Big Bulls Close-Up

When I was a teenager the television commercial for Close-Up Toothpaste had me convinced that if I bought their specific brand I would have girls close-up. I will not reveal any more of my teenage thoughts, but there is one thing I know: You don’t have to use fresh-smelling toothpaste to get close-up to the Pennsylvania elk!

What is the perfect perspective in wildlife photography? Do you work hard to include every antler point in your image? There is nothing wrong with this full-view perspective, but challenge yourself some time to zoom in and get up close–real close! Most people know what the whole animal looks like, so our mind will usually fill in the missing parts. The close-up shots can be intriguing and provide an interesting perspective!

I have a saying I developed for elk photography. You will find a short chapter with this title in my book, “How I Photograph the Pennsylvania Elk.” The saying goes like this: “Don’t just shoot the bull!” I mean it. Many, if not most, photographers get so geared up at the prospect of capturing a big bull with their camera that they sometimes forget the beauty of the cows right in front of them. Take this next image for example, if I had only focused on shooting the bulls, I would have missed this great shot. Don’t just shoot the bull! Be creative and photograph the cows and calves, too.

The next time you are out shooting an animal. Think about zooming in and taking some close-up shots. It might even change your perspective on wildlife photography!

Photo Tip Tuesday – Getting Closer

Getting closer to the subject is the name of the game in wildlife photography. Yes, sometimes we do want to include the surrounding environment and habitat that wildlife call their home, but getting closer will help a lot in separating an animal from a busy background. Also, there’s nothing worse than taking a photo and then sharing it with someone who asks, “what’s that spot over there?” Your reply, “Oh, that’s the bull elk I wanted you to see.” That little spot just doesn’t do any justice to your photography.

So, how do you get closer to your subject?

First, buying telephoto lenses is an important priority for any budding wildlife photographer. Long glass helps us get closer while maintaining a safe distance from the animals we are photographing. In fact, some National Parks even have a minimum viewing distance that requires longer lenses if we are going to fill the frame with our subject at this safe distance. 300mm is probably the shortest option for a good wildlife photography lens, but I have used the 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconverter with larger mammals like the elk here in Pennsylvania. Yes, long glass is important and very helpful, but it is not the end all solution every time, especially with smaller subjects.

This brings us to the main topic of this photo tip-how to physically get closer to our subjects. You might assume that stalking or sneaking up on a subject will work. Sometimes yes and sometimes no; but typically no. Animals live longer lives because they are wary of danger, especially human danger. Big racks don’t get big by animals being careless.

Rather than sneaking up on them, I try to be as calm and unassuming as possible. I take my first photos from a distance if I haven’t photographed this species before just to get an image of this new subject. Then I see if the animal “accepts” me. What I mean by this is noting whether the animal goes back to its routine behavior of grazing or whatever. If not, I don’t move. I look in the opposite direction, remaining as calm as possible and pretending that I don’t care that the animal is even there. Usually, the animal realizes there is no imminent danger and does accept me as a non-threatening photographer rather than a hunter. Of course, this is much easier where hunting is not allowed, which makes Wildlife Refuges and National Parks prime locations for wildlife photography.

I did grow up in the farmlands of Lancaster County and was groomed to be a hunter at the age of twelve. I still hunt white-tailed deer and black bear, but I spend much more time out in the woods with my Nikon camera gear. The skills I learned from hunting are sometimes helpful, such as locating sign of animals and observing their behavior and patterns. With camera in hand, I don’t want my subject to think I am hunting it. I want the animal to realize I won’t hurt it and just want to photograph it. Sometimes talking calmly to an animal can help, too.

Another highly successful method I employ is to situate myself in a place to where the animal is headed and will eventually walk through as it meanders on its way. This is exactly the method we used with this Bull you see in these four photographs. I happened to see him not far off the road and I could see he was heading in a specific direction. I reasoned that he was going to eventually come by a specific location, so we moved to that location and waited for him to arrive. This was relatively easy because we could see him in the open some of the time, but this method works well even when you cannot see the subject if  you know the well-traveled trails and habits of the animal you are photographing.

Still another method I have used this past year is to use a portable blind. My son and I got closer to wild white-tailed deer in Elk County using this method. We both got into the blind well before sunset and just waited. Again, we knew this particular field was often frequented by deer in the evening. We picked our favorite location on this field, set up the blind, and waited. Sure enough, eight deer came out into the field and we had the chance to observe them up close and personal.

This is the goal-getting closer to our subjects. It is not always easy but it is well worth the effort! Oh yeah, one more tip on this subject-patience is key. By nature, I am not the most patient person in the world, but I can sit or stand at a spot for a very, very long period of time waiting to capture wildlife photographs. Most people take a few photos and move on. Don’t. Take your time and “work” the subject. Observe and photograph what the animal is doing. Try to capture facial expressions and body movements. Think about what close-up photographs might work with this subject. Focus your attention on separate parts of the animal’s body and create some art. Is there a tail wagging to chase away a flea? Are there long eyelashes on the eye of this animal? What are the position of the legs and feet? Will they be in a more photographic position if you wait for the animal to move five more feet? What about the background; could you wait for the animal to move in front of a better and more attractive background? Wait, watch, observe, and photograph!

With these tips you should be able to get closer.

Lone Winter Bull Closeup


Sunday night we arrived in Elk County just before sunset hoping to see a nice Pennsylvania bull elk. We saw several cows and a few calves, but no bull. We persisted in our search and I was beginning to think we were going to get skunked, when I spotted this lone bull elk walking alongside the road. He was headed back into a run, so I turned the truck around, and traveled up the road in an attempt to catch him coming towards us. It worked! Before long we were set up with our tripods and clicking the shutters of our cameras. The backdrop consisted of some pine trees and the side of the mountain. Perfect!

Backgrounds are critical for quality photographs. I have captured many elk with my camera that have backgrounds that are just too busy. This is one of the main difficulties in wildlife photography–separating the subject from its background. If you are not successful in this method the resulting photograph will be unacceptable. After all, we are not after snapshots here; we are after photographs. We photographed this bull for well over 30 minutes and would have continued if the light wasn’t getting lost.

I like closeups of the elk, even the bulls. It is tempting to include their whole body and, of course, their large antlers; but I like to get up close and personal once in a while. These photographs reveal some detail we would never see otherwise. Look at the contrasting fur and pedicles of this bull’s antlers, as just so simple examples. I am quite sure that these two simple details would be lost if I had composed this photograph to capture the entire bull’s body and his antlers. Facial expressions on animals can be interesting as well. This photo shows some of the whites in this elk’s eyes. He is wondering what we are and what we are doing in his world. He is not totally alarmed but he is cautious, as his ears are up and on alert.

This last photograph shows even a bit more detail. Look closely again at the pedicles. Do you see the ring-like base protruding from the head of this bull? Do you see the tufts of fur below them? Do you notice the contrasting colors and size of the fur on this bull? What about the expression and the stare from the eyes of this bull? Each one of these details contributes to telling the full story of this bull as we encountered him in his environment.

My contention is the photographer who pays attention to detail and considers getting close-up will have quite a story to tell. Do you think these three photographs succeed in this attempt?

Remember that old saying: “a picture is worth a thousand words?” This can be true if the photographer pays attention to details. What stories do your photographs tell?

Preparation, Anticipation, and Preparation

Getting prepared for a photo outing is sometimes a lot of work but necessary work nevertheless. It’s the anticipation that helps motivate me to do the necessary preparation.

Checklists are made and double checked, bags are packed, and as gear is loaded the anticipation for the upcoming photo shoot keeps me going. I even imagine the kinds of images I hope to capture on the upcoming trip: let’s try to get some nice close-ups, how about some wide landscapes, and maybe some beautifully lit subjects at dawn or dusk. You see the anticipation not only drives the necessary preparation, but even makes it more manageable.

What do you do to prepare for a photo shoot? What does your routine look like? Do you imagine yourself out there in action before the action begins? It seems to me that mental preparation is about as important as the physical preparation.

I am ready to go shoot!


A butterfly. A beautiful butterfly. You see it floating along in all its majestic beauty. Doesn’t it look beautiful? Now, just try to photograph it!

Have you ever tried to photograph a butterfly? If you have, I’d like to know what worked for you? I was photographing osprey last week when some butterflies came along and grabbed my attention. I was waiting for the mother osprey to go out on another fishing expedition, so turning my attention elsewhere was not a problem. I thought, gee, there’s a butterfly, that should make a good photograph. Little did I realize how difficult this was going to be for me!

Butterflies are small and don’t sit still for very long. They float around from one spot to the next and focusing on them is a real challenge. I knew that chasing a butterfly is counterproductive and decided to simply stay in my position and let the butterflies come closer to me. This worked fairly well if I remained patient, but focusing still was not easy. I had many more out of focus photos than keepers. Are there any secrets or tricks to the trade when photographing butterflies?

Here are a few photos of my attempt at butterfly photography. I am not really completely happy with any of them. They are an attempt, which is a good thing, but now I have a strong desire to try this kind of wildlife photography again!


My son, James, thoroughly enjoys and has a passion for macro photography. He’s got a good eye and likes to get close and the closer the better.

I dabbled in macro photography over the years but my son taught me to look at things in a new way. Now when I am on a photo shoot I wonder how James is seeing things. What might we photograph in this location? When we go to a photo shoot together I get to see him in action and observe how his photo-mind works.

This past winter I was leading our PA Elk Photography Experience when we came across three horses running and playing the snowy pasture. They put on an impressive display for us with snow falling from the sky and flying off the horses’ hooves. It was an action-packed shoot that we encountered unexpectedly. In the midst of this opportunity we took some close-ups of the horses’ eyes. Here is one that I captured.