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Michael Francis's Big Game Tips


Big Game Tips - NANPA Road Show


Note from Mike: I realize this talk would make more sense if you were there to see the slide show and ask questions, yet I still hope there is something here that leaves you with some thoughts to making yourself a better big game photographer...remember I just want you to come away with a tip or two!

  • Camera gear - long lenses (400-600mm), good tripod (Gitzo carbon fiber)
  • Canon 800mm 5.6 $12,000

Do your homework: if not a biologist than you need to train yourself into becoming one! Read books, watch nature programming on TV, do internet searches, look and see where and when organized tours are heading to an area, even if you are not traveling with them. I buy guidebooks whenever in a new area. If I can glean just one worthwhile tip I feel my purchase has been justified. Same with this talk…LEAVE HERE WITH ONE WORTHWHILE TIP AND IT WAS WORTH IT!!!

1st image: shows a bull elk, during the rut, testosterone crazed, showing teeth. A very aggressive posture, BEWARE!

ELK - one of my favorite wildlife species to photograph year round. Calves are born in very late May and early June. If you happen to find a new born watch out for mother. They can be aggressive! I have been chased. When approaching any hidden youngster in the woods you may be spelling doom for it as predators are often smart enough to follow our trails to see what we have been up to!

To get the really intimate images of wildlife you must understand their behavior. With elk you need to known when the rut happens, what and where might they wallow, with antlered animals when do they grow and drop antlers?

It is possible to get nice portrait images while a member of the crowd in national parks. I often to talk to photographers who will not visit national parks during peak visitation. It doesn't bother me.

Best places: Yellowstone, Rocky Mt NP, Banff and Jasper

Moose - twins and triplets are not uncommon. Moose often feed in ponds for aquatic vegetation. More solitary than other members of the deer family. Careful planning and luck to see bulls cleaning velvet from antlers. Lip curl or fleman when testing urine to see if female is ready to be bred.

Difference between antlers and horns?

Best places: Denali NP, Grand Teton, Baxter SP

Bighorn Sheep - watch your approach, I use the "old miner trick" pretending that approaching the sheep is furthest from my mind, I look at rocks, make noise, and ignore them. No straight approach. Eventually they often get curious and come to me! Whatever you do …do not approach from above…that is their escape option. In parks I watch for "no feeding" signs. You can bet that this is an area where authorities are having problems with wildlife. Now you can follow these animals back into the woods and have them to yourself and tourists have pointed them out to you.

National Park and other reserves are your best bet for large mature animals. Hunted areas do not work as well.

Watch your camera angles. Big game looks biggest when you use a low angle and look up at the animal, not nearly as impressive when you photograph looking down.

When are young born? It is important to visit with biologists or park info folks to get prime times for birthing… If you arrive at the wrong time you may have no photo ops!

Be prepared for action!!! Make sure your camera settings are correct for fast action. I have all sensors on and predictive auto focus going when I suspect action may be coming!

4 Seasons - don't forget the struggles of winter…I'm always hoping to catch the life and death struggles of predator/prey as well as weather related struggles.

Knowing behavior…what might happen if I keep my eyes open?

Did you know that bighorns will mount and copulate with members of the same sex?

TIP: be in good physical shape to follow sheep around in the mountains. I wore out a pair of boots in a season following sheep, the sharp rocks are tough on boots.

Dalls - found in Alaska & Yukon

Desert -story about approaching group biologists had not been able to get close to.

Stone Sheep - found in British Coloumbia

Bison - young are born in late April and May a lot like cows…you need to be there are times of activity. They eat and rest a lot! I watch for water crossings which may take place daily. During the rut in July / August the bulls are bellowing and fighting. Lots of action with dust flying. Bison have favorite wallowing spots. Keep an eye on those. If one rolls , most will.

Buffalo roundups are good places for action.

Winter shots, esp. below zero with frost and steam can be dramatic.

What about the extreme face shot images? I take mine from my vehicle, not only safe but legal. More people are killed, injured in Yellowstone by bison than by bears!

  • Whitetail Deer - rut in the northern states is at peak around Nov 9th.
  • Bucks will scent mark trees and brush with glands on face…rub
  • Bucks will paw out an area with hooves and urinate…scrape
  • I like to look at variations of animals, what I call the oddballs…piebald, white, melanistic, albino
  • Young are born the first week in June…in northern parts of the country

CAPTIVE vs. WILD

Struggles of winter to survive

Best light of day is first half hour and last half hour…this is also went most animals are active

  • Mule Deer- I like the big non-typical bucks!
  • Work your contacts to find the best places to photograph
  • Rut - November 9th PEAK
  • Pronghorn Antelope - look for newborn the last week in May
  • They will stay hidden from view for about 5 days…after that you won't get close!
  • Get down to youngsters level for the habitat shot
  • Rut…mid to late September
  • Controlled blur…1/20th of a second
  • Only animal with horns that are shed annually…really just the outside sheath
  • BEARS - be careful, carry bear repellant!
  • Tell my bear story!!! Jasper National Park.
  • Bears do lots of fun things…swimming, eating, climbing trees. So be ready for action.

Grizzly vs. Brown Bear - griz inland with no source of salmon…more than 80% of diet is vegetable, brown are coastal with fish source Brown bears are usually the more social of the two, and the bigger

  • Stay clear of bear used carcasses…this is a great way to get mauled
  • Carcasses are good places to set up from, I do it from the safety of my vehicle however
  • Learn to interpret body language…chomping, drooling, ears back
  • Black bears - young are born in den around February come out in April or May
  • Wolves - mate in February
  • View in Yellowstone, Denali, Northwest Territories
  • Mountain Lion - have to be very lucky to see wild cats in the wild
  • Best way to photograph wild mountain lion is with use of dogs
  • Caribou - clean velvet first week in September, by then it is getting cold on the tundra
  • Act like you have antlers when approaching on flat tundra
  • Mt Goat - one of the best places to look is mineral licks in the spring
  • Glacier, Canadian Rockies, Mt Evans - Colorado
  • Musk Ox - neat animal, prehistoric
  • Wild Horses - evolved in North America before going extinct, that is why they can survive in such inhospitable habitat in N America
  • Can be very hard to approach. Found throughout the west - generally on BLM lands
  • Pryor Mountains, TRNP, Nevada, Assateague, Chincoteague, other Barrier Islands
  • Polar Bears - big, dangerous
  • Best photographed from tundra buggies in Churchill, or from ship in Svalbard Norway

AFRICAS BIG 5

  • No real trick here except to go with good guides and small groups of photographers where you have plenty of room to move around…your own seat!!
  • The Big 5 are Rhinoceros, Leopard, Lion, Cape Buffalo and Elephant