Young Love | Photographing the North American Elk Rut

by on August 21, 2016

wapiti / Cervus elaphus (scientific name)


Photographing the elk rut is a blast because there are always surprising moments, even though the routine is pretty predictable. If I had to guess, it was this young bull elk’s first, possibly second rutting season. His small antlers are starting to branch, stature, and his clumsy ways all lead to the signs he was becoming a man for the first time, hoping to leave a legacy for years to come.

Whilst in Jasper National Park, it was amazing to witness this young fella round up his equally young and very small harem and proceed with courting each young cow. His bugles were shorter and much more quiet than older bull elk. As the years go on, his bugles will be heard throughout the park area and will be a bone chilling sound for anyone within earshot. For now, it grabs the attention of those in the direct area.


Young bull elk surveys his small harem during his first rutting season in Jasper National Park, Alberta wildlife.

A young bull Nortn American elk courts a young cow elk during the annual elk rut at Jasper National Park, Alberta wildlife.


Gear … woes?

This courting song and dance lasted a couple hours, and though I shot many frames, I felt pretty restricted with focal length (Canon 300mm ƒ2.8 on a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II) and even more so, the area in which I could safely observe from. One thing you never want to do is get in between wild animals – especially during a mating season such as this one. Bull elks are notoriously aggressive – they are stressed, hungry and focused. Even though this young spike seemed gentle, he would be anything but.

So, there are only 2 choices a photographer has – change your lens and/or shuffle with your feet. I was not sporting a longer lens or teleconverter, so I shuffled with my feet as best and safely as I could. I quietly moved between the trees, abandoning my tripod since I only had a ballhead at that point and not a dedicated gimbal head. I would have preferred some close-up shots to isolate their faces and remove elements such as the butts of wandering cow elk, which filled up a number of frames. Ha. However, because of zigzagging with my feet and light cropping in post, I was at least able to capture their habitat.

With a heavily wooded area, rubbish lighting and a light spitting of snow, the lack of control over these elements made me more focused on these animals and what I was actually witnessing rather than being panicked about light (I wanted more snow since the light was already crap!). It’s no secret I’m a lover of light and I bring it up far too often on our podcast, but when it comes to wild animals, we do what we can as we are on their schedule and theirs alone. Sometimes we luck out and sometimes we don’t. I wouldn’t trade this experience at all because I was witness to an incredible act of nature and a charming young bull elk finding his way.


Young bull elk attempts to court a cow elk during his first rutting season in Jasper National Park, Alberta wildlife.

Young bull elk attempts to court a cow elk during his first rutting season in Jasper National Park, Alberta wildlife.


See you in the field!


Photographer. Podcaster on hiatus. Edmonton Oilers lovah. Cinematic Star Wars fan. Fond of wildlife conservation, animal rescue orgs, and all things Johnny Cash. Gen X. 

Let’s connect via Twitter or Instagram.