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A Guide to Photographing Wildlife in Banff, Canada

It’s quite the experience when there is a wild animal strolling in front of your lens in its natural habitat, roaming and living as it wishes. At that moment, you are just a spectator in a world that really isn’t yours. Photographing wildlife has become one of my favourite things to focus on, especially while exploring Banff National Park in Canada.

It’s easy to become fixated on the towering mountains, aqua-blue glacial lakes, and cascading waterfalls. But once you begin to look at the intricate details of the landscape, you quickly realise just how alive it is.

With a variety of wildlife, ranging from grizzly bears, moose, elk, geese, owls, and more, Banff is full of beautiful moments waiting to be captured. Here are several tips and tricks that you should keep in mind before venturing out in search of that epic wildlife image in Canada.

bull elk in Banff National Park

Don’t miss: Where to Photograph Landscapes in Banff National Park, Canada

Your safety comes first

Let’s take a moment to break down the word “wildlife”; most importantly the first half of the word. “Wild” is defined as living in the natural environment and not domesticated. This should be something you always keep in mind while you are out there photographing.

Whether it be a bear or a deer, these animals are wild, unpredictable, and can injure or even kill you. Make sure to allow for a respectable distance between you and the animal you are photographing.

For bears and elk, this should be at least a couple hundred feet. These animals can close that distance extremely quickly, and you can even receive a fine for getting too close.

Read more: Ethics in Wildlife Photography – Code of Conduct

Bear in the woods

Always make sure to carry bear spray with you, and don’t forget to ensure you know how to access and use it quickly.

Never approach any wildlife or try to feed them. It is illegal to feed wildlife in Banff National Park, and you’re just asking for trouble.

If you happen to come across roadside wildlife, make sure to properly pull completely off the road before attempting to capture an image. Avoid stopping in the middle of the road to shoot, as this can easily cause a traffic accident.

Always keep a keen eye on your surroundings; you want to be careful to never put yourself between a mother and her young, or that animal and its food.

When out shooting, I always make sure I have an escape route in case that animal becomes aggressive. Luckily, I have never had any issue with an animal being territorial towards me, and I feel like that is largely due to that mutual respect and keeping my distance.

Time of day and location

Now, just because you put yourself in the mountains doesn’t mean you’re going to experience a Snow White moment and have all the animals flock to you while you skip around singing, camera in hand.

Capturing a stunning wildlife image takes patience, preparation, and knowledge. If you’re unfamiliar with the area you are in, take some time to talk to the locals or park rangers about what wildlife they have seen recently, and in what area.

Animals can travel many miles in a day, and also enjoy their privacy, so chances are you will not happen upon one right away. Parks Canada provides a weekly online report of bear sightings which can help you get an idea for where they have been hanging out.

Backlit stag

Three of my favourite locations to scout for wildlife within Banff are along the 1A between Lake Louise and Castle Junction, around the Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake area, and also on Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper.

Make sure to set that alarm early and bring a warm cup of coffee with you, as the best time to photograph wildlife is in the early morning hours.

I find that I have better luck earlier in the morning as there seem to be less people out and about, which creates less noise. Make sure to look up, down, and around as it is quite easy to pass right by an amazing wildlife shot.

Patience is key

Remember, you’re looking for a needle-in-a-haystack. So, it’s going to take some time to find wildlife – let alone in the right scene, with the right light, and with the right lens on.

Don’t get frustrated if your subject runs off or flies away from you; odds are they are going to come back to that area. Be still, don’t make a lot of noise, and be patient.

It’s quite fun to actually find an area where wildlife has been hanging out. Just bring a book to read, and wait for the shot to present itself.

Stag stands in front of a winter forest

Lens choice

To create an image, you should have a vision. Try to envision the scene that you want to capture with whatever animal you may be focusing on.

It’s almost by default that when photographers think “wildlife”, an extremely large focal length is associated with that subject matter. That’s not necessarily be the case, however.

Sure, large focal lengths definitely have a role in accessibility and safety, but sometimes establishing the environment around the animal can do wonders for your image.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Geese fly in front of a snow landscape

I definitely recommend carrying at least a 400mm lens with you on your wildlife excursions. However, after nailing that frame, try putting on a 70-200mm – or even a 24-70mm. Use these focal lengths to create a scene of the animal and its habitat. Using a slightly shorter focal length can allow for an atmosphere to be created around your wildlife image.

Photography ideas for wildlife in Banff, Canada

You don’t have too much freedom when it comes to composition with wildlife in Banff as the animals do roam where they please. However, there are a few concepts that I keep in mind as I shoot.

1. Creating intimacy

The eyes are the window to the soul, so I try to make sure, with larger animals, that I capture a moment when they are looking directly into the lens. Straight into the eyes of the viewer.

Wait for that opportune moment as the animal looks directly at you. Focus on the eyes, try to be as near to eye-level with them as possible, and click away. This intimacy truly helps connect the human world to the animal world.

Close up portrait of a bear

2. Details

It’s not my favourite thing to focus on, but if you happen to come across a moment where zooming in extremely tight helps to tell a story, go for it.

I typically shoot wildlife detail shots during times that they are eating, or to show something unique to that animal. For example, the claw size of a grizzly bear.

3. Direction

If your animal is walking or flying around, you want to make sure to give it a direction to move within your frame.

By incorporating some negative space in the direction that your subject is moving, you’ll help create a sense of directional movement. You never want to have your subject moving out of the frame without purpose.

Read more: Rule of Thirds in Photography – Composition Tips

Bear walks through forest

4. Playfulness

There is such an innocence to wildlife that is often overlooked. Keep an eye out for playful and adorable moments.

These moments can come in surplus when documenting younger animals.   

Mother bear and 2 cubs

5. Scale

Adding an element of scale to your scene can really help convey the size of the animal, and also the vastness of the world it lives in.

Be careful to not shoot too wide, though – you don’t want your animal to become lost in the scene. Try to position the animal in an area of negative space or where there is a contract of colour so it stands out.

Recommended camera settings

1. Shutter speed

Whether your subject is just hanging out in a tree or chasing down a meal, I always recommend shooting wildlife with at least a shutter speed of 1/800th. A quicker shutter speed will allow for any fast, unexpected movements that may come about to be captured sharply.

Make sure you have your motor drive set to continuous, as once the action happens you want to be able to capture as many images as possible.

It is also a good option, if available, to put your camera into quiet-shutter mode to reduce any chances of the animal being scared away by the shutter sound.

Read more: Back Button Focus – When and Why to Use It

Owl in Banff National Park, Canada

2. Aperture value

I typically will rely on an aperture more shallow than f/4. With wildlife, I love utilising a shallow depth-of-field to help draw my audiences’ eyes to just the animal.

If I’m going for a more intimate shot that focuses on the animal’s eyes, I will usually drop my aperture to f/2.8 or even lower, to really increase the intimacy with a lovely bokeh. The lower aperture also allows for a quicker shutter speed or lower ISO, but requires more precise focusing.

Read more: Why You Should Be Using Aperture Priority Mode

3. Metering mode

Your metering settings for wildlife should be set to either spot or center-weighted. On some cameras, you will have the option for highlight metering, which is another preferred metering option if shooting in high dynamic scenes.

Moose

4. Focusing

Make sure that your camera is set to continuous focusing so you can easily track the focus with the animal’s movements. It is also wise to set your focus to single-point in order to obtain a sharper, more specific focal point.

Read more: Wildlife Photography Tips & Tutorials

In conclusion

Photographing wildlife in Banff National Park, Canada, can be extremely rewarding and breathtaking. Remember, you are in somebody’s home, so treat them with respect. Do not yell, throw things, or lure them with food.

Think outside the box when it comes to compositions and wait for that opportune moment; quality over quantity is the mindset I have when I am out shooting.

Finally, lead by example. Odds are that you won’t be the only one stopping to photograph wildlife, but while most people will be snapping away with their cell phone, you will stand out with your gear. So ensure that you set an example of how to respectfully watch wildlife.

Mike Mezeul II is a travel and landscape photographer based out of Dallas, Texas. He currently spends his days traveling to various countries around the world in hopes of documenting the true beauty of this world. From night skies, sunsets and sunrises, and severe weather, Mike has amassed a portfolio of work that has been published across the world. Whether it’s chasing down a tornado, hiking to the vent of a volcano, battling freezing temperatures above the Arctic Circle to document the aurora borealis, he is determined to do whatever it takes to capture the shot. During his travels, Mike also leads several workshops a year teaching participants how to capture the best photographs possible.

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