Expert photography tips from a local Estes Park pro

One of the surefire joys of visiting Estes Park are the all-but-guaranteed life list wildlife sightings. And tops for most aspiring photographers is capturing one of our eminently majestic elk. Estes local Dawn Wilson moved to Colorado in 2002, and through hard work and relentless shooting has become one our finest wildlife shooters. Here are her tips for nailing your elk photo. 

Be aware of your surroundings. And be especially wary of bulls. Don’t get between him and his harem. He’ll see you as a threat. Always stay at least 25 yards away from the elk. I’ve even seen bulls charge trucks, especially during the rut.

Listen for bugling. Most people want the photo of the bugling bull with his head back. To catch that moment, if you hear another elk bugle in the distance, typically another elk nearby will respond. Be ready.

If you shoot with a DSLR, try a 500mm lens (for keeping your distance). I often use a 80-400mm. This gives me versatility to get landscapes, too. Also, carry a tripod—since these animals are more active at low light times.


Set the scene. In the fall, if it’s been a warm day, you often get low-lying fog the next morning which adds drama to what it feels like out there. And if fall colors are happening, always go shoot if there’s also snow in a forecast; snow adds a nice contrast.

My favorite time of year is after calves are born This is usually around Memorial Day weekend. The calves have their spots and stay near mom, who will be especially on guard.  My second favorite season is the rut (the fall mating season). There’s lots of activity from the bulls sparring or bugling, gathering, and following their harem.

If you’re shooting with a smart phone, get the elk within this huge mountain scene. Phones don’t capture crisp images from far off, so zoom out to get the big picture. Wait for the activity and show action, if you can.

The rut starts mid to late august. Bulls shedding their antler velvet is the first sign that rut is on. This is usually as temperatures cool in early or mid-September, and it winds down in mid-October.


Areas to target Moraine Park, Beaver meadows, and Horseshoe park on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. I also like Kawuneeche Valley on the west side.

Drive Trail Ridge Road There’s a herd along the road—cows, calves, and spikes—usually a couple weeks after Memorial Day weekend, they head up to the tundra where they spend the summer. I’ve counted as many as 130. Make sure to use the designated pullouts along the road, not social parking areas or, even worse, just stopping in the middle of the road.

Get your caption accurate In the Western U.S., you count the tines (points) on each side of the rack and say “This bull elk is a 7 by 8 or 8 by 8,” for example. The male is called bull; female, a cow; baby, a calf. A “satellite bull” is another bull challenging a herd bull. A spike bull is a one year old male with, yes, a single spike.

Be patient and enjoy the moment. Elk are going to do whatever they want—because they’re elk. Sometimes they are sleeping on the golf course when you wish they were fighting, but just enjoy being in the moment with them.


Learn more about Dawn Wilson at