The Wild, Wild West

How Sandy Sisti followed her dream to Yellowstone to become a full-time wildlife photographer

A bison herd in Yellowstone National Park's Hayden Valley, Wyoming.

When Sandy Sisti first set foot in Yellowstone National Park, it was nothing short of a revelation. The lifelong animal lover and hobbyist photographer felt as if she was finally home. But, in fact, her home was 2,000 miles away. The career pharmaceutical executive surely wasn't going to leave New York to move to Wyoming, so she did the next best thing: She moved to Montana.

"The first time I went to Yellowstone was 1994," Sisti says, "and, like, all these hearts started popping out of my head. I thought, 'My God, this is the greatest place in the world.' I started trying to find a pharmaceutical job near Yellowstone—as if there are a lot of pharmaceutical companies near Yellowstone."

Sisti and her husband found jobs in Montana. It looked nearby on a map, she says, but it was still a five-hour drive to the park. So, after five years of occasional trips to Yellowstone, they transferred to Cody, Wyoming, only an hour away.

Content to photograph wildlife on the weekends, in 2011, Sisti found herself unexpectedly out of a job. Instead of moving back East, she and her husband decided to stay in Wyoming and make a go of a career in wildlife photography.


A bull moose in the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

"After working in the pharmaceutical industry for so many years," says Sisti, "I was kind of lost. You know, when you lose your job, you feel kind of small, and you feel really bad about yourself and wonder 'What did I do wrong?' But, you know, if it wasn't for Yellowstone, if it wasn't for me going to the park every day, I don't know what I would have done. It was very therapeutic. I started feeling less and less bad, and now I'm, like, whoopty doo, they canned me!

"It's so different," Sisti adds, "and it took some getting used to because I'm used to getting up and going to work for all these years. But it's great. I always wanted to do it, but it was just sort of like a dream, not something you're really going to do. I always thought, 'I can't really make any money doing this; I'd better do it as a hobby.' But then it turned into my job. I couldn't be happier doing what I do now. Believe me, going out and looking for grizzly bears is a lot more fun than dealing with the FDA."


A northern pygmy owl in Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest.

Sisti treats looking for grizzly bears—and photography, in general—as if it's a regular job. She's up early to head out at least five days a week.

"I get up and go to work," she says. "And sometimes I don't feel like it, but I always find that it's the days that I don't feel like it that I see something. Just like any job, you go because you have to, and sometimes you're tired or you don't feel like it, but that's the day you see something. So I try to get out there as much as I can."

In the warm weather months, Sisti is just a 20-minute drive from the eastern entrance to Yellowstone, which is closed from November to May. But her home in Wapiti, Wyoming, is also nestled between the North Fork of the Shoshone River and the Shoshone National Forest. And the stretch of land between Wapiti and Yellowstone, she says, is the most dense grizzly territory in the Lower 48. She doesn't have to travel far to find wildlife. Still, there's no guarantee the animals will be where she hopes to find them. Such is the plight of the wildlife photographer.

"You always have the scenic spots in the same place," she says, "but the animals, you never know where they're going to be. Ninety percent of the time, I don't see anything. You might have an idea of what you want to take a picture of, but the animal has to be there and the light has to be nice. And, most of the time, that doesn't happen. So, when it does happen, it's really exciting.

Adds Sisti, "Certain times of year, if you've done it long enough, you start knowing, 'Okay, I'm going to start seeing moose over here, and now the grizzly bears are going to be out. And now it's the elk rut or the bison rut, and these little pygmy owls are going to be mating on the North Fork.' And even though you look for them and it's the right time of year, lots of times, you still don't see anything. Spring, you have more opportunity to view more animals. Fall and winter, you have more opportunity to see wolves. I didn't see that many this year because there wasn't that much snow to push the elk down. I saw tracks, but I wasn't finding them like I would if we had a lot of snow. It was a little quiet, a lot of walking around on snowshoes looking for stuff and scratching my head."


A bull bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.


Gray wolf siblings squabble over an elk carcass, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Winter weather has a real effect on the photographer's productivity, both good and bad. Last Christmas, while visiting Grand Teton National Park, Sisti made an image of a pair of elk bracing themselves against a winter storm.

"We went to see some friends over Christmas," she says, "and there really wasn't any snow. And Christmas Day, not only did we get the snow, we got the wind. Wyoming is, like, the wind capital of America. The winds here will blow you over, and it was one of those days. Sometimes, those stormy weather conditions make for interesting photography, but I always feel for the animals. I could go in the car and warm my hands in front of the heater, but they have to stay out there in that. Sometimes it's -30º or -40º. It wasn't that cold that day, probably 10º, but the wind was going 50 or 60 miles an hour. I guess the animals are used to it, but it's hard to see them out there. You wish you could do something to help them, but you really can't. This year, we haven't had much snow, which is great for the animals because it's not as difficult for them. It's not as good for the photographers, but that's okay with me. I'd rather it be easy on the animals."


Bighorn rams, Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.

It's clear Sisti really feels for her subjects. She adores them, and she works hard to treat them with the respect they deserve—for the benefit of the photographer, as well as the wildlife.

Sandy Sisti's Gear
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EOS 7D
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II
Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS II
Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS

"I have to say, I do use the 600mm a lot," says Sisti, "especially with animals like bears, because you don't want to get too close. And I do shoot out of the car a lot with a beanbag or another support. A lot of times, in the morning, if it's just me and a bear, I'm not going to stand outside. It's just a bad idea. I just got the new Canon 100-400mm lens, which is a really nice lens. I use a teleconverter sometimes; with a tripod, I'll use the 1.4x with the 600mm, but I don't do it with the zoom lenses. I also really like the 70-200mm zoom, and I've photographed bears with that if they're right outside the window—but that doesn't happen too often. My go-to lenses are the 100-400mm and 600mm."

"You have to always make sure you give the animals space," she says, "and you never want to approach them. When I first moved out here, I was very flip about bison,'Oh, they're like cows'— until I saw them in the rut, and it was the scariest thing and the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life. Even an animal that you think is benign, you never know, he might have had a bad day, they might have just encountered another animal that annoyed them. So even an animal that isn't a bear or a bison or a big bull moose, you can't get really close because you don't know what's going on in their head. And it really isn't ethical to get right on top of them."

In the image called "Surveying His Kingdom," Sisti was photographing a group of bison from a distance when a moody bull walked loudly into frame.

"That's my favorite," she says. "That was shot in July, right before the bison rut really started. It really was kind of a fluke. Those bison that are far away in Elm Creek, I was taking pictures of them with my 600mm. The light was pretty, and there were some cows and calves, and they were running around. Bison in the rut make this really loud sound, and from far away I heard a big bull coming my way. Now that I've been in Yellowstone for a while, I love bull bison and I think they're my favorite subject to photograph, but they're scarier to me than bears. They're very ill-tempered; you don't want to get near them. So I got into the car and I took my 600mm and I kept taking pictures with my beanbag of the bison that were far away. And this bull came down the road, and I thought, "Oh, look at that, that's kind of a nice picture." I think I used a wide-angle, a 17-40mm, and I took a few shots of him before he started to give me the stink eye. In that picture, I'm starting to get the look: You better close that window, lady, and get out of here. I feel kind of bad that I shot it out of the car window, but you just can't stand that close to them. I got maybe 10 shots and then you could see his tail going up, he was mad, so I got out of there. That one really is my favorite."

Sisti has a lot of favorites. Like when she's able to observe particular animal behaviors or experience animals interacting. She once spent eight hours watching a pair of wolf siblings fighting over an elk carcass. But her all-time favorite moment was an interspecies interaction.

 


A subadult grizzly and a coyote, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

"It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen," she says. "It's a whole series of pictures of this young, subadult grizzly interacting with a coyote. Young grizzlies are really kind of playful, and he probably didn't mean any harm to this coyote. The coyote had a den nearby and was trying to lead the bear away from the den. The coyote would nip at the bear, but the bear was all playful, like a dog, rolling on his back. But the coyote didn't want to play. He was biting at the bear. I really do think the bear was playful. He could kill the coyote if he wanted to, but he was doing a lot of play-posturing, like when dogs play. Eventually, after an hour and a half, they disappeared over the ridge and they were gone. I had never seen anything like that before. To see two species interact—I'm lucky to see two coyotes interact, but to see a bear and a coyote interact—it was an amazing, amazing day."

Sisti has been shooting in Yellowstone almost daily for four years, but she still gets excited every time she sees an animal. Whether it's a bear or a bison, an elk or an owl, it's as if the Long Islander in her remains fully aware of just how special each encounter is.

"It's still really super-exciting," she says. "Anytime I see a bear, my heart goes really fast and my hands start shaking. I never really get over how excited I am to see them. Landscapes are beautiful and wonderful, but I don't feel the same way when I see a beautiful landscape as I do when I see an animal.

"Most days are quiet," she adds. "Most days I don't see a coyote and a bear interacting. Or I don't see the wolves fighting. Or a bison doesn't stand there looking out over the valley. That happens maybe once every thousand times. But that's still a better day than meeting with the FDA."

See more of Sandy Sisti's photography at wildatheartimages.com.


Staying Safe In Grizzly Territory

Sandy Sisti says the grizzlies are so thick near her home that she prefers to avoid known bear hangouts. But because she may encounter bears anywhere she goes, she does a couple of things to stay safe.

"You always carry your bear spray out here," Sisti says. "Not that that's going to be the end-all, be-all, but carry bear spray all the time. We're in grizzly country. This area where I live, it's so thick with grizzly bears, I don't hike here. Not that I don't love grizzly bears; I've seen them on a trail from a distance, but I don't want to trip over a grizzly bear. They're my favorites, and I love them, but the feeling isn't mutual. They don't want to see me.

"You can wander upon a grizzly anywhere around here," adds Sisti. "I try to make noise when I hike, which is contrary to photography, but sometimes it's not about photography, it's about hiking and being safe. I'm not going to go out into the backcountry and quietly look for grizzly bears. I don't feel comfortable doing that. If something happens to me, then more than likely that bear is going to get shot. And I don't want that to happen. So if I'm going to go hiking, I'm going to make noise and make sure that whatever bear is there is going to hear my New York accent coming along the trail and is going to get out of there."

Sisti says the biggest thing photographers can do to stay safe in bear country is to stay alert, even when they're focused on a shot. It's a mental lapse that she has made, and it led to a close encounter.

"I was so stupid," she says. "Sometimes, you're just not thinking. It was early in the morning and I was driving into Yellowstone. I go in when it's dark so you can get there when the sun is coming up. It was a pretty spot and a pretty sunrise with nice color, so I pulled over. So I'm setting up my tripod and an elk cow runs by. She looks a little concerned, and it's early in the morning, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, gee, I wonder what could have bothered that elk cow.' I'm not really thinking. I'm setting up on one side of the street and I hear something behind me and I turn and there's a grizzly bear. And it's not light out, it's still dim, and the bear is really busy eating and digging. And I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, my car is all the way down there." I wasn't really sure what to do. I had my bear spray, but when you're out there and it's just you and a bear, it's kind of scary. My legs were starting to shake. What do I do?

"So, of course, I left my camera stuff there because, at that point, who cares. I just started backing toward my car; it was far enough away that I was afraid. I remember feeling like I was glued to the ground. My legs were like lead; they didn't want to move. The bear wasn't paying attention, but I know you're not supposed to sneak up on bears because they don't like it. So, I thought, 'Well, I'll say something." So I said, 'Hey, bear.' I choked it out, and the bear got frightened and backed up a little bit. You're not supposed to make eye contact, so I was sort of looking the other way. And he went back to digging, and I thought, 'Okay, I guess he knows I'm here,' so I just backed up to the car, but, boy, were my legs shaking. The bear could care less. He saw me, I didn't see him. I think my voice made him jump a little and then he just went back to eating. He had plenty to eat; he wasn't interested in some skinny lady standing there on the side of the road. It was just the idiot me that didn't know that when an elk runs by and looks alarmed, you should think, 'Maybe I should get back to the car.'"

10 Comments

    Congratulations and best of luck on your new career. Amazing stuff.

    “They might have just encountered another animal that annoyed them.” Like a clueless human with a smartphone camera who wants to see how close they can get for a photo during their summer vacation.

    Sandy is such an inspiration to me. She is living my dream! I am happiest when I am equipped with my camera, hiking through the woods with the hopes of getting those once-in-a-lifetime shots. I feel at peace, and like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing when I am capturing nature’s beauty. I can only hope that someday I am able to share my work with others (and put food on the table!) just as Sandy does. Until then, it will be an office 9-to-5 job that pays the bills. Congratulations on the “life win”!! 🙂
    “Do what you love, love what you do.”

    Congratulations on getting in Outdoor Photography. Very nice article. I am a friend of Daryl Hunter and have talked with you often in Yellowstone. Great shots and good luck with your full time job. I hope to get my magazine copy signed if I see you on opening day.

    I’ve followed Sandy for awhile now and love her photography and have great respect for her attitude and approach to wildlife and nature photography. She gets all these great shots and stories yet is so generous and unassuming and appreciates the opportunities she has. So happy to see her recognized and featured in OP.

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