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How to Photograph Wildlife in Winter

Shorter days and colder weather doesn't mean you need to put the camera away for the winter season.

by Korey Peterson

The onset of winter might make it seem like it’s time for wildlife photographers to pack up the camera and lenses and wait until spring. Many animals are hibernating or migrating, and you might be tempted to settle in front of your computer, edit your summer photos and relive your adventures. If you do, however, you’re going to be missing one of the best times to find and photograph wildlife.

Photo by Korey Peterson

Keep your distance

The key to good wildlife photography is a telephoto zoom lens — not just for getting those great close-ups, but also for allowing you and the animal to keep a comfortable and, more importantly, safe distance. The best practice is to pay close attention to the animal’s behavior: If it stops what it’s doing to pay attention to you, you’re probably too close. Back off to the point where the animal relaxes and resumes its normal behavior, and you’ll know how close you can get. A good rule of thumb is 25 yards away for most animals, and 100 yards for predators such as bears or other large animals such as goats.

Equipment and settings

  • Long lenses: Use a camera lens with a long focal length to get close-ups of animals while still keeping your distance. A lens with a 100mm focal length is the minimum you should be using, unless the wildlife is only a detail in a larger landscape, but 200+ is better.
  • Fast shutter speed: When shooting wildlife, your subject can be unpredictable. Try skipping the tripod. It’ll be easier to pivot to catch images of the animal, but it will mean potential blur from shaky camera work at long focal lengths.

What to See

Elk: Rocky Mountain elk live on the east side of the Cascades, and they’re easier to see in winter. That’s because snow and harsh conditions push them down from higher elevations and into more accessible areas. Wildlife areas, such as Oak Creek Wildlife Area in Central Washington, are likely spots to see them. Roosevelt elk, which live nearer the coast, can be seen year-round.

Waterfowl: Winter in Washington means the arrival of thousands of snow geese, swans and ducks. Look for them in areas such as the Skagit Wildlife Area. You can also find plenty of waterfowl and other wildlife at wildlife refuges around the state. To find a refuge near you, go to our hiking guide and search for “wildlife refuges”.

Bald eagles: Each winter more than 500 eagles call the Upper Skagit River home as they converge to feast on spawned-out salmon. It’s the densest population of the United State’s national symbol anywhere in the lower 48, so your odds are good for some amazing shots.

Find a hike: For suggestions of hikes across the state where you’re likely to see wildlife, go to

Looking for more photo tips? You can check out our full suite of photography how-to's here. For more about the ethics of wildlife photography, read here

This article originally appeared in the Nov+Dec 2018 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.