4 Tips on Creating Great Photographs in Yellowstone & Teton National Parks

By Lane Erickson

You’ve been to Yellowstone National Park and so have I.  Just south of Yellowstone is the Teton National Park, another jewel of the Rocky Mountains.  The problem is thousands of talented photographers visit these National Parks each year, and have for decades.  So how do we create unique photographs of a National Park like Yellowstone or Teton.  To celebrate the 100 Birthday of the National Park System, here are 4 tips on how to Find the Right Light so that you can successfully photograph National Parks.

Tip #1: Get Out Early and Stay Late

Most photographers, like most people, are lazy. I’m not being critical of others because I’m that way too.  But if you want to get outstanding photographs in nature, which is what our National Parks are all about, the well-known rule of getting out early and staying out late is critical!  There is simply no substitute for the golden hour of photography.

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Alpen glow on the Grand Teton from Upper Cascade Canyon. Golden light from the golden hour.  Nikon D200; Nikkor 55-200mm @ 55mm; 1/80s @ f/8.

But really, there is much more to it than that. I’ve seen many talented photographers pack up and leave once the sun has set or arrive at a location just moments before sunrise. Just a non-critical observation of what I see around me. If you set up for a sunrise, hang around for a while after the sun comes up. You’ll often find that the light on the landscape is amazing!  Take these photographs for example:

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6:18 AM. Sort of overcast.  Only 1 other photographer.  He left after a short sunrise.  I stayed, and so did the guys who were flyfishing (see below).  Nikon D5100; Nikkor 35mm; 1.3s @ f/22

 

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Flyfishing the Madison River in Yellowstone.  Golden sunrise lights the steam and water from behind.  Nikon D5100; Nikkor 70-200mm @  135mm; 1/400s @ f/5.6
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Nikon D5100; Nikkor 70-200mm @  200mm; 1/200s @ f/5.6

 

So, Tip #1 includes sticking around and watching the light.  You may be rewarded with Finding the Right Light.

This takes us to the next tip.

 

Tip #2: Use a Map and Make a Plan

Part of the “get out early and stay out late” Tip #1 involves figuring out ahead of time where you need to go.  For me, unless I really know an area well, this means I need a map. With a map, I can make a plan.   Once I have a plan then I can also figure out what gear I need to take with me  and what time I need to leave to get to the location so I can Find the Right Light.

There’s an added benefit to using a map. You can often find hidden gem locations that are not well photographed because they’re not that easy to get to. Remember the first part of Tip #1, people are lazy. If you’re willing to walk a little further or cover an area that is a little more difficult to get to you will find great locations to photograph.

 

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I saw this pond on the map near the Continental Divide in Yellowstone.  When I arrived at the pond I found that it was full of lily pads.  Bonus!!  Hundreds of cars drove past me. No one stopped to photograph.  It was heaven. Nikon D5100; Nikkor 28mm; 1/20s @ f/16

Tip #3: Find a Unique Perspective

The use of a map in creating a plan can help you accomplish Tip #3, which is to find a unique perspective. Here’s an example, in Yellowstone National Park the famous Lower Yellowstone Falls are often photographed from a great distance at Artist Point.  I’m just like everybody else and love to go to that spot to look at the waterfall and to take photographs. The problem is my photographs look just like everybody elses.  However, there are two unique perspectives that are not often photographed. The first is down a long flight of stairs on a path called Uncle Tom’s Trail.  The second is on the brink of the waterfall.  

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The Uncle Tom’s Trail.  Lots of stairs most people are too afraid to go down.  Just above the waterfall you’ll see a group of people on the brink.  They are small so you might have to squint to see them.  Nikon D5100; 12-24mm @ 16mm; Neutral density filter; 1s @ f/22

Another example of a unique perspective is of the Grand Prismatic Pool.  If you take the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook Trail and walk about a mile and a half, you can climb up a close mountainside and get a spectacular view.  This area was burned by a forest fire in 1988. The tall Lodgepole Pines were all burned down creating an open, beautiful view. It won’t be many years and the Lodgepole Pines will all grow back and there will be no way to get the same view.

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Grand Prismatic Pool from the Overlook Trail.  Nikon D5100; 12-24mm @ 16mm; 1/320s @ f/8

Really, it’s not that hard to find a unique perspective. All you have to do is look where everyone else is not looking, and go where everyone else is not going. If you go to certain place to create a photograph and you see photographers elbow to elbow with their tripod legs crossing each other, go find a different spot.  It’s that simple.

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View of the Grand Teton from the top of Paintbrush Canyon.  A view not often seen due to the difficult and long hike.  Nikon D200; 12-24mm @ 12mm; 1/1000s @ f/8

Tip #4: Embrace Bad Weather

The next tip is when bad weather hits you need to embrace it! Remember Tip #1 above. Most lazy photographers do not want to go out when the weather is LOUSY. This is the reason that most postcards you see for famous locations are bright blue sky and beautiful sunshine. But come on, we want to be serious about photography, right! Some of the very best pictures you will ever create are going to happen when the weather is lousy. Bad weather provides both unique light and a unique perspective. The best part is that during bad weather these two things are constantly changing.

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Teton National Park in a rainstorm.  Not much light through the thick fog and rain but then a tree peeked out.  Nikon D200; Nikkor 55-200mm @ 165mm; 1/60s @ f/8.
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Taken in the same location about 30 minutes later as the rain and fog began to lift and some sunrise light began to appear.  Nikon D200; Nikkor 55-200mm @ 200mm; 1/90s @ f/8.

If you’re worried about your camera gear then take a couple of trash bags with you and cover up your gear when you’re not using it. You don’t need to spend gobs of money on rain covers and rain gear for your cameras. You also don’t need weather sealed cameras and lenses to be able to make great photographs.  Remember, your goal is not spending money, it’s creating awesome photography.

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Fog in the valley below the trail.  We had just hiked above it.  Nikon D200; Nikkor 55-200mm @ 55mm; 1/60s @ f/8.

When you’re out there in the bad weather, look around.  Embrace the fog, embrace the rain, embrace the snow, and make these things part of the photographs you’re creating.  When you do, your photographs will be stunning. 

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Steam from a geyser in Yellowstone.  The wind blew the steam across the boardwalk.  Nikon D200; Nikkor 16-35mm @ 16mm; 1/800s @ f/11

So there you have it, 4 tips to help you create awesome photographs in Yellowstone National Park, Teton National Park, or any other National Park that you go to.  

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I was up early and no one else was around.  I used a tripod and put myself in the frame to provide perspective and dimension.  Nikon D80; 12-24mm @ 12mm; 1/5s @ f/22

9 Comments

    1. dutchroguecove, I couldn’t agree with you more. To me, the hunt is part of the fun and excitement. When you finally find a unique perspective or subject, any difficulty you went through during the hunt is worth it.

      Like

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