It's been several years since I first had the chance to visit Yellowstone National Park, but I can honestly say that it was an incredible experience throughout and I can't wait to go back. The trip to the national park was honestly a game-changing experience for me and how I approach my own landscape photography. I learned so much on that trip, not necessarily about my gear, but about what to shoot and how to capture it in a way that would help me really remember what it was like to see things in person.
Some of the lessons learned, that I'll share with you here, aren't going to be news to some of our more experienced nature photographers, but I did learn some cool stuff so I figured I'd share it with you! In most outdoor settings, chances are you'll come across a wide range of possible subjects and compositional opportunities. The weather and naturally occurring light will also play a big part in how you end up capturing what you're there to see. I've tried to break down some of the elements of what I learned from my trip to Yellowstone into some basic categories. Realistically, with any trip to a large location like the national park, there is probably an endless list of topics that could be covered, so I'll just be discussing the top six lessons that I learned from visiting this incredibly beautiful park.
1. Working With Water
Yellowstone is full of all sorts of incredible shot opportunities that involve water. With a huge collection of large rivers, insane amounts of smaller streams, a massive amount of lakes and ponds, and a plethora of geysers to choose from, the number of opportunities to set up shots with water is pretty high. The biggest lesson I learned from Yellowstone when it comes to capturing scenes involving water is how important the shutter speed is!
Like anyone, I suppose, when I really started playing with my tripod and pushing for longer and longer shutter speeds, I ultimately realized that a longer shutter isn't always the answer. Just because I could do it, doesn't mean I should. In the shot above, I had tried several other longer shutter speeds, ranging from 5 to 30 seconds in duration, but I just didn't like how they turned out. I was honestly surprised that the shots I liked the most were the ones that were a bit quicker, ones that kept a bit more texture in the waterfall.
With this shot of the heated stream dumping into a colder river, I opted for a much slower shutter speed. I just loved all the textures and colors that were at play in this spot, I wanted to have that show through a bit with my shot. I chose a slow shutter speed to smooth that water out so it would contrast against the brightly colored, highly textured rocks.
With this shot of Old Faithful, I really wanted to capture the character of the geyser, so I went specifically for a higher shutter speed. Even then, I probably could have gone with an even faster shutter to potentially capture more crisp detail in the fountains of water. That thing really shoots up quick! Even though this is a shot of steam, I think it still counts as capturing water. Looking back, I wish that I had opened up my ISO so as to close down my aperture in order to avoid some of the out-of-focus parts in the image. That would also have allowed me to shoot with an even faster shutter speed. Oh well!
Basically, this trip taught me about the importance of choosing specific shutter speeds for a concise effect in the image. Just because I had a tripod, and could blur that water into silky ribbons of oblivion... didn't mean that I should. It's when I really started to read my scenes, to pick a shutter speed that told the story I wanted to tell, instead of arbitrarily picking a shutter speed because it was showier in technical terms.
2. Capturing The Wildlife
The amount of wild animals that roam throughout the park is impressive enough. Once you start to realize how many different species there are, just in Yellowstone, it's kind of like driving through an American mid-western, free range, zoo! It really is incredible to see many of these animals in their natural environment, it's that much more fun to capture a picture of one, here and there.
If you can find the animals, capturing them is relatively easy. From what I experienced, the longer focal length you have, in the way of lenses, the easier it will be for you. For this trip, the longest lens I had was my 70-200mm. However, I can tell you right now, I wish I had rented something in the range of 400mm, maybe even 600mm. I barely even left the car for this shot. In fact, I was kneeling near the edge of the road to get this one. The thing to remember is that you're not alone, there are other people there to enjoy the same views as you. So be courteous and try not to walk in front of other peoples' cameras, pull your car completely off the road (if permissible, otherwise keep moving), and pay attention to your surroundings.
For this picture above, we had found a good parking space several hundred feet away from this spot and I simply walked down to the bridge and just shot from there. I had a good vantage point with no obstructions. All I had to do was be patient and wait for the buffalo to make his way out of the trees and into the grass. Being willing to be patient will allow you to grab some of those shots that most people will never capture. When it comes to capturing pictures of wild animals, a lot of the lessons that I learned from Yellowstone really weren't lessons that I had to experience for myself. I watched a lot of people make some really stupid decisions and get pretty close to getting themselves hurt. There are signs all over the place warning visitors to keep their distance from the animals, especially the larger animals. You don't have to get right up in an animal's face just to get a decent picture.
That being said, sometimes the animals themselves will choose to come right up in your face! If that's the case, just use your head. For this shot, I was kneeling down to get this low angle, but I was about 18 inches away from our car and I kept the car door open. The buffalo wasn't interested in me, but I didn't want to take any chances; there are plenty scary videos on YouTube of people getting charged by getting too close to these majestic animals. I grabbed my shot, and hopped back in the car. Not even a full minute after that, this guy literally walked right behind our car and meandered across the road.
In a nutshell, what I learned about shooting wildlife in Yellowstone is pretty simple. Firstly, don't be an idiot. Instead, be safe and smart. Also, don't worry about getting every single shot down to perfection! It's okay if the f-stop isn't perfect, or if the shutter speed is a little too slow, you still captured something super cool! I think that's probably the biggest lesson I learned while trying to capture wildlife. Even if I never even took a shot, I still got to see and appreciate some incredible views out there and I think it's important to remember that. Getting to take any pictures home at all is a plus, but just enjoying the views for what they are is also pretty important. It makes the trip more fun!