Monday, August 31, 2009

How to safely photograph buffalo

Every year, I add to my collection of buffalo photos. It's easy and safe, if you follow these steps.

Match game?
Okay, first, know this: You are no match for the wild tonnage of bison. You will lose. [Remember the song, “You Can’t Roller skate in a Buffalo Herd?” Take off your skates! Pay attention. Don’t do what this guy did, within feet of a bull buffalo coming out of the trees. The rider was not only dangerously close, but he had no escape route.

There are no guarantees; even buffalo-handlers have their scary stories, if they live to tell about them, that is. The first time I shot a buffalo herd was with a buffalo farmer. He drove out to his herd but made the mistake of driving his pickup truck between a cow and her new calf. I don’t know if he ever replaced that door…but the feel and the sound of mama hitting that truck and rocking it like she did more than shook me up physically. It shook up my sanity and memory in such a way that I take that moment with me when I shoot buffalo.

Cooperative model?
Here’s your first tip: visit a buffalo ranch. If the owner is willing, he may take you out to visit his herd from a safe distance. In North Dakota, there are several buffalo ranches, many of them belong to the North American Bison Cooperative in New Rockford, North Dakota You can contact the NABC to find a buffalo rancher in your state ( Many Indian nations in the U.S. have bison herds. Some may be willing to help you with your photographic request. Years ago, I worked with the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation and found the people there to be very helpful.

If you want to try shooting buffalo in the wild, there opportunities all over the western United States. Of course Yellowstone and other national or state parks have herds to be photographed. Custer State Park in South Dakota is a relatively uncluttered area where several small and larger herds are available to photograph.

For years, I’ve hiked the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. In either the North or South Unit, you can safely shoot the animals from your vehicle. However if you choose to go it on foot, be careful because you could hike up unsuspectingly on a buffalo in the South Unit. It’s happened to me twice. Quite startling and scary. That’s a story for another time.

Make introduction
You. On foot. In the buffalo’s “stomping ground.” (Ouch!) Make NO sudden moves or noises. Face the animals and notice which ones face you. Keep your eye on them. They are standing guard and may be poised to charge. Buffalo in tourist areas are a little more used to people and won’t spook too easily if you don’t rush in. If you take a half hour or so, you can move a little closer, but leave an escape route. It's what I did to get this close.

To be extra safe, put some distance or some elevation between you. I’ve climbed a butte or bluff to get up above the animal. Elevation is not a bad idea for taking photos because it gives you a different view than the typical ground level “out-of-the-car-window” tourist shot.

Never ever, unless you are suicidal, get between a cow and her calf. If a calf is present, you need to double, triple, quadruple your safe distance.

When to go
Spring is a good time to photograph calves, but it’s also the most dangerous time (see above). Mothers (and fathers) can be very protective.

Summer can be cluttered with tourists and that has a negative impact not only on your shot, but also on the tranquility of the animals. Generally they are fairly quiet, stately animals, but they get edgy with a lot of tourists around.

If you’re out shooting in tourist season do this: go early in the morning, the golden hour right at sunup and the hour following. Evening is also good. Remember, however, you’ll be the target of mosquitoes, so be protected.

After Labor Day is my favorite time of the year. The environment has a naturally golden glow to it, which is a complimentary color for bison.

Don’t forget winter. Yeah, you may be chilled, but the buffalo has a great coat to keep them warm. The white frost or snow around them can add interest. Watch your exposure though. If you expose for the snow, you’ll end up with just a black silhouette of the buffalo. Get in tight to minimize the effect of snow on your settings.

Year round, my favorite place to photography buffalo is the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora. The park is quiet, the buffalo are natural, and Medora is a great place to visit OFF SEASON. It's a whole different world though the "golden hour" of photography has been extended to the entire day. The photo below of the buffalo head and the one above, looking down on the buffalo on the trail were both shot near Medora at the South Unit.

How to shoot
Use your telephoto. You don’t need a massive zoom lens, 200 or 300 mm will work fine. It allows you to keep your distance. Safety tip: Keep both eyes open, one on the image in your camera, and one on real life. Be prepared.

Experiment with your aperture to change the depth of field. Remember, the higher the f-stop the larger the focus area, or depth of field. Try focusing on just one or two animals with others in the herd slightly dropped out of focus.

Lighting is tough. The animals soak up a lot of light. They are dark and their hide doesn’t have much contrast. Keep the sun at 90 to 45 degrees to the subject to get the best contrast.

Focus on their shoulders, neck and face. If you have a clean focus on their wooly mane, the rest of the animal will be equally in focus.

It can be an exciting, heart-pumping, adrenaline rushing experience, but if you play it safe, and plan your shot, you’ll come back with a shot to hang over your mantle.

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