Working the Winter road in Yellowstone

Yes, I know it’s summer and we are trying hard to forget winter, but I am always a few months behind in my image editing so here is a posting that re-visits the winter of 2012.

Dead snags and snow above Canary Spring

After five days of exciting and productive winter animal photography (blog post coming) at Animals of Montana near Bozeman in late February-early March Brenda and I drove to Gardiner for some winter photography along Yellowstone Park’s only open road. The 50-mile road from Gardiner’s Roosevelt entrance to Cooke City is maintained by the Park Service with plows and sanders to allow the residents of Cooke City access to Gardiner and beyond. While the road is well maintained it does have steep, slippery sections, especially in areas that do not have much exposure to the sun. Elsewhere, winds drift snow across the road, especially in the Columbia Blacktail Deer Plateau. Occasionally the drifts block a lane thus requiring attention from maintenance crews. Driving with winter tires is recommended. Some pull-outs are kept clear and many of these will be occupied by wildlife (wolf) watchers with spotting scopes. Winter visitors may also opt for snow-coach tours into the interior from Gardiner-Mammoth or from West Yellowstone.

Coyote (Canis latrans) Trotting along Park Road

One of Yellowstone’s major animal attractions is the grey wolf, re-introduced to the ecosystem in the mid 90s. Casual visitors such as us have little opportunity for close encounters. Most of my sightings have been distant. We were lucky this time with two encounters at close range, one of which turned into a ‘grab-shot’ photo opportunity. The lone wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle and I had time to set up the long lens before it ambled off. Normally Park rules prohibit approaches closer than 100 yards, but in this case the wolf crossed the road right in front of our vehicle. Unexpected crossings like this emphasize the need to drive with care and be observant. It’s important to have a camera within reach and bean bag or window mount too.

Lone wolf walking on Columbian Blacktail Deer Plateau in late winter

Of course we had to endure (with envy) the ‘you have been here yesterday’ comments from other visitors. Wolves had killed an elk in the Gardner River Valley. Coyotes, magpies and ravens were scavenging the carcass by the time we passed by.

I regard myself as a generalist photographer. While I enjoy wildlife photography I don’t let it dominate my approach to seeing nature. I am also attracted to landscapes, flora and abstract subjects. I try to balance my photography when I make short visits such as this to exotic locales like Yellowstone. It saves me from being disappointed at not seeing or photographing the ‘star species’ and often yields just as satisfying images.

Thermophyllic algae and bacteria encrusting dead grasses in an Upper Terraces hot springs at Mammoth

Even though 2011-12 had such a warm and unusual winter we were fortunate to have fresh snow in early March. Over four days we experienced variations in weather, from clear skies to near-whiteout snow squalls. Gardiner is not very busy at this time so motels were inexpensive and rooms were available, although we did reserve ahead. The Park closes winter operations into the interior by mid March and we were surprised to see that establishments like the Mammoth Hotel actually close up for a few weeks while interior roads are plowed and made ready for the spring tourist visitation.

A herd of elk (Cervus elaphus) walking in a line on a snowy slope on the Columbia Blacktail Plateau

Please visit my 500px pages for a wider selection of images, including: Yellowstone animals and Yellowstone Scenics. We will be travelling west shortly so I will be taking about a month-long break from blog posting, unless I have some time and Internet access.

Bosque not always for the Birds

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is the winter home for thousands of waders and waterfowl. The visitor center boasts the bird counts and the snow geese, sandhill cranes and ducks number in the tens of thousands. It is a magnificent spectacle, drawing nearly as many birders and bird photographers (slight exaggeration). The bird photographer needs to arrive an hour or so before sunrise just to secure a decent vantage point for the awesome ‘blast offs’ or fly outs by the geese and later the cranes as they take off to feed in nearby grain fields.

This is what the photographers come for.

Dawn Blast off- Ducks and sandhill cranes

We had the ‘pleasure’ of photographing Bosque under unusual winter conditions. Sure, the refuge gets snow on occasion but never in the amounts, coupled with the extreme cold temperatures as we experienced in early December this year. Our Bosque veteran tour leaders, Gordon and Cathy Illg remarked that not only have they never seen conditions like these before, they have never seen pictures of conditions like these before.

Frosted cottonwoods near the Flight Deck

While I love photographing wildlife I am also partial to landscapes, plants, and abstract patterns. The unusual conditions created by that memorable winter blizzard persuaded me to divert my attention from the birds, for periods of time, to capture some amazing scenes, without feathers. Here is a small selection I hope the reader will enjoy.

Frozen crane ponds with the Chupadera MountainsFrosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Cottonwood at dawn

Frosted sunflower seed heads near icy pond

Frosted cottonwood and Chupadera Mountains before dawn

Frosted cottonwood with sunstar

Photo Techniques- Documentary to Interpretive

In this section of the blog it is my intent to share, not preach. These are techniques I like to perform in the field (or at the computer) as I pursue my photographic vision.

When I stop for a photo opportunity my first instinct is to produce documentary photos. These could be landscape, intimate environmental portraits or close-ups. One of the beauties of digital photography is knowing that I have bagged the shot according to histogram and review screen so I am often left with the question ‘what else can I do?’ Usually my answer  (apart from trying different angles and waiting for changes in light) is to try interpretive approaches with my camera. Here are some examples.

This photo is a documentary landscape image of autumn colour. Documentary images tell stories and describe scenes, perhaps providing some insight into ecological or behavioural relationships in nature.

Using in-camera multiple exposure I then treated this scene with an interpretive approach. One frame is exposed in focus followed by five frames out of focus (shallow depth of field) with a bit of zooming thrown in. It creates a dreamy, Orton-like effect. If you don’t have in-camera multiple exposure it may be possible to shoot 5 or 6 separate frames and then combine them later. There are a number of possible variations but I find that 6 frames is a nice starting point for satisfactory results.

Something else I like to do, if I can produce long shutter speeds, is walk with my camera while the shutter is open. Long shutter speeds can be achieved with neutral density filters as well as low ISOs and polarizers.

I try this technique on little-travelled back roads. I call it ‘drive-by-shooting’. I try to set the camera controls to produce a shutter speed around 1/8 s, f16, auto focus and aperture priority exposure. As I drive by colourful subjects, I point the lens out my window, one-handed, and loosely try to stay with that subject as I fire the shutter.

Camera Movement is a tried and true interpretive technique that works well for fall colour, especially if I have tall tree trunks. I like the technique for horizontal as well as vertical. I try to use shutter speeds 1 s and longer and I keep my camera on the tripod, with the ball head loose. I tend to use telephoto zooms for this technique (70-200 mm) but some neat results can be produced using wide-angle lenses, since these lenses exaggerate perspective.