Yellowstone and Grand Teton
Fall Wildlife and Landscapes
Yellowstone was the world's first National Park, and is still one of its loveliest. In early October, 2002, I spent a week there doing a Fall wildlife and landscape shoot. With me on this trip were my friends Chris Sanderson, Director of The Video Journal, and Steve Kossack, nature photographer and Western U.S. photography guide. Also joining us for a couple of days while we shot in neighboring Grand Teton National Park were Miles Hecker, lecturer in photography at Casper Community College in Casper Wyoming, and Norman Koren, an ex-Kodak research scientist currently from Boulder, CO.
Chris Sanderson — Miles Hecker — Michael Reichmann — Steve Kossack — Norman Koren
Avoiding the Crowds
As beautiful as Yellowstone is, it is overrun by people during the summer months making a visit there between late-May and mid-September worse than dealing with New York rush-hour traffic. The solution is to visit either during the winter or between mid-September and mid-October. I did a winter shoot there last February via snowmobile in the central part of the park, and across the northern road through the Lamar Valley by 4WD SUV (which is the only road open to automotive traffic during the winter months).
The advantages of working in the park after Labour Day, and before the first major snows, are many. Because school is back in session family trips are over, greatly reducing crowding. The limited hotel, motel and campground facilities in and near the park no longer require booking six months to a year in advance. Space is easily available without requiring reservations. If you get the timing right, (or get lucky the way we did), you'll also have glorious Fall colour, and with the exception of mid-winter the wildlife is most visible in the valleys this time of year.
I photograph both landscapes and wildlife. Traditionally I do landscape work in medium format and wildlife in 35mm. This trip I shot almost exclusively with the 6 Megapixel Canon D60 digital SLR. While the earlier D30 was fine for wildlife it wasn't up to my required standards for serious landscape work, which the D60 typically is. Parenthetically, regular readers will know that a few days prior to this trip I had completed a field test of the then just-announced 11MP full-frame Canon EOS 1Ds. Once I receive the production camera that I have on order I will seriously consider whether I need to continue shooting medium format at all.
But, on this trip I used the D60 almost exclusively. Over 6 days I shot some 1,800 frames — the equivalent of 50 rolls of 36 exp film. I used 1GB Microdrives in the camera and transferred the files in the field to a Delkin eFilm Picturepad, a pocket sized device that has a 30 GB hard drive. A 1GB transfers take about 15 minutes. When I returned to my office, moving these 13 Gigabytes of data to my desktop computer took just another 15 minutes via the Delkin's optional Firewire connection.
I powered the Delkin (and the Canon's battery charger) using a small, inexpensive car inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter socket. This enabled transfers and battery charging while driving rather than having to wait till reaching a motel in the evening.
Lenses used included my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L, 24mm f/3.5 T/S, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, 300mm f/2.8L IS and 600mm f/4L IS. A Canon 1.4X extender was also used occasionally, primarily with the 600mm for very long reach, but also with the 300mm when the 600mm was being used by Steve Kossack, with whom I shared the use of this specialized lens.
Click on photographs below to view larger versions.
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens with 1.4X extender at ISO 100. EFL=1,344mm
If you haven't done this type of photography before you might think that it takes great effort to find such subjects — either lengthy hikes, or long drives. It can and it does, but sometimes it's as easy as going for lunch.
We had spent the morning shooting in the Lamar Valley at the northern end of the park, and by 1 PM, after a 5 AM start, were hungry and tired, so we headed for the lodge at Mammoth Hot Springs for lunch.
This young bull Elk was nestling in the tall sagebrush just in front of the restaurant. Hunger won out over photography and so rather than delay lunch by stopping to shoot we ate while keeping an eye on him and several other Elk through the restaurant's window. Afterwards we headed back to the car, set up our gear and proceeded to photograph this bull from the edge of the parking lot. There. One of the secrets of successful wildlife photography is revealed. Have lunch first.
It was about 150 meters to where this bull was resting and so I used the 600mm lens with 1.4X Extender to get this tight framing. I needed to do so as well because there were a lot of man-made objects like cars and buildings about, and the very narrow depth of field at an effective focal length of 1,344mm blurred them nicely.
The 600mm f/4L IS was rented for this trip. As much as I would love to own this lens, it is less expensive for me to rent it for the occasional week when needed than to make the US $6,000 investment necessary to own one. Though this lens is very large, and very heavy, it allowed me to capture a number of images that would have simply been impossible without it. I'll have more to say about the use of this lens later in this article.
I brought along my Canon EOS 1V body as backup to the D60. I used it for 2 or 3 rolls, but because the image quality is so much better with the D60 the film body saw little use. The Hasselblad XPan and its 30mm, 45mm and 90mm lenses also were brought along (this kit takes little space and is capable of producing some stunning quality landscape images), but it too saw use only a few times. The D60 was my workhorse. (In the near future I expect that the 1Ds will become my main camera, with the D60 serving as backup. The 1V is then likely to take a permanent place on my equipment self in quiet retirement).
Effective Focal Length
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=960mm
Because the D60 has an imaging chip smaller than full-frame 35mm, any lens used on it produces a focal length that is effectively 1.6X longer than marked. Thus a 100mm lens effectively becomes a 160mm lens when used on this body. I have therefore indicated the EFL (Effective Focal Length) used when captioning each photograph to show what the equivalent would be on a 35mm film or full-frame digital body.
Describing The Photographs
Based on feedback from the dozens of articles about location shoots that I've done and written about in the past, rather than details about the location (which can easily be found elsewhere), what people appear most interested in are both technical descriptions of how the photographs were taken, and also discussion about the decisions that were made in choosing to take them.
Therefore, while I will comment where appropriate on the where, I will mostly concentrate in this article on the how and the why.
Hasselblad XPan with 90mm lens on Fuji Provia 100F
Though the bulk of our time was spent in Yellowstone we also spent a couple of days shooting in Grand Teton National Park, which is located immediately to the south of Yellowstone. On our second morning, Miles, who has been doing and teaching photography in Wyoming for some 30+ years, took us to the Oxbow Bend Turnout with its view of magnificent Mount Moran.
This is a classic location, and many hundreds of thousands of photographs have been made from this spot. But, since I'd never been there before I was very happy to expose several dozen frames as the light changed from pre-dawn to full daylight. Miles says that though he's shot at this location countless times over the years, this particular morning produced some of the most beautiful light that he's ever seen there.
This frame was taken with the XPan and 90mm lens. The sun was still below the horizon behind us, and for a brief time produced a magnificent example of Alpenglow. The 3:1 aspect ratio of the Xpan was perfect for this scene, and the 90mm lens' framing from our vantage point was ideal. Though I bracketed exposures a bit I found on the light-table that the camera's TTL metering had done a perfect job of handling this lovely but flat light.
On the morning that we were there (a Sunday) there were at least a dozen photographers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us in the pre-dawn light. There were also at least another dozen at a spot about 100 yards further up the road, down closer to the shore line. Cameras seen in use that morning ranged from 35mm to 8X10" view camera.
A short while after the above wide-format frame was taken I removed the XPan from the tripod and attached the D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens to do some more selective landscape details. Just as I did so I noticed a flock of Canada Geese flying towards us from the North. These are the serendipitous moments that can't be planned for but which make the difference between the ordinary and the somewhat special in photography.
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=112mm
The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens turned out to be my second most used lens on this trip, after the 600mm. On the D60 it provides the equivalent of a 112mm to 320mm focal length. Great versatility. It is a remarkably sharp lens; fast, light and easy to handhold in low light when needs be due to the IS.
As I saw these geese entering the frame I quickly dialed in ISO 400 on the rear of the D60. I had been shooting at ISO 100 for optimum image quality since I was working tripod mounted. But it was still before dawn and the light was low. I knew I would need a faster shutter speed and smaller aperture than I'd been using to be able to avoid the birds being blurred. A speed of 400 allowed me to shoot at 1/60 sec at f/4.5. Just enough. The increase in noise due to the higher ISO setting is hardly noticeable in a large print of this frame.
For me two of the great advantages of working with a digital SLR are the ability to instantly change ISO speed, as well as the very high image quality that high ISO settings can produce — much better than film of equal speed in my experience of the past few years.
After shooting that magnificent sunrise and then catching a late breakfast, we said goodbye to Miles (who had to return home to Casper for Monday morning classes). We then spent the rest of the morning exploring the back roads of Grand Teton on our way back up into Yellowstone. The photograph below was actually taken in a farm area just in between the parks.
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=960mm
We had stopped to shoot these swans in a small lake. We were at quite a distance from them so I schlepped the Gitzo 1228 with Wimberley Gymbal mount out of the truck and mounted the 600mm lens. (This is a bit of a production since it requires removing the Arca Swiss ballhead used with smaller lenses, so it was only done when there was a decent chance of a good shot with the 600mm.)
By the time I was set up they had started to fly off. I tracked them with the 600mm lens, and watched as they circled and then came back in for a landing on an irrigation canal nearby. This frame caught them just as they had extended their landing gear.
Here's an indisputable fact of life when doing ultra-long-lens photography. Don't even consider doing it without a mount like the Wimberley. A large and heavy lens like a 600mm will simply topple over when mounted on a ball head, and a geared head gives you little freedom of movement for active wildlife shooting, as in this instance. With the Wimberley I was able to easily pan and track these flying birds as easily as if I'd been hand holding a 135mm lens.
The cropping to wide-format perspective was done to focus the viewer's attention on the strong horizontal perspective of the scene.
After a night outside the Park in Cody, Wyoming we re-entered via the East entrance before dawn and found ourselves at the edge of Yellowstone Lake just as the sun cleared the horizon. We were walking along the shore, casually shooting some swans and geese with the cloud shrouded mountains in the background when a flight of geese passed right in front of us. I swung around, tracking them as they started to land and managed to fire off three frames before it was over. This photograph ended up as one of the finest images of the trip.
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=232mm
There was little in the way of special technique involved in taking this photograph. Hand held, reasonable shutter speed and aperture; autofocus and aperture-priority autoexposure. A classic case of "F/8 and Be There" (actually f/4.5 at 1/250 sec).
Compositionally the birds provided a perfect compliment to the horizontal feel of the frame, and a balanced counterpoint to the vertical reach of the trees on the left. The low hanging clouds and warm dawn light are icing on the cake.
Buffalo (Bison) are found throughout the Park in large numbers. Bison lovers may take exception to this statement, but really — they're just big furry cows. Don't get me wrong though, they have a presence and a profile that is quite unique. Just look at the obverse of an American nickel to see what an icon they have become.
I like this photograph because it encapsulates the two separate icons of Yellowstone — the Buffalo and the steaming hot springs, nicely balanced in one frame.
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 200. EFL=144mm
This was a very heavily backlight scene with strong reflections off the river. I wanted a silhouette effect but without burning out the highlights in the water, or the steam. I stopped down by selecting a very fast shutter speed (1/4000 sec) and small aperture (f/6.3) and was successful in achieving just the effect that I wanted.
Another day, another buffalo.
The absolute light level was fairly low, but there was a soft pearlesance to the light that very much says"Fall", and this is repeated by the bare tree on the left and the fading leaves of the one on the right.
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 400. EFL=960mm
The bright but low-key nature of this photograph was created by the need to open up quite a bit from the as-metered reading so as not to allow the Bison's dark fur to completely disappear into shadow. (Fill-flash at 50 yards was not an option). Unfortunately the limitations of Net reproduction don't allow you to see the fine detail that is visible in a large print, including a catchlight in the eye and steam from his breath.
What caught my eye here was the juxtaposition of this line of Elk cows with the fire blackened forest behind them. There was a bit of sunlight cutting a swath in front of them and the contrast seemed to mirror the colouration of the Elk themselves.
The fire was in 1988 and it devastated huge sections of the Park. It will be decades more till its scars are gone, but in the meantime for photographers it offers numerous opportunities for dramatic contrasts.
Canon D60 with Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 200. EFL=480mm
I didn't use my 300mm f/2.8 lens as much as I had expected. I either found the 70-200mm or the 600mm to be preferable, depending on the situation. When it did come in handy was when I needed extra reach working quickly in fast changing light or when shooting conditions didn't allow time for a tripod setup. Though heavy, the 300mm f/2.8 is hand-holdable for short periods, which the 600mm f/4 definitely is not.
Once again I am taken with how well Canon's CMOS equipped cameras handle a wide dynamic range. The foreground highlight as well as the background shadows all show appropriate detail without burning out or descending into the murk.
The classic landscapes are fun to do, and that's why everyone does them. But, that's the problem — they've been done countless times before. Do we really need another pretty sunrise over the Tetons? Likely not, and so what I try and do is see the familiar with new eyes, something that's easier if it's ones first time in a new locale, as Grand Teton was for me.
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=125mm
The contrast of a massive granite mountain face and the delicate detail of the tree silhouette on the ridge line requires just one thing to work — very high resolution. This is the type of photograph which I find doesn't work especially well on 35mm film when prints above about 8.5 X 11" are made. The D60 on the other hand is capable of making an 11 X 17" print that rivals medium format in sharpness (though of course MF would leave the D60 behind in larger prints).
We arrived well before dawn near a pasture area, just east of the Madison Junction. It was a cold but very clear morning, and because the water in the nearby river is fed by run-off from hot springs it was shrouded in fog — ideal for photography.
Steve and I shared the use of the 600mm lens, scanning the heard of elk and buffalo in the surrounding pasture as night turned to day and viability reached the point where we could start shooting. These two females, seen just below the rise in front of the river bank appear as if in a dream.
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=960mm
With a lens of this focal length accurate focus is imperative. Depth of field, especially in low light levels such as this, is minimal. Even at a distance of a hundred yards or more there is little margin for error. Of course autofocus makes accurate focus easier and faster, but the dreadful autofocus on the D60 (like that of the D30) means that the only way to use it effectively is set the camera to single center point , lock focus on the desired subject, turn autofocus off (or hold down the shutter release half way) and then reframe. Very frustrating and error prone. The D60's autofocus continues to be this camera's Achilles heal, and Canon should be ashamed of itself for perpetuating this second-rate technology in such an otherwise fine camera.
Though daytime temperatures reached into the low 60's, early morning's were below freezing. Just after dawn, near Fishing Bridge, we spied this bull Elk grazing in a field covered in hoar frost.
This is what is known in the trade as a "butt shot". It is only redeemed by the fact that he raised his head and bugled at one point, turning this into a butt-head shot. (Sorry — I couldn't resist).
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 200. EFL=960mm
No special technique here other than timing, patience and a high-quality long lens.
The peak of Fall colour in the Tetons and Yellowstone is usually around the second or third week in September. With altitudes in the valleys ranging from 5,000 to 9,000 feet summers are brief and cool, and there is perpetual snow on the mountain peaks.
Due to a scheduling conflict we were only able to do this trip during the first week of October, and we expect to see little if any colour. We got lucky though because this year the colour change was about two weeks late, and so we found ourselves traveling through the two National Parks at the absolute peak of Fall colour.
Canon D60 with Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=480mm
Long lens perspective compression and isolation through the use of telephoto lenses is one of my favourite techniques. Here the juxtaposition of the brilliant Fall foliage on the foreground hillside with the mostly barren snow-covered mountain behind tells something about the natural beauty of this remarkable region of the American Rocky Mountains.
Along the shore of Lake Yellowstone the landscape is constantly varied. At one spot, near a hot spring, there was a large hillside covered with this remarkable vegetation surrounding burned-out and fallen Aspen trunks. The sky was overcast, creating an ideal "softbox" type of lighting without shadows. The contrasts of colour and form were more than enough to create a compelling photograph.
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100. EFL=320mm
The challenge in this location was to isolate the most interesting area of the hillside. It was a very "messy" subject, and selecting a section with sufficient symmetry to create a clean image wasn't easy. I shot more than a dozen compositions before finding this one. The use of a relatively long lens for this frame flattened the perspective, making this task somewhat easier.
A Video Journal Report
On a shoot like this I am usually pleased if I return with two or three portfolio-grade images. This particular trip was exceptional in that I have generated over a dozen first-tier photographs from it. There are quite a few that I have not had space to display here.
Photograph by Steve Kossack
In an upcoming issue of The Video Journal I will be featuring an extensive segment on this shoot. It will show the locales, the photographers and the shooting situations in detail, and an in-depth discussion of the techniques used to produce many additional prints will be included.
Additional photographs from this shoot
as illustrations in future articles.