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A wolf surveys Yellowstone National Park

California, Maryland, Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Idaho, Minnesota

5 Pro Tips for Photographing Wildlife in Stunning Settings

By: Chris Blose

Yellowstone National Park
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The USA is where the buffalo roam, bald eagles soar, grizzly bears fish and much more.

No trip to the country’s great outdoors is complete without stunning wildlife photographs to take home so you can remember your wild vacation for years to come. Whether you’re an expert or novice photographer, there are challenges unique to wildlife photography. Dan Westergren, director of photography for National Geographic Traveler, offers tips on where to capture some of the USA’s most notable animals and how to set up for just the right shots.

1. Go Where the Animals Are

There’s no shortage of wildlife viewing opportunities in national and state parks in the U.S., but Westergren points to a few spots that are high on photographers’ must-see lists:

Custer State Park, South Dakota: Bison are an iconic sight on the U.S. grasslands, and South Dakota’s Custer State Park— located only a 20-minute drive from the equally iconic Mount Rushmore — has nearly 1,300 of them. If you want to guarantee you’ll see them, plan your trip around the annual bison roundup, when local cowboys bring in the herd for sorting in late September or early October.

Channel Islands National Park, California: Harbor seals, elephant seals, sea lions — you’ll find all three and more at this Pacific island sanctuary off the coast of southern California. An easy day trip from Los Angeles, the Channel Islands can be reached by boat from visitors’ centers in Ventura (113 kilometers north of Los Angeles), or Santa Barbara (161 kilometers north of Los Angeles).

Upper Mississippi River, Minnesota and Iowa: To photograph the iconic bald eagle, look no further than the USA’s mightiest river. Travelers can find bald eagle nests in a variety of places, from the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area in Minnesota’s Minneapolis-St. Paul area to Keokuk, Iowa, and nearby locales.

Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland and Virginia: Assateague Island is the place to get photos of wild horses. This 60-kilometer-long island along the Atlantic coast — partly in Maryland and partly in Virginia — is about 225 kilometers from nation’s capital Washington, D.C., and is home to more than 300 roaming ponies.

Located just off the coast of southern California, Channel Islands National Park is a popular gathering spot for sea mammals like the elephant seals pictured here.

Located just off the coast of southern California, Channel Islands National Park is a popular gathering spot for sea mammals like the elephant seals pictured here.
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Bates Littlehales

2. Timing is Everything

Just after dawn and just before dusk are the fabled “golden hours” for all types of photography. But for animal photos, getting up early matters for another reason, especially in Yellowstone National Park, one of the USA's most-visited national parks, with access from WyomingIdaho and Montana.

“Let’s say you’re in Yellowstone trying to photograph the bison or wolves,” Westergren said. “Your chances are much better if you are one of the first people they encounter that day. By the middle of the day, the roads and trails will be full, and the animals may be shy.”

You’ll have a better chance of capturing stunning wildlife images — like this photo of a snow-covered bison in Yellowstone National Park — if you head out during the “golden hours.”

You’ll have a better chance of capturing stunning wildlife images — like this photo of a snow-covered bison in Yellowstone National Park — if you head out during the “golden hours.”
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Dan Westergren
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3. Ask a Local

When planning any park visit, do your research. “Ask a ranger,” Westergren suggested. Park rangers can tell you when the animals are most active and when the park is most accessible.

But once you’re on location, you can go even deeper. “Ask people in town. The sales staff at the local sporting goods store is likely to be able to tell you, ‘Go to this bend in the river at this time of day if you want to see a moose.’”

Park rangers and local residents can help guide you to places where you’re likely to spot wild animals, like this mother moose and her calf cuddling in Yellowstone National Park.

Park rangers and local residents can help guide you to places where you’re likely to spot wild animals, like this mother moose and her calf cuddling in Yellowstone National Park.
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Yellowstone National Park

4. Work With What You See

“At Glacier National Park [in Montana], you can get so close to mountain goats you can practically touch them,” Westergren said. With that kind of access, you have the chance to capture every facial expression.

But you can’t always be so intimate. When you see animals in the distance, seize the opportunity to make them part of a larger composition.

“Don’t just place the animal dead center in the frame, either,” Westergren said. “Play with off-center composition, and really think about how they fit into the landscape before you.”

National Geographic photography director Dan Westergren was able to get close enough to capture this intimate moment between a mother mountain goat and her young in Montana’s Glacier National Park.

National Geographic photography director Dan Westergren was able to get close enough to capture this intimate moment between a mother mountain goat and her young in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
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Dan Westergren
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5. Play By the Rules

Parks, especially U.S. national parks, often post guidelines about how to safely interact with wildlife. No matter how much you want the perfect photo, you should always keep your safety and the welfare of the animals in mind.

“It’s really just about paying attention to your surroundings,” Westergren said. “If you use common sense, you’ll have a great trip.”

Remember: Never get too close to wild animals. You can capture the perfect photograph while still giving them plenty of space.

Remember: Never get too close to wild animals. You can capture the perfect photograph while still giving them plenty of space.
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Yellowstone National Park

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