The Dangers of Photographing Large Mammals In The Wild

Keeping it Sale While Doing Wildlife Photography

Lions and Tigers and Bears…Oh My

This famous phrase spoken by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz emphasized her fears as she walked along the Yellow Brick Road. She was peering into the woods and sensing danger all around her. From my experiences as a wildlife photographer, I can understand her fears. Wildlife photography is very rewarding but it is not without risks.

"On The Prowl" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a Jaguar in Brazil. Click on Photo to Purchase

Large Animals – Size Creates Respect

There is no doubt that large animals make stunning fine art photography. Photos of grizzly bears capturing salmon as they swim upstream or large elk in a field with their striking antlers can be captivating. The same with wild horses, polar bears, or the powerful American bison.

Even if these animals found in the wild were “friendly”, their size alone creates a need for respect and distance. A mature bull bison (genus Bison) stands about 6.5 ft (2 m) at the shoulder and weighs more than 1,980 lb. The moose (Alces alces), is the largest member of the deer family Cervidae (order Artiodactyla). The bulls weigh 1,300 pounds and stand 7 feet tall at the shoulder.

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You may have seen “cute” promotional ads featuring Smokey Bear but in real life, cute is not the word a photographer might use when thinking about bears. Large adult grizzlies may be about 8 feet tall and weigh about 900 pounds. In spite of their size, they can run as fast as 35 miles per hour over short distances.

The polar bear is the largest and most powerful carnivore on land, a title it shares with the Kodiak bear. The male polar bear weighs 900 to 1,600 pounds. It grows to about 5.3 feet tall at the shoulder. It also has very sharp claws which are used for digging through ice and killing prey. The Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is the most common North American bear. The adult black bear can be 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh 200 to 600 pounds.

So, what steps should a wildlife photographer take to capture a photograph and avoid becoming a victim of a dangerous encounter with a large animal?

"Big Bad Leroy Bear" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a large Polar Bear in Norway. Click on Photo to Purchase

Eight Tips to Stay Safe when Photographing Bears

Bears are wild animals and can be dangerous if not approached with caution. There is a phrase “Being Bear Aware” that brings to mind these tips:

  • Keep a safe distance. In general, stay at least 100 yards away from grizzly bears and 50 yards away from black bears. And yes, this means you need to use a telephoto lens.
  • If a bear is feeding, mating, or caring for its young – do not disturb them. Bears can become aggressive if they feel threatened or if you move into their territory.
  • Travel in groups if possible. But if traveling solo, be aware of your surroundings. Look for signs of bears in the area such as overturned rocks, bear scat, or tracks. Make noise as you move through the area to alert bears to your presence.
  • Bear spray can be effective if a bear charges at you. Know how to use it.
  • Avoid areas when you are walking where you cannot see ahead. You do not want to round a bend and stumble upon a mother bear with her cubs.
  • There may be times when it is best to shoot the photo from your car. You can remain safely inside and use the telephoto lens to capture a great photo.
  • Stay updated on local regulations and current rules/guidelines which may change due to bear activity.
  • Bottom Line: Respect their space. Bears are wild animals and deserve our respect. Do not try to feed them or try t get too close for a “better” shot. It could cost you your life.
"My Fish" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a large grizzly bear with a salmon. Click on Photo to Purchase

Six Tips - What to do if Attacked by a Bear

  • Stay calm. Do not panic or run away as that can trigger a chase response.
  • Identify the type of bear as different species have different behaviors which will affect your response
  • If the bear is far away and has not seen you, then you can slowly back away. keep your eye on the bear. Do not turn your back on it.
  • Bear spray: use it when the bear is about 30 to 60 feet away. Aim for the bear’s face and use short bursts. If closer than 30 feet, use as a last resort.
  • If a grizzly bear attacks you: play dead by lying on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your neck and your legs spread apart. This protects your vital organs and makes it harder for the bear to flip you over. Remain still and quiet until the bear leaves.
  • If a black bear attacks you: fight back with everything you have. User rocks, sticks, and hands. Aim for the bear’s eyes and nose
"That's Close Enough" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a grizzly bear getting close. Click on Photo to Purchase

Seven Tips to Stay Safe when Photographing Moose or Elk

Just as with bears, photographing moose or elk can be an exciting experience. Wildlife photographers know that patience, preparation, and safety measures play an important role when taking pictures of these large animals. Moose populations outnumber bear populations so, depending on the part of the country you are in, you are more likely to have an encounter with a moose. Here are some important tips to keep in mind:

  • Many of the same rules for taking pictures of bears apply to elk and moose.
  • Always think about safety. Moose/Elk are unpredictable. Keep a safe distance and never approach a moose. They can charge and attack if they feel threatened.
  • When photographing moose or elk, you should use a telephoto lens. This allows you to capture a close-up photo without infringing on their space.
  • If an elk seems upset or agitated or moves towards you, back off and give them plenty of space.
  • Avoid wearing bright colors or anything that might startle the wildlife.
    • It is important to never forget these are wild animals and you must respect their space and not disrupt their behavior or actions. Do not attempt to feed, touch, or harass them in any way.
  • Follow the local rules and regulations in regard to wildlife
"Sunrise Elk" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of sunrise light on a large elk. Click on Photo to Purchase

Three Tips - What to do if Attacked by a Moose

  • If a moose begins to act aggressive, try to get out of sight. Hide behind a tree or get inside a car. If you are out of the moose’s sight, you will be out of its mind.
  • If there is no place to hide, then run in the opposite direction. Moose can run faster than humans but may let you get away.
  • If you get attacked, do not resist or fight back as that will make it want to fight back. Curl up into a fetal position and cover your head/neck with your arms/hands and stop moving. The moose most likely will go away.
"Straight On Moose" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of an Alaskan Moose staring me down. Click on Photo to Purchase

The Most Important Tip to Keep in Mind when Photographing Wildlife

Photographing large animals can be exciting and rewarding—I know this from personal experience. But I also know that prevention is key when it comes to encounters with wildlife. Doing research and taking precautions are of the utmost importance. If you follow wildlife photography safety guidelines, you will be able to capture stunning photographs of wildlife while staying safe and respecting the animals in their natural environment.