Dall Sheep photography in Alaska can require as much effort as it takes to harvest a full curl Ram during the Sheep Season or be as pleasant as driving down the road and finding them close enough to shoot from the comfort of your vehicle with a smaller telephoto zoom lens.
While not for everyone, the Dall Sheep is an important animal to add to any Alaska photographers portfolio and if you’re a true sheep nut at heart, it’s also a good way to keep track of population trends and horn growth if you spend enough time in a certain area.
If you’re already a mountain hunter, you’ve probably already collected most of the outdoor gear necessary to hit the mountains and start looking for sheep, minus a camera and/or lenses. If you aren’t, you’ll want quality gear and clothing to help keep you warm and safe on a outing in the mountains.
Dressing in appropriate layers for warmth and and quality raingear is a necessity in the mountains, along with trekking poles and quality hiking boots designed for alpine walking. Dress for the season and dress in layers. You can shed or put back on multiple lighter layers and control your body temperature better than wearing only one bulky set of insulated pants and jacket. The more active you are, the more layers you can shed and when you stop to photograph for longer periods you can put those extra layers back on to stay warm.
A good set of binoculars ranging from 8×32 up through 10×42 are more than sufficient to help with spotting Sheep from a distance and analyzing their behavior.
Sheep are like any other wild animal and are constantly aware of their surroundings and anything not natural to the terrain. At the same time each Sheep is an individual animal and certain animals tolerate a photographer getting into position for a shot more than others. It’s all in how you approach to get within range of the lens you’re using. I would recommend learning Dall Sheep behavior from a biological and conservationist standpoint before trying to spend a lot of time climbing and trying to get within photo range of sheep. Learning animal behavior before heading into the field will help prepare you to get the photo you’re looking for. Many resources are available with some internet searching from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, US Fish & Wildlife Service and reading up on what professional photographers have published and made available in books or online.
Approach to mountain animals such as sheep requires time, patience and being physically capable of climbing to where the animals will be. It’s no small feat and the trip to and from your location to shoot may require most of your day just to get there and back leaving as little as a few hours to collect images.
Any camera is capable of collecting an image nowadays, even the camera in your smart phone but much of the basic camera gear available might require you to get too close to the animals and just pushing them out of the country totally. You’ll be left sitting watching sheep running for the next mountain over and just spending the rest of the day hiking down a mountain with nothing to show for all your effort and climbing.
Getting serious about photographing mountain animals such as sheep or goats or any animal that lives above treeline often requires more specialized camera gear. Quality camera gear is often expensive but, you can often find big telephoto lenses used and substantially cheaper than their newer counterparts.
I shoot on a Canon camera and lenses but it comes down to personal preference and ease of use for the individual. Many people get wrapped around the axles on high end photography gear for wildlife photography and having the latest and greatest gear (sound familiar with you sheep hunting nuts out there?). For example, with some time spent on a internet search or occasionally checking the local camera shop, you might find a used 100-400mm zoom lens and a quality DSLR body for under $2,000.00. That along with a small tripod for stability, a high speed SD memory card and a few extra batteries and you’ve got a reasonably good walk-about wildlife photography kit that will cover most of what you’ll want to shoot and allow you to stay reasonably safe distances from the wildlife you’re trying to photograph.
More advanced gear may consist of a kit comprised of a 500mm or 600mm supertelephoto prime lens, large carbon fiber tripod and extended battery grip to allow for longer sessions before changing batteries. The larger lenses are heavy, and photo gear can quickly weigh as much as what you might take for a week long expedition hike in the mountains.
If you already have a handle on basic digital photography, understanding of exposure, aperture and light, I could suggest some camera gear based on experiences in the field. I won’t dive into specifics on each brand for now, but Nikon and Canon are two of the more well known manufacturers.
Keep in mind that each company produces entry level lenses and higher end lenses that are specific to entry level camera bodies,mid-range and pro-grade camera bodies. Do your research before you buy and ensure that the lens you’re getting is compatible with the camera body you’re buying it for.
This list isn’t exclusive and some lenses have been left out. Some popular wildlife lenses for collecting longer range images are;
Canon 70-200mm f4 zoom
Canon 70-300mm f4-f5.6 zoom
Canon 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom
Canon 400mm f4 prime
Canon 400mm f5.6 prime
Canon 500mm f4 prime
Canon 600mm f4 prime
Nikon 70-200mm f4 zoom
Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom
Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-f5.6 zoom
Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 zoom
Nikon 400mm f2.8 prime
Nikon 500mm f5.6 prime
Nikon 600mm f4 prime
Sigma 150-600mm f5-f6.3 zoom (produced by Sigma for both Canon and Nikon)
Tamron 150-600mm f5-f6.3 zoom (produced by Tamron for both Canon and Nikon)
With the zoom lenses you’ll be able to have a greater range and style of images to collect versus a large heavy prime lens glass. The prime lenses are big, cumbersome and not something most people are going to want to carry for several miles of hiking, especially in uneven and up and down terrain you’ll find hiking along steep slopes and hillsides on the mountains. Add a tripod large enough to support a ten pound prime lens and DSLR body and it becomes very cumbersome very quickly. A zoom lens will allow for a lot of versatility and allow for portrait style shots as well as collecting a landscape style environmental shot with an animal. With the large prime lenses you’re relegated to having to walking closer to, or further away, from your subject to frame the image properly for the shot. Just a few things to think about when you are deciding on if which wildlife lense you’re going to buy. Some people will prefer versatility of the zoom lens while others might be more confortable with the prime lenses and shooting from a tripod further away from the subject they are photographing.
Tripods- Tripods will help you get a more stable shot with no operator introduced camera shake. The modern zoom lenses have amazing image stabilization built in but you wont be able to hold the camera and lens as steady as if you would be shooting from a tripod to support your kit. I would recommend a carbon fiber tripod with a rating to hold the weight of your camera body and lens kit. The last thing you’ll want is a tripod too light for the kit you’re using and not being stable enough to prevent minor vibrations that might affect your image quality. Some quality tripods are produced by Gitzo, Manfrotto, Pro Media Gear, Sirui and Really Right Stuff. Whatever tripod you buy, I would recommend one that allows you to fold the legs out flat so you can allow yourself to lay down prone on the ground and photography from a low position of you need to. Mountain terrain is uneven and you might set up a tripod for taking a photo from a standing, kneeling or laying down position.
Tripod Heads- There are many heads available for mounting the camera or lens to your tripod. Some are designed more specifically for wildlife such as gimbal heads, that allow you to more easily track and move with the wildlife subject. Ball heads can work just as well but may not track a moving subject as easily, but are often times less cumbersome than the gimbal head. Like with the cameras and lenses, it comes down to personal preference and ease of use.
If you find yourself in a roadside situation and photographing from your vehicle, you might consider a photography bean bag to rest your camera on while setting your lens out your window. It will allow you to have a stable and even rest for your lens.
Quality gear can cost as much or as little as you want to spend depending on if you’re buying it new or used. Don’t be afraid to buy used camera gear since many people are often upgrading gear as soon as the next new model camera body or lens is released and the savings is passed on to you when you buy used. Most photographers take reasonably good care of their gear and you might find a diamond in the rough if you take some time searching for gear and doing your homework.The accessory gear is also often found used and reasonable priced. Some internet searching can come up with quality used tripods and tripod heads for wildlife photography.
I won’t be able to give specific locations on where to go, but most of the mountain ranges in Alaska hold Dall Sheep and with a some hiking and climbing you can get to some amazing places you may not have seen otherwise. The landscape alone and the views you’ll see is just as amazing as seeing the grand animals of the mountains. There’s a lot of Alaska out there to experience.