As I officially announced last week, I’m excited to have been honored with another Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. This year’s Highly Commended image, titled “Snow Bison,” was chosen in the highly competitive Animal Portraits category. As with my previous honored photos—WPY55’s Snow Exposure and WPY56’s Top Picker—I’d like to take a little time to explain what went into making the image. Our photos may only capture a single brief moment in time, but the lead-up to the creation of these pictures sometimes spans months or years. Here’s the story behind Snow Bison…
Hard Work? Well, Not on the Surface…
Back when I scored my first WPY win with my other snowy bison photo, there were some misconceptions about what it took to land the image. That scene, depicting a lonely bison frozen in a heavy snowfall, evoked the harshest possible winter conditions, and in the mind of some, a sense of hardship and suffering. The photographer must have surely suffered for his art, people thought. When I told them that no, in fact I was sitting in an idling vehicle with the heat on, shooting photos out the window, the sense of disappointment on their faces was noticeable.
Guess what? This year’s photo was also taken out the car window!
As with Snow Exposure, I didn’t exactly have a choice. The bison were coming to the road, and in order to give them room to get onto the pavement safely, I had to slow and stop. So why not shoot while they made their way past me?
The lack of a dramatic backstory may be a letdown to some folks, but it’s important to remember that the circumstances that lead to the creation of a photo are often imagined and anticipated over long periods of time. Our final award-worthy pictures are pre-visualized, honed and perfected thanks to previous encounters, attempts, and especially failures behind the lens. This bison capture is no exception. In fact, I can probably point to a moment thirteen years prior that kicked off this particular journey.
The First Winter Trip
Since 2000, I have been making annual trips to Yellowstone National Park. In those early years, recently graduated from college but still used to a “school break” type schedule, I kept taking summer trips to the park. And I kept wondering why I wasn’t seeing more wildlife (especially bears). It took some time—learning from acquaintances I made and online communities I joined—before I realized I had to alter my timing. Adjusting my visits to get out of the heat of summer was the most significant step I made, and by 2007 I had experienced my first fall trips, an early spring trip, and a visit that fell in the peak wildlife timeframe of late spring. It was eye-opening.
The one thing left to do? Visiting Yellowstone in winter. Yellowstone’s winters were famous for being frigid, but beautiful. The conditions were stark and harsh on the park’s wild residents. I had limited time (and money) at that point, so a short trip—literally an extended weekend—was all I could manage. Enough to get a taste, at least, though not many photos.
The most cooperative subjects during that visit were some roadside bighorn sheep, and a couple of coyotes that were fairly used to traversing the park roads.
I was also fortunate to score a visual of the famed Druid wolf pack. Yes, they were far away, but on a sunny day (and with my limited park experience) I still felt it was a good sighting.
That ended up being my best photo opportunity with the Druids before they eventually disappeared and were supplanted in the Lamar Valley by other wolves.
There was one other animal that was present in the valley. Bison are ubiquitous in Yellowstone, and in those few days I primarily recall a few bachelor males hanging out near Soda Butte in the eastern Lamar.
On crisp winter days, these bulls generally look cold, and a bit lonely. At one point, however, one of them got a bit frisky. Perhaps this was due to the presence of one its fellows, or maybe it just bounced around for fun (something we rarely accuse a fully mature bull bison of having) or to warm up. Regardless, it kicked up a fair bit of powder, resulting in this scene:
I never forgot this. The amount of snow being kicked up by the huge bulk of this massive beast made an impression. As a graphic image, it was incredibly compelling. The biggest problem was that it took place so far away. On a low (by today’s standards) megapixel body, a fair bit of cropping was still required, and you can tell it lacks detail. Ever since, I hoped to capture a similar scene, but I’ve never had a bison expend enough energy in soft powdery snow to create such clouds since that day.
The other element in Snow Bison that was carried over from past experiences was the composition. Many photographers, including myself, began our shooting careers in search of standard wildlife portraits. These are classic, clean images that are usually effective in presenting our subjects in a powerful, majestic, or elegant way, if executed properly. Even today, if I encounter a new species I hope I can at least walk away with one decent portrait to document my encounter. Once we have those shots under our belts, we start to branch out a bit. In most cases, that means shooting wider: going for the “animalscape” environmental shot.
But there’s another direction I chose to explore on occasion. I went even tighter. And not just with bison. What sort of abstracts could I create with my subjects, especially in winter, that would emphasize shape, patterns, and texture over the subject itself?
Bison were a perfect subject for this type of photography. They’ve got personality (usually grumpiness, but occasionally playfulness in the case of calves), their colors and texture vary depending on age and season… and of course that iconic shape makes for all sorts of fun curves and contours.
I looked to isolate shapes and textures. I hoped for overlapping patterns. I sought out abstracts.
I was especially drawn to the business end of the animal: horn and muscle coming together to offer an instantly recognizable portrait, even with only 1/5 of the animal showing. Does this look somewhat familiar?
How It Came Together
During the winter of 2020-21, I was fortunate to get two chances to visit the park. I led a photo tour in January, and then was hired for a private tour in February. The later visit paid off in terms of snowpack. Yellowstone snow levels have been pretty low in the past decade, with only a couple of “heavy” winters that I can recall. Usually the sagebrush in the Lamar Valley is still visible dotting the landscape. We no longer get the endless canvas of pristine white like we used to.
On the return trip, I remember being buoyed by the added snow covering the ground since my January visit, figuring it would provide a better backdrop and make for cleaner wildlife photos. As it turned out, it also provided a bit more of that extra powder I’d been subconsciously longing for since 2008.
After I entered the Lamar Valley (having driven straight from the airport and heading toward my property outside the park’s northeast entrance), I soon noticed a small herd of bison heading down the slope above me. They were angling toward the road, and their pace was picking up. I wasn’t about to race them, so I did the prudent thing, and came to a stop in order to give them room to get up on the road. Of course, there was a realistic possibility I’d get stuck in a small bison jam as a result, but it was more important to ensure a spooked bison didn’t go clattering or slipping across the icy pavement and do any damage to itself.
As the bison neared the road, they cratered out in the deepest snow. This was along the shoulder, where the morning snow plow deposited everything it scraped off the road. So I knew some big puffs of snow were possible. The question in my mind was only whether I would be able to capture the right combination of flying powder and moving bison. I fired off several shots as a few individuals tumbled down.
These are some of the uncropped images from the sequence. A few are nearly successful. There were a few small clouds of icy dust kicked up (not as much as I’d hoped), but the patterns they created either obscured too much detail in the bison, or weren’t quite bold and dynamic enough to make for a really interesting portrait. In fact, the strongest element in any of these shots is the bug-eyed look on the driven bison and the position of a couple of those hooves. Ultimately, none of them really worked to show off the power and motion that was actually on display.
It was the next image in the sequence that gave me the result I wanted. It wasn’t a perfect photo at first glance: the bison’s face is cut off. What you see in the final image is actual the true right side of the frame as it tumbled out of my view. But that was fine! After all, I’d envisioned a tight abstract when shooting the scene anyway. The key was achieving the balance between the cloud of white and the key features of the bison: the horn, eye, and fur.
This was as close as I’d come to recreating that scene I photographed back during my first winter Yellowstone visit, and I knew I’d achieved a pretty good result once I was able to crop it a bit tighter and hone in on the details. There were still concerns of course… it’s very easy on a cold day to get caught behind softening heat waves created by an idling car, for example. I hoped the photo would be sufficiently sharp (thankfully, it was).
When it came time to submit my images to Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I felt that this image had the best chance of any of my submissions. That was for WPY58… last year! It passed into the second round of judging, but ultimately came up short.
I’d only recently begun resubmitting images from past years to WPY. I used to believe that once an image was entered once, it couldn’t be entered again. Not true, of course, and naturally it makes sense to give certain photos another try. After all, these competitions are not static. The judging panels change, so tastes differ from year to year. There are also considerations about the types of images that have been awarded in previous years, or which subjects have been featured prominently. Ultimately, I knew it would be looked at with fresh eyes, even though it was almost an afterthought as a submission the second time around since I was more excited about my fresher work.
Lo and behold, I had more photos than ever make the next round of judging, but Snow Bison was the only one that hit the mark.
“After a week of energising, exciting sessions of critical review and debate, the judging of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 59 competition has finished. The jury were thrilled with the high quality of entries and had a difficult task selecting their very best 100 images from the over 49,000 entered. We’re very excited to inform you that they have awarded your image as Highly Commended in the Animal Portraits category. Many congratulations!”
So is there a lesson to be learned from all this? Perhaps chiefly, it’s that despite the split-second decision making that goes into creating an award-winning shot, such decisions are ultimately influenced by long and oft-repeated attempts to capture similar scenes in the field. Without that first experience fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have gone back to London. The other takeaway? Just because a photo you feel confident about doesn’t connect with the judges this time, don’t dismiss its chances with a different audience down the line.
“SNOW BISON” LIMITED EDITION PRINTS:
30″ x 23″ fine art Photo Rag Baryta paper prints, signed and numbered, set of 25: $1800US + S/H.
36″ x 27″ fine art Photo Rag Baryta paper prints, signed and numbered, set of 25: $2800US + S/H.
“SNOW BISON” STANDARD PRINTS
There are two ways to order standard prints. I generally recommend that folks use the Pixels option, especially for international orders or for pre-matted/framed prints, but you can also order from a more limited selection of prints through my website.
Order pre-matted and framed prints of the winning image via Pixels.com: Including matted/framed prints, or various gift items featuring the photo. Pixels also has several international fulfillment centers that make may ordering internationally easier/cheaper. This is also a faster way to receive prints while I am traveling!
Order prints directly through my website: You can choose from a limited variety of paper or finishes if you order via my archive. Any print orders placed here will not be fulfilled while I am traveling, so wait time may be longer.