Sizing Up A Bull Elk

I can do it at 300 yards at 45 miles per hour in about one second.  At 500 yards it might take me three or four seconds, maybe even longer if the bull elk is in moderate cover.  But the question about whether the bull elk is a “big bull” and really worthy of the effort needs to be made quickly.

I don’t photograph small bulls anymore – and by small I mean “light” 5 and 6 point bulls: bull elk with average rack mass, average rack point lengths, racks that are tall but not wide, racks that lack a whale tail, or have less than average size royal tine (sword point).  Sometimes behavior might slow me down – such as rutting season fights or bull/cow interactions in harems, or even elk/wolf interactions – but for the lone bull elk, size matters.  Here are some of the things I look for.

Large 6 point mature Bull Elk

This nice, mature, large 6 point bull is easy to spot with his large Royal tine (4th point up from the front of the rack) and his smooth, curving whale tail 6th point.  I’ve heard a dozen different descriptions for the points on an elk’s rack, but these are the terms that I use.  I’ve heard the Royal tine called a Sword Point … and others.  There are Royal bulls (6 points), Imperial bulls (7 points), and Monarch bulls (8 points) … and probably thirty more local descriptions all related to the number of points.  I’ve heard people call Royal bulls with 6 points – Imperial bulls, and vice versa.  I know “big” when I see it, and big gets me moving and into action.


This Imperial (7pt) Bull has average, but well polished tines.

This is a big bull.  He has a massively thick Royal tine (4th point) and 7 points on either side.  The size of the rack in this image can be determined quickly using the common length from nose to rack of a bull elk, which is approximately 16 inches.  A good size rack runs at least 3 times that, or 48″ in length.  I was photographing a black bear up off the blacktail plateau dirt road in Yellowstone once and came across a head skeleton and rack of a winter killed elk.  Resting the head on the ground the back tine was above my eye level.  I’m 6′-2″ tall – so that was a very large rack.

This 6x7 point bull has average size points and average width.This bull, with some of his points hidden, is pretty average on width.  He’s got a nice rack and is the type of bull that, given a good background and decent light, would be worthy subject.

Sometimes the background (busy forest to open meadow), the situation (approachable terrain or separated by a deep river), and the light (front lighting (like this image) to fully back lit to deep overcast) – make the decision to photograph or not for you.  But there are times when the photography gods create a golden situation – and we wildlife photographers need to take advantage of those brief seconds of purity and goodness.  I will save preparation for another blog entry.  There are some things that happen to me as my mind quickly ranks a bull elk photography moment.  First, my heart beat begins to race with anticipation and possible panic if I miss the moment.  Second, and this is for you Yellowstone photographers, I crash off the road – tires off the white lines – and park no matter what the terrain is or the danger to my vehicle.  I’ve had safari folks in my vehicle when they couldn’t open their door due to the angle of the hill I had just parked on.  Third, I race into action.  I don’t mess with Wimberley’s heads, I have a quick release monster ball head (Bogen #3038 – no longer made) I snap my 500mm F4 lens and camera body to, and I move for position immediately.  I will save positioning for another blog as well.  Fourth, I never give up on a good animal in a good position – I shoot everything I can as the moments come.  But, and this is a big but, I only shoot animals doing animal stuff.  No meadow strolls for me or sleeping bulls – I will wait until I see the unique look, bugle, strut, fight, rut shot coming, then I shoot – a lot.  The first image in this article was tough for me to keep – basically a nothing shot of a strolling bull elk from a backside angle – but I loved the whale tail …. size matters.

Monarch Bull (8x10 pts)in velvet antlers at sunrise. The stars lined up.

The image above is the moment of Purity and Goodness that we photographers live for.  Lots of events lined up for this image.  I was in Yellowstone (always a good start).  It was pre-sunrise when we spotted the bulls and this gave us a couple of minutes to get into position.  I had the right equipment, tripod … and at that time the right film (K64).  The bulls (and there were 5 of them of different sizes) had moved into a perfect position in the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley.  For about 3 minutes I tore through the film, roll after roll … until the bulls swam to the other side and disappeared into the forest.

This bull had the largest rack (in points) I’ve ever photographed, before or since.  He is an 8×10 with cheater points (to the side) and drop tines (growing down).  This alignment of the stars continued with the image appearing on the cover of BUGLE Magazine of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  It’s been published numerous times and sold as a fine art print as well.  Next time your in field looking for bulls – its all about points, whale tails, positioning, and behavior.  I wish us all good luck.

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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5 Responses to Sizing Up A Bull Elk

  1. Tim Schofield says:

    Thanks for the pointers. I had to pull my elk shot from Banff, 6 points and in full velvet. I just made it.
    Thanks again

    • brentrpaull says:

      I’ve shot in Banff, it’s a great location for big elk. Nice bulls in velvet make for great subjects as well, as my cover image in Bugle Magazine shows. Folks go on photo safaris to learn professional tactics in wildlife photography. One tactic is subject selection, which is what this brief article is about. Anything less than doing it right, or at least knowing what to look for, would be wasting precious time.

  2. Karen says:

    My first visit to Yellowstone was on Safari in with Brent and it was amazing how quickly I went from being excited about seeing any elk to getting really picky about what I wanted to shoot and having a burning desire to look for and shoot only big bulls 🙂 Once Brent showed me what we were looking for and why we wanted the big bulls I happily drove by smaller bulls in search of “the big one”. I’m looking forward to another Safari with Brent in January.

  3. Nancy Bowlin says:

    Is there a name for an elk with 6 on one side (Royal) and 7 (Imperial) on the other? Or are they classified according to the side with the least points?

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