—Suggestions from a 30 Year Resident
This page contains thoughts on a few topics that could help make your trip to Jackson Hole more successful, enjoyable, and productive. It’s longer than I had originally hoped, but I believe the information might be valuable enough to be worth the time it takes to read it!
A Few “Keywords” to Consider
Practice — Patience — Persistence — Preparedness — Pragmatism
All pros still practice—no matter the discipline. No doubt, rookies need more practice. If you are planning a trip to Jackson Hole, you might consider taking your camera and favorite lenses to a local soccer game and practice beforehand. Players move quickly and erratically, just like a Fox or Pronghorn! Practicing on soccer kids is great because failures aren’t disasters! You get plenty of chances and you can always go back for additional practice. You seldom get second chances with wildlife in the Tetons. The moment is over in an instant and is difficult to repeat.
Patience is usually a more difficult discipline for a traveling photographer. I’m often guilty of the “greener pastures syndrome” when out of town, too. Should I wait for the clouds to break, or wait for the animal to move towards water in the evening, or should I move on to something that might be better right now? The answers to the questions are often based on previous experiences—and we simply don’t have those gifted to us. The experiences require us to actually have the experience in the first place! (Of course, a guide can help!) I’ve seen tour companies drive up to an owl perched on a branch. The tourists pile out of the van, get their shots, then climb back in the van and head down the road in search of a different subject. Once gone, the owl flies down and captures a vole or mouse and the patient photographers get the shots! Animals never actually follow the script we’d like them to follow, of course, but anyone watching owls long enough knows they eventually do fly!
Persistence is a luxury for a resident photographer. Once I find a good sunrise location, I can return to it as many days as it takes to get the shot…you know…with purple skies and rose tinted clouds. Tourists coming here, or when I am somewhere else, are forced to do their best with the day or two in front of them. Sometimes, I’ve gone back to a subject half a dozen times to try to hit it perfectly, only to have a passing tourist walk up and get that same shot on their first time. Great for both of us! Even on a short trip, persistence can pay off. If a specific animal, like a fox, isn’t visible at the time, driving by several other times can increase the odds of seeing it. Luck is great…but most of our best shots are often obtained through persistence.
Practice and Preparedness can be intertwined. If you are buying a new camera for your trip to the Tetons, I’d suggest having a camera body shipped to you weeks before coming to a place like Jackson Hole. Same for your tripod, ball head or Gimball head and all of the plates and attachments. Dial in the camera’s Autofocus Fine Tune with each lens and make sure all of your tripod parts work together. Give it a good workout! With Alpenglow fading, you definitely don’t want to be struggling with your gear! Likewise, you don’t want to have to figure out how to change ISO or Aperture settings when a Bull Moose is crossing a stream in front of you! If on a trip with me, I can help, but you’ll eventually want to make simple changes without too much of a delay.
Preparedness can take on several different forms. You can pre-visualize an entire series of shots you’d like to capture before you come to Jackson Hole. However, there are additional realities that you need to understand. You will not be able to capture an image of a Bull Moose with a big set of antlers in February, March, April, May, June, and July. The window for antlered Moose is late August to the end of December. That’s simply a reality associated with the yearly life cycle of a Moose. You might not get the antlered Moose shots in the summer, however other opportunities await photographers. Baby Moose, or calves, are born in early June. You might see them in the willows and grassy bogs throughout the summer. Baby bison, pronghorns, deer and elk are also born in the early summer—not that they are easy to find! You won’t be able to photograph a Mountain Goat in the summer with a full winter coat. If you were to see one, the coat would be quite shaggy. Each month and each season offers a virtual patchwork of opportunities, but not all of them are optimum at all times of the year! In short, you need to do some homework so you can be prepared to find particular seasonal opportunities. Or, stated another way, if you want to photograph a specific subject, you need to schedule your trip to coincide with its optimum period.
More than likely, most people finding this site have already found my blog at Best of the Tetons. Each month, I create a journal of what I see during that month. While there are always a few variables from year to year, the overall pattern remains relatively consistent. If you are planning a trip to Jackson Hole, I’d strongly suggest you go over the months surrounding your upcoming trip. If you have the time to scroll through all of them, you might be inspired to return during one of the off peak tourists month to experience the park in a completely different way. The bulk of the tourists leave, but the animals are usually active well into December. Don’t stop your research with just the 12 months linked above! Best of the Tetons is absolutely loaded with tips and posts about this area. Feel free to subscribe to get emails when new posts are made.
A Pragmatic approach might help you find your subjects. At about any time, a photographer can wander into a unique opportunity—the kind all of us dream about! Lacking those moments of “shear luck”, you will find that some subjects require a little research. Here’s an example: With only a token bit of research, you will learn that both Moose and Elk can be seen most often during the first hour of light. More importantly, you will learn that Moose generally inhabit river bottoms while Elk like the forest edges. Early mornings around Oxbow Bend might offer a chance for both, however the most Moose are concentrated along the Gros Ventre River. Historically, the most visible Elk are often closer to Jenny Lake. Those two areas are roughly 20 miles apart. Knowing you can’t be in two places at the same time. you would probably need at least two days to get shots of both. A full week in the Tetons would greatly increase your chances to capture them! Elk and Moose can also appear late in the day, but with the Teton Range casting a shadow across the valley, evening Elk are difficult photographic subjects. Mornings are probably best for them. You’d have a better chance with evening Moose along the Gros Ventre. If you want to be guaranteed of seeing Elk, and lots of them, visit Jackson Hole in December through March! There will be thousands of them visible each day. With a sleigh ride, you can be within 30 yards or closer to them! As you can see, a pragmatic or practical approach can improve your chances of finding and capturing images of tough subjects.
Expectations and Realities
With only a few exceptions, you get only about 30 minutes of premium morning light for a typical (good) sunrise. If you are willing to get up very early, you can get some wonderful images during the Alpenglow period, but the actual sunrise part with color in the clouds and light on the peaks is relatively short. It is possible to capture several unique shots at one location by moving around and by changing lenses, etc. Still, it is difficult to pick up and move to an entirely different location, set up, and capture two or three places during one sunrise.
So, if you were to find ten really good sunrise locations (there are a lot more), it would mean going to them one at a time over a period of a couple of weeks. Let, me back up. You CAN go to all of them in one day and get shots of all of them in one day, but the beautiful morning light is extremely short lived—and that’s if the clouds cooperate!
Many people cruise around the valley during the middle of the day, scouting for their next morning shoot. You can often get good wildlife images during the shoulder periods of the morning or afternoon. On some days, a thunderstorm can pass through the valley and people can capture spectacular images during the midday periods. Afternoons with broken clouds are also great for capturing bands of light drenching just a single stand of trees, barn, or mountain peak. In other words, you don’t want to systematically “sell out” the middle of the day. With the sun very low in the sky, Winter visitors actually can shoot all day. Summer visitors, here for only one day won’t bother with whether they are shooting at times when others say the light is too harsh. They’re out all day because that’s all they have! I take photos all day, especially when the subject matter is above average. Today’s software is getting so good, we can recover most difficult images. We can draw down the highlights (recovering some that might have been considered blown out in earlier years), and open up shadows on high contrast images.
Open Minded / Scavenger Mentality
When coming to Jackson Hole and the Tetons, the last thing I’d suggest is to get “tunnel vision” and looking only for a few specific subjects—like bears, wolves, and moose. Some professionals take that approach, but they do it on purpose. I could have added this in the “Reality” section above, but in living here and being out regularly in GTNP for the past ten years, I’ve only seen maybe fifteen to twenty wolves—total! I’ve only been able to get a few halfway reasonable photos of them and nothing really good. Grizzly and Black Bears have a 100 yard viewing and photography minimum distance according to the regulations. In fact, so do wolves. Some rangers let people be closer at less peak times of the year, but the rules are in place to move everyone back at any time. Great shots are not easy to get, and the bulk of those are taken by photographers willing to be out for long hours every day of the season. Moose are some of my favorite subjects, but I work hard to get my images. Occasionally, they will be grazing along the roadways early and late—but usually in the sagebrush. Not that many people are willing to hike the river bottoms looking for them.
Instead of succumbing to tunnel vision, I’d suggest visiting photographers to stay open minded. Move around the valley and stop to take a photo of anything that looks interesting. I mean anything! You’d be surprised what pops up while working on other subjects. Most of that phenomenon is a result of actually stopping or slowing down. Dew drops or rain drops on a leaf or a spider web can make wonderful subjects. Ice patterns in a puddle of water are another. Rusty farm equipment and broken windows on the old homesteads can fill in voids in the day and fill your cards in the process. The big subjects will often fall into place if you are patient and not frantic to get the shots you have in your head. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to have pre-visualized your shots so you can be prepared— if and when the opportunity unfolds. Work the zones where your “target subject” is commonly seen, but stop and capture the other subjects as they present themselves. Be prepared, but be flexible!
Remember the the weather can be finicky and unpredictable. This is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing—and realistically there is nothing we can do about it. I was in the canyon last year and bumped into another photo tour guide. I was by myself and he had two or three grumpy clients. They were not happy about the falling snow ruining their shots of the Mountain Goats. I was there because of the snow! Foggy days, snowy, and rainy days can be very good for some subjects, but that usually means you don’t see the Tetons on the same day. I can usually still fill a card on the days other people had rather stay home. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve bumped into people that are not happy about a few clouds in the sky. They’d rather have a solid sheet of cobalt blue above and behind their Teton shots. I seldom take photos of the range unless there are some clouds. Tastes vary! Just about anything can be a compelling subject—some even more so during inclement weather. Again, be prepared and be flexible!
The Coffee Table Book Approach
If you come to Jackson Hole as though you are “on assignment” to create a coffee table book of photos on the area, you’ll likely go home with several cards full of images. This follows along with the preceding section, but having the visual of a finished book can crystallize the concept for most people. You’ll want a big, vista view for the center spread, then a good shot of just the Grand (maybe with the moon setting over it), and a shot of Sleeping Indian and Mt. Moran. The big four locations: Schwabacher Landing, Mormon Row Barns, Oxbow Bend, and Snake River Overlook simply have to be in there. Don’t forget to look for different angles of each. The book would need a wildlife section with a few shots of each of the big game animals—plus a few of the smaller critters like squirrels, ground squirrels, badgers, and of course the various birds. You can capture big stands of trees, then walk into a grove and shoot up into the trees to create images with converging lines. Afterwards, focus on individual leaves, bark and lichen. We have waterfalls, river, streams, and ponds. Some of the still ponds have beautiful floating pads and bright yellow flowers. Of yes, don’t forget the wildflowers and berries! Better yet, watch for a bumble bee on a wildflower! Cold, early mornings are great for Dragonflies asleep on stems. You can occasionally capture captivating shots before they have time to warm up and fly away. Scattered around the valley are historic structures like Menor’s Ferry, Chapel of the Transfiguration and some of the other barns and buildings. We have hikers, bikers, boaters, kayakers, mountain climbers, and paragliders in the summer and people on skis and snow shoes in the winter. Watch for fishermen in the Snake River and smaller streams. You can find people sitting on the decks of the various restaurants, enjoying an evening glass of wine. If you are lucky, you might get a thunderstorm and maybe a rainbow. Images of the spectacular clouds with no other subjects can be powerful. A passing Bald Eagle or group of Canada Geese could add a cherry to top. Think “grand” then work smaller and smaller until you can’t focus any closer. You don’t have to capture them all in a linear order either! Just shoot away. Oh yes, go to town and capture the buildings, Elk antler arches, stagecoach, shoppers, evening shootout, and the Cowboy Bar sign. Go back at night and do it again! If you are in town on Memorial Day weekend or the 4th of July, there are parades and fireworks. Challenge yourself with this assignment and you’ll go home happy!
Whether you take a photo tour with me here in the Tetons or not, the Coffee Table Book approach can guide you to lots of shots on just about any subject. I used it when we went to Maui a couple of years ago, and again last year when we were on Sanibel Island, FL. We’re headed back and I’ll apply it again. But remember, I just wrote “any subject”! Think about how you might make a coffee table book on rodeos. How about fly fishing, or tractor pulls, or covered bridges, or your kid’s summer of baseball! Think big at first and then work to the smallest of details.
I recently heard a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “I’d like to think I am smarter today than I was yesterday”. Digital photography is ideal for helping photographers grow—and grow quickly! Almost all technical information about a particular shot is stored in the metadata. We can see which camera took the shot, which lens we used and whether we used a flash. We can see the shutter speed, ISO settings, and Mode (aperture, shutter, manual). EV or exposure compensation is recorded, along with the settings for white balance. On my D4 and D810, I can even add an audio note, such as the name of the athlete or something about the subject. On some cameras, you can include the GPS location of the shot. The stored data can be a valuable tool if people care to evaluate their own shots. If you see a little motion blur, it is easy to establish the correlation between shutter speed and blurred or frozen motion. You can establish your “pain threshold” for high ISO noise on various subjects. It can take some time to know how to use the information, but it is there. Think of your photography experience as a “journey”, not a “destination”.
Fly fishermen remember “the ones that got away” more vividly than they remember the big ones they actually landed. Sometimes, the lost fish was a result of not playing it carefully enough. Sometimes, the fish wraps around a branch and gets away at no fault of the fisherman. Photographers remember the shots “they didn’t get” in much the same manner. Those shots can haunt us for a long time. However, the lost fish and the missed photos can make us more prepared…”Next time, I will make sure I am at 1/800th second or faster”, or “Next time, I will be ready if the grizzly stands up”. When back on the computer, we can review all of our photos in Lightroom and learn again. “I took some shots with a polarizing filter, but I wish I had rotated it on a few to eliminate the effect”. Or, “I had some glare on the water. I wish I had thought to pull out my polarizing filter for a few shots”. How about, “It looks like I shot everything from a comfortable height of about 5′, but I wish I had kneeled down or laid on my stomach for a few shots”. Even…”Man, there were some beautiful clouds that day, but it looks like I was in too much of a hurry to leave for greener pastures and didn’t wait for light to hit the peaks. I can’t imagine that where I went was going to be any better”.
Luckily, there can be second chances to visit our favorite places, like Jackson Hole or Sanibel Island. Better yet, the improvements we make as a result of a mistake at one shoot can be applied to many other locations. The barns along Mormon Row are not drastically different than photographing covered bridges in Vermont and New Hampshire. Sunsets in Maui are quite similar to sunsets in Florida. Occasionally, we get sunrise and sunset events that rival them. The sin, at least to my perspective, would be to continue making the same mistakes after you know you made them originally. I might initially try something as an improvement, but need two or three more tries before actually seeing the positive results. Each mistake and each attempt builds on our overall experience.
Jackson Hole Awaits You!
If you are coming here, bring your camera, lenses, tripod, and tools to download and view your photos. Bring clothing and gloves to keep you warm for the early mornings, then remove layers as the day warms. Dedicate more than a day or two in the valley to really give yourself a chance to experience the region. In four or five days would be even better, and you’ll usually get at least one great sunrise. That means, of course, you have to get up very early each morning to get the shots you see in travel magazines. Have breakfast AFTER the sunrise and AFTER the big game animals have bedded down for the morning. If you stop for breakfast first, you’ll likely miss the best of both.
If you would like to book a customized one-on-one photo tour with me, I’d love to take you. Either way, you’ll want to take advantage of the Free Information on my blog site at Best of the Tetons.
“Must Read” Feature Posts at Best of the Tetons!
There are lots of posts on this blog now…maybe too many? Some of my favorite and most informative posts were written within the first month of creating this blog site. If you are short of time, I’d still suggest reading this group:
- If I Had Only One Day in the Tetons – This post might help any visitor optimize a trip to the Tetons, especially during the summer and fall.
- Photographing the Mormon Row Barns:- If you plan on gong to the Mormon Row barns, you might get some better shots after reading this one.
- Teton Sunrises: It Takes Two to Tango – Lack of sunlight from the east and clouds in the west can make or break a good sunrise.
- Anatomy of a Teton Landscape – General discussion about Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background elements in your shots. This post might help you “see” the area differently.
- Where to Find Wildlife in the Tetons and JH Area – This page should help get you into the right areas at various times of the year.
- The 100 Yard Rule(s) – Wildlife viewing distances have been changing and enforcement has been changing. This one is too important to miss!
Cheers! Mike Jackson