I recently led a small workshop to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I timed the trip to coincide with the changing leaves and also the elk breeding season, or rut. Any wildlife photographer will tell you that you need a good mix of skill, technology, and luck to get the best shots. Here are some of the ingredients that went into making this image of a bull elk, which was one of my favorite frames from that trip.
Component #1: Location
In autumn, the elk are quite abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park. You can encounter them just about anywhere. We saw individuals in the lower areas and also at the upper elevations above 10,000’. While spotting elk is easy, finding them in a good location for photography isn’t. In this case, we got lucky enough to not only find individuals close to the road, but also in an area that had an interesting background: green foliage on the side of the hill. All too often background elements can cause unwanted distractions; in this case they added to the scene.
Component #2: Light
It seems that animals have this nagging tendency to find bad light. If it’s sunny, they’ll either be in the shade, or somewhere where they are back-lit. Getting good front or side-lighting is really tough, especially when most animals try to avoid being out in the open. At this particular spot, we had strong back and side-lighting, but the individual managed to be oriented in such a way that we didn’t have to shoot directly into the sun. In fact, what I really liked about the light here was how it put a spotlight on the individual and created a rim-lighting effect in the fur and antlers. Some of that can be attributed to dumb luck, but you also have to position yourself in a place where the light will be right (and hope the animal goes there).
Component #3: Technology
At this particular location, we did not have the luxury of a wide-open space to set up our tripods and big telephoto lenses. Fortunately, I was using a camera (Nikon D3s) that produces incredibly clean images at higher ISO settings. Because I knew I could shoot at high ISO’s, I was able to use my 70-200mm VR lens with a 2x teleconverter at f/8 hand-held and know I’d get sharp shots. Most of the time, the camera you use doesn’t really matter too much. In this case, the Nikon D3s helped me get a hand-held shot, which meant that I could be mobile enough on the side of a mountain to get the best position.
Component #4: Composition
When you are fortunate to come across wildlife in the breeding season, they usually ignore the paparazzi surrounding them. This means that you can usually have time to actually compose your shot rather than just grab a fleeting image. I deliberately placed the subject in the lower corner of the frame, and used the brightly lit foreground as a leading line. Moreover, I was able to get a few shots where the elk was making eye contact. With wildlife photography, your strongest shots will always be ones where you can see at least one of the subject’s eyes (and hopefully, it will be in-focus).
Component #5: RAW processing
I never set my camera to shoot JPEGs. Despite the numerous in-camera adjustment settings available today, shooting in RAW remains the single best way to extract the best quality from your images. While the as-shot image was OK, I made some adjustments to it in my image editor. First, I was able to recover some of the slightly blown highlights by adjusting exposure and using highlight recovery tools. Second, I used local adjustments to darken the background elements. This technique further accentuates the “spotlight” effect of the original image and leads your eye directly to the subject. Finally, I chose to crop the image to a 4×5 aspect ratio and I applied a very mild vignette (corner darkening) effect around the edges to further draw your eye towards the subject. In the end, I think everything came together nicely!
Nikon D3s with 70-200mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII lens and TC-20EIII teleconverter
1/400s @f/8, ISO 1000
In the as-shot image, the dark background has fooled the meter into opening up the scene more than what was necessary, causing some blown highlights in the subject.
My initial image processing was intended to recover the highlights in the subject and darken the background. I also tweaked the overall color and contrast, and applied custom sharpening settings in Nikon’s Capture NX 2.
For the final image, I cropped to a 4×5 aspect ratio and applied a mild vignette effect.