Photographing the Atmosphere of Yellowstone in Winter
A Special Atmosphere Because of the Snow and the Cold
Winter is an extraordinary season to discover Yellowstone.
The very low temperatures discourage many visitors from attending during the winter months. It is often between -5 and -20 degrees Celsius (which is between 23- and -4-degrees Fahrenheit), and which is very bearable with adequate clothing. However, when the north wind begins to blow, it becomes almost impossible to stay outside more than 15 minutes. I cannot tell you what the temperature is, but it is freezing cold. These weather conditions are normal because Yellowstone is located at more than 2000 meters of altitude (more than 6000 feet). Rangers told me that the record to date was -54 degrees Celsius (-65 degrees Fahrenheit). Nevertheless, it is considered to be exceptionally cold once the temperature falls below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
On the other hand, the snow that covers the park creates a very special atmosphere. The snow depth is variable depending on the year. On average, it is about 3.5 meters a year (10 feet). The trees and the meadows are enveloped by immaculate snow that creates a cozy atmosphere. The silence is incredible.
As there are few people and snow covering the entire park, winter is the perfect time to create photographs that are out of the ordinary.
Yellowstone is not only a paradise for landscape photographers but also for wildlife photographers. Indeed, finding the animals is much easier in winter than in summer because they are more noticeable on the immaculate snow. It is therefore easier to photograph them.
Snow is certainly the best asset to create minimalist and very creative nature photographs.
Landscape Photography in Yellowstone in Winter
When you arrive in Yellowstone, the first thing you see is the landscapes covered with trees, meadows, and rivers. Yellowstone is characterized by distant mountains of high altitude and by immense wooded plains.
The first photos are quite difficult to make because the snow flattens the landscapes and decreases the contrast. The trick is to journey on paths to try to find points of view that are a little elevated, which then creates scenes with reliefs and volumes. I use my 200-400mm quite often to capture the atmosphere of snow-capped peaks. At this time of the year, they are almost inaccessible and must be photographed from afar.
How to Photographically Capture Yellowstone in Winter
But photographing Yellowstone in winter is quite complicated, as only one road is open to traffic. Only the northern part of the national park is open to cars. This route represents 4 hours of travel back and forth. This may be a good distance, but if you are going to take photos for a week, the time will seem a little long.
Other methods are available when discovering treasures to photograph. We use the snow mobile a lot. It allows you to move on already marked paths or in snow-covered areas but without risk. For us, it is a means of extraordinary freedom even if the noise is sometimes a little overpowering in this universe where silence reigns. But the primary use of the snowmobile lies in its ability to move from one point to another. We also have snowshoes and sticks with us.
Indeed, in my opinion, snowshoes are the best way to create photographs on snow-covered terrains. With snowshoes, you can walk in snow depths that reach 1.5 meters (3 feet). You sink very little, and the sticks help you stay balanced and move forward.
When a landscape or animal scene arises, you must prepare the photographic equipment, which is tucked in the backpack, before capturing the photos.
Often when we go snowshoeing, we take a food and drink supply for two days. Even if the ride lasts only four or five hours, you never know what may happen in the hostile wilderness.
We always walk in places we know from either previous winters, or spots in which we explored in prior summers when the snow was absent. If we arrive in an area we do not know, we do not venture there. The main danger in Yellowstone is the pools of water that are covered by a thick layer of snow. Walking on the layer of snow causes water to surface, and we easily become wet. This can be dangerous in such severe temperatures. We do not recommend walking in these areas when it is -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
The Yellowstone in winter is a real paradise for photographers in search of thrills and difficult conditions. Wildlife photography is spectacular because animals can easily be spotted against the white snow background. They also move frequently to find food.
Personally, every year, I leave my normal life for a week to recharge my batteries and to find the energy to return to my year, fully refreshed.