The American Bison, symbol of the Great Plains and one of the icons of North America. Thanks to YouTube, State Farm commercials, and the classic cowboy movies, these great beasts can conjure up some scary mental images.
My first thoughts of bison were always of stampedes, people being gored or trampled, and vehicles getting rammed. Not anymore though.
I had a recent opportunity to photograph a herd of 75 American Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, a prairie restoration project in northern Illinois owned by The Nature Conservancy. Riding along with Cody Considine, restoration ecologist and bison handler at Nachusa, we were able to pull the truck up fairly close to the herd. There was no stampede and our vehicle didn’t get rammed.
Turns out bison actually have a lot of curiosity. Once comfortable with our truck being there, the bison wandered over to us allowing me to photograph them with a relatively short lens.
One by one, each member of the herd came by to check us out. Stopping anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, it was easy to get some really good closeup photos. Like a bison portrait session.
Keep in mind, these are wild animals and demand respect. At an average of 1400 pounds, a bison could accidentally harm a human while trying to be friendly.
All of my photos were taken with the Sony A7ii full-frame mirrorless camera with the Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens attached. I had my camera set for -1/3 stop exposure compensation. I typically shoot slightly underexposed to help with color saturation and to avoid blowing out my highlights.
The late afternoon sun gave off some nice warm light which brought out the the texture and rich brown color of the bison hair.
While photographing the primary herd of cows, calves, and young bulls, I was shooting at ISO 200, f/4 and getting shutter speeds starting at 1/2000th of a second and dropping to 1/640th just prior to sunset.
We didn’t find the mature bulls until the sun had dropped behind the trees. There was still enough light to be able to shoot at ISO 320, f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.
It’s impossible to tell the story of the American Bison in one photo opportunity. I hope to get back down to Nachusa Grasslands to photograph the bison with a couple of feet of snow on the ground and then in the spring after the new calves are born. Stay tuned.