A Wikipedia Photographer in Yellowstone (2): Do’s and dont’s of wildlife photography in a national park
After having spent some time in Yellowstone, I’d like to offer some advice to fellow photographers who are planning to visit the park.
- Get up early: The best time to shoot is early in the day. That’s when most of the animals are active because they’re feeding. Also, early in the morning is when you get good lighting conditions. The easiest way to getting better pictures is buying an alarm clock and getting up at around 4 or 5 am. Most outdoor photographers shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the day, when the sun is at its highest point, is the perfect time for you editing your images, taking a break, or simply enjoying the more touristy spots in the park.
- Consider using exposure compensation if you’re not shooting in manual mode: Bison have dark fur. So do bears. If you’d like to get a properly exposure of those animals, dial in about 1–1 ½ (or whatever you deem appropriate) stops of negative exposure compensation. You’ll most likely focus on the animal. If you’re shooting in aperture priority mode (like I do most of the time), your camera will try to get an average of mid-tone grey. That means the bison or bear and everything around it will be too bright in the resulting image. Exposure compensation will help you to counter that effect.
- Pay respect to the park rangers: They’re your allies. They will try to keep you safe when you’re approaching a bear and they’ll direct the traffic whenever you’re in a shooting situation along a busy road. They’re also a tremendous source of knowledge about animals in the park and where to find them.
- Be careful when you’re the only person in the car: Trying to spot wildlife while you’re driving can be dangerous. Most of the roads in Yellowstone are narrow and I’ve experienced a dozen of situations where people got distracted while driving. So, if possible, have a second person in your car doing the spotting while you focus on reaching your destination safely.
- Talk about the fact that you’re taking photos for Wikipedia. Most photographers visiting the park don’t know much about Wikimedia Commons. You might encounter some individuals that would be willing to share their images if they just knew how satisfying it can be to reach a large audience through Wikipedia. Think of yourself as being an ambassador of free knowledge and free licenses. Most of the photographers I met were appreciative of the fact that some people like to take images of wildlife while volunteering for one of the biggest website on the planet. Wikimedia Common’s photographers community is tiny compared to the communities on Flickr, 500px, or the many photographers who just shoot for their own pleasure (without ever sharing the results of their work online). Being an ambassador for Wikipedia will give your visit to Yellowstone extra meaning.
- Don’t think you’ll be getting good images if you haven’t done the proper research about the park and the animals that live in it. Watch some of the documentaries on YouTube or Netflix. The more you understand the specific behavior of the different species in Yellowstone, the better you can predict their next move.
- Don’t try to take images of animals at a distance without using a proper tripod. I’m not referring to one of the wobbly things that you’ll get for 50 bucks at your photography store at home. I’m talking about a real tripod that will stabilize your long lens appropriately. Using one of these tools will be the only way to get a tack sharp image with your 500 or even 600 mm lens.
- Don’t get too close: I’ve seen tourists taking selfies with bison at a close distance. I’ve also watched YouTube videos of people trying to hug bison or even having their children ride on them. Don’t ever do that. Bison are the most dangerous animals in the park. Not bears or wolves (which try to avoid humans whenever possible).
- Don’t forget that cell phone coverage in the park is extremely limited. Using your cell phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot might be your only option of connecting to the internet. Especially in remote parts of Yellowstone – like Lamar Valley – your mobile phone won’t get any connection. Cell phone towers are located near the North Entrance, between Tower Fall and Canyon Village, in Grant Village, and at the West Entrance (as of early 2016). If you’re a Wikipedia contributor, your best chance of uploading large image files will be once you’re back home. Bringing an external hard drive to store your RAW images can be an effective way of preventing image loss.
- For heaven’s sake take off the camouflage cover off your lens. Seriously. The animals in the park will know that you’re approaching them with your camera anyway. Because you’ve made a lot of noise when you got closer with your car. Or, just simply, because they’ll smell you long before you might think they did. Unless you’re Indiana Jones, camouflage covers on your gear will make you look ridiculous.