The Challenges of Yellowstone Photography

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 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5; 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 4×5 is an artist’s camera. I try to use the 4×5 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 4×5, 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 4×5 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