Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic
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An adult male grizzly chases ravens off the carcass of a bison at the Grand Teton National Park carcass dump. The dump was set up as a safe place away from tourists to put the bodies of animals killed on the road.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic

Nice Shot! How One Photographer Captured an Iconic Image in Grand Teton

It took more than 200,000 photographs—and a whole lot of luck—to capture an incredible scene from a carcass dump in Grand Teton National Park.

Have a question for National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James? On Thursday, April 14, at 1 p.m. EDT, Charlie will be live on Twitter discussing his work in Yellowstone and beyond. Tweet your questions to @CHamiltonJames using #NatGeoLive.

To get this image I set up a motion-activated camera trap at an area where workers from Grand Teton National Park would sometimes place the carcasses of animals that had been hit by cars. I was keen to get images of bears and wolves with the Teton mountains in the background. Over the months the camera was there, it captured approximately 200,000 images.

Other than camouflaging the box that housed the camera, I didn’t really bother trying to hide it from the bears and wolves I was trying to photograph. They rely so much on smell rather than just eyesight that they would have known it was there.

I checked the camera once a week with one or two armed park rangers—approaching a bear’s lunch is a dangerous thing to do. We had protocols for getting from the car to the camera without risking our lives or the lives of the bears. The camera, a Nikon D7100 loaded with two 128GB cards, would almost always be full of images of ravens and vultures. I would skim through them on my laptop in my car before saving the good ones and deleting the bad ones. I’d then reset the cards, check the batteries, and leave.

This photograph was taken one morning when an adult male grizzly bear ran out and chased the ravens off, setting off the motion sensor that triggered the camera. The moment I found the bear photo on the camera I was so excited. It had taken nearly five months to get a decent image out of the set-up. It’s rare I like my images, but I really like this one—although I still get annoyed that the top raven is flying in front of the Grand Teton mountain!

Charlie is featured in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine devoted entirely to Yellowstone, America's first national park. Check out more of our coverage of this iconic place.