Be Ready for the “Magic Moments” When Photographing National Parks

By Hartt Wixom

I must have visited Zion National Park a good dozen times. But this day was special, even magic. Rain had subsided reluctantly and lingering fog mists shrouded nearby peaks all the way from Springdale to Sinewava. Apparently, this special occasion for photo shooting was not expected; I saw only one other camera.

And to top it off, wild turkeys that I had witnessed from afar in the past practically posed for me. As I moved a little closer, one big tom displayed the best of his colorful glory for me, despite the absence of hens. Strangely, I saw not a single mule deer this day but it mattered not. I’d captured several of them on film in days past.

While Zion is a wonderful place to photograph wildlife, there are certain techniques to get the best pictures. For example, the aforementioned tom turkey would have certainly flitted away in a hurry if he had felt threatened. It’s the same with all wild creatures. In walking a little closer, I took care not to stalk directly toward him. I also avoided any rapid motions. Yes, these park creatures sometimes act “tame” but the instinct for self-preservation is very much on red alert.

Mule deer buck in Zion Canyon
Zion Buck

Not long ago I managed a closeup picture of a sleeping mule deer buck in Zion. But he would have surely fled if I had scuffed the sagebrush in my approach. As it was, I soft-shoed within some 10 feet before this buck raised his head. To be sure, it would have been on greater alert if bedded in a hunting unit, but it was safe enough with Homo sapiens approaching slowly.

Years ago I was faced with gathering dozens of picture of elk for a book I was working on. True, I selected an elk refuge in the off-season but still, there were scenarios to avoid. For instance, this animal even more so than many others will tolerate the traditional but no more. Applied to a Wyoming elk refuge, this meant remaining on the hay sled when the refuge manager is tossing out food for these hungry animals. The manager told me that if either of us stepped off that sled, the entire herd would stampede.

I admit that there were times in my life when I was not ready for what would have been a superb photo, such as a bobcat staring me in the face. My son and I were driving across a back road on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains when a bobcat showed up in the headlights. It was dragging a dead beaver and leaped off to my left. I brought out a flashlight, rolled down the window and clicked it on through the window. There on a stump less than an arm’s length away was the cat, its fierce green eyes seemingly aglow. (I don’t know of any more fierce eyes in nature unless it is a cougar.) This cat could have leaped in the truck. Instead, it vanished into the night.

Of course, I could have captured that picture if prepared with a quick finger to both shutter and camera flash mode. (The flashlight itself would not have likely been enough.) But these are things a wildlife photographer must experiment with ahead of the crucial moment . . . or second. Just as a hunter does with the rifle, one must know how, in this case, to find the safety and the trigger with no hesitation. It should be done with feel rather than even having to look.

Every Yellowstone National Park ranger knows the tragedy of a tourist trying to approach too close to bison or bears. You don’t “push” them. I have many times when fishing the park encountered bison but work slowly around them, never through. Yet, one day I watched in amazement as photographers along the highway waited for bison swimming the Yellowstone River to approach land off to the side of them . . . and then these people moved directly in front of them! Did it yield a better picture? No. It resulted in the tourists scurrying for their lives. Did these folks expect the buffalo to stop and pose for them? So it seemed. In the process, they were nearly trampled to death.

A few more things about wildlife photography. If your camera uses a lithium battery, it requires up to an hour to recharge. Get it done at home or in the vehicle before arriving at photo shoot territory. You can’t just reload two new batteries as with some cameras. Know how to get it done quickly. It’s amazing how many times your “Recharge the batteries” sign will light up as a big buck crosses the road in front of you!

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