Surviving a Yellowstone Wildlife Shoot

Written by:

The following article was submitted by Randall Thorne and you can check out more of his work on his website peacefulwalks.

As a nature videographer, I have occasion to film wildlife as well as inspiring landscapes. My footage is then edited into short, 3-minute videos crafted primarily for the purpose of relaxation. Although the end product is, when I’m successful, a relaxing portrayal of pristine natural settings, the effort in obtaining these images can be anything but “relaxing”. I would like to offer the following “behind the scenes” look into a recent filming expedition to Yellowstone National Park as a case in point.


I will be using the following short video from my website, Peaceful Walks, as a “visual aid” in documenting the story. Simply click the pause and play buttons on the player as we progress through descriptions of each scene. You may wish to watch the video uninterrupted first, to get a feel for the calming, relaxing effect I aim for in my videos. Then, get ready for “the rest of the story…”


Scene 1 – Bull Elk in Peaceful Meadow

WHAT YOU SEE: A majestic bull elk sauntering peacefully across a secluded meadow in early morning light.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Me running for my life. As it turns out, it was the rutting season and this particular bull was not in such a peaceful mood after all. Apparently, he took exception to me filming him (from a respectable distance I might add), and decided to let me know, up close and personal. At first, I thought he was coming closer in the spirit of cooperation to present a great visual. It quickly became apparent however, he was just p***** off and was intent on adding me and my tripod to his rack. I learned I could move pretty fast with a fully extended tripod in one hand and a 30 lb. backpack in the other.

Scene 2 – Elk Herd on Bank of Yellowstone Lake

WHAT YOU SEE: A small herd of doe elk grazing contentedly on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Me with my back against a 10-foot drop off to the lake and a massive bull elk blocking the path in front of me. Shortly after I started filming, the bull appeared out of the thickets and approached to within about 10 yards. After the “scene 1” experience of earlier that morning, I had visions of me taking a quick leap off that 10-foot embankment and hoping for the best. Fortunately, this particular bull was in a better mood and continued down the path, leaving the does, my racing pulse and me alone.

Scene 3 – Elk Walking along Shore of Yellowstone Lake

WHAT YOU SEE: The same group of does filmed above moving calmly and serenely closer to the lake.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: My blood pressure. I’m still wondering whether that bull has gone his merry way, or is feeling his hormones and is waiting to “greet” me in the woods as I leave the area.

Scene 4 – Doe Elk Close to Water

WHAT YOU SEE: Nice shot of solitary doe “meditating” by water’s edge, with early morning light reflecting off her coat.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Me wiping my constantly-watering eyes to make sure I’ve got correct focus. It’s about 18 degrees above zero (notice the elk’s breath is vaporizing) and I’m hoping the shot doesn’t turn out to be just a blurry brown blob.

Scene 5 – Lake Otter Sunning on Beach

WHAT YOU SEE: Quick shot of a lazy lake otter catching a snooze on a sandbar with a seagull companion.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Nearly a full morning’s frustration of trying to get a good shot of a family of otters. If you’ve never tried to sneak up on several lake otters along an open beach, here’s my advice – don’t, they love to taunt you. And get a longer lens, just for revenge.

Scene 6 – Trumpeter Swan and Mallard Ducks

WHAT YOU SEE: Graceful, rare, trumpeter swan sharing a Madison river tributary stream with several mallard ducks.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Tourist cars whizzing unnervingly close to me as I set up the shot on the narrow berm of the road (I still maintain that tourists are the most dangerous critters in the park).

Scene 7 – Pelican Feeding in the Yellowstone River

WHAT YOU SEE: Snow white pelican (yep, a pelican) providing a good action shot as it feeds in the Yellowstone River.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Billy and Susie shouting, “Mommy, look at the penguin!” as they emerge from their car that just pulled up next to me. It’s seems to be a law of nature photography that to attract a crowd in a national park, just set up a camera tripod.

Scene 8 – Small Herd of Bison on Banks of Madison River

WHAT YOU SEE: Group of bison grazing peacefully on the banks of the Madison River.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: My gratitude that this particular herd is several hundred yards away. I’m grateful because earlier that morning I found myself pinned between my truck and a much larger, and much closer herd. As I was filming a scene along the roadside, the herd came running around the bend, down the middle of the road, leaving no time or room to beat a hasty retreat. So, I hugged my tripod and pressed against the side of my truck with 2000-pound bison rushing past within inches. I no longer have a fantasy of “running with the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain.


Scenes 9&10 – Bull Bison Up Close, Very Close

WHAT YOU SEE: Very close shots of a bull bison grazing amidst lightly falling snow.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: While this appears to be a foolhardy attempt to get a too-close shot of a bison, it’s not what it seems. Actually, I’m on a boardwalk in a geyser basin filming geysers, not wildlife. When abruptly, this bison emerges from the woods and walks peacefully by. Naturally, I took advantage of the situation, all without moving a foot (or breathing).


Scene 11 – Bull Elk Relaxing in Forest Clearing

WHAT YOU SEE: Magnificent bull elk contentedly chewing his cud in a windy forest clearing.

WHAT YOU DON’T SEE: Again, this might appear to be an ill-advised effort to get too close to a wild animal. In reality, this bull was part of a herd of elk that took up residence in our campground. All I had to do was literally step out of my camper and compose the shot. A decent image obtained quickly and painlessly – miracles do happen!

The stories I’ve shared here will come as no revelation to the professional nature photographers among you. In fact, you no doubt could offer much more harrowing and amusing tales (you notice I had no encounters with bears, fortunately). But if you prefer to let others risk life, limb and sanity to obtain the inspiring images of our natural world, I hope I’ve given you a new appreciation for what goes on “behind the scenes”.

The following article was submitted by Randall Thorne and you can check out more of his work on his website peacefulwalks.

Previous Post:

  • Alan

    I am a nature photographer that shoots in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks often. I can totaly relate to these experiences. Thanks for sharing yours

  • Trish Councell

    We're planning on going to Yellowstone June 2010. I'm a novice D-SLR photographer. This was amusing and informative.

  • scskiff

    BTW…. A female elk is a cow. Just saying. :)