Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Yellowstone Fall Wildlife

The Mammals and Landscapes of Autumn Yellowstone

September 20-26, 2009

This is the complete brochure. It will take a few minutes to read.

Read our Yellowstone Trip Report Fall 2006. or 2007, or 2008
Read about our 2004 fall Yellowstone trips on our Trip Update Report
or our 2005 fall Yellowstone trips Trip Update!

Tie in this trip with a Wildlife Model Shoot at Animals of Montana



Our Most Popular Domestic Photo Tour!

Perhaps in all of North America there is no better location to photograph large mammals than in Yellowstone National Park. In fall, during the annual rut of elk, moose, and pronghorn, there is surely no better time or place to do so than in Yellowstone. Our photo tour will do exactly that, as this tour concentrates upon the large mammals, documenting their behavior at this most exciting time of year. Our emphasis will be upon the elk, for our tour should coincide with the height of that magnificent animal's rut when bulls bugle, spar with rivals, and herd cows in their large, much sought after harems. A common scene we've filmed depicts a great bull bugling in a field of frost-rimmed grasses, shrouded by brilliant early morning fog.

Of course, in the Yellowstone high country we'll also do our best to seek out other species of big game, including moose, mule deer, and pronghorn. Depending upon the physical fitness of our group, and whether big horn sheep have been spotted within a realistic hiking distance, we'll work on big horns, too, if this requires hiking. Sometimes we film big horns right from the roadside! On several trips we have had great opportunities to film GRIZZLY BEARS. On a number of days during one tour, two young adult bears, recently driven off by their mother, grazed in the high country within a few hundred yards of the road, occasionally approaching within fifty yards, and three times, actually crossing the road in front of us. Last year pine nuts failed, so as many as ten grizzlies foraged for grasses near the road. We found several. Although these opportunities may never happen again, you can be sure we'll be hoping that similar events occur again, and if they do, we'll be there ready to film.

On another tour, along with the elk and pronghorn we filmed a huge big horn ram right from the road, and both trips had fantastic great gray owls! You just never know what you'll find. On still another photo tour we've had the best bull moose I've ever seen in Yellowstone, as well as big horn sheep, another wonderful great gray owl, mule deer, and cooperative sheep. As this paragraph implies, each year offers its own special gems, which is why each trip is magical and why we never get tired of going.
At this time of year the fur of Yellowstone's large mammals is prime -- new, thick coats in preparation for winter -- and portraiture is at its best. Filming isn't very difficult, as it can be in winter, since deep snows will not separate you from your subject. Finally, the huge summer tourist crowds are gone, and you'll share the park mainly with other dedicated wildlife photographers. In fact, autumn in Yellowstone is the annual destination of many of North America's top wildlife photographers, and chances are you'll meet a few while we're there!

Additionally, I feel there is another advantage in traveling with a group. Ethical concerns regarding the harassment of animals is a growing problem. I feel that a group has less impact on wildlife than does an individual photographer since a group can work cooperatively and responsibly in approaching animals, and, more important, a group can back off as a group if an animal shows any signs of stress. And we will do exactly that. I'm afraid that irresponsible behavior on the part of too many may, in time, limit the freedoms we now enjoy filming the wildlife in Yellowstone, and I for one am going to do everything I can to keep this from happening.
Finally, if this is your first time to Yellowstone and you're extremely interested in filming the geothermal areas and geysers, we'd suggest that you arrive early to tour the park on your own to do your geothermal photography. Car rentals are availalbe in Bozeman, and you'd still be able to meet our group at the Bozeman airport on Sunday prior to our drive to Gardiner. Some first-timers, we fear, hope to see everything on a tour, and with the time we devote to finding and filming wildlife, that simply won't be possible.
Usually, we do visit the scenic and geothermal areas of the park during the mid-day hours when the light isn't especially good for wildlife. However, we won't be spending our prime light on geothermal activity if Yellowstone's mammals are active, for the landscapes can be filmed before or after the rut at many different times of the year. The rut, and the prime mammal activity, occurs only for a limited period each fall. So, if you want old faithful at sunrise, come early or state late and shoot that on your own.


This trip is a 'tour,' where our daylight hours will be involved in finding, and filming, subjects. Unlike our workshops where we conduct compositional exercises and offer review quizzes and instruction, we'll be using our daylight hours solely for photography.
That does not imply that we're not available to help you in whatever ways we can. Mary and I will be offering our on-the-spot suggestions on the best way to compose the images before us, as well as suggestions on making the correct exposures, choosing the correct lenses, and obtaining the best perspectives. We're always there for you -- if you have questions, if you'd like an opinion on a composition, if you'd like to see what we're doing, whatever, WE ARE THERE FOR YOU. On a tour, we too will be shooting but we'll be with you, orchestrating the shoot to provide the best opportunities for our group. We won't disappear and let you to your own luck, although we also won't 'hang around the car' with those less motivated. We'll be there to film, hopefully side by side with all of our participants, and we hope that everyone will share that same enthusiasm to photograph.
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY and the workload, image management, and editing always generates questions and opinions. On the tour during lunches or while we're driving, or during the day if we have the very rare day that is so miserable that we leave late or quit early we'll have the opportunity to present our views, and to demonstrate our workflow and editing procedures.
On one or more evenings we'll project slides or digital programs. We'll give a short slide review of Yellowstone regarding composition and exposure on our first evening. You are encouraged to project 40 images, too, either in the form of slides or on from your laptop and our digital projector and one evening we'll have a chance to enjoy, critique, and to learn from those images. This aspect of our trips is frequently among the most popular.
Finally, we're available to answer all of your questions prior to the trip, and we'll be anxious to assist you in your efforts when we're afield in Yellowstone.


Yellowstone is vast, and although the average tourist thinks they can 'see' the park in a single day, our in-depth photo safari will only scratch the surface in five full days. Although the emphasis of this tour will be the large mammals, the elk, moose, and pronghorn, we'll be carefully watching for every photographic possibility. Most years the northern part of the park is best for elk and large mammals, and for that reason we'll be basing ourselves from just one motel in Gardiner. From here, adjacent the Mammoth Hot Springs, we'll work on pronghorn antelope, and hopefully moose, big horn sheep, elk, and mule deer.

We'll also head deeper into the park -- to Hayden Valley for bison, to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for scenics and for birds, and to the Madison River for trumpeter swans. Gardiner and nearby Mammoth are also great for elk, and we'll be within a 45 minute pre-dawn drive to the best spots for filming elk when the air is cold and crisp, the grasses covered with frost, and the light is magic.
Our daily itineraries will be flexible, reflecting what subjects we've already filmed, what we still seek, what's suddenly available, and what the weather provides. We do not follow a strict itinerary -- with nature and wildlife that would be foolish and counter-productive. We follow a schedule that will provide you with as complete a coverage of Yellowstone as is possible, and we arrange our schedule accordingly.
Yellowstone in autumn is a magnificent landscape, and we will take several opportunities to photograph these landscapes. Our shooting schedule revolves around our quest for wildlife, which generally starts at dawn, and continues as we drive to the park's hotspots. However, en route, we'll pass great aspen groves, meadows of fireweed, lakes filled with reflections, and forests burned by the famous Yellowstone fires. We will be stopping to shoot many of these landscapes, doing so depending upon the time of day, the beauty of a scene, or the 'free time' we have between visiting our wildlife stops.
It is our policy to stop for photos whenever we see a great shot, whether that's an animal or a flower, and to stop whenever anyone in our group sees a photo -- provided they let us know! We always stress to our groups that we'll stop when anyone sees a shot, but that we must know that they or YOU want to stop! Our point: we wish to stress that we'll be filming both wildlife and scenics, and that we're counting on you to help in this endeavor! Our first priority is wildlife, but we'll do both as time and opportunity permits.


Your fee includes the workshop and tour, field breakfasts and field lunches, lodging (based on double occupancy), a welcome dinner, a final farewell dinner at the finest restaurant in Gardiner, and ground transportation. Participants will receive a food list where we ask you to list the items you do not like; and Mary will shop based upon these lists. Our field meals are served picnic style, and they are very complete and nutritious. You won't be hungry, we can assure you! Dinners or any meals taken in town due to bad morning weather are not included in the price. We usually eat at affordable, but very nice, diners or restaurants for our evening meal. Prices range from $6 to $20 for most meals, and western food is filling! On Sunday and Friday evening our participants are treated to a Welcoming and Farewell dinners, respectively.

Transportation in the park is included in the tour price. We'll be using two large passenger vans. Transportation includes pickup at the Bozeman airport Sunday, around 1PM, and a return to the Bozeman airport Saturday morning, around 11AM, and all group transportation during our shoot in the park. Should you miss a plane or arrive late, it will be your responsibility to meet the group at Gardiner. You'll be required to secure your own transportation to Bozeman if it is necessary for you to leave the tour before Saturday morning. Mary will provide a complete itinerary with motel phone numbers and alternative transportation for such emergencies. We strongly advise that you obtain trip/travel insurance if there exists the remotest possibility that you may have to cancel at the last minute or leave the tour before its conclusion on Saturday morning.

Lodging is included, and is based upon double occupancy. We'll do our best to make roommate matchups, if you choose to have one. There will be an additional charge (approx. $225) for anyone requesting a single room. There's a space on the registration form indicating this.


We'll be forwarding a complete list of equipment and film recommendations to our registered participants. However, this tour will require long lenses for anyone seriously hoping to shoot frame-filling portraits of elk, pronghorn, or other large mammals. I'd suggest lenses of 300mm or longer (Mary and I will be using 500mm and 600mm lenses). If you only own an 80-200mm zoom, I'd recommend either purchasing a 400mm lens or renting a telephoto, unless you will be satisfied to shoot 'mammals in the environment' type images. Sigma makes a very sharp 400mm F5.6 lens that sells for under $500, depending upon the lens mount. Too frequently people with short lenses attempt to do what people with longer lenses can do quite easily, which requires them to move in too close, either stressing the animal or putting themselves in jeopardy of being injured. Registered participants will be forwarded a complete list of suggested equipment, film choices, and recommendations.


September's weather can be eratic, ranging from 'typical Rocky Mountain autumns' to nearly winter conditions. Regardless, you can expect the mornings to be very cold, and gloves, and a wool cap, will be required. Typically, by mid-afternoon the weather warms up, and we advise people to wear layers that can be shed as the temperature increases. We might have heavy snow flurries -- perhaps even a real snowfall, freezing rain, or damp fog, too, so we advise people to pack for cold, just in case.

Mary will provide participants with a complete list of suggested clothing.

Please be aware, too, that your safety is our primary concern. An early fall snowfall could make driving dangerous, and portions of the park may be less accessible at these times. We will not jeopardize the safety of the group, so if the roads are bad, we'll concentrate upon the pronghorns, sheep, and elk around the Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs areas, where the roads are almost always passable.


Late September is the annual rut for the elk. We're likely to photograph bugling, herding behavior, and perhaps males fighting. Additionally, of course, we should be filming cows with older calves in a variety of habitats -- along streams, near the geothermal areas, and in meadows.
Moose bulls will be in their prime condition, and although they're often more difficult to locate, we'll be traveling through the best areas for moose. I'd expect us to film at least one during our trip, but it's nature, not a zoo, and we cannot guarantee moose. Our success rate with moose is about 50%.
We'll make a special effort to find some big horns sheep. There are some great locations where we usually find sheep, and some are quite close to the road. Sometimes sheep are located on high plateaus, and we might divide the group so that those who choose to can attempt a go of the sheep.
Pronghorns will be in their best coats, and these fast-moving mammals are fairly common and tame around Gardiner. Sometimes it takes luck and hard work to get close to a good buck, but we're usually successful.
Additionally, we'll be watching for doe and buck mule deer which are increasing since the fires of '88 and are becoming quite reliable, coyote, and trumpeter swans. We'll have the advantage when doing so because many animals are habituated, and very tame after dealing with the crowds of summer, and filming some elusive subjects may be easier, accordingly.
As I mentioned earlier, we have done unbelievably well with grizzly bears on some of our fall shoots. Realistically, we can't expect that to happen but you never know. It's all luck. We've often had a mother black bear with three cubs - last year was spectacular for bears, but each year certainly differs. Again, the bears are there, but whether we'll be lucky or not will just depend upon our group's luck.
Coyotes are usually seen in the fall, and some are quite tame. One year we filmed a coyote that approached so close it actually sniffed the front of one of our participant's long lens! We worked that animal for almost an hour -- and one photographer shot 20 rolls during that time. Gray wolves have enjoyed a tremendous comeback since their reintroduction several years ago. Last year we missed a kill by a day! Typically our groups see wolves, but unless a kill or carcass is fairly close to the road photography is very limited.
There are some other mammals too, including least chipmunks, pikas, and red squirrels that we usually shoot, or have the opportunity to do so. Some animals, as well as some birds like the common raven, gray jay, and juncos, come to us while we're having our picnic meals and, too often, they're ignored. Believe me, if it's worth shooting I won't be ignoring a subject!
Great gray owls, North America's largest species, are uncommon in the park, but we've had great luck over the years at frame-filling distances with 400mm+ lenses. The owl on this brochure was shot during last year's Yellowstone trips, but owls are tough to find - but we've done well and we hope to again. Also, trumpeter swans and Clark's nutcrackers are common birds we usually do quite well in filming

Landscapes - geysers, steam landscapes, meadows and streams, lakeshores, rivers, mountains, boulder fields, basalt columns, fireweed meadows, burned out skeletal forests, aspen groves, cottonwoods lining rivers, waterfalls -- is your appetite whetted? We'll film many of these subjects during the course of your week.

With DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY it is especially easy to do panorama shots where several images are shot and composited. We'll show you how to do so in the field, will show you some examples, and if time permits we will demonstrate the technique in how to put a panorama together.


Location: Based in Gardiner (Sunday night through Friday night).
Accommodations: Lodging is included. We'll be staying at one of the newest and nicest motels in Gardiner, the Absaroka Lodge. Single supplement is approx.$225 extra.
Photo Tour Duration: Pickup at Bozeman airport (one time, only) between 11AM and 2PM, on the first day of the tour. The tour begins at 4:00PM, Sunday, on the first day of each tour. Transportation back to Bozeman by 11AM, Saturday, on the last day of the tour.
Transportation: Included, to/from Bozeman (one trip) and transportation through the park. If you cannot make our pickup on Sunday, or if you are required to leave the tour early, you will be responsible for transport to or from Bozeman.
Costs: $1,745 including picnic breakfasts and lunches, lodging (double occupancy), transportation from Bozeman to Yellowstone and within the park, and all handouts. For our cancellation and payment schedule, please see our brown sheet detailing same.
Participation: Limited to 10 participants.
Liability Release: Our release form, and perhaps one from the national park, must be signed prior to participation.

About Your Leaders

Contact our Office to REGISTER for this Photo Shoot

View a brief Yellowstone Wildlife Portfolio.

Contact us by e-mail at:

Or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.

Return to HomePage or to General photo tour information.