My last visit to Yellowstone National Park and its nearby cousin Grand Teton National Park was in June of 2011, and I am long overdue for a return trip. These two gems of the US National Park system are among the world’s best photographic destinations. Featuring an amazing array of mountain scenery, geothermal activity, wildlife, and human cultural records, Yellowstone and Grand Teton are, simply put, indispensable destinations for travel photographers. In today’s post, let’s look at a few of my favorite images from the 2011 trip and discuss how they were made. While the parks haven’t changed too much over the past six years, the state of the art of photographic gear certainly has changed a great deal. Today’s cameras and lenses will afford photographers even more options for capturing the remarkable beauty of these parks.
Yellowstone N.P. has more geothermal activity than any other region of the world, and this activity manifests itself in many fascinating ways. The Mammoth Terraces area of the park is known for its gloriously delicate and colorful silica terraces, including the one in this image. For a great landscape image, it’s best to combine the main subject (here, the silica terraces) with striking foreground and/or background elements (here, the Teton Mountain Range, behind). I used a circular polarizing filter to bring out the drama in the sky and the highlights in the mountain range, but I dialed back the polarizing effect a bit so as not to eliminate the gorgeous reflections in the pools. Buy this photo
Yellowstone and Grand Teton N.P.’s are filled with fascinating wildlife, including American bison, elk, wolf, coyote, marmot, osprey, and many other mammal and bird species. Here I’ve captured (in images, of course) an intrepid coyote that cut across our hiking trail. For striking wildlife portraits, it’s best to use a medium to long telephoto lens so as not to have to get so close as to stress the animal (or risk your own safety). Tack-sharp focus is important, and I always strive to frame the subject with as uncluttered a background as possible. Buy this photo
Photographs that tell stories are perennial favorites. I love the humor apparent in this image, which tells the story of a standoff between a large male bison and two park rangers attempting to shepherd a convoy of park visitors across the field to an interpretive nature program and barbecue dinner. At the time this photo was made, the bison was winning. Buy this photo
Just as in a portrait of a person, a wildlife portrait should capture the spirit of the subject. This large marmot was sitting up as if to get a better look at us. His expression is both comical and wise. To maximize the chances of capturing just the right expression and position, frame the subject first, set the proper focus and exposure, and then shoot continuously for several seconds. Buy this photo
The quaint Chapel of the Transfiguration, located amidst some of the world’s most lovely mountain scenery in Grand Teton N.P., is a wonderful photographic subject. Here I framed the Tetons in the chapel’s window and fired an off-camera speedlight to illuminate the walls and altar of the church. Buy this photo
The iconic Moulton Barn sits on a field in Grand Teton N.P. with the glory of the Teton Mountain Range arrayed behind it. This landscape image was made with great care to ensure a pleasing composition including barn, mountains, and cloudy sky, as well as to expose for the wooden texture of the barn. A small aperture (high F-stop number) was used to keep the entire scene in focus. I used a polarizing filter to bring out the drama in the sky and mountains, as well as to concentrate the lovely green and blue colors. The scene was further enhanced to achieve a pleasing balance through tone and saturation adjustments in post-processing. Buy this photo
I was drawn to the texture and patterns of the cracked muddy ground in a geothermal area of Yellowstone N.P. Composing the image to include just enough of the pattern as well as leading lines to draw the eye downrange, I converted it to black-and-white and made adjustments to contrast and tonal range in post-processing. Buy this photo
Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring is a breathtaking feature that is almost impossible not to photograph well. That said, there are techniques to capture it in all its glory. Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the world’s few iconic subjects that is best photographed in the harsh light of mid-day, when the reflection from the direct sun most vibrantly brings out the array of colors. Unless you can shoot it from above, looking directly down on the spring, it is best to include some foreground and background elements other than the spring itself, to provide context. Here, I framed the spring through some lodgepole pine trees and included some forests and mountains in the background. Buy this photo
Every visitor to Yellowstone N.P. will stop to observe some geyser eruptions. But instead of just shooting straight on during mid-day into the eruption of a famous geyser like Old Faithful, seek out some of the lesser-known geysers at sunrise and sunset, and compose to include compositional elements other than the eruption itself. This image, a favorite of mine, was made on a geyser basin at sunset. I set up the camera on a steady tripod, set the exposure for a wide depth-of-field, and composed the scene to include the cracked earth and and the reflection of the sunset and eruption within the pools of sulfurous water. Buy this photo
I can hardly wait to return to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks! I’m even more eager to visit during the winter than during the much more crowded summer months. The rich array of scenery, wildlife, and otherworldly geothermal features elevate these parks to the pinnacle of travel photography destinations.
Have you visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton? What did you find most remarkable? What do you recommend your fellow travel photographers shoot while there, and what techniques do you use? Please share your comments here.
Want to read other posts about travel photography destinations around the world? Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.