Thursday, January 30, 2014

Yellowstone - January 2014

This past week I went for my second trip into Yellowstone during the winter.  Yellowstone is my favorite national park any time of year, but in winter it is off the charts!  Everyone should give it a try sometime.

The first thing you have to plan on is getting into the park.  The roads are all snow packed and they don't allow any normal vehicles in. Four wheel drive is irrelevant. You need something that looks like this: a nice big, roomy vehicle with tank treads.
To get this, I signed up for a photography trip with Nature Photography Adventures.  This is the same group I went with back in 2007.  I started by driving up to West Yellowstone to meet the group.  I was the only one who drove.  Our group had 13 people and they came from Australia, England, Norway, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and a few others.  I felt odd being only 350 miles away.

West Yellowstone is a funky little town near the northwestern corner of the park.  It's is huge for snowmobilers in the winter, which appears to be the reason they don't quite plow their streets.  They get a bit of the snow out of the way, but it quickly evolves to a significant layer of ice.
Each day we would journey into the park in our snow coach, or coaches.  We liked the big one the best, because it had a tremendous amount of room for the 13 of us, our two leaders, and 9,000 pounds of camera equipment.  One the longest day, we had to take two smaller coaches.  They had better fuel range.  Apparently tank treads aren't great for mileage and a national park layered in a blanket of snow isn't full of filling stations.

This is a normal stop for us.  We all pile out and start looking at something.  Then we begin to wander off in different directions photographing different things.  Some people were all about the wildlife.  Others the trees and geysers. Some were focused on macro photography.  The trip leaders managed to balance everything out so that each person got a good amount of their favorites.
As you will see in pictures that follow, this is indicative of the trip.  In all the geyser basins, there was an incredible amount of steam rising, making photography a big challenge.  Then the steam freezes on the boardwalks, so walking can be a challenge.
The trip was great and I like the leaders.  Probably the best measure of their success is the number of people on our trip who had done multiple others with this same company.  For me, they provided the transportation and all the local knowledge.  They knew where the wildlife would be.  They knew when the sun would hit a certain spot.  Even if I could have driven myself, there's no way I could have found half of what we saw.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Yellowstone - The Ice and The Water

One of several parts of my recent Yellowstone trip.

So much of Yellowstone in the winter is about the water, snow, ice and steam.  The animals are cool, but you can see them year-round.  This is collection of photos range from huge waterfalls to tiny icicles.

One winter theme you find throughout Yellowstone is the rime ice.  The steam coming off the rivers and pools and most dramatically from the geysers, gets cold in the frigid night air and freezes almost instantly to any surface.  It can take something as simple as this pine tree limb and turn it into a piece of art.
Sometimes the ice gets so heavy it begins to be a real weight on the tree.  In the back you can see all the steam coming off Prismatic Pool. 
Sometimes it's just the simplest of things.  This little sapling was poking its head out of the snow.  Then the rime ice got it.  Its long, dark shadow is pretty common for winter shooting.
... and on to something completely different. In the summer, here is what Lower Yellowstone Falls looks like.  Pretty dramatic?
Here's a shot from this week.  We started at the Upper falls, but the snow was obscuring the pictures so much we gave up.  I took some but deleted 100% of them.  Then we headed around to lower falls.  Same thing.  Too much snow coming down to get a clear shot on something a half mile away.  So we sat down and had lunch.  That's when the small miracle occurred.  Things cleared up, but only for about 30 minutes or so.

The water is still falling, but by far the more interesting thing is the huge and intricate ice formations that run from top to bottom. Your looking at several hundred feet of vertical.
Another shot, zoomed in a bit more.  If you double click on the photo you can see all the detail.  The color in the ice is completely natural.  I didn't play with the saturation in post processing at all.
Another day, another water fall.  To the credit of Diane and Bob, our trip leaders, they got us to the falls just in time to catch this great highlighting of the rising mist.  Another group of people arrived just as the sun was off the falls.
This is a distant view of the complete falls.  It is only 50 to 75 feet high, much smaller than Yellowstone Falls, but the power of the water and the spectacular lighting made this my favorite.
And to carry the theme, another waterfall.  I liked the long icicles next to the crashing water.  Waterfalls are great places to learn about exposure settings.  Long exposures like this one give the water a soft, flowing look. This was at 1/8th of a second.
A similar scene, with icicles and flowing water, but this time the water was frozen with a 1/4000th of a second exposure.  Interestingly, settings around 1/100th of a second manage to look really crappy. 
I saw all kinds of frozen ice and snow, but this was the only time I found anything that looked like this.  It was sticking off the side of a tree.  It almost looks like what you would get if you cut lots of strands of yarn and put them together.
This is hard to imagine what it is.  Take a pool of hot steamy water.  Mix it with a very dark, very red clay.  Every thirty seconds or so, have a minor eruption.  Such is life in the geyser basins.  Nearby was a similar pool, but with a beige clay, and a much thicker mix.  It was fun to watch but damned if I could ever time a good spurt.
This is proof that there are a lot of different ways to shoot a pine branch.  This is just a branch with a bit of rime on it.  It wasn't particularly pretty from the top, so I shot it straight into the sun.  A cool look, but you have to be careful about going blind.
And my favorite ice comes last.  I sat in the snow for quite a while with my macro lens aimed at this icicle a few inches away.  The pisser is trying to keep it all in focus when your depth of field is about 1/4 of an inch. 
Even though Yellowstone offered us lots of dramatic things to shoot, this little icicle is my favorite photo from the trip.

Yellowstone - The Textures

One of several parts of my Yellowstone trip.

This is just a shorts section with a set of photos I liked, but didn't know where to fit in.  They all came from the geyser basins and they are all about color and texture.

In the winter, you hardly see anything green in Yellowstone other than the needles on a pine tree.  This was a lovely little patch of moss and grasses, with a light coating of rime ice.  It was supported by the warmth from the surrounding hot water.
I can't imagine exactly how this stuff forms, but there were interesting yellow shapes in a very dark green geyser pool. It looks like floating scum, but it is actually quite solid.
One of the prettiest ones I saw was a big yellow pool with a lot of texture.  Tucked in were two tiny white chunks that looked like bone or perhaps brain, but they were actually some calcifications.
The next three all came from a class Bruce Hucko led at the Moab Photo Symposium.  We were out standing in a stream bed, taking pictures of how the light reflected off the ripples caused by the uneven bottom.  I loved the shots I got there and tried a few in the runoff streams from the geyser pools.
Fortunately you could get good shots from the walkway.  They don't seem to appreciate you stepping into a pool for a shot.

If you like the look of those last three, all you have to do is find some nice ripples on a sunny day.  Get your camera pretty straight overhead and then underexpose a bit.  That reduces the highlight overexposures from the sun and retains more of the deeper colors.

Yellowstone - The Landscapes

One of several parts of my recent Yellowstone trip.

The scenery in Yellowstone is incredible with rivers, hills, fields, geysers, a mix of vegetation.... , but one of the huge challenges in photographing during the winter is the steam.  There is a vast amount of hot water rising to the surface and when it mixes with the cold air, you get steam. Lots and lots of steam.  Even when it looks like you have a nice clear view of something, you get back and look at your pictures to find they are soft.  Where did all that sharpness go?  To the slight amount of steam between you and your subject.
After a day or two of this, you get better at two things.  The first is sitting still, watching your subject for the brief moments when the breeze clears the steam.  The second is trying to find places where the steam actually adds to the photo.  I like how this trail disappears off into the mist around the lone tree.
When we went into the Canyons area, it was even worse.  We wanted to shoot the upper and lower falls, but it was cloudy and snowing lightly.  Add that to the normal steam and you have little to work with.
There are quite a few trees that have died from the dissolved silica in the groundwater.  They turn white at the base and then tend to stay upright for a long time.  They add some interesting contrast to the white snow and the inevitable steam.
But somedays you get lucky and there are some clear shots, especially if you aren't close to any of the geyser basins.  This was the sunrise that occurred right after I shot my fox photos (next blog post).  Because it hadn't snowed for a while, there were animal tracks in almost every photo.
This was taken right above the falls on the Fire Hole River.  It looks like I was shooting with a polarizer, but this is just how everything looked.  When we got out of our snow coach, there was a mix of emotions.  You wanted to start shooting such an incredible scene, but you had to just stand there for a few minutes and absorb it.
Same area, but I liked the sunlit cross on the snow.
On one of the big boulders out in the river is a scraggly looking pine tree.  Apparently they decorate it for Christmas every year.  I chose this shot to start playing with starbursts from the sun.  If you haven't ever done this before, all you need to do is set your camera to its highest f-stop.  For my lens it was f/22. Then align the photo so just a tiny sliver of sun pokes out from behind your subject.  Instant starburst!
I never could figure out how to compose a great photo from this scene, but it was so beautiful I had to include it.  Reflections in the water.  Pillowy snow along the bank.
A good painter could have a blast in Yellowstone, but it would take some real skill to match all the subtle, soft lighting that comes from the steam.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Yellowstone - The Animals

One of several parts of my recent Yellowstone trip.

UPDATED: I can't believe I left out the Bison.  They are added near the bottom.

I had already seen a number of the animals that Yellowstone has to offer, but I went with a wishlist of things I hadn't seen or things I had not photographed.  Some I got, others I didn't.

At the top pf my list was the bobcat.  They are fairly common in Yellowstone and we even have an occasional one around Park City, but I have never spotted one, much less photographed it. We made a concerted effort to find one that had been hanging around the river and sure enough, got a few shots before he ambled up the hill and out of site.  We saw another one but as we were trying to get close to him, a few groups of amazingly annoying snowmobilers came through and had to stop to see whatever it was we were looking at.  Gone...
Elk are fairly common in the park, but I was surprised that we didn't see any big impressive bulls.  Most of the males were spikes or perhaps a bit older.  Since you can't hunt in the park, I would have guessed that the big guys would lead long and healthy lives.
Coyotes were quite frequent, but a lot of times you spotted them wandering across a field a half mile away.  This one was much more considerate and photogenic.  In fact, we determined that some of the animals were almost rude about being in the wrong light or standing with a very cluttered background.  Ones like this we referred to as "compositionally aware".  Wish more animals were so inclined.
I was amazed that he had one of the same habits my dog Jasper does: dragging his face through the snow.  I'm not sure why they do this.  Perhaps it's just to wipe all their eye boogers off?  He did it a couple of times, plunging his face into the snow and then giving his head a good shake.
This coyote was sitting down for dinner at an old elk kill.  There sure wasn't much left, but he still seemed happy.  We saw another elk kill one morning.  The next day it was all gone.  Between the wolves, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, and ravens, no good pile of meat sits around for long.
Another animal I really wanted to capture was the wolf.  In particular a pack of wolves.  Ideally a pack of wolves hunting or on a kill.  We got close twice, sort of.  One morning we ran across a black wolf trying to drag an elk carcass out of the river.  He got spooked by our vehicle and ran, even though we were a long ways away and across the river.  We sat for about 30 minutes hoping he would come back to the kill, but no such luck.

Our second encounter was with the rare Scott Wolf, seen below.  Scott is the name of our vehicle driver and tour guide.  We saw this animal up on a ridge line and watched it as it moved closer.  Everyone was excited to be shooting great photos of a wolf until Scott changed his mind and realized it was just a very big, very healthy coyote.  Looks like a damn wolf to me.  I wouldn't want to mess with him.
The same Scott Wold looking even meaner.  I am glad I was shooting from a long ways away, with an ice cold river between me and him.  Then again, I think I could outrun a number of my fellow photographers, so perhaps that's all that really matters.
There are quite a few fox in the park and I specifically wanted a photo of one hunting.  I got my wish, but unfortunately the sun was just barely coming up and there was a bit of steam rising between the fox and our group.  So, not the best photos, but our subject fox was quite the little performer.  Hearing a vole or mouse under the snow, he gets ready and pounces.
Good vertical, with a half tuck.
... and straight down he goes.  The bad news is that he didn't get anything on this attempt.  I really wished I could nudge the sun up a bit higher.  In the morning's "golden hour" he would have been amazing!
There are bison throughout the park.  You see an occasional male by himself, but by this time of year, they tend to be hanging out in small herds.  If nothing else, that provides better protection from the wolves and mountain lions.

I took lots of pictures of them, but all of my favorites came from one morning when we stumbled on a group covered in rime ice.  Yes, nothing is safe from the ice. Without arms like we have, you can't wipe all that crud off your face.  Bummer.
It's not the right time of year for a male to be hitting on a female.  If they had a little one, it would happen in October and the calf would have almost no chance of survival.  That didn't stop him from following her around every step.  Did you know that male bison have a gland in their mouths that can sense where the female is in her cycle?  This helps him figure out when best to try and impregnate her.I think if human males had a similar gland, we would know when it was best to leave the house and find somewhere else to be.
We all felt really sorry for this little calf.  He is probably about 8 months old and this can't be an easy life.  Just the same, I guess it is pretty good camouflage.  He blends in pretty nicely with the ground.

There were eagles each day, and every once in a while someone would see one perched fairly close by.  Those probably make better photos, but I really liked this one where his talons are extended, reaching for the branch.  Just one more animal I wouldn't want to tangle with.
There were quite a few Trumpeter Swans on the river each day.  We were apparently lucky to see that many. They move around based on the weather and where the rivers are frozen. The trick is to try and catch one in the setting sun as they spread their wings.  You have to find them in shallow water because they won't do this while swimming. This one example of our trip leaders local knowledge.  I never would have stumbled on this shot on my own.  Thirty seconds before and after this shot, the swan was boring.  You had to be looking for it.
After a couple of them stretched out in the sun, they all started honking. Scott told us that meant they were probably about to fly.  Sure enough, they took off. They are a joy to watch as they run along the river for 20 or 30 feet before taking off.
And we end our animal section with one of the most brain dead little grouse I have ever run across.  We were all in the snow covered road, taking pictures of something other than a grouse.  In particular, I had a very long lens on my camera.  This little lady pops up on the road and starts walking right towards our group.  We keep expecting her to fly off once she realized what we are, but not a chance.  She literally walked right up to me.  I could have taken a full frame head shot of her if my lens would have focused that close.

After she decided that I wasn't food or her mother, she hopped up on the tread of our snow coach.  We actually had to run her off so that we wouldn't kill her when we started moving.  How bizarre!
This was our parting shot.  The last animal photographed on the last day.  He does seem to be saying goodbye before he walks off into the sunset.