The Challenges Of Yellowstone

Salvatore Vasapolli gets off the beaten path, works around the crowds and shoots in fast-changing light. He shares some secrets from his 20 years of photographing this jewel of the American park system.

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challenges of yellowstone
The brink of Lower Falls, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

Salvatore Vasapolli has a long list of photographs in his stock library, but one place that continually has inspired him for more than 20 years is Yellowstone National Park. The reason is simple, he says: It’s unlike any other place on earth.

“One reason that I love Yellowstone is that, out of all the parks I’ve been to, it’s the one park where geology actually lives,” says Vasapolli. “You could stand in front of a glacier all day, and it’s not going to look like it’s moved much. Whereas in Yellowstone, you can go to the geysers and hot springs and actually see the park itself being active. There’s an interaction with the land and the sky and the wildlife. That’s what attracts me to the park; it’s constantly changing.”

Looking back over two decades of photographs, it’s clear to Vasapolli how much the park has changed—both from the influx of tourism as well as the general activity of the region’s geological wonders.

“In Yellowstone, things change dramatically,” Vasapolli explains. “One photograph, Minerva Hot Springs, has been one of the most unique hot springs in Mammoth Terraces. It has moved over the hill, at times up to 100 feet from where it originated. The last time I checked, for the last several years, it has been gone—totally underground. It’s somewhere, but not on the surface. [In the photograph] that formation is probably only a few months old.

challenges of yellowstone
Bison herd at an erupting Old Faithful Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin Minerva twilight, Mammoth Hot Springs

“Tourists can be intense,” Vasapolli says of the park’s evolution. “There are locations, the many tourist areas, where at certain times you have to keep away from them. Crowded. In some areas, you’re shooting from a boardwalk, and if a person is walking on that boardwalk—and they could be hundreds of feet away—you get the vibration. It becomes difficult.”


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Near White Dome Geyser, Lower Geyser Basin

Adds Vasapolli, “My favorite times are before the Fourth of July and then in the fall. About a week after Labor Day, it’s amazing how much different it is. But that’s changing as well because a lot of people who don’t have children are learning that it can be one of the best times to go. Weather-wise, normally two weekends after Labor Day, they may get their first snowstorm!”

To fight the influx of crowds amid the summer high season, Vasapolli makes sure to get out early—before the tourists invade, around 10 o’clock—and to take his explorations off the beaten path.

During the busy times, he heads into the backcountry in search of photos without having to worry about the crowded boardwalks.

“If you go more than a quarter mile past any trail, you rarely even see a person,” he says. “You might catch a backpacker. You get some of the people who have been on multiple trips and now want to discover some of the backcountry, which are some of the most beautiful areas. Of course, going to the more popular areas such as Heart Lake or Shoshone Lake, or the geyser basins, you’ll see a lot more tourists. But these areas are up to five miles into the backcountry.”

challenges of yellowstone
Indian paintbrush and three cones of Union Geyser, Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin

Even when he’s not working far from the tourists, Vasapolli still has made some of his favorite shots, as he did with an image of the park’s signature spot, Old Faithful, and some of its indigenous residents.

“I try to conceive something in my mind that I’d like to photograph and how I’d like it to appear,” he explains. “I always wanted to get the Old Faithful bison herd in front of Old Faithful. No one has ever done it; I’ve seen images of the herd around it, yes, but I wanted a one-in-a-million photograph. Here, I’m photographing Old Faithful, and all of a sudden the bison start walking into the shot. Right at the moment, they walk up like they’re posing. It was something that can only happen by chance. That was something that I had always wanted to do. It’s a 4x5 photograph; they stood there long enough that I could get one really great shot. Old Faithful doesn’t last very long. If you don’t get it at the peak, you really don’t have a great photograph of Old Faithful.”

Of photography at the monument, he says, “It’s a difficult place to photograph. You’re about 200 yards from the geyser, there are boardwalks all around it—it’s a very nondescript landscape. You can only stay on the boardwalk, and where the boardwalk circles around the back, you drop down a hill. You could try photographing it from across the Firehole River, but then anyone could do that.”


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challenges of yellowstone
Hot spring along Ferris Fork Creek in the Bechler River Canyon region

For any visitor to Yellowstone, Old Faithful is a must-see. But after that first visit—or, at least, after making the penultimate photograph that you could ever hope to make—it’s not the most scenic region of the park for a landscape photographer to spend his or her time. Vasapolli prefers other areas of the park, where he continually gets great shots, as well as those areas where the great photographs always remain just out of reach.

“The favorite places are the Upper and Lower Geyser basins,” he says. “I won’t tell you about my really favorite place—people will try to seek it out! What’s nice about those areas is that some of them are really close to the most heavily visited areas, but people never see them. You have to look off the beaten path. Yellowstone is a big area. In the Hoodoo area, you have to go when the water levels are down in the streams because you have to ford a river or two. It’s far in the backcountry, high up at the top of a ridgeline, so it can snow there any time of the year. A lot of times, when I tried planning a trip when everything seemed right, a snowstorm would come in. Every time I try to go, it’s, ‘I’m gonna do it next year, I’m gonna do it next year….’”

Much of Vasapolli’s enjoyment of Yellowstone is simply being in the park. When he does take his cameras, he carries a 35mm system as well as large-format. He’s especially deliberate when using the big 4x5 for a landscape.

challenges of yellowstone
Sunset in Yellowstone

“I never have the feeling that I have to go and shoot something,” he says of his chosen profession. “In my photography, most of my artwork is speculative. I go out there to find what I can find, and if I can find something unique to photograph, yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll hang out there. I’ll even come back if I don’t have the opportunity to photograph it the way I wanted to the first time. If nothing works out, I won’t pull out the 4x5; I might continue to use the 35 to get some okay photographs for the files. The 35, to me, is my point-and-shoot. I don’t even have a digital camera for that.”

Adds Vasapolli, “I’m looking for something that’s unique. I study other people’s photography—one reason is for research, the other is so that I don’t copy them. It’s going to be different. People have said, I look at your photographs and I see something different.”

Part of that difference comes from the way Vasapolli works. Like so many dedicated landscape photographers, he has continued shooting large-format film—both for the camera controls and for the unique color and contrast characteristics of the traditional media.

“Film has the widest color spectrum,” says Vasapolli. “You can’t replace some of those colors. I can take several sheets of it and I don’t have to worry about erasing it. The 4x5 is an artist’s camera. I try to use the 4x5 to get that long-range shot of something unique in the foreground that works well with its background. For me, you see that there’s something very interesting in the foreground—that’s the subject. But with the use of the 4x5, I can have the background in sharp focus as well. It may take 45 minutes to an hour to set it up right, but in the end you come up with something that’s a work of art.”

Salvatore Vasapolli exhibits his photographs at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., October 11, 2008, through January 4, 2009 (www.museumoftherockies.org). Epson and Outdoor Photographer are sponsors. Vasapolli is currently working on a photo essay documenting California’s wine country. Visit www.vasapolliphotography.com.

Vasapolli’s Gear

Calumet XM Rosewood Field 4x5 camera
Caltar 210mm, 90mm, 75mm lenses
Various 35mm Canon EOS bodies
Canon 24mm, 28-135mm, 80-200mm, 300mm L, 50mm, 50mm macro lenses
Bogen tripods & heads
Gitzo Mountaineer tripod

29 Comments

    The beauty of winter has descended on Yellowstone in the form of early season snowstorms that have passed through the area. For the next few days, park visitors should be prepared for winter weather and driving conditions, including temporary road closures and delays.

    Congratulations Mr Vasapolli on your inclusion on Outdoor Photographer’s Professional Gallery! Nice to see some real Fine Art photography finally make it’s way on to it.

    It’s funny when I hear a photographer say they don’t want to reveal the “best” place to take photographs in Yellowstone. That’s ridiculous….there is no best place, and most photographers have only seen a small fraction of the park.

    Salvatore,

    Thank you for the wonderful pictures and insight. We will be going to Yellowstone at the end of May this year (2012) and I’m looking forward to shooting some pictures! I’m new to the “photo world” but like the idea of shooting thing I haven’t seen shot before. Thanks again for the tips…..

    My winter workshop was wonderful. We hit Yellowstone just when the snow started to give the park some deep snow and the first two days of the workshop we received over 21″. The last days were bluebird skies starting in the morning at old faithful. We finished shooting wildlife and the hotsprings at Mammoth Terraces. I should have more on my blog which can be found on the contact page on my website: http://www.Salvatore-Vasapolli.com Hopefully I can get some of you to join up on workshops!

    Thanks Salvatore Vasapolli for such a great article. The photographies are just breathtaking. Also thank you for telling us where you took the photos and what cameras you use.

    Thanks for sharing your photos, Mr. Vasapolli. Having photographed Yellowstone for over 30 years I, too, have some very spectacular pictures of the park, but am reluctant, as you, to divulge the locations of the best places. But the incredible light of the high country and a good dose of luck will get one the pictures one desires. Oh, by the way, a bit of patience doesn’t hurt either.

    Thank you for your timely article on Yellowstone. Next week will be my first time to venture out West with my wife to Yellowstone for a pictoral holiday. Your images are both breathtaking and inspiring.

    sorry for the marginal information on some of the images and equipment list, but we only had limited time to do this interview. Many of the 35mm images of which there is only one: “Hot spring along Ferris Fork Creek” was captured with my backcounty 35mm Rebel X body w/ ultra lite 35-80mm full carbonate lens. Along with a full backcountry backpack with a week’s worth of food plus a field camera and two-three large format lens full gear is heavy enough!

    Here is brief list of 35mm equipment:
    Eos bodies: 1-n w/E1 Booster Drive, 620 and 630
    Lens: 24mm f2.8, 50mm 1.8, 50mm Macro, 28-135mm f3.5/5.6 IS USM, 35-105mm f3.5, 100-200mm f2.8L, 100-300mm f3.5-5.6, 300mm 2.8L, 1.5 extenders.
    Luna Star F and Luna Lux handheld meters
    pentax Spotmeter V
    Tripods: Gitzo Mountaineer and Bogan 3046 w/ 3047 Head
    Silk standard Ball Head II

    and thank you for the compliments!

    That is amazing. I used to live in Wyoming, but I never went to yellowstone. Now I live in a small town in Missouri. I love the art of photagraphy and I thank you for posting these photos.

    Salvatore’s photography of Yellowstone has got to be the finest that I have ever seen our america’s first national park. I once took one of his photography tours of the Greater Yellowstone. He only works one on one with his students examining the weaknesses and strong points. He took me from being a average photographer and helped me become to create the professional images i thought I could never achieve. He’s not cheap and doesn’t hold many tours, but if your portfolio passes his review, he might allow you to take one of his custom tours.

    What I like most about Salvatore’s landscapes is the sense of movement he gets in so many of them. It really conveys the sense that the land in YNP is alive. If you haven’t seen it yet, he has a very nice book of Montana landscapes called “Montana”. It is well worth picking up.

    Nice site. Very cool design! Useful information. Go on! Good Site.

    I am from Macedonia and learning to speak English, give please true I wrote the following sentence: “Different roads and transferred the problem’s highest rockabilly regular of the shoulder.”

    Thank you very much ;-). Gabby.

    I would like to update this article by saying I have bought a new digital camera- the rebel SXi. This camera has brought back the fun to photographing. I love the ability to shoot and shoot then delete those images I would normally reject to the trash can. The difference is the cost of each image which comes down in cost with each image I take. The drawbacks is a narrower color spectum and softness when shoot in low light conditions- Fireworks and dark images are the domain of film. But for now, its my Point and Shoot to carry with the 4X5.

    Just want to invite those photographers in the northern new jersey, Lower New York and Northeastern Pennsylvania to a reception and exhibition at the Gallery of the Sussex County Arts Heritage Council on 133 Sprint Street in Newton, NJ.

    Saturday, October 10th, 5pm

    Come to the Sussex County Arts Heritage Council. I will be exhibiting 20 years of capturing the underrated beauty of the Delaware River Valley from the Water Gap to High Point in New Jersey.

    See Below

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