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Photographing The Elk Rut

One of my favorite things to photograph is the elk rut. Each autumn I pack up and head to Maggie Valley North Carolina for a week of photographing these magnificent animals. Elk were reintroduced in the Great Smoky Mountains in 2001 & 2002, and since then the heard has been slowly increasing. The population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is about 350. Most of which are located in the North Carolina side of the park.

Know Your Subject

One of the rules of photographing anything is to “know your subject”! I have been visiting the GSMNP for the rut since 2010, and over that time I have learned a few things about the behavior of these beautiful animals. So I thought I would share a couple things that I do each year to help improve my chances for getting the shot!

Why they call it fishing!

The expression “That’s why they it’s called fishing – not catching” applies perfectly to wildlife photography as well. You can do everything in you control to be in the right place at the right time and still come away empty handed. But there are a few things you can do to help improve the odds.

Adjusting your expectations.

It can take hours, days, weeks, or sometimes months or years to get the shot you’re after. It is not uncommon to spend hours waiting and watching for something to happen, and then be disciplined enough to be ready when it does. So being patient and persistent are key to adjusting your expectations.  Knowing that it is going to take some time and effort and it still may not happen the way I would like helps keep me from getting disappointed when it doesn't. I just tell myself - its the nature of wildlife photography.

Show Up

“You were so lucky to see that”.  How many times do you hear that? I will typically agree, because serendipity because does play a big role, but luck favors the prepared, and the more effort you put in the luckier you will be. So you have to show up! If you are not there it’s a 100% certain you will not get the shot. 

Have a plan

I have an outline in my mind of the kind of pictures I would like to make. In order to be in the right place at the right time you have to have an idea of what you are trying to accomplish. Ansel Adams said "There is nothing worse that a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept" Having that outline informs every decision about where and when I am at a location. Buts is an outline, being flexible in my thinking and changing my plan n the fly are typical, but without the initial plan I wouldn't know where to start. The first thing I do every night is to check the weather forecast for the next day to determine the best location for kinds of images I want to make that day.

Observing their behavior to look for patterns

By observing the animal’s behavior, you can start to look for patterns, this is important because once you start to pick up on behavior patterns it will not only help you to get to the right place at the right time, it is much easier to anticipate the action or behavior you want to photograph. If you wait until you see it, it’s too late.

I also feel it is critical to respect the animal by not encroaching on their space or affecting their behavior. Its not only the ethical thing to do, but if you are affecting the behavior, your not going to get photographs of the animal behaving naturally in their environment. It is important to remember that these animals are not there for our enjoyment and it is a privilege for us to be able to enter their world.

The North American Nature Photographers Association, or NANPA has published “Principals Of Ethical Field Practices” I encourage you to take a look

NANPA - Principals Of Ethical Field Practices

To see past blog posts visit

Nature Photography Blog

Reintroducing the Elk in GSMNP

If you would like to join me in 2023 to photograph The Rut visit:

2023 Elk Rut

To see my other workshops

2023 workshops