In early November of every year the gates are closed and the rest of Yellowstone National Park seems to cease its existence for six whole months, while we are confined, in our vehicle travel, to the northern tier between Gardiner and Silver Gate, Montana.
Often, I have let my mind wander with thoughts of wildlife living in the peaceful existence of a quiet, snow-covered winter and wished that I could be there with them. But, travel to Yellowstone's interior during the winter is an expensive proposition that generally requires a long, slow snow coach ride to Old Faithful, where one can rent a room at the Snow Lodge, dine in the dining room or at the Geyser Grill, and wander the Geyser Basin or take one of many tours to Madison, Canyon or other basins.
I am not much of a landscape photographer, preferring to shoot wildlife with my Nikons instead, but have often dreamed of seeing the snow covered geysers and the "Ghost Trees" covered with frost from the geyser eruptions and the cold. When two friends, and fans of my Facebook page, Running Wolf Nature Photography by Deby Dixon, asked me to join them on their five-night Old Faithful vacation, I jumped at the chance to enter the "forbidden" zone of Yellowstone in the winter: everything south of Mammoth.
Being a traveling photographer who is going to be without a car for five days is hard! Normally, I store everything that I might need in the car, including extra lenses, tools, extra clothing, tripods, snowshoes, food and water. So, the thought of being on foot at Old Faithful scared the heck out of me. Plus, how in the world would I be able to pack everything that I needed - camera gear, winter clothing with layers, tooth brush and face cream and my quilt, not to mention some food that would help me keep expenses down? (I left the pillow behind on this trip.) Well, even though I took food, I did not need it as my friends treated me to two wonderful, sit down, hot meals a day, which was quite the treat.
When packing my camera gear the most difficult choice was whether or not to take the big lens, because if I did not have it with me, a whole pack of wolves would most definitely present themselves in stunning, golden light at a close distance. I took the lens and was definitely glad to have it while shooting the eagle, swans and the otters! But, other than that one day, during a tour to the Grand Canyon and on around to West Thumb and back to Old Faithful, the lens was a hassle and a liability, particularly when traveling on the small snow coaches to and from the Snow Lodge.
The trip from Mammoth to the Snow Lodge began at 7:30 a.m. and was slow going over roads that had not been groomed in some time. Our great driver, a young gal with strong arms, was working hard to keep us safe and on the road, while still educating us about the park. We arrived at Old Faithful around 1 p.m. after running out of gas twice, to find our luggage sitting outside in the cold where anyone could have walked away with our belongings. I had made a poor choice of sending one camera bag down on the luggage coach; luckily, everything was okay, but I did not make that same mistake on the way back. After the shaky beginnings of the trip we got down to the business of enjoying ourselves with lunch and a walk out into the Geyser Basin.
I must admit that going from die-hard wildlife photographer to photographing geysers, trees and snow, is a difficult transition. Animals are unpredictable and on the move while the landscape provides time for setting up the shot just right, trying different angles and exposures while paying attention to foreground and background elements. And, because I did not know what to expect out in the basin, my backpack was filled with extra lenses.
In the beginning, I went back and forth on the Nikon D800 body, using my 17-35mm Æ2.8 and my 80-200mm Æ2.8, and found that those two lenses were quite enough and that there was no need to carry a second camera body. That is until the 80-200mm lens became stuck on the D-800 and Nikon informed me that I would have to send camera and lens to them for repair. Luckily, the camera still worked with the lens and so it was ready for wildlife encounters, but that meant that I had to disengage the D600 from my 500mm lens and use it with the 17-35mm lens. This actually worked quite well, except for the fact that I had to carry and have ready two cameras.
The other equipment malfunction was that I left the tripod plate on my scope and so was unable to use my tripod for landscape photos, which would have been unacceptable when it comes to doing slow exposures and night shots on the geysers. My friend, Lynn, saved the day when she let me use her tripod with the Really Right Stuff ball head and her "L" bracket that enabled me to easily switch from horizontal to vertical. Learning to use the Really Right Stuff ball head was a challenge all by itself but once I figured it out, I was sold!
Doing landscapes without the right equipment is difficult, especially when you are adjusting the tripod legs to get a level vertical shot using a tripod head and bracket that aren't conducive to such activity. Hey, when you are a somewhat disadvantaged photographer with undying passion, you do what works and you make it work. I never give up, even though it can be tiring to improvise with equipment.
So, camera gear, tripod, heavy backpack with extra layers and lenses that I never used, combined with heavy snow boats, a winter jacket (one for super cold and one for medium cold), snow pants, hat, gloves and snowshoes, off I went to explore thre Upper Geyser Basin and acquaint myself with the different geysers and thermal features.
Except for our all-day, wonderful Grand Canyon tour, I spent nearly every daylight hour, from sunrise to sunset, walking around the geyser basin, trying to make the most out of the opportunity to be in Yellowstone's interior and to see the thermal landscape at its finest, while covered in snow and frost.
My friends planned their trip to coincide with the full moon, and so many of our after-dark hours were spent watching the splendor of Old Faithful erupt under the moonlight. What was amazing about these nights was that, despite the many photographers who were staying at Snow Lodge, very few were out after dark.
Because I have already gotten technical about gear and lenses, I will not go into camera settings except to say that I prefer the silky look when it comes to water features, which is difficult to accomplish under bright conditions without a polarizer and/or 9 stop neutral density filter. In addition to the filters I shot at Æ22, ISO 100, much of the time, while always on a tripod, using the 2 second self-timer. Many prefer to use a remote so that they don't experience camera shake while pushing the shutter but I find that the timer works quite well and that it means there is one less piece of equipment to keep track of.
Many people say that I have the best job in the world and am so very lucky, which is true, but most of them do not realize how hard photography is and how long the hours are. From sunup to sundown, carrying a heavy load on my back is just the beginning of the work. Setting the tripod up in the right place, at the right height and angle is a whole different story that often requires crawling on the ground in snow, mud, rocks or whatever else happens to be there. And then there is the waiting game - waiting for the right moment.
Being a successful wildlife shooter means learning to wait for the right moment when the animal appears or it interacts with another animal. Well, the same is true for landscape photography in that it is necessary to wait for the sun to be at the right angle, or for the clouds to move on or off of the sun, depending on what you are shooting. And, when it comes to geyser shooting, well, they don't always go off when you want them to and I found myself waiting for hours for a geyser to erupt.
My favorite geyser turned out to be Castle, which is a very old geyser that has formed into the shape of a castle. Castle Geyser goes off for a long time, followed by a long steam phase. If the sun is just right, you might get lucky enough to have rainbows during both phases. Sometimes you might even have a bison at the end of the rainbow, which is great for the eyes to see and the memory to keep but not so good for the photo with a wide-angle lens. But, it could happen with the bison closer to the geyser - you just never know what you might get.
While waiting for Castle to erupt, I had intermittent conversations with a man that was also waiting. We talked about how I was a wildlife photographer who preferred the wolves to everything else. Well, as we stood there, watching Castle erupt, I told him that I still preferred the wolves but had never had one perform quite so well for my camera. I also found myself mesmerized by the fact that these geysers are there and that many of them go off at fairly predictable times and in predictable ways. I was fascinated by the fact that, while completely drawn to wildlife, there is nothing in nature that does not fail to amaze me. By the time I left Castle that day I had spent about three hours waiting and watching and nearly every minute was worth it on a glorious, semi-warm winter day in January.
The most important ingredient to becoming a successful photographer is not the equipment - it is the patience and the willingness to experiment and continue learning.
There were animal tracks everywhere in the geyser basin, and so on our last night I grabbed the D800 with the 80-200mm lens stuck to it and a jacket - no boots, hat or gloves - and headed out into the basin, determined to find an animal. I found a coyote hunting geese and after it was foiled by the birds taking flight, the coyote decided to visit Old Faithful and I was able to photograph him walking up and very near the edge of the cone. This scene, along with the bison I found in the fog, among the frosty trees, satisfied my appetite for wildlife in the basin, though there is never enough.
In the end I visited every geyser in the basin, except for Solitary Geyser, and spent no less than 30 hours wandering on my feet or snowshoes, taking photos. Before leaving to head back to the north end of the park, there was only one thing left to do, and that was to document myself in the landscape.
With the frosted Ghost Trees for backdrops and the stunning winter light, there was no better place to take some self-portraits and so I set up at a few different locations, with the camera timer set on 20 seconds, and posed for myself. Not quite a "selfie," because the camera was not in my hands, but for a change I was quite pleased with the results.
If you get a chance to visit the interior of Yellowstone in the winter, do it! Just do it! But, I would suggest limiting your equipment and personal items for easier travel because the snow coaches are tight on space. And, if you are able to do so and your main focus is on getting great photos, try and take a private or a photo tour instead of a general tour. Our guide to the Grand Canyon was great and he let us stop quite often to get out and take photos, but the time was limited and not everyone was there for that purpose. And, not every tour guide will let you get out of the Bombardier to take photos. And, be ready to walk, snowshoe or ski a lot to make the most of your visit, and to learn about the thermal features. My last suggestion - go during a full moon, you won't regret it one bit.