Historically, April and May are the best months for Photographing Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. As the snow melts and the temperatures begin to climb, the bears emerge from a long hibernation. Although we have had some unseasonably warm weather and there have been confirmed sightings of Grizzlies already out in Yellowstone, I expect that the region will receive some more snow and that the majority of the bears will emerge in early April. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks offer some great locations where the Grizzlies have tended to concentrate in the spring; just off the roads so I’ve been able to photograph them while having the safety of my SUV nearby. The bears tend to stay in these areas for a few weeks, grazing on exposed grasses and looking for carcasses of Elk and Bison.
I’m very fortunate to reside in an area that has such an abundance of wildlife, and photographing Grizzly bears is an absolute, singular thrill. I hope that you can join me this Spring when the bears are most accessible, as there is nothing more exciting than observing these true symbols of the American wilderness.
Yellowstone in the winter is simply an amazing experience. I’ve just returned from a six day tour of the park with two excellent photographers from England; the trip was everything that I’d hoped it would be. We started by taking a snowcoach from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, following the Madison River. The coach stopped for every wildlife photo opportunity, which included three locations of Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, Elk and Bison. After two more stops at Fountain Paint Pot and Black Sand Basin for some landscape shots, we arrived at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. Yellowstone in the winter is, in a word, peaceful. It was a completely different experience watching Old Faithful erupt in the company of six other people as opposed to the crowds of hundreds during the summer.
After travelling to the North Entrance of the park to our lodging in the historic Mammoth hotel, we began to explore the Lamar Valley. With the roads clear and absent of traffic, we were able to drive slowly to search for wildlife. Like many others who visit the park in the winter, wolves were what we wanted to see. Although we observed wolves everyday through the spotting scope, none came close enough for good photography. It was still a real thrill listening to their howls and calls across the open spaces of the valley.
Some of the parks other wildlife were much more cooperative. My clients were able to get some outstanding images of Coyotes every day, as well as Bighorn Sheep, Bull Elk, Bison and Bull Moose. The weather couldn’t have been better, sunny skies and great light with some rather mild temperatures. The stars are bright over Yellowstone, allowing for some fantastic night photography.
I have another tour scheduled for February with two clients from this past August. The excitement is already building to return to the incredible experience of Yellowstone in the winter.
My clients often ask about Yellowstone photography tips. Other than getting out early and staying out late for the best light, one of my best tips is the proper use of different filters. A circular polarizing filter is quite useful for increasing contrast in the sky and also for enhancing colors. I like to use this filter when shooting the hot pools in Yellowstone; it can really make the colors pop. Polarizing filters have the greatest effect when the sun is at a 90 degree angle to the subject you are photographing. While it may seem obvious to some, here’s a top tip. I’ve had a few clients that didn’t know that you need to rotate the filter for it to work. After you’ve composed your subject, simply rotate the filter and observe the effects through the viewfinder. If you shoot the scene both horizontally and then another vertically, remember to rotate!
Graduated neutral density filters are also extremely handy, especially when shooting landscapes at sunrise and sunset. I use the Lee system which has a 2 stop graduated ND 4″x6″ resin filter. By sliding the filter up and down in its holder, I’m able to select where I want the darkening to occur in the sky, balancing the exposure. If you use Lightroom for post-processing, there is also a grad filter there in the develop module. I will sometimes utilize this tool but try to get the image right in camera.
Solid ND filters are great for reducing the amount of light reaching the sensor. This can be useful for giving water and clouds that silky feel by slowing the shutter speed, even during the middle of the day. For the header image of the lightning strike, a ten stop ND filter was used to give an exposure time of 25 seconds at f/8. As the storm moved through the valley I kept shooting, hoping to get a bolt of lightning while the shutter was open.
We used to say film is cheap, digital is free! These Yellowstone photography tips can be used on any scenic shots; experiment with the different filters the next time you’re on location. I think you’ll find that they can really transform an image. You can view more of my Yellowstone Photography here.
To darken the sun and clouds, a 2 stop Graduated ND filter was usedGraduated ND filter used to balance the dynamic range of the exposureCircular polarizing filter used to enhance the colors of Heart PoolA 3 stop ND filter will allow for a longer shutter speed, smoothing the texture of the water
I’ve had a great week with wonderful clients these past few days. The Yellowstone, Sunrise and Night Jackson Hole photography tours do take a certain level of commitment from my clients; mainly the desire to rise early and stay out late! The reward for this effort is outstanding light conditions and better opportunities to observe wildlife; both of which we had in spades this week. The Grizzly Bears are still being found and the Elk are looking magnificent with their summer coats and antlers in velvet growing quickly. The Jackson Hole valley is incredibly green and lush right now with the wildflowers also making their spring appearance. One of the great benefits to the Jackson area is our weather: the typical forecast for the summer months is mostly sunny with a chance for afternoon showers. If it does happen to rain the storms tend to pass quickly and the clouds associated with these storms can add a dramatic element to the already majestic landscapes. Like all photographers I’m looking forward to another great week next!
With the south entrance to Yellowstone now open, the drive to the park from Jackson Hole is now much quicker. The Grizzly bears have emerged from their long hibernation and are concentrated in the snowless areas around the Lake and Hayden valley areas so I headed there first. I didn’t locate any bears on my first pass through the valley and as the light was getting higher I travelled a little farther north to photograph the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River before the colors washed out. I spent an hour and a half in this incredible area before going back to bear scouting. Entering Hayden valley I came across this Great Blue Heron fishing at the confluence of Alum creek and the Yellowstone rivers. A little farther down the road I came across my first Grizzly of the day. The bear was a good distance away but I was able to grab a few images. Just a half mile away luck was with me as the bear in this photograph was very near the road. The park ranger that was on the scene did an excellent job of managing the cars and people as the bear approached, probably to within 50 yards. In this instance he calmly strode a few steps and firmly said “Scoot bear” and the bear turned and wandered back up the hill. Very thrilling! I’ll be back to Yellowstone Saturday; new day, new opportunities.
The return of Spring to Wyoming is a time for transformation. The monochrome white landscapes of winter begin to green and wildlife become more active. The elk have started to migrate off the National Elk Refuge and the Grizzly’s are ending their long hibernation. Many species of birds have already returned this spring, including these Sandhill Cranes. As the snowpack retreats even further, new opportunities begin to unfold. The maintenance crews in both parks have been busy, clearing roads and making more areas accessible. The inner park road in Grand Teton is now open to non-motorized traffic and on April 18th the roads in Yellowstone from Mammoth to Old Faithful; Madison to the West Entrance; and Norris to Canyon are scheduled to open. It won’t be long now for spring to fully arrive; the long winter of 2014 finally seems to be over.
Gray Owl at takeofSandhill Cranes with spring meltfSpring on Flat Creek, National elk refuge