When people talk about photographing elk, they are usually referring to places in Wyoming or any of the areas in the western part of the country that
are known to have populations of elk. The reality is that some of the best opportunities for great elk photography are right here in northcentral
Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania herd numbers over 800 elk scattered over the counties of Elk, Cameron, McKean, Potter, Clinton, Clearfield, and
Center. Don't let this large area overwhelm you because a good portion of the elk can be found in areas around the village of Benezette, Elk County,
Pennsylvania. A good place to start your trip to Benezette is the Elk Country Visitor Center located on Winslow Hill Road. Please click on the
following link for more information and directions to the Visitor Center: http://experienceelkcountry.com/vc.html
Photo of the Elk Country Visitor Center posted with permission from the Keystone Elk Country Alliance
Many times elk can be observed feeding in the food plots right on the grounds of the Visitor Center. So please be aware of crossing elk when driving
up the long entranceway to the Center. If you are new to the area, the staff will gladly direct you to the places where the elk are known to frequent.
One of the major problems in photographing elk during the rut, usually beginning in mid-September, is the tens of thousands of tourists that flock to
Benezette to witness this annual event. This is especially true on weekends during the fall. If you are new to the area you will quickly learn that
Benezette is a very small town and lodging and restaurants are limited, so keep this in mind when planning your visit. Click on the following link to
view some of the accommodations available in and around Benezette:
Remember that elk are wild animals and there is no guarantee that they will cooperate and give you the time and the perfect pose that you want to
capture. When you see an elk, the opportunity to get a photograph may last a few brief seconds, so stay calm and make sure that you are ready for
action. Photographing elk is often characterized by hours of inaction, followed by a short period of hectic action and then a return to inaction. If you
need to scramble to get your equipment set up, bring the subject into focus, or to set the proper exposure, you’re going to miss the opportunity for
unique photos. Being prepared will give you the best chance for success.
The information provided below is intended to help you prepare and to serve as a guide for you to get the most out of your elk photographing
experience in this wild and scenic part of rural Pennsylvania. Thanks to Willard Hill, Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer, Ronald (Buckwheat) Saffer,
Jim Borden, JJ Wildlife Photography, Phil Burkhouse, Willard Hill, and Tom Dorsey well respected and better known elk photographers for sharing their
vast knowledge of the elk herd and photography and assisting to put together this guide.
The heart of Pennsylvania’s free roaming elk herd, the village of Benezette sits along the Elk Scenic Drive, a 127 mile excursion through some of
Central Pennsylvania’s most rugged and beautiful country. As recently as three years ago strip mining was still actively being conducted in the area
around Benezette. Tens of thousands of acres of wilderness were decimated in the quest for coal. A joint effort between the PA Department of
Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR), the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC)
collaborated to reclaim these abandoned wastelands. This was achieved by cultivating the land and creating food plots planted with special grasses
that are preferred by the elk. Additionally, DEP remediated the abandoned mine drainage in Dents Run caused by the strip mining operation. The
Bennetts Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek (the stream running through Benezette) has been cleaned up enough so that the waterway now has
aquatic insects that are necessary to support trout and other fish. As a result, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has stocked the Bennetts
Branch with fingerling trout. This project should serve as a model of how state agencies working together can turn previously worthless land and
water into a habitat to attract and maintain the elk herd and other wildlife to be viewed and enjoyed by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the
area every year.
What is the best time to photograph elk?
Generally speaking, the best time to photograph elk is from daybreak until 8:00 or 9:00AM and 4:00 or 5:00PM until dark. However, during the winter
or days of inclement weather or on cloudy days, the elk can be found at almost any time in the open fields or food plots. In the interim, the elk are
resting in the deep woods to avoid the heat of the day. Unfortunately, in the morning around Benezette, the frequent fog turns the best
photographing time into the worst. By the time that the fog is gone, so are the elk. However, further study on how to take photographs in foggy
conditions may lead to some interesting captures. Some wildlife photographers use the fog to create mood. Practicing in foggy conditions using
higher ISO levels and manual focus can result in some dramatic photographs.
As far as the best season to photograph elk, fall is by far the optimum time. During this time of year, known as the rut, the bull elk can be located by
the sound of the bugling that is part of their mating ritual. That being said, the other seasons can also provide unique photographing opportunities.
For example, the birthing of the calves or the bull elk in velvet in the spring or the gathering of large herds in the open fields in the winter.
Two bull elk in the winter, photographed by Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60D with 70mm-200 f2.8 lens - All rights reserved
Another exciting time to photograph is when the calves are born. Capturing images of a newborn calf is a memory you will cherish for years to come.
Be aware that at this time the mothers are very protective of their young and be somewhat aggressive and a bit harder to find but the effort could be
very rewarding. Like the spotted calf below, these photographs produce some of the cutest images nature can provide.
Elk calf, photograph by Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60D with 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens
- All Rights Reserved.
As you develop your photographic skills, you will find that the most compelling and successful images are ones that capture elk in action. As in the
photo below, capturing the behavioral action of two bulls sparring requires patience and being at the right place at the right time.
Two bull elk sparring during the rut, photograph by: Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60D with 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens - All Rights Reserved.
Bull elk bugling during the rut, photograph by: Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60D with 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens - All Rights Reserved.
What photographic equipment do I need?
Basically, there are two camera choices: A fixed-lens digital camera (also called a "point-and-shoot") fitted with a powerful zoom lens, and a digital
single lens reflex camera body (Digital DSLR) that allows you to change lenses, fitted with a fixed focal length telephoto lens. If you are serious about
photography and want to get decent results, you will need a DSLR camera to set you apart from the "point and shoot" tourist crowd. This equipment
is available from several manufacturers with Canon and Nikon being the current favorites of many professionals and with both making excellent DSLR
cameras capable of producing quality photographs.
The camera model you get will greatly depend on your budget for photography. One should carefully consider how involved they would like to get into
photographing wildlife and establish the budget level of their expenses prior to jumping into a DSLR purchase. One of the key ingredients to selecting
the camera body is to get a model that handles higher ISO levels well without distracting noise and lack of clarity. Fast lenses and high ISO’s are
critical to being able to photograph wildlife at their peak activity times.
The basic budget level considerations are the Canon 60D or the Nikon D5100 or Nikon D7000. These models have very good sensors and allow
good photography up through about 800 ISO. The mid range budget would allow purchase of a Nikon D300s or a Canon 7D. These models are
semi pro and offer more flexible menus for controlling how you shoot and how the camera focuses. They have the same ISO capability as the lower
priced models. The higher budget level would include the Canon 1D MK IV and the Nikon D3s. Both of these camera bodies are pro models and offer
much higher ISO capability and still deliver sharp prints. The Nikon D3s is the best on the market in that performance as it can deliver sharp images
without noticeable noise through ISO6400. Even though the price tag of $5000 for either of these models is considerable, they allow you to depend
less on multiple lenses to get the same light performance.
Lenses are an item to definitely not scrimp on. Stick with the name brands of Nikon and Canon. They deliver much better sharpness. If deciding to
stay with the basic or mid range budget camera body, then try to stick with fast lenses (fast being defined by the aperture or opening measured in
F-Stops, a 70-200mm lens that has a aperture f.2.8 is twice as fast or lets in twice as much light as an f4 lens.) such as the 70-200 f2/8, the 300 f2.8
or the bigger prime lenses such as the 400 f2.8, 500 f4 or 600 f4. Some use the 100-400 Canon but some specimens of this model seem to be soft
focusing, while others seem to do well. Definitely stay away from the Nikon 200-400 f4 lens as it is very soft on subjects over 70 feet or so away. The
Nikon 80-400 is very good value but wide open is f4.5 at 80mm and f5.6 at 400mm. That is a good lens to use on a Nikon D3s as the higher ISO
performance of that camera body allows shooting in lower light with that slower lens.
Next, it is highly recommended that a sturdy tripod be used to reduce the inherent vibration associated with any photography. Stay away from the
bargain brand tripods from the value stores because most are very flimsy. Also try to stay away from tripods with center columns and ones with leg
braces because they are not quick enough to setup. Gitzo (3541XLS is a good choice) and Manfretto tripods are the choice of most wildlife
photographers. In addition, a attach a good ballhead (such as Really Right Stuff BH55 or the Kirk BH1 or BH3) or if using large prime lenses choose a
Wimberley II Gimbal head. Also, a remote shutter release is suggested.
Are there any special techniques I can use or other things that I need to know when photographing elk in Benezette?
Basically the are two types of elk in Pennsylvania; habituated (also referred to as acclimated) and wild. For photographing or filming, the habituated
elk are much better targets since they have little fear of people and can be fairly easily approached The majority of our elk range has scattered
individuals and small herds of elk that are wild and not approachable. Photographers should concentrate their time on the habituated animals on
Winslow Hill and along the entire Route 555 river bottom. That being said, even habituated elk take offense to being followed from open feeding areas
into dense cover where they will rest for the day. One last item is to tell people that although habituated elk are easy to approach and photograph
they are much more dangerous than their non-habituated cousins. Elk that have little fear of people are much more likely to become aggressive
(especially during the fall rut). Elk have been known to charge people and also chase cars! Photographers must learn to watch for signs that indicate
an elk is not pleased with your presence (staring at you, hair raising on their back, ears laid back, lips peeled back with teeth exposed, head erect and
walking toward you etc.). Also try not to position yourself between a herd bull and any of his harem; elk are fairly dumb and may mistake you for
wanting to breed some of the cows which is not a good thing. In spite of its' immense size, an elk can gallop for short distances. Elk photographers
and nature observers should keep this in mind when approaching a bull during the rutting season or a cow with a calf in the spring. Under these
circumstances, elk can be both unpredictable and very aggressive.
One of the critical elements in the composition of a photograph that separates the novice from the advanced photographer is the background. Novice
photographers just photograph the elk with no consideration to the background. This is a mistake and can ruin an otherwise perfect photo. The best
way to control the background is to eliminate distracting elements in the scene, the photographer can move these objects, change the angle, change
locations, or even shoot a close-up if possible. Be aware that anything in the background like houses, yards, utility lines, vehicles, or people, that may
distract from the elk needs to be avoided. A good way to minimize those distractions in addition to the techniques already mentioned is to use a
longer telephoto lens and shoot near wide open to blur the background.
Another consideration is whether to do post processing on digital images of elk. Post processing is done with digital image editors like Photoshop,
Lightroom, Elements, Capture NX, or Gimp. You can use these programs to fine tune your images by adjusting the colors, sharpness, contrast, size,
and etc. Currently Photoshop CS5 is the industry standard. However, purist photographers frown on using any post processing. The Pennsylvania
Game Commission attaches a numbered yellow collar on selected elk for monitoring purposes. If you take a photograph of one of these elk, do you
use an image editor to clone out the collar, or leave it in?
Your goal should be to not just take a picture of an elk, but by moving around and viewing the elk at different angles, you can create captivating elk
Also, be careful not to chop off legs, antlers, or other body parts. Try to capture action and animal behaviors that add reality and interest to
Don't be afraid to turn your camera to shoot vertical images. Often elk are best photographed in a vertical aspect. For example, if an elk is moving
toward you, a vertical shot is appropriate and if the elk is parallel to you, use the horizontal aspect.
Try to keep the focal point in one of the "thirds" of the frame. That being said, remember rules are made to be broken when a unique opportunity
As you gain experience, learning to see light and interpret how it will look in an image is a critical skill necessary for success. The early and late light
is often the best light of the day and fortunately coincides with the times when most elk are active.
If you remain quiet and walk slowly, there are times when the elk will allow you to approach quite closely. This will give you some of the best
opportunities for capturing the perfect photograph. See photographs below:
Photographs by: Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60D with 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens - All Rights
An article appeared in the WQED (educational channel in Pittsburgh) blog.. Click on the photograph of the bull to read the article posted in the
"Outside My Window" blog... And click on the elk calf photograph to read another article on the same blog.
Show respect for local property owners by complying with "No Trespassing" signs and please drive slowly and stay alert. If you see an elk that you
may want to photograph, be safe and pull off the roadway as far as possible and do not block driveways and field entrances.
Designated elk viewing areas:
There are three designated areas around Benezette to view the elk: Porcupine Run/Winslow Hill, Dents Run, and Hicks Run Viewing Areas. Be aware
that these places do have restricted areas that limit public access (see directions below). The signs look like this, respect them:
Winslow Hill - The most visited elk viewing site in Pennsylvania, with two established viewing areas, off-road parking, and portable restrooms. Other
wildlife also commonly seen. Location: Winslow Hill Road, 3 miles from its intersection with Route 555 in Benezette.
Sinnemahoning State Park - Enjoy watching the small resident elk herd from the viewing platform, plus other activities and opportunities for
wildlife viewing, including nesting bald eagles. Overnight camping available. Location: Viewing area along Route 872, 14.5 miles north of intersection
with Route 555 at Sinnemahoning.
Hicks Run Viewing Area - This small area near a cemetery offers a great location for photographing elk and other species. Location: Along
Route 555 about 12 miles east of Benezette.
Elk Trail - This 19-mile non-loop trail offers the chance to enjoy elk and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Location: Parking only along Dents Run
Road, about 2 miles north of intersection with Route 555, 10 miles east of Benezette.
Thunder Mountain Equestrian Trail - 26-mile loop provides the chance to see elk in remote habitat, with connector loops for shorter and
varied rides. Location: Trailhead and day-use parking for equestrians along East Hicks Run Road about 3.75 miles from intersection with Route 555,
12 miles east of Benezette.
Beaver Run Dam - Shallow water impoundment with a field where elk often graze, also offers alternative wildlife viewing during the day for
waterfowl, wading birds, deer and songbirds. Location: Along the Quehanna Highway, about 9.5 miles southeast of its intersection with Route 555 at
Also, in the area of Benezette, you will see signs indicating the route of the Pennsylvania Wilds - Elk Scenic Drive. This 127-mile route winds its way
through three state forests. This drive is much more than just elk. You can observe the nesting eagles at Sinnemahoning State Park or take
photographs along the ten mile cascading water of Wykoff Run from the Quehanna Wilderness Highway to the town of Sinnemahoning. The
possibilities are endless and well worth the trip.
Lastly, I want to mention that the yellow and black phases of the Timber Rattlesnake can be found in the area around Benezette. All I can say is to be
careful where you walk and remember that the snakes are not aggressive unless provoked. Since they are being considered to be added to the list of
endangered species by the Fish & Boat Commission, if you encounter a rattlesnake, it is best to just walk away slowly and leave them undisturbed and
unharmed and hopefully they'll return the favor..
Timber Rattlesnake photograph by Paul Staniszewski - Canon 60 D with 70mm-200mm f2.8 lens - All Rights Reserved
Comments or for additional information please E-mail Paul Staniszewski: firstname.lastname@example.org