Photographing Yellowstone

If you’re at all into nature, Yellowstone National Park should be near the top of your list of places to visit. Awesome landscapes, wide variety of wildlife, and interesting geothermal features all make this one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Of course, the popularity of this place also means that you can expect heavy tourist crowds (particularly during the summer months); this, coupled with other factors can make photographing Yellowstone a (fun) challenge.

Here are my top 5 tips for improving your photography at Yellowstone National Park (note that some of this information will not apply during the winter months because a lot of the park is less accessible).

Plan your visit. Yellowstone is a big place and there is a lot to see. Depending on how much time you will be there, decide what you would like to photograph. If it’s your first time there, you’ll definitely want to spend time in the geysers and hot springs—most of which are on the east side of the park (become familiar with the park map). I recommend you at least see the Norris Geyser Basin, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and of course Old Faithful. You should keep your eyes open (and slow down) for wildlife (bears, bison, wolves, elk, bald eagles, big horn sheep, mountain goats, coyotes, foxes, marmots, pronghorn, deer, and others) all over the park. However, I found that the best place to find wildlife was Lamar Valley (east of the Tower Falls area) and the road between Mammoth and Tower Falls. Keep in mind that most animals tend to be less active during the hottest part of the day. Remember to follow the rules for viewing wildlife since many of them are dangerous and you don’t want to be the next idiot tourist featured on the nightly news. Finally, you should also try to make it to Yellowstone Canyon for those classic shots of the canyon and huge waterfall.

Have plenty of time. You will need at least 4 full days if you want to really see the majority of the park and not be rushed. Even then you might want to prioritize which sites you want to see most since traveling from site to site takes longer than what the map would suggest. For example, although the distances in miles are not that long (about 20 miles from one major site to another), the roads can be narrow, curvy, full of traffic, under construction, or just blocked by animals. You should also drive the speed limit since there are often people walking around or pulled over, and animals often come out of nowhere and you really don’t want to hit one (not to mention there are rangers who will be happy to ticket you for driving like a jerk). You should also keep in mind that most geysers only go off at certain times (which you can look up on a brochure), and spotting animals will likely take time. Which leads me to my next point…

Be patient. Animals are unpredictable, so don’t expect them to just come up to your car to get their portrait taken (although they do that every once in a while). Even if you do spot some animals, there is another “animal” that will likely test your patience—the uninformed, self-absorbed tourist. These people will get on your nerves as they drive in a less-than-cordial fashion, scare the animals away as they shout excitedly to each other, and piss off the rangers as they get too close the animals. Thankfully, most tourists are reasonable people. Nevertheless, the sheer number of tourists during the summer means that you’ll likely encounter some lines, overcrowding, and traffic jams. The good news is that most of that happens near the more popular attractions of the park such as Old Faithful, Yellowstone Canyon, and Mammoth Hot Springs. With that said…

Get up early, stay up late. Not only will you have the most interesting lighting conditions during the early morning and late evening, but you will avoid most of the crowds (especially in the early morning). You’ll also be more likely to spot animals during these times! Another thing for photographers to keep in mind is that, by visiting popular spots late in the evening—or even at night—you can get front-row access to the best spots as well as an opportunity to get more interesting shots than the millions of other tourists that show up during mid-day with their smartphones (or worse, iPads!). Of course, you should be prepared and be safe. Scope out the place ahead of time. Carry flashlights and watch your step (you don’t want to fall into a cliff or a boiling hot spring), carry bear spray (I am not kidding about this; I would even carry two cans if going on a longer hike), have a map and compass, and dress appropriately (it gets cold at night, even in July). And finally…

Bring the right gear. This depends on what you want to photograph, at what level, during which time of the day, whether you’re hiking or driving, and of course, your budget. If you want decent close-up shots of animals (other than bison or elk, which are easier to get close to), I recommend you bring a lens with a focal length of at least 400mm on a full-frame DSLR camera. I had the Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 Contemporary DG OS HSM lens on my Nikon D750 and found it to be enough, although at times I still found myself too far away from the subject. Serious wildlife photography would likely require a special guided trip, but you can definitely get some worthwhile shots from the roads and while hiking, especially if you have your camera ready to shoot at all times (which is definitely a challenge when carrying a huge lens). For early morning, evening, and night shots you’ll need a tripod and a shutter release cable or remote shutter release (or use the timer on your camera), both of which will help you minimize camera shake due to low light. If you do decide to take shots at night, do yourself a favor and bring warm clothes, gloves, and a buddy—it’s freaky to sit in the pitch-black darkness while a geyser goes off and knowing that there are bears, wolves, and bison running around (although they likely will not be interested in you unless you surprise them). Finally, be sure to carry at least one lens for landscape photography. If you already have a telephoto lens for wildlife, I would suggest you carry a wide-angle lens (anywhere from 16-35mm) and a mid-range (35-70mm). I had my trusty 50mm prime lens and my Tokina 16-28mm F2.8 and they worked great. Oh, and be sure to bring extra batteries or a way to charge them while you drive since power outlets are few and far between (unless you’re staying in the lodge—which is expensive). Oh, oh, and at least a few memory cards.

There is a lot more I could say about photographing Yellowstone, but these 5 tips should help the average photographer get started. I would love to answer some questions about photographing Yellowstone, or any similar topic, so leave your questions in the comments!

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