Yellowstone National Park
Winter Wildlife & Landscapes
The Park In Winter
Yellowstone was the world's first National Park. It's still one of the most remarkable. It is located in the northwestern United States, straddling Montana and Wyoming, and covers some 2.2 million acres. The geothermal activity here is unique, as the park features areas where the Earth's molten core is the closest to the surface of anywhere on the planet.
In the summer it is very crowded. Unfortunately America's National Parks are being loved to death — there are simply too many visitors during much of the year. For this reason I never visit them between May and September. But in the winter months they are relatively deserted. Accommodations are easy to find, and the roads and trails relatively uncrowded.
This part of the country experiences heavy snows and is at high elevation — most of the park is above 6,000 feet. It's also extremely cold most of the winter. The Park service keeps only one road open for cars, that between Gardner and Cook City at the north end of the park. All other roads are closed, but they are open to snowmobiles.
I had been to Yellowstone twice before, both times for a day's snowmobiling and wildlife viewing as part of ski trips to the nearby Big Sky ski resort. I'd therefore never done any serious photography in the park.
In late February, 2002, Video Journal Director, Chris Sanderson and I spent four days shooting in Yellowstone. Two days were spent shooting from snowmobiles in the western end of the park, while the second two days were spent at the north-end working from our rented SUV.
One unfortunate note — my friend, Western landscape photographer and guide Steve Kossack, was supposed to be with us on this shoot, but his flight from Denver was cancelled due to bad weather. This would have delayed him meeting up with us by 24 hours, so he had to bail out. If you're planning on meeting up with other photographers on a winter shoot try and leave a buffer zone so that such delays don't mean that someone gets left behind.
To keep these pages small enough for easy access over slow connections I have divided this report into three separate pages. This page details organizational issues and practical shooting hints, should you be interested on doing such a trip yourself.
The page titled Yellowstone Winter Wildlife contains images which, naturally enough, have wildlife content — though most are actually environmental wildlife shots, and therefore as much landscape images as anything else.
The third section is titled Yellowstone Winter Landscapes. These two latter sections contain, in addition to photographs, descriptions of how and why they were taken.
In the winter the best place to fly into to access Yellowstone is Bozeman, Montana. Though not a terribly big city, it is the gateway to this part of Montana and Wyoming and therefore has good airline service. Northwest Airlines has regular non-stop fights from Detroit and Minneapolis, and the city is served by several other airlines as well.
West Yellowstone is the most accessible entrance for snowmobiling in the park. The town has numerous motels and snowmobile rental companies. It's about a 90 minute drive south of Bozeman.
We rented our machines and clothing from Alpine West. These are one of the smaller companies in town but they are good people and rent out well maintained machines. We spent two days snowmobiling in the park, staying overnight at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
We then spent a further two days at the north end of the park, staying at a motel in the town of Gardner, just outside the north entrance. We drove the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City at least 6 times over the two day period, never tiring of the beauty of the landscape and the ever varying wildlife.
Camera Equipment & Cold Conditions
At -40 degrees the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales read the same. And any way that you read it the cold is bone-chilling. That's the temperature at which we found ourselves working one morning, though for most of the other three days the temperature was a more moderate -20C (-4F). > Irony alert <.
At these temperatures all bets are off in terms of camera operation. Batteries fail quickly, lubricants seize, and items which you use without a thought in more normal conditions become problematic.
Years ago when I worked expensively in cold conditions I would have my cameras serviced and their lubricants either removed or replaced with special cold weather types. I no longer spend weeks at a time in Arctic conditions, so I don't bother doing this any more, but here are a few precautions that I did follow on this trip.
Before the trip put fresh batteries in your cameras. Lithium batteries have the best cold weather characteristics. If your camera's drive uses AA batteries check to see if it's OK to use Lithiums — most can. Typically cameras that just use batteries for metering or shutter actuation (like my Pentax 67II) use Lithium batteries in any event.
Bring a spare set of batteries and keep them warm. If your batteries fail, be prepared to replace them in their field. Have whatever tools you may need for this handy (like a screwdriver or coin). Spare batteries can be kept warm by keeping them in an inside pocket of your clothing, or by putting them in an insulated container and then placing a chemical warming pouch inside of it.
Large Clear Plastic Garden Bags
Bring along several large clear plastic garden bags, the kind used for collecting lawn leaves. When you are about to enter a warm building place your camera and lenses, or even your entire camera bag, into one of these large plastic bags and tightly seal it with an elastic band. This will prevent condensation on the outside and inside of the glass and metal surfaces. Don't open the plastic bag until you leave the building again, or at least a couple of hours have passed.
When it's extremely cold it usually doesn't snow much, and when it does the snow is "dry". Don't worry about snow getting on your camera. But, don't blow the snow off when it does land, as your breath will condense, causing a worse situation. Just brush the snow off with a glove.
The biggest problem in extreme dry cold is ones breath condensing on the viewfinder, obscuring the view. If this starts happening just hold your breath while framing and focusing. Seriously.
If you shoot with medium format it's a good idea to use 220 film. This minimizes the need to reload, which can be awkward and painful in very cold conditions.
Finally, don't force anything. After some 90 minutes in -20C conditions I found that my Pentax 67's 55~100mm zoom lens became extremely stiff to focus and zoom. My Gitzo tripod legs wouldn't twist to unscrew. My Arca Swiss B1 ballhead seized. There was only one thing to do. Head back to the warmth of the lodge. (Problems like this don't occur when you're working out of a vehicle and your equipment is outside for not more than 20 minutes or so at a time).
Clothing & Other Gear
If you're going to be snowmobiling then you'll likely already have appropriate clothing. In any event make sure that you dress in layers. At -20C or colder you want to wear long-johns, then jeans, and then ski pants over that. Your upper body should have a silk or poly T-shirt, turtle neck, polar fleece with hood (polypropylene) and then a ski jacket on top. Wear a wool ski hat, or better yet a balaclava. Snowmobile boots are de rigueur, though if you're not going to be in deep snow insulated hiking boots are OK for under 1 hour.
Keeping your hands warm is critical, and for photographers who need finger control, tricky. What I do is wear thick ski or snowmobile gloves with a thin wool liner glove underneath. When I need to work camera controls I take the outer glove off for a minute or two.
If you are using 35mm, especially current models with motorized film advance and rewind, the amount of time needed without thick gloves is minimal. If you use a medium format camera with interchangeable backs or inserts, it's about the same. But if, like me, you use a camera that requires bare fingers for loading (the Pentax 67II), then real care is needed. At -20C bare skin can freeze in as little as a couple of minutes, especially when there's a strong wind-chill factor.
Snowmobiling & Photography
If you've never snowmobiled you'll discover that it's easy and fun. It's also smelly and noisy because of the 2-stroke engines. The use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone is controversial. On the one hand it allows people to visit the park during the winter, one of the most beautiful times of year. On the other hand the air pollution at the West entrance is reported to be worse than that of a city street at rush hour.
I'm of two minds about this. I hate the noise and pollution. Yet, having now visited the park this way three times in winter I must admit that it's tremendous fun. There is discussion of banning this activity, but like so many issues relating to the National Parks in the U.S. and Canada it's a matter of balancing the needs of preservation against usage. If I were king I'd allow the use of snowmobiles to continue but would limit the number of machines that were allowed in on any given day, and would require a reservation system, like that in place for private rafting trips on the Colorado river, or entrance to the Paria Wilderness.
As far as doing photography from a snowmobile is concerned, the main issue is protecting your gear from vibration and snow. I carried my Pentax medium format system in a Lowepro Roadrunner AW. I attached the bag to the rear seat area of the two-man snowmobile with a couple of bungee cords. My tripod, a Gitzo Carbon Fiber 1349 with Leveling Base and Arca Swiss B1 ballhead went into a thick vinyl Manfrotto tripod carrying sack, also attached with bungees. Leaving it exposed would have meant snow and ice becoming encrusted after a while. The case has an inside pocket which contained the requisite Wimberley Sidekick gimbal mount for whenever I used my 400mm lens.
Every time you want to stop to take a photograph it means releasing the bungee cords, opening the bags and setting up. If I was traveling with a 35mm body and a stabilized long lens I might have been tempted to keep the camera around my neck, and under my jacket — available for quick shots. Most wildlife scenes don't happen all that quickly though, so having to retrieve gear from closed bags isn't that much of a hardship.
When you are shooting in snow, don't trust your camera's built-in light meter. It thinks that the scene in front of it is roughly 18% gray and adjusts the exposure accordingly. Even the sophisticated matrix metering systems in contemporary cameras can't always make the right decision.
Have a look at my tutorial on Exposing Snow. You'll see that depending on the conditions you usually need to dial in between about one and one and half stops of additional exposure. Do this and snow will turn out white rather than gray, just the way it's supposed to look.
In The Bag
I brought a full complement of medium format equipment on this trip. This included two bodies, the Pentax 67II and the Pentax 645NII. These work extremely well together since the 6X7 body gives me the large transparency that I want for the highest quality landscape work, while the 645 body gives me motorized film advance, more frames on a roll (32 Vs. 21 with 220 film) and focus confirmation in the viewfinder and audibly, even with 67 lenses. Of course the Pentax system is the only medium format system which allows both formats to share one set of lenses, retaining all functions.
I carried with me five lenses; the Pentax 400mm f/4 ED(IF), 200mm f/4, 55~100mm f/4.5 zoom and the 35mm f/3.5 autofocus lens exclusively for the 645, which I used hardly at all. Each of the other lenses got extensive use, though the 400mm along with the 1.4X Pentax extender got the greatest workout when shooting wildlife.
A set of Lee split ND filters, polarizers, an extra 220 film insert for the 645 body, cable releases, etc, rounded out the kit. As noted earlier, I now use 220 roll film exclusively, as it reduces the number of times film needs to be changed, an important issue when working in very cold conditions. Also, it reduces by half the number of bulky rolls of film to be carried on the plane.
There are a great many books about Yellowstone. But from a photographer's perspective I can recommend the Photographer's Guide to Yellowstone & the Tetons, by Joseph K. Lange. You will also find in local books stores, once you get to the park, a slim volume called the Yellowstone Grand Teton Road Guide. It is pocket sized and shows strip sections of road throughout the park with descriptions of viewpoints as well as matters of historical and other interest.
A lovely book of photographs of Yellowstone in winter has just been published. It's titled Silence & Solitude, by Tom Murphy. The publisher is Riverbend Publishing and the ISBN is 20613-83200. It contains 130 photographs. Murphy has traveled the back country of Yellowstone extensively in winter and some of his images are very lovely. It is not yet available from Amazon, but your local book seller should be able to order one for you.
This subject will be featured in a forthcoming issue of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.