The Trouble With Bison

American Bison in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Of all the wildlife subjects I photograph, Bison aka Buffalo, seem to cause me the most problems.

One would think they aren’t that difficult. Big animals, easy to spot, not too difficult to get in photographic range of. But, that fur. Bison fur is strange stuff. Like a giant Brillo pad, it has a very low contrast and the auto-focus on digital cameras need good contrast to work properly.

The basic concept behind focusing on a wildlife subject is to focus on the eyes. You want the eyes in focus. Bison eyes are not easy to see, and even using a single spot focusing point on a digital camera may not produce a crispy sharp focus, because the camera isn’t quite sure what it’s focusing on.

Animals at a distance aren’t that difficult. It’s when you get close enough to them to get a full frame of buffalo and try to get that focus dead on when I have trouble getting it. I would say my hit rate of acceptably focused bison shots if about half of that of other animal subject and it’s all because of that darn fur.

Bison calf kicking it up for mom and dad.

Snowy conditions can actually help, if you can get some bright snow in the focus area. It helps the auto-focus figure it out a little better.

But, take a full frame shot of a bison while trying to focus on the eyes and at first glance, everything looks fine.

Big and fuzzy. I focused on the eye when taking this photograph.


Zoomed in on the bison’s head. Just slightly blurry. No good.

But zoom in to the head and you’ll often find that the camera didn’t do a very good job of getting the eye in focus. There’s just not enough contrast around the eye to get a crispy sharp focusing result. End result, the fur is a bit blurry and the horns aren’t crispy sharp either. What looks like a decent enough photo at first glance turns out to be something I wouldn’t use, because it just isn’t critically sharp. A stock agency would reject this image for being out of focus.

What to do?

I find that if I set the camera to a group focus rather than a spot focus, I can have it look at a slightly larger area and that helps the camera find more contrast to focus on. I get more in focus eyes of buffalo if I use a different technique from other wildlife shots. But, sometimes I get lazy and forget to change the focus mode and when I look at the images later, I kick myself in the butt. I had to toss out the last shot in this series because I got lazy and didn’t do what I knew I had to do. Photographic laziness will ruin more shots than anything else you do.

I don’t have a mirrorless body, so I’m wondering how well the mirrorless focusing systems would handle this low contrast problem.