"You can see a lot by just looking."  Yogi Berra


Wildlife and scenic vistas abound in Yellowstone National Park (YNP).   Capturing feathered, furry, scaled and fluttery creatures by eye and by camera is a pleasure.   Some photos are easy because the wildlife can be at your car window, your feet, on the trail, or in the meadows and valleys.   It’s everywhere.   When wildlife is distant, binoculars, spotting scopes and telephoto lenses bring them up close and personal.

The cost of good binoculars has come down; consider upwards of $200 as the minimum for decent binoculars, $300 and up for significantly higher quality, and sized 8 x 42 or 10 x 42 (more on this, below). 

Most people with scopes are delighted to share the view; ask, for an "oh wow" experience.  You need not have your own.

Before purchasing optics, consider how much use they'll receive after you leave Yellowstone.  Some who have "fallen under the spell" might take up wildlife observing, birding and photography as a hobby.  If so, whether at your home area or on trips, consider buying the best equipment affordable.  The purchase of expensive equipment will be "amortized" over a lifetime of enhanced travel experiences.

Too many visitors, to their regret, come without good quality binoculars and powerful enough cameras. 

A word about photography and ethics.  Wildlife photography is a fascinating hobby, aesthetically and technically.  But all too often, in the excitement of the moment, of the "hunt", photographers have gotten a bad rap because of the behavior of a few, even highly placed professionals.  So, please, follow the rules about approaching wildlife, do nothing foolish that might imperil you and others.

In a nutshell, "Approach wildlife with your lens, not your feet." 

Wildlife sightings  First, simply be aware and look around you.  Scan side to side, front to back. Begin close in - an animal might be right in front of you or, even, behind you.  Use your peripheral vision as well, and try not to get into the habit of staring at some distant object for a long period of time because you think it might be wildlife. You might have spotted a sleeping grizzly, but you will also find that there are a lot of “rock wolves", and "stump bears" out there.

Watch for movement, colors, or shapes that catch your attention.  Look for concentrations of magpies, ravens, eagles or coyotes. That is usually a good indication of a kill, or carcass.  This can help in spotting wolves and bears.

Watch for folks with scopes and heavy duty cameras.  They typically know and are observing (or at least, waiting) in the hot spots.

Backtracking  Don't avoid, but relish, backtracking!  You might increase your chances of seeing wildlife, especially in the Lamar and Hayden valleys.   Most wildlife is constantly on the move, either searching for a meal or avoiding becoming one.  Or, they could be aroused after resting or hiding from the heat of day.

I see an Animal!!!   When you see something, tell others where.  Point in that direction.   Use the clock face example; straight ahead of you is noon, then, clockwise, 3, 6, 9 o'clock.   Is it on the ground or flying?  Is it in the field, the stream, the woods, the edge.  Point out a prominent object, such as a gnarly old tree, a distinctly shaped boulder, or anything else to use as a reference point, and then indicate whether the object is left or right of it, beyond it or in front of it.

Simply saying “over there” at a wolf slinking through the sagebrush a half mile away might not be sufficient for others to spot it, and could also be grounds for divorce :) .

Be invisible if possible, or still, when the wildlife is close.  Use a vehicle as a “blind”.

Clean vehicle windows allow good views or shots.

Binoculars and Spotting Scopes

Binoculars  Ideally, they should be waterproof (not just water repellent), and nitrogen purged; provide long eye relief with an adjustable, twistable, eye piece (not the fold down type); comfortable in your hands; easy to focus.

Choose good quality lenses over higher magnification.  Sure, you will see closer with a 20 power binocular, but not with the clarity or stability of an 8 – 10 power, and handshake will reduce its effectiveness even more.  Best for all around wildlife observations is the 8 or 8.5 power because the lenses are brighter, provide a somewhat wider field of view than the 10x, and typically provide a closer focus (to see details on a dragonfly, butterfly, tree moss, or birds in a nearby bush).

Generally, if you and yours have steady hands, consider, at most, 10 power (10 x 42).  If you have unsteady hands, image stabilized binoculars might work for you and they have come down in weight and price.

Colored lenses add no value.

Roof prism is better than porroprism as the latter can misalign easily.

Don't rely on tiny "opera glasses"; regardless of their "power", they allow only limited light and a narrow field of view, and are therefore of marginal use.  I find them "squinty".

Binocular harness/pack strap:  Binoculars should be quickly accessible.  Heavy binos can cause fatigue when worn with a neck strap for a long time. Consider, then, a harness or pack strap.  Economical, these rigs put the weight of the glasses on the shoulders, not on the back of the neck.  More benefits - the harness leaves both hands free, holds the binos against the chest (minimizing swinging) and at aconvenient level when you need them - just swing them up to your eyes.  The harness is excellent for hiking, spending long hours standing at a viewpoint, and you you don't have to fumble for them when you spot something worth a closer look.  Here is one example:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002...

Car window mounts can be useful if one has a quick release mount on the binoculars.   They allow the observer to remain in the car.   This does not work very well in YNP, as cars typically park on the diagonal, rather than parallel to the viewing area.   Also, the view might well be blocked by others.   Such mounts can be a consideration for those deeply into such observation or have mobility problems.

You can find several ratings of binoculars andscopes on the web.  Consumer Reports ratings are not useful because CR did not identify the applications for which the glass was used. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site is most interesting for several reasons and can be used to guide the purchase of binoculars. The text, plus table, is very instructive, though a bit dated.


Some folks like this size, 8 x 32.  They allow less light than than 8 x 42, which is an important consideration when viewing at dawn and dusk.


How Many Binoculars  If travelling with more than two people,several binoculars will make the trip more enjoyable for all.  Not each binocular needs to be "the best".

Purchasing Binoculars and Scopes  While many websites offer optics, not all websites are created equal in knowledge and service.   The following sites (among others) provide good information.   When a brand or model is not listed on these websites, it might be worth inquiring as to why.  You can parse the binocular list by brand, price, etc.

Purchase equipment from a store or website which emphasizes birding and wildlife watching.   Hunting/target scopes, scopes designed for astronomy, those with colored glass, etc., are not recommended for birders and wildlife observers.   Their quality and application is quite different.






Binocular choice is quite personal.   Many good ones are available.   It’s worthwhile finding a store and “trying them on” for size, balance and fit, in addition to visual acuity.  Take them into a dimly lighted area and check out the light gathering qualities of the various models. A glass that works well in broad daylight could leave you straining to see something at dawn or dusk, which are good wildlife observation times for wildlife.

Local Audubon societies provide field trips.   These provide an excellent opportunities to try different binoculars and scopes and to inquire about the equipment.   The National Audubon Society home page, following, provides access to a list of local chapters.  


Spotting Scopes 

Spotting scopes are invaluable in Yellowstone for observing more distant wildlife and birds.   The typical scope will have a 60mm or larger objective lens and a 20 - 60 power zoom.   For a fixed eyepiece lens, 30 power is a good choice.   The larger the objective lens. e.g., 80mm and more, the more light and, if high quality, produces very good definition, but at greater cost and weight.  (You'll find a dramatic qualitative difference between 60 mm and 80+ mm objective lens and related eyepiece.  As with binoculars, waterproof models are best.

Angled eyepieces are best as they allow flexible use by folks of different heights.  We set ours for my SO's height and being taller, I just bend a little to use the scope.  Also, some scopes with angled eyepieces have an invaluable "hand screw" on the barrel that allows the eyepice to be rotated to accomodate shorter folks - and you don't need to change any setting of the scope and tripod.  This is a great feature, especially when kids want to use the scope; simply twist the lens to their eye level.

With all optics, you get what you pay for in lens and construction quality.  Less expensive scopes will not have the same quality lens as the higher priced models, and, importantly for wildlife viewing, the light and definition can deteriorate significantly especially when zoomed to higher powers at dusk and dawn.  Rifle scopes are for hunting, not observing, so while useful, dollar for dollar, they cannot compare to a spotting scope.  And they cannot use angled eyepieces. 

Tripod purchase must include an attaching mount (head).  The adjustable legs are convenient during transport,  adjustable for different heights, and allow for stability on an uneven surface.  Some leg extender locks are twistable, others have a latch. Though one is not necessarily better than the other, some prefer the cam-lock latch type for speed and convenience of set up when moving from place to place.  While driving, we try to keep the tripod legs extended to save time when setting up for a sudden appearance of an animal or bird.

Light weight tripods are better if lugged on hikes, but provide somewhat less stability in windy conditions; this is not usually a big deal, if it is that windy, the scope, too, will be affected.  Less expensive but somewhat heavier tripods can work fine.

Monopods are not advisable for wildlife observation. They require much practice, lack stability (obviously), and, equally obviously, do not allow you to leave the scope standing while using binoculars for scanning or sipping that morning cup of coffee.

Photographers might find it difficult scanning for distant subjects through the camera viewfinder.  Initial use of a scope will allow you to locate your subject and make the decision on whether there is something there that you want to capture.  It will then be a matter of aiming the camera, composing, and taking the shot.

Because the scope has a relatively narrow field of view, you might find it useful to first scan with binoculars, and then, when the object is located, use the scope.   Or, the scope can be used to scan hillsides, open meadows, and forest edges. Although some might find it awkward at first, with practice it becomes quite easy.  Scanning slowly with a scope set at 20x allows you to see details that you might otherwise have missed with lower power binoculars.

In Yellowstone , most people with scopes are delighted to share the view.   And, you can rent scopes from stores in your neighborhood or, even, in towns near YNP.  So, there is no need to invest that kind of money for that first trip to YNP. However, many people, after seeing how a quality scope can intensify the wildlife viewing experience and make it that much more enjoyable, do go on to invest in their own equipment before they plan that return trip.

Cameras/Photography Equipment

Take Lots of Photos  The average visitor to Yellowstone does not seek a magazine or calendar quality image of Yellowstone 's wildlife.   Rather, create a photo memory book of your trip.  While many people hope for that one "money shot" of a wolf in Lamar Valley , all photos trigger memories.

Kids love to take pictures and a camera at hand will enhance their enjoyment of YNP.  Digital cameras are available at relatively low cost and will add to their pleasure.

Whether you have thousands of dollars invested in pro gear, or just that basic point and shoot, if you are in the right place, at the right time, you could be rewarded. Point and shoot digital cameras are fine for scenery and up close wildlife work, i.e. 100 yards or less.

Which Camera?  For serious wildlife photography, you will need an SLR with decent glass and a tripod. A 300mm lens is the shortest lens needed for wildlife photography in Yellowstone . The pros use 600 and 800mm and even larger fixed lenses for wildlife work, and even then they shoot a lot of "little gray, black, and brown dots" to get one or two marketable photos.  If considering serious wildlife observation or photography, you will belooking at a considerable investment. Therefore it really does become a matter of how much use you will be getting out of your gear.

For general vacation photography, any good point and shoot camera will suffice.  However, Panasonic Lumix, Canon, Nikon and others provide "super zoom" and wide angle capabilities in one body, precluding the need to carry extra lenses.  The most powerful super zoom camera as of this writing (updated July, 2015) is a Niikon at 83 optical power with image stabilization. It's far more than most of us need.

What digital cameras?  Here are two good websites: 



Don't Forget!  Bring an extra memory card, battery plus the battery charger.

Where's the Wildlife?  Wildlife can appear at any time, but for a good chance for observing wolf, bear, etc., station yourself at one of the several overlooks along, for example, Lamar and Hayden Valleys, anytime, but especially around first light and at dusk.  Then, wait. That sounds boring but, after all, you are “hunting” so relax, enjoy the surroundings and the total experience. You might spend as little as minutes or hours waiting to catch fifteen minutes (more or less) worth of action, but had you moved on, you would have missed that action completely.

For the most productive and efficient method for observing more elusive wildlife, look for groups of people with scopes and cameras, park safely, join the "party."  They will be happy to share their views and the knowledge.

Digiscoping  Digiscoping can be an alternative to the high dollar cameras and lenses. It would be less expensive only if  one, you already own, or have access to, a high quality scope and tripod; two, you are able to get the necessary bracket required to mount your point & shoot camera on that specific scope; or three, you have extremely steady hands. Although there are exceptions, for most people, taking quality photos by digiscoping is more involved than just holding a simple point-and-shoot up to a scope eyepiece. 

The main problem with digiscoping is that, at magnifications of 20x and above, camera shake or even the slightest movement will result in an out of focus picture. A digiscoping attachment made specifically for this purpose will help. The bracket mounts right on the scope. You mount the camera on this attachment, and make the necessary alignment adjustments only one time during your initial set-up for the day or "session." The mount holds the camera up and out of the way until you are ready to take a shot. When you are ready, you rotate the camera down and lock it into the perfect position at the eyepiece, compose and take the shot using the view screen on the camera.

Digiscoping takes practice. Another problem is, unless they are resting or otherwise occupied, most wildlife will not stand still while your camera's countdown timer runs. Even a two second delay can result in a great shot of half a wolf, and for some reason it’s usually the wrong half!

With all it's challenges, though, for the hobbyist, and for less than half the cost, digiscoping using a lower priced, small point and shoot camera, which most people already own, is a nice compromise between an expensive, often complicated DSLR system with that bulky "trash can" lens costing thousands of dollars, or having too little magnification.

Lastly, you don't need to microplan your visit to Yellowstone National Park.  Be patient, be watchful, be aware, be spontaneous.