Photographing Yellowstone National Park in the Winter by Kevin McNeal
This past week I had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park in the winter. I have wanted to photograph this special place in winter conditions but never had the chance. Well my wishes came true this week and I was given the opportunity to co-lead a Yellowstone Winter workshop with three other great instructors. Being that is was my first time in the park I was a novice and was prepared to make some mistakes. I believe each park has its own special qualities that capture the essence of it. Needless to say, I learned so much from this past workshop. Not only from the other instructors but the students as well. So if I went back I would do a few things different that will help other photographers visiting Yellowstone in the winter. The following are some helpful hints if you decide to photograph this majestic place in the winter.
Firstly, bring all your lenses from widest to telephoto. You will need a lens capable of at least 300mm. I only brought a 70- 200mm L and I found out quick that was not nearly enough. I was constantly finding scenes that were stunning but did not have the lens to capture it. If you have a 100-400L lens that should appropriate for most scenes in the park. Whether you are shooting wildlife or landscapes I found that I was restricted to where I could shoot from because of the snow. In past situations I would move closer to the subject but when you are photographing with others this is not something that can be afforded to you. When getting around in Yellowstone during winter conditions park access is restricted to snowmobiles and snow cats. During our time in the workshop the group was divided into two snow cats. To book snow cats you can do that in West Yellowstone where we made it our home base. In West Yellowstone you can find adequate accommodations and food as well.
Secondly, I would have held my camera in my hand while in the snow cat. Many chances to capture wildlife happened in a split second and by the time you reach for your camera it was too late. You have to be open to the idea of hand holding your camera and shooting through the snow cat windows (they keep the windows very clean) as this is your only opportunity in many cases. I have always been a tripod kind of person, so I had to adjust to new circumstances. This included shutter speeds and aperture which are completely different if you are hand holding. The other problem is the snow cat does not stop every time you see something you would like to shoot. The snow cat only makes stops where the majority of the photographers in the vehicle would like to stop. The emphasis was primarily on wildlife in the park.
Thirdly, I did not bring a wide enough range of clothing with me on the trip. The mornings were very cold, well below zero but the afternoons really warmed up. I found I brought enough cold apparel but not enough clothes for warmer weather, which was also breathable. Especially when the snow cat would stop for long periods of time. You would get cold exiting the snow cat but as soon as you moved around you would sweat immediately. I needed some clothes that adapted to all the particular situations. For example, clothes that were not just breathable but also have zippers down the side making it easier for quick access depending on the situation. Also make sure to bring gloves that can provide access to your camera controls, as you are not going to be taking your gloves off. Many students did not have this option and unfortunately ended up back in the snow cat due to the cold conditions.
Lastly, the most important thing I would do different is time my visit to coincide with better photography weather. As I was involved in co-leading a workshop I did not have this option. Timing the weather conditions is very hard to do in this park but can be done. If you can see that the weather calls for favorable conditions in the park a few days ahead make the trip, as it will be definitely be worth it. If possible fly in to either Idaho Falls airport or Jackson Hole airport; both airports are within a few hours of the park. The best place to make accommodations is West Yellowstone. Prices are reasonable for accommodations and transportation. Reservations can be made here for transportation into the park. When I visited this past week the conditions in terms of snow were not ideal. If I traveled by myself I would have waited it out in West Yellowstone before making the trip inside the park. There is a high probability of snow most days in the winter so waiting it out should not take too many days.
In conclusion, each photographer will have a set of ideals that are important to him or her when photographing in Yellowstone during winter season. From my experience, these simple tips can go a long way to improving your success in the park.