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Yellowstone Wildlife and Landscape Workshop, September 2014

Yellowstone is America's Serengeti. It's a wild place where predator and prey live together and interact for the enjoyment of the hundreds of thousands of visitors the park sees every year. Yellowstone NP is also one of America's oldest parks. African game parks have their big 5, and I would argue that Yellowstone does as well; Bear, Moose, Wolf, Elk, and Big Horn Sheep. Yellowstone is a hot bed for wildlife photographers for this very reason, BUT in addition to all of the animals Yellowstone also had a tremendous amount of scenic landscape beauty as well. It's this combination that brought a group of 7 eager photographers to Yellowstone to meet with Scott Donschikowski and me for 3 solid days of exploration in the American Serengeti.

We started the class with a nice orientation. It was great to see so many familiar faces, and meet some new folks. Scott and I used this gathering as an opportunity to go over the basic wildlife settings of their cameras so the participants would be able to hit the ground shooting so to speak in the morning on our first drive in the park.

Day 1

We set out bright and early, an eager bunch of large lens toting wildlife shooters ready for their first critter. Lucky for us we would have that first opportunity to shoot right away. The elk herd at Mammoth is always readily available and were out moving in the fields adjoining the campground. We exited the van, and everyone settled right in shooting these large creatures. A giant bull elk was moving up the cliffside bugling and showing his might. A few challengers answered his calls and we hoped a showdown would ensue. The elk on the ridge gave us a chance to get some nice images of him silhouetted in the morning light...he was such a massive specimen!

Other elk were scattered throughout our area, and we had no problem finding and shooting some of them. Scott and I had helped everyone with the settings, so it was only a matter of checking to see if everything still was working with the students, and offering up some compositional ideas.

What a way to start the day! Throughout the morning we patrolled the Lamar Valley. We found wolves we were able to see with the help of a patrons spotting scope. Though they were too far away for our cameras, they were still awesome to see! We found a male antelope protecting his harem from a very eager young male...which resulted in some intense chase scenes that would rival any hollywood car chase....no explosions though. We got up close and personal with some bison, and everyone got some great shots of these giant beasts as they snorted and blew steam in the frosty morning air.

This was all before lunch too!

After lunch we headed into the Hayden valley looking for more creatures...and it seems that most had a nap in mind because we saw only bison meandering the fields...which provided some nice shots. We did capture some magnificent landscape shoots of the twists in the Yellowstone River with a great blue sky filled with little puffy clouds. This was a good chance to discuss the use of a polarizing filter and how it would help the shots.

On our way back to the hotel for the evening we found a herd of big horn sheep...no males in the bunch, but man was there a cute baby. Everyone got some adorable shots of this horny little fellow.

It was such a fun first day we were all eager to see what the next day held.

Day 2

Inclement weather was on the forecast for today. We arrived in the park early and the signs of rain were everywhere. It has rained hard during the night and the rivers were swelling with the additional water. We patrolled the Hayden valley again looking for wildlife but other than some bison, and a few pronghorn we weren't very successful. We decided to make the best of the overcast conditions and shoot the magnificent and powerful Yellowstone Falls. This is a gi-normous waterfall flowing in what is known as 'The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone' We helped the class get some good vantage points, and offered up some of the different camera settings for shooting landscapes.

The class had fun and came away with some nice images from this locations. After the waterfall we made the wildlife free drive back to the hotel for a break. After break we tried returning to the park only to find that the rain had screwed up more than just the wildlife viewing. The park had been closed due to a mudslide...and we didn't have any set idea on how long the road would be closed.

Making lemonade out of lemons is what we do so we set off in another direction looking for critters great and small. The first thing we found was a bald eagle high in a tree across the river. What a pretty bird, after offering a suggestion on placing the bird in the composition so he was in front of the mountains so he stood out more we turned them loose, and everyone spent a good long time shooting the eagle before he flew off, and some students got some great shots of him flying off as well.

The next plan was to drive over the river and search a dirt road for more birds of prey, and to find some bighorn sheep we had been told were making this area home. We didn't find any sheep, but we found pronghorn, a distant coyote, and more elk. We found a HUGE bull elk relaxing in a field surveying his harem. Though these animals look docile, we know they can turn on you in an instant, which is why we always keep the mandated 25 yards away...and often we stay farther as our larger lenses will reach us in to where we need to shoot. It would be very irresponsible to be any closer.

Everyone got some great shots of the elk and were very happy as we set off with our muddy van back to the entrance to see if the mudslide had been repaired. Thankfully it had and we were back on scene...though the rain had still kept most of the wildlife in hiding. We set off back to the hotel that night slightly discouraged from the rain, but quite happy that we had seen elk, and pronghorn in such great photography locations....and we all laughed a great deal that day from all the stories that circulated in the van.

Day 3

We went back to Lamar valley and before we knew it we were on the chase for a grizzly bear. We had just been on the roadside watching a wolf munch on some old bones through a spotting scope when a passenger in a car told us a grizzly was 50 yards off the road only a mile away. We loaded up, thanked the man for letting us use his spotting scope to see such a beautiful wolf and set off. Soon enough, just as we were told there was a grizzly bear walking along the roadside only 30-40 yards off the highway. The group walked alongside the bear as he moved...I drove the van farther up the road to park it so we would always be ahead of the bear. Just as I started to walk back to the group the bear bolted down the hill and across the street. I was luckily enough to be in a position to see him as he swam across the river on his way to the people-free high country.

As I met up with the group I noticed they were all pointing their camera lenses down towards the river. "Hey guys the bear is over THERE!" I said, but when I got closer I noticed they had stumbled upon two very playful river otters and were making the most of this opportunity. A nearby ranger said this was the first time she'd even seen otters in the park! It was awesome and the curious otters were having as much fun checking us out as we were checking them out.

We tried to track the grizzly bear more but he was hiding in some brush about 1/2 mile off the road, and we couldn't see him anymore. After a short wait we decided to head back into the center of the park to make our way to the geyser basin. We ate a nice lunch at the historic Yellowstone Hotel and then set off for the geysers. THe geothermal vents and pools offer up some amazing chances for photography. We explored long exposures using ND filters to give us times of nearly 1 minute in the middle of the day...those provided ethereal and moody images. We spent some time at the colorful Morning Glory pool where we marveled at the many rainbow colors. Again Scott and I went over the settings and encouraged the class to use a polarizer to help cut the glare and show off the depth and richness of color in this pool.

From one colorful geothermal pool to another...we left the small Morning Glory pool for the massive Grand Prismatic pool. This sucker is massive, and we love to take classes here...there are so many cool and interesting textures and colors here...you can't see much of the yellow, blue and red portions of the pool without getting higher above...but the colors cast off some very nice tints on the steam rising from within. I like to tell people here to get the mountains in the background as a way to fill the frame of the composition. With the steam always changing it's possible to get the mountain slightly obscured with mist, and give the picture an overall mysterious feel.

The problem with the mist was that it fogs up the lens quite a bit...it was time to get ready and move out. Everyone got some great shots from the day. The drive back was great as we searched one last time for some wildlife...but the light was fading as we'd spend a long day in the park. We finally made it back to the hotel, happy customers, exhausted from a long 3 days of shooting and exploring Yellowstone NP. We saw a great deal of wildlife during the 3 days, had some laughs, and really everyone came away with such a nice collection of photographs.

Thanks for a fun 3 days!

Until next time...

Brian, Scott and the entire Aperture Academy team

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