The Art of Shooting Yellowstone

First of two parts

There is a long list of superlatives when it comes to describing Yellowstone National Park and the photographic opportunities there, but one word stands out more than any other – and that word is magnificent.  Just the word Yellowstone conjures up images of fighting bull bison, gray wolves chasing elk, grizzlies, and of course, geysers like Old Faithful. When I first began shooting in Yellowstone in 1985, I couldn’t sleep for a week before the trip began. I dreamed of the park and the possible adventures that awaited me. Even today, after more than 600 shooting days in the park over the past 27 years, my heartbeat quickens and my senses seem to sharpen as an entrance gate approaches. There is no place like Yellowstone.

Gray wolves in Hayden Valley

There are places of great beauty in our country, with vast landscapes and bounding wildlife, with crystal clear lakes, rugged mountain ranges, great plains and valleys, and unique geologic features.  Yellowstone is all of this and more.  It is one of the few complete ecosystems left on the planet Earth, where mankind is truly a transient visitor, shepherded in and out of the park via a few roads and dedicated rangers. This ecosystem was restored when gray wolves were re-established in the park during the winter of 1995–96, balancing the predator-to-prey scale that had been out of balance for so long. While wildlife numbers fluctuate with the seasons, and geyser basin activity levels change due to the rumblings beneath our feet, the park itself continues to evolve.

The Ebb and Flow of Photographing Wildlife

I started out in photography as a neophyte wildlife photographer, and I started out in Yellowstone. My first published article was about a photo safari a friend and I took to the park in the summer of 1985. The four photos from that article were my first published images. Other publication credits began to follow in Audubon’s American Birds, Peterson’s Hunting, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Bugle Magazine and Peterson’s Photographic to name a few. All those early credits were of wildlife, and nearly all were shot in Yellowstone.

On some of my early trips I shot alone, sleeping in my old Chevy Blazer, eating in the middle of the day so that I didn’t miss the golden hours of light. I was careful about what I shot, not wanting to waste expensive Kodachrome 64 slide film on just any subject. In those early days, I shot an Olympus OM-10FC camera with a 200mm f4 telephoto lens with no motordrive.  The camera was solid, and I developed many photo skills that continue to serve me well today.  Beyond exposure and equipment techniques, I learned animal woodcraft in Yellowstone. I learned there was an ebb and flow to animal movements driven by the greening grass, the summer thunderstorms or the proximity of other wildlife during the short, harsh days of winter.

Bull elk at sunrise on the Madison River

The Great Chase

My movements around the park are driven by the countless encounters I’ve had with the wildlife. Like data points on a map, I spend the most time cruising the highly active locations for the particular animal or birds I want to photograph — locations where I have seen them the most. For wildlife photography, Yellowstone is not a hiker’s park, it is a driver’s park. With 2.2 million acres within its boundaries, those few precious days in the park can’t be spent hiking through a few thousand acres in one location. To photograph dynamic wildlife, you have to travel the northern park roads, criss-crossing the most promising areas in order to have that encounter. Wildlife photography is about great encounters, great moments when you and that animal cross paths, and the photo gods bless you with great light and priceless action. I like to call wildlife photography in Yellowstone the Great Chase.

I generally stay in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the park a few miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs. This location gives me quick morning access to nearly all the best wildlife locations in Yellowstone, except maybe Hayden Valley. Gardiner has clean hotels, restaurants, gas stations and a nice grocery store. During the tourist season, most rooms run well over $100 per night, while off-season rates run about $60.

While all the wildlife species can be found throughout the park, some locations are better than others for specific animals, and some are great for all wildlife.  Other than bison, I haven’t had great experiences shooting wildlife in the southern half of the park.  I don’t want to go to places were one grizzly is seen during the day, I want to go to places where a dozen grizzlies are seen during the day – thus my chances are improved for a great moment.

Planning and Strategy for Photographing Wildlife

Like most wildlife photography, animals tend to be more active in the morning and early evenings. Sometimes, great light comes at those hours, and at other times, like the grizzlies in the mist, we had flat lighting the whole time. I usually plan to hit sunrise at different locations each day, unless one location (like Swan Flats) has been producing encounters regularly. I do the same with sunset, though sunset is far less productive because the light is fading fast.

Cameras with newer ISO technology are a tremendous advantage. My newest Nikon D3s body is light years ahead of that old Olympus OM-10FC body I started my photography career with.  Fast lenses help, but solid tripods help more. I’m not an equipment hog, I don’t use holsters or backpacks, and I only use my photo vest when shooting landscapes, since going digital in 2004 (no need for pockets for film).

Coyote family at den site near Blacktail Plateau dirt road

I do carry mace, and an extra battery, plus some extra CF cards when I’m hiking away from my vehicle. Shooting gloves, two-way radios for everyone, layered clothing, extra fluids and some snacks — and an appetite for excitement — all make the long driving days easier. I try to plan meals around the cafes inside the park, when there are breaks in the action. And, of course, I know where every single bathroom is.

A great day in Yellowstone is two great animals, and maybe 2–3 good animal photo encounters, followed by lots of average sightings and near misses. I go to the park to shoot “animals doing animal stuff,” not walking in meadows (usually) or crossing roads, but hunting, feeding, mating, fighting, climbing trees, mousing or chasing. Yellowstone is the great chase.

One Response to “The Art of Shooting Yellowstone”

  1. I feel blessed to have accompanied you on the Fall Yellowstone safari. I realize now that we saw an extraordinary amount of grizzlies (including that awesome encounter with the quadra-mom on Swan Flats). I think about what I saw there often. I hope to return there soon. It is an amazing place.

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