Impressions of Yellowstone

Off the Beaten Path

I just got back from two weeks of shooting the Grand Tetons, Wind River Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Although I have been to Yellowstone several times, it has always been in the winter, to photograph elkcoyote, bison, bighorn rams, the occasional geothermal event, and even geyser eruptions at night. This was my first experience with the park in summer. Any visit to Yellowstone prompts many exclamations of “wow!”, for various reasons. Such as, “Wow! Look at all this gorgeous scenery!” Or, “Wow! This place is overrun with people!” Or my personal favorite, “Wow! It took me six hours to drive a mile, because everyone is stopping and blocking traffic every time they see a bear or an elk or a rabbit.” Despite the overabundance of people and traffic in summer, the incredible scenery (almost) completely makes up for the resulting frustrations.

Yellowstone is world famous for its concentration of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and other geothermal oddities—in fact, Yellowstone contains half of the earth’s geothermal features, and two thirds of the earth’s geysers. The reason for all this hot and steamy activity? Yellowstone lies on top of a volcanic “hot spot” where light, hot, molten mantle rock rises towards the surface. This hot spot has been the source of several “super volcano” eruptions during the past few million years, one of which was 2,500 times larger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Even if your math isn’t very good, that should be more than enough to elicit another “Wow!” 

Heart Spring

I’ve put together a gallery on my website of images taken over the past few years of Yellowstone’s various geothermal features called Impressions of Yellowstone. The colors found in Yellowstone’s hot springs and geysers are simply amazing, formed by extremophile bacteria that thrives in the magma-heated boiling water. Yellowstone’s colors come alive under mid-day light, revealing stunning oranges, blues, reds, and greens. In a previous blog entry, I talk about the importance of moisture for enhancing mood in nature photography, and Yellowstone provides moisture in abundance, with thousands of steaming pools and geysers casting mist into the air.   

My Impressions of Yellowstone gallery has plenty of images, one of which I’d like to talk about here. It is probably my favorite of all the Yellowstone images I have taken to date, although when I made the image, conditions seemed to me to be less than ideal. It was a cloudy day, so the light wasn’t anything special. I was at Excelsior Geyser in the Midway Geyser Basin, which erupts very infrequently (I was not lucky enough to witness an eruption). Despite the gloom, Excelsior was steaming with gusto, it’s brilliant turquoise waters adding a bright splash of color to an otherwise grey day. High winds were blowing the steam rising from the pool, whipping and twisting it into ephemeral shapes, lasting only moments. I decided to try to capture the movement of the steam over time, so I stacked a few neutral density filters onto the front of my lens, lengthening my exposures to four seconds of more. I took dozens of images as the wind and shape of the steam changed, until I finally had the look I was aiming for. For a moment, the wind seemed to come from two directions, pushing the steam on both sides into the center of the pool, raising a column stretching to the heavens above. I call the image “Witches’ Brew,” as it brings to my mind the famous “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” scene from Macbeth. 

Witches Brew

Yellowstone is a park that should be on every nature photographer’s “bucket list”—and it should be listed more than once. It’s the kind of place that shows you something completely different each time you go.

—Ian Plant             

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