Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How NOT to Photograph Yellowstone & the Tetons

As one who has found a passion in landscape and wildlife photography, "passing through" the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks quickly became an exercise in frustration. Spending sufficient time in the park was in direct conflict with our desire to get home after our long cross-country journey.  Despite having purchased some photography "Cliff's Notes" prior to our visit, not having the time to plan exactly when you would reach a particular location meant that you were at the mercy of whatever conditions you met when you arrived. Challenges that were further complicated by errors in judgement on my part and unfortunate road construction delays.

"En Route" - Shot through the windshield along the Lower Geyser Basin on the way to someplace else
Don't Reserve a Room
The original plan was to spend the night in Jackson Hole, wake up early and head straight to Mormon Row to capitalize on the morning light. As we were travelling with our pet parrots, plans for the entire trip were rather fluid. We stopped when we thought everyone had their fill for the day and it was a formula that was working. During our previous visit to Jackson Hole we had not had any issues finding a place to stay and as I'd calculated we'd be arriving before 3pm, I wasn't too concerned this time either...until we hit the road construction. After looking at stationary objects out the truck window for longer than any of us cared to, I decided to call ahead to make reservations for the night as we were no longer going to be arriving "early". Too late. The entire town of Jackson, WY was booked solid.

Enjoy the Detours
After finally arriving in Jackson and driving around looking for ANY vacancy sign, we finally realized it was a lost cause and ended up driving 40 miles south back down the mountains in the dark to a really nice little lodge in the town of Alpine. While we were all happy to have a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, the 40 mile detour (through more construction I might add) ended up putting us off schedule for the remainder of the return trip.

Wait Until the Sun is HIGH in the Sky
How NOT to meter a buffalo
Now, instead of shooting Mormon Row in the morning light, we were shooting in the harsh, hazy light of high noon in between other visitors walking in and out of the frame. By the time we arrived at Oxbow Bend a slight breeze had kicked up and that incredible shot of Mount Moran reflecting in the river was not to be had. It was mid-afternoon before we even entered Yellowstone and we quickly realized there was no way we were going to be able to visit each of the locations we'd selected from Joesph Lange's book. In fact, it was taking so long to travel the 14 miles between point A and B or the 22 miles between B and C (the hundreds of people pulling 5th wheels planned ahead and were in no particular hurry), we were hard pressed to get shots of much of anything!

Embrace the Competition
By the time we arrived at the Lower Falls in Canyon Village, the sun was already pretty low in the sky. Walking up to the top of the path at Grand View we were greeted by a line of tripods and cameras already in place just waiting for the action to begin.  More people who planned ahead!  With just enough room to poke our own lenses through the crowd, we grabbed a few quick snaps before continuing on.

At the risk of sounding like a photography snob, I was AMAZED by the number of people walking up with their point-and-shoot or camera phone asking "This scenery is so beautiful.  Can you tell me how I can take a picture of it?" while they handed you their camera!  My beautiful wife, bless her heart, took pity on many of the poor souls and tried to help, but all I could think is "How do you come to one of the most photographic places on the planet and not figure out before hand how to take a picture with your camera?"

On the extreme other end of the spectrum, I saw more high end camera gear in our short trip through the parks than I ever would have imagined.  I thought the only place I'd ever see a $10,000 Nikon 600mm f/4 lens was on Moose Peterson's blog.  I saw three of them in one day!  There was also no shortage of photographers willing to offer us unsolicited advice. "If you want the best perspective walk up that hill over there and you'll get the whole river.", etc, etc.  Of course, not all of the advice turned out to be good.  For example, there was one gentleman who was none to shy about informing me and the rest of the onlookers that I was "wasting my time" taking shots of the lower falls in this light. "You can only shoot it in the morning".  I'm not sure if he picked me out because I was the only one at this stop shooting from a tripod and remote release (I was bracketing everything) or because I was shooting with a Nikon and he wore a Canon around his neck.

Don't Learn from Prior Mistakes
The next stop after Lower Falls was Inspiration Point. While there were a fair number of people on the observation deck, I found a better perspective (a very familiar one if you've seen photos of Inspiration Point) at the top of the parking lot which we had all to ourselves! FINALLY we were getting some decent light and the time to capture some spectacular views.  We shot and shot and shot until dusk finally descended upon us.

As we got back to the truck it was obvious that there was no way we were going to make our intended destination of Billings, MT that night.  Better call around and find a place to stay (see prior "Don't" - "Don't Reserve a Room").  After exhausting all of the suggestions of our trusty GPS in both the north (our intended exit) and east exits and not finding any vacancy, I hit pay dirt with the next closest entry on the list.  The Dude Motor Inn.  After I'd provided my credit card information and secured the room, I punched the address into the GPS and discovered we'd be just outside the WEST entrance - exactly the opposite direction of home! 

Between my wife expressing her dissatisfaction at my decision making and our two parrots questioning "Hurry?" from the darkness of the back seat, I was pretty sure I was the least popular person in the vehicle as we made our way out of the park.

A New Day
By morning, both my wife and the parrots had forgiven me as we loaded into the truck determined to still make it home in two days.With more than 1,200 miles between us and home there weren't many stops inside the park that day.  My wife drove, as she had nearly the entire trip, so I continued to shoot out the windows as we went.

In the end, we did compile a nice collection of park images, built some funny memories along the way (maybe not so funny at the time) and were truly inspired by the beauty that can be found in the Teton and Yellowstone parks.  Our next visit will NOT be simply "passing through".


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