I used to fear wildlife photography because I didn’t have a decent telephoto lens that could bring me “close” to my subjects. As we traveled time and time to the vicinity of Banff National Park, we were greeted by the amazing wildlife, and I suddenly realized how important it was to show these creatures together with the environment they lived in. So I used primarily my standard zoom lens DFA 28-105mm on my Pentax K-1 for my Banff wildlife photography, and I am so pleased now that I tried to do so.
What animals to see in Banff?
We visited Banff National Park in autumn and winter when there were great opportunities to see elks fighting. We did not try to search for wild animals to photograph, but they kept appearing here and there. Wherever we saw them, we stopped our vehicle to take photos. And there were indeed several places around Banff town that were frequented by mountain sheep, elks, deer.
Elks in Banff
The location where you will have the best chance of seeing elks is along the road from Banff Town to the Two Jack Lake. Generally speaking, dawn and dusk are the best times for viewing these wild animals as they tend to hide from plain sight during the daytime. However, elks here are probably not threatened by people or predators at all, that we could see them anytime of the day. We started to call this place Elk 100% after seeing them hanging out there grazing, resting or even fighting – almost every time we drove by. It was obvious that herds of elks owned this territory. One day when we came here before sunrise, I saw them sleeping on the ground, covered by snow. As we stopped our car, they noticed our presence and stood up for a walk. I took my camera, sneaked out of the car, and snapped this shot before they walked away.
If you come to this place in Autumn, you will have a good chance seeing elk rutting.
Here is a short clip of the fighting scene.
This place is perhaps the most popular spot to photograph Banff wildlife. When you don’t know where to find these animals, just drive along the loop and pay attention to any vehicle stopping aside the road – somebody may have just spotted an elk.
Deer in Banff
Deer are more elusive here. In several cases, we didn’t have a chance to take pictures before they disappeared into the forests. But again along the road from Banff town to the Two Jack Lake, we had our luck witnessing and photographing a beautiful pair of deer. They were so focused on licking each other that I was able to stand close by, taking a lot of photos and even a short clip. I am not an expert on animal behavior but this did not seem to be a way of showing their affections to each other. I would guess they did this to clean the body, or because of some minerals on the skin.
Deer licking each other, Banff National Park
Our encounter with the mountain sheep was a serendipitous and memorable one. On an early morning before sunrise, we drove up to the roadside viewpoint on Mount. Norquay which was an excellent spot to view Banff Town surrounded by the mountains. I set up my camera to shoot a sunrise time lapse. It was freezing cold, and it turned out to be a cloudy day, without a dramatic sunrise as I hoped for. I was disappointed, of course. While I was packing up my gear, I saw a herd of mountain sheep walking along the hill slope. The scene was so natural and undisturbed that I forgot taking pictures for a while. Finally, I remembered my camera and realized that my lens was never gonna be enough to zoom in for the portrait of the mountain sheep. So I decided to take this landscape photo only to put the tiny spirit of the forest in a corner.
The photo shoot didn’t end here. I walked towards the mountain sheep, disguising my interest in them by looking to other directions as if I were some sort of herbivorous animal grazing in the forest as they did. They surely noticed me, and maybe a bit cautious or confused. But they were eventually convinced that I was not a threat. And I was able to stay close and took some portraits of them with my standard zoom lens.
The real magic happened several days afterward. I reluctantly edited the time lapse shot of that boring sunrise. During the playback, I suddenly saw these mountain sheep in my composition – and I was able to record the whole duration of them waking up. They were actually sleeping on the hill slope covered by snow. As the sky lit up, they stood up and started their day. This was definitely a lucky capture. Now when somebody asks how and where the mountain sheep sleep in winter, I could just point him to this clip.
Lessons learned from my Banff Wildlife Photography experience
Any lens for any subject
After being challenged to use a standard zoom lens for my entire Banff wildlife photography, I was happy that I took this exercise. It reinforced the concept that you could do any genre of photography with any lens. When a complete set of equipment is available, people tend to choose the easiest way of shooting, in this case, using a telephoto lens. While a telephoto lens brings you “close” to the subject, it gives you a shallower depth of field and a tighter composition which help to draw attention to the animal at the cost of a weakened depiction of the environment. With a standard zoom lens, I chose to incorporate the wildlife as one element of the image, kind of a visual anchor in a landscape photo. Of course, it took a bit more effort in composition as there were more subjects to consider in the frame.
Learn to blend in
The shorter reach of my lens means I need to get closer to my subject for a detailed shot. In several cases when I approached the animals I scared them away. It was funny how I thought of myself harmless while they immediately sensed a threat from the unknown intruder. Later I learned the secret to blend in, which required you to behave like one of them. You need to show no interest in the animals so you don’t look like a predator. I figured the best way of showing no interest was by not looking at them. During the whole morning when I followed and photographed the mountain sheep, I noticed that every time I stared at them, they noticed that and stared back at me, and would often walk further away from me.
Prepare to be surprised
Just like doing science, one thing that travel and photography interest me is the unpredictability. With all the plans and calculations we make, there would still be something unexpected, good or bad, to add a flavor to our memory. My morning sunrise time lapse shot in Mount. Norquay was a perfect example. I was expecting a splendid sunrise but only got a gloomy one. But I kept shooting till the end so I was able to re-discover these mountain sheep later when I edited my video.
Now while sitting back at home in front of my laptop writing this post, I can still feel the heartbeat when I first saw these wild animals. I guess it is time to plan my next trip! I hope you enjoyed reading our Banff wildlife photography experience. If you have any questions, feel free to leave your comment or send us a message.
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I am just amazed by reading this blog post and seeing the photos. Just amazing.