Winters in Wyoming can be both beautiful and quite harsh. Weather conditions can change by the hour - creating a real challenge for anyone, specially the photographer. The area in the northwest corner of Wyoming, which includes the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, can receive up to fifty feet of snow each year. The deep snow, combined with high winds and bitter cold, can often make getting around difficult. Vehicles need to be equipped to handle demanding conditions and often one may need to resort to alternate methods of transportation.
It may sound rough, but it can be well worth the effort if you are prepared. For my photoshoots, I was to be either driven to various plowed locations, go by foot on snowshoes, drive a snowmobile or take a dogsled. I knew ahead of time that trying to get around with my camera gear and a tripod in tow could become most interesting. So I started planning. Part of the challenge was the desire to experience this area of the country while there was a reasonable amount of snow on the ground AND having some days where temperates could be tolerable for a vacation and photoshoot - at least above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. My wife and I decided to make the trip in the first week of March. I had learned that Yellowstone shuts down in mid-March until June, so this is really about the last chance we had go to include a dogsled and snowmobile in our itinerary.
I packed two cameras - my Nikon DSLR d7000 and my Olympus 'point-n-shoot'. I chose my Nikon d7000 over my d700 due to the fact that I wanted the extra reach of the DX sensor for wildlife (1.5x factor) and its lighter weight when traveling. For lenses, I packed:
I intended to use the 18-200 for those conditions that demanded a wide range of focal lengths but hanging lenses would not be convenient or possible (such as when traveling by snowmobile). For most wildlife, I wanted to keep the TC-1.4 on my 70-200 which, being coupled with the d7000, would give me an effective focal length of a 420mm f/4 lens (200x1.4x1.5). This setup would be light enough to carry yet provided a reasonable reach for most subjects.
For a longer reach (but a tad less IQ), I intended to shoot with my 120-400 on the d7000 for an effective focal length of a 600mm f/5.6 lens. The Olympus was to be carried for those times when carrying a traditional DSLR would not be practical, as a backup in case the DSLR ceased to function and to capture video whenever necessary. (Although the d7000 will capture video, I wanted to keep the l SD cards in the Nikon solely for still captures.) Of special note is that fact the the d7000 has two User Configurable setting modes. I decided to set U1 to spot focus, 1/500 and ISO to 100. This would be for stationary wildlife objects with my telephoto. I set U2 to continuous focus, multiple point, 1/500 and ISO variable up to 1000. These two modes allowed me to quickly set my camera and switch between a stationary object and a moving object without having to move my eye away from the viewfinder. For other shots, I knew I could take my time and go with Manual settings. This simple feature can make the difference in getting a shot or not.
All this gear, combined with CP and ND filters, lens/sensor cleaners, chargers, iPad, etc, was packed into the ThinkTank Streetwalker HD. This backpack worked out very well as my main carry bag. It allowed me to pack everything - including my Nikon d7000, battery grip attached, coupled with my choice of lens. I was also able to fit this backpack under the center or aisle seat of my cross country flight. The total carrying weight was around 25 pounds. (I did learn that it would not fit completely when stowed under the United Airlines 'Economy' window seat.)
I also packed in my checked luggage, a tripod, ThinkTank Speed Freak (shoulder bag) and ThinkTank Speed Changer Modular pack. I intended to use the shoulder bag once I was settled in at the hotel and could move selected gear from by backpack for the day's shoot. The Speed Freak allowed me to carry my camera with attached walk-around lens and a two spare lenses for quick access. I was able to carry the 70-200, 17-55, 11-16 and TC.14 without problem. And, it could be sealed to keep out moisture. For shots using a tripod and working from a vehicle, I often brought my fully loaded backpack. It is important to travel light whenever possible. However, when working from a vehicle, having everything in one place can be quite convenient. I also left my tripod fully extended for quick access and ready for action.
Planning is the most important part
of any photoshoot
Before I traveled to Wyoming, I planned out what I wanted to shoot each day. Since the Wyoming weather can be very unpredictable, I often had to have a 'Plan B'. If the mountains were socked in with clouds, I knew the only possible shots were going to be on the ground - that is if I could even get around. I knew I needed to book any activities in advance. Arranging for a snowmobile and dogsled should be reserved weeks ahead - not the day of. And, Yellowstone has a strict limit as to how many snowmobiles are permitted in the park each day. So it really becomes a gamble - but can be well worth it if the weather cooperates. Planning is the most important part of any photoshoot, and Wyoming is certainly no exception. Trust me on that!
I decided to divide my photoshoots into three subjects groups to be shot in two different areas - Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.
The first subject was naturally the landscape in Grand Teton National Park. When in the Jackson area and traveling north, you will be on the eastern side of the Tetons and will want to shoot early in the day (beginning at first light). This is when you will gain your best exposure and colors of the mountains. Images taken much later in the day will have you shooting into the sun and will result in less than desired images. The second subject was man's contribution to the area - the town, the people, old structures, etc.
There are many good locations throughout the Jackson area - especially Mormon Row which became well know for its barns and the subject of a few Ansel Adams captures. The last subject was the wildlife in the area. For guaranteed shots of Elk, the Elk Preserve in Jackson offers sleigh rides that will bring you up close and personal with the heard. Just on the other side of the Preserve you may find both Big Horn Sheep and Mule Deer standing along the mountainside. You may also see Golden Eagles flying overhead looking for a meal. To see other wildlife, I would highly recommend going on a Wildlife Safari (~$300). For your best shots: be prepared, keep your eyes open and look all around. And be patient.
The other location you will want to investigate is Yellowstone National Park, about an hour's drive north of Jackson. There are really only two ways of getting around in Yellowstone in the winter - snow coach and snowmobile. If you are up for a little adventure, there is nothing like riding a snowmobile for getting close to nature and the pure excitement of traveling down snow covered passes. Most tours are half day or full day and take you either to Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. (You can also rent one and go on your own - we went with a guide.)
You will find that the trip to Old Faithful is like going to Disney and the trip to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is truly the 'road less traveled'. Our journey took us 162 miles at speeds of nearly 60mph. We were picked up at 6:30am (in Teton Village) and returned at 6:30pm by the tour company. Quite a full day indeed. We were provided, (if so desired), boots, body suit and helmet. For us, breakfast and lunch were included. (About $300 per person).
Be prepared to see wildlife
anywhere - at any time
When traveling in Yellowstone, you can see a variety of wildlife including Bison, Coyotes, Wolves, Eagles and possibly much more - or much less. But the real show stopper of Yellowstone is the amazing landscape. You will encounter beautiful frozen waterfalls, snow covered canyons, bubbling hot springs and steaming geysers. There is nothing like this area. The Lower Falls offers a speical opportunity to use a wide angle lens to capture the full beauty of the canyon. In order to capture the full beauty of the waterfall itself, however, a switch over to a telephoto is necessary. Other popular areas, Inspiration Point, The Upper Falls, and such are generally not plowed and not accessible - even by snowmobile.
Shoot low and wide
Other truly amazing features of Yellowstone, and for which it is really known, are the geysers and hot springs. A wide-angle is the best here to capture their beauty. Get down low for an interesting perspective. When using a wide-angle lens - be sure to include foreground and background in your capture.
Be careful - the steam, if blowing in the wrong direction, can easily fog up you expensive equipment. The colors can be amazing and if you are lucky to catch this area on a day filled with blue sky, the colors will just pop. Try different angles - be creative and have fun!
In addition to traveling by car and snowmobile, for something really different, take a ride by dogsled through Grand Teton National Park. Togowetee Pass in the Tetons can be both peaceful and offer some wonderful views of the mountains - weather providing. Tours operate either half day or full day and include transportation and meal(s). A half day costs around $250/person and the sled holds two passengers plus the driver. Although this is a great experience, there are limited opportunities for the photographer.
There are some shots that you may need to take to off road by foot - and here you will need snowshoes. Without snowshoes, you will posthole through the snow which may easily go up to your waist. In the winter, although many of the roads are plowed on a relgular basis, there are a number of areas that there is no way to access. Here you strap on the snowshoes and take a walk.
When traveling to Wyoming, even in March, you will want to wear layers. I highly recommend thermal underwear such as Hot Chilly - it will keep you both warm and dry. You will certainly need a ski jacket and ski paints - you will get wet! And of course, a warm sweater, hot and gloves. I also recommend packing some waterproof snow boots and ski socks. (Toe warmers are nice - but I never needed them). Just remember to be prepared.
Take two bags - one to transport all of your grear and one to switch to carry just the gear you need for the day. A quick access belt system or shoulder bag will save you time and your back. Only take what you will need on your photoshoot. If you are in a situation, such as traveling by dogsled or snowmobile, it is better to keep a wide range zoom (such as 18-200) on your camera. The images may not be quite as sharp (due to the inherent poorer optical properties of a wide zoom lens), but you will gain the opportunity of getting that shot while others will be going through their camera bag trying to switch lenses. If you have the time, you can always switch to the better lens. But when wildlife is involved, you will need to be prepared at all times. Time will be of the essence. Especially when in Wyoming, always be prepared for the unexpected. You will need to look all around and being prepared can go a long way.
You should also be aware of the Park rules and laws. Be sure to use common sense when it comes to wildlife by not invading their privacy and keeping a reasonable distance. Remember that these are 'wild' animals and if they feel threatened, they may attack. This is not a wide open zoo that provides your protection with cages and fences. That is why we carry our long telephotos.
Another popular time to go to Wyoming is the Spring to capture wild flowers with snowcapped peaks as a backdrop. You will also be able to gain access to areas that were blocked off in the Winter months. And, you will find a newcomers to the wildlife community that will be out exploring the area. Bears will now be up and about - be careful. You will also now have access to flowing water, amazing reflections and lots of color. The Fall season is also a wonderful time (mid-September) when the tourists have left. The Fall foliage, with the backdrop of snow topped mountains, is a favorite for photographers. Wildlife, can be a bit more aggressive but you catch some great action shots from competing males during the matting season.
And, this was a favorite spot for Ansel Adams - you may want to consider using B&W for adding a tad of romance to your images and take advantage of the wonderful contests that mother nature has given us here.
I hope this helps and happy shooting.
To view some of my images from this trip, be sure to stop by Wyoming under the Travel section in Galleries.
/john soulé, ipa