How to Photograph Bison in Yellowstone

Finding subjects for wildlife photography in summer is a challenge. As I look forward to arguably my favorite time of the year – the fall mating season for big mammals such as elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and so on – I first have to make it through the summer. Long days filled with harsh light provided by the sun directly overhead and heat, that unbearable heat.

With the notable exception of the salmon and brown bear action in Alaska and Canada, most wildlife on the North American continent hides and takes an appropriate summer break. As you pack your family and camera equipment into the RV for the annual summer vacation trip into nature, you quickly wonder upon arriving … where the heck is the wildlife?

Fear not, even when the thermometer hits 90 F, there is still one great and very reliable opportunity around to point your camera at. You see, July and August are when the largest mammal in North America decided to have its mating season: bison!

What’s in a Name: Bison, Buffalo, or Fluffy Cows?

The “National Mammal of the United States” is typically referred to as “buffalo.” Being different from Asian buffalo and African buffalo, however, the correct scientific name for these prehistoric-looking animals is “bison.” And to be completely correct, it’s “Bison bison bison”: genus Bison, species bison, subspecies bison.

The bison’s size is impressive, to say the least: the big males (“bulls”) weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and the females (“cows”) up to 1,000 pounds. Get ready to be impressed (and a little fearful) when a bison walks by your car. Even the babies (named “calves” or “red dogs”) already weigh up to 70 pounds right after birth.

Calves are given the nickname “red dogs” due to their orange-red color during the first months after birth before they turn brown like the adults. Keep in mind that even though bison appear tame and slow, they are actually very agile and fast. You’ll quickly realize how agile they are once you see them chase each other during the mating season!

Bison have an average lifespan of 10 to 20 years. Bison bulls typically breed between the ages of 6 to 10; when they are in their prime physical shape to fight competing males over breeding rights with a female. Cows on the other hand begin breeding as young as age 2 with the gestation period lasting around 9 months.

The rut or mating season in Yellowstone National Park happens from mid-July into August, which means the calves are born the following spring around April to May, 9 months later, when there the temperatures are milder and there is plenty of food around.

Their food consists mainly of grasses, weeds, and plants. Their characteristic shoulder hump provides them with strong muscles needed to swing their heads from side to side to clear snow during winter and get to the grass underneath.

Where Can You Go to Photograph Wild Bison?

Millions of bison once roamed the North American continent. They were used by Native Americans for food, shelter, clothing, etc. The arrival of European settlers in the 19th century, however, all but eradicated this enormous population. The U.S. Army, wanting to remove Native Americans from the land, came up with a plan to accomplish this by removing their main food source: bison. By the late 1800s, only a few hundred bison were alive in the wild.

Thanks to conservation efforts by Indian tribes and the federal government, the last remaining bison were saved and a comeback effort was mounted. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt; hunter turned conservationist; and William Hornaday formed the American Bison Society, which started a bison breeding program at the New York City Zoo. This resulted in the donation of 14 bison to South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park.

Today, the offspring of those bison live in 17 bison herds on public land across 12 states, totaling approximately 10,000 bison. Additionally, bison can be found today in all 50 states on private lands as well as Native American lands. Still a big difference in overall population numbers, compared to under 200 years ago, but it’s a start.

The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously; from prehistory to today; is Yellowstone National Park. Unlike bison outside of the park, Yellowstone’s bison are still free of cattle genes and pure descendants of the bison that used to roam the U.S. In the park, the bison population is divided based on where they breed: the northern herd breeds in Lamar Valley, and the central herd breeds in Hayden Valley.

Are Yellowstone’s Bison Managed?

In 1902, Yellowstone National Park’s bison population was down to about 20 animals due to hunting and poaching. Park managers purchased 21 bison from private owners and used them to bring the National Park population back. They raised the bison at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch (still standing in Lamar Valley today) and at Mammoth. These bison mixed with the park’s small remaining population and, long story short, today, the park is home to an estimated 4,900 bison, the largest population on public lands!

The growing numbers caused a new problem, however: Yellowstone’s bison population reproduces up to 17% annually, much greater numbers than the park predators like wolves and grizzlies can keep in check. The ever-growing bison population is expanding its territory by roaming outside of the park onto private and other public lands. This is not appreciated by all, for example, as bison can transfer a disease called brucellosis to domestic cattle. What to do?

Hunting is not allowed in the park and rightly so, since hunting would change the animals’ behavior and greatly impact the wildlife experience park visitors and us wildlife photographers have. The solution came in the year 2000 in the form of the “Interagency Bison Management Plan.” Eight groups, including Native American tribes, joined together to manage Yellowstone’s bison population. The population goal is set at 4,900.

How is this accomplished? Some neighboring states allow bison hunts on bison that venture outside of park borders onto state land. Other bison are actually captured inside Yellowstone National Park; in 2021, for example, the goal was to capture 500 to 700 animals and transfer them to Indian tribes for slaughter. This provides meat and hides for their members, just like it did in days gone by.

As many people are uncomfortable with the capture and slaughter of Yellowstone’s bison, however, the recently initiated Bison Conservation Transfer Program identifies, among the captured bison, brucellosis-free animals and transfers them to Fort Peck Indian tribes to start a new population.

Photography Tips

Okay, you put on your shorts and t-shirt and made it to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley in the heat of summer. Now what?

Keep your distance

Let’s start with the obvious: bison are wild animals and although they appear docile most of the time, can and will harm you when provoked. At a top speed of 35 miles per hour, they can easily outrun the fastest human being on earth. Bison have poor eyesight but have excellent smell and hearing.

Do not approach a bison closer than the National Park required distance of 25 yards. YouTube has several great examples of what may happen when you ignore this rule: multiple tourists annually attempt close-up cell phone shots, posing next to a bison or even petting one and, as a result, are thrown in the air and injured by a charging bison. Fact: per the National Park Service, bison have injured more people in Yellowstone than any other animal!

When photographing bison, pay attention to the bison’s tail: when the tail hangs down, the bison is usually calm and feels non-threatened. When the tail is up in the air, however, it can mean any of two things. As the expression goes: “sh*t or oh sh*t!” Either the bison is going to defecate (“sh*t”) or is going to charge you (“oh sh*t!”).

All joking aside, bring a variety of lenses that allow you to keep your physical distance while still getting the frame-filling shot you want.

Best time

My two favorite times of the year to photograph bison are during the harsh, cold winter and during the summer rut. Winter in Yellowstone can be especially brutal with regular daytime temperatures down to minus 20 F. As the Lamar Valley is covered in deep snow, this allows you to photograph the bison’s struggle to survive as it digs down in the snow to attempt to eat the dry grass underneath.

On my bucket list is spending time with the bison during the winter to photograph them in the snow. Snow hides all the busyness of the vegetation and “cleans up” the image by providing a single, white background.

Much easier conditions, however, occur in the middle of the summer when the bison rut happens from mid-July into August. Daytime temperatures in Lamar Valley hover around 70 to 80 F as bison are seemingly everywhere in the valley, including on the (one) road!


Bison typically spend up to 11 hours per day grazing, so to get any interesting shots, you have to time it right. My favorite bison behavior to photograph occurs during the annual mating season or rut. The ultimate action is bulls locking horns and fighting, but be especially aware of your surroundings as the fight can inadvertently veer in your direction in an instant!

Another interesting behavior is called “wallowing.” Bison exhibit this behavior year-round, which is rolling in the dirt to help shed fur and deter biting insects; but even more so during the rut when big males roll in the dirt and urinate to leave behind their scent.

Bulls also vocalize during the rut, called “bellowing.” This typically includes grunts and sticking out their tongue.

Focal length

Bison are huge. When you see a big bull bison stand next to a small car, you quickly realize that they are pretty much the same size. I typically carry three lenses on me to photograph the bison rut. My most used lens is a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. This allows me to fill the frame with a bison standing 25 yards away but also allows me to include some scenery around the animal. For headshots, I use a 500mm f/4 lens.

To include the vast landscape of the valley, I grab my 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. The fast aperture of these lenses allows me to shoot at dusk and dawn.

Shutter speed

Most of the time spent with bison, you’ll notice they are either “just standing there” or laying down. As a result, you can go pretty slow with your shutter speed. Good news since that allows you to lower the ISO which in turn can result in cleaner images with less noise, better color rendition, more contrast, and sharpness. Even in the thick of the action, when competing bulls are fighting or chasing one another, I rarely increase my shutter speed over 1/1000s. These are no tiny, erratic birds for which a shutter speed of 1/2000s or higher is recommended.


Unless I deliberately try to create a landscape with front-to-back sharpness, I shoot my lenses always wide open. This means opening up the lens to the widest aperture the lens supports. To clarify: when you look at the aperture number on your lens’ barrel, the widest aperture is the number that is listed. For example, the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 lens has f/2.8 as its widest (largest) aperture possible.

Yes, some lenses are considered to be sharper when “stopped down” one or two stops, but as I typically like to use pro-level lenses, I expect those lenses to deliver great sharpness, even wide open.

Why do I use my lenses always wide open – with the exception of a landscape shot? In addition to your distance to the image subject and the lens focal length, the aperture affects how much of the image is in focus. This is called “depth of field”: the zone of sharpness in the image. Using the lens wide open and focusing on the animal’s eyes, my goal is to make the animal and its eyes “pop” by keeping the foreground and background blurred and out of focus.

Now go out and ‘shoot’ some buffalo, err … bison, and enjoy Lamar Valley’s scenes from bygone days when numerous prairies around the U.S. were filled with these magnificent creatures.