It had never occurred to me to go to Yellowstone in the winter, let alone to photograph it. Isn’t it famous for subzero temps in February? Now I am a mountain girl who knows how to handle being outside in the cold, but usually I’m moving and that’s the main strategy for staying warm. So I wasn’t too sure how this would work standing around on a typical Yellowstone winter’s day with a tripod waiting for the light to be right. But when one of my photographer heroes (you can see her amazing work here) suggested we do just that, I was all in. We want to be like our heroes, right?
So five years ago, at Sarah’s behest, we hired a photographer/guide who grew up in the Yellowstone area and knew quite personally when and where to find the animals. Animals? I hadn’t even thought of that…after all, I’m mostly a landscape photographer. In fact, I didn’t know we were going mainly for the wildlife until we got there and I got a load of his HUGE long lenses. I certainly didn’t have anything like that. But this guide was a real treasure because not only did he know where to find the wildlife, he was most willing to let me load my Canon 5D Mark III onto his 800mm Canon lens for many of the shots. My kinda guide!! Check out this sweet little Pygmy Owl he spotted sitting on a limb, waiting for his unsuspecting breakfast to show up. I hear they’re actually quite ferocious little birds:
He also taught me the principal of photographing a dark object on a very bright background like snow. The camera will want to expose for the snow, leaving the object, in this case an animal, very dark with indiscernible detail. That’s a big no-no, and a big ah-ha for me. This very favorite image of mine (well, it’s my favorite anyway), would have been a throw-away without applying that principle:
And here’s another example, very stark in its contrast between the white of the snow and the dark buffalos.
As a photographer, one needs to decide which element of the image requires detail to make the biggest impact, and then expose for that. Obviously the buffalo were the object of interest here, and it didn’t matter that there was no detail in the snow around them. In fact, it was an advantage to have the snow like that, allowing the animals to be framed without distraction from the background. Of course, now there’s all the rage around HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography and the software to develop it. But that came later in my photography learning curve.
Now I knew that Yellowstone is famous for its animals. I just wasn’t prepared for their sheer numbers in winter. It was delightful to be witness to their wildness in winter months. For instance, I didn’t know that buffalos use their massive heads to sweep the snow aside to uncover the vegetation underneath for forage. This herd went thundering by us (THAT was exhilarating!) and you can see the patches of snow clinging to their snouts.
And here’s another thing I didn’t know before, let alone witnessed. Have you ever watched a fox or coyote hunt in the snow? I was blown away to watch this gorgeous red fox obviously listening, then diving again and again head first into the snow after his prey. So I learned how to put my camera on rapid fire and was thrilled to catch him in action:
He didn’t catch that one, but later on we found him again resting and content:
Here’s another story for you. Our guide and his friend kept looking for a particular elk they called Old Number 10. They were worried about him because he hadn’t been seen in quite some time and was getting on in age. Apparently he was famous for charging and bashing cars during rut rages when he was younger. That’ll get your attention! So imagine our elation when we (er, the guide, that is) found him hanging out not far off the road, contentedly chewing his cud. You can see the “10” tag on his ear…
Then there were the Bighorn Sheep. These guys had no fear of humans and seemed to love posing for us. These were two different rams:
Another primary principle in composing your photo I learned on this trip is the principle of threes. There’s something pleasing to our eye to see collections of three, especially if arranged as a cohesive triangle, like these swans.
Animals aren’t all that cooperative in arranging themselves this way, wild or not. So it really was a stroke of luck to see these antelope just so. Rather ordinary by themselves (at least to those of us who see them a lot), these three were quite striking standing together:
As you can see, it was a VERY successful 4 day trip in Yellowstone in winter. And that’s not including any of the success with landscapes we had! Check in next week for the best of what I saw in the big views.