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Photography In The National Parks: Shooting From The Car, Is It The Best Way To Get The Money Shot?

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Some of your best wildlife photographs will come from good timing...and a measure of luck. Deby Dixon photo.

We've all seen that guy or gal sitting in the driver's seat, their body twisted to the left, the rear view mirror shoved out of the way and a massive lens perched on a bean bag and aimed at a critter. The shutter rips off some shots and the photographer yells when someone passes on the street.

"Get out of my way."

The offender looks around, confused. "Are you talking to me?"

The photographer is fit to be tied because the animal is moving out of view and they are missing the shot. Words are exchanged and the shooter puts the car in gear, arm holding the delicately balanced piece of glass that cost them half a year's salary on the door frame, and drives until the next critter is spotted. They pull over, aim and shoot, forever capturing that moment on a digital card.

The cycle repeats itself.

In the beginning I thought that the definition of a lazy and unethical wildlife photographer was one who sat in their car to shoot their subjects. I would have just as soon been dead as to have someone catch me with the lens out the driver's window. But, nowadays the above scenario could be me as I cruise through a national park, looking for wildlife.

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A bean bag on your car door helps steady the camera. Deby Dixon photo.

For some time I struggled with the ethics of shooting wildlife from the comfort of the heated seats. But the animals and other photographers have taught me along the way and, while there is no right or wrong way to get the shot, I am concerned how to get the best shot.

Many a world-renowned, veteran photographer will be quick to say that the car is the best blind that a photographer has to keep from scaring the animals away, and I have found this to be true. When I first began photographing wildlife, I lived on the coast where we were allowed to drive our vehicles up and down the sandy beach where there were eagles, peregrines, hawks, snowy owls and shorebirds, none of which are good about sticking around when a photographer walks up with a camera and tripod and proceeds to set up for the shot.

I would pull up close to eagles sitting on driftwood and they would look at me and go about doing whatever it was they were doing - most likely scouting for fish. I would fire off a couple of shots while sitting in the car, without the benefit of a bean bag in those days, and then ever so quietly open the car door. The sound of that click got the bird every time and off it would go.

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And, so the lesson was, I could take photos all day long, by staying in the car. Time after time animals taught me that my presence was tolerated if I stayed in the car. And, back in those days, each wild animal sighting felt like it would be my one and only chance to get a spectacular shot of that species. As a result, I was willing to compromise my values and sit in the comfort of the front seat, hoping to keep the camera steady enough for one nice, sharp shot.

And then I began traveling to national parks, which have rules. All different kind of rules. No stopping in the road, make sure your tire is all the way over the white line when you are parked, 100 yards from wolves and grizzlies and 25 yards from all other animals, including nesting birds, zero yards if you are in a car, 100 yards if you are in a car, can shoot from the top of the car, can't shoot from the top of the car, can stand anywhere as long as it is the required distance from the animal, or can't stand anywhere off of the road.

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A bull moose wandering Grand Teton National Park in the fall. Deby Dixon photo taken while out hiking.

You get the idea, the rules are confusing and in some parks the rules vary in different areas of the park. For instance, in most areas of Yellowstone there is no minimum distance if you are in the vehicle, which can make car shooting pretty darned lucrative as long as all of the elements are in place.

But, in other areas, you have to be 100 yards away from a bear, even when sitting in the car. In most areas of the park a photographer can stand in any open section as long as they are the required distance from the animal and are not disturbing its movements. But, in Lamar I got yelled at numerous times for being off of the road 20 yards where the ground was level and I wasn't creating a traffic hazard, and the animal was hundreds of yards away, oblivious to anything I was doing.

And, so there are park rules and there are other rules, and one of the huge headaches of being a national parks only photographer is trying to keep up with the rules because they keep changing. Believe me, when in a park day after day, the last thing that you want to do is break the rules and cause problems. But at the same time, some of the unwritten rules make a photographer's job nearly impossible.

What I am getting at here is to be a photographer in this environment it is important to be adaptable and clever enough to figure out another way.

When taking photos from the car it is important to have a bean bag or other steady surface to act as a tripod. My bean bag, $69 from B&H Photo, is filled with black oil sunflower seeds and it often does a better job than the tripod, particularly at low light, because it absorbs any movement. Just make sure you don't leave the bag outside where the squirrels can get at it because it isn't critter proof.

While shooting from a car often enables a photographer to get closer to their subject, particularly with birds, this method has its share of drawbacks that often make it difficult to get a really good shot.

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This young grizzly, roaming the Hayden Valley, was also captured out of the car. Deby Dixon photo.

First of all, you spot the animal but there is no place to pull over and so you look in the rearview mirror, grab the bean bag and the camera, get the shot lined up, check the settings and a car comes up behind you. Or, a car comes the other way and the driver slams on the brakes and blocks your shot so they can take their own.

If you are lucky enough to spot an animal near a pullout and can get safely off of the road, hopefully with the left side closest to the wildlife and the sun behind you, and get ready to shoot, oftentimes people pull up, screech to a halt, jump out of the car and all you can see is the bear's butt as it hurries away.

So, many variables have to come together before the scene is one where a photographer can get good images. In a national park there is rarely the luxury of having an animal sighting all to oneself - it happens from time to time but not often.

Don't get me wrong, photographers have captured amazing images from the front seat of the vehicle. But, the reason that I mention all of the challenges is that the different factors make it difficult to relax and get the money shot - the one where the calf is kissing mama's nose, or the bear is looking right at you, or the wolf stops and looks you in the eye.

Since beginning with national park photography, I have spent a lot of time sitting in the front seat of the car and shooting. Often I am just cold or lazy and don't want to get out and set the equipment up for the shot. And so I hope for the best. But, lately, I want the money shot.

When working as a wildlife photographer it takes a while to settle down and realize that if you don't get the shot of the animal, you will get another chance, most of the time. And, then it takes a while to learn to wait for the right pose, look or light for the shot. And, then, it takes even longer to come to know the habits of the animals, and be able to anticipate their movements, which requires a willingness to be patient and wait.

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This flighty pronghorn was captured from the car. Deby Dixon photo.

Lately I have had the opportunity to shoot in places where I was allowed to be out of the car and set up in an area where an animal might or might not come through and while this requires a great deal of patience, the shots, if they materialize, were well worth the effort.

I have compared the results from car shooting with the lie in wait and prepared method and have discovered that there is quite a difference in the quality of my images. Largely, I believe, from being prepared, relaxed, and able to pick and choose locations where it is easy to move and adjust if needed.

Wildlife photography is a constant learning experience and the process of developing one's eye and skills is a process that takes time and the willingness to adapt to different situations. What works one time, may or may not work another time so it is important, if your goal is to take photos above the norm, to learn how to work around the difficulties that with always, invariably, pop up.

Obviously, I will continue to shoot from the car when there is no other way, or on those days when I feel lazy and cold, but my experience tells me that if you want the really great moment shots, being prepared and patient is the way to go. Some days the animal shows up and some days it does not.

One last thing, when shooting from the car, turn off the engine if you want good focus in your images - you'd be surprised how that motor bounces the car around.


This is a great article, Deby! I have similar issues when it comes to capturing bird images at the nearby national wildlfe refuge or just along the Texas roadways. You are spot on, regarding being able to have the luxury of setting up the camera system and relaxing and preparing for that shot, versus getting a shot on the fly from the car. Sometimes, though, that's all one can do - particularly with those flighty birds at the refuge, who aren't as habituated to humans as - say - the nearby state park I often visit.

It's not photographers who shoot wildlife from their car who should be flogged. It's the ones who find their "wildlife" in places like those roadside zoos or the Grizzly Discovery Center or similar spots.

Hmmm, but then again, I guess Yellowstone is a sort of roadside zoo . . .

Okay, I plead guilty as charged.

Thanks Rebecca. I think that the car is definitely the best blind for bird photography but it helps a lot to be in a stress free situation where you don't have to worry about blocking traffic or dodging cars that are going by. Those places are difficult to find, particularly in the parks. I did spend a lot of time doing bird photography in areas that I hiked into last year and found that if I can stay in one place and be relatively still, that the birds got used to me. But, it is hard work - particularly when it is hot or there are bugs biting you. The bottom line is that photography is much more work than it looks to be - but, then you know that.

Ah, yes, Lee, that is another issue and one that I have been gathering info on for the next column. A lot of unethical photography out there, claiming to get the images in the wild when they aren't. I don't care where people get their images from, as long as they are honest. I have a great sub-story for that column! Thank you.

Thanks for a very useful article, and you're correct, there are times and places when shooting from a vehicle offers a chance for wildlife shots we just couldn't get if we were "on foot."

One example was some great bison photos a few years ago at Custer State Park in S.D. (yep, not a national park, but adjacent to Wind Cave NP :-). We were on a gravel road and found ourselves literally surrounded by a slowing moving sea of bison. We were literally a captive audience, so just turned off the engine and sat and enjoyed an amazing spectacle for about a hour.

In such situations, no telephoto was needed for this shot of a young bull bison, or this one of a cow and calf - and those are photo's I definitely could not have gotten if I were out of the vehicle!

I don't consider myself in any way a professional - or even quasi-professional quality - photographer. I'm a casual photographer, whose pictures sometimes appear to be pretty good just because I live in Alaska and Alaska looks pretty doggone good on it's own. When I go out for a drive, and always when I drive a couple of hours up into the Yukon to visit our nearest town, I always have the camera in the car. A year or so ago we took a drive two hours each way and saw about ten different bear, because it was dandelion season and they were all out getting drunk as the dandelions fermented in their bellies. You can bet both that [a] I took as many pictures as I could and I did not get out of the car to approach a drunk grizzly.

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