By Richard Hines
This past week, I had a post on my Facebook page of Devils Tower in Wyoming. The photograph showed 154 deer. Yes, I counted them on a piece of private land located in an alfalfa field just below the world-famous rock. My post said something like “There are 154 deer in this photo but when I reached the top, everyone said that I missed my ride.”
Most of my friends got the joke. After all, everyone has seen Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the star of the movie, Richard Dreyfuss, catches a ride on a spaceship at Devils Tower. Most of my friends also said, yes, you really would stop to look at deer and turkey while all of that was going on!
If you are traveling west this coming year, Devils Tower National Monument would be an excellent stop. One, to learn about the geology of the area, but to also start off your wildlife photography skills.
Geologists believe the tower was formed around 50 million years ago between one to two miles under the earth’s surface and was finally exposed when erosion began around 5 to 10 million years ago. This process exposed the harder, more resistant gray columns of igneous rock.
This process is far from over, as rock continues to slowly fall off the tower. No matter the weather, have your camera at the ready. I got several good shots of the tower from the parking lot. In most cases, your photos may just look like everyone else’s photos unless you arrive at the tower just before dawn or in the evening to take advantage of potentially great lighting opportunities that will separate your photos from the thousands of photos taken by other tourists.
National parks are the perfect place to see if you might like wildlife photography. National Parks not only provide you access to fabulous places but to take photographs of wildlife that are very accustomed to seeing people and getting their photograph taken. No need to set up a photo blind because by far the best photo blind in a park may be your vehicle.
To me, National Parks are the perfect location to begin your passion or your desire to start photographing wildlife. Because I am an outdoor communicator, I keep a camera handy all the time. Your phone is a good choice for snapshots, but to get closeups of wildlife you need to up your game to a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) digital camera. The SLR will allow you to interchange lenses which is a necessity as you refine your skills.
My first trip to Devils Tower was over 50 years ago and it is where I cut my teeth trying to become a wildlife photographer. At that time, I was using a camera with a minimal lens; I think an 80mm. The pictures I got were far from usable, but I caught the photography bug and within a few years, saved up to purchase better equipment.
Like all National Parks, Devils Tower has great opportunities to take wildlife photos. On this past trip I spent about as much time at a prairie dog town which is located near the park’s entrance. On just a short trip I photographed white-tailed deer, black-tailed prairie dogs, and Merriam’s turkeys.
One of the best lens to start out with is a 300mm. I now have a 500mm lens, but some of the best photos I have taken and had published over the years were with my 300mm.
Carrying a camera in a National Park will put you up close to wildlife that are more than accustomed to having their portrait taken. Today’s digital cameras allow you to take unlimited numbers of photos at no cost other than a card. I generally carry several cards.
When shooting wildlife with a camera, always be aware of the background, try to keep it as natural as possible. One of the best photos I have of two does was taken in a local park close to my house within sight of the lodge. A lot of folks drove by and snapped their picture which may have had a sidewalk or a powerline in it. Take time and compose the photo.
The attached white-tailed doe photo was within 25 feet of the truck, I just waited for her to move away from the road while the prairie dog was shot with a 500mm lens. However, there were some prairie dogs within range for a 300mm lens.
Shooting from the window of the vehicle is perfect. I now use a window mount to hold my camera but before that I would lay a towel on the windowsill to steady the camera. When you get in position, shut off the motor to reduce the motor vibration.
Taking photos in a park will help you learn to use your equipment, compose the right view, and make it easier to shoot a photo of that small buck that comes by your stand every day.
Once you cut your photography teeth in a National Park, you will be setting up blinds and getting into one aspect of the outdoors that has kept me involved in the outdoors every month of the year, not to mention visiting some of the nation’s most beautiful parks, National Forests, and state wildlife management areas!
Devils Tower National Monument is open all year and is in northeastern Wyoming just off Interstate-90.