all the kid mountain goats play, run, jump, and climb together without a care in the world.
Plenty of opportunities are available to photograph them in many funny situations. It is best to be low to the ground to take advantage of the clean and simple backgrounds offered by the tundra environment.
Any backgrounds will be far away and become a soft blur, emphasising the kid goats more.
Summer is very idyllic in the alpine tundra. Plants take advantage of the warm weather and quickly green up the entire tundra.
Although storm clouds often come in the afternoons, they offer many photo opportunities; mountain goats amongst the tundra flowers set against interesting skies during the day, and against outstanding colours at sunset.
Positioning the animal low in the frame will initially draw attention to it as the main subject, but the eye can be led through the image by other carefully positioned compositional elements of the surrounding landscape.
By fall, the mountain goats have finished shedding their previous year’s dingy winter coats and have grown new clean white coats for the coming winter. This provides statuesque images of the mountain goats against the warm fall colours of the tundra.
Placing the mountain goats higher in the frame and angling up at them a bit will help communicate the feeling that they overcame the inhospitable land and are ready for the coming winter.
Since mountain goats are generally bright white, the lighting conditions can be problematic, but this also adds opportunities.
A day in the high country can yield a variety of lighting conditions and these conditions can change at a moment’s notice.
A photographer needs to be able to adapt to these conditions when photographing mountain goats by using a variety of artistic, technical, and compositional techniques.
Morning and evening light
Wildlife photography is usually better in the morning and evening due to the filtered and less harsh light, and this is particularly important for mountain goat photography due to the high elevations.
Photographing mountain goats during this time is less likely to yield blown-out highlights of the white mountain goats, and the shadows will still retain detail.
Sunrise and sunset in the high country offer amazing light and colours in the sky. Adding mountain goats to traditional landscape sunrise and sunset images can significantly increase the intrigue and excitement of the image.
After sunset, a blueish cast will cover the landscape once the warm sunset colours have waned. This is often called the blue hour and it is an outstanding time to photograph mountain goats if they are out and visible during this time, particularly for landscape-type images.
Also, mountain goats aren’t actually pure white, their hairs are often blonder or have a light-yellow tint. This will provide a nice compliment to the blueish landscape.
Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife at Golden Hour
Cloudy days are usually not people’s favourite conditions for many outdoor activities, but they offer some of the best lighting situations for mountain goat photography.
Clouds will soften the harsh high-altitude light and will enable all-day photography due to the lack of dark shadows and bright highlights on the goats. When the cloud cover doesn’t become threatening, days like this are a real treat for the photographer.
All-day cloud cover allows for a photographer to slow down and creatively compose an image to capture unique perspectives of the mountain goat’s daily lives.
Mountain goats will go through their daily routines of grazing on the tundra, resting near the safety of the cliffs, drinking in alpine tarns and wetlands, and socializing throughout the day.
There will be fantastic photographic opportunities under soft light conditions to capture their thoughts, emotions, and decision-making without the distractions of dark shadows or overbearing highlights.
Photograph at eye level by sitting on the ground or standing in a small depression. Look for those interesting gestures made by the mountain goats and the interactions between them.
Often the young ones will snuggle together and cosy up to their mothers. Be ready with your camera for those moments, they often don’t last long.
One drawback to photographing on cloudy days is the white skies that might become part of your images. White skies should generally be minimized in your images if you aren’t using them for a high-key image.
They could be too distracting and draw attention away from your subject, the mountain goat.
Instead, look for distant mountains or hillsides that are darker to fill in the background as either non-distracting blurred content or as supporting compositional elements.
On a typical sunny day in the high country, shadows are dark and anything in the sunshine is very bright due to the harsh sunlight at these high elevations. These are tough conditions to photograph in and are usually the least desirable.
However, good use of shadows and bright sun can still yield some striking images. For example, if the mountain goats are relaxing just barely in the bright sun against a dark rocky background, intriguing images can be made using the shadows to your advantage.
Allowing the shadows to go dark and leaving the mountain goats correctly exposed will create outstanding low-key images, particularly if done in monochrome.
Backlighting in an exciting way to photograph animal subjects and the characteristics of mountain goats makes it very easy.
Backlighting involves placing your subject, in this case, a mountain goat, between you and the sun so that the far side of the subject is lit, and the close side is shaded.
Since mountain goats are so light-toned, the shaded side will still hold plenty of detail in the final image. The hairs on the periphery of the mountain goat are long and thin, allowing some sunlight to pass through to create a highlight effect around the animal.
Late evening sunlight is warm-coloured, and you want to ensure warm-colour highlights around the mountain goat. Some post-processing work will be needed to balance the brightness and bring out the details in the shadows to create an intriguing image.
Every animal has its own unique characteristics, and that is especially true with mountain goats.
They have dark, sharp horns and long beards under their chins. The mountain goat’s long eyelashes, dark eyes, and black noses offer a striking contrast to their white bodies. All this contributes to outstanding portrait images of mountain goats.
A cloudy day will enable a soft light with no harsh shadows. Even on a sunny day, if positioned correctly, intimate portrait images can be made.
Using a telephoto zoom lens, experiment with close, tight images from above the mountain goat’s shoulder, and full-body images that have non-distracting backgrounds.
Images with direct eye contact will connect the viewer with the mountain goat. Images of the animal looking away create anticipation by showing it in a decision-making situation when it is about to change behaviours.
Often, the mountain goats are close together so you can include more of them in the foreground or background. A blurred, but still identifiable, mountain goat in the background adds interest to the portrait scene without stealing attention away from the main subject.
For portrait images, change the aperture on your camera to wide open (f/4 or f/5.6) for a shallow depth of field. This means that only your subject will be in focus, everything else in the foreground and background will be blurred out.
The focus point needs to be precisely on the eye of the mountain goat to draw attention to the face and connect with the viewer.
At wide-open apertures, look for uncluttered backgrounds where the colours will smooth out and blend together to bring attention to the mountain goat in the final image.
Using a shallow depth of field you can utilise non-distracting foreground material by blurring it up from the bottom of the image.
Generally photographing from a low position will provide the best images. This pushes the background far away to maximize the blur or out-of-focus area, further reducing unnecessary distractions in the final image.
Mountain goats in the landscape
Alternatively, you can reduce your aperture to a very small opening (f/16) to increase the depth of field. More of the scene will be in focus and the foreground and background will be identifiable characteristics of the image.
Less attention will be placed on the mountain goat as the subject and the image will be more about the scene.
Foregrounds and backgrounds will need to compliment the mountain goat, and any objects included will need to be positioned in the viewfinder to move the viewer’s eye around the scene, but still bring some attention back to the mountain goat.
Situations that call for greater depth of field will be in the summer when alpine flowers are in full bloom. Flowers as foreground material, or in the background on a distant sloping hillside, can add considerable depth to your image.
This adds the habitat to the mountain goat scenes to help show where the goats spend their lives. When in the field think about the composition of the landscape scene, rather than relying too much on cropping out objects during post-processing.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
Any lens will work for mountain goat photography as long as it is used appropriately. A telephoto lens is most often used, such as a 200mm, 400mm, or 600mm.
These will increase the chance of capturing intriguing portrait images and reduce distracting backgrounds. They can also be used to capture distant mountain goats in the landscape.
Wider-angle lenses and medium telephoto lenses will allow for photographing mountain goats close up with the surrounding landscapes.
Single focal distance lenses (prime lenses) can be used, but multiple lenses will need to be carried around. This can be problematic when hiking steep, high-altitude trails to look for mountain goats.
One or two zoom lenses can cover multiple focal lengths, making it easier to adapt to changing conditions.
Depending on the lens brand you use, an 80-200mm, 100-400mm, or 150-600mm zoom lens would cover most portrait-type situations from a further distance. Adding a 24-85mm lens (if in a safe situation) would enable you to capture the mountain goats in broad landscapes.
Tripods aren’t usually needed (except maybe after sunset) and can slow down the photographer when the mountain goats are on the move and the conditions are changing.
It is best to handhold your lens or sit and rest it on your knee for a ground-level perspective. Monopods might be useful since they are easier to move and carry in the field.
Mountain goats are a unique species in high mountain landscapes.
Their appearance, behaviour, character, and preference of habitat all combine to provide images that are rewarding and will be unlike any other images in your wildlife photography portfolio.