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North America’s cauldron

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Yellowstone Geyser Yellowstone Geyser Kenneth Keifer
19 Mar
When it comes to geological features and ecosystems, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else in the world more comparable to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone enjoys global significance in two very distinct ways. As the world’s oldest national park, Yellowstone is regarded as the symbolic birthplace of the global national park and conservation movement. Geologically, Yellowstone is one of world’s major ‘hot spots’, an explosive landscape of geysers, hot springs, earthquakes and other geothermal activity that has altered – and continues to alter – the landscape over millions of years.

Within a vast area nearly 9,000 sq km in size are mountain ranges, canyons, rivers and lakes, the most famous of which is Yellowstone Lake. As well as being one of the largest high altitude lakes in North America, this seemingly placid pool of water lies over the caldera of the largest volcano found on the North American continent. Although it has not erupted for 640,000 years, Yellowstone Caldera (sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone ‘Super Volcano’) is still considered active. The evidence of this volcanic activity is everywhere in the park, with a plethora of geysers, hot springs and steaming vents dotted all around. In fact, half of the world’s geothermal features are to be found in Yellowstone, the most famous of which is Old Faithful, a geyser which erupts with metronomic regularity – every 65 minutes if the eruption lasts less than two and half minutes, every 91 minutes if the eruption is longer.


Thermal backdrops

Along with the neighbouring Grand Tetons National Park, Yellowstone is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which the US Geological Survey describes as, ‘the largest remaining intact ecosystem in the world’s northern temperate zone’. This vast wilderness is a major stronghold of many of America’s iconic species of mammals: bison, grizzly bears, moose and wolves. For the wildlife photographer, encountering any one of these animals is a moment to savour, but in the bubbling, steaming, geological cauldron of Yellowstone, there is no more spectacular setting, particularly in winter.

Unsurprisingly, the winters here are harsh, with the mercury frequently dipping to -25°C or lower, but for many photographers this is the most rewarding time to visit. The low winter light, deep snow and constant clouds of steam rising into the air make a stunning backdrop for the herds of bison, elk and moose.

Operators within the national park cater for winter visitors with specially adapted snow coaches. There are also snowmobile tours available to explore the landscape and access wildlife hotspots such as Firehole Flats, Hayden Valley and the Geyser Basins. Bison are the most wide-ranging and conspicuous of Yellowstone’s wildlife and they frequently congregate around the hot springs and thermal pools for warmth. A photograph of dark-haired bison against a backdrop of steaming vents within the snow-covered surroundings makes for an image that is unmistakably Yellowstone.


Photographing geysers

Even without the wildlife attractions, the winter landscape of Yellowstone is extraordinarily beautiful and unique. Popular locations include Mammoth Hot Springs for its steaming geothermal terraces, and the Upper Geyser Basin, famous for Old Faithful and other geysers. There is hardly a visitor who doesn’t want to come home with an image of Old Faithful erupting. Fortunately, the regularity of its eruptions and the duration of its spouts make it a relatively easy subject for the camera.

Early morning is the best time to photograph this iconic water feature as the low sun gives you the chance to make a side-lit or back-lit composition which will illuminate smaller drops of spray and add highlights to the water and steam. Sunrise also adds to the colour palette with hues of pink and yellow in the dawn sky. A tripod is advisable, particularly for experimenting with slower shutter speeds and to ensure the camera is always still – you may have the steadiest grip normally, but handholding the camera in sub-zero temperatures for a prolonged period is bound to lead to severe camera shake! Also, having the camera on the tripod gives a greater level of control and comfort, allowing you to fire the shutter via a remote release from your gloved hand.

Of course, Old Faithful isn’t the only geyser to be seen – there are more than 500 to be seen in Yellowstone, most situated in the park’s seven geyser basins. The Norris geyser basin is the hottest and home to the Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser with recorded eruptions of up to 100 metres high.


Grand Teton detour

Because of its proximity, many visitors to Yellowstone also take in the Grand Tetons. A short drive south, the Grand Tetons share much of the same wildlife as Yellowstone, but elk are the main draw here, where around 7,000 of the large antlered beasts spend the winter in the 10,100 hectare National Elk Refuge.

But it is for landscapes that the Tetons are best known to photographers. The jagged, snow covered peaks make a classic mountain backdrop and are visible from virtually everywhere within the park. Autumn is the most popular time to visit as photographers frame the tree colour against the snow-capped peaks (Oxbow bend on the Snake River is a well-known viewpoint), but winter is far less busy. You may not have the autumn colour, but on a clear, still day when the air is cold and crisp, the scene of white-coated trees, frozen river ice and a clean blue sky pierced by the Teton summits is also hard to beat.


Light and exposure

Landscape photographers have always preferred the softer, lower light of winter and this is holds particularly true to Yellowstone where around 10,000 thermal features mean there is plenty of moisture in the air. Vents of steam and veils of mist are constant features of the atmosphere here; add to that the warm exhalations of bison and moose making cloudy puffs of breath in the cold air, and you have conditions that are both dynamic and dramatic in winter light. By acting as an ever-present reflector on the ground, the snow helps considerably to ensure light levels remain generous and fast shutter speeds can be employed.

Winter also means sunrise times are much later than in peak summer months, so getting up before dawn to take advantage of the first couple of hours of daylight is an easier undertaking! Try to use a tripod for most shots, particularly landscapes where maximum depth of field is the aim. Indeed, for all but fast moving wildlife, the tripod will give you far more control over framing, exposure settings and help to deliver the sharpest image attainable.


Clothing and kit

Of course, photography in the harsh conditions of a Yellowstone winter requires some important considerations. First is to wear the right clothing.

Lovers of the outdoors know all about the layer system of clothing for keeping out the cold: start with a base layer close to the skin such as a thermal vest, then add a T-shirt, long sleeve shirt and fleece, finishing with a top layer of waterproof and windproof jacket – down jackets remain the best insulating outer.

Most body heat escapes from the top of the head, so a close-fitting hat is essential, as is a scarf and thermal gloves, which need to be thin enough to enable you to operate your camera controls. Many more cameras now have touch screens and fortunately there is a wide range of touch screen gloves available from most clothing stores.

Footwear also needs to be thermal, proper four-season boots; not typical walking boots which aren’t designed for deep snow and Arctic temperatures.

In terms of camera kit, spare batteries are essential as the severe cold drains power quickly. Two camera bodies are also advisable, in case one seizes up or gets damaged, but also to use with a different lens. Most pro photographers visiting Yellowstone in winter typically take two zoom lenses – one for each camera body – and keep them on for the whole day to prevent ice and moisture getting into the camera or on the rear of the lens when changing them. A wide-angle zoom of say 24–70mm is ideal for landscapes and photographing spouting geysers, while a longer zoom of around 80–400mm or 70–300mm will cover most wildlife encounters.

Properly prepared and with the right clothing and kit, a photo holiday to the unique wilderness of Yellowstone will almost certainly deliver a set of images as dynamic as its landscape.



Use a tripod wherever possible. Yellowstone is a dynamic landscape, so framing compositions accurately and eliminating vibrations is best done with the camera on a tripod.

Pack spare batteries. If you’re making a winter trip to Yellowstone, the sub-zero temperatures will drain power more quickly, so pack spares and keep them out of the cold when not in use.

Wear thin thermal gloves. Choose gloves that allow you to use the camera controls easily. If your camera has a touch screen monitor, then get a pair of touch screen gloves that have special conductive material woven into the fingertips (see Equipment Selections overleaf).



Skimp on clothing if visiting Yellowstone in winter. Wear a thermal base layer. Hat and gloves are essential, as is a windproof, insulated outer jacket and proper, rugged four-season boots.

Meter off the snow. Light readings taken off the snow will fool your camera into making a faster exposure setting that will underexpose the image. Instead, take a spot meter reading off a neutral tone, such as a rock or something grey, and set that reading.

Change lenses unless you have to. Taking two camera bodies and using a different zoom lens on each should give you all the focal length options you need. Changing lenses risks moisture, snow and steam spray getting into and damaging your camera.


Recommended reading

Yellowstone Wildlife: The Ecology and Natural History of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by Paul Johnsgard & Thomas Mangelsen, University Press of Colorado, softback, £21.99

Yellowstone Treasures: The Traveler’s Companion to the National Park by Janet Chapple, Granite Peak Publications, softback, £16.99

Photographing Yellowstone National Park by Gustav W Verderber, W.W.Norton & Co, softback, £19.90



Clothing option: Touch screen gloves

Touch screen technology has created a need for gloves with specially woven fingertips. Brands such as eGlove have a choice of colours and sizes. The eGlove Xtreme range (£20) is also windproof lined for sub zero temperatures and features silicon palm and finger grips to aid handling. Double stitched and with a smooth fleece lining for warmth, can also be machine washed. www.eglove.co.uk

Accessory option: Carbon fibre tripod

A tripod is an investment as it will be used long after you change camera bodies. The Gitzo Mountaineer GT1542 (£600) is a tall yet portable four-section tripod made of carbon fibre and magnesium alloy, a lightweight material renowned for its strength. Maximum load rating is 10kg, more than capable of supporting a full-frame DSLR and long telephoto with ease. www.gitzo.co.uk

Lens option: Telephoto zoom

The Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG APO OS HSM (£2,500), is designed for full frame cameras but also compatible with APS-C sized sensors. The 120-300mm focal length range is ideal for wildlife and the lens is equipped with a hypersonic motor (HSM) for silent focusing and an optical stabilizer (OS) to counteract lens movements when handholding. It is available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma SLR mounts. www.sigma-imaging-uk.com

This was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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