Sunday, October 02, 2011

Photography in Grand Tetons National Park

I spent three days this week taking photos in Grand Teton National Park. Julie and I spent a day or so there a few years ago, but we haven't been back since.  I was trying to time my trip around the fall foliage, and for the most part I got it right.

I think the key to the quality of the trip's pictures, beyond my own skill or lack thereof, was the weather.  It was certainly a case of good news, bad news.  The good news is that we have had a massive high pressure system over Utah and Wyoming for the last two weeks.  The result has been sunshine, blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures.  I spent most of each day in shorts and a t-shirt, which is absurd for northern Wyoming in late September.

The bad news was the same high pressure system.  Cloudless skies are actually very boring in photos.  Bright sunshine washes out all the color. The warm temperatures mean that there is no new snow up on the mountains.  Finally, the lack of storms leaves the air very still, which means all the smoke from the fires, both wildfires and prescribed burns, hangs around in this ugly haze.
Above is a picture of a prescribed burn that was started at the south end of the park on my last full day. I was so unhappy with how it messed up the mountain pictures, I decided to try to go photograph the fire itself.  As you might expect, as I got close, I was stopped by six rangers, a "fire information" vehicle, and a fire truck.  I never got close.  Fire is such a prevalent issue in the area of the country that there is a nice web site dedicated to the firefighting status and plans:  www.tetonfires.com.

One thing the haze didn't affect was the foliage. The aspens were in full color and they were quite common along the Snake River.  When we went to Yellowstone a few years ago, I was disappointed by the very high percentage of evergreens. Grand Teton is much more interesting in Fall.
On several of my photo trips, I have found areas that if you catch them early in the morning before the winds pick up, you can get incredible reflections in the water. I find these to be beautiful and I end up with lots of different versions of these photos. This was from Schwabachers Landing.
This is Oxbow Bend.  Ansel Adams made this famous and I can't imagine photographing Grand Teton without spending at least a few mornings or evenings at this spot.
Jenny Lake is very scenic, but you are right up close to the base of the mountains, so it has a different feel.
There is a row of houses and barns at the south end of the park called Mormon Row.  It's on Moran Road, which seems too close to avoid confusion.  Several of the 100 year old barns are in good shape and their style seems quite unique.  They are very beautiful in the glow of sunrise.  Of course they would be nicer if they didn't have all that damn smoke behind them.
Here is a different one from down the road.  Notice how different the picture feels, even though the barns are similar and the mountains are the same.  The first was taken from about 200-300 yards from the barn.  The second was taken from about 30 yards away.  The change in perspective makes a big difference in how the mountains appear compared to the barn.
There are lots of split rail fences around the park.  I think some are to contain the wandering bison and the others are because there is still a fair amount of active ranching within the park.  I liked how this one pointed to the mountains and then curved out of the way. Did I mention I hated the smoke?
This was just a fun perspective shot.  There were odd weeds of some form that dried in fuzzy vertical clumps.  I wallowed around on the ground for a while trying to find a more interesting way to capture the image.  This turned out to be my favorite.  It was funny watching cars slowing down to figure out what in the world I was doing laying on the ground with a camera on a tripod.
On to the wildlife... I captured some pictures, but on the whole I didn't see as much wildlife as I expected and I couldn't get photos of some of the most impressive.

There are large numbers of Pronghorn in the 10-20 miles north of Evanston, Wyoming.  I saw some in the park, but these were a lot more fun. It's the rutting season and the bucks are working hard to claim and keep their harems.  That's not an easy task.  I kept running across a dozen or so doe's with one buck.  A hundred yards away would be another buck, constantly trying to move in a grab a few ladies for himself. The worst case was a buck who had two aggressors, one on each side of his harem.  As he would chase one buck off, the other would come closer.  He would move to chase that one off and the first would return.  As best I could tell, this never ends.

I like Julie's idea: just give each male one to leave him alone and keep the other females in peace.
This is a beautiful Bald Eagle.  He chose to fly right overhead while my camera was tightly gripped by a tripod aimed at some distant scenery.  By the time I realized what he was, unhitched the camera, zoomed, found him in the lens, focused and shot, he was on his way past. I sure would have appreciated a second fly by but it wasn't going to happen.
There are bison scattered around the park, but they are steadily heading south now. One afternoon I was driving around looking for places to shoot during the next sunrise and sunset.  The car in front of me stopped and I noticed that the reason was a herd of bison, about 50 strong. You probably need to double-click on this picture to see it large enough, but check out the bison in front of this car.  To paraphrase from the movie Jaws:  "Honey, I think we are going to need to rent a bigger car."
The bison were very interesting to watch.  They moved along at a grueling pace of less than a mile per hour, eating as they went. It was like watching fifty large, slow, noisy lawn mowers.  I wanted to get out of the truck to get better pictures, but didn't dare given how close they were.  I ended up rolling down the window and climbing on the roof of my Honda Pilot.  I sat on the roof for about 20 minutes watching them.

This guy was one of my favorites.  He clearly had an itch to scratch.  He moved at the same slow pace as all the others, but instead of munching grass, he moved from fence pole to fence pole, scratching on each one. You have to have a sturdy fence to withstand a bad itch from a big bison.
At some point I finally stopped whining about the smoke and started shooting the morning steam. This was at one of the active barns on Mormon Row.
And my favorite was in a secluded area just north of Oxbow Bend.  The light breeze was making the wisps of morning steam dance across the river.
The shots that got away...
  • The biggest bull elk I have ever seen, with a monstrous rack.  However, it was too dark for a photo.
  • The owl the I startled. He swept along the creek bed, about 15 feet from me. No way I could possibly react in time for a photo.
  • The pronghorn that sprung in front of my 45 mph truck at 6:15 in the morning (still pitch black out).  He missed becoming a hood ornament by about 3 feet.
  • The bull moose that came down to the steaming river at sunrise, swam across and walked out into the woods.  This could have been a spectacular picture, but I was set up for a wide angle sunrise at Oxbow Bend and my big lens was packed in the truck.  By the time I could move and switch everything, he was gone.  This one hurts to have missed.
It was a good trip and I feel I know the park a lot better.  I would like to try again in the fall, perhaps with some different weather.  An early snow on the fall foliage would be impressive. A storm rolling in across the mountains?  Wildlife that cooperates more?A big rain before I go that puts out all the fires?

I think to really get the most out of the park, you just have to keep visiting it and maximizing whatever it has to offer then.  Of course, I guess that logic works for almost anywhere.
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