Yellowstone has often been called, The Serengeti of North America. A vast wilderness where one can see the interactions and struggles of the native wildlife as it tries to overcome the pressures of predation, the environment, and the encroachment of humankind.
Yellowstone is a fascinating place to visit any time of year, but, in the fall a unique opportunity affords photographers. The deciduous trees begin to turn from green to orange, the elk and other herd animals are in a period of rut, the temperatures begin to cool off, and the tide of tourism begins to wane.
All of these factors make coming to Yellowstone in the fall very advantageous for photographers looking to capture the raw beauty within its borders.
Myself [Scott Donschikowski], and fellow professional photographer and instructor, Mike Wardynski, were at the helm of this year's workshop and group of students.
After exploring the park on the previous day, Mike and I had come across a bison carcass that had been deposited by park rangers in Lamar Valley. Carcasses can be an extremely rare find in Yellowstone, especially those that are so close to the road.
On our first morning, we had our sights set on discovering what exactly had taken advantage of this death, so we made a b-line to Lamar Valley to start our day.
On arrival, we found that sometime in the night, something had dragged the kill further out in the valley (to our disappointment), but the kill was still extremely visible from the roadside. We stopped and perched ourselves on a hill overlooking it and watched and photographed as a pair of bald eagles competed with the crows for a piece of the action.
We waited around a little before moving further into the park whilst stopping to photograph some pronghorn antelope. As some time had passed, we returned to Lamar Valley to find many groups of bison running down to the valley floor to join up with a greater herd. Since nothing had transpired with the carcass, we decided to move on back to the park exit for a mid-day break.
We found a lone bighorn ram off the side of the road, so we stopped and let the group shoot him for a while, before calling the morning session.
After lunch, we headed back out to Lamar to check on the bison herds, and the light in the valley was fantastic, so we stopped to grab some landscape photos while the getting was good.
We shot a few bison on our way back to Mammoth Hot Springs, but just before the park exit, we were delighted to find a herd of elk on a hillside by the river. We found a convenient place to park and then let the group out to nab some photos of the majestic male and his harem before the light faded and the day was done.
In addition to wildlife, Yellowstone has some pretty amazing landscapes as well. Today we would be exploring the weird wilderness of the geyser basin.
Our first stop in the morning (to try and beat the crowds) was Yellowstone Falls. But at first light we happened upon another herd of elk on a hillside just inside the park entrance. With the clouds illuminated by the morning glow and the elk as silhouettes atop the hill, our group got some fantastic shots looking into the sunrise before moving on to the grand canyon of Yellowstone.
There, in its painted gorge, sits lower Yellowstone Falls, 308 feet of waterfall and a canyon gorge glistening with yellow light.
On a cloudless day, any waterfall is tough to shoot, and mother nature did us no favors here. We shot the falls as the hordes of tourists in buses showed up, and then we decided to leave in search of greener pastures.
Timing is everything in photography; if you are early for one opportunity, you might be late for another. We happened to be right on time for some wolves that chased an elk cow into the Yellowstone river. So we waited and watched and shot.
But then upon leaving we arrived just a little too late for a great grey owl perched so elegantly in a tree. He flew off just after we arrived. So we took our lunch break at Old Faithful.
We arrived just in time for people to glimpse an eruption before grabbing some food and then grabbing a spot to set up and watch the next one.
After everyone got a series of shots of Old Faithful doing its thing, we took a small hike out to the Morning Glory Pool. This is one of my favorite spots in the geyser basin as it doesn't get the crowds and is pretty spectacular to photograph.
As we hiked out to it, two male bison off in the distance began competing and head butting, which was a perfect opportunity for us to stop and shoot!
After that we hit up Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, the Picture Hill area was closed off, so we had to take the group on the boardwalks to capture the beauty of this place.
As we were making our way back to the hotel, it was evident that sunset was going to be nice, so we pulled over at the best possible overlook (under the conditions) to try and shoot some mountain scenery with the pink clouds in the distance, before returning to our home base.
A return to wildlife. This morning we made a concerted effort to hang around Mammoth and grab some killer shots of the elk whilst they pranced around and bulls bugled and fended off other males in bouts of prowess.
For two hours we were presented with shot after shot of five bulls and countless cows, as well as the destruction of property (read, elk vs. car).
It was a crazy morning! The rangers were working overtime trying to prevent the tourists (many of whom failed to understand English) from getting too close, or worse, gored.
As the sun came up over the mountains to our east, we headed further into the park in search of more game. And bingo! We were lucky enough to catch two black bears in search of food in the trees right off the road.
As we parked and let our group out, we waited and shot as the bears foraged for about a half hour in full view. But then they got bored (or scared of each other) and continued in their journey for food out of sight of us. So we decided that we too must eat, and took our last mid-day break.
With almost two hours of post-processing and image review after lunch, we were all giddy to hit the road again and find other things to photograph in our last hours together.
It didn't take long, just before the North Gate, there was a beautiful six-point elk just hangin' out in a field outside the city limits. We all stopped and perched on a fence to grab some photos of him with what would be the best background of the whole trip.
With everyone in high spirits, we decided there was no better time to take our group shot under the backdrop of the old stone North Gate. Then we moved into the park on the lookout again.
As luck would have it, we came across a red fox hunting in a small field right beside the road. Foxes really put on a show with their pouncing. They jump way up in the air and come down on their two front paws, hopefully with some little field mouse or vole betwixt their toes.
We were lucky enough to watch this particular fox make no less than four such attempts, each one in full view of our group of now proficient wildlife photographers.
We decided one last time, to make a run out to Lamar Valley to see what had befallen the bison carcass. As we arrived, we were all delighted to see two coyotes out on the valley feeding on the kill. We stayed out there watching them feed and interact with each other, until they got wind of something and decided to run off, to parts unknown. And as the sun faded over the mountains and dusk became more of a reality, we too, departed back through the North Gate and had one last farewell dinner with some of our group in Gardiner.
After three days of exploring the Yellowstone ecosystem, we saw a great deal of the park and the wildlife that inhabits it. As we toasted our exploits, we looked to the future, as many of our guests would be joining us in the Grand Tetons, less than a week away. But that story is for another write up....
Until next time,
Scott, Mike, and the rest of the Aperture Academy crew