Article © 2009 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from our staff at F-11 Photographic Supplies.¸
Wolf track photograph by Peter McNair.
In winter’s snow, tracks become mysteries that invite exploration. Wander a hillside and find where deer slept, where they cleared snow to browse, where a mouse scurried for cover, maybe where a raptor captured it. Look for the passage of endangered or threatened species, animals you may never see, but whose tracks reveal their presence. Tracks can also tell you more about an animal you just saw. It’s wonderfully fun and mysterious to decipher the clues, to see what stories the tracks tell.
How you photograph tracks, the designs they create in the snow, their expression of movement over time, depends on your intended use of the image. Is it academic or artistic? Either way, the first rule of tracking is a good track gives good information, a bad one, little to none. Check 100 yards in either direction to study the details in each print. Look for clearly defined impressions of claws, toes and the inter-digital pad. You can find good tracks in any kind of snow but it can be harder to find a good track in deep powder because there’s little to no definition. Sometimes small animals leave the best tracks because they hurry along the snow’s surface.
When photographing tracks, you won’t need much in the way of specialized equipment. In fact, most tracks are big enough to photograph without a special lens pack. Do pack along a good guide book. “Scats and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains; A Field Guide to the Signs of Seventy Wildlife Species,” by Gardiner’s master tracker, James Halfpenny, is a concise and valuable guide that will easily fit in your camera bag or pack.
When making “academic” images of tracks, begin by taking an image of the track as you found it. The edges of the track define how big it is. Use something with a straight edge to “scale” the track. A ruler works best. Don’t use pennies, nickels, or a key chain as size markers for academic images. Definitive measures of size will help you determine what animal made the track. Be sure to shoot tracks straight on for identification, not from an angle. Take several pictures. Halfpenny, who teaches in and around Yellowstone, advises, “Shoot, shoot, shoot. We used to say its ‘just film,’ but now, with digital, I tell students, ‘Spend a few electrons.’ ”
For artistic images of tracks, all photographic rules of composition and lighting apply. Try various angles; including a long view. Be careful. A flash will blow out your detail. If you have to use one, use it away from the camera and set as low as possible: Low directional light makes a track standout. Harsh sunlight creates such big shadows you can’t see what a track is. In soft light, there’s low definition.
You can use a mirror or a flashlight to reflect light on to a track. If there is too much light, use someone’s shadow to shade it. The joy of digital, and image editing software like Photoshop, is that you can increase the contrast of an image to sharpen the detail on a track. Don't rely on that fix, though. You can’t make a good image from an indistinct track. According to James Halfpenny, the basic rule, “Garbage in, garbage out,” holds true when photographing tracks.
You images will share the stories behind your winter discoveries. Take your time finding the best tracks and create several images from them. Savor the process, enjoy the exploration, and share your discoveries.
Special thanks to James C. Halfpenny of and Sandra Nykerk for their expert assistance.