Photographing bighorn sheep during the rut is one of the great wildlife spectacles in the world, and Wyoming has one of the best locations to do it — Whiskey Basin near Dubois. This stellar view of the Absaroka Range would stand alone by itself but having the sheep in the foreground makes it a great shot. (courtesy Mark Gocke)

Growing up in Nebraska, Mark Gocke spent his time outside rambling along creek bottoms, investigating wildlife tracks and wondering how animals lived; where did they sleep, what did they eat? As a hunter, he noticed similarities between the sport and photography. Understanding how animals moved and what

Watching these elk for days helped Mark Gocke anticipate when and where they would cross the Snake River and allowed him to set up for a shot with a nice background. (courtesy Mark Gocke)

their behavior meant helped him capture images showing wildlife in its natural setting.

His love of animals lead him to become a habitat biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and eventually a public information specialist for agency. He often photographs animal captures and field work on the job. And on his own time, Gocke uses his understanding of wildlife to create scenic photographs for his business.

Spring is prime-time for photographing wildlife; animals are emerging, birds are returning and sage grouse are strutting. WyoFile recently caught up with Gocke and asked him for advice for those interested in learning wildlife photography and how to get great images without stressing out animals.

Spring is a great time to photograph waterfowl and songbirds as they return from their wintering areas to the south. Wetlands and riparian areas are typically loaded with a variety of species and the birds are in their most colorful breeding plumage. (courtesy Mark Gocke)

How did you get into photography?  

I had a friend in high school senior year, they were taking pictures for the yearbook and they gave a few pointers and let me borrow a camera. I had no idea at the time what a life-changing thing that would be. It really opened up a whole new world for me. It helped me use that creative side of my brain. I don’t play a musical instrument. I can’t dance. I’m not a painter. I’m not artistic in any other way. But when I discovered photography I knew this was my creative outlet.

How does your experience as a biologist help you as a photographer?

Just understanding animal behavior and understanding where animals are likely to be and where photo opportunities are likely to present themselves. You don’t have to be a professional wildlife biologist to be a good wildlife photographer. You just have to do a little homework. By that I mean understanding this is the time of the year that sage grouse are going to be strutting on their lek. That’s a great photo op. They are predictable. Or understanding in the fall the elk are going to be bugling. Or in the winter that’s when the big horn sheep are going to be rutting. You can put yourself in a good position to get great photographs.

What sets good wildlife photographs apart from mediocre ones?

A lot of people treat photography like they are hunting and put the animal in the middle of the frame as if there are crosshairs in the middle of the lens. Some things to pay attention to if you wanted to create a more aesthetically pleasing photograph are to position the animal to a side of the frame and pay attention to backgrounds. That can be really difficult. If you are seeing a grizzly bear, that captivates your attention. You are just thinking about getting it in the frame. A picture of an animal is one thing, but if you can get a picture of an animal in a dramatic setting with dramatic lighting, you are setting your photo apart from 90 percent of photos out there, and it becomes special.

Spending hours with this young red fox near Pinedale allowed Mark Gocke to earn its trust and get this shot of a relaxed animal. (courtesy Mark Gocke)

How do you get good herd shots?

I look for animals that are spaced out enough you can make out the outline of the individuals.  If you have a group of animals together and one of the animals looks at you, that is going to be a good thing. If you focus on any anything, you focus on the eye of the subject. That’s how we communicate. We make eye contact.

What is one piece of gear you should have for getting into wildlife photography?

I’d go for a zoom or a telephoto lens at least 300 mm. A tripod is also a very important investment. Tripods make you think about what you are including and not including in the frame. It makes you be more deliberate in how you compose the photograph. Especially starting out it’s a good thing to slow down to really think about what you are including and not. Not to mention you come away with sharper images.

Photographing sage grouse on their breeding ground, or lek, is another one of the great wildlife spectacles on the planet. By using a blind, a photographer can get fairly close without disturbing the birds. The other Wyoming grouse — the sharp-tailed, ruffed and blue grouse — also have a showy breeding display and typically return to the same places year after year. (courtesy Mark Gocke)

What do you need to think about in terms of shooting animals so you aren’t stressing them?

You only have to take one trip to Yellowstone to witness someone who is getting too close, usually because they don’t have the right equipment. And that’s just not good for the people or the animal. Parks have some rules in place like (staying) 100 yards (away) for grizzly bears. But really it’s more of a matter of paying attention. You might not be able to get that close and still be safe. You have to pay attention to the animal and how it’s reacting to you, and it will give you signs you are getting too close. You generally want the animal to see you and know you are there and it really is a matter of just being patient and building trust with the animal. If you just get out of the car and start walking directly toward the animal, they are probably going to turn away and flee and that’s not the picture you want. You want to photograph an animal that’s acting normal and showing you its normal behavior in a natural setting.

Where are some of the best places to shoot wildlife in the spring?

This time of year is great for sage grouse. There’s a lot of breeding behavior going on with birds in general and there’s a lot of waterfowl coming back to our state after migrating south. I love waterfowl because this time of year they are in their breeding plumage and are very animated and active. Sage grouse of course are very showy and turkeys are very showy right now. Other grouse too are going to display breeding behavior and then it won’t be too much longer before the big game animals are going to have their young. Animals with young are going to be more protective and need more space, but who doesn’t love a good photograph of a baby animal? And of course landscapes are good any time of year, but things are starting to green up and we have some flowers coming up and wildflowers add to any landscape photo.


Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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