Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Photographing Yellowstone National Park

Canary Spring
Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place for photography.  There is so much variety available that something is bound to capture the interest of most shutterbugs.  The park has very distinct features, offering geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, terraces and mud pots.  Each of these features require a slightly different approach with the camera.

Castle Geyser and rainbow.
One thing to keep in mind as you visit the hot pools and geysers of the park is that hot water in cold air creates steam.  For this reason early morning isn't the best time to photograph the pools or geysers.  Steam can make the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs quite interesting, however (still, you may wish to return later in the morning once the sun has warmed things up).

Morning is a great time to photograph wildlife throughout the park, reflections in the Firehole River and around Fountain Flat, and of course both Upper Falls and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.

Lower Falls and rainbow.
Rainbows can be a regular occurance at both Lower Falls and Upper Falls during morning hours.  Timing depends on weather (clear skies) and season.  Plan on between 8:30 am and 10:30 am.  Vantages that should be on your radar include Lookout Point, Red Rock Point, Upper Falls Viewpoint and Artist Point.  These are all spectacular!

To my disappointment, Tower Falls was not available during my visit.  Nor was Gibbons Falls - both due to construction.

Rustic Falls, north of Mammoth Hot Springs, is quite nice.  But it is north facing so the sun never hits all of it.  It is best photographed on a cloudy day for even light.

Another waterfall worth checking out is Undine Falls, in the north section of the park.  This might be a better autumn picture.

Crested Pool
Mid to late morning and late afternoon and evening is the best time to photograph the geyser basins.  Light is kind to you and the temperatures are warm enough that steam will not hinder your photos.  The colors surrounding the pools change with the light.  My personal favorites were Grand Prismatic Spring, Crested Pool, Chromatic Spring and Emerald Pool.

Sunny days are best for geysers.  Mostly blue skies allow for contrast and definition of the eruption.  Overcast days cause the plumes of water to blend against the cloudy sky and detail is lost.

Old Faithful
 Angle is another important element, and the one that I believe most people underestimate.  When shooting the geysers, take into consideration the direction of the wind and location of the sun. 
Obviously, you don't want to be shooting in the direction of the sun.  Likewise, you don't want to be down wind of the erupting geyser!  Understanding the direction the geyser will erupt will allow you to plan your composition, rather than be reacting to the elements. 

Know the estimated schedule for each geyser's eruption ahead of time.  This will put you in the best possible position to succeed.  Schedules are available as handouts at the visitor center, posted at most of the geysers, and available on the park's web site.

One last word on the geysers is to study interesting forefronts that will add uniqueness to your composition and make your image stand out.

White Dome Geyser at sunset
Sunset can also be a fun time to shoot the geysers.  Again, knowing their schedule is important.  Here, White Dome Geyser was scheduled to erupt shortly before sunset.  However, it was an hour late and its eruption timed perfectly with the evening light, allowing the setting sun to turn its plume pink!

I hope you have enjoyed these basic hints for photographing Yellowstone National Park.  Feel free to contact me with your questions if planning a visit of your own.  I am always happy to help!

Many more images are available for viewing in my Yellowstone gallery.


  1. Wow, your pictures are amazing. The above one of Castle geyser w/ the rainbow is so gorgeous its my desktop wallpaper! Thanks.

  2. Thanks Lori - glad you like! Sorry for the late reply. I guess I need to check for comments more often!