Why Photographing Yellowstone in Winter – Part 1
You are certainly familiar with Yellowstone National Park in the state of Wyoming in the United States. It is an extraordinary place for landscape or wildlife photography whatever the time of year. It is also the largest caldera in the world.
Every year, I go to Yellowstone to recharge my batteries because it is the perfect place. This year, I returned in the winter to create new photographs for my fine art print collections.
The Story of this Trip to Yellowstone
Before I give you reason to photograph Yellowstone in winter, I will tell you why I returned to the area for the 8th time.
At the opening of an exhibition dedicated to photographer David Yarrow in an art gallery in Dallas, Texas, I was totally enthralled by the photograph of a lion in action. This photo has the distinction of having been taken from a low-angle view. Artistically speaking, this photograph is just perfect.
It gave me the idea of photographing an animal in the snow and from a low-angle view. The bison seemed to me to be the proper mammal because it is powerful and inspires strength. In addition, it is a photo that I have never seen despite all my research. I thought it would definitely be a "master piece".
You can believe me when I write that it's a powerful animal because I've seen it loaded and it's just awesome.
But the buffalo is an animal that lives in the plains in search of food. It is therefore not easy to photograph in low-angle view in contrast to the bighorn sheep that still gravitates on steep slopes.
During this winter trip, I traveled the Yellowstone using snowshoes to look for the most beautiful scenes to photograph. As always, a great photo always needs luck.
On a beautiful sunny morning with a pleasant temperature of -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), I take a path to fetch wolves to photograph. The day before, people had seen a pack. After 2 hours of walking, I scan the horizon with my binoculars when I see a group of a dozen bison walking on an overhang.
I tell myself that it may be finally the good day after 4 days without having made the photo that I wanted.
I travel about 300 meters (900 feet) when I realize that the bison want to go down an embankment to go into a meadow. I hurry to meet them. I have my 500mm in the bag, but it's too long a focal length to account for the mass of a bison. I decide to mount a 70-200mm. This lens will allow me to show the volume of the animal and make it impressive. After all, it's a "master piece". The shot must be impressive in every sense of the word.
The risk is great because the absolute rule is to always leave at least a distance of 30 meters (90 feet) between a bison and you. If I stay more than 30 meters, I may have too much negative space. As beautiful as it is, that's not what I want to do.
So, I have to get a little closer so that the framing and composition will be perfect.
The buffalo is an animal with a totally unpredictable temperament. It can charge without any sign of aggressiveness beforehand. Its startup speed is blazing. When a bison charges you, it is always too late. It is impossible to avoid it. With its horns, it has the particularity of being able to project several times a human being without him falling back on the ground. I saw videos: it's impressive.
So, I approach the embankment. Bison are not yet in sight. I lie down in the snow so that my low-angle view is the best possible. I cannot use a tripod because if I have to run, it will bother me. I am 20 meters from the top of the slope.
Even though I wear protective clothing against snow and cold, it's pretty uncomfortable. I protected myself behind a tree stump against a possible charge of a bison.
The seconds pass slowly. I do not know how long I have been waiting. My adrenaline rate is climbing. Despite the cold, I have terrible hot flashes that go up in my face. It's like I feel that something important is going to happen.
I realize I have not been very careful because the bison will want to go down the slope. I will be on their way. I'm about to get up to change places when I see the head of a young male who appears. It is too late. I make some photos in burst mode. The sound of the camera surprises the buffalo that stops in its tracks. He does not know what to do.
I decide to get up to show him that I am here. He looks at me and stares at me. I still realize some photos. But a small inner voice tells me it is worth leaving now. No need to force luck.
Of course, I forgot that I was wearing snowshoes. I want to turn around my impossible with these accessories. I fall in the snow and I lose my camera. Here I am stuck with a bison looking at me, my camera stuck in the snow and my ankles twisted with my snowshoes.
I look at the buffalo, which always looks at me with curiosity. It does not show animosity, but it does not mean anything. I start talking to him in a loud but confident voice. I know that talking to bison means nothing, but what else can I do to tell him not to come down? Finally, I can turn my legs and use my sticks to straighten up. Not easy in a meter of snow (3 feet).
Here I am again standing. I get my camera that is covered with snow and I go back to the road. The head bison still has not moved. He always looks at me with curiosity. My heart beats wildly. I put my camera in my camera bag. I hurry to move on the path. I have never walked so fast with snowshoes.
Finally, after fifty meters (150 feet) of a frantic march, I turn around and I see that the buffalo has begun to descend the hill with an unsteady step. The other members of the group follow him.
I resume my walk telling myself again that no photo is worth risking my life to achieve it. But every time, it's a wishful thinking. But this time, the lesson is likely to be remembered.
And the photo will you ask me? Well, it is exactly how I wanted her. It will be a "master piece".
In winter, you can photograph many mammals and many birds in Yellowstone.
The most common mammal is undoubtedly the bison. It is an animal that can weigh a ton. He may seem passive and embarrassed by the thickness of snow in which he walks. But do not be fooled. We had the opportunity to see bison running in the snow and they are very fast. To photograph them, you have to be very careful and stay a good distance.
Bison are interesting animals to photograph because their coat contrasts much with the white snow. In addition, the eyes are very expressive, and the attitudes are often evocative. It is an animal that evokes power.
When snowshoeing on snow-covered trails, you can also photograph coyotes, bighorn sheep, wolves, foxes, elk, and pronghorns.
The poultry fauna is not left out. The most remarkable bird is the bald eagle. Often, eagles are hooked to a branch over a river to fish. There are also swans, many species of ducks and many passerines.
But personally, although I love water birds, Yellowstone is for me the paradise of mammals.
I also adopt a particular technique for photographing animals in winter: the blind. I have noticed over the years that mammals move a lot in search of their food. I move with a cloth photo blind of snow-colored and I settle on the edge of a wood. This is how I was able to photograph coyotes, bighorn sheep and pronghorns. It is a practical technique because it allows me to be invisible. I am using this technique only if there is no wind otherwise it is impossible to stay more than 10 minutes because of the cold.
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.
A Special Atmosphere Because of the Snow and the Cold